This morning just before 9 a.m., Joel Weinshanker stepped out of the front door of Paisley Park. Wearing a purple tunic and obviously both emotionally and physically exhausted, the facility’s manager welcomed the first fans to the museum that Prince’s home and studio has now become. Promised surprises, fans got a big one right away: the music icon’s earthly remains are now permanently enshrined in Paisley Park’s central atrium.
Prince’s ashes are enclosed in a little purple box that sits inside a model of Paisley Park itself. The installation underlines just how core the Chanhassen complex was to Prince’s life and work. In the wake of Prince’s death, as was the case during his life, there’s no way to come closer to Prince and his music than to visit Paisley Park.
That said, visiting Paisley Park today is obviously a very different experience than it was during Prince’s lifetime. What was once a mysterious wonderland full of flickering candles and bursting with extremely loud music is now experienced by fans as a series of rooms to be moved through in a (more or less) orderly manner, conducted by enthusiastic but callow guides.
Facing criticism for opening Paisley Park as a museum so soon after Prince’s death, the venue’s operators (a newly-formed company jointly run by Graceland and the Prince estate) have made much of the fact that Prince always envisioned the space as a museum where his fans would come to experience his art.
It’s true that the platinum albums were already hanging on the wall, the Purple Rain motorcycle was already on display, the Prince glyph was already everywhere, everything was already purple. Prince had envisioned, and partly installed, a series of rooms corresponding to his albums and movies. More fundamentally, Paisley Park was always — unlike Graceland, to which it’s often understandably compared — intended as a public space where Prince could welcome fans and fellow musicians for gigs and sessions.
Configuring the space for operation as a proper museum, though, wasn’t quite as simple as just opening the doors and charging admission. Artifacts had to be arranged — instruments, costumes, awards — and some new treatments were added to the walls. Essentially, though, Weinshanker and his team have preserved the space in a way that showcases its various functions. The big task that remains is for the museum to become much more informative regarding how Prince actually used the space. Right now, walking through Paisley Park means seeing a lot but not necessarily learning very much.
Fans who visited Paisley Park for any of the many parties and concerts Prince threw there in recent years may be surprised to find themselves entering through the actual front door — rather than through the side entrance that’s nearer to the performance spaces. Many fans will have never previously seen the high-ceilinged atrium that the tour heads straight into after ticket-buyers check in at a front desk.
There are two levels of tours: standard ($38.50) and VIP ($100). No tickets are currently for sale, however, since the operators are working with the City of Chanhassen to satisfy community concerns about traffic and safety. Today was one of just three days that the museum has been given a permit to open, and a meeting next Wednesday will mark the next step in a negotiation that Mayor Denny Laufenburger — who was on hand this morning to shake guests’ hands and assure them they’re welcome in Chanhassen — clearly hopes will be short.
The most obvious kink in the museum’s operation on day one was the escorting and timing of tours. Our 1 p.m. tour was greeted by an ebullient guide who read some basic facts from a set of notecards she’d marked in purple ink (built in 1986-87, 65K square feet, named because “Prince loved paislies”). Then, we were led back to the atrium: a dramatic space highlighted not only by Prince’s remains-within-a-studio-within-a-studio but by a mezzanine-level cage containing his two pet doves, Majesty and Divinity.
That mezzanine led to spaces that even VIPs didn’t get to see, but there’s still plenty to take in off the atrium — all of it completely new to me, as it surely will be to most fans. There’s a little kitchen where Prince would relax and watch basketball games (he was a fan of both the Timberwolves and the Lynx, who he invited to a Paisley party after their most recent championship). There’s a video editing room (on the VIP tour), where we watched a little footage from the Musicology tour. There’s a study where Prince worked; my colleague Andrea Swensson and I ran there first, anxious to see where he tweeted.
All of those rooms are full of everyday details that provide poignant insights into Prince’s life. Andrea noticed some framed art that also appeared on a shirt Prince wore. You can see some record albums from his personal collection, including Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet and Live Current Vol. 5. A framed copy of this year’s Minnesota African American Heritage Calendar features Prince on the page for June — a month he wouldn’t live to see.
There are also rooms containing artifacts related to each of several Prince albums (guitars, costumes, handwritten lyrics) for each of a few different Prince albums including Dirty Mind and Controversy. A room for Lovesexy is advertised as coming next year. The VIPs in our group were handed off to another staffer, who led us back into the video editing room and then into Studio A — the studio that Prince often used for his own personal recording.
As we sifted back into the studio, the new museum’s logistical challenges became increasingly clear. Groups intermingled, and it wasn’t always clear who was supposed to be where. Guides asked one another where to go, and the fact that Paisley Park hired for hospitality rather than for musical expertise became wincingly clear as we passed one guide — also reading from notes — telling his group about how Prince worked with greats such as “Shy-la” E.
Stepping into Studio A was certainly powerful. We peered through the window into the control room, where a microphone and keyboards were left right where Prince would have used them. A Linn LM-1 drum machine and a vintage synth were prominently displayed, and behind the console, a couple of Prince’s sisters were just hanging out.
Our guide (we’d been handed off to yet another) pointed out a drum set in an isolation room and a music stand holding lyrics to the unreleased song “Stay Cool,” and she played a couple of snippets from a jazz project Prince was working on at the time of his death — including one snippet that’s never been heard outside the walls of Paisley Park. It was a funky slow-jam instrumental, with sax solo.
