We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.
— Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy”
No one is ready for a visit to Paisley Park, at least not the way in which I eventually experienced it. The modern, all-white building rests in the suburbs of Minneapolis and resembles a software tech firm more than a home. It offers no visible clue as to the elusive person who lived and worked there.
From the time I first heard Prince’s debut album, “For You,” at the age of 18, I had no choice but to go along on his journey to the edge of what is musically possible. Many years later, in 2010, while director of photography for Ebony magazine, I finally got to meet the man who supplied a sizable part of my life’s soundtrack.
After months of requests, and with the aid of talk-show host Tavis Smiley — Prince’s close friend — we secured a cover shoot with his purple highness at Paisley Park. On word that the session was a go, then-Ebony Editor-in-Chief Harriette Cole and I immediately secured renowned fashion photographer Mike Ruiz (whom Prince, fortunately, approved), discussed loose concept possibilities and booked the date.
Upon arriving, Cole, Ruiz and I were directed to enter through a side door and, after passing through a heavy black curtain, emerged into a soundstage large enough to fit more than a thousand people. It was Prince’s rehearsal area, which he also used for impromptu parties and concerts, and the stage was preset with a full range of instruments, microphones and amplifiers.
We were asked to wait in a foyer area, where the actual Honda 750 motorcycle from the movie “Purple Rain” prominently rested. It was adjacent to a screaming purple recreation room the size of a large hotel lobby — fully decked out with matching velvet lounge furniture and shag carpet. It was beyond plush. The film “Finding Nemo” played silently on one large projection screen hanging from the high ceiling and the 1973 concert movie “Wattstax” played loudly on another.
Two hours passed before Prince strode into the room to meet us, wearing fairly casual clothing, in his own unique style, of course: fitted black button-up shirt and black slacks, accented by Lucite-soled sneakers inset with lights that blinked on his every step. His walk was more of a “pimp,” really — partially due to a recent hip surgery, but also because Prince just had incredible swag.
He was small, very small — but not fragile. He was accommodating, but also a bit guarded. After zooming through small talk, he wanted to get down to business. He guided us over to a dining room area, containing a table and chairs cut in the shape of chess pieces. He took a seat and without blinking asked, “So what do you want to do?” Ruiz quickly went into a creative spiel, while Prince nodded slightly in approval — quickly processing each suggestion and idea. We talked for 20 minutes before he suddenly said, “Okay, I got it. I’ll be back.” He shortly returned, pulling a rack of clothes that he selected specifically for this particular shoot and concept. He was totally cooperative. Not quite the guy that I had read about.
During a break in the shoot — which actually turned out to be the end of the session — we chatted about his faith as a devout Jehovah’s Witness and the challenges of being a door-to-door evangelist. It’s not every day that someone like Prince comes to your door with the aim of putting you on a spiritual path, but he said that he used various disguises to deflect attention. Eyeglasses, conservative suits, a different way of combing his hair — he tried them all. People still recognized him, but he said that they never called him out on it. They listened to his message and respected his opinion.
The death of Michael Jackson (at one point another devout Jehovah’s Witness) was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and Prince admitted the two had talked about the challenges of mixing fame with a religious journey. He said that it was difficult for both of them, and he personally couldn’t have done it at a younger point in his life. He wished he could have talked to Michael more about it before he died.
Prince invited us to stay for dinner, along with Smiley, Larry Graham (the bassist for the band Sly and the Family Stone) and his wife, and Bria Valente, Prince’s girlfriend at the time. He cracked jokes about youthful times spent with high school friend Morris Day, leader of the R&B band The Time. He talked about his concern for the future of musicianship, after government cuts in school band programs. He applauded his own musical influences, showing respect for Carlos Santana and his reverence for the band-leading prowess of Ike Turner. He warned about the Minneapolis police department and the easy risk of being ticketed for driving while black.
He was also anxious for us to hear a new song his background singers were recording in one of his four studios on a lower level of the building. It was a new piece of music he wanted to soon release and even the raw version of the song we heard was Prince genius. After a thorough listen, he and Graham grabbed their respective axes and hopped on the soundstage for a short jam session. With Valente joining in on drums and the backup singers fresh out of the studio, the group thumped, funked and scatted their way through one of Graham’s older tunes, “I Believe in You.” As the thunderous bass line filled the cavernous room and as Prince’s guitar licks blended in perfectly, we in the tiny audience felt like believers, too — in Prince, that is. We always had been.