Rest in Peace Prince

From left to right: Prince, Hans, Kirk Johnson. Photo credit: Steve Parke

I don’t talk much about the years my rock husband Hans worked for Prince. Or The Artist as we called him back then. I don’t talk about it not only because those were long hard years for us, but mainly because it is Hans’ story, I just watched from the sidelines. But in a way it is my story, too. And Prince’s death yesterday brought back all those memories. So here’s my story, shaped from my memories, of what happened back then. This is a story of how Prince shaped my life, my marriage, and even my creative life.

First, some backstory. I grew up on Prince’s music. I’m from Minnesota. I grew up in the 80’s. It was inevitable I’d know his music inside and out. But I didn’t just grow up with his music, I loved it. I had the Purple Rain poster in my bedroom. I watched the movie multiple times in the movie theater. I thought I’d be in Rock-n-Roll heaven if he and Madonna were to get married or at least make an album together. I was fourteen – give me a break.

My obsession with him waned as I grew older and my music tastes turned more towards punk and alternative music. But I still rocked out to KissPurple Rain, and of course, 1999. Like any proper Minnesotan would.

Fast forward to 1992. I met Hans the month he finished recording school in Minneapolis. He graduated the top of his class and immediately set out to make great rock-n-roll records at smaller, lesser-known studios in Minnesota with local and national acts. But he was (and still is) great at his job and word got out, people became impressed with his work ethics and soon enough he had an invitation to work out at Paisley Park. That was in 1995.

We couldn’t believe our luck. Work with Prince? Sorry – The Artist? This was a big deal. Not only because of the opportunity, but because Hans was a real fan. Owned all the albums. Saw the Sign o’ the Times tour in his native Germany. Even painted — painted! — the cover of Parade on his bedroom wall. Yes – the man had a painting of Prince over his bed. That’s how much of a fan he was.

Our excitement slowly died. Not because The Artist was a jerk. But because nothing happened. Hans was introduced to Prince. Hans was ignored by Prince. This went on for months. No work. No money. Nothing. We shrugged our shoulders and thought maybe he should get another job. Then, for a few months in 1996, Prince closed down the studio and fired everyone on staff — everyone except Hans, which made no sense to either of us. But still no work from Paisley Park. So Hans worked with other musicians in other studios. Even though the work was great, it wasn’t enough to support us. We began to think about moving down to Nashville where some of Prince’s former staff had relocated in the hopes we could use their connections to find Hans a job.

Then, just as I’d mentally prepared myself to leave Minnesota, Paisley Park called to see if Hans could come in to work. Of course he could! I remember wishing him luck as he left our apartment in Uptown, Minneapolis and headed out to Chanhassen, a 20 mile drive in his beat up, two-door Honda Civic. The next time I saw him, which could have been the next day or even the day after that, I asked how it was working for Prince and he described it as intense. That sometimes it was just the two of them in the studio, sometimes there were others. But Prince was always there. Always working.  From morning until night. I was impressed. And so excited for Hans and this opportunity.

Hans in one of the studios at Paisley Park. Photo credit: Steve Parke

The next four years are a blur. Not because we lived a jet set life and were flying to concerts or studios around the world, although Hans did fly to New York and L.A. a few times for Prince. The reason those years are a blur is because I lived the life of a single-married woman. Hans worked 80 plus hours a week, I worked 40. Whenever he had a few hours free on the weekends, Hans would turn off his pager (ah, the good old days) and we’d rush off to the closest movie theater for a few hours of bliss. But when it was time to turn the pager back on, my stomach started to churn. Rare were the days that Prince was in town and it wouldn’t beep. But it was our choice to live this way. When else would an opportunity to make music history fall into Hans’ lap? Realistically? Never. So we lived with our separation as best we could.

For four years, days would go by when we only saw each other sleeping. I got used to people acting different around me when I told them my husband worked for Prince. I learned how to artfully deflect questions I couldn’t answer. At a new job I was even introduced to my colleagues as “This is Patti Buff, her husband works for Prince”. Sure that stung a bit, but I shrugged it off because I was fiercely proud of Hans and his work. But I was also sad, because I missed him, too. I did marry him for a reason, you know. And I became bitter. It was hard standing by as Hans worked himself to exhaustion, sleeping only a few hours a day before heading back to work. Week after week after week.

