Inside Paisley Park, Prince’s mansion in the suburbs of Minneapolis, the first thing you see is a giant mural of Prince’s eyes, painted high above the entrance, with immaculate lashes and a burst of divine light beaming down from within. Anywhere else it would be the height of arrogance, but not here. If anyone could be forgiven a God-complex, surely it’s Prince.
But now he’s gone. One year ago, on 21 April 2016, Prince Rogers Nelson was found unresponsive in the elevator of his wildly eccentric and, of course, predominantly purple, home. An accidental overdose of prescription painkillers led to his death. Though he shunned alcohol and recreational drugs, he was indeed in pain – the price, perhaps, for the outrageously energetic performances of his youth – and his Jehovah’s Witness faith, which he converted to in 2001, did not permit the operation that may have eased his suffering. But how he exited the stage is less important than what he did on it – and that all starts in Minneapolis.
Prince was a local boy through and through. He was born, bred, lived and died in his hometown city. Talk to people here and their eyes light up when you mention his name. I took a Prince tour of Minneapolis and found his memory everywhere: the Capri Theatre, where he played his first gig in 1979; the Electric Fetus, his local record store, which would get many of his releases weeks before the major chains, just because he liked shopping there; First Avenue, the iconic venue where Purple Rain was filmed – outside walls adorned with silver stars of artists’ names, and just one in gold, painted in by an anonymous fan the night of his death.
But it’s at his home, Paisley Park, where his presence is most keenly felt. The outside is the exact opposite of what I expected. A soulless compound on the edge of a motorway with sleek square white panelling and no windows, it’s more like a dentist’s office than a pop star’s crib.
Inside it makes sense: walls painted like blue skies with clouds and flying birds; lyrics, awards, costumes, his image everywhere; another giant mural, this time a rainbow emanating from his outstretched hand like a kitsch version of Michelangelo’s ceiling. This is not a post-mortem museum display; this is how he lived. It’s like his personality in reverse: private to the world, flamboyant to himself. And it’s enormous: 65,000 sq ft of personally designed living and working space including four recording studios, a Hollywood-style sound stage and a full-size nightclub. “It was Prince’s personal playground,” says the tour guide, McKenzie. Here, everything would be under one roof; there would be no distinction between music and life.
The tour begins at the end. The urn holding his ashes is on display in the atrium, a two-storey vaulted space streaming with light from four glass pyramids on its ceiling and doves in cages above that coo, but don’t cry. Nearby is the diner-style kitchen where he would eat pancakes and watch basketball, the gold-tinted office, where he would mentor younger acts and an entire room decked out like a purple nebula in UV light. Each space had a particular mood, a unique inspiration of colour and form, like a mosaic, brash and unapologetic. He lived as he played; his home was a performance, too.
And then the magic: Studio B, where Sign O’ the Times and Graffiti Bridge were put to record, a photograph of his father on the mixing desk, a well-used ping-pong table on which he once destroyed Michael Jackson in a game. And Studio A, the birthplace of Lovesexy and Diamonds and Pearls, and home of his last recorded work. I stood in the middle of the room, closed my eyes and let the sound wash over me, jazz overtones with trademark Prince funk, but no vocals, their absence like ghosts drifting through the unfinished work.
That night, after the rest of the onlookers had gone, I stayed behind. Prince was famous for inviting touring musicians back to jam after concerts in town. But he looked after his own, too, throwing impromptu late-night parties for locals in the enormous video-production stage, where Sign O’ the Times was shot and Madonna was once serenaded by his Purpleness himself. One minute you could be watching TV at 11pm on a Sunday night, an hour later you could be partying with Prince in his private club. That’s just who he was.
Now Paisley Park is continuing the tradition with a series of “After Dark” dance parties and late-night concert screenings. But as we watched him on flickering film, whispering along to the soundtracks of our youth, I couldn’t help wondering what was underneath. “Life is just a party,” Prince sang. “And parties weren’t meant to last.” But this one might not be quite done yet. In the basement of Paisley Park there is a vault of unreleased material, hundreds of hours of live jams, experiments and top-secret songs. Almost no one’s seen inside, but when asked in an interview what it might contain, his response was cryptic, cocky and pure Prince: the future. Perhaps those eyes are looking down on us after all.