Prince, Minneapolis, and a Public Wake: Finding the Man in the Stories of a City

Prince’s star near the entrance to First Avenue.

Kevin O’Meara

Last Thursday, at 10:07 a.m., Prince Rogers Nelson, beloved native son of Minneapolis and a global music icon, passed away from causes yet to be determined or made public. Seen from the air, every space in Minneapolis with the capacity to -- whether baseball field, skyscraper, Lutheran church or bar -- was lit purple in remembrance. Cars rolled slowly by the boldface places of Prince's youth through the weekend; the house he rehearsed at and grew up in on Russell St., his high school, where he played basketball. Walking down any given street, Prince's playful and immediately identifiable work snapped and winked from every corner bar and dashboard. Radio stations played him, or reported on him, twenty-four hours a day.

At Paisley Park on Saturday (Apr. 23), a line of cars half a mile long, each with a vastly different type of family inside, waited to park, all making their pilgrimage to the polygonal white compound, roof peppered with crystal blue pyramidal skylights, where Prince nested, recorded, partied, constructed and re-constructed himself after the building's ribbon cutting in September, 1987. That day, family and friends held a memorial inside, while less familiar mourners milled and stared at the portraits and handbills and posters and the hundreds, thousands of purple balloons tied to the compound's chainlink fence. They were greeted at the gate by Maurice Phillips, Prince's brother-in-law. Van Jones, former environmental advisor to President Obama, activist and professor, walked briskly inside and out. One visitor, Asasimone Edwards, told of Prince throwing a label showcase in the early '90s for young MCs in the city, another of the many instances of the artist's outreach that have come to light in the days following his death. Edwards, as RBR (Righteous But Ruthless), was selected to take part. Executives from the major labels looked on. He was wracked by nerves, and forgot his first verse.

A roadside memorial to Prince in suburban Minneapolis.

Anthropologically, Minneapolis isn't the first place you'd look to spawn a sensual icon and lightning rod for the disenfranchised. Growing up there, I remember mostly cold and beer. A head-down, hardworking and polite Midwestern culture and Scandinavian interpersonal politics commingle in the city in a way that's hard to define but easy to spot; it's the squirm of someone who feels they must answer a difficult question honestly but without offense. Genteel and timid, honest and modest, smart and self-questioning.

Regardless, everyone in the Twin Cities -- the joint name given to Minneapolis and sister city St. Paul -- has "a Prince story." They are more than happy to share, describing, in the region's staccato and Muppet-like "gosh" of an accent, their many bizarre, banal and always indelible encounters. A counter clerk for a rental car company recalled him coming through airport security in a golf cart, refusing to stand. Security was made to wand-check Prince as he sat, in all black and sunglasses in a futile attempt to be surreptitious, before inevitably waving him through.

The city he came from and remained dedicated to, and the people in it who loved him, are as defining a document of the man as we can reasonably expect to have.

The side door of 1244 Russell Avenue North, where Prince, Morris Day and Andre Cymone would practice as teenagers.

Miho, a sharp-eyed and earnest woman, in many ways has built her life around Prince. Born in Japan and raised in a suburb on the outskirts of Tokyo in the shadow of a mountain, She first heard Prince when she seven years old, when "Little Red Corvette" came on the upstairs radio in her house. Eight years later, in 1990, Prince's Nude tour came through Japan, and a family friend gave her tickets. "I didn't know who he was. I was 15 years old. The next day, I bought every single album, and I thought: I want to meet him." After two years of listening, she decided to move to America, to Minneapolis, to be nearer to him. "I didn't have anything... a dream... in Japan," she says, explaining her disinterest in the cubicle culture of her home country. From the age of 17 she worked "at Mr. Donuts and 7-Eleven type places" every day, saving money and researching how to obtain a visa so she could cross the ocean, undeterred by not knowing the exact difference between Minneapolis and Minnesota. 

Years later, 1996, Miho arrived. She cleverly assumed that a George Clinton show in the city implied an event at Prince's compound. She was right. She asked everyone she saw at the Clinton show -- and one person confirmed her hunch, so she traded him a ride there for access. Miho began to accrue friendships with the outer ring of Paisley Park's regulars, spending her Friday and Saturday nights in the university's computer lab, refreshing the web page of an early blog that infrequently announced Paisley parties.That year, she would attend the infamous Emancipation party, which Prince threw to celebrate being free of his recording contract with Warner Bros. "There was this aura around every single inch of Paisley Park... this different... air. It was him, that building." 

Brick of the basement fireplace in south Minneapolis, which hosted Prince for six months as he assembled The Revolution.

Persistence and a determination to follow the lean of her soul, Miho achieved every goal -- despite how unlikely they were, especially to a girl with "no dreams" from the outskirts of Tokyo -- she set for herself. From an obsessive fan, she came to be so proximal that she knew his smell. "Day by day, I've started realizing that... no more party at Paisley. I started realizing maybe it's real," she says, tears welling in her eyes.

Prince was a singular galaxial body, an amethyst meteor who crash landed in flyover country. Like Superman. Watching the world, in the wake of its shock and the gravitational imbalance his departure left behind, try to encapsulate and incorporate and honor his life has been strange, like thousands of priests reciting fervent eulogies in the wrong language in unison.

