I PULLED UP TO THE CURB OUTSIDE A NONDESCRIPT OFFICE building around 1:15 a.m., happy to have found parking within a quarter-mile of Paisley Park. Just in front of me a couple of young men slithered out of a rusty station wagon, one of them clutching a bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey. “Hey, hold up, we’ll walk with you!” called one of the flannel-bedecked dudes as I tried to hustle past. I’d hoped I could get by with just a friendly nod, but no such luck.
We were all in this lonely expanse of Chanhassen at such a ridiculous hour for the same reason: Prince’s freshly announced 2 a.m. “Pajama Party.” I hadn’t been able to make it out to his 9 p.m. show a couple of weeks earlier, and I certainly wasn’t going to miss the chance to see Prince play his home turf in the middle of the night for the relative pittance of $50. No matter how the show went, I figured, the story would be more than worth it. I’m not as hardcore a Prince fanatic as some folks in these parts, but I’m a big fan. I own all of the old classic albums and even most of the newer, less revered stuff. I keep up to date on all of his latest eccentricities and outrages. Even when Prince goes through periodic creative lulls, I take it as my duty to stay informed.
That didn’t seem to be the case for my traveling companions. As we hiked up the hill toward the Paisley Park complex, they grumbled about the Princely teetotaling that would prevent them from keeping their buzz rolling once inside. “I know he’s a Jehovah’s Witness, but what kind of musician doesn’t at least smoke weed?” wondered one guy. His buddy brought up the semi-infamous performance during the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s George Harrison memorial set, where Prince’s flamboyant guitar soloing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was interpreted by some as self-indulgent and disrespectful. “I mean, he played great, but you don’t have to be a dick. George Harrison wasn’t a dick!”
I held my tongue through all of this, but my instinct was to say, “Well yeah, but he’s Prince!” As if that were justification enough. I’m not alone – that seems to get him a pass for pretty much anything, especially here in Minnesota. But why is that? Why do Minnesotans grant Prince so much leeway? For that matter, why are we still fascinated with everything he does, especially when the last time most of America paid him any mind was the 2007 Super Bowl? Why were hundreds of pajama-clad people huddled outside his studio in 40-degree weather at two in the morning, eager to sacrifice 50 bucks and a night’s sleep to witness a vaguely defined event that wasn’t even guaranteed to include a Prince performance?
As it turned out, I had plenty of time to mull it over during the two-plus hour pause between Paisley Park’s doors opening and anyone actually appearing on stage.
Our fair state isn’t unique in loving the story of a hometown kid made good (or bad), but it often feels like we’re a little more enamored of that trope than some of our neighbors. It’s why no local review of a Josh Hartnett movie can exclude a mention of him being born in Saint Paul, why every new Coen Brothers project is a gala event, and why a Soul Asylum gig can still pack a house two decades after Grave Dancers Union. It even extends to people who only lived here briefly – witness the fervor with which City Pages covers the misdeeds of any former Twins or Vikings player. And considering the adoration we heap on the likes of Bob Dylan and F. Scott Fitzgerald, native sons who left the state and seldom, if ever looked back, it should come as no surprise that we’re even more enthusiastic about the artists who put down roots here. Garrison Keillor stayed. Louise Erdrich stayed. Slug and Brother Ali stayed.
And Prince stayed. I think that’s a big factor in why he continues to mean so much to the Minnesota arts community. Those of us who live here know full well what a great scene we have, and for the most part we truly appreciate it. But that pride is a tough thing to translate. No matter how many times you tell your East Coast friends that the Twin Cities have more theater seats per capita than anywhere outside of New York, or that the local music scene is so overstuffed with talent you wish you could be at a different club every night of the week, you’ll likely get little more than glazed eyes and a polite nod. But remind them that Prince lives here and you’re pretty likely to get an “OK, I’ll give you that one.”
Why were hundreds of pajama-clad people huddled outside Prince’s studio in 40-degree weather at two in the morning, eager to sacrifice 50 bucks and a night’s sleep to witness a vaguely defined event that might not even include a performance by the man himself?
Actually, you probably don’t even have to remind them. When I moved from Minneapolis to New Orleans after college, I quickly found that most Louisianans knew three things about Minnesota: it got cold as hell, the governor used to be a wrestler and Prince lived there. People would ask if I’d ever been to the club from Purple Rain, if I ever ran into Prince around town, if it was true that he liked to pop into little clubs and play sets unannounced. This was 2001, arguably the trough of Prince’s career, and still people from the other side of the country were fascinated by this weird little genius and his dedication to a state best known for being borderline uninhabitable five months out of the year. It was as if, by some curious transitive property, Prince’s history of excellence conveyed excellence on Minnesota in general, and even rubbed off on me in particular. (By way of contrast, plenty of people outside of Minnesota know Bob Dylan is from here, but in that case it’s considered more a point of trivia than an integral piece of his identity.)
Consider that Prince is pretty much the antithesis of the stereotypical Minnesotan. The traditional, Prairie Home Companion-approved caricature paints us as a bunch of taciturn, white-to-translucent Scandinavians passionlessly discussing ice-fishing conditions in goofy Fargo accents. (Full disclosure: I fulfill at least 75% of that stereotype.) That’s a pretty sharp contrast with an elfin, African-American rock god who sweats sex, exhales funk and poses nude for chart-topping album covers. For the Minnesotans who love him, Prince is that cool friend from high school we make sure to introduce to all of our newer friends as evidence that, see, we’re cool enough to meet with this guy’s approval! We who live and work here know our arts scene is actually populated with talented, creative people from every conceivable cultural background and walk of life. But, sadly, for many non-Minnesotans, all the Hmong photographers, Latino rappers, Somali playwrights and Native American novelists in the world make for a less impactful argument than, “Yeah, but Prince!”
I don’t know if I’ve come up with any real conclusion here. Do Minnesotan artists see Prince as an extension of ourselves? Is it just that we’re as dazzled by talent and celebrity as anybody else? Or maybe we just dig the exotic appeal of a megastar throwing impromptu public parties at his compound. Seriously, does Springsteen do this for the folks out in Jersey? Does Wayne Coyne invite the people of Oklahoma City over to chill in his backyard?
Whatever the case, it’s an undeniably cool relationship for a community to have with one of its most famous sons. And it was a good feeling to step through the doors of Paisley Park and know that, after nearly 40 years, Prince still cares enough to ask us all over to his place for the night (albeit at 50 bucks a head). And when he stepped out and served up an early morning of blistering guitar rock, he seemed to earnestly appreciate that all of us still cared enough to come out and see him at that ungodly hour (and pay him 50 bucks a head). Of course, his emergence on that stage didn’t happen until we’d all waited patiently on increasingly wobbly legs through a uninspiring two-hour DJ set and no less than five consecutive mixes of his sort-of-OK new single.
But hey, what are you gonna do? He’s Prince!
About the author: Ira Brooker is a writer and editor residing in Saint Paul’s scenic Midway neighborhood. He has been published in a number of venues both local and national, several of which you may have even heard of. He currently edits Minnesota Playlist, maintains an archive at irabrooker.com and occasionally prattles on about pop culture at A Talent For Idleness.