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Crossing Paths with Prince, the Rock Star

 

Almost exactly a month ago, in the morning of Thursday, April 21, 2016, I turned on my car radio in Minneapolis and heard the news that the world-renowned rock star Prince had died. In the following hours and days, there was an outpouring of grief, not only in the Twin Cities but around the world.

People flocked to First Avenue, the entertainment center that was the scene of Prince’s iconic film, “Purple Rain”. They gathered on the sidewalk near the star that had been painted on a wall (along with dozens of others) with Prince’s name. That evening, First Avenue became the scene of an all-night concert in the late rock star’s honor. Others paid their homage to Prince at Paisley Park in Chanhassen (twenty miles to the southwest from First Avenue) where his dead body had been found in an elevator.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, the thirteen largest in the United States, has a population of over three million persons. It is therefore unlikely that I, even as a 50-year resident of this community, would personally have encountered Prince, especially being a white man of a previous generation. But I have; and this is the story.

I was living mostly in the St. Paul area in the 1970s and 1980s when Prince grew up and began his musical career. I moved to Minneapolis at the beginning of 1990. One evening in the fall of 1985, as I was returning to my St. Paul residence after a day of work, I sat next to a young black woman on the bus. We struck up a conversation. It happened that this woman, Linda L., lived around the corner from me, sharing an apartment with another woman. A month or so later, Linda showed up at my door. There had been a fire at her residence and she was homeless. And so for a few months, Linda stayed with me.

It turned out that Linda was an aspiring musician from Illinois who had come to the Twin Cities not only because her mother lived here but also because she wanted to connect with Prince and his musical entourage. As a singer, she had won an amateur talent contest at First Avenue. But Prince’s inner circle was hard to crack.

In December 1985, Linda moved to St. Louis to be with an old boy friend, Ern, who soon died. Then she moved on to Denver, living there for a few years. We stayed in touch. In early December 1990, Linda came briefly back to the Twin Cities to visit her mother. Also, she had a connection with Prince’s drummer. He had arranged for her to visit Paisley Park.

I drove Linda out to Paisley Park. It was the first time I had been to Chanhassen. Linda said she would try to get me admitted to Prince’s complex. After dropping her off at the door, I should wait in the car for twenty minutes or so and then return. The security staff questioned me intensely when I showed up at the door. Then Linda appeared. “Hi, Bill,” she said, and the security staff thought I had a legitimate reason to be there. I was admitted without further difficulty.

I immediately recognized Prince who was talking with a taller man, most likely his brother, in a small room near the hallway. I spoke a few words with him and shook hands. Then I moved on to a larger room where refreshments were served. I spent much of the evening talking with a middle-aged man who turned out to be Prince’s father. After an hour or so, Linda and I returned to Minneapolis.

This was one of only two times when I saw Prince in person. The other time, several years later, was when I happened to visit a night club in downtown Minneapolis called “Pacific Club” after practicing with a singing group. Prince, in full dress regalia, was standing near the door. I could only stare at him in amazement. Suddenly, Prince bolted for the door and climbed into a limo on the street. I recognized some of the same security people as those at Paisley Park. But I had obviously blown my chances for another meaningful encounter with Prince.

Years passed. Linda moved on from Denver to the Las Vegas area where she took courses to obtain her Ph.D. and become a college professor at UNLV. She married a man, Rick, who was a computer specialist. We exchanged Christmas cards every year. I briefly met Linda and her husband in Las Vegas when I visited that city with my wife and step-daughter around 2008. She looked as young and vibrant as ever.

In the meanwhile, I had bought a four-plex in the Harrison neighborhood of Minneapolis across the street from the apartment building where I had moved after leaving St. Paul. I later bought my own apartment building and then a condemned duplex across the street. So I was beginning to acquire a stake in this neighborhood.

Over the years, information about Prince’s early years began to emerge. He came from a broken home, living in several houses in north Minneapolis for short periods of time. One of them was in Harrison. I think it was the house on the west side of Newton Avenue North bordering Olson highway. My information is that Prince’s half sister still lives there. This is about six blocks from where I now live. But Prince also lived north of Olson highway and perhaps west of Penn Avenue. He lived in several places in this part of town.

Therefore, although most news reports connect him with the Bryant junior high and Central high school in south Minneapolis, Prince’s boyhood roots were really in north Minneapolis. But community leaders in that part of the city seem uninterested in this. Racial victimhood is their game and Prince’s superstar career does not fit the narrative.

In short, my personal contact with Prince peaked twenty-five years ago. Ironically, I have often come to Chanhassen in the intervening years, not to visit Paisley Park but to attend monthly religious services at the Temple of Eck (Eckankar) which is also on highway 5, a mile closer to Minneapolis than Paisley Park. Prince himself became a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. So our religious paths never crossed.

