Most cities don’t get a Prince. For such a major figure to have such a deep and enduring connection with his or her hometown is actually pretty rare in the annals of popular culture. There are places where major figures grow up, but then leave, stopping back only to pay respects or burnish some sort of heartland credentials. Most light out for the capitals, leaving the provinces behind. That’s the way it’s been since Stendahl left Grenoble for Paris.
Prince, as you have already read this week, never left. He grew up in North Minneapolis, and had his first performance at the Capri Theater on Broadway. He went to junior high at Bryant, and high school at Central – though it’s gone, it lives on in murals and in the name of the neighborhood. The house from “Purple Rain” is still on Minnehaha Avenue. A trip to Lake Minnetonka isn’t complete without a “purifying waters” quip. Most people who’ve lived here long enough had an encounter with him somewhere – as he was proselytizing at a stadium, shopping at a suburban Target, somewhere deep in the center of an entourage at First Avenue. He was all over. You may have your own Prince story. Many do.
Two of these sites have, in the past few days, taken on an elevated importance. The public outpouring of personal and civic grief over the death of Prince last week – unlike anything I’ve seen in my life in Minneapolis, and probably unlike anything I’ll see for the rest of it – have been focused on the two buildings most closely associated with him.
First Avenue, the rock club that Prince immortalized in “Purple Rain,” seems now as if it could have been built specifically for staging this type of commemoration. The galaxy of silver stars on the exterior memorializes the many other musical luminaries who have passed through the club over the past 40 years, a great many of whom are no longer living. It’s Prince’s star, located near the front entrance, that outshines all of them, in the same way that any musician stepping foot on that stage was very consciously stepping into the Purple One’s turf. (I heard more than a few performers wonder aloud from onstage if maybe he was up in the balcony, watching down.) The silver star on the outside wall was a natural focal point for people’s expressions of affection and grief, and the flowers and balloons piled up around it over the course of the weekend. Out in Chanhassen, Paisley Park, a pretty unremarkable piece of suburban institutional architecture on the exterior, was transformed into a sort of pilgrimage cathedral. The chain link fence around it was covered with balloons, flowers, and handwritten notes. Paisley Park was visited, spectacularly but perhaps not surprisingly, by a rainbow in the sky after the rain broke.
So complete was his connection with the city that even physical sites with no obvious external association with Prince now seem intimately connected to him. The best example of this, perhaps, is the mural on the side of the old Schmitt Music building at 10th Street and Marquette Avenue. In 1972, taking advantage of the fact that its adjacent real estate had been demolished and made into one of the many ubiquitous surface parking lots that form an archipelago across downtown, Schmitt Music Company commissioned a three-story mural of the musical transcription of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuite” on the side of the building. It was painted in just 10 days – in fact, if you examine it closely, the notes are clearly hand-painted, some of them even looking a little hasty. Schmitt did wind up departing downtown for the suburbs, like so many downtown businesses. Most of them were starting to hurt in the 1970s, and any visual attraction – especially one that made such good use of vacant space – was worth a shot. The particular piece of music was chosen, according to a short profile in Billboard magazine the month the mural was unveiled, “for its visual effect.”
Five years later, in 1977, Prince and photographer Robert Whitman took advantage of that visual effect (and the fact that the mostly empty parking lot in front of it made for a great staging area). The first professional photos of Prince were taken against this backdrop. Prince is 19 years old, dressed in what looks like a velvet jacket, a turtleneck sweater, and a light-colored sash. He’s unmistakably a younger man than we recognize him, but unlike most other pop stars captured in their formative years, there’s nothing goony or awkward about him. He seems more or less fully formed. There’s that wry half-grin, the wispy Zorro mustache, the kohl-lined eyes looking right into you. He wears his hair in an Afro, the same style he’d adopt once again toward to the end of his life.
In the most iconic of the images he and Whitman made that day, Prince is shown only from the shoulders up, standing in front of a row of land yachts, two thirds of the photo dominated by the wall of music. Ravel’s composition, a famously difficult piece of music to perform, seems to be swirling around Prince’s head, as it can’t be contained inside of it. There’s an elderly woman in the background, regarding the scene with a sense of mild interest, but Prince’s expression makes it clear that there’s no one else – just you and him and this music. The genius of Prince’s music was the way it could seem so expansive and larger than life, and also deliver an all-encompassing sense of intimacy – not only in the impassioned yelps, but in little details, in the way those “2”s and “U”s seemed like a private language only you and he shared.
It’s already all there in this photo, in front of this mural.
The mural – with and without Prince in front of it – turned up quite a bit in my social media feed in the days after his death. Many people opted to reproduce Whitman’s photos, but quite a few posted just the mural as it appears today. In Andrea Swensson’s thoughtful elegy on The Current, this quiet image leads off the piece. Another of those posting the image without Prince, my friend David, added this: “As we should have known, you just vanished.” The mural without him seems empty, though he only stepped foot in front of it one afternoon almost 40 years ago. It will be difficult to see the mural again and not think of Prince, if one didn’t think it already.
I wondered if there might be some flowers or notes or photos in front of the mural, if it too was serving as an impromptu shrine. If it had been, any evidence had been removed. There were no indications of any commemorative gestures of any kind – an empty beer bottle sitting on the ledge was the closest, but that could have been anybody’s. The only clue to the mural’s origin is in the word “schmittito,” taking the place in one line of the direction “subito.” Quickly, suddenly.
As I stood in front of the mural on Marquette, a steady stream of pedestrians walked by. Over the course of a few minutes, at least two or three stopped, pulled out their phones, and took a shot. Maybe because of the Prince association, or maybe just because it’s an interesting mural. My hope was that it was the former.
A city is in a constant state of change. Prince’s high school is gone. First Avenue and Paisley Park will likely endure for a long time, but the other physical reminders of Prince’s presence in the city will fade over time, even as new memorials and markers turn up over the coming decades. Some of these will be formal, sanctioned commemorations, but many of them will remain informal.
Monuments and statues are built to convey an official civic sense of memory, but they don’t always serve that purpose. In the end, it’s the citizens of a city that collectively make the decision to imbue a certain space with meaning. People have already done that for First Avenue, the site of so many collective memories. The Schmitt Music mural, a few blocks away from First Avenue, was painted to commemorate a business that sold records and sheet music. Its afterlife will serve a much different purpose. It’s already a monument, and it will continue to be.