Sunday, May 15, 2016
On Paisley Park
The pop musician, Prince, was apparently a pragmatic man. The logic behind the location of his recording studio qua concert hall and living compound in west Chanhassen is clear: the complex is immediately west of the international airport, a completely straight shot on Interstate 494 with an exit continuing west on Highway 5. In 1988, freeways in the southwest Twin Cities metro were relatively uncongested – at most times of day, a traveler westbound on 494 from the airport would encounter only light traffic. And west of the big looping bend that the freeway makes to the north, where the exit ramp rolled down to the two-lane blacktop in Eden Prairie, highway 5 would have been rural, empty, a passageway between swamps vibrant with birds and little pothole lakes in shady valleys. There would have been corn fields showing yellow tassels in August and dairy farms with century-old barns on the hillsides. The steeple of the Catholic church in Chanhassen would have been the tallest structure in this part of the suburbs and a traveler west-bound to Paisley Park would glimpse the old cemetery filled with the graves of German and Bohemian pioneers under the field rock walls of the sanctuary. The trip from the airport to Prince’s studio would have required less than a half-hour without the complication of entering any cities – in those days, there would have been two (or three at the most) traffic lights on west Highway 5.
Of course today, the city has sprawled westward another dozen miles beyond the edge of the suburbs where Paisley Park was located in 1988. Traffic congests and creeps stop/start westward from Highway 100 in west Bloomington out to the old Vikings training camp in Eden Prairie and the exits to the mall. The ramp downslope to Highway 5 still sluices traffic efficiently onto the westbound highway, but the pleasant hills and dairy farms are all gone now, replaced by big box stores and car dealerships and anonymous-looking corporate headquarters, "graceless growth." The marshes have been drained and converted into narrow and limpid water features discreetly screened by cattails between the parking lots of francise restaurants, Perkins and Applebees and Boston Market freestanding in front of strip malls and gated communities. I never knew exactly where Prince’s compound was located and, so, I think I have probably driven by it twenty or more times without paying any attention at all to the structure – it’s just another corporate building, a windowless three-story white facade with a pretentious entry over which there is the spike of a little chalk-colored pyramid; the entrance juts out into the parking lot at an acute angle to the featureless office building and to the east of the large structure, there is a curious round tower shaped like a fat silo and also faced with some kind of practical building material, white walls smooth and easily cleaned it seems, as if made from a hard, resilient polyvinyl of some sort.
On Mother’s day 2016, about three weeks after Prince’s death, a small jam of traffic is standing at the stoplight on Audubon Road, the cross-street that names Paisley Park’s address. The cyclone fence around the buildings located on the south side of Highway 5 and across a frontage road is densely decorated with purple mementos, balloons half-dead or dying, banks of decaying flowers and innumerable small pictures and placards woven into the wire. Traffic is directed off Highway 5 by right turn to the north into a conveniently located parking lot for the Carver County park surrounding Lake Ann. Left turn onto Audubon is forbidden – the intersection is blocked by a row of sawhorse-shaped orange barricades. A neatly lettered and official-looking sign points the way to "Memorial Parking" and, at the crossroads with the frontage road running along the south side of Highway 5 another sign directs traffic to "Memorial Overflow Parking." From the Lake Ann parking lot, a paved trail leads past some tennis courts down to a pedestrian underpass, an arched way that burrows under Highway 5 and surfaces as sidewalk running parallel to the frontage road on the south side of the four-lane highway. Another sidewalk ascends a slight rise toward the intersection between the south frontage road and Audubon – this sidewalk runs parallel to the north elevation of Paisley Park, the square-cut panels of white plastic glistening in the sun about 50 yards beyond the decorated fence. On the other side of the fence, protected from the crowd, a few mature and dignified evergreens rooted in redwood and cedar mulch cast shade over the empty lot where Prince’s employees once parked their cars. At the corner of the fence, a locked gate keeps the curious out of the compound – just beyond the gate, there is a car marked as private security aggressively parked kitty-corner to the entrance, something distressing about the angle that the car makes with the entrance boulevard, an indication that the vehicle is not merely parked but also positioned so as to block and obstruct – this might remind visitors about the way that the "little red corvette" was parked in that song.
I guess I should have known
By the way you parked your car sideways
That it wouldn’t last
You’re the kinda person
That believes in makin’ out once
Love ‘em and leave ‘em fast...
