Prince Fans Party Like It's 1999 at Minneapolis' Historic First Avenue Club

Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images for NPG Records 2015

Prince performs onstage during the "HitnRun" tour at The Fox Theatre on April 9, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan.  

The sold-out crowd at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis last night had not come to hear a Prince tribute. But when Slipknot's Corey Taylor opened his scheduled solo show with "Purple Rain," the "whole place started singing,” said Minneapolis machinist Jeff Foix. “Even if you’re not a Prince fan, he’s part of the culture here. Everyone’s a fan tonight.” 

If a purple rain had drizzled over the Twin Cities during the day, by nightfall, the sky had cleared and Prince’s music broke through the famed walls of First Avenue and onto the surrounding streets.

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First Avenue was a fitting venue to host an impromptu celebration of the hometown hero, who died Thursday (April 21) at the age of 57. "Purple Rain" was filmed at the club and Prince performed there many times.

Speakers on a soundstage erected on 7th Street blared the sounds of "Little Red Corvette," "Kiss," "Delirious," "Let’s Go Crazy"-- songs that many in the throng of thousands had been singing for decades. “How about we make this the loudest block party ever?” said a woman into the mic between songs.

And so it was: part tribute, part jam, all Minnesota Nice as the Heavy Metal boys with long beards and leather coats stood shoulder-to-shoulder with girls in purple bell bottoms, men with purple feathers in their hair, a kid with a sign that read “Free Hugs,” young moms swaying with their children in their arms, middle-aged couples holding hands and reminiscing about the time they waited 5, no 7, no 14 hours in line for a last-minute concert at Prince’s nearby recording studio, Paisley Park.

Seven-year-old Emmett Erling yawned. “He really wanted to come,” said his mom, Monica. So did Minneapolis rapper Slug, of Atmosphere, who stood on his own near the sound-stage, quietly listening. “I just came here to see the people that came out for this,” he said. Like everyone, he wanted to pay tribute, to be part of a moment in music history. And though the fans will surely remember where they were when they first heard that Prince had died, outside First Avenue last night, they were talking about where they were when they first heard "Purple Rain."

For Alison Waite, it was in the car on the way to the cabin when she was a little kid. “I was like, mom, I don’t want to hear it again,” she says. She was wrong. She did want to hear it again, and again and again. “I was at work when I heard he died,” she says softly, holding back tears. “I started crying. I had to go home.” She and her mom, Jill Waite, a retired lawyer, brought offerings for the makeshift memorial beneath the Prince star on the outside wall of First Avenue: M & Ms, Doritos and an angel halo. “We heard he liked junk food,” says Jill with a laugh. For Bill Miller, who graduated high school in 1985, Prince was the visionary who broke through the polite Middle-Western veneer: “He didn’t care what was cool or not cool. He just rocked it. We used to go to the sand caves with a boom box and a keg and just dance with our friends,” he said.

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“His music was raw, progressive, it hit you right in the face.” And then it made you think, said Bernard Barnett, 50, a Minneapolis native who was in New York when he heard about Prince’s death and immediately flew back to town. He stood out from the crowd in a suit, holding a briefcase. “It’s not music you just hear and throw away,” he said. “It’s inspirational. It’s music you actually meditate on, if you really listen to it.” Ann Forster Page, 53, a nurse midwife at the University of Minnesota, leaned into her daughter, Colette, 26. “I’m just so proud to see everyone here,” she said. “I raised Colette on Prince.” Her daughter looked at her watch. “I have to be at work at 6 am, but I can’t miss this,” she said. “I’ll be here all night. I’m really devastated. He was such a profound person in my life. He’s a Minnesota hero and a musical hero.”

A few feet away, a woman danced to the joyful sounds of "The Glamorous Life." "She wants to lead a glamorous life, without love, it ain’t much," she sang. Last night, Prince had the glamor and the love; it didn’t matter it you were old or young, black, white or purple, the entire city partied like it was 1999, one last time, together.