When texting emerged as an acceptable means of communication, before abbreviated language and the numericals-for-words swap became everyday, not just for license plates, my response to the first HiQTPie text I received was, “Why does everything come through like a Prince song?”
“When 2 R in Love,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Sexy M.F.” Those of us old enough to remember Prince’s earliest Top 40 flirtations lifted his abbreviated communiques and signed yearbooks with 2good2b4gotten and INVU4URaQT. Evermore, our ways of expressing ourselves are his: an alphabet of numerals and letters reduced to such essence that sometimes DTF is all we have to say to get a point across. Everything he did was both specific and universal, so much so that we can all find ourselves in a Prince song.
Even when I am not in love, I hear “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” and feel like I am both the most beautiful girl in the world and in love. When my heart breaks, I am in “Empty Room”: “Found a strand of your hair by the bathroom window / How am I ever gonna get you off of my mind?”
I don’t know if I’m more aroused by its first verse or the promise of the Grim Reaper’s arrival at the song’s climax, but Prince for the win on “Let’s Go Crazy!” “All excited / we don't know why / Maybe it's 'cause we're all gonna die / And when we do, what's it all for.” The way he sings, “He’s coming, He’s coming…” sounds like a man cresting an orgasm, and the music builds to that fall. Warning against the “pills and thrills and daffodils” prescribed by shrinks, he wants us to feel everything, and every feeling in the world might be encapsulated in one four-minute song. It’s fucking fun!
In retrospect, hints to a darker life are clear. Psychologists and medications, excitement as distraction for his cheating “old lady,” and a preoccupation with the afterlife—the irony of his death isn’t lost. “If the elevator tries to bring you down / Go crazy / Punch a higher floor!” He died, at the base of the elevator at Paisley Park. Exhausted, and high on opioids, he couldn’t punch a higher floor and the elevator brought him all the way down.
With all that swirling inside me for over thirty years, I wanted to see where Prince lived and died. I maybe didn’t need to see the elevator, but I definitely wanted to see the bed, the bathtub, a courtyard with oceans of violets in bloom.
But such figments don’t flower inside the chain-link gates of Paisley Park, Prince’s audio-visual domestic lair that’s been opened to the touring public since 2016. The grand entrance to Prince’s white aluminum home office building is a parking lot with cement pylons. A “compound,” as it has been described, it’s not—at least not in the Kennedys-Hyannis-Port sort of way. There aren’t clusters of homes and guest houses for friends and family. It doesn’t scream Location! Location! Location! Its “spectacular view” overlooks a flat highway in Chanhassen, Minnesota, a bland exurb 22 miles outside Minneapolis, i.e., just about the last place one expects to find Prince.
In 1985, his cutting-edge vision of everything—living quarters, recording studio, sound stage—under one roof was original and practical, given the sheer abundance of music pouring from the spigot. Today, it feels void, sad, and soulless. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust from the bright summer day to the dark lobby. I imagine myself returning to the cold comfort of home after a long tour, walking through the glass doors, and dropping my luggage in the dark empty lobby where only I live. At least, that’s how it felt to me as I approached the reception desk, where I was asked to put my phone in a neoprene sleeve. “They’ll unlock it for you in the gift shop at the end of the tour,” the woman who handled my reservation explained, snaking her fingernails around one of those retail shoplifting sensors. Immediately, my brain fast forwarded to a Prince snow globe with a purple LED light. Even if the lobby was underwhelming, I was giddy anticipating what I’d find along the celestial “The Sun, The Moon and The Stars” wall-to-wall carpeting in the common spaces.
Our group was already ten deep when I arrived. Pretty sure it was the first day of our tour guide’s summer job. She was certainly too young to have been alive when Prince dominated the airwaves. I suspected I would do better wandering the exhibits with a headset delivering jolly nuggets recorded by a Prince insider. Morris Day, for instance. She had the enthusiasm of a realtor showing us around a commercial property.