It was in the beginning of this period of bitterness that Prince called our house for the first time looking for Hans.

“Hans there?” a deep male voice asked.

I admit it, I got all nervous and fluttery. I was on the phone with Prince! But after a few years of not seeing my husband and living in fear of The Pager, I got sick of it. So sick in fact that when Prince called two hours after Hans had gone to bed after a 30 hour shift, I told him that Hans was sleeping and would call him back when he woke up. Holy cow was Hans mad when he woke up a few hours later, fully rested for the first time in weeks.

“You’re going to get me fired!”

“And he’s going to cause you to fall asleep at the wheel and die because he’s working you so hard!” I yelled back.

But even though I knew I was right, I was nervous. Had I cost him his job? Was I a terrible wife? Turns out I wasn’t, because when Hans showed up in the studio, hours late, Prince didn’t say a word. He just put Hans straight to work like nothing had happened.

After that things got better. Somewhat. Prince started to ask if Hans was available to work. Sure they still worked 80 plus hours a week on average, sometimes even going up over 100 when Emancipation came out, but Prince always asked. And on the rare occasions Hans said no, Prince accepted it and worked on his own. But if you really want to know what Hans life was like at that time, watch The Devil Wears Prada. We were already in Germany building a new life together when it came out, but in the dark of the movie theater Hans leaned over and whispered, “That’s my life on screen. That’s what it was like.” And it was. The crazy requests out of the blue, the ego that always had to be flattered, the family events or even holidays that weren’t important enough to warrant a day off.

The two of us circa 1997.

But don’t get me wrong. There were wonderful benefits to having a husband work for Prince. Of course, meeting Prince and him telling me my husband was a great engineer rocked. Then there were the free concerts at Paisley Park and the Target Center I went to. I even met Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone fame. Beyond the bling and the bang, I also met and became friends with the other staff, people who are still important to us after all these years.

And there are moments I’ll treasure forever. In 1999, Prince’s wife Mayte arranged for me to come backstage to an outdoor concert in downtown Minneapolis. Heavily pregnant with our first child, just coming home from work, I was warmly greeted by Mayte who insisted I take her chair next to the stage. After a busy day of chasing nine teenage boys at the group home I worked at, I was grateful for the rest. I was busy talking to Mayte and Tina Graham, Larry’s wife who was also lovely, when a guitar started to play. I lifted my head and there was Prince. Five feet away from me and much bigger in my eyes than his 5’4 frame would suggest. He played the opening chords to who knows what, I’m ashamed to admit I was too entranced by the moment to even know what song he was playing. To my left, behind the guitar racks and the speakers, the crowd went wild – while I was dumbfounded by the private concert I was receiving. It lasted maybe 15, 20 seconds before he calmly walked on stage to even louder roars. But those seconds are mine. The time my idol played guitar just for me.

Even our son has a Prince story. He can’t remember it since he was only an infant, but I do. I brought him out to the studio so Hans could introduce him to his boss. I remember thinking how surreal the situation was and being amazed at how gentle Prince was with our son. That was a good day.

Fast forward a dozen years and a move to Germany. Hans has built a great career here and is still making records while I am just starting my career as a writer. A friend asked if those years watching Prince from the sidelines affected how I view the creative life. It has and it hasn’t. I don’t have even a smidgeon of Prince’s brilliance or his stamina so I won’t try to compare myself to him. But what I lack in talent, I believe I make up for with a healthier balance of life and art. But I also believe that to reach that level of stardom in the first place the persona of The Star has to take over. It has to dominate your life and maybe that is why I married an engineer and not a musician.

So, when I heard the news Prince died yesterday I had mixed feelings. Yes, those days were hard and there was even a time when I couldn’t listen to a Prince song and had to turn off the radio when one came on. But that didn’t last long. Because I know how lucky Hans was to have been able to work with and learn from one of music’s greats. Having Prince on his resume has also given him, and in turn me, so many opportunities that might never have happened otherwise.

The world mourns the death of yet another genius, and I fully agree he was a genius. He just happened to be the kind of genius who lived on four hours of sleep a day and was driven to create music almost every waking moment without rest.

But in the end, I say rest in peace Prince Rogers Nelson. I’m honored to have met you and to have glimpsed the man behind the star. I’m grateful for the chance you gave my husband to brand a name for himself in this winner takes all business. And after all this history and all this time, I’m still a fan.