In all those years since 1990, I visited Paisley Park only once when a group of people from Eckankar attended a musical performance put on for the community. Prince himself did not attend that event. He was then “the Artist formerly known as Prince”. Persons attending the performance received free audio tapes of music that Prince, the Artist, was then developing.

Like many others, I digested the news reports that Prince’s airplane from Atlanta to the Twin Cities had made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois, a week before Prince’s death. He had received medical care there which might have saved his life. Then Prince hosted another community event at Paisley Park on the weekend of April 16th and 17th. He had bought records at stores in Minneapolis. He had been seen riding a bicycle. Prince seemed to be in good spirits. His health was evidently on the mend. Then suddenly came the report of his death.

During the past month, Prince has often been in the news, both locally and nationally. Law-enforcement types are swarming over Paisley Park, looking for evidence of drug abuse or other wrongdoing. Suspicion has centered upon a doctor from California and another associated with North Memorial Hospital.

My thoughts naturally turned to Linda who had introduced me to Prince those many years ago. I sent her a Sunday supplement in the Star Tribune newspaper devoted to Prince. We spoke on the telephone several times. But it was our last telephone conversation that delivered a bombshell.

Linda said that there had been news reports that an associate of Prince named Kirk Johnson was being investigated for possible wrongdoing in relation to drugs. This was Prince’s “drummer” - Linda’s contact to him those many years ago. But, as recent reports indicate, he was also much more, both to Linda and to Prince.

It turned out that Kirk Johnson, six years younger than he, was Prince’s closest friend. He was best man at Prince’s wedding to Mayte Garcia in 1996. Johnson was also the manager of Paisley Park when Prince died. But after Prince’s death, he promptly dropped out of sight during an extended period of mourning.

Linda told me that her sister, then living on James Avenue in Minneapolis, had once dated Kirk Johnson. They had briefly lived together in 1985. Linda had lived there, too, shortly before she moved to St. Paul and became acquainted with me. So Linda knew “Prince’s drummer” quite well.

As of this writing, Kirk Johnson’s relationship with Prince and his role in Prince’s death have barely been discussed in public. I suspect that law-enforcement and medical types are looking for foul play in Prince’s tragic death a month ago. Kirk Johnson was Prince’s close friend. I hope the authorities leave him alone.

***** *** ***** *** ***** *** *****

The above narrative centers upon Linda Lockett, who in December 1990 arranged for me to meet Prince at his Paisley Park complex. She also provides a connection to Kirk Johnson, Prince’s closest friend who was manager of Paisley Park at the time of his death.

But I also have a connection to Prince through real-estate facilities that played a role in our respective lives. Let me mention two: (1) the Greyhound station in Minneapolis that became First Avenue and (2) the neighborhood in north Minneapolis where Prince’s father once lived and where I continue to live.

 

1. In the first week of January 1965, I took a Greyhound bus from New York City to Minneapolis, Minnesota, intending to live there. It was a fateful decision. Now 75 years of age, I have spent most of my life in Minnesota and am still there.

The bus from New York by way of Chicago arrived at the Greyhound station in downtown Minneapolis, on 1st Avenue, several blocks away from the YMCA on 9th Street where I was a resident for my first two months in Minnesota. I may or may not have ever set foot in the Greyhound station again since my arrival in town. However, the Twin Cities area has remained my home for more than 50 years.

In 1968 - three years after my arrival - the Minneapolis Greyhound station moved to a new location. Allan Fingerhut, from a prominent merchandizing family, purchased the facility and converted it into an entertainment venue known as The Depot, which opened in April 1970. It later became known as First Avenue & 7th Street Entry.

As a young entertainer, Prince frequently performed at the club in downtown Minneapolis known as “First Avenue”. It was here that, in 1984, the iconic film, “Purple Rain”, was made. Prince’s name and reputation are indelibly linked to First Avenue whose exterior displays stars with the names of prominent musicians who had performed there. Prince’s star, now painted gold, is conspicuously placed near the front door.

 

2. Although Prince lived and worked in Chanhassen, Minnesota, for most of his life, his family roots are in north Minneapolis. Prince and his sister, Tyka, lived in several places not far from where I now live (at 1702 Glenwood Avenue) in their younger days.

Prince’s parents, Mattie Della Shaw and John Lewis Nelson, lived at 915 Logan Avenue North in Minneapolis from 1958 to 1965 during the first seven years of Prince’s life. 915 Logan Avenue north is one block west of Knox (where I now live) and one and a half blocks north of Olson highway, or about six blocks from my present home.

