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MINNEAPOLIS REIGN

A Guide To Prince’s Hometown


Stuart Willoughby



Published by Sixth Element Publishing

on behalf of Stuart Willoughby


Sixth Element Publishing

Arthur Robinson House

13-14 The Green

Billingham TS23 1EU

England

www.6epublishing.net

Tel: +44 1642 360253


© Stuart Willoughby 2017


Stuart Willoughby asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording and/or otherwise without the prior written permission of the publishers.



Also available in paperback.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


This book is dedicated 2 my wife and children.

Thank U 4 Everything.



2 Jonathan Tait, Ben Thompson and Mark Flanagan.

Thank U 4 the Trip.



Xtra Thanx 2 Jonathan. Your memory has proved invaluable.



And finally, 2 Prince Rogers Nelson.

Thank U 4 the Songs.



Family: noun

1. A group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit.

2. A group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation.

3. A group of related things.


Prince didn’t call us fans. He called us ‘family’ or ‘fam’ for short. To honour him – and to honour his fam – I will use this term throughout this recollection.



I know that people who don’t care about music will think it ridiculous – and in many ways it probably is – but tonight, I am absolutely heartbroken. I’ve never cried over the death of a celebrity before today, but the funny little man I have looked up to and idolised since I was a boy of twelve years old is gone. And I can’t comprehend it. With the exception of my father, Prince Rogers Nelson has probably influenced my life more than anyone else, and he was – and always will be – my absolute musical hero. He was everything I wanted to be when I was growing up, effortlessly cool, worshipped by girls, and for my money, the most outrageously talented musician of an age. Those of you who have known me since I was a little kid with a massive obsession will know just how much he means to me. Today, I feel like a part of what made me who I am has died with him. He was my Lennon. My Elvis. My Bowie. Thanks for your messages, everyone. They’re much appreciated.”


Stu

April 21st 2016


CONTENTS


TUESDAY

WEDNESDAY

THURSDAY

FRIDAY

SATURDAY

SUNDAY

MONDAY

EPILOGUE

PRINCE IN PRINT

PRINCE ONLINE



TUESDAY


As the plane descended through the clouds, I took a deep breath. After twelve hours in the air, I was almost there. It was within touching distance. Strangely, I felt like I already knew this city. It was like I’d always known it.

Minneapolis was the city of his birth. It was the city in which he had lived. It was the city in which he had worked. Now, it was the city in which he had died. In three days, it would be the first anniversary of that seismic event. I was about to immerse myself in his world completely and experience places that were a real part of his life. Places that I had only read about in books and magazines, or seen on television. Nonetheless, I felt like I knew this city, for its favourite son had called to me since I was a boy.

Uptown. First Avenue. Lake Minnetonka. Paisley Park.

For as long as I could remember, these places had seemed as familiar to me as my own little town, back home in the North East of England.

When I was growing up, I lived in a house where music was played constantly. The stereo was on more than the television when I was a kid. My father, Lawrence, had a huge record collection of classic rock and folk albums from the ’60s and ’70s, and he had always been into audio equipment. My uncle was the boss of a hi-fi store, so Dad was forever upgrading to the latest gear. My love of good quality sound systems is inherited from them both. Whenever neighbourhood kids would come to my house and listen to records, they would always complain that their parents’ hi-fi didn’t sound like ours. For almost the first decade of my life, I listened to nothing but my dad’s records. We’d sit and play them, and I’d scrutinise the sleeves, reading the liner notes and asking many questions, while Dad would regale me with tales of all the bands he had seen. My own record collection now includes dozens of albums he used to play to me. A few of them are actually the very same copies.

I’d dabbled with a bit of punk music when I was just nine years old. That seems very young, I know, but my interest was piqued by the family babysitter, Frankie. He was a punk and had gotten into Adam and the Ants in a big way, and it just rubbed off on me, I guess. In February 1980 – for my ninth birthday – I bought Adam’s first LP Dirk Wears White Sox, which had been released a few months earlier. My mother, Georgina, wasn’t impressed with some of the lyrics and thought the record inappropriate for me, but Dad said it was okay and I played it pretty much non-stop for the rest of that year. When Adam’s breakthrough album Kings of the Wild Frontier came out in the winter of 1980, I’d been a fan for months already thanks to Frankie. My friends all bought Kings, but none of them were aware that there had been an album before it. When I played it to them, they thought it was very strange as it sounded nothing like the album that the band had just released in their bid for pop stardom. In 1981, Adam and the Ants released Prince Charming, which sounded even more radio-friendly. Around this time, I began listening to the music charts. I’d still never heard electronic dance music.

One day, a friend invited me over to his house after school. As we sat in the living room, his older brother – who I’d guess must have been eighteen or so – was playing a record on a little turntable in the next room. I began listening to the music, and I slowly lost interest in whatever movie my friend and I had been watching on TV. I wandered into the other room and asked his brother who the record was by. As I recall it now, he didn’t really know that much about it. I expect he may have just borrowed it from a friend. He handed me the purple sleeve.

