Minneapolis: Blasts from the Past, Maid-Rites, and Prince

Why do I write about the travels I take? Part of it is because I have been doing travel writing for nearly 20 years so even though I didn’t take this particular trip to write about it, not writing about it seems weird and incomplete.

But the bigger reason is that I don’t remember anything anymore. Seriously, it’s like a big void up there for anything that isn’t right in front of my face so writing about my travel helps me with my fading recall skills. I go back and read some of these posts from a few years ago and some of it surprising. I did that? Huh. Okay…

So with that in mind, my adventures in Minneapolis and Chicago, mostly for my own reading pleasure but for yours also if you are bored and there’s nothing on TV.

Every year I go to Chicago around Memorial Day but this year I decided to add a couple of days in Minneapolis, specifically to go see Paisley Park, the former home and creative epicenter for the genius that was Prince. Those who know me know that I am a huge Prince fan – kinda crazy about the whole thing – so I figured that coming to the Midwest and NOT going would be downright stupid.

The uneventful flight into the city was a little late and traffic around the core of Downtown, where every single street is undergoing some sort of road construction, seemed to be conspiring against me. I was worried that I wasn’t going to make it to a planned dinner on time but I managed to check into the hotel and rush back out again to St. Paul so I didn’t really get a chance to pay attention to Minneapolis yet. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid – I think we did a choir competition or something there? (Karla will know) – but my first impression is that it looks like every other Midwest Downtown. I’m sure it’ll be lovely when they finish putting back in all the streets and stuff that they have ripped out for whatever reason (this becomes important on Day 2).

In the end though, I was only a few minutes late to the Red Cow, where I was meeting high school friends Jill and Dawn. These two were part of my choir set of friends so they were the ones my parents approved of. (As opposed to the drama friends, who were the ones that I went to bars with when I was 15, who were always viewed with suspicion by Pauline and Vern).

I haven’t seen either one of them in a decade or more so there was a lot of catching up to do – children (graduating college, ouch), jobs, relationships (my part of that piece of the conversation was brief), and the usual musings on the nature of friendship. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school but the ones I did have were deeply appreciated and we all slipped quickly back into familiar rhythms that erased the better part of the last 35-40 years since we roamed the halls of Linn-Mar High. Here we are, with them looking lovely and me looking like the Crypt Keeper.

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The Red Cow is a fancy burger joint in a cute neighborhood that looked like the kind you’d see springing up around a college, even though there wasn’t one right there. Although we were tempted by the caramel-bacon “puffcorn” (like popcorn but without the husks, Dawn helpfully explained) and the tater tot stroganoff (don’t ask), we started with homemade potato chips and French Onion dressing, which were good but the chips had that homemade thing where they aren’t quite as crispy/crunchy as the heavily processed and preserved kind that you get in bags from the supermarket. So more like potato chews? But they were good and the dip was fantastic.

I considered the Royale (pork belly, brie, and tomato jam) and the Cowboy (cheddar, onion rings, and root beer pulled pork!) but ultimately went a little simpler with the Patty Melt, with caramelized onions and Swiss on sourdough. The burger was thick and juicy and the flavor of it melded well with the toppings. A success except that I forgot to get a picture. Oh well. You have seen hamburgers before.

After bidding the ladies adieu, along with promises not to wait another ten plus years to see each other again, I went back to the city, relaxed a bit, and then went out to a couple of gay bars that were near to my hotel. The Brass Rail is sort of a lounge type space with a bar, couches, a small stage (with a stripper pole natch) and that’s about it. Apparently Tuesday night in Downtown Minneapolis is not exactly a hotbed of activity so I was one of four people in there watching the final moments of The Voice.

Chris Blue? Really? No, really?

So I went next door to the Gay 90s (sure) and there were not many more people in there but it was an interesting place. Supposed there are 6 different bars in the building but only two were open – the “Happy Hour” bar, which was just a bar with a jukebox, and the “90s Bar,” which had a small dance floor and this, presented without comment.

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No, I didn’t ride it. But I know some people who would.

I had a big day planned for Wednesday so I retired and then got up early-ish to go on a mini-road trip.

I was planning on starting at the Mary Tyler Moore statue, which is on the Nicollet Mall, a street of shops and restaurants. Well, that’s where it usually is. Where it is now was a mystery to the guys that had the entire street ripped up in the aforementioned construction nightmare. I’m sure it’ll be lovely.

Foiled there, I headed toward my second stop, the Mary Tyler Moore house – or at least the house that was used as the exterior in the show.

Actually it turns out I wasn’t heading there. I was heading in the opposite direction. See, I mentioned the road construction thing, which was EVERYWHERE, and apparently nobody bothered to notify Google Maps. So I head toward the on ramp to the freeway I needed to take and it was closed so I had no choice at that point but to get on a different freeway. No problem, Google Maps said, just go to the next exit about a mile down the road and turn around.

Except that exit was closed also.

The next exit is another two miles so Google Maps points me there and miracle of miracles it is open! Then Google Maps tells me to just get right back on the freeway in the opposite direction.

