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View from the USA: Purple patch

A home can say a lot about a person — and Prince’s Paisley Park is more than a match for his outrageous musical performances

View from the USA: Purple patch
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Prince was the ultimate American rock star. Braggadocious, sparkly, outrageous: he embodied all that’s brash and beautiful about celebrity in the States. He could back it up too: here’s a man who out-funked James Brown, soloed with the spirit of Hendrix and made Madonna look like a fashion prude. He was the only person in the world who ever made me want to wear glitter; and the only one, surely, to make bottomless yellow onesies look cool (I drew the line at those). 

But he was more than that too. Prince wasn’t just a musician — he was the music itself: the embodiment of the beat, that moment on the dancefloor when, for just an instant, your ego dissolves, the world disappears and all that remains is the strut and sex and swagger of the tune. If you bottled the sound of American celebrity, Prince would be the noise that came out.

But now he’s gone. On 21 April 2016, the Purple One passed away in the elevator of his wildly eccentric Minneapolis mansion, Paisley Park. Now open to the general public for tours, the house has been preserved exactly as he left it — which is to say, utterly mad. I came to pay homage.

First impressions are surprising. From the outside, the enormous 65,000sq ft complex looks more like a corporate headquarters than a pop star’s crib: prefabricated white panelling, no windows, a soulless box on the edge of a busy motorway. 

Inside it makes sense. The first thing I see is a giant mural of his immaculately eyelashed eyes beaming down from the entranceway — a burst of divine light shining down on us from within. There’s another with a rainbow springing from his outstretched palm like a kitsch Michelangelo fresco. Lyrics, guitars, outfits and his image line every wall. Everything is purple, apart from the walls — painted like blue skies with fluffy clouds; there’s even a room with actual doves in it that coo but don’t cry. This isn’t some museum display; this is how the man lived — in his own home. But then again: 100-million records, dozens of hit singles, an Oscar and probably the greatest male shoe collection in the history of the universe. If anyone can be forgiven a god complex, it’s Prince. 

As well as his living spaces (including a gold-tinted office, diner-style kitchen and an entire room decked out with UV stars like a glowing purple nebula), there are four recording studios, a Hollywood-style sound stage and his very own nightclub. I visit Studio B and play table tennis by the vocal booth where Sign o’ the Times was put to record (legend has it he once humiliated his pop rival Michael Jackson in a ping pong match here). Studio A, meanwhile, is where Lovesexy was born and his last recorded work lies unfinished on the mixing desk — trademark funk, touches of jazz, but no vocals (he never got that far); their absence like his ghost drifting through the room.

I tour car collections, piano collections, awards, entire rooms filled with memorabilia from Graffiti Bridge and Purple Rain, like altars to his creativity. Each space has its own mood, a unique combination of colour and form, like a mosaic of himself, ostentatious and unapologetic. Prince lived as he performed; his home was a stage too.

At the end of the tour, I stay behind and watch a video of his 2007 Super Bowl performance of Purple Rain, widely regarded as the best half-time show in the history of the game. It’s all there: a torrential rain storm; Prince dripping wet, playing like his life depended on every note, strutting, pulsating, dissolving into the music, becoming more than a performer, becoming more like a vessel, an instrument himself. 

Prince once sang: “Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.” But this one isn’t done yet. In a vault underneath Paisley Park is a collection of hundreds of hours of unreleased work: top-secret jams and musical experiments that barely a soul has heard. When asked what it might contain, Prince’s answer was cryptic, cocky and emblematic of the man we all loved: “The future.” The sound of American celebrity is Prince; and damn does it sound good. minneapolis.org

Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)