A pair of piercing brown eyes – belonging to what appeared to be a pink and white striped creature of some kind – stared at me amongst the collages that made up the lettering on the front cover. I stared at it for a few minutes, picking out all the different things I could see. Some of it looked like it had been drawn with a felt tip pen. There was a little ladder. And a pair of pinstripe pants. The ‘c’ was a mouth full of crooked teeth turned on its side. And hang on, that strange-looking number one in the title; is that what I think it is? Wow. Yes, it’s one of those alright. I was so shocked that I almost didn’t notice the tiny backward lettering right in the centre of the sleeve: ‘And The Revolution’. I didn’t know who or what The Revolution was. Little did I know it then, but within a year, I would be obsessed with them. I sat down and we listened to this incredibly hypnotic music that was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Pulling the inner bag out of the record sleeve, I studied the photo on one side of it. It showed a naked black guy in a bedroom that was illuminated in red and yellow neon. He was sprawled on the bed, and a thin blue satin sheet was just barely covering him. He was looking right at me. Behind him – through the window – a crescent moon hung in the jet black sky, and an unearthly laser beam fired into the bedroom from outside, causing a plume of smoke that billowed around the room as it hit the wall opposite. On the floor was a large neon love heart. This picture – and the sounds I was hearing – completely altered the trajectory of my music taste in a heartbeat. It was summer 1983. The record was 1999, and I was twelve years old.


I put my tray table in the upright position, fastened the belt across my lap, and closed my eyes. Listening to 1999 through my earphones, I pictured Paisley Park in my mind. It was an entire industry in one huge gleaming white complex on the outskirts of Minneapolis that he had built in a strange sounding place called Chanhassen. Paisley Park housed the very studios where the wonderful songs that had provided the background music for most of my life experiences were recorded. Of course, it wasn’t just a workplace. It was also his home. And I’d be there in just a few hours. I made a note to buy my wife – who had stayed at home with the kids – a nice gift to say thank you for allowing me to do this crazy thing.

In 2006, she and I had travelled across America from New York to California. We saw dozens of landmarks on our journey, and at every one I had that strange otherworldly feeling you get when you’re confronted with a place – particularly in the United States when you’re from Britain, I find – that has only previously existed in one’s subconscious and has, more often than not, usually been gleaned from popular culture.

I’d felt it at Ground Zero. I’d felt it on Alcatraz. And I’d felt it at the Grand Canyon. When you’re experiencing those places for real, I’ve often found that you’re still perfectly capable of looking at your surroundings objectively and can be totally aware that people who spend their lives there find it completely normal – or perhaps even mundane – as they go about their ordinary business around you. Yet you still can’t help being overawed by your experience and can sometimes even feel a little foolish. Or maybe that’s just me.

I remember being on the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building once, and speaking to a guy who worked in the gift store that is a nausea-inducing twelve hundred feet from the ground. It turned out – much to my surprise – that he was from my town back in England. I told him excitedly that he was unbelievably lucky to work in such an amazing location.

He simply shrugged and said, “It’s just a job.”

I laughed, but I actually felt a little embarrassed. The second I left the store though, I was back in full-on awestruck tourist mode.

I thought about that familiar sensation as I contemplated what lay ahead in the coming days. I knew I’d be experiencing it again soon. I’d played this scenario out in my mind dozens of times over the years. Of course, I never imagined in a million years that I would be doing it, but what had happened had happened, and here I was. It suddenly seemed a little too real. My incredible adventure in Minneapolis was about to begin. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the coming days would surpass my wildest dreams. Right then though, I was apprehensive about the whole thing, and I didn’t know how I was going to cope emotionally with seeing the place Prince had called home. It was all I could do to stop myself from crying. When I was booking the trip in the fall of 2016, like many fam, I was still hurting badly over the loss I had felt since April, and I hoped that coming to Minnesota would in some small way help to heal that pain and somehow make his passing seem more bearable.


The plane circled and we began the final approach to Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport, and I thought back to that terrible day in early 2016, and how I had felt. As the news had broken, I had immediately received dozens of messages and calls from friends and colleagues who knew how much he meant to me while I was growing up. When I heard the news of his passing, it hit me so hard. Such was the intensity of my pain, in fact, that even I was surprised at how distraught I was. I shut myself away in my room for a few days while I tried to process my sorrow at losing the man who, with the exception of my father, had meant more to me than any other, and yet was someone I’d never actually met. I have to say that my wife and children were my solace at this time. I’d never cried at the death of a celebrity before – much less someone I didn’t know in person – and this sudden outpouring of my emotions was completely alien to me. Looking back now, I think it particularly upset my wife to see me like that. She has always been my rock, and I hated her seeing me cry. My genuine heartache at the loss of a rock musician on the other side of the Atlantic surprised us both.

After a few days I managed to pull myself around a little and began talking about what had happened. The rumour mill was in overdrive as the papers whipped themselves into a frenzy speculating on the cause of Prince’s passing, and I pored over them trying to make some sense of it all. The official cause of his demise took six weeks to deliver, and when it arrived it caused a whole new series of heartaches for his fam. Had Prince secretly been in a lot of pain? Had he been alone when he died? In a matter of a few hours, I would be at Paisley Park where this tragedy that had shocked the world had actually taken place. As I thought about that, I really couldn’t comprehend it.


I wasn’t travelling to Minneapolis alone. When I’d decided to do this, I’d put a call out on social media inviting anyone who wanted to embark on this four thousand mile voyage with me to get in touch.

Jonathan – a young man who used to work with me – asked if he could come. Jonathan was twenty. He was a few years younger than my eldest daughter, but he seemed a lot older. His family lived near me in a small town called Billingham, and his mother Andrea – who I’d known for several years – was a champion dancer in her youth. Jonathan’s love of music was inherited from her. He was studying English at the University of York and was writing his final dissertation on Prince, I believe. He’d been a fam for six or seven years now. When Prince passed, Jonathan got a tattoo to commemorate his life. He reminded me of myself when I was younger. Most people who know both of us say the same thing. Once the trip was agreed, we put together an itinerary of Prince-related locations to visit. The list was pretty comprehensive.