Except the on ramp wasn’t there anymore.

I got to see a lot of Minneapolis adjacent to the I-94. It’s nice.

What should have been a 12 minute drive took almost 45 but I eventually made it to the house and here is my photographic evidence.

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And yes it’s for sale if you’re interested.

Next on the agenda was lunch, in which I drove 60 miles for a sandwich. But not just any sandwich, a Maid-Rite. This was a beloved part of my childhood, these Midwest-staples are loose meat sandwiches that have a unique taste that is hard to describe. Unfortunately St. Cloud, Minnesota is the closest place that had a restaurant so that’s where I went. It made me very happy – totally worth the drive.

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Back south I went to the tiny town of Darwin to see the World’s Largest Twine Ball.

Now, there are many of these balls scattered around and all of them claim to be the largest in some way, shape, or form. Heck, the biggest twine ball in Branson, Missouri was the thing that inspired the original Plucky Survivors trips I took with Mary. While musing about what I would do for my birthday, I joking said, “Maybe I’ll just go see the biggest ball of twine” and Mary said, “Cool. Can I come?”

This one claims to be the biggest made by one man. Francis A. Johnson started it in 1950 and worked on it every day for four hours for 23 weeks. It is 13 feet in diameter, 40 feet in circumference, and weighs 17,400 pounds.

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I love random roadside ephemera like this. I’m not sure why it makes me happy other than perhaps it is a comfort that my obsessive compulsions are nowhere near as crazy as other people’s. Then again, I have accomplished nothing as impressive as a giant ball of twine.

Next stop was in Jordan, home to Minnesota’s largest candy store, which is called… Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store. So not very original, but points for simplicity.

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The place is a cavernous facility with what seems like acres of every type of candy you can imagine, from stuff they make there to name brands to retro confections to sweets from all over the world. It was a bit overwhelming, not just in its scope but in its overall je ne sais quoi, which took the candy colored theme, put a few sticks of dynamite in it, and exploded it all over the store. There was an Incredible Hulk statue, a phone booth from Dr. Who, random records that would start playing as you walked by, and more.

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Then add in all the parents with all of their children. Parents… really? Is this really where you want to take your hyperactive four year old? An actual overheard conversation: Parent: “What do you want?” Child: “ALL OF IT! AIIIGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.” The latter was delivered at a volume and high-pitched frequency that made a heard of gazelle at a watering hole in Africa all raise their heads at once.

I’m not saying don’t give them candy – I’m not a monster – but maybe you go and pick out a few things and bring them home?

I had a headache within five minutes so I blindly reached out and grabbed a few things and left. I got mint-flavored malt balls, chocolate chews, and some chocolate/caramel fudge, all from the homemade section. I had a bite or two of most of it and none of it was all that great so I walked away disappointed.

Next stop was a nearby casino because I’m me. It was a casino. Not much else to say about it except they only had blackjack for table games so no three card poker for me.

For dinner I went to a place called Revival, which serves southern fried goodness. Now, I have been disappointed with southern restaurants in the Midwest before – a visit to one in Chicago almost brought me to tears once. And I’m a total fried chicken, BBQ, and southern cooking snob. But this place was great.

Appetizers include classics like pork rinds with cheese sauce, pickled shrimp and pigs feet, fried green tomatoes, and johnnycakes but I was sure I wouldn’t be able to get through any of that and have room for the main course so I just headed straight for the fried chicken.

It comes in a variety of heats, and I’m not talking temperature. The southern fried is regular with no heat and then you can step up to the Tennessee hot and if you’re feeling especially adventurous you can go with the poultrygeist, which uses ghost peppers to make it especially fiery. I went with the regular southern fried because I have already had problems with my esophagus and didn’t feel like burning it out of my body. That and sides of mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

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Again, southern food snob, but it was as close to perfect as you’re going to get in Minneapolis. The chicken had a thick fried coating on it, done crunchy, with succulent meat. The mac and cheese also had a crunch in its top and then gooey goodness underneath and the mashed potatoes had a thick chicken-fried gravy on top. Excellent all the way around and I ate way too much food.

That evening I went out to a couple more gay bars (there are a surprising number of them in Minneapolis). Lush is a loungy, trendy space with a big bar, low-slung couches, and a nice outdoor patio. The Eagle/Bolt is a pair of bars, both trending toward the butcher crowd but packed that evening with a group of youngish people celebrating someone’s birthday with drunken karaoke. It was surprisingly fun.

The final day in Minneapolis was the best because that’s when I finally made it to Paisley Park.

Located about 20 miles to the southwest of Minneapolis, the facility was built to Prince’s exact specifications in the late 1980s. It originally contained four recording studios, a TV production studio, office space, living quarters, and more. After Prince died, they kept most of it the way it was but have converted some of the spaces to a wide-ranging museum honoring his life and his work.