The Lake Ann parking lot is mostly full – suburban SUVs and vans. The atmosphere in the lot is cautiously festive. It reminds me of parking at the zoo: trim mothers in white tennis outfits unloading strollers from the backs of their vehicles, small children loitering between cars and complaining loudly that they are thirsty or hungry, families setting off along the paths toward the attraction, grass trampled and brown along the most direct routes to Prince’s compound. Some vehicles are cautiously backing, others prowling the lot looking for spaces, mothers unfolding their strollers, adults all wearing sunglasses against the glare hanging in the bright, hazy air – the north country is burning and the smoke has migrated to the Cities and sky wears a pale pall.
On the curving walls of the arched underpass, people have written memorial slogans, little clouds of words penciled on the whitewashed surface. A single votive candle decorated with the Virgin Mary sits against the wall and there is a small shrine at one under of the tunnel. The sidewalk climbs up to the long fence festooned with purple decorations. People are gathered there, inspecting the objects suspended in the wire. The site is no longer about mourning. Rather, everyone is now focused on studying the artifacts that the mourners have left – it is self-reflexive, a mirror reflecting a mirror; the people quietly whispering to one another on the sidewalk parallel to the decorated fence are mostly concerned with the memorials and not the loss that they signify, although both elements are entwined. The helium balloons affixed to the fence have gone flat, and now hang sourly wrinkled, like the skins shed by some kind of globular reptile. There are many pancaked balloons like withered purple shields tangled in the fence alongside drawings and paintings of Prince – curiously, there are almost no photographs, but instead hand-sketches, some of them bearing verse inscriptions, tapestries showing Prince on his motorcycle or writhing over his guitar, innumerable flowers and xeroxed copies of songs and lyrics, some huge sheets of cardboard entirely covered with minuscule signatures, a sort of registry by the locked gate and the sinister security car parked sideways just inside the fence. A couple of trees near the fenceline have been decorated with tinsel and purple Christmas tree ornaments and close to the gate an elaborate display has as its centerpiece a box of twinkies and cans of spaghettios. People peruse the fence-line looking for things that interest them and, sometimes, they step back and away from the sidewalk, into the marshy strip of boulevard to take pictures with their I-Pads and cellphones. The white ramparts of Paisley Park are expressionless. Two little girls who look like they were born around 2008 are signing the cardboard sheets.
Angelica and I walk up the sidewalk to Audubon. The fence extends a long way to the south and it is all patched and tangled with purple and there are people admiring the fence, most of them dressed in white clothing as if for a picnic, a long, sober, soft-spoken queue that extends as far as I can see along the perimeter of the property.
Prince was priapic, a sort of satyr or, more precisely, a faun. If you are a certain age, your memories of Prince are entangled with your own intimate memories about sex and desire. Curiously enough, Lake Ann, now a Carver County Park, has precisely these associations for me. The green-space across the Highway 5 from Paisley Park is an erotic monument in my imagination. Here is what I can tell you about that place.
In High School, my best friend was a kid named Ben H–. Ben arrived in Eden Prairie a year after me – probably around 10th grade. Ben played trombone and sat next to me in the band.
Ben was gregarious. He was interested in girls and spent much of his time flirting with them. Ben was also a math and science genius. In 12th grade, he corrected a professor’s quantum mechanics formulae at Hamline University where we attended night classes there relating to laser technology. After High School, he attended CalTech in Pasadena and excelled – he studied with Richard Feynman and other famous physicists.
In High School, Ben developed an interest in a plump girl who also played trombone. Her first name was Eena. At band camp, Ben and Eena wandered away from the group together on the last night of the program. I recall that we had gone to a chapel deep in the woods, a dozen or so kids, and, when we discovered the doors to the little wood-frame church were open, we went inside and sat in the pews. I climbed up into the pulpit to see what it feel like to preach but didn’t say a word. Ben and Eena slipped away and were gone for a half hour. One of the counselors came from the cabins by the lake to supervise our activities in the chapel. We sang a few hymns. When Ben and Eena returned from their stroll in the woods, both of them looked a little afraid and astonished – it was as if they had encountered some wild and amazing thing in the darkness. I walked with them from the church back toward our cabins. They both seemed a little out of breath and I recall that the light inside the church shone through its stained glass windows imparting a rich and somber color to them.
The relationship with Eena didn’t survive Ben’s first year at Caltech. In his second year, at Christmas time when he was home in snowy Minnesota, Ben began seeing a girl that lived across the street from me – her name was Paula. Paula was an athletic girl with an impressively fit figure. She had high Slavic cheekbones and, always, seemed a bit disgruntled to me. Ben wrote to her from Pasadena. He confessed to me that he had not been able to persuade her to have sex with him, but that he hoped to accomplish this achievement in the summer when he returned to Minnesota. (I think he had several girlfriends in Pasadena at that time.)
