The Strange World Of... Prince’s Minneapolis
, June 20th, 2016 09:30
Lifelong fan John Freeman travels to Minneapolis to visit the places that made Prince the city’s most iconic artist. All photographs by the author/ Captain Randy
Minneapolis, Minnesota nestles on the banks of the Mississippi, watching over its smaller twin, St Paul. Frozen for much of the winter, its 400,000 inhabitants can stay warm while walking around the seven-mile Minneapolis Skyway – the world’s longest continuous indoor walkway. The city can also boast 22 lovely urban lakes, and in 2012 hosted the world’s first Internet Cat Video Festival (attended by 10,000 ever so slightly deranged kitty lovers). So far, so impressive.
However, when it comes to Minneapolis, I only ever need to know one thing – Minneapolis is the home of Prince.
I have been a Prince devotee for over 30 years. As a teenager, the obsession ran deep. I was the guy known as ‘the Prince fan’ – the one that would lure strangers into corners at parties, in order to bore them shitless about his best B-sides (step forward ‘Erotic City’). In 1987, I hitchhiked to Rotterdam to see the Sign O’ The Times tour (apologies to my parents - I lied about the fan club trip). I saw the Lovesexy show eight times in three different cities (receiving a head wound from a flying Lionel Ritchie cassette during a coach crash on the way to the Bercy in Paris). A year later, I would be ‘gently removed’ from a dancefloor by bouncers – after eight hours of solid boogying - at the end of a Prince-themed all-nighter in Camden.
Then, in 2014 in Leeds, I experienced the magic of taking my nine-year-old son to his first ever concert. As my boy stood on his seat air-guitaring to ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, I realised that I’d royally fucked up – my son’s first gig would be the greatest gig he would ever see. It is all downhill after you’ve seen Prince play live.
So, I'm not claiming to be the biggest Prince fan, but I've never been a bigger fan of any other artist. And, ever since first seeing the Purple Rain movie 32 years ago, I have always wanted to visit Minneapolis. Therefore, when a free day appeared in a recent week-long business trip to Chicago, I booked a cheap flight and began to plan my very own Prince sightseeing tour in the ten hours I'd have in Minneapolis.
However, help was at hand. A very helpful lady at Minneapolis.org put me in contact with Randy Luedtke, who runs WaconiaVille tours – a company that specialises in excursions to local vineyards and distilleries, and who have recently launched a Prince sightseeing tour. He agreed to be my private tour guide and I sent him an email outlining the myriad of Prince sights I want to see. It is a long list.
A couple of weeks later, and after the short hop from Chicago, I land in Minneapolis (it would appear there are only large, square fields in between the two cities) and am met by Randy. Or, Captain Randy as he introduces himself. (WaconiaVille tours also hosts boat trips on Minnesotan lakes.) Randy tells me he was a DJ for 28 years (and that he’d always play ‘Purple Rain’ in the “maudlin” section of the evening) and is maybe the most enthusiastic person in Minnesota. We quickly hatch a plan of attack for the day and begin by heading for a small town 20 miles West of the city; Chanhassen, home of Paisley Park.
Situated at the intersection of the Arboretum Boulevard and Audubon Road, the first thing that is striking about Paisley Park is that it's hardly discrete. It's a gleaming white jumble of box shapes - more IKEA than Funkadelic - sat next to a highway. The second obvious feature is that Paisley Park is absolutely huge. Built in 1988 and funded by Prince’s purple period, the studio complex is several stories high (I now understand the need for an elevator) and surrounded by a large barbed-wire fence.
Paisley Park - the place where Prince lived, worked and died - is now a focal point for fans to pay their respects. Immediately after his death, the fence became a vast shrine as people artfully attached cards, posters, poems, balloons, flowers and other trinkets as a means of expressing their sadness. By the time of my visit, heavy rains had resulted in the removal of much of the shrine, but the fences are filling up again in a second wave of sorrow.
I have to admit that standing in front of Paisley Park, after so many years of being a fan - but so close to his death - is a pretty surreal experience. The plain white buildings house incredible treasures inside (not least the fabled vault of unreleased songs) but, more than any other time during my day in Minneapolis, I'm overwhelmed by sadness. Paisley Park was Prince. Prince was Paisley Park. That the place meant so much to him and was also the scene of his death seems somehow fitting but also incredibly cruel. Randy gives me a few minutes alone. I walk around the perimeter and take a photo of a huge piece of improvised artwork on the fence. It says 'We Miss You'. Amen to that.
Minnesota is known as the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’ but I am only interested in two of them, due to the Purple Rain film. In an infamous scene, The Kid (Prince) takes Apollonia to a lake and tells her that if she wants some career guidance, she’ll need to “purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka". Apollonia is a game girl, duly disrobes and jumps into the lake. Which The Kid, belatedly, informs her is not Lake Minnetonka. The Kid compounds his meanness by not letting Apollonia back on his bike in case she gets his “seat all wet” – it’s easy to forget how much of a Class A dick The Kid was for much of Purple Rain.