This is the place where nearly 30 years of his creative genius was brought to life. Diamonds and Pearls was recorded here. The Sign O’ The Times concert film was shot here as was most of the movie Graffiti Bridge. Pretty much everything he recorded from 1987 on was done here at Paisley Park. And it’s not just Prince. Everyone from James Brown to Aretha Franklin recorded here.

And of course at the end of his life, this is where he was living and where he died.

Although, to be clear, I am choosing to believe that he is still alive, living on an island somewhere being followed around by two hot dancers who just randomly strike poses behind him whenever he stops moving.

The building itself is pretty boring from the outside…

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…and unfortunately they don’t let you take pictures of the inside, but as soon as you walk through the door you immediately see the kinds of detail that only Prince would think of. The walls of the lobby feature giant murals of him, multiple versions of his symbol, and a wall full of platinum and gold records.

I took the VIP tour (of course), which gets you more access and more cool stuff, but I’m not sure which parts of what I did were on the regular tour. Don’t risk it – it’s totally worth the $100 bucks.

Just beyond the lobby is the atrium, a sunny space with a giant Prince symbol on the floor underneath four pyramid shaped skylights. The walls are painted a fluffy blue with clouds and doves arching up toward the glass ceiling. In fact, on the second floor balcony overlooking the space are a pair of cages with Prince’s actual white doves in them. Right off of the atrium is a small kitchen with a lounge space, some tables, and a big TV.

This was one of Prince’s favorite spots in the building, where he would often sit, write, talk, or meditate and let the sunlight shine down on him. That’s why they chose this space for the urn that contains his ashes.

Or the ashes of whoever is in there because, Prince… living on an island.

Surrounding the atrium are a series of offices that have been turned into exhibit space themed around some of his albums. The Dirty Mind section has a guitar from the era and a hand-written notebook of lyrics. The Sign ‘O The Times room has costumes, instruments, and the concert video (which is amazing and I am hoping they are going to re-release it at some point).

Also along here is his private office, all done in rich gold tones with a surprisingly small desk in a corner. I know he wasn’t a big man physically but you think of Prince in outsized terms and so this seemed incongruous.

A black-light lit meditation room leads into an editing room, which has a giant purple couch and a full suite of equipment. They showed some clips of concerts, backstage stuff, and more and our guide told us that he recorded everything on video… every concert, every pre-show sound check, everything. I read recently that the people responsible for going through the vault of his unreleased material has barely made a dent in it in the year since he died. I got a little light-headed thinking about it.

Next was Studio B, which is still all analog, the way Prince preferred to record (he’d digitize it later). I lost track of which albums they said he did there, but it was a lot of them, although he hadn’t used it as much recently. Why? Because that’s where he kept one of his ping pong tables. He loved ping pong, which makes me happy. They even let you play if you are so inclined. I declined at first but the tour guide goaded me and I did surprisingly well. I’m sure Prince could’ve kicked my ass.

This is where they also let you get interactive. You can get a souvenir photo in front of one of his signature purple pianos and, if you go on Thursday, you can step into the control room and actually record yourself singing over one of Prince’s songs. I did Raspberry Beret. They give you the photos and the recording on a flash drive to take with you.

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Then it’s on to the main studio A, much bigger, with lots of wood, tapestries on the wall, and isolation booths. Inside the control room are the synth and drum machine that created much of the sound for Purple Rain and a lot of his other signature songs. There’s a big boom mic hanging over the master control panel because Prince would often record by himself so he had to do everything. Interesting tidbit – he liked to sing sitting down when he recorded.

Outside the studio is a wall of influences, both artists that influenced him (James Brown, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, etc.) and those that he influenced (everyone from Sheila E. to The Time and beyond). It made happy for some reason that the closet people to him in the mural were Wendy and Lisa. I don’t know why.

Next was a big, high-ceilinged room that started its life as a basketball court. Later it became a dance studio and now is being used as the Purple Rain room. There are costumes, murals, the piano used in the movie (complete with scuff marks on top of it from his heels), a motorcycle, and more. Adjacent to that is another room that has been converted into spaces for his two other movies, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge.

The final stops are the cavernous sound stage and the adjacent night club. The stage has a huge projection of Prince performing live on one wall and various stages set up with memorabilia and information from his various concert tours. There’s also his powder blue Bentley and purple Prowler on display. This and the neighboring space, a lounge with a VIP area, mixing turntables, and lots of couches, was where he’s have his frequent dance parties that would sometimes go until dawn.

And of course the gift shop. I bought a bag, a hoodie, and two symbol necklaces. That I didn’t buy 12 t-shirts, a slouchy cap, posters, and coffee mugs is shocking.

Being as much of a Prince fan as I was, it shouldn’t be surprising that I thought this was a phenomenal experience. I only got teary eyed twice – once when they pointed out the urn and once when they showed the small selection of tributes fans left on the fence for Paisley Park after his (not true) death. Prince made me understand the possibility of music and I was blown away to see a little bit of how he lived and created.

They say more will be added over the coming years so I fully intend to go back someday.

I headed from there directly to the airport, blasting DMSR and Let’s Go Crazy at full volume.

On the next update, Chicago!