My Return To Paisley Park, 19 Years Later: “The Ultimate Experience”

Eighteen years ago during Prince’s 2001 Celebration in Chanhassen, MN, I sat on the floor of a very comfortably carpeted upstairs room in Paisley Park along with a group of 15-20 other fans and we were treated to our first listen to what was at the time his brand new, yet-to-be-released album, The Rainbow Children. A Prince fan since 1982, I could barely believe that I was in Prince’s legendary workplace/home listening to his latest album, which the general public had not even heard yet. Staffers handed each of us a photocopied lyric booklet and proceeded to play the album for us in its entirety, followed by a discussion session with the fans giving opinions about what we had experienced. Prince himself joined the discussions in some of these listening sessions held that week in June 2001, but alas, he did not attend my group’s session. However, at this celebration — and the previous inaugural celebration held in June 2000 — we all knew that at any given moment, we might see Prince walking down the hall, turning a corner, or even popping up behind us without warning. During both of those visits to Paisley Park, the excitement of knowing that Prince was in the building added a thrilling layer of electricity in the air along with the hopes of a chance encounter with the man himself. While fans had plenty to say about the lyrics from The Rainbow Children album, with Prince having recently converted to become a Jehovah’s Witness, the album’s lyrics provided plenty of fuel for lively discussion. But two things were clear to me while listening to this new music: It was in my opinion the most interesting, creative music that Prince had created in quite a while, and it was clear that he was overjoyed with the record and couldn’t wait for us to hear it. The album’s closing track, “The Last December,” absolutely blew me away. It remains to this day one of my favorite Prince songs. I’ll never forget the feelings of joy, inspiration, and reflection that I felt listening to that song inside the walls of Paisley Park. When I hear it today, since his passing, the song carries even more emotional weight than when I first heard it that day. But every time I start to choke up listening to the lyrics, the tears don’t come because I think about the beautiful fact that Prince did indeed stand tall and gave his all, and his music brought people from around the world to come together as one. His music still continues to bring people together today. 

As much of a thrill as that June 2001 listening session was for me, not even that could top what happened at the previous year’s inaugural celebration. On the evening of June 7, 2000, which happened to be Prince’s birthday, I actually met Prince in the room that today is called the NPG Music Club room. I believe it might have been called the Love For One Another room back then, but I can’t say for sure. There was a dance party going on in this smaller room next to the larger soundstage room, and I was extremely tired after a long day on my feet. I’m not much of a dancer, so I was hanging out in the back of the room like a wallflower just taking in the vibe and watching everyone having the time of their lives. All of a sudden I noticed Prince standing about 10 feet away from me on my right. I thought for sure that if I tried to approach him, one of his bodyguards would steer me away quickly, but I figured, what the hell, when in my life will I ever have this chance again? I very casually walked over to him and to my surprise made it all the way to Prince unobstructed. I caught his attention, said “Thanks for having us,” and slowly extended my hand. He reached out, shook my hand (which I had heard he didn’t often like to do) and replied, “Thank you for coming.” He sounded genuinely grateful, humble, and kind. The old expression “never meet your heroes” is repeated often, but I’m glad I took my shot that night because I’ll remember that moment forever. I could have tried to tell him what his music meant to me, the story of my first-ever concert being the Purple Rain tour in Philly on November 24, 1984, and other things I would have loved to discuss with him, but I wasn’t about to get greedy. I was grateful for that moment, and so I turned and went back to my spot against the wall. Still riding that high, I turned around and he was gone. Poof! As if Batman himself had just dropped a smoke bomb and flew off into the night, Prince had disappeared. It remains today one of the most surreal moments of my life. 

