When the sun rose on May 4, Prince’s star outside First Avenue had changed colors. The day before, it had been white like all the other stars on the building. Now it was gold. The color change appeared to be the club’s way of further immortalizing an immortal. The only problem? First Ave. didn’t do it—nor did it know who did. This is the untold odyssey of the hero-fan who pulled off a stunt 30 years in the making.
Photos by Joe Treleven
Peyton Russel and Gold First Ave Star
Peyton Russell is standing alone in an empty room at Paisley Park waiting for Prince to call.
The 26-year-old graffiti artist has been pulled off what he was working on and summoned to this room. His only instruction is to answer the lone phone when it rings.
It’s January 1996 and Paisley’s readying for Prince’s Valentine’s Day wedding to dancer Mayte Garcia. A day earlier they’d enlisted Russell, a scenic artist at the compound, to create a large stained glass–style heart on the building’s front window using 8-by-10-foot sheets of red Mylar. Over the course of six hours, Russell cut the Mylar into odd-shaped bricks and covered the majority of the window with a mosaic heart he was proud of. He was up on a ladder finishing when he realized Prince was standing behind him. Russell climbed down and asked him what he thought. Prince looked at him, said nothing, and walked away. Another man entered.
“We’ve got a problem,” he said.
“Oh no,” Russell groaned.
“Prince said the heart looks like it’s broken.”
Russell could see it. All those little bricks of Mylar—it did look broken.
Now, a day later, alone in the room deep inside Paisley, Russell waits for his marching orders. As he considers the absurdity of taking a call from Prince within Prince’s own home, the musician walks in.
“How’re you doing?” Russell says to the man he’s been alone with on several occasions but who has never said a word directly to him. Prince barely registers the pleasantry. The phone rings. And rings. Russell looks at Prince. He’s been told to answer, but now the man who was supposed to be calling is standing right next to him. After several rings, Prince looks at Russell and then nods at the phone. Russell answers.
“So, OK, we gotta fix the heart.” It’s the man from the day before only now he’s in Houston for some reason.
“How do I do that?” asks Russell.
“Hang up the phone. I’ll call you back.”
As soon as Russell’s phone hits the cradle, another phone rings. From out of nowhere Prince produces a gold phone, cord and all, and answers it. After some whispering, Prince hangs up. Russell’s phone rings again.
“Tomorrow you’re getting more Mylar,” says the handler in Houston. “Fill in the cracks, take it down, try a different design. Just don’t make it look broken.”
“OK, what about the blue?” asks Russell. “Do you like the blue? Because I have lots of blue Mylar around the red.”
“Hold on a sec.”
Prince’s phone rings again, an inaudible conversation is had, then Russell’s rings.
“Yes, we like the blue,” the man says and then pauses. “But could you add some purple?”
Photo by Joe Treleven
Peyton Scott Russell grew up in north Minneapolis in the 1980s. Despite walking the same streets Prince had walked a generation earlier, Russell wasn’t yet a fan, preferring hip-hop to the neighborhood hero. It took moving to Chicago for art school for Russell to truly understand his fellow northsider.
All the Art Institute of Chicago kids loved Prince, and they opened Russell’s eyes. It was 1988, Lovesexy was out, and the mystique of the Minneapolis kid touring the world in a jacket that said MINNEAPOLIS on one sleeve and SOUND on the other captured Russell’s imagination. To Russell, Prince was a wizard and his songs were sparks.
By the early ’90s, the art student was hooked, making trips back to Minneapolis to be closer to what was becoming the center of his universe. Prince’s Warehouse District rock club Glam Slam was the scene, Paisley Park its after-party. Russell wanted in. “Hey, what’s going on here? Paisley Park is open, can I get in there?” Not yet.
He made fast friends with anyone who knew anyone in Prince’s universe. His mix of affability, doggedness, and talent floated him above the Glam Slam jetsam. He met the club’s art curator and showed him his work, mainly graffiti and printmaking at the time.
“Do you want a show?”
“At Glam Slam? Are you serious?”
Russell’s foot was in the door. Now, to walk through it.
It’s 1993, Glam Slam is at its cultural zenith, and there’s Prince superfan Peyton Russell hanging 15 screenprinted pieces on its walls. The centerpiece, the one Russell created with the specific purpose of catching his idol’s eye, is a 40-by-60-inch print of a 1977 Robert Whitman shot of a cherubic teenage Prince.
Russell’s finishing when Prince walks in. Calmly, and with no acknowledgement of the artist, he sizes up the show, stopping at the homage to him. He looks at it for a long time. Doesn’t flinch. Doesn’t react. Just stares. Then, he leaves.
