The black brick walls outside of First Avenue, the downtown Minneapolis rock club that Prince made legendary in Purple Rain, are decorated with large white stars, each bearing the name of an act that performed there. Prince’s is among the most prominent. Within two hours after the announcement of his death, that star is the backdrop for a makeshift shrine of flowers, candles, balloons, and, at the center, a guitar. There’s no less purple than you’d expect.
It was one of many focal points in and around Minneapolis following the icon’s untimely death, as the city so closely tied to the singer mourned and celebrated the musician.
Around 100 people form a semicircle around the display, maintaining a respectful 10-foot distance, like an apprehensive crowd at a punk show. Most wander off after 10 or 15 minutes, replaced by new mourners, so the numbers stay constant – just enough to spill off the sidewalk into a small area of barricaded roadway. There aren’t too many tears. Some say they cried themselves out earlier; others that they’re still too shocked.
Here, as throughout Minneapolis – which struggles through a citywide day of mourning for a hometown hero like no other – stories about Prince circulate. Someone recalls pumping gas on a winter night in the ‘burbs, looking over to see a driver in a Vikings parka, saying “Hey Prince” and getting a friendly nod. Another attendee remembers recently seeing Prince escorted into First Avenue past some tough, tall punk who straight-up squealed at the sighting.
The loudest voice belongs to a woman named Montesia Smith, who periodically announces that she is circulating a petition to get Prince a bigger star on the front of First Avenue, gold, with his name lettered in purple. “We loved him first,” she says. “Can we get him up where he belongs – in color?” She asks everyone to sign a small spiral-bound notebook.
Further downtown, Prince hits blast out from the sports bars, while local radio station 89.3 The Current has been working its way chronologically through his recordings all day. But here in front of the club, there’s only the occasional echo of an Eighties Linn drum, lewd yelp or a guitar wail from a passing car to remind us of the music Prince made. For now.
At around 6:30 p.m., a full rainbow stretches across Arboretum Boulevard in Chanhassen, Minnesota, the route to Paisley Park, suggesting for once that the nondescript studio and performance compound is as magical as the music created there. It’s an almost embarrassingly wonderful sight, and one woman who notices says simply, “He’s happy.”
The chain-link fence that surrounds Paisley Park has become a memorial. Banners hang for fans to sign, and white string has been artfully woven to read “Purple Rain” and “Goodbye” in a simulated graffiti font. Mourners stick notes and purple construction paper hearts into the fence and leave flowers and teddy bears beside it. Somebody has even set a “Minnesota-Grown” placard on top.
Staff instantly scold anyone who snaps a photo while standing along the fence. “Out of respect for the family,” they say, all pictures must be taken from behind a barricade across the street from the fence, where the media are gathered in tents. Well, it just wouldn’t be a Prince event without some rules – after all, when he allowed the public to watch him perform at Paisley Park, he banned not just photography but cell phones and alcohol, prohibitions that bouncers vigorously enforced.
Compared to the First Avenue contingent, many of these mourners are younger and more openly tearful. There are weeping teen girls in purple lipstick, and more families too, with somber parents wrangling children who have no idea why they’re standing in a blocked off street, peering over barricades like they’re at a parade. Again, what’s striking is the hush. Again, there’s no music.
At 8 p.m., outside of First Avenue, the daylong wake officially transforms into a nightlong rave. It’s probably when DJ Shannon Blowtorch drops “Kiss” and every person standing in the middle of 7th Street loses control of their bodies and shrieks in their best/worst karaoke falsetto that shock turns to celebration.
To accommodate the impromptu block party, the city has shut down most of Seventh Street beside the club to traffic. Corey Taylor, the singer from Slipknot and Stone Sour, will play a sold-out show inside First Avenue tonight, and as as his fans wait for the club doors to open, they get to watch dancers of every skill level go crazy in the street. Taylor will cover “Purple Rain” and “Little Red Corvette” at his show to some of the night’s loudest applause.
Soon the stage belongs to a makeshift band of local performers. Soul singer Chastity Brown belts out “When Doves Cry,” singer/rapper Lizzo rends hearts with “The Beautiful Ones” and everyone joins in for “Purple Rain.” (Throughout the night, that anthem will inspire the most drunken singalongs in the streets.) People keep coming, barricades move further out. Eventually, all of 7th Street and two blocks of First Avenue, the entire corner surrounding the club, is filled with people. They sing, they dance, they wear purple, they climb the light posts to dangerous heights to get a better view.
Throughout Minneapolis, every electric light that can turn purple does. The Minnesota Twins had relit Target Field in Prince’s honor all day long, and now Target’s downtown headquarters and two major bridges are illuminated with a similarly warm violet glow. If Minneapolis could have found a way to turn the traffic lights purple they would have. By nightfall, KMOJ, the city’s African-American community radio station, has become a public forum for everyone’s Prince recollections. So does probably every bar in the Twin Cities.
At 11 p.m, a free all-night dance party starts inside First Avenue. It’s scheduled to continue until 7 a.m. (seven was a special number to Prince) and culminate in a pancake dinner (pancakes were a special food to Prince). Outside, lines of people who can’t possibly all fit in the venue stretch around the block in either direction from the door. As late as 3 a.m., the streets still teem with life. “It hasn’t been so packed out here since Purple Rain,” one middle-aged woman in the street exclaims. Prince said parties weren’t meant to last, but, with all due respect, everyone outside First Avenue seems determined to prove him wrong.