However, I want to purify myself in the actual Lake Minnetonka. It is close to Paisley Park, and involves passing through the swanky lakeside resort of Excelsior. We park up and I take my shoes and socks off and go for a paddle. I haven’t really thought through what the purification process might entail, so I splash some water on my face and hope for the best. Randy wants a photo of me mid-purification and I admit to feeling slightly silly. Nonetheless, Lake Minnetonka is beautiful and my soul feels momentarily cleansed.
We then head back towards the city to find Cedar Lake, the actual site of the skinny-dipping Apollonia scene in Purple Rain. It’s just off Highway 394 and another beautiful example of a gorgeous little lake nestling within the Minneapolis urban sprawl. Randy and I try to find the exact spot of The Kid’s deviousness. There are families playing on a small beach and we decide an adjacent jetty was the place. We aren’t really sure, but it’s a lovely spot and we briefly enjoy the late spring sunshine.
Next up is some serious house hunting. We head to Newton Avenue, just west of downtown Minneapolis, to check out Prince's first family home. It's a neat-looking wooden house with an old-school porch and a well-tended garden. The 'Keep Out' and 'No Trespassing' signs ensure I don't hang around too long, especially when a local photographer suddenly appears from a parked car across the street and asks for a picture of me in front of the house.
A few blocks away on Russell Avenue is the house in which Prince spent several teenage years. It belonged to the parents of Andre Cymone – the original bass player with The Revolution. It's a large brick house on a quiet street. I'm struck by how unfathomably normal these houses seem and that Prince had lived in them - and didn't, as I had kind of imagined, jet into Minneapolis each day in a purple spaceship from Planet Cool. Prince was just an impossibly talented and normal guy. The moment of belated enlightenment feels weird.
We then travel south to Snelling Avenue to find The Kid’s house from Purple Rain. It’s another archetypal white wooden structure and still owned by Prince’s NPG company. However, the house stands empty and is very dilapidated. Even the recently mown lawn cannot hide the need for some serious TLC. I walk to the back of the house and pointlessly try the door to The Kid’s basement apartment. It is locked – but I imagine that Prince once touched the same handle and vow not to wash my hands for at least a couple of hours.
My list also contains places that Prince either played or enjoyed hearing music. We drive to West Broadway in Near North Minneapolis to find the Capri Theatre, the venue for Prince’s first solo gig in January 1979. Randy tells me the area isn’t exactly salubrious and that I should keep my wits about me, but I spy a huge ‘Welcome Bernie Sanders’ banner and feel perfectly at ease. The Capri itself is gorgeous. Built in 1927, and remodelled five years later to its current Art Deco design, it is a hugely impressive shrine to jazz, funk and blues. Moreover, the Capri is also huge – with a capacity of about 500 - for the venue of a first ever show. Photos of that Prince show adorn the lobby – a ticket that night cost $4. Randy and I muse on the thousands of Minnesotans who would have subsequently claimed to have been in the Capri that night.
We then journey into downtown Minneapolis. We check out Bunkers Bar & Grill on Washington Avenue, scene of many an impromptu jam session and then mooch across to Nicollet Mall, to find the Dakota Jazz Club. Prince was a regular visitor to the Dakota. A barman shows me the exact table – on the balcony, second from the end – from where Prince would get his jazz fix. The barman also reveals he saw Prince play a show on the Dakota’s tiny stage (and I’m talking less than a few metres square) in 2013 – an experience he describes as “utterly unreal.”
The next stop is for a full-on Prince trivia geek-out. The Schmitt Music Mural is on the corner of Marquette Avenue and 10th Street. The mural is a huge piece of urban art depicting musical notes and was the backdrop for a 1977 Prince photoshoot by the photographer Robert Whitman, when the singer was just 19. The mural itself is wonderful, and I use the iconic Prince photo to find the exact spot – with the correct beam notes, crotchets and quavers - and recreate the photo. I sense the ever-polite Randy might be thinking I have gone slightly mad.
However, if the mural is for Prince aficionados only, I am about to visit a truly iconic music landmark. First Avenue & 7th Street Entry was the club made famous by Purple Rain - the venue where Prince performed those songs in that film. Built in 1937 as a Greyhound bus station (the original checkerboard flooring is still in place), First Avenue is a beautiful (if a little worn-at-the-seams) Art Deco building – and one where virtually every band of note of the last 40 years has played.
Outside is a wall of silver stars, for artists who have graced the main stage. The Prince ‘star’ was the original and is now painted gold (by an anonymous artist during the night after Prince’s death). The cities other great bands (Husker Du, The Replacements &c.) have their stars. I snigger at the story of Adele’s star. The superstar singer only sound-checked for a few minutes, cancelled her show due to laryngitis and had her star painted over and replaced by someone called Colbie Caillat. Which seems a bit harsh.