In June, when Ben was back in Minnesota, he asked me to camp out with him for a couple nights at the little beach at Lake Ann. Although I don’t recall the exact circumstances, a film production company was shooting a Coca-Cola advertisement at the lake. Ben, who worked part-time as a life-guard at the Lake Ann beach, had been hired to watch the film-equipment at night, after the day’s production was completed. He said that it would be a lonely job without company and, so, he invited me to spend the night with him. In fact, he planned to spend at least some of that same night with his girlfriend, Paula, and was counting on me to maintain sentinel duty at the lake while he was dallying with her. I was still a virgin at that time and the whole enterprise seemed perversely exciting and romantic to me.
In those days, Chanhassen, well known for its Dinner Theater and the austere Catholic church with its steeple pointing the way to heaven for the old pioneers buried in its adjacent cemetery was where the west Twin Cities ended. Beyond Chanhassen, Highway 5 rolled across prairie and swamp toward Victoria, a crossroads where the houses were all dilapidated and had wrecked cars parked on the grass, and, then, Waconia, a real farm town shadowed by a big grain elevator above its railroad siding, a couple hardware stores on its old, red brick main street. In High School, we ran track against the kids at Waconia, big, lumbering square-headed farm boys, strong but slow, plow-boys with unusual scars on their faces and unpronounceable Slovenian names. Beyond Waconia with its big, round, and shallow lake, always drifted with algae in the summer, the two-lane highway ran past forlorn villages, place known to the larger world only when threatened, or demolished, by tornadoes: Norwood - Young America, Glencoe, Granite Falls, and ultimately the remote border with South Dakota. This was 1974, fourteen years before Prince built his Xanadu on the cow-pasture south of 5 near the gravel turn-off leading cross-country to the beach at Lake Ann.
Lake Ann was an oblong and nondescript body of water, overlooked by a grove of trees and disorderly brush along one of its shores. The little forest was, in fact, a shelter belt planted for a long vanished farm that once graced one of the knolls above the water. The shelter-belt was now feral and deer and muskrats lived in its green and tangled shadows. Soy-bean and corn fields edged the other side of the lake, the orderly row-crops rising above a foul-smelling muddy marsh full of belching and chirping frogs. The public beach made a brown arc along the south side of the lake, a hundred yards or so, roped-off from the cornfields on one side and the woods wild with poison-ivy and poison-oak on the opposing shore. The beach was reached by a gravel road that ran a third of a mile from Highway 5, surmounting a small hill, also cultivated in row-crops, before descending to the glazed and motionless waters brimming up to the beach. There was a tiny gravel parking lot, a throne-like white tower for the life-guard, and, then, a narrow dirt track that meandered away from the lake to wind through the corn and bean fields.
Ben drove a Mustang and I rode with him down Highway 5 and, then, over the bumpy gravel lane to the beach. A kid wearing a production company lanyard met us at the padlocked gate to the City beach. We shook hands and he, then, departed on his motorcycle. (We left the gate unlocked because Ben was expecting his girlfriend, Paula, later that night.) All of the film crew’s gear was piled up in pyramidal heap and covered with a tarpaulin. We peeked under the tarp and saw some carts, a couple of big cameras, and a stack of lights in silver reflective shells – there was some narrow-gage track so that the camera could be pushed along the beach on the wheeled metal carts. This was years before Steadi-Cam became ubiquitous in the industry. The professional equipment looked a little battered – this stuff was a collection of scuffed-up and dented tools. We had brought a 12-pack of beer and so we sat at a picnic table overlooking the beach, drinking as we watched the sun set over the wooded western edge of Lake Ann. The film company had trucked in a couple of tons of silica-white sand and this had been dumped in a kind of square crater excavated onto the beach. A volleyball net was hanging limply in the middle of the bright white sand. The native sand at the beach was dull grey with veins of brown earth extruding and it didn’t have the glamorous ambience of the glittering white sand lying in soft, pillow-like hummocks in the volley-ball court. The sand signified the pale and perfect flesh of Los Angeles starlets, the spectacle of Hollywood – "I was here earlier in the day," Ben said, "and you should have seen the girls in their bathing suits." "Did you talk to them?" I asked. "They wouldn’t give me the time of day," Ben said, adding: "Just like the girls you meet in Pasadena." He sighed.
