But, in a sense, Prince did not die in Minnesota at all. Paisley Park was a magical, mysterious, magisterial land of his own creation — a land of strewn flower petals, stuffed rabbits and oversized furniture meant to indulge one man’s every artistic urge. Other studios — Abbey Road, Muscle Shoals, Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark — are known for their signature sounds and the artists who recorded at them. Paisley Park sounded as good as any, but in newspaper accounts, magazine profiles and tall tales, was known as the place where Prince could be Prince.
And Prince was very committed to being Prince.
He conceived of the idea of Paisley Park in 1983 while making “Purple Rain.” In 1987, the $10 million, 65,000 square foot campus — apparently named after the Prince song “Paisley Park” that includes the lyrics “Come 2 the park/And play with us/There aren’t any rules/In Paisley Park” — got its certificate of occupancy. On paper, it didn’t sound totally crazy: two recording studios, a soundstage, a rehearsal room, offices, tenant space, an underground parking garage and an outdoor basketball court, as the Chicago Tribune explained.
“He built it as a production tool for himself and as a tool for the whole city and the whole area,” Richard Henriksen, the studio’s general manager, told the Tribune. “He wants it to be a catalyst for artists and production.” It was not a “personal playroom,” as the Tribune put it.
But … well, it sort of was. Descriptions of Paisley Park that emerged in the following years were unforgettable for anyone impressed by their office’s new copier.
“The room is a neo-psychedelic boudoir,” USA Today wrote of Prince’s office in 1991. “A peace sign is embedded in the door’s stained-glass panel, and a giant heart-shaped mirror hangs over a bed crowded with pillows. Another bed and a plush divan occupy distant corners. Harlequins and a stuffed rabbit are propped on shelves alongside videos and CDs.”
Or consider this description from Time in 1996: “The walls are ringed by zodiac signs, dotted by paintings of puffy clouds and gilded with the Artist’s gold records. High up on one wall is an illustration of two huge eyes – guess whose? – with a godlike sunburst beaming out from between them. … And when the Artist is on the premises, a glass pyramid that crowns the complex glows with a purplish light.”
Then there was the vault.
“At last count, the vault held 385 unreleased finished recordings,” according to USA Today in 1991. “The locked safe is tucked in a trophy room crammed with awards, gold records, Grammys and his ‘Purple Rain’ Oscar, which bears a warning label: ‘Do Not Touch.’ Scarves are draped from the ceiling. The floor is strewn with flower petals.”
“It was like all these people in there just kinda left over from the set of ‘Purple Rain,’” he said.
Paisley Park’s Alice in Wonderland quality didn’t make it immune from the pressures of the industry. The “production tool” closed to outside business from 1996 to 2004 amid reports of money problems. But, unlike Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, Paisley Park wasn’t really closed — there were parties, a political fundraiser, and guided tours for cash.
“I … wasn’t sure if I should shell out the $70 for the VIP tour or just pay $15 for the regular tour,” one visitor said in 2000, one of the times Prince charged for admission. Customers got to see the motorcycle from “Purple Rain,” purple and gold versions of the “symbol” guitar, and the garage where the video for “Sexy MF” was filmed.
But before and after its “closure,” artists besides Prince worked at Paisley Park, too. R.E.M., George Benson, Barry Manilow, the Bee Gees and Steve Miller were among those who booked time, and Hormel’s Chili filmed a commercial there as well. Prince-produced artist Judith Hill offered a rare look inside just last year — phones are not reportedly allowed at Paisley Park. Check out the final minute for a glimpse of the Purple One.
Paisley Park was even in the City Pages, which deemed it “best place to take out-of-town guests” in 2002.
“It’s no architectural wonder — a white, boxy building lit purple at night,” the description read. “But for a nominal donation, you can enter a warehouse-size studio room illuminated for dancing and fortified with a soda bar and couches. These sometimes-crowded alcohol-free events are usually announced online … and they often occur as an after-party for concerts by visiting Prince fans, such as Alicia Keys. Sometimes Prince won’t show up, and sometimes he merely DJs, cutting his own music with whatever hip hop or R&B obsesses him. But if you’re lucky, he’ll quit resisting the urge to show off, perhaps bringing legendary bassist pal Larry Graham onstage, too. With band in tow, he’ll launch an all-out live jam starting well after midnight and peaking sometime after 3:00 a.m.”
After his death, Star Tribune reporter Sharyn Jackson shared a detailed account of a Prince solo performance she saw at Paisley Park just days ago.
“Prince said to meet him in the big room,” she wrote. “We followed, funnelled through a door with a sign that said something like ‘enter at your own risk.’ The crowd was small enough that we still got right up to the stage on the far side. When we got there, Prince was at his lavender Yamaha and he played. He played ‘Chopsticks.’ The most beautiful Chopsticks, though, that anyone has ever played. It was classical, and flourishy.”
Some rumors about Paisley Park can’t survive the fact checker. Long ago, I was told that Prince had excavated an underground cave at the complex to indulge his love of natural reverb. For years, when the subject of Paisley Park came up, I mentioned this alleged cave — other people had heard of it too. I think it was even said that the cave was purple. This alleged purple cave symbolized the genius of Prince, a man committed enough to his artistic vision to bring in a backhoe. Now, searching for one reference to this cave in any publication, I come up empty.
The truth of Paisley Park — artist builds a world of his own to indulge any creative whim — was incredibly cool. But the myths are even cooler.