A little later, Jonathan asked if his friend Ben – who he’d known since school – could accompany us. Ben was the same age as Jonathan, and was currently studying Music Production at Leeds Beckett University. Ben had been a Prince nut since he was a little kid. He actually looked uncannily like a young Mr Rogers Nelson. I’d remarked on it the very first time I met him. Ben’s parents had paid for him to come to Minneapolis as a surprise Christmas present. Jonathan was in on it, and somehow they managed to keep it a secret until the big day. Ben’s knowledge of Prince’s music was first rate.


As we touched down on the runway, thoughts of Prince’s passing – and the media frenzy it had created – tumbled through my mind. I was quickly brought back to the present by a friendly-looking elderly man sitting to my left.

“You guys here for business or pleasure?” he asked.

“Well, I’m not really sure,” I replied, then, “We’re just here for Prince.” I knew as soon as I said it that it would sound a little crazy, but I didn’t really care. At that moment, I honestly didn’t know whether this trip was for business or pleasure either. All I knew for sure was that it was something I felt completely compelled to do. It felt 100% necessary for me to be here.

“Ah, I see,” said the old guy, as if no further explanation was needed. He proceeded to tell us about his business – which was something to do with motorcycles as I recall – but I wasn’t really paying much attention and his conversation didn’t sink in. I looked outside and it looked like we could be in any airport in the world. It wasn’t just any airport though. It was Prince’s airport. I’d heard that Minneapolis was cold this time of year. It certainly looked it.

We departed the plane and I walked through the concourse alongside the huge windows on my right looking out over the airfield. It was overcast and looked like there might be a thunderstorm coming. Spots of rain started to appear on the glass. I began thinking about the car I had hired and hoped I would be okay on the roads here. I’d not driven in America before, so I was a little concerned. To the left of us was the baggage carousel. The airport looked old-fashioned. I remember thinking that the carpet looked like it might have been there since the ’70s.

We joined the queue for US Customs and I looked around. There were a few people wearing purple, and I spotted Prince’s Love Symbol – the peculiar and unpronounceable glyph he went by the name of – dotted around on a couple of bags and cases. One of the flight attendants had told us on the plane that there was a party of Prince fam onboard who were having a high old time all the way across the Atlantic. It made me happy to know that we weren’t the only ones doing this, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t be meeting them.

You should know that about me. I’m kind of a solitary guy really. I’m popular and I have lots of friends and a loving family, but on the rare occasions that I get the opportunity to be alone I’m quite happy in my own company, and this trip wasn’t intended as an opportunity to meet like-minded people if I’m being honest. But don’t get me wrong, I enjoy meeting people. And I like people who love things passionately. I totally understand what it’s like to worship someone famous too. I get it completely.


My friend Shane is obsessed with the British rock band, Status Quo. I’ve been to his house. It’s like a shrine to them. He collects not only their music, but memorabilia too. My own Prince-related collection is huge – much to my wife’s chagrin – so I know what it’s like to have that all-consuming dedication. I also knew exactly how others who loved him felt about Prince. I’d met lots of them at his shows. I was certain too that they would know how much he meant to me, so I didn’t feel the need to share the impact Prince had had on my life on this trip. I’d actually said as much to Jonathan and Ben before we’d left home, saying, “You need to understand that I’m doing this for me. You’re coming along for the ride and it’ll be amazing so you’d better hang on tight, but this is for me.”

I got stuck for a moment at the US Border Control desk as the guy’s computer broke down as it took my photo, and while we waited for it to reboot, he slipped out of his stern official persona and we chatted for a minute or two. He asked me why I was in Minneapolis.

“Prince,” I said, like it was a perfectly reasonable response.

“Okay,” he laughed.

I remarked that it had been a year since Prince’s passing.

“Wow,” said the Border Control officer. “That came around quick.”

He mentioned that he had collected Prince LPs when he was younger, and I told him that I worked in music retail with a particular focus on vinyl records.

“I hear they’re coming back,” he said.

“They are indeed,” I replied, and he ushered me on my way with a “Good day, Sir.”

I met up with Jonathan and Ben who had been waiting for me. We found a restroom, freshened up, and headed for the car rental desk.

It was a short shuttle journey and an escalator ride or two away, and after a few minutes we approached the desk. A young lady took my details, welcomed us to the United States, and asked if I’d driven in America before. I told her it was my first time, and she flashed a brilliant smile and said I’d be okay. I joked that I wasn’t as sure as I hadn’t driven an automatic for twenty-five years, and she replied that I’d be used to it in no time.

“That’s easy for you to say,” I laughed. “The steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car for me, and I’m also on the opposite side of the road than I’m used to.”

The girl chuckled, saying, “Oh my. You’d better get used to it real quick then, Sir!”

I made a joke about hoping the car would be coming back in one piece and she said, “Don’t worry. It’s fine. You’ve got our premium ‘get out of jail’ insurance package, Mr Willoughby. You could literally do anything to it and walk away a free man.”

I smiled and she handed me my documents. I thanked her for her help and we were shown to the parking lot.