It was very hot and storms were threatening. Heat-lightning flared against the horizon. The mosquitos rose from the grass around the picnic tables and we had to spray ourselves with peppery insect repellant, a sticky plume of aerosol that smelled like vodka and made your nose run. It was tornado weather and, as the darkness advanced, we heard the horizons all growling with thunder.
Ben’s girlfriend, Paula, was working as a waitress somewhere. After ten o’clock, she appeared, tentatively walking down toward our encampment from the parking spaces on the low hill above the lake. Paula was tired and still wearing her waitress uniform. Complete silence reigned at the lake and there was no trace of a breeze. The branches of the weary old trees in the shelter belt were motionless and the lake was a black pearl, completely impenetrable, a round, dense globe under the night-sky. No stars twinkled above, although, sometimes, we saw lightning arc from cloud to cloud overhead. Ben and I had pitched a tent a few yards from the edge of the beach and we had a Coleman lantern shining brightly on the picnic table where we were seated. The approaching tempest had silenced the frogs and, even, the crickets. Nothing moved and the only sound was our voices rising and falling against the great domed and cathedral-like silence.
The three of us drank some more beer. After awhile, Ben began to caress Paula. She made a mewling sound and pushed his hand away. He asked her if she wanted to go for a ride. She nodded her head in assent and they went to the Mustang. I sat alone at the picnic table listening to the car as it thumped over the gravel road, heading back toward the gate at Highway 5. The sky flashed at intervals of ten or fifteen seconds and, when the lightning illumined the sky, I could see tattered shreds of grey clouds fleeing a disturbance in the west, a great shuddering skirt of inky storm that hung like a half-raised curtain over the remote hills and woods. The cannonade of lightning was so far away that I heard the thunder as nothing more than a very deep, continuous and shuddering note, a faint, howling roar that sounded like many waters hurling themselves over the edge of a precipice. I was reading Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, making good progress with my head bent over the book in the silent circle of white light cast by the Coleman lantern. A long time passed, forty or fifty pages worth I think, and the night overhead remained barren of stars, a toppling chaos of shredded clouds when the lightning flared. There was a boom and something crashed to earth in the woods and, for a moment, I saw the lake like a black and shrouded mirror, still smooth as glass. The thunder came closer now and I could hear the blast of the lightning striking nearby fields, shells of fire exploding on the other side of the lake. The page beneath me suddenly was bedewed and a cold splash of water hit my neck. I ran to the tent. Lightning speared the lake and I saw the volley-ball court with its gleaming white sand flashing bright as day. The first gust of wind tore the volley ball net free from its stanchion and it billowed in the gale like a pennant.
The storm lasted for a few minutes. It knocked the tent over on me, so I had to claw my way out of the wet canvas. The tarpaulin on the movie equipment was dislodged and I yanked it back over the generators and the gas cans and the lights and cameras. Fish came to the surface of the lake and opened their mouths in the drizzle of rain that came at the tail-end of the tempest. A big tree limb had fallen into the lake and rested like a broken plow half-drowned in the water.
Another hour passed. I tried to read the novel, but my eyes ached. Steamy, tropical heat bore down on the shadowy landscape and it was hard to breathe. Mosquitos twitched in and out of my nostrils, choking me.
I heard the Mustang and, then, Ben and Paula were standing next to the half-collapsed tent.
"It was quite a storm," I said.
They were both soaking wet.
"We got very wet," Ben said.
"Very wet," Paula said.
The remnants of her make-up were drizzled down her cheeks like rivulets of black tears.
I looked at them very closely for signs of what they had done. I knew that they had achieved knowledge that is not written in poems or books, knowledge that you can not discover even in Samuel Beckett or Shakespeare. Everyone knows what sex looks like from the outside, but, of course, the essence of sexual experience is that it has no outside – it is a topological anomaly, an object of inquiry that is falsified when understood from outside, an interior that is without an exterior. Whatever it was, the two of them now possessed it jointly, the infamous wisdom that is no wisdom at all, the illumination that is mostly an obscure darkness.
Paula said that she had to get up early in the morning and, so, she went to her car. Ben drove behind her to the gate so that he could secure the padlock after she left. I heard her car accelerating down Highway 5. There was no traffic, not even a truck in the far distance, shifting for a hill. Some stars came out and we could see that the storm had washed some of the brown and grey sand into the creamy-white silica of the volleyball court.
Soon it would be dawn.
The rain sounds so cool when it hits the barn roof,
And the horses wonder who you are,
Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees,
You feel like a movie star.
They say the first time ain’t the greatest,
But I tell ya,
If I had the chance to do it all again,
I wouldn’t change a single stroke,
‘Cause baby I’m the most
With a girl as fine as she was then...