Growing up in Minneapolis in the late-’80s/early-’90s, Prince might as well have been oxygen. He might as well have been water (or, more appropriately, snow). He might as well have been god.
It’s hard to explain how deeply Prince Rogers Nelson is embedded in the core DNA of the Twin Cities. It seemed, at times, as if he permeated everything, was everywhere, and was—in some strange way—both the manifestation of, and the driving force behind what made his hometown special to so many. While bands like The Replacements, Husker Dü, and The Suburbs were busy making Minneapolis rock, Prince was something else entirely—something otherworldly, and profoundly, unimaginably, unique.
When you’re young in the midwest, your concept of the world is a series of concentric circles: starting with you, expanding to include your house, then your neighborhood, and finally your city. And there, for a good long while, is where your understanding of pretty much everything begins and ends—at the city limits, beyond which everything is nebulous and vague. Your city is where you are, it’s where everything is, and for a generation of kids growing up under the ubiquity of Purple Rain on the radio, it was where Prince was, too. Not Prince, the international superstar, but Prince who lived where you lived, and who was, as a result, yours.
My parents used to bring me along to restaurants, strapped into my car seat, while they got used to the idea of leaving the house with their newborn son. If, however, “Purple Rain” came on the radio or jukebox (this being 1984, that meant “pretty much all the time”) they would pick me up, hold me upright, and “dance” me across the tables, singing along to the chorus.
As they tell the story, no one ever complained.
That could all be total bullshit, of course. But, when I hear that story, all I can think of is that a Minneapolis mom and dad, dancing their Minneapolis newborn, on the tables of a Minneapolis restaurant, while Minneapolis’ biggest pop star played on the radio, was just so right, no one could bring themselves to get upset over the egregious breach of personal space.
It was, of course, a two-way street. Prince’s adoration for his hometown helped make him a star in the first place. Purple Rain the movie is a veritable love letter to Minneapolis. First Avenue, the club where most of the film’s action takes place, is considered “the house that Prince built.” People around the world know to “purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka,” thanks to him. (For the record, I don’t think anyone actually does that. I sure didn’t.)
Long after the meteoric glow from Purple Rain had faded, Prince continued to live, record, and entertain in his hometown, throwing last-minute parties at his Paisley Park complex, just outside the Twin Cities, until his death. Hell, he even released a track that declared, in no uncertain terms, “Rock and Roll is Alive (And It Lives In Minneapolis).”
Now imagine being 10 years old, having a bit more of an understanding of the world outside your city’s limits, and hearing that message blast through the radio nonetheless. Prince wasn’t a star. He was your star.
There’s a story that not long after Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in the early 2000s—he was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist—he began to proselytize door to door in his hometown, and in 2003 found himself offering a copy of The Watchtower to a family of Orthodox Jews. It was Yom Kippur. (As the story was passed around the details morphed until—as I heard—he’d shown up unannounced, and began witnessing in the middle of a family’s passover seder.)
Oddly enough, I’ve never heard anyone from the Twin Cities Jewish community, in which I grew up, complain about this bizarre and religiously transgressive episode. “It’s Prince! What are you supposed to do??” is as close as I can recall to hearing any sort of backlash, such as it was.
It’s Prince. And in Minneapolis, that’s just how it works.
My childhood is littered with stories like this: Of Prince showing up at concerts, unannounced, only to plug in a guitar and join whatever lucky band happened to be on stage at the moment. Of Prince suddenly appearing in a store, or at a ball game, or simply walking down the street. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who knew him as a kid or bumped in to him on his way to super-stardom. He was always there, in the atmosphere.
Minneapolis without Prince is like the Northstar State without its North Star. It’s different. It’s less-than. Despite being so prodigiously brilliant and enchantingly unique, Prince was one of us.