A young guy in a suit that was clearly too big for him came over to me and explained that our car was on its way, so we waited patiently for it to arrive. After five minutes he apologised and went to the desk to find out where our car was. We waited for a further five minutes before he came back and apologised again. Nearby was a gleaming black Audi with the door open. The car looked brand new. He motioned us towards it.

“Would this be okay, Sir?” he enquired. “It’s the next model up from the one you ordered but I’m not sure we have a car ready for you.”

I looked at the car. I’d ordered a standard model. This was definitely not a standard model.

“Are you sure?” I said. “This one looks expensive.”

He left us for a moment and went to the desk. After a beat, he came back and handed me the keys, saying, “It’s fine, Sir. You can take this one.”

He gave me the GPS unit which I handed to Jonathan, and we sat in the car while he quickly went through the controls.

The car smelled of new leather upholstery. I glanced at the milometer. The car had done just twelve hundred miles. It was literally only a few weeks old. I felt even more nervous for seeing that, and momentarily had a vision of me totalling a brand new forty-thousand dollar automobile. I put all such thoughts out of my mind and we were good to go.

I took a deep breath, looked outside, saw that it was starting to get dark, and said, “Hold on to your hats, guys.”

And with that, we were off.


We slowly followed the direction signs and left the airport, and as I quickly familiarised myself with the car, we joined the freeway heading southwest towards Chanhassen. It was a twenty-mile drive to the hotel, and I was pleased it wasn’t too far because the sky was growing darker by the minute. Being on the opposite side of the road than I was used to back home felt stranger than the occasions when I had driven in continental Europe – where people also drive on the right – and I put it down to the car being left hand drive, whereas my own car isn’t. I was particularly wary of other vehicles joining traffic from the right and undertaking being the norm, but after ten minutes or so I began to feel a little more comfortable. So comfortable in fact, that we even had the radio on for a while. Jonathan – who is au fait with technology – quickly set the GPS with our hotel address and we continued onward into the outskirts of Minneapolis.

We were staying at the Country Inn and Suites by Carlson at 591 West 78th Street in Chanhassen, which was just a short five-minute drive from Paisley Park. We decided that instead of going straight there, we would take a quick detour to Audubon Road – where Prince’s complex is located – and I headed in that direction.

It was huge. As we drove along Arboretum Boulevard in Chanhassen, we chattered excitedly about Paisley Park, when suddenly – almost out of nowhere in the darkness – it hoved into view on the left side of the road. It was bathed in a soft purple glow. Of course it was. The blue-green pyramidal roof-lights on top of the building were clearly visible, and for the first time on this trip my breath was truly taken away. We didn’t speak. Our stunned silence a result of what we were looking at.

I used to work in commercial building design. Unusual or striking architecture always fascinates me, and I’ve seen – and even worked on – some famous buildings, but this was something else entirely. I couldn’t quite comprehend the fact that I was looking at Prince’s home. I was four thousand miles from my little house back in England, and for a few minutes my brain was unable to process the fact that I was sitting in a car outside the very building where the incredible music I have loved from the age of twelve was created, and it was absolutely, resolutely, and darn-tootin’-ly spectacular.

The 65,000 square foot structure was of a quintessentially ’80s design, with huge ice-white panels covering the entire place, but at the same time it still looked super-futuristic a full three decades after its completion.


From the freeway, I took a left onto Audubon Road and we found that we were on what can only be described as an industrial park. I’d obviously seen footage and photos of Paisley Park – and I was aware that it was located just off a busy main road – but I was surprised to find that it was surrounded by many businesses and looked remarkably like an industrial estate – as they are known in the UK – that is only a few minutes from my very own home. We also discovered that the complex was flanked on one side by a children’s Day Care centre, and a Kindergarten on the other.

I turned the car around on a little dead-end street called McGlynn Drive opposite the gates to Paisley Park, and we sat there for a few minutes just looking at the towering white monolith standing before us. Looking back now, I remember that I was at once overwhelmed yet strangely calm and – to my absolute surprise – I did not cry. I had fully expected to shed tears when I saw Prince’s home for the first time, but as I sat there looking across the street at Paisley Park I think I was too taken aback by the fact that I was really there to be upset. In fact, I was more excited than anything. Our adventure had truly started. I recall looking at Jonathan and Ben’s faces and it was clear to see that they were as astonished as I was.

We took a few photos and began to point out interesting things about the building and its grounds to each other, including the property number – 7801 – high up on the side wall, and I cracked a funny about the possibility of the mailman not knowing the address. By then it was as dark as night and much as we would have liked to sit and revel in the view before us, we decided to go to our hotel.


Chanhassen is a beautiful suburb on the outskirts of Minneapolis. It covers an area of twenty-two square miles, and has a population of just over twenty thousand. In the past, it has won awards for being amongst the best places to live in America. It’s not difficult to see why. The streets are immaculately kept, and the city places importance on parks and open spaces. There are miles of trails to explore, and the city boasts several beautiful beaches.

Homes in Chanhassen are a mix of upmarket apartment buildings and gorgeous colonial-style weatherboard houses. Some of them are huge and offer stunning views from prime locations along the shorelines of the numerous lakes that pepper the area. I’d kill to live there. Chanhassen has the same feel to it as those UK holiday village-type destinations us Brits are familiar with, albeit one with houses on a much grander scale. Our hotel was located right in the middle of the city, and we found it with ease. It was surrounded by local eateries and stores.