I have shared the two stories above to set the tone for my recent return to Paisley Park. Eighteen years have passed since my last visit. In September 2016 I traveled to Minneapolis for The Revolution’s three-night stand at First Avenue, but I didn’t go back to Paisley Park during that trip. The wounds from Prince’s passing were still profound, and I wanted to keep my memories of Paisley Park just the way they were during those amazing 2000 and 2001 visits. But this summer, I felt the need to go back. I had heard from fellow fans that the new “Ultimate Experience” three-hour tour was essential for any Prince fan, and that the majority of the kinks that were present in the tours when the building first reopened had since been ironed out. All summer I kept an eye on airfare and in July I finally found a great deal. I departed Philadelphia the evening of September 6, 2019 and arrived at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport a few hours later. I picked up my rental car and soon checked into the Chanhassen Country Inn & Suites (the same place I had stayed during my previous trips to Paisley Park) around midnight. Just minutes from Paisley Park, this still seems to be “the” place to stay when visiting. Somehow, I wasn’t tired, so I took a quick drive to Paisley Park to see it illuminated in purple and grabbed a few selfies.

On September 7 I woke up before my alarm was even set to go off. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. Full of adrenaline, I quickly showered and went downstairs for breakfast. On my way back upstairs to grab a few things from my room and check out, looking out the hotel window I noticed a Prince mural on the wall of a building across the parking lot. I checked out around 8:15 a.m. and stopped at the mural for a few photos on my way to Paisley Park. 

I then drove to Paisley Park to check in for my tour. I arrived promptly at 8:40 a.m., as the ticket states that you should arrive no earlier than 20 minutes before your scheduled tour time. I drove through the open security gate to the small building that served as the check-in station. After showing my ticket, the guard advised me to proceed to the main parking lot and head into the main entrance to wait for my tour to begin. I parked, took a few photos of the building, and headed into the main entrance. 

Knowing that when I walked through those doors, Prince would no longer be there and would no longer surprise any of us by popping up unexpectedly during the tour, I was afraid that some of the thrill would be gone, but I had already had plenty of time to deal with those feelings before my arrival. I had made up my mind that this return was going to be another celebration and a time for reflection, healing, and new insights, not a time to mourn. I also wanted to see for myself that everything was being preserved with dignity and respect, and that Paisley Park was in good hands so that new generations of fans could learn about what Prince did at Paisley Park and why creative freedom is so important. 

The first thing I noticed after entering was that the couches and the display case that had been in the lobby had been removed. A security guard told me that this was because they needed to free up some space for people to check in for their tour. Upon picking up my lanyard and flash drive at the front desk, and also having to secure my cell phone in a special case that could not be opened until the end of the tour, I was escorted to the line in the hallway where framed record awards hung on the wall to the right. Hanging on the wall to the left was a letter from President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama expressing their sympathy to the family and fans of Prince. It was of course appropriately signed in purple ink. Also on the wall to the right with the record awards hung a gigantic frame that featured concert tickets from Prince’s 2004 Musicology Tour. One ticket from every show of the tour was included in a giant circle inside the frame. 

Shortly after 9 a.m., our tour guide, Tomi, introduced himself and gave us a brief history of Paisley Park and invited each member our group of about 15 people to tell us where they were visiting from. Fans from Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, Washington, D.C., The United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Scotland, among others, introduced themselves. Tomi then briefly shared his story. He has a day job during the week, but works at Paisley Park as a tour guide on the weekends. He had attended numerous Paisley Park events as a fan, including the Rave New Year’s Eve concert, and wanted to give back in some way and ensure that Prince’s legacy was being preserved and shared with new generations of fans. His enthusiasm was genuine and I could tell that we were going to have a great tour. 

Tomi lifted the velvet rope and escorted us into the atrium. The first thing I noticed about the atrium is the abundance of light. Even on the somewhat overcast day, light reached every corner of the room. Tomi explained that this was by design, and that Prince wanted Paisley Park to give the feeling that there was no ceiling and therefore symbolically no limits to the creative freedom that artists would have at Paisley Park. Still in the atrium area, we next saw the kitchen. The doors were closed, but we were permitted to look through the glass-door windows to see the diner-style booth seating as well as a couch placed just feet away from a television. Across from the kitchen were two displays that seemed like closets, now enclosed by glass. The first contained Prince’s own Sony Walkman cassette player/recorder, a few cassettes with his handwriting on them, and a spiral-bound notebook with the front page showing Prince’s handwritten lyrics to “Soft and Wet.” The second window featured Prince’s legendary Hohner Mad Cat guitar. 

