Prince, Creative Genius Behind the “Minneapolis Sound”

Prince at Super Bowl XLI

Forget six degrees of separation. If you’ve lived in Minneapolis since the late 1970s, you’re likely connected to Prince by two, maybe three degrees. It seems everybody knows–or knows someone who knows- a photographer, musician,  club owner, music writer, costume designer, or ad agency exec who had a direct connection to Prince.

I arrived in Minneapolis in 1977, and it was around the time when you’d see articles in the local entertainment weekly, The Reader, about Prince Rogers Nelson, a local teenage prodigy, who had a mind-blowing talent to cross genres and play guitar with a skill compared to Hendrix. I’m not sure I saw it coming, but others (at least in retrospect) say they predicted his rise to the highest strata of artists–right up there with Elvis, Dylan and the Beatles. I knew his passing was a big deal, but I was not quite prepared for the non-stop coverage it has received in the past days–not just from the local media, but internationally. Typical Minnesota humility, I suppose, but even Super Bowl performances, Oscar wins and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame status couldn’t quite convince us that a global superstar was among us.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

And he was. It’s now common knowledge that he frequented the Electric Fetus record store and the Dakota jazz club. Local acts still can find their way onto the stage at First Avenue, made famous for its role in “Purple Rain.” I used to drive by Paisley Park in the innocuous white-bread suburb of Chanhassen on my way to my son’s baseball games. The building was white, but otherwise not noteworthy–hardly the architectural counterpart to Prince’s camera-magnet wardrobe.

Maybe I’m a homer, but there’s something about this state that seems to breed creative originals. In addition to Prince, there’s Dylan, of course, but also the Coen Brothers and Garrison Keillor, to name a few. These are people who rewrite the rules of their art, who originate whole genres, who refuse to fall into predictable paths. A Swedish creative director I know, who worked for a time in Minneapolis, speculated that people from Nordic climates have more time to ruminate, imagine, experiment, perfect. A long, dark winter is a  better environment for creative introspection than a sunny surf beach.

“Cream” on MTV Unplugged

I imagine Prince Rogers Nelson, who went to high school 20 blocks north of me, spent his time this way, listening intently to music and tinkering with the pianos and guitars that came his way. Breakthrough artists often come from unlikely places–Liverpool, Tupelo, Lubbock, Hibbing. Prince was one of the true originals. In the past few days, I’ve heard him called our generation’s Mozart, the one artist who will still be talked about 50, 100 years from now. For once, it doesn’t sound like hyperbole.