As we pulled into the Country Inn and Suites parking lot, a neon sign nearby flashed the legend ‘Welcome Prince Fam’. I smiled and pointed it out to my companions and for a moment we watched as the message changed to ‘Purple Reign 1958-2016’. We grabbed our bags and headed inside.

The young woman on the front desk informed me that I was in room number 355. Jonathan was next door in 356, and Ben was across the corridor in 360. I laughed to myself and wished I’d been allocated room ‘319’; the title of a Prince tune from 1995’s The Gold Experience album. Arriving at our final destination after a very long day of travelling suddenly made me feel very weary and we decided to freshen up before venturing out for food. The receptionist informed us that there were restaurants and bars all around the hotel, and after walking down the wrong corridor – which I seem to do in every hotel I ever stay in – we took the elevator to our floor and agreed to meet in the lobby in thirty minutes.

Inside my room, I threw my case on the couch and made a call to my wife to let her know that I had arrived safely. It was 7.30pm in Chanhassen, but realising that it was 1.30am back home I figured that she’d be asleep, so I didn’t expect her to answer and I just intended to leave a message. To my astonishment, she picked up almost immediately and said sleepily, “Hi.”

I apologised for waking her and I let her know that I was in the hotel and that I hadn’t yet crashed the car. She laughed. I was only half-joking. I quickly told her about my day and I asked after the kids and then I told her to get some sleep. She hung up and I headed out for dinner with Jonathan and Ben.


We walked outside and it was quiet. There was a chill in the air but the sky was clear and black. We turned right – without crossing the street – and walked along the buildings next door to the hotel. At the end of the block was the famous Chanhassen Dinner Theater, which is reputed to be the largest professional dinner theatre in the US. It has enough seating for almost a thousand patrons. Before we reached that though, we passed the Christian Science Reading Room and spotted a bar a few doors down called Chuck Wagon Charlie’s Smokehouse and Saloon, which was located at 545 West 78th Street.

The place looked deserted and I tried the door. It was open. We went inside and save for the barkeeper there was only one other customer in the place. He was sitting at the bar and he was very drunk. He acknowledged us with a grunt and we sat at a table. The barkeep – a sporty good-looking guy – welcomed us and he was taken aback slightly when I spoke and he realised we were British. He introduced himself as Shane, and he asked us why we were in town.

After explaining – much to his astonishment – that we were Prince fam who had travelled to Chanhassen to see Paisley Park, he fixed us some drinks and sat with us to chat. He told us that his eight-year old niece once spoke to Prince in a local store. Shane laughed as he said that he didn’t even attempt to get near our man – who was naturally flanked by his security – but reported that Prince happily spoke to his niece before leaving the store.

We ordered food and while we waited for it to arrive, the inebriated guy ambled past us unsteadily and grunted something that was indecipherable, before leaving. As the food was being prepared we could hear lots of shouting coming from the kitchen. Shane shouted back at whoever was in there and then looked at us while shrugging his shoulders and grinning.

Shane sat with us while we ate and he drew up a small list of local attractions we might like to check out while we were in town.

“If you guys can drag yourselves away from all the Prince stuff, that is,” he joked.

I took the list and thanked him but I had a feeling we wouldn’t be getting to many – if any – of them. The food was delicious, by the way. I’m not really a red meat eater so I ordered the ‘Yardbird’, a chicken burger tossed with onions, shredded cheddar, mustard, and served with the most amazing fries and coleslaw. In traditional American style, my plate was piled high but I was hungry and managed to finish almost all of it. Jonathan chose something similarly gargantuan – the ‘Smokestack’, I think – that was chock-full of meat, while Ben, who weighs about half what I do, opted for something a bit smaller, possibly macaroni cheese with burnt ends. By the way, Jonathan had an unbelievable appetite and could easily be a competitive eater. I’m not kidding. He wolfed his food down within what seemed like mere seconds and didn’t even break a sweat. He laughed and said, “I don’t like food if it isn’t hot!” I cursed his youthful metabolism and wished I could eat whatever I wanted without feeling guilty about it for a day or two.

Shane topped up our drinks and we chatted some more after we had eaten, before we bid him goodnight saying that we’d be back.


We retired to our rooms and I flopped onto the bed, tired but ecstatic to be there. I decided to send a quick message to my friend Michael who lived in Kansas City. Michael was an announcer on the NPR station KCUR-FM, and we had been friends for several years. He once travelled to my town in the UK, but I was on vacation at the time so we’d never actually met in person. We weren’t meeting up on this trip either sadly, as my visit coincided with the station’s busiest week of the year and Michael couldn’t get the time off work. I feel a strong bond with him though, and we often send each other gifts and speak regularly. Although we live thousands of miles apart, I feel like he is a close friend and I would hope that he thinks the same too.

I sent Michael one word: “Minneapolis”.

He responded almost immediately saying, “Welcome to America!” before jokily telling me that, “We aren’t all lunatics, I promise.”

I ran through my first few hours in his country and we yakked about nothing much at all really. He offered me some great driving advice, and asked about the hotel, the food, and my itinerary for the next day. He told me that, “Minnesota is good country.” So far, I had every reason to believe him and I felt a surge of excitement about the days ahead. Michael signed off by asking me to keep him up to date with my activities.