Randy and I have arranged to meet Stacy Schwartz and Daniel Corrigan at First Avenue. Stacy has swung it for Daniel to give us a private tour of the venue. Corrigan has been First Avenue’s photographer for the last 30 years. His incredible pictures adorn the bar and are a timehop of musical greats. Daniel tells me he photographed Prince six times and that Prince only ever uttered two words to him – “Not yet.”
We are guided around the main stage hall. It is dripping with sonic history. The balcony, the bar, the metal steps up to the stage are all as I remembered from the film. We get to see the dressing rooms (replete with an awe-inspiring Prince photo), we browse the backstage ‘wall of set lists’ and then Daniel shows me a wooden frame next to the stage, on which contains the 30-odd-year-old scrawl of the stage set up for The Revolution (‘Prince Vox’, ‘Lisa’, ‘Wendy’). I stand agog, transfixed by the faded black words as if they were the original Ten Commandments.
Then, to cap it all, Daniel nods to the stage and I am allowed to trot up the metal stairs and step onto the hallowed boards. My cortical jukebox plays ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and ‘Darling Nikki’ and ‘Computer Blues’ – and for a few seconds I am Prince.
We decamp to the mixing desk. Stacy regales me with stories of falling asleep standing up while waiting for a Prince aftershow party (he finally came on stage at 2.30 am) and how he’d asked for the wall paintings of nymphs to be covered up for the show (due to them being “too demonic”).
It’s almost too much for my frazzled brain to take in. First Avenue is an extraordinary place and a must see for any music fan. I buy a purple t-shirt (emblazoned with ‘First Avenue - Your Downtown Danceteria Since 1970') and a mug - and a bumper sticker, which I give to Randy. It’s the first time he has been backstage and he’s nearly as blown away as I am.
The next stop on my hit list is another Minneapolis institution - the Electric Fetus record store. It's just south of the city centre on 4th Avenue and an absolute gem. Crammed with vinyl - although, sadly and predictably, all Prince rarities have been sold - clothes, posters, DVDs and jewellery, Electric Fetus is the perfect place for an elongated browse.
The record store was also the subject matter of Prince's final tweet and a place he would regularly visit. He'd come not only to buy music, but also to talk business – in recent years he'd allowed the shop exclusive distribution rights to his albums in the US (for a few weeks after release). I love the notion that Prince would help his local record store. I buy an Electric Fetus t-shirt (which is, again, far too cool for me) and an Electric Fetus baseball cap (which is also cool but, like any hat, makes me look like a twit).
By late afternoon, I realise that Fulfilling A Life Ambition is hungry work. I need food and Randy knows just the place. He wants to take me to Matt’s Bar, which makes the “world famous” Jucy (sic) Lucy burgers. Apparently, Matt’s Bar was once on Man V. Food. Apparently, Barack Obama once ate there.
We arrive to what seems on the outside to be a dive, but reveals itself to be a bustling diner-style restaurant. Randy whispers something to the waitress (he’s a regular) and suddenly ‘Kiss’ comes on. Followed by ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’. I think I know what Randy said. The waitress then explains the Jucy Lucy concept. It’s a double-patty burger cooked with cheese between the two pieces of meat. She also lectures me on the correct way to eat a Jucy Lucy – which is to nibble at the edges to avoid having lava-hot liquid cheese squirt into your mouth. If this sounds unappealing, the reality is divine. Matt’s Bar is a Cathedral of the Burger.
While we eat, Randy and I chat about Prince and Minneapolis. Randy has only just started running the Prince sightseeing tours and wants to do things “right and with respect”. He shows me a Facebook message he has sent to Prince’s sister, Tyka, outlining his plans and seeking the family’s approval for the tour. She’s yet to reply but from my few hours in Minneapolis it’s obvious that Prince is a huge reason for people to visit.
I tell Randy that I like Minneapolis. It’s about the same size as my hometown of Manchester, and has a similar sport-and-music-fuelled energy. The patchwork of Minnesotan lakes make for a stunning backdrop, while the vineyards and breweries are themselves worth checking out for a sozzled weekend.
Before we leave Matt’s, Randy wants a photo. He takes one of me while I’m eating a Jucy Lucy, drinking a pint of Minnesotan wheat beer and listening to ‘Purple Rain’ – I am at maximum level Minneapolis. I had thought coming to this city in the wake of Prince’s death might make me sad, or that it might bring me some form of closure. It didn’t and it hasn’t. Visiting Prince’s Minneapolis has just made me happy. And, that’s all he ever did and all he ever will do.
For information on ‘Prince: The Tour’, visit Waconiaville Tours