“What was that?” Russell wonders. The manager walks in.
“We’ve been ordered to take this one down,” he says.
“What, are you serious? The Afro print?”
“He’s not really into that right now. You know, it’s an older picture. So we’ve been ordered to take it down.”
As the show goes on, Prince begins to shadow Russell. When Russell sits down, Prince sits next to him. If Russell moves to a different seat, Prince moves to a different seat.
Time passes but Russell’s purple shadow persists until eventually he can’t take it anymore and makes a determined beeline directly toward him. Russell hands Prince a portfolio of photographs of all his artwork. Silently, Prince flips through the book. “This is it!” Russell thinks.
“What are you doing?!” A guard yells and puts Russell in a full nelson as Prince reels back in horror despite having just willingly looked at Russell’s offering.
“Hey man, I’m just trying to show him my work,” Russell says as he and his portfolio get kicked out.
Russell is determined to go deeper into Prince’s world, so he officially moves home from Chicago and returns to Glam Slam and Paisley night after night. As he becomes more regular on the scene, he befriends the likes of local club DJ Alan Freed and Paisley Park costume designer John Bevill, and that first show at Glam Slam gives way to more. Eventually, he becomes a resident artist at Glam Slam and sister club Rogue and starts going to movies with the Paisley crew at the Chanhassen movie theater (Prince’s treat). He even becomes friends with the members of Prince’s 1990s band The New Power Generation. He gets along especially well with keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, who, along with his bandmates, becomes a fixture at Russell’s 7,500-square-foot Minneapolis studio space, even performing there on occasion.
September 15, 1993 is a rare night away from the crew. Russell is working at his studio when he gets the call to get dressed. Thirty minutes later he’s in the front row of a Lenny Kravitz show at Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Later, he heads to Paisley for a Kravitz-led after-show. The crowd is small, just the innermost of inner Paisley circles. After 15 minutes Russell, and only Russell, gets frisked by a security guard.
“Just making sure you don’t have any cameras or recording devices,” says the guard.
“How many times have I been here?” says Russell. “What’s going on?”
The guard rolls his eyes. “I’m just doing as I’m told.”
As the night continues so do the friskings, which seem intent on reminding Russell that his place in the scene comes with a catch. It appears that Prince wants him around but on deliberately unequal footing. Prince’s world, after all, is built chiefly of two categories: women who love him and musicians whom he controls. Russell fits neither category—he’s fluent in an artistic language Prince can’t speak.
The guard approaches one last time and says, “We just gotta take you out the back and spend some time with you.”
“This is crazy,” says Russell.
Thanks to his studio landlord Kay Kropp, a scenic artist who does regular work at Paisley Park, Russell starts getting gigs at Paisley proper. And yet Prince continues to troll the young artist, who is regularly one of the last to get let through the doors at the Paisley parties, sometimes being left outside for hours. Prince, it seems, is letting Russell into his world just to keep him out of it.
It’s 1995 and The Gold Experience is the Prince record of the moment. Russell and Kropp are in the main atrium at Paisley working on a moss-covered dolphin sculpture in honor of the single “Dolphin” when a handler comes in and escorts them into a small room. Prince enters the room and whispers to the handler.
“Too much moss on the dolphin,” the handler says.
“OK. Where do you want the moss off?”
Prince and the handler talk quietly for a minute, and then the handler says, “Yeah, just take it off the head, off the fins, tone it down a bit, and we’ll take a look at it.”
At this point, such ludicrous games are common, with Russell playing the role of unwilling participant. One day, Russell can’t shake the feeling he’s being watched. He scans the Paisley atrium, sees nothing, and gets back to work. But the hairs on his neck are standing up, so he turns around again and looks closely. Then he sees them: the whites of Prince’s eyes.
“Shit! He’s staring at me through a plant,” Russell says to himself as he reticently nods toward the hiding superstar, who then glides away.
Later that year Russell is preparing for an art show of his own at his studio space. He calls it Brown Fizz of Consciousness, and he pulls out all the stops promoting it. The invitations consist of natty brochures and signed mini screenprints. Each member of the The New Power Generation gets one and accepts. Russell asks Barbarella if he thinks he should give an invite to Prince.
“Yeah, man,” says Barbarella. “Give him the invitation. So what?”
Russell walks upstairs to the outside of Prince’s inner sanctum. There’s a door there with a mailbox on it. He deposits the invite and leaves.
The show goes off without a hitch, but nobody from The New Power Generation shows. Afterward, while Russell is cleaning up, Barbarella walks in.