After a while, I showered and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, my body clock was out of whack and – at around midnight – I suddenly realised that I’d been awake for over twenty-four hours. I opened the curtains and looked out over the Chanhassen rooftops and the quiet street outside. I watched the traffic lights blinking and thought back to the moment we had sat in the car across the street from Paisley Park. Unbelievably, I was now in Prince’s town. I smiled and then suddenly felt a tinge of sadness and my eyes began to water. I can’t explain why. Looking back now, I think perhaps that this was the moment the realisation of what I was doing – and why I was here – finally hit me. I dried my eyes and got into bed. I set my alarm for my usual rising time of 6.00am, and then promptly woke up after approximately two hours sleep.



WEDNESDAY


I met Jonathan and Ben for breakfast at 7.00am the next morning, and we talked about the day ahead. We had booked a tour of First Avenue and 7th St Entry, the club where most of the action in the movie Purple Rain takes place. Purple Rain is a semi-autobiographical movie starring Prince that – along with the soundtrack album of the same name – catapulted him to superstardom in 1984. We were scheduled to begin the tour of First Avenue at 10.30am.

Over a breakfast of traditional American waffles, pancakes, and bacon and a European ‘continental’ style buffet, we looked over the list of places we intended to visit today, deciding to park the car in the city and then tackle the locations around First Avenue on foot, or by cab if needed.

After finishing our meal, we headed to the car and set off on the thirty-minute drive to Downtown Minneapolis. We travelled east along MN-5, before taking the exit onto Interstate 494E, followed by I-35W northward, and into the city.

Minneapolis is the largest city in the state of Minnesota, and it lies on both banks of the Mississippi River. It is adjoined to the city of Saint Paul which is the state capital. This gives rise to Minneapolis-Saint Paul being known as the ‘Twin Cities’. Saint Paul is by far the older of the two cities and features an abundance of late-Victorian architecture. It has more of a bohemian feel to it with quaint neighbourhoods as opposed to the much younger Minneapolis, which has a more modern and cosmopolitan air with futuristic skyscrapers.

As we drove toward Minneapolis, the skyline was impressive – as most cities are – but it was not as huge as I had expected. Gleaming glass towers standing alongside red brick apartment blocks passed us by, and as the rush hour traffic stopped and started, we slowly made our way along the freeway as people all around us went about their ordinary day in the Twin Cities. It suddenly struck me that our day wasn’t ordinary in the slightest, and I began to feel a long way from home. I often feel like that when I’m visiting a big city in another country. As we entered Downtown, we saw one of those city signs with the population number on it. 444,000. We marvelled at the fact that the city was smaller than we imagined, and is perhaps comparable in size to Leeds, a city approximately fifty miles from my town back in England.

We drove up to the third story in the first parking garage we came to, and comically congratulated each other on navigating the car thus far with no incidents to report. After asking a local how to pay for parking, we jumped in an elevator with him that took us to ground level.

Stepping outside onto South 7th Street, we headed northwest along it, and reassuringly the city of Minneapolis looked just like any city in the world. There was one difference though, and I spotted it immediately. The buildings around us were joined to each other by an elevated glass corridor two storeys up.

This system – called the ‘Skyway’ – was developed in 1962 and is a collection of interlinked enclosed footbridges that are climate controlled, connecting buildings in sixty-nine full city blocks covering an area of eleven miles. It’s the biggest continuous walkway in the world, and it’s a brilliant idea. Linking office towers, apartment buildings, hotels, banks, retail stores, government buildings, and even sports facilities, it allows Minneapolis residents to live, work, and shop Downtown without having to go outside, if they so desire.

We continued along South 7th and we spotted a street map on the left side of the street. We checked the location of the First Avenue club to confirm we were heading in the right direction, and used the opportunity to grab a few photos of ourselves at the map. Bemused locals walked past, busily going about their day and no doubt wondering why these three guys were not on their way to work but horsing around and taking pictures of each other. We continued past the Marriott Hotel on the right. Crossing Hennepin Avenue, we carried on walking onto North 7th Street, and suddenly the building on our left became recognisable. A small bar called The Depot marked the start of the First Avenue building.

First Avenue and 7th St Entry are two live music clubs housed in one iconic Minneapolis building on the corner of North 1st Avenue and North 7th Street. The building’s brickwork is painted black, and the structure features five hundred and thirty one silver stars painted across its entire exterior commemorating past performers at this legendary American rock venue. With a combined capacity of approximately eighteen hundred, the art deco-styled building began life as a Greyhound bus station in 1937. When new, its state-of-the-art air conditioning, shower rooms, and chequered terrazzo floor were a wow with the locals. In 1968, the idea to turn the building into a music venue came about and – after a period of remodelling – the venue eventually opened its doors as The Depot on April 3, 1970 hosting British singer Joe Cocker as the very first act to play there. By a strange quirk of fate, I discovered recently that my mother – as a young woman – once spent a night dancing with Joe. The date you ask? February 8, 1970. Just two months earlier than the opening night of The Depot, and a year-and-a-day before my birth.

After further name changes – to Uncle Sam’s and then just Sam’s – on New Year’s Eve 1981, the club became First Avenue and 7th St Entry. Playing his first show at Sam’s on March 9, 1981 as part of the Dirty Mind Tour, and then again in October of that year, Prince’s shows at the club went on to become the stuff of legend, and when it came to the production of Purple Rain, the choice of venue for the shooting of music scenes was never in question.

