‘Our northern star’: Minneapolis and Prince, a love story

Posted at 6:58 PM, Apr 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-24 18:58:57-04

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Early in his career, Prince would walk into the First Avenue club in Minneapolis and hand first versions of his songs on vinyl to DJ Kevin Cole.

The venue that would be known for his first performance of “Purple Rain” was also where the mutual love affair between Prince and Minneapolis began.

“He would have them play (songs) to the crowd to see how they would react,” says Steve McLellan, who managed the club for 30 years. “He would watch the reaction of the dance floor and then did whatever changes in the studio.”

The club was home to some of Prince’s most signature performances and was the place where Minneapolis natives and the superstar began an intensely personal relationship. Surprise performances at First Avenue became some of residents’ most treasured memories.

“The community had access to this great performer and the performer had great access to this wonderful community,” says Martin Keller, who covered Prince in town since he was a teenager. “I think that they fed off each other.”

And so for days after they learned Prince had died — that His Royal Badness would never play again — thousands made a pilgrimage of sorts downtown to honor their musical hero.

They stood outside the First Avenue club with boom boxes blasting his songs. They wore purple clothes and they placed purple flowers in front of the wall where his name is emblazoned. They cried, shocked that he was taken so soon. But as intense and personal as their grief was, so too was their joy and thanks that this son of Minneapolis stayed to share his music over the decades.

Keller remembers interviewing Prince in 1996 at Paisley Park studio and asking him “Why haven’t you left?”

Prince responded firmly: “I think God puts you where you’re supposed to be and that’s where you should stay. And that’s why I’m here.”

And so Minneapolis tried to say goodbye to Prince they best way they knew how: They danced. They sang at the top of their lungs. And they said thank you for guiding them on a musical journey that gave them the chance to bear witness to history.

Keller chokes up at the thought of how much Prince means to this town.

“He’s our northern star,” Keller says.

‘A gift’ to Minneapolis

Prince’s evolution as a musician gave residents and journalists alike a chance to see a prodigy develop into a full-fledged, media-savvy icon.

“There was a buzz about this kid named Prince who could play everything, was a pretty good songwriter and was probably going to get a big record deal,” Keller recalls.

Keller first interviewed Prince after the release of his first album, which the musician played, produced and wrote by himself. Keller met Prince at the apartment of his drummer, Bobby Z.

“He was so shy he wouldn’t come out of the kitchen,” Keller says. “In fact, I think I recall him doing the interview sitting on the kitchen floor.”

Prince undoubtedly brought attention to an already burgeoning musical scene in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1980s. But Prince took the simmering scene and turned up the heat.

“Prince put the Twin Cities on the map, musically,” Keller says. “I mean there were a lot of things rising at the same time as Prince. We had a phenomenal new wave punk rock scene.

“But when you have a guy like Prince planting the flag on the scene, it makes a huge difference,” Keller says.

He jokes, half-heartedly, that “if Prince dropped a guitar pick, it got covered.”

As Keller spoke about Prince’s life and musical career while sitting in the Uptown neighborhood Prince famously sang about, he recalled just how much he brought cultures together through his music. Prince transcended race and taught fans their lives could be more than what they thought, he says.

“I can’t imagine how many kids he inspired,” Keller says. “Whether they’re African American kids from bad homes like his or white kids that wanted to be rock stars, having someone like that here was — you can’t measure that. It was a gift.”

And it’s a gift that Keller hopes will be recognized. This year, he was one of a number people who wrote letters to the University of Minnesota, recommending Prince for an honorary doctorate.

It’s a recommendation University President Eric Kaler says school officials had been weighing very seriously, even before the pop star’s death. The nomination will likely be approved by an honors committee and then go to the university’s board of regents and president in June for approval, Kaler said.

“I don’t think there is any doubt…by the outpouring of support after his death, that he was a transformational person in American music, a local boy done good, if you will,” Kaler said. “We’re just incredibly proud of him.”

‘Gold standard’

Ten years after their first interview, Keller and Prince met again, but everything had changed. The movie Purple Rain had catapulted Prince into full-fledged mainstream coverage. The movie’s title track had even won Prince an Oscar.

“He had really come into his own as an artist, he was comfortable in his own skin, a lot more media savvy and knew how the game was played,” Keller says. “Kind of like Bob Dylan, Minnesota’s other iconic great artist. How do we get two artists like that in one generation?”

Keller rifles through old newspaper clippings and memorabilia, a catalog of Prince’s career. It’s hard to nail down his legacy. Where to begin?

“I don’t know a musician in Minnesota that doesn’t, in the back of their mind or very verbally, acknowledge what a huge impact he’s had on their careers,” Keller says. “It’s a high gold standard. You can try to aspire to it, but most aren’t ever going to get there.”