At that point, however, she’d reached the limit of her knowledge. One visitor, clearly unfamiliar with recording studios, asked what the wood-lined room we were standing in — the live tracking room — was used for. The guide revealed that she also was unfamiliar with recording studios as she winced and admitted, “I don’t…actually know.” A follow-up question: what was the significance of a couple of cloths draped on the wall? “I’m guessing they have to do with the sound.”
Needless to say, the proprietors have a lot of work to do here. There’s the matter of staff education, and also the matter of the explanatory signage — which is relatively sparse and not particularly insightful. Doubtless this will all be improved, and features like audio tours can be added, but right now those aspects of the experience still feel pretty rough.
After Studio A, we were led into the Purple Rain room. A repurposed dance-rehearsal room (the mirrors are still on the walls), this space was prominently featured in video reports by The Today Show and Entertainment Tonight, so many fans knew what to expect there: the motorcycle (with license tabs from 1983), the Oscar (for Best Song Score, a category that no longer exists), an outfit, a script.
A First Avenue logo was stenciled on one wall, and excerpts from Purple Rain were playing on the other. When Apollonia’s giant smile flashed on the screen, I was reminded of the note she wrote after Prince’s death, revealing that he’d planned to invite her to see “the finished Purple Rain room.”
The next room was introduced to us as the “Under the Cherry Bridge” room. Whoops. The guide got a little knotted up explaining that the room was devoted to, on one side, Under the Cherry Moon, and on the other, Graffiti Bridge. Another motorcycle, more costumes, more instruments. The guide pointed out the wallpaper featured images from that era, including a picture of Prince with Lisa Barber — the fan who won an MTV giveaway to be Prince’s date for the premiere and to have it take place in her hometown of Sheridan, Wyoming.
As we walked out of that room, my colleague Leah Garaas remembered seeing it on a tour she’d taken a couple of years ago. “There was nothing in there,” she remembered, “except two guys sitting at desks, typing furiously on computers.”
Our next stop was Studio B — part of the VIP experience, and the one studio I’d seen before. Photographs of Prince with his 3RDEYEGIRL bandmates Donna Grantis, Hannah Ford Welton, and Ida Nielsen towered over the studio, which is now devoted to a ping-pong table and a photo op. It was here that things got really awkward, as VIPs queued up in a long line to pose with a piano and a guitar; photos were taken either on a house iPad (downloaded to a jump drive; bring your own, or buy one at the front desk) or on your own phone.
As the staffers struggled to AirDrop photos from the iPad to a laptop, we listened to a loop of songs recorded at one of Prince’s Piano and a Microphone shows in Sydney. The combination of hearing those intimate performances, seeing the photos of the Prince collaborators we knew best, and watching the unwieldy photo setup left me feeling…well, sad.
It only got worse when a guide encouraged the VIPs, sweating in the warm studio, to play ping-pong. “How many chances will you have to say you played at Prince’s own ping-pong table?” Finally a young child picked up a paddle, the one thing about the scene that I felt might have cheered Prince.
Finally, we reached the end of the line. If it hadn’t hit me before that Prince is really gone, it did then: I actually had a photo taken, on my own phone, inside Paisley Park.
Before we were ushered into the big auditorium, we walked through another room I’d never seen: a little room that opens out onto a patio space. A guide explained that the room had once been a video arcade. The room now contains items including a piano, a gnarled-log wooden chair, and a Lovesexy prop flower.
The auditorium was the first room where we actually heard loud music: Prince’s music, accompanying videos from several of his tours. Around the perimeter of the room, stage setups contained instruments and costumes from Prince’s various eras. There was the 1999/Purple Rain era, the NPG era, the Jam of the Year Tour, the 3RDEYEGIRL years, and the Piano and a Microphone shows from Prince’s final “Hit and Run” tour. There, on a small stage, stands Prince’s purple piano: right where he played it at what would prove to be his last Minnesota performances ever.
The NPG Music Club Room feels much like it did in recent years, when you’d loiter there while waiting for the big room’s doors to open. The stage contains some seating and turntables, and the couches with cocktail tables were right there where they were when I crowded into one of them with some colleagues while we waited to be summoned for a PLECTRUMELECTRUM listening session.
What formerly functioned as the front room has been relieved of its desk, which has been replaced by a section of fencing bearing paintings and other items left by fans after Prince’s death. (A virtual version of the fence is planned for Paisley Park’s Facebook page.) A facing wall features screens playing Prince’s virtuoso performance at the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show.
We exited where we used to enter, finding ourselves in a big tent erected in the parking lot. There, fans lined up for merch (shirts, mugs, posters, souvenir booklets) and for vegetarian food prepared by Ray and Juell Roberts, Prince’s personal chefs. Leaving that tent, satisfied fans clutching purple bags piled back on to buses, ready to be shuttled back to the mundane world outside of Paisley’s walls.
Prince is gone, and Paisley Park will never be the same. Still, it stands as a singular monument: the fantasy land he built in the quiet suburb of Chanhassen to house everything he needed under a single roof. There he could write, he could record, he could perform, and he could live. It’s there that his musical legacy lives — including his legendary vault of unreleased music — and it’s there he has now come to rest.
Paisley Park’s current proprietors have some significant issues to resolve, but there will be time for that — all the time in the world. Whether you love or hate what’s been done with Paisley, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a place like no other. The most important thing that remains to be done is to return performances and recording sessions to the building, so it can again be alive with music. Guides and galleries aside, making Paisley Park a place for new music again will truly be the most important tribute to the incomparable Prince.