Visiting Paisley Park Without Prince Is As Weird As You Think It Would Be

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The first thing you notice when you walk into Paisley Park is that you are being watched — by purple-shirted tour guides, by black-suited security people, and finally by a large pair of eyes planted on a wall facing the lobby entrance. The eyes, like the facility, once belonged to Prince, the pop genius who passed away on April 21. Exactly six months and one week after his death, I left my home in Minnesota and drove 30 minutes to the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, where Prince’s iconic recording studio and occasional residence is situated. For those willing to pay $38.50 (for a standard tour) or $100 (for the VIP experience), a physical manifestation of Prince’s imagination is available for a few hours. The man might be gone, but you can stare at the vast infrastructure he left behind.

“Prince sees everything,” says Niccole, my tour guide, who will be guiding me and eight other VIP Prince fans from Los Angeles, Seattle, and Fargo through various sections of the 65,000-square foot complex. Prince opened Paisley Park in 1988 as a business headquarters, a home base, a creative playground, and, now, a shrine to all things Prince. During our tour, we will see Prince’s private study; his pet doves, Divinity and Majesty; the kitchen where Prince ate pancakes and watched Timberwolves games; the ping-pong table on which Prince may or may not have embarrassed Michael Jackson during his Under a Cherry Moon period; and the remains of Prince himself, now resting inside a small purple box encased in a model of the Paisley Park building.

What we won’t see are any of the rooms on the second floor, the private areas where Prince presumably lived, slept, and made love. And we definitely won’t gain entrance to the elevator in which Prince was found slumped over without a pulse that fateful April morning. A display for 2004’s Musicology tour now covers the elevator door.

It’s not known exactly how often Prince actually lived here — he owned more than a dozen different properties near Paisley Park, and also was known to have places in Los Angeles and Toronto. What’s clear is that Prince worked here, hosted concerts, threw parties, and then died in this place. Weirdly, you can still feel Prince’s presence. Inside Paisley Park, Prince remains in charge, a benevolent ghost haunting the Grammy-lined corridors.

I signed up to visit Paisley Park last Friday — you have to make an appointment in advance via Paisley Park’s website — the first day it resumed tours after community concerns over traffic and safety issues put a temporary hold on the building’s business permit. Chanhassen is one of the area’s tony suburbs, the kind of place where even the neighborhood Goodwill store is housed inside “classy” red brick, in the manner of all well-off midwestern communities.

When I arrived, pulling into the parking lot right off of Highway 5, I felt a twinge of cynicism. I had read about Paisley Park’s drab, all-white, oppressively rigid exterior — Forbes aptly described it having the charm of “an Amazon warehouse” — but it was still strange to ponder that Prince conjured wondrous musical universes imbued with the magical power of sex and God just down the road from a mundane swath of Target and OfficeMax stores. Prince was an extraordinary figure, and yet he chose, like Superman, to live in the most ordinary of environs.

Inside Paisley Park, of course, it’s much funkier. While the outside walls are strictly Chanhassen-friendly norm-core, the inside walls resemble the sky-blue cover of Around the World In A Day, covered with symbols, gold and platinum records, and dozens of photos of Prince’s different guises.

In the final years his life, Prince routinely hosted impromptu concerts in Paisley Park’s hangar-like performance space. But the rest of Paisley Park has remained a mystery. “It’s a strange place, even to visit,” GQ‘s Chris Heath wrote in 1991. “It’s not anything physical… It’s something more intangible, and you see it in the faces of the people who work there. They’re like students taking a long, perplexing exam, trying to work out what the question means before they can start writing. And the question is this: What does Prince want?”

You still sense that strangeness. “What does Prince want?” is the central question for those that now run Paisley Park, as well as those who visit it. Inside every room, people ask, “Is this how it was… you know … before?” That Paisley Park has already been transformed into a museum with the requisite overpriced gift shop might strike some as unseemly, but the whole enterprise is predicated on being the way that Prince would have wanted it. Prince had warmed to semi-regularly admitting outsiders into Paisley Park, and his confidants claim that he always intended to turn the facility into a kind of Prince Hall of Fame.

In a way, it could be argued that opening up Paisley Park has kept Prince alive — in death as in life, he is a man who demands unquestioning obedience from his staff. That power is detectable as soon as you walk in the door.

Early on, our tour entered a dimly lit editing room to watch brief clips of unreleased concert footage. Posters for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird hung on the walls. Behind the editing console sat Sean Johnson, whose father, Kirk Johnson, was a key member of Prince’s inner circle tasked with various duties, including the management of Paisley Park. Johnson was with Prince on April 15 when his private plane made an emergency landing en route from two concerts in Atlanta; Johnson was the one who informed the media that Prince had suffered from “bad hydration,” though investigators believe that Prince actually overdosed on opioids.