We then moved on to Prince’s office, a room that I had not seen on my prior visits. His desk is still there, equipped with blank CDs and a purple phone. Records, CDs and books were visible throughout the room, as well as some family photos and a television. There is also a private bathroom behind his desk. 

The Sign ‘O’ The Times room featured Sheila’s drums from the Sign ‘O’ The Times concert film, some of Prince’s outfits, and his acoustic guitar (the one with the heart on it). A television on the wall played scenes from Sign ‘O’ The Times on a loop. 

The nearby Lovesexy room included Prince’s outfits from the Lovesexy tour along with a television playing clips from the Livesexy 88 broadcast on a loop. 

Farther down the hallway near the restrooms, a display case featured three of Prince’s guitars including his 3rdeyegirl guitar along with the very last guitar that was made for him. He received it shortly before he passed, showing it off to fans at Paisley Park during one of his last concerts there, but did not play it. He opted to play piano instead.

The next room, located close to Prince’s office, was the Video Editing Suite. It looks very much like a high-end home theater. Director’s chairs for fans to sit in are placed behind a purple couch (which — for preservation reasons — fans cannot sit on) in front of a computer and video monitor that looks like a large television. A Metropolis movie poster hung on the wall to the left, and a Bird (Charlie Parker) movie poster hung on the wall to the right. Tomi played some fantastic footage for us. We watched some Musicology tour footage showing Prince absolutely killing it on the bass, then playing “Cream” acoustically, followed by footage showing band members underneath the stage. The highlight was a full-length clip of “Something in the Water” recorded live in Manchester with 3rdeyegirl. Prince sings throughout leading the audience in an exhilarating call and response, and then finally picks up his guitar and plays a wicked guitar solo. The sound quality is superb and the editing suite’s acoustics and sound system are top notch. All of this left me longing for all of the official releases of the massive archive of material from Prince’s vault yet to come. 

We were then lead into The Galaxy Room, which is the break room for Studio B. When the black lights are turned on, a galaxy of stars appears on the walls. Prince’s symbol is hidden among the stars in multiple locations. A television played a clip from Oprah’s interview with Prince recorded at Paisley Park. In the footage, Prince joyously spoke about the fact the he was now free from his Warner Brothers contract, and therefore recording every instrument as a free man. It’s classic footage that most of us have seen, but as part of the interview was filmed in The Galaxy Room, it’s the perfect clip to play there. 

The Galaxy room leads to Studio B’s control room, where we went next, and spent a significant amount of time there. Tomi gave some satisfyingly in-depth information about the 48-track mixing board and some insight into mixing and editing. He also discussed Prince’s fondness for analog recording and pointed out the two analog tape machines in the back of the room. He also gave a brief visual demonstration showing how when working with analog tape, you sometimes had to literally cut and paste the tape as opposed to the virtual cut-and-paste function available with today’s digital equipment. The highlight here was listening to a very stripped-down recording of “Rock & Roll Love Affair” that featured only Prince’s vocals and guitar, followed by the completed full track. We also heard a vocal-only version of “The Breakdown” followed by the final completed version. The sound of Studio B’s monitors is stellar with excellent bass response. Tomi told a funny story about the day that Prince upgraded the bass cabinets. The legend says that Prince played so loud that the new cabinets were literally loosening of the tiles from the walls in the men’s room. He explained that it was important to Prince to not just hear the music, but to literally feel the music while he was creating it. These monitors definitely achieved that. 

From the Studio B control room, we then moved on to Studio B itself. This studio contained a purple piano, a blue cloud guitar, Prince’s ping pong table (which you actually get to play ping pong on) and a vocal microphone. Under the window that looks into the Studio B control room, you can see 48 inputs on the wall so that 48 instruments or mics can be plugged in to send to the control room’s 48-track mixing board. Large photos of Prince and 3rdeyegirl are prominent in this studio, and Tomi informed us that these photos were present at the time of Prince’s passing, so they were left intact. This is the location where guests get to have their picture taken by the tour guide. After Tomi took our pictures, he gave us the files on a Paisley Park flash drive. 