“Dude, thanks for showing!” mocks Russell.
“Man, I’m sorry,” says Barbarella.
“He called a rehearsal!”
“Yep, we were getting ready for your show and he called a rehearsal. I think he did it on purpose to stop us from coming here,” says Barbarella as he helps his friend clean. “And you know what we played for the last three hours? ‘Purple Rain.’”
By late 1997 Russell has seen it all. Prince’s grand joke on him is taking its toll, and Russell is less interested in being on the receiving end of it. By now Russell’s own art has taken center stage. Though he no longer works at Paisley, he still stops in on occasion.
One night, Russell and John Bevill show up for a Paisley party. They wait in the lobby as throngs of people are slowly invited in. The crowd dwindles until Russell and Bevill are alone. This time feels different, somehow less hopeful, than the lonely lobby moments that preceded it. And then, swift and unapologetic, the lobby lights turn off.
Photo courtesy of Peyton Russel
Peyton Russel painting Prince Star
After being shut out of Paisley, a wounded Russell turns his back on Prince. He stashes his Prince tapes, CDs, and bootlegs into storage and moves on. He goes all in on his arts organization, Juxtaposition, teaching art to kids, and, for a time, even competes internationally in kickboxing.
By the start of 2016, Russell’s Prince era is tidily buttoned up. He has a family, is still an artist and teacher, and doesn’t listen to or really even talk about Prince anymore. He’s lost touch with most of his Paisley friends, including Tommy Barbarella. Prince is so far gone for Russell that when he hears about Prince’s death on April 21, he feels nothing at first. But then he reflects on his time at Paisley. He digs out his cache of albums. As the day rolls on, the memories and emotions he’s been pushing into the darkness explode into the light.
His sadness turns to determination. He wants to make something for Prince, to rally all his graffiti artist friends for some grand gesture. Even though Russell, like countless others, had been a pawn in Prince’s strange psychological games, he wants to say goodbye to the musician—something he regrets not being able to do when Prince was alive. Nor was he able to say thanks for whatever it was that Prince gave him all those years ago.
On the night of the 21st, Russell makes his way down to First Ave. As he stands looking at the thousands of people, the flowers, the collective mourning, it hits him: the star. He will turn the Prince star gold. And he’ll do it secretly.
After a couple of weeks, the First Ave. crowds die down and Russell stakes out the star in the middle of the night, eventually determining that the ideal time to strike would be at about 3:30 am. He also settles on his means for elevating the star: 24-carat gold leaf.
He orders the gold leaf and assembles a crew of co-conspirators to be on the ready for a mission on the night of May 3. In the interest of secrecy, he tells only one of them—the man who’d taught him how to gold leaf—what the actual mission is.
Gold leafing is delicate business. It takes time. Russell first tapes off the star, then varnishes it with an adherent. Then he waits for it to dry just the right amount—too wet and it’ll take the luster off the gold, too dry and the gold leaf won’t stick.
A couple of people walk by. “Hey, what are you guys doing?”
“Oh, we’re putting clear coat on the star,” says Russell.
“Are you doing that to the other ones?” the passerby queries.
“Nope. Just this one.”
The people walk on.
It’s humid, so the varnish takes a while to cure, but when it finally does it happens quickly. Russell starts applying the gold leaf as fast as he can. He misses a couple of big spots and has to re-apply varnish. He waits again.
At 6 am, people start to materialize downtown. Russell finally finishes, and he and his team clean up and then vanish.
Photo courtesy of Peyton Russel
Gold Prince Star at First Ave
The next day Russell drives back to check his work. Soon after, word of the gold star pops up on social media. At first, people assume First Ave. is behind the act, but the club stays silent. Dan Corrigan, the club’s longtime photographer, tells 89.3 The Current that “somebody did a guerrilla paint job.” “Benevolent mystery vandal paints Prince’s First Ave. star gold,” screams a City Pages headline.
Months go by, and the star remains gold. Russell’s identity remains a mystery. And then, one day this fall, he decides it’s time to tell his story.
It turns out Prince didn’t always troll Russell.
Near the end of Russell’s Paisley era, when he’d already started teaching art to students via Juxtaposition, Prince sends a bus to pick up all of Russell’s students and take them to Paisley for a concert. They all get Prince jackets and a semi-private audience with the artist himself beforehand.
“OK, what do you guys wanna know?” Prince asks the students.
There are a few adults there, too, and they take over, asking their own questions—silly stuff about overplayed topics like Purple Rain.
“I just want to hear from the kids,” says Prince.
But the adults can’t help themselves and interrupt again.
Silently, Prince gets up and leaves.