In March 1965, the family moved to a newly purchased home at 2620 8th Avenue North. This is is one block north of Olson highway and 5 blocks west of Penn, or about eleven blocks from my home. (Olson highway is three blocks north of me. Penn Avenue is six blocks west.)

Prince’s father also purchased a house at 539 Newton Avenue north where Prince lived for a time. This is three blocks west of me and three blocks north.

Things start to become interesting (from my standpoint) after Prince’s parents divorced in September 1967. Prince’s father moved to an apartment building at 1707 Glenwood Avenue North (unit 105) in 1970 and stayed there through 1972. The father, John Lewis Nelson, then bought a house at 539 Newton Avenue North where he lived until the mid 1980s. By that time, Prince had become a superstar, headquartered in Chanhassen. Prince’s father then moved into his son’s former house in Chanhassen where he lived until his death in 2001.

But let’s focus on the period from 1970 (when Prince was 12 years old) until the mid 1980s.

Prince’s father, John Lewis Nelson, lived for two years, from 1970 to 1972, in an apartment building at 1707 Glenwood Avenue in unit 105. I presently own a smaller apartment building directly across from this at 1708 Glenwood. I also own a duplex at 1715 Glenwood Avenue which is on the lot immediately west of the apartment building where Prince’s father once lived. In fact, I also used to own the vacant lot immediately east of that apartment building but sold it several years ago. In any event, my present and past real-estate holdings surround the place where Prince’s father lived for two years in the early 1970s.

Prince’s father lived for at least ten years, starting in 1972 or 1973, at 539 Newton Avenue North in Minneapolis. I used to jog several times a week to the statute of former Governor Floyd B Olson, on Olson highway near Penn which is less than a block from Prince’s father’s former home. Prince himself either lived there or frequently visited his father at the Newton Avenue house. His Wikipedia biography says that Prince shuttled between living with his father and with his mother (at 2620 8th Avenue North) before moving into the home of neighbors called Anderson whose son was Prince’s close friend, Andre Cymone.

In any event, Prince’s father was living in the Harrison neighborhood of Minneapolis (where I now live) from the time that Prince was 12 years old until he was in his early or mid twenties. This was a formative period in Prince’s musical career. His coming out as a performer took place at the Capri theater in Minneapolis on January 5 and 6, 1979. Therefore, while Paisley Park in Chanhassen may be the focus of Prince veneration, north Minneapolis should not be forgotten.

The following is taken from a blog by Jay Gabler written for Minnesota public radio. Published in September 2016, it reveals certain information concerning Prince‘s early life that is of interest here:

“Prince’s parents, Mattie Della Shaw and John Lewis Nelson, married Aug. 31, 1957 in Northwood, Iowa. Prince himself was born at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis on June 7, 1958.

When Prince was born, his parents lived at 2201 5th Ave. S., Apt. 203 just a few blocks from the hospital. On New Year’s Eve 1958, when Prince was still a baby, his parents moved to 915 Logan Ave. N. The family lived here when Prince’s sister Tyka was born on May 18, 1960.

On March 25, 1965 — when Prince was seven years old — his parents purchased a house at 2620 8th Ave. N. They retained ownership of the Logan Avenue house. The marriage between John and Mattie was failing, and Mattie filed for divorce in September 1967. The divorce decree gave Mattie ownership of the Logan house.

In 1970, Mattie remarried, to a man named Hayward Baker, and that couple continued to reside at 8th Ave. N. It seems to be here on 8th Ave., then, where Prince primarily resided from 1965 to at least 1970. This is probably the actual house where Prince first took a serious interest in music and started to write songs on his father’s piano, and where he was able to play the instrument even more freely after his dad moved out.

From 1970 through 1972, Prince’s father was listed in city records as living at 1707 Glenwood Ave., Apt. 105. In interviews, Prince talked about disagreeing with his new stepfather — Hayward — and asking to go live with his dad. André Cymone, who befriended Prince in the early 1970s, has memories of Prince going to his dad’s apartment.

Prince’s childhood home, where he wrote his first song ‘Funk Machine,’ was at 539 Newton Avenue North in Minneapolis. In 1972, the Barbergs sold this house to Prince’s father. André Cymone also remembers hanging out with Prince here, and John lived here until the mid-1980s — when Prince, by then a superstar, upgraded from his purple lakeside house in Chanhassen to a larger Chanhassen house and allowed his dad to move into the purple house.

John Nelson died in 2001. At the time of Prince’s death, he owned the Newton Avenue house, and his sister Tyka has listed that house as her address in probate filings.”

 

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