I never believed Prince could shit, let alone die. I thought he floated ethereally through life, avoiding eye contact—not because he was a dick, but because he was so beautiful that the sight of him might kill us. It wasn’t about his legendary shyness. He protected us, making sure we didn’t get a glimpse into the windows of his soul.
That spell was broken as soon as our guide pointed to the soffit above her head where a painted mural of Prince’s eyes superimposed over clouds stared through the glass double doors into the parking lot. Between those seductive brown eyes (softened to make us feel we were being made love to), the Love Symbol burst forth in golden afterglow from his third eye. “That was painted to remind people that Prince is always watching,” she said with zero enthusiasm. Even now? I wondered. I knew, as she faced us, that the wall to her left hadn’t always been there, covered in diamond, platinum, and gold records—not all of it anyway. The elephant in the lobby nobody addressed was that behind that wall was the elevator where Prince died April 21, 2016.
Whether or not his personal living space was less flimsy than the professional areas where the staff kept the star-maker machinery running remains something for the imagination. No tours, not even the VIP one, go there. The ground floor we toured—with the exception of his recording studio and sound stage—had all the solidity of a stage set, with dropped ceilings and hollow-core doors. Because the enigmatic occupant reveled in the mystery he created, windowless walls covered the street-facing facades, so nobody would see him walking around naked, or eating a sandwich, or doing whatever an ordinary guy does when nobody’s looking.
Pyramid skylights provide most of the natural light for a 55,000 square foot building. That leaves a lot of dark, artificially lit space, and in winter the skylights would collect snow and make a cold space colder. Maybe he had bedroom windows facing the trees, but his living quarters—the intriguing stuff that proves he’s regular guy, flesh and blood—were off limits.
Everybody knows he reached the outer limits of prolific, but did he keep a teddy bear from childhood? Did he ever get a skid mark? Where did he apply his makeup and what products did he use? How big and what shape is the bed where the magic happened? Did he have a claw-foot tub, or was he more modern? Clearly, Paisley Park’s offices haven’t been updated since the mid ’80s, but maybe he had an exquisite private suite with wainscoting and art. I know what outfits he wore in videos, but his everyday wear was probably just as interesting. I’d love to see a picture of Prince in jeans! All I wanted was the stuff I couldn’t get from a VH1 retrospective.
On the way to Prince’s house, I pondered his contribution to my dirty mind. Not a little of what I know about human sexuality is rooted in his lyrics and his music. In the car, I listened to “When U Were Mine” (“You let all my friends come over and meet / And you were so strange / You didn't have the decency to change the sheets”) and “Erotic City” (“We can fuck until the dawn / Making love til cherry’s gone… Fuck so pretty, u and me”). (Vulgarity aside, he wasn’t hurting anybody. He even respected Sheila E’s decision to say “funk” under his “fuck” in Erotic City, sparking the decades-long debate around which word is used in the song. The answer: both.) And the one that Tipper Gore made famous, “Darling Nikki” which, with its misplaced modifier, keeps me wondering just who is masturbating with the magazine, although I like to think it’s Nikki straight-up doing that in a hotel lobby.
And there’s music! The unmistakable heart-rhythm drum beat intro to “When Doves Cry.” That beautifully simple church-organ one-note drone under Prince’s preaching before the drums kick into “Let’s Go Crazy.” The beginning of “Kiss” sounds like what happens right before a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. It’s all sex and it’s always good. Only Prince could have made all these songs up and it's what we loved about him.
That’s the Prince I wanted to know, and I’m not even a super fan. I didn’t wear purple to Paisley Park. But I did expect this tour to be orgasmic.
We walked upon white marble inlaid with a black Love Symbol. Down every hall we strolled, in every room we visited, Prince iconography presided on every conceivable surface. There was no indication that anybody but Prince ever spent time there. No family photos, no group photos in front of tour buses. Nothing to show a life lived beyond a tightly controlled, highly stylized, and retouched existence. His image was everywhere. If his walls could talk, he’d be talking to himself.
