2017: A Prince Odyssey

For Christmas 1989, when I was 10 and a half, I got my first Sony Walkman (still one of the best presents I’ve ever received) and a cassette to play on it – Prince’s soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman movie, released earlier that year, with which I was obsessed at the time. It was the first album I ever owned, and the only one for a while, so I would play it on a near-constant loop until the tempos slowed and vocals deepened as the Walkman’s batteries ran out of juice. Admittedly, this listening frenzy was as much to do with my childhood Batman obsession as the soundtrack, but now I realise my future musical tastes were being subtly shaped too.

I was particularly keen on the song ‘Partyman’; like so much of Prince’s catalogue, it was catchy, funky and uplifting, but also possessed of an endearing playfulness. Of course, the Batman soundtrack is now regarded as something of a blot on his ’80’s copybook, but for me it was the gateway to a love affair with the great man’s music that has never waned.

Paisley Park

Some 26 (and a bit) years later, along with my esteemed colleague and fellow Prince ‘fam’ Simon, I found myself standing in Studio A of Paisley Park, Prince’s sprawling complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota. We were lucky attendees of the four-day Celebration 2017 event, staged to coincide with the first anniversary of his untimely death on the 21st April 2016. Batman was recorded in Studio A, as were the likes of Lovesexy, The Black Album, Diamonds & Pearls, Love Symbol Album, and The Gold Experience. The latter record was another keystone in my Prince fandom (or ‘famdom’, as he’d prefer); for my money, it’s the best album of his unfairly maligned ‘90s period.

Studio A was Prince’s main recording facility of choice up until his death, 2015’s Hit n Run Phase Two becoming the final album to be completed there. Unsurprisingly he was working on new material at the time of his death, and the studio’s vast live room is still kitted out with a drum set, piano, bass and guitars, as if he might return at any point to pick up where he left off. It’s a sight that’s at once sad and oddly comforting. As part of our first day’s tour Paisley Park, we also had the honour of visiting Studio B, where, according to legend, he impatiently laid down ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ on a half-built mixing desk. While in the control room, we had the honour of holding one of Prince’s guitars – the baby blue Fender Strat he used during his feted half-time performance at the 2007 Superbowl. On display in that studio’s live room were various costumes and instruments from throughout his career – the outfit from the ‘Raspberry Beret’ video, the ‘blue angel’ Cloud guitar, the purple piano on which he gave his final concerts. Oh, and a ping-pong table – he excelled at ping-pong, apparently (but then, of course he did).

Simon and Brian at the memorial fence

These were just a couple of the highlights of a truly unforgettable few days in His Royal Badness’s personal playground. Paisley Park is a truly remarkable place, belying its distinctly unremarkable white aluminum exterior and nondescript location beside a busy highway. As soon as you set foot inside you’re struck by how calm and peaceful it is, even as it teems with hordes of excitable visitors. Pastel colours abound, as do images of its famous former occupant. There’s even a dove in the balcony. The sense of it being a sanctuary from the chaos and disorder of the outside world is only enhanced by its strict ‘no mobile devices or cameras’ policy.

Pretty much everywhere you look in the building there are items of historical significance to catch your eye – gold and platinum records, costumes, sundry awards, handwritten song lyrics, Prince’s beloved Hohner Telecaster with its worn leopard print strap, his gold ‘love symbol’ guitar. The car fender from the Sign o’ the Times album cover hangs from a staircase in the NPG Music Club room, the nightclub-sized space where Prince would frequently host late night aftershow parties. There are rooms dedicated to different albums, tours and movies (the Purple Rain room houses ‘The Kid’’s motorbike, guitar and trenchcoat, not to mention the Oscar the film won for its soundtrack).

Simon and Brian in Studio B at Paisley Park

Just off to one side of the light-bathed atrium is Prince’s beautifully furnished office (with his touring luggage in the corner and photos of loved ones near his desk), while the 50s style diner where he rustled up pancakes for guests sits opposite. (At the end of our tour we were not a little taken aback to discover the atrium also houses his ashes.) We wandered around, mouths agape, like a pair of Charlie Buckets granted entry to the chocolate factory, although it was obviously quite impossible to ignore the glaring absence of Paisley Park’s own Willy Wonka.

Much of the Celebration 2017 activity centred around Paisley’s huge soundstage, where we enjoyed a number of excellent discussion panels, with former Prince associates – musicians, producers, sound engineers (Susan Rogers a highlight), photographers, tour managers, guitar techs, you name it – offering a great deal of insight into his often idiosyncratic working methods. (The less said about the event’s somnolent de facto host, model and dancer, Damaris Lewis, the better.) The soundstage also played host to the thrilling live performances that brought each day’s proceedings to a close. Performers included George Clinton, members of NPG and 3RDEYEGIRL, the wonderful Morris Day and The Time and (our personal favourite) the reformed Revolution, whose performance of ‘Purple Rain’, minus their fallen former leader, was particularly touching.

Graham Hoete's Prince mural on the wall of the Chanhassen Cinema

Perhaps the most moving moment of the whole experience was a screening of Prince’s final Paisley Park performance from January 21st 2016. Featuring just the man himself on vocals and piano, it’s a thing of stark, spine-tingling beauty and almost unbearable poignancy. It shows the artist in reflective mood, discussing his tentative musical beginnings before running chronologically through his classic albums, a song from each, interspersed with tantalising glimpses of a songwriting process he was always so reluctant to discuss. His playing and singing is nothing short of breathtaking throughout, his fingers gliding across the keyboard with consummate ease, his vocal range undiminished even by the debilitating health problems that would end his life a mere three months later. The whole thing is an utterly captivating reminder, if it were needed, of just what a world-beating talent was lost 12 months ago. And with which tune did he open the set? The first song he learned on the piano as a child: the theme from Batman.


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