Prince at Paisley Park
What’s it like to see the Purple One on his home turf? A first-timer finds out.
I have to be honest, waiting in line for a sliver of a chance to be let inside Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen was not my notion of an ideal Saturday night. I know that’s heresy in this town, but consider: it had been raining on and off all day, making for a damp cold that seeped up through my shoes. Besides, as someone who’d never seen the man in concert, I had no idea what to expect, or even whether the night would end in a mere Prince sighting. All that was promised was a trial performance of Prince’s new band, 3rdeyegirl. And yet sheer curiosity—the prospect of being let inside the windowless compound the purple maestro calls a recording studio—won out over better judgment.
Just after 7 p.m. I took my place in line.
I realized immediately that I’d joined a curious lot. There was the guy standing in line just ahead of me, a middle-aged man wearing sneakers, Lee jeans, and a half a dozen small hoops on either ear. “I went to high school with Prince,” he wasted no time in telling me, as he took out the first of many hand-rolled cigarettes of the night. I nodded appreciatively, though he didn’t seem to notice. “He was real shy though, Prince.”
Ahead of him was a gangly hipster with Moby glasses and shiny Air Force Ones that clashed with his shearling collar jacket. “Has anyone ever been inside?” he asked, “Anyone?” We all shook our heads. Somewhere behind us, a group of young girls in skirts and tights sang a sloppy version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,” but the queue was mostly made up of couples who grew up when Prince was still on the radio, wearing fleeces and tees and sparkly tops, though there were a few colored blazers and top hats for good measure.
Even for those reared in the ’70s and ’80s, though, the process must have been an adjustment. Paisley Park strictly prohibits cell phones, so no one’s face was lit up with that familiar blue light, scrolling through Twitter feeds or taking pictures. The whole scene felt of another era, people shouting in search of friends to join in line instead of sending texts. You had to own an actual watch to see how slowly time was passing.
Finally, just after 9 p.m., movement. We snaked around a corner, only to wait again. Bouncers clad in mock-turtleneck sweaters, broad shouldered jackets and ballooning pants motioned to stop and go, though we needed little direction. Reverent and bewildered, we shuffled like cattle from one holding area to another, first outside the gates, then inside the parking lot (the parking lot of Paisley Park!) Then, suddenly, I found myself gazing up at a lilac-tinted entrance. It was time to enter.
I tried to stay calm as I passed through the door onto the black marble floor, making my way toward a woman taking money (cash only, of course) for tickets. Just beyond her was the motorcycle from Purple Rain, which I managed to touch with both hands before anyone could tell me not to.
The entry room that served as foyer wasn’t particularly impressive— or even noticeably purple. There were laminated signs reinforcing the cell phone ban, a card table piled with merch from 3rdeyegirl, and an oddly shaped mirror above a plush bench. It was clean and sterile, like a pop icon’s Disneyland.
By 10 p.m. 3rdeyegirl was going strong, on the stage of the studio’s massive faux-hall, created for impromptu concerts just like this one. It was clear the band’s set-up still had kinks to work out, but that didn’t take away from the palpable talent on display. (If you’ve ever wondered why you’d give a trombone player a solo in a rock concert, it’s because the trombone player could carry it off.) There was a short interlude, followed by a young girl’s rendition of Etta James’ “At Last.”
And then, out of nowhere, Prince appeared.
He was clad in a turtleneck tunic and a vest, with a tidy Jimi Hendrix afro and a smile. As he launched into “1999,” I found myself, well, beside myself. Prince was telling me to party like it’s 1999. In Paisley Park. I belted lyrics I didn’t even know I’d memorized.
I wasn’t the only one who’d lost my mind. With no cell phones to preoccupy us—to tempt us into trying to document the process—we simply gave in to the moment. It was Prince’s world, and we were living by Prince’s rules. Anything, anyone who wasn’t there could wait tlil tomorrow. I swear I saw one guy in front of me thrust his cane into the air.
“Ain’t you tired of tryin’ to please people all the time?” Prince asked. Clearly he was. So much so that he’d made all these anachronistic ultimatums as the price of entry to Paisley Park; the only ones who made it through were those ready to accept whatever conditions he was laying down.
One of the reasons for this concert was for Prince to reintroduce his veteran backup band, The New Power Generation, to fans. They proved to be impeccable. Songs tumbled out one after another. There were covers, new jams, classics. And we still wanted more. And between the tightly choreographed song transitions and audience interaction, it was clear that Prince was still the consummate performer, acutely aware of the audience experience. And that, even at 55, he could still move.
The fog kept rolling in until it blurred the ceiling, which is when the lights went violet and he launched into “Purple Rain.”
“This is your song, Minneapolis!” he said.
That’s when the guy behind me screamed exactly what I was thinking: “I’m listening to Prince sing ‘Purple Rain!’” and it couldn’t possibly get better than that.