‘He shared his heart’

Gary Hines hopes he can carry on at least a small part of Prince’s legacy through his group’s music.

He went to junior high and high school when Prince was a star on the school’s basketball team. The two would cross musical paths in the 1970s when Hines, then the music director and producer of “Sounds of Blackness,” shared the stage with Prince.

The two often talked about music at length, Hines remembers, and often at odd hours of the night as Prince was known to do.

“He would occasionally call at 2, 3 in the morning but act as though it was noon,” Hines recalls, chuckling. “He would frequently say your whole name, you know, ‘Gary Hines, I have an idea for the Sounds of Blackness. What do you think about this Gary Hines?'”

Prince would invite the group out to Paisley Park to record. The choir joined him on the “Batman” soundtrack and performed together often at events in town. He remembers how much Prince cared about local musicians, how he incorporated them into live performances and would support them at shows — but stayed tucked away so as to not always be a distraction.

“Prince is definitely in the fabric and fiber of Minneapolis and Minnesota and he was about keeping it real, keeping it grassroots,” Hines says.

His love for the town and sports was intense, Hines says. He points to the private concert Prince held in October for the WNBA champion team, the Minnesota Lynx, where he “altered some of the lyrics to incorporate their names” as a personal touch.

“Prince means everything to Minneapolis and to Minnesota. A native son, really iconic here, because he not only shared his music, but he shared his heart and really his music was a reflection of that. And what comes from the heart reaches the heart, and he did that better than anybody.”

Prince’s imprint on the musical scene here, and the “Minneapolis sound,” is undeniable, Hines says. It was something Prince built upon from watching all sorts of bands and artists that inspired him, and something others here now hope to keep going.

‘The Minneapolis sound is an extended family but clearly Prince is the head of that family,” Hines says. “(It’s) a really rhythm-driven sound, bass-heavy; all his influence is very evident with vocal, with the horn arrangements, with that drive, with that syncopation.”

It’s a spirit, Hines says, that lives on in any musician from here. It’s not just about sound, he insists, but how you connect with fans, and how you make them feel. That’s his true legacy.

“When the music is real as it was with him and always will be then it can’t die,” Hines says.

‘Rest In Purple, Rest in Pride’

A card at the growing memorial outside First Avenue has a handwritten letter from a fan. In it, she apologizes for not having seen him live at his last show. She “always assumed she’d be able to catch the next one.”

“I hope you’ll forgive me,” she writes. “Rest in Purple, Rest in Pride, Rest in Peace.”

The offerings are a mix of somber and hilarious — sad notes, but also bags and bags of Doritos and cartoons about his eccentricities — a memorial full of personality, much like Prince himself.

Neal Karlen, who first interviewed Prince for Rolling Stone in 1985 and again a few years later, remembers him as a hilarious friend and artist who challenged all the rules about how musicians should operate. Prince told him he refused to churn out the same type of music over and over — that it would have been easy to repeat “Purple Rain,” but he wouldn’t do it.

“He could have just done that over and over. He could have just been schtick, but he didn’t want that,” Karlen says. “He’d rather sell 250,000 copies and do it his way, and you’ve got to respect that. He was provocative. He wasn’t just ‘Give them what they want.’ And in that way, he reminds me of Dylan. He was willing to give them what they didn’t want.”

From Karlen’s first interviews with Prince, he gained an insight few others have seen.

“Gone is the wary Kung Fu Grasshopper voice with which Prince whispers when meeting strangers or accepting Academy Awards,” he wrote in 1985. “Cruising peacefully with the window down, he’s proof in a paisley jumpsuit that you can always go home again, especially if you never really left town.”

Karlen remembers the sometimes serious moments amid the jokes as he drove around Minneapolis with Prince during the interview. Prince spoke about his troubled childhood, how he grew up so poor he didn’t have money to buy food at McDonald’s so he sniffed the air smelling of French fries, and how in many ways he so feared being alone that he isolated himself first.

Karlen says he once asked Prince why he was alienating himself. Karlen recalls his brief but vulnerable answer: “What if everyone left me? I’d be all alone. I couldn’t stand that.

It makes the outpouring of love for Prince at both Paisley Park, where he died, and First Avenue so special.

Karlen, who couldn’t bring himself to go downtown the night Prince died, said he watched “Purple Rain” that night. He watched the end scene and Prince singing “Purple Rain” five times as he cried.

He says he can’t help but imagine what Prince would think of what’s unfolding around Minneapolis — as buildings are turned purple, tributes plastered on every marquee and nearly every car with an open window is playing his music.

“I just wonder what he would think if he saw that … he was idolized. I don’t know if he knew he was loved,” Karlen says, pausing for a moment.

“I just wonder if he knew that. And I hope he did.”