Next we moved on to Studio A, which includes a granite/stone isolation room with a piano. The granite/stone room is specially designed for digital recording. The isolation room to its right is a wood room that includes drums and a microphone stand that includes unreleased lyrics to a song that was most likely being worked on for a jazz album that Prince was recording. The third isolation room was smaller than the other two, and is located to the left of the control room window. This smaller isolation room included a purple Rickenbacker guitar, pedal boards, and a lot of guitar cables hanging on the wall. Through the control room window, you could see the original Linn LM-1 drum machine. The Oberheim keyboard that was used to record “When Doves Cry” is also visible through the window. Footage of Prince recording a song from the Batman soundtrack is available online showing Prince recording in Control Room A, so we know that he worked on that album here. This room also now features a display case that includes Prince’s driver’s license along with various Paisley Park postcards and letterhead from various years. Tomi then played a song for us from the sessions that Prince was working on with Mono Neon called “Ruff Enuff” with Adrian Crutchfield on vocals. It was a thrill to hear this funky song in the actual room where it was recorded. 

After Studio A, we visited a room that I had not seen during my 2000 and 2001 tours: Prince’s writing/inspriration/reflection room. It was a very small, dark room with one of the only decorations being a small illuminated object that I can best describe as a pom-pom or jellyfish-like object that had air flowing through it to create a soothing glow. Besides a chair, that’s about all there was to see here, but the thought that Prince came to this very room to escape the insanity of the world brought a great sense of inner peace. It was also a thrill to think about the fact that some of the songs that we know and love might have had their beginnings in this room. The only window in this room looks into what was Studio C, but is now the Purple Rain room. 

The Purple Rain room features a great collection of items from the film including the coat and shirt he wore while singing “Purple Rain,” one of his motorcycles, a hardbound script of the film, one of his white cloud guitars, and a small purple piano from the Purple Rain tour. The piano has scuff marks on its top from Prince standing on it and jumping off of it. A multi-platinum award for the Purple Rain album was also on display. This room was especially fun for me because as is the case with many fans my age, the Purple Rain era is when I went from simply being fan to being a die-hard fan. His music has played a huge role in my life ever since. 

We then moved on to a room that previously housed production offices, but is now divided into two sections: The Under The Cherry Moon room and The Graffiti Bridge room. The Under The Cherry Moon room featured paisley amplifier cabinets from the Under The Cherry Moon / Parade era, along with one of his outfits from the film, a movie poster, and a television playing clips from movie. In addition, the walls feature murals showing images of The Revolution that originally appeared in the inner sleeve of the Parade album. The hardbound script for Under The Cherry Moon was in a display case on the other side of the room. The Graffiti Bridge room included Prince’s motorcycle from the movie along with a black leather jacket and a bass guitar. A television hung on the other side of the room and played clips from Graffiti Bridge

This next section might not be in the correct chronological order for the tour, but we also walked through the History Hallway, which included photos from numerous eras of Prince’s career, many of which were taken by Jeff Katz, and an Influencers Hallway that featured the Influence Wall mural by Sam Jennings, featuring his collage of some of the artists who influenced Prince. 

The next stop was what used to be called The Arcade Room, as Prince used to play games there. This room featured Prince’s breathtaking Schimmel Pegasus piano. This glossy black piano includes the Prince symbol on top and the cover is motorized to open and close. It can be seen in the Rave New Year’s Eve concert from 1999. At the entrance to the room, a television shows some of the footage of Prince at the piano during the Rave concert, as well as some interview clips with Prince. Inside the room, in addition to the piano, to the left you can see an outside porch area with tables and chairs, and on that particular day, Tomi pointed out that you could see the Purple Rain tour bus parked outside in the distance. That was a thrill for me, having first seen that bus outside of the Philadelphia Spectrum at my first concert in November 1984. A couch and a very uniquely structured, low-lying chair made of wood sat on the floor to the right. I have seen photos of Prince sitting in that chair. We then proceeded through a door and into the main soundstage room where scenes from Graffiti Bridge as well as many of Prince’s music videos were filmed. This room now displays many Prince’s guitars and outfits. Just a few that stood out to me were the guitar that he played during his American Bandstand appearance, his Controversy jacket, his original hand-drawn image for the 1999 album cover, the outfit that he wore in the “Raspberry Beret” video, his Gold Experience bass, and the purple piano that he played at his final Paisley Park concert. Footage from that concert played on the big screen in the room, specifically, the song “Free Urself.” The sound quality was fantastic and made me yearn for an official release of that final Paisley Park concert. The most thrilling experience I had in this room was actually getting to hold an actual cloud guitar that Prince had played. It was colored peach, but we were told that it had originally been a light blue. You must wear white gloves in order to hold the guitar to prevent damage to it, and a staffer stays right there with you to make sure you don’t drop it, but it was an absolutely amazing moment to hold a guitar all the while thinking about the fact that Prince had actually played it. I should note that this opportunity is currently only available as part of the $160 “Ultimate Experience” tour, but this moment — combined with the fact that the tour is the longest and most in-depth tour available — make the price well beyond worth it. 