Everything the guide told us about the enigmatic artist who lived in secret was underwhelming and mundane: “Residents often saw Prince riding his motorcycle around Chanhassen or at Walgreens.” The last sighting of Prince in the wild just before he died happened at Walgreens, so maybe a more uplifting Chanhassen sighting is in order? There had to have been more than two in 30-plus years. And because southern Minnesota is prairie-flat, and so is Paisley Park, naturally I thought a disco-paisley helipad made sense. No such luck. Prince didn’t cruise around in a helicopter. I asked. She shrugged. The only thing I could deduce was that Prince didn’t really go anywhere. Instead, he stayed home creating a fantasy-scape of songs that made us believe him to be otherworldly.
The disconnect between what Prince gave his public and the sanitized museum of relics affected me—and not in a good way. A spiral notebook with the lyrics to “Hot and Wet” in plump handwriting belonged elsewhere—I’m not sure where, but certainly not across the atrium from the Paisley Park miniature that holds his ashes. Those belonged somewhere else, too. The requisite moment of silence beneath them was as awkward for the group as it was for our guide.
With our heads bowed, our eyes darted around searching for magic. Instead we were shown a long skinny kitchen running the length of the wall behind our guide. ”Prince called it the little kitchen.” I call this the Dry Vagina Tour, I thought, as we all peered through the dark glass into what looked like the interior of a tour bus with one end for lounging in front of a TV and a central kitchenette with booths on the opposite end. I know he was human. I know I had a stretchy taffy idea of the man, but this place was scrubbed of soul. I didn’t expect to find out what was in the magazine rack next to his toilet, but I was starting to wonder if the estate handlers even knew Prince. We were told that he kept live doves, and from the first floor looking up we could see the cages where they were kept. But that was as close as we got. Still, I liked knowing that Prince had pets.
The day following Prince’s death, my friend sent me a photo of him captioned: “I think saying ‘It’s what Prince would have wanted ‘ is an acceptable pick up line for the rest of the year.” Naturally, I’d have gone straight to bed with the guy who said that to me. That line perfectly captured what the museum didn’t. Prince knew that if he wrote it, the girls would come, and out of the pretty ladies, he had created girl groups Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6, and overhauled Sheena Easton from awkward Swede to the face and smoking hot body endorsing Bally’s Fitness and singing about her vagina in “Sugar Walls.” Sinead O’Connor’s enormous success with “Nothing Compares 2U” put her on the map, and resonated with people in a way the The Family’s version of the same song didn’t. He rebaptized Tara Patrick as “Carmen Electra,” and off she went to Baywatch. Some of these partnerings were profoundly sincere: he reworked a prayer Martika wrote, added some things, and returned to her, “Love Thy Will Be Done”—one of the most beautiful spiritual collaborations I’ll never have the pleasure of hearing him sing in person. “I see all of your creations as one Perfect complex / No one less beautiful or more special than the next.” But he did perform it a few times, and to hear it would have made me cry.
The roster of ingenues connected to him is long. He was tongue in cheek, tongue in groove, and tongue everywhere else. Is this the museum Prince envisioned? Touring Paisley Park was like sitting inside all day watching YouTube when it’s gorgeous out.
I didn’t want a children 12 and under tour through vignettes of movie clips alongside corresponding props and outfits, or a purple piano with scuffs on top from his dancing shoes. For the grown ups, I imagined revelations via a Tunnel of Love. I wanted his life to bloom before us with insights and disclosures that didn’t really need to be taken to the grave. For example, share the identity of “She Knows,” the woman credited for the orgasm in the appropriately titled, “Orgasm,” the punctuating dirty song to a long and filthy career. Let Sheila E, members of The Revolution, and The New Power Generation speak candidly about recording and touring with him. Touch on his ideas of spirituality and the afterlife. Because for every profane Prince song, there is a sacred one, and sometimes both exist as a mobius strip of expressing and confessing to all that we are supposed to embrace and deny as humans.