Sean was on hand to answer questions, though he seemed reluctant to divulge even vague platitudes about his former boss. A dark purple couch stood between us and him; Niccole informed us that we were not allowed to sit on the couch. When I ask Sean what it was like to work for Prince, he pauses, as if figuring out what to say. Someone volunteers that Prince was “difficult.” “No,” Sean says. “Exacting. Who isn’t difficult? Everybody is difficult.”

Some aspects of Paisley Park had to be altered before it could open to the public. The albums on the walls were put behind plexiglass and the candles flickering in nearly every room were replaced with LEDs. A large room devoted to Purple Rain — outfitted with Prince’s purple motorcycle, stage clothes, and Oscar for best original score — was conceived and at least partly installed by Prince, but not finalized until after his death. (There are also much smaller adjoining rooms for Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge.)

Other rooms appear to have been re-arranged to suit Paisley Park’s present status as a tourist attraction. For instance, in cavernous Studio A, where Prince recorded albums like 1988’s Lovesexy and 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls, you can peer past the control room glass at Prince’s Linn-1 drum machine, a vital contributor to the sound of so many of Prince’s ’80s hits.

Otherwise, the same multi-colored tapestries that Prince picked out hang on the studio walls, only now they are freighted with significance.

“What do the tapestries mean?” a fellow tourist asks Niccole. “Perhaps they help with the sound?” Niccole guesses. Niccole confessed that there were many things about Prince that she did not know, squaring with early complaints that the tour guides aren’t exactly experts as advertised. Niccole read her factoids about Prince off of well-worn index cards, though she didn’t seem confident about their veracity. (Earlier, she explained that the significance of the name Paisley Park, “we think, is that a paisley takes many forms,” the inflection in her voice suggesting a question mark at the end of that statement.) Prince, a notoriously private man who carefully curated his public image for nearly 40 years, is a person about whom much is still unknown, even among close associates. I wonder how many fascinating facts about Prince will never end up on an index card.

For the most part, care has been taken to preserve Paisley Park the way it was on April 20, the day before he died. In Prince’s office, adjacent to the atrium, there is a stack of books near a board table devoted to religion and ancient Egypt: The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Secret Teachings Of All Ages, Pharaohs Of The Sun. While a pile of LPs topped with Cookin’ by the Miles Davis Quintet seemed staged, the CD tower behind his desk did not. I can buy that Prince — notoriously averse to streaming — was a 57-year-old guy who preferred CDs for his work-day jams.

Prince’s distaste for 21st century technology is also reflected by Paisley Park’s no cellphone policy, which was law when he was alive and remains the case now. In Prince’s time, restricting access to screens no doubt supported his efforts to make Paisley Park its own island removed from the banalities of the outside world. (You also won’t find any clocks inside Paisley Park.) Without your phone, it’s that much tougher to remember what life is like beyond the confines of Prince’s head.

Now that Paisley Park is a museum, I suspect that taking your cellphone also provides added incentive to pony up another $10 for a “unique and exclusive photo opportunity” in Studio B reserved for VIP guests. (No photos or videos are allowed otherwise.) It worked on me, anyway. I lined up to have my photo taken while the other guests played ping-pong on Prince’s table.

This is one of two photographs of me at Paisley Park. I’m the guy with the beard standing next to an enormous painting of Prince, in front of one of his purple pianos.

The end of the tour wrapped with a swing through the enormous 12,500-square foot performance area, outfitted with five stages commemorating five different Prince tours. Guests were then lead into the NPG Music Club, a nightclub that doesn’t serve liquor in accordance with Prince’s faith as a Jehovah’s Witness, where Prince had entertained Madonna while on tour not long before he died.

VIPs were given a few moments to sit in one of the booths before heading into a room devoted to Prince’s 2007 Super Bowl halftime show and a display of totems left behind by Prince fans on Paisley Park’s outer fence. The staff apparently collected all of the items, though only a small fraction could be displayed. Many of the notes are influenced by scripture, which is understandable. Why a Prince fan left behind a sad clown painting, however, will forever remain a riddle.

Niccole urged us to come back — there are plans to add more attractions to Paisley Park. (Apparently, Prince’s collection of cars might soon become part of an exhibit.) For now, it was nice to just sit in a booth and contemplate the space that Prince once contemplated. As my eyes trace over a nearby wall, I suddenly freeze — staring back at me is none other than Prince, peeking out from behind a curtain. Years ago, Prince had himself painted into the wall so guests would know he was always watching, even now.

Steven Hyden is Uproxx’s Cultural Critic and the author of Your Favorite Band is Killing Me and an upcoming book on the rise and fall of classic rock. Say hello to him on Twitter.