Next to the soundstage room, we then entered the NPG Music Club room. Although the entire tour was emotional for me and simply being in this fantastic building again was a deeply emotional experience, it was in this room that I felt my composure slipping away and I shed a few tears. I’ll preface this with the fact that I am a visual thinker, and sometimes can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I can enter a restaurant with my wife 10 years after being there last and instantly remember the specific table that we sat at the last time we were there. The same thing happened to me as soon as I entered the NPG Music Club room. The room had been rearranged quite a bit since I was last there in 2001, but I instantly recognized the black staircases that rose to the ceiling, the bay door that was used to bring equipment into and out of the room, and the two doors near the back of the room. My eyes were instantly drawn to the back door on the right, next to a staircase. It was just inside that door in that very spot on June 7, 2000 that I met Prince, briefly spoke with him and shook his hand. It was the exact spot where I had met my musical hero. This was the room where the dance party had been on that amazing evening in June 2000 and I recognized it instantly. Right in that same spot stood a Paisley Park staffer behind a cart, and she was giving out chocolate chip cookies made with Prince’s favorite recipe. I stood there just staring at that spot in awe, remembering that magical night.

On a large video screen we watched a clip of Prince and 3rdeyegirl in a concert that was filmed in this very room, but I don’t even remember what song it was. My mind was still fixated on the moment that I had met Prince in this room, and the fact that he was no longer with us. He wouldn’t be dropping in on the tour or playing a practical joke by calling the tour guide on the phone from the room right next door while fans watched the speaker phone, not realizing Prince had been just a few feet away, a story that Tomi told us during the tour. Our group sat on the couches in the NPG Music Club for a little while listening to stories about shows that had taken place in this room through the years. At the end of the tour, we were then invited to hang out at the tables in the back of the room and enjoy the previously mentioned chocolate chip cookies. When I picked up my cookies in the exact spot that I had met my hero 19 years earlier, my eyes were definitely a little wet. The woman giving out cookies was either used to seeing a few tears from fans at the conclusion of the tour, or she must have thought that I really, really loved chocolate chip cookies. 

After eating my cookies and drinking a much-needed bottle of water, our tour had concluded and we were steered toward the gift shop. I would usually laugh at the fact that tours always ended in gift shops, but I actually planned to buy a few things here, and so exiting into the gift shop seemed like a natural progression. In the gift shop, Prince’s Super Bowl performance played on a loop. A wall also displayed a selection of the items that fans had left on the Paisley Park fence after his passing. We were told that all of those items were saved, and that the estate is trying to figure out what to do with them. In the meantime, it was inspiring to see some of the amazing tributes that were left by fans in Prince’s honor. 

I bought a few things and made my way out of Paisley Park. Outside, I grabbed a few more selfies outside the studio entrance, and then found a few fellow fans who took some fantastic photos of me outside of the main entrance to remember the occasion. I did the same for them and then we posed together for a group photo that yet another fan was kind enough to take for us. As I got into my rental car and exited the gates, it occurred to me that even though Prince is no longer with us physically, he’s still with us, and his music and Paisley Park continue to serve as inspiration for us to “come together as one,” just like in his song, “Last December,” which I had first heard so many years ago for the first time within the walls of Paisley Park. The lyrics to the song “Paisley Park” claim that Paisley Park is in your heart, and I agree, but it’s also in Chanhassen, and I can’t wait to go back again.

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