Aaron Meyerring, co-owner of record store Electric Fetus, the subject of Prince's final tweet -- and thus the recipient of endless interview requests following his death, from RTE to CNN, most asking "Why you?" -- is also in mourning. Prince had shopped at the store since the '80s, visited a week earlier, coming in through the back door, as usual, on Record Store Day, Electric Fetus' busiest the year. (Meyerring says he always did his best to respect Prince's famously guarded privacy -- though his purchases that day were reported by Fetus' retail music manager.) Prince had reached out -- indeed, every person who had business dealings with him seems to say that Prince initiated the conversation and relationship -- to Meyerring in early 2016  about a unique business deal that would have the Fetus being the exclusive outlet for records that Prince's label, NPG (New Power Generation, named after the band he formed in 1990), would release. "Prince always had a vision, and people didn't know it until they saw the final product. I think this was his next vision and plan," says Meyerring. One tweet from Prince and the store's website crashed. "It's hitting us hard -- not because of the loss of business -- but I personally met him, and I had the feeling that it was potentially the beginning of a great friendship. I feel like maybe I would've maybe, down the road, had that kind of story to tell," he says sadly.

Prince’s church.

On Sunday morning in front of First Avenue, the long-running venue where the 1984 film Purple Rain was filmed over the bulk of a brutally cold (reaching -29°F at one point) December weeks and where Prince would often surprise guests with a performance in his early years, a group of Irish bagpipers mournfully issued "Amazing Grace" in front of Prince's star, one of the dozens of artists painted in silver on the building's façade. Hours earlier, in the middle of the night, the club threw a dance party. The line extended in each direction from the venue's two doors, snaking around the block. No one waiting was unhappy or impatient; dancing and singing and laughing were the only constant

"You don't think everything you need to know about Prince hasn't already been stated?" That's Steve McClellan, the kind and cantankerous former general manger of First Avenue, who oversaw the club through both its and Prince's foundational years, before political and financial fractures in the club's management office precipitated, he asserts, his exit. (The night before, we met at the Schooner Tavern, a watering hole for sailors without a sea to return to that McClellan bartends at -- appropriately, a funk band with members who attended junior high with Prince played as we introduced ourselves.) McClellan says that the popular narrative of Prince and First Avenue's rosy and indelible connection is, in some respects, apocryphal. While the "mainstream media," which McClellan begrudges for its light fact-checking and maybe its ambulance chasing, makes concrete that sunny portrait, he says the relationship wasn't all roses. It wasn't even, supposedly, all that long-lived. There is speculation that a meeting between venue owner Allan Fingerhut and Prince, in which Fingerhut hoped to broaden their business relationship, ended with Prince deciding to open his own club instead -- which he did, just a few blocks north from First Avenue. He called it Glam Slam. Remember Righteous But Ruthless? McClellan booked many bands in the late '70s and early '80s that he says Minneapolis ignored -- Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé, jazz. "But Prince saw what was happening."

Pepe Willie at his home studio in Maple Grove, Minn.

​Pepe Willie, a Brooklyn-born music generalist who met Prince as a child of 12 through his then-girlfriend and eventual ex-wife, Prince's cousin Shauntel, has a holistic understanding of the boy that Prince was and the minx he became. Prince, at 15 years old and playing in his first band, Grand Central, belied his later business brilliance to his then-mentor, asking Pepe about the particulars of music publishing, the byzantine mechanism through which legacy artists can capture, or lose, a lot of money. He helped Prince establish his first publishing company, Ecnirp. (Prince would later refuse outright to grant labels he signed to his publishing rights -- one of many reasons his estate is estimated to be one of the world's most valuable.) Pepe ended up enlisting Prince in recording sessions for his own band, 94 East, named after the freeway corridor that connects Minneapolis to St. Paul. As we sat, Prince's former Grand Central bandmate Andre Cymone texted, echoing the shock that the world was feeling. Behind Pepe, as he told the story of Prince's evolution from a brilliant teenager to mercurial svengali, a television report displayed the world's tributes. "I can't believe that this dude is gone, man," Pepe says. "Saturday morning, I woke up bawling. I just can't believe it."

 The green room at Bunker’s, the downtown Minneapolis club that Prince would often visit.

Pepe says, after Prince's star had fully formed, he chose not to collaborate professionally. "I knew he was going to say something to me one day that wasn't right... and I'm from Brooklyn," Pepe says. "So I chose not to work in that capacity with him." This was a person of immense talent who had been fairly certain of that fact from a young age, but now began to see their hunch proven correct. From there, perhaps the inward, emboldened trajectory of their psyche and creative process begins to manifest on the exterior in unpleasant ways. "It's not bad or good... that's just the way it went."

The stage -- once you've seen a dozen, you've seen them all. Racks of lights that can spin in any direction and every color, cords, backline, monitors. The image, the stardom, is often a feat of engineering as much as anything, an illusion of expectation and a projection from those watching onto what they're watching. Most of the time. Prince wasn't a projection of his audience -- he projected into them. Everyone who knew him spoke of his humor, his wrath, his "surprising" humanity and the interpersonal distance which ran in parallel to it. His genius. There's no knowing the man or the myth completely -- all close and far to him seem seem to have had some measure of distance between their mind and his.

"Instead of asking him how much of your time is left... Ask him how much of your mind, baby." -- Prince, "Let's Go Crazy"