Anyone who has ever seen Purple Rain knows that First Avenue plays a major role in the movie. Prince performed at the club thirteen times throughout his career, often showcasing new material ahead of its official release. Prince’s patronage revitalised the venue during the ’80s, making it Minnesota’s number one tourist attraction for several years, and it remained by far his favourite place to play. The club’s owner during the filming of Purple Rain, Allan Fingerhut, credits Prince with keeping the club from financial ruin as it was losing money at the time, saying simply, “He saved the place.”

Many of Prince’s shows at First Avenue were organised with little notice and the club allowed him to perform whenever he wanted, which must have pleased Prince no end. The club became synonymous with its brightest star, and on that fateful day in April 2016 over ten thousand fam descended on First Avenue in an impromptu street party to pay their respects and say goodbye to Minneapolis’ fallen son. This was followed by three all-night dance parties in the club which sold out instantly. Bobby Z – drummer with Prince’s band The Revolution – referred to First Avenue as ‘Ground Zero’ in interviews after his friend’s passing. Fittingly, the band chose the club as the very first place to play after their reunion in 2016, performing three sell-out shows. Fam flocked from around the world to see Prince’s former bandmates pay an emotional homage to their late leader and mentor. Prince’s star on the wall outside – which is the closest to the entrance – has been covered in gold leaf by an anonymous fam. First Avenue liked it and it has since become a permanent feature.


We arrived at First Avenue around 9.45am. We had forty-five minutes before our tour was due to begin, so we spent a little time outside taking photographs of each other and the club. Trying to get a decent snap of the entire building without catching local people or cars in the frame proved difficult and Jonathan, Ben, and I tried from all sorts of angles and positions until we were happy with the results. I stood across the street from the club’s façade and Jonathan took a great photo of me from behind as I set off across the street facing toward the building.

We posed for photos outside the entrance foyer and then to the left of it underneath the little tatty and worn canvas canopy over the 7th St Entry doorway. The canopy looked like it had easily been there for over thirty years and we wondered for a moment if it was the original one from the Purple Rain days. We guessed that it probably would be, and proceeded to walk along the exterior looking at – and photographing – the silver stars that were dotted all over the brickwork, noting the names that had played at this iconic rock venue on each. I couldn’t see a star with Joe Cocker’s name on it. Suddenly, we came to Prince’s gold star. Seeing it brought a sudden rush of emotion and I struggled to catch my breath for a moment. I pictured the scene from Purple Rain where Prince rides his motorcycle along the sidewalk outside the club. I was now standing on the very same spot. As I thought about this, I reached out and touched the star, just for a second. A single purple flower was pinned to the wall next to it with a thank you note from a British fam from Swindon.

I wandered across the street from First Avenue, and spoke to a lady from Chicago who was visiting Minneapolis and she was surprised to hear that I was British. She was wearing a Prince t-shirt and was booked on a later tour of First Avenue. After chatting for a few minutes, she wished us well on our trip and I headed back over to the entrance where a small crowd were gathered with a tour guide for the party that was just ahead of ours. We listened in for a few minutes while the guide pointed out the features of the building to the assembled visitors and they disappeared inside.

We still had thirty minutes to fill before our tour was due to start, so we decided to check out a couple of other spots on our itinerary first. They were close by so wouldn’t take long to get to. As we headed to the first, we stumbled across a huge comic-book style piece of art completely by accident. It was painted on the side wall of the old National Camera Exchange at 930 Hennepin Avenue. A brilliant pop-art piece by Greg Gossel, it features a pink Cadillac and a wide-eyed woman quoting a Prince lyric from ‘Baby I’m A Star’, a song from Purple Rain. We stopped to take photos of each other in front of it before moving on. I learned later that the piece was commissioned by American Express as part of a countrywide business initiative and was completed shortly before Prince’s passing.

A minute later – and just two blocks from First Avenue – we were standing outside the beautiful Orpheum Theater at 910 Hennepin Avenue. Completed in 1921, this historic restored Beaux-Arts-style theatre – which once belonged to Bob Dylan – played host to Prince four times between 1980 and 2006. Interestingly, he only ever topped the bill there once. In 1989, he appeared onstage with Patti LaBelle. A decade later he was a guest at a Chaka Khan show. In his final performance at the venue in 2006, he appeared with Tamar Davis as part of her tour. His headlining 1980 show however, was a rescheduled date as part of his debut self-titled tour and it took place on February 9th – my ninth birthday. Disney fans may like to know that the highest-grossing Broadway production of all time, The Lion King, had its very first performance at the Orpheum in July 1997. The theatre has a capacity of over twenty-five hundred.

Crossing the street from the Orpheum, we took the first left and headed down South 10th Street to our next stop, which was at 1010 Nicollet Mall, three blocks down. The Dakota Jazz Club has been at this location since 2003 and – despite its name – is an intimate fine-dining venue that hosts not just jazz, but all types of performers, from rock and pop to cabaret. The club’s unassuming entrance is through a revolving door located at the foot of an escalator in the adjoining mall. The Dakota was one of Prince’s favourite haunts in Minneapolis – famed for its cocktails and superb chef-driven menu – and he often snuck in through a side door unannounced to watch artists perform. It’s been said that he visited the Dakota at least once a month when he was home.

Prince played six low-key shows at the Dakota over three nights – two shows per night – from 16th to 18th January 2013, only announcing the shows the day before. All six performances sold out within thirty minutes of going on sale causing the Dakota’s website to crash, and at each brilliant show Prince dug deep into his extensive back catalogue playing rare cuts and surprise covers of Janet Jackson and Jackson 5 songs that thrilled each lucky audience of just two hundred and fifty people. A seventh show on 19th January saw Prince perform a mini sampler set before performing a drum solo and spinning records with DJ Rashida.