The ride through Prince’s life begins with For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, and Controversy as indulgent, celebratory sex-and-release missives.
Flesh and spirit are often intertwined and seemingly from the same source. As a multi-instrumentalist, he could create whenever he wanted, which doesn’t lend itself to getting out much. To be a person who doesn’t need anybody in the creative and professional aspects of his life, it may be that he got very used to being alone and found people distracting, or found the urgency of lust to be inspiring but the long-haul commitment to be a drag. Whatever the case, he isolated and medicated himself. His lyrics seemed to touch on moments rather than forever, except when he sings about the hereafter, which is a lot from “7” to “1999.” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is Prince wanting a blowjob and ending with “I’m in love with God / He’s the only way / cuz you and I know we gotta die someday.” Eventually, his songs became almost entirely spiritual.
We did land in Studio A, but not for a taste of some of that unreleased material filling the vault we didn’t see, or any of the cool stuff he did with other people’s music, like Radiohead’s “Creep” or The Foo Fighters “Darling Nikki” cover alongside Prince’s retaliatory version of their “Best of You.” Whether that was an apology and homage or a fuck you rests with Prince.
Studio A could be the tour’s crescendo. After all, the overarching purpose at Paisley Park was recording music, and most people have never been inside a recording studio. A quick lesson in acoustics, sound absorption, and isolation booths makes sense when standing in the the most intimate and meaningful space the tour visited. Here is where the real magic happened: his console and multitrack recorders, the stuff he touched and used to create the world he wanted us to experience.
Instead, a clip of an interview recorded in the studio for a television show was shown on a large screen, almost to prove he had been there. The tour was for people wanting to see, not hear.
“Prince sang sitting down,” our guide said almost as an aside. I stood blinking, waiting for her to explain that he didn’t need to stand. He used nuance far more than projection. He sang quietly, often speaking. His vocals were raised in the mix. But this woman didn’t know even the basics. If nothing else, explain to people touring a studio how a studio works. Hearing an isolated vocal track would be really cool, so we can hear how quietly he sang, rather than be told.
Paisley Park should remain a functioning studio. Artists lounging between takes on the couches in the atrium and watching TV in little kitchen is a far better use for that space than the mausoleum it has become. The purple thrones and powder blue Bentley should be removed from the sound stage used in Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, Grumpy Old Men, and Graffiti Bridge. It should be a space for filmmakers to work.
Prince lay dead six hours before he was found in the elevators near the entrance of Paisley Park. The man had OD’d on a plane days before. After an emergency landing, he survived and left the hospital against his physicians’ advice. Nobody thought to stay with him? Maybe Prince didn’t want company during his rock bottom. Maybe he sequestered himself in Paisley Park. Certainly, something so common as opioid addiction would embarrass an enigma, but pop stars and heroin are bedfellows.
Perfectionists are always spun out in some area of their lives. He had a lot, but not everything, and he wasn’t spared tragedy—Prince married twice and had a son who died shortly after birth. He wanted what most people want—a family. That’s a void his handlers couldn’t fill. But surely there were employees with access who could have checked on him after the sequence of harrowing days leading up to his death? No, the Californian who had come to consult with him about treatment—a virtual stranger—found him.
All we know is that the man encouraging us to have as much fun as we can before we die wasn’t living that lesson. Despite the posthumous reverence paid to him through his artifacts, nobody was by his side after a close call, and it killed him. Even if it meant a smaller posthumous vault of music, life is better lived in love.
My phone was indeed unlocked in the “gift shop,” which was lodged in one of those pop-up wedding reception tents in the parking lot. I didn’t linger to browse deeply because the merchandise was the usual fare—racks holding key chains, more racks holding T shirts—nothing to catch my eye, like a Prince snow globe or a wind-up tiny dancer in a music box. I was reduced to being philosophical: The music had brought me to Paisley Park, and the music would bear me away. There was nothing else.