On the 19th April 2016, Prince spent the evening at his private table on the second floor, watching a performance by Lizz Wright. Sadly, it was to be his last visit to the Dakota Jazz Club. Prince passed away just two days later. Upon hearing the news, the club placed a single purple flower on Prince’s table – #299 – with a card reading ‘Rest in peace, Prince’. Before that evening’s performance began, soft purple light shone across the stage in a mark of quiet respect to the fallen superstar. The club has kept Prince’s table open ever since. It is – they say – his table.

We took photos and headed back to First Avenue and 7th St Entry.


While we waited outside First Avenue for our tour to begin, I began talking to a young girl named Rachel who was standing inside the lobby. She was friendly and welcoming and she told me that she worked on the merchandise stall at the club. We chatted about Prince’s music for a few minutes, and I pointed out that she was wearing a Waxahatchee t-shirt, a band whose music I was familiar with. Rachel told me that the band had played at the club the previous night. I talked about my work at the record store back in England and she laughed, saying that she worked in a local music retailers too. I looked outside and saw that a crowd was gathering on the sidewalk for our tour, so I said goodbye to Rachel and told her I might speak to her later.

Our tour guide was a good-natured guy named Randy Hawkins. An impressive twenty-eight year veteran of First Avenue, he had worked as a sound technician in the club as well as managing and playing in several Minneapolis bands. He began by telling us a little about his role at First Avenue and said that this was his first day as a tour guide and we were his very first party. He jokingly apologised that he would try his best to answer our questions, but wasn’t “That great a Prince fan, really.”

Someone shot back with a laugh, “Then find someone who is!”

After pointing out the features of the exterior of the club, we finally ventured inside the building where the Purple Rain movie was set.

The first thing I noticed was that the club wasn’t particularly big, and it was easy to imagine how jumping the place must have been when it was packed to the rafters during filming of the movie in 1983. There were only around thirty people in our tour party and it already felt like there were a lot of people in the room.

The interior of First Avenue had an industrial feel to it with a plethora of steel staircases and railings, and other than the air-conditioning ducts in the ceiling and the seating, almost every other surface in the place was a shade of black. The look was total new wave and punk. Halfway up the right staircase as we looked toward the stage was Joe Cocker’s star, dated 4/3/70, the date he opened The Depot. Not to be outdone, on the opposite balcony, was another star for Prince, with the date 7/27/84 on it, the date that the Purple Rain film opened in movie theatres. It looked down over the imposing raised performance area and enormous lighting rig which took up a surprisingly large part of the room. The railed balconies on three sides offered brilliant views of the action. As we looked up from the main floor in front of the sound desk, I recalled the dancers in the movie on the balcony during the musical numbers, and smiled to myself. It really didn’t look like much of the decor had changed in the four decades since Purple Rain was shot, and as our party stood on it, we remarked to each other that the now worn original checkerboard floor in the main room was a great reminder of a bygone era.

On the balcony to the right – as you faced the stage – were the restrooms where a woman once reportedly committed suicide. A member of our party asked Randy whether anyone has seen her ghost. Randy confirmed that people have claimed so, and said that he doesn’t like to be alone in the club after dark. The restrooms were decorated in ’80s black and blue tiles with stainless steel fittings. Taking photos, I imagined The Revolution and The Time – Prince’s protégés – hanging out in there in the early ’80s.

Suddenly, it was the moment we had been waiting for. Randy informed us that we were allowed to stand on the stage. This was the most exciting part of the tour for all of us and hundreds of photos were taken as everyone got their moment to stand on this hallowed spot, which was so crucial to the Prince story. Understandably, everyone present wanted to be on the stage alone. This included me, Jonathan, and Ben. When I eventually got that moment, I was thrilled to be standing on the actual stage where the title track from the Purple Rain movie – and arguably Prince’s most famous song – was committed to tape. It’s not a commonly known fact, but the single version of ‘Purple Rain’ that you might know – that everyone who has ever heard it knows – is actually a live performance recording made on this spot.

Being on First Avenue’s revered stage was an emotional moment for us all and in rather comedic fashion we took a ridiculous amount of time to begrudgingly leave the platform. It was far longer than Randy would have liked and we forgot that the poor guy had a time limit to stick to. As we finally left the stage, Jonathan spied a rack with copies of that week’s City Pages on it with an article ranking Prince’s studio albums inside. He grabbed a few copies of the free publication, and we stuffed them into our bags.

We headed toward the backstage area, and Randy pointed out the recently unearthed original handwritten “scribble strips” for Prince and The Revolution that were still there on the sound processor units at the side of the stage. Historically, a space was provided on the front of such equipment allowing sound engineers to note which instrument or musician was allocated to each channel for recording or live performance purposes. It’s done electronically these days. The sight of these original paper ones taped to the consoles drew audible gasps from our party, and we scrambled to get good photos of the names that had been there for almost thirty-five years. Every member of The Revolution was there. I even spotted Susan Rogers’ name and realised that this was clearly from the recording of the songs used for the Purple Rain soundtrack. Susan was Prince’s principle engineer for many years. I looked at the names written on the strips and blinked, wondering if my eyes were deceiving me. They weren’t. It was real. I realised that I was looking at actual musical history. Some of the songs I have loved since childhood – and from arguably one of the biggest albums of all time – were made right here.


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