Your own office parties can carry an air of forced interaction. Attending someone else’s office get-together removes one layer of humanity from this equation and in its place slaps on all the enjoyment of applying for a grocery store rewards card. Sometimes, at some parties, there is that great reveal or incident which eradicates drab conversation. Butt-cheek photocopies or the acknowledgement of a dishonorable discharge from the Eagle Scouts, those types of things. And sometimes there is a nasty, first-hand story about Prince.
A few years ago, during the clock-grinding social shuffle of a friend’s work party, I sidled next to one of the known cantankerous members of the office. As it feels at times there are 63 people total in Milwaukee, for this retelling, we’ll call her Joan. Joan had had a few glasses of wine and wasn’t much of a partier anymore, she said. When was she a partier? In the late ’70s and early ’80s in Los Angeles, as the administrative assistant for an entertainment lawyer. In this capacity, Joan was in the room for stars like Eddie Money to sign off on big-money deals—and all the subsequent partying. Joan and her boss played referees as The Commodores broke up and got back together and then had Lionel Richie leave—and all the subsequent partying. As wild as those times were, Joan said the most memorable star interaction during her heady and hazy entertainment industry days came from that royal figure of Paisley Park, Prince.
A name-dropping party recollection from Joan was one thing, but a direct story about Prince would both add to the famed catalog of odd tales on Prince “Aaron” Rogers Nelson and forever change my perception of Joan. Joan is now “Joan With The Prince Story,” because Prince is simply Prince. In the days and weeks ahead, there will be no shortage of homages to Prince, of black veils draped over His Purpleness. I will keep my own here short, simply to say that I think Prince is fantastic, hilarious, and worthy of praise, from here to Niger. In elementary school, I bobbed in and out of a family friend’s pool to self-made moves to “Batdance.” In college, I found a sort-of hammered joy in discussing the lyrics to “Raspberry Beret.” What pulled me into Joan’s story and compels me to share it here are part of those same impulses: the appreciation that someone funky, talented, and strange made it past the penumbra and into the cultural spotlight, for so long and in his own way.
So, back to Joan, herself into another glass of wine, and me almost in her lap at the teaser of an in-the-flesh Prince story. Joan’s boss was hammering out the institutional details of a contract with Prince’s attorneys. Prince had attorneys. There were attorneys whose client list included Prince. Did he insist on contracts written in dyed-purple giraffe’s blood on a Fran Tarkenton jersey? Joan couldn’t hear this question in my head though she certainly knew the answer. (Spoiler: it’s yes.) Anyway, this deal had taken some weeks to negotiate, exclusively through the dealmakers. But when it came time to sign, Joan got word that Prince was coming in to consecrate the matter.
At this point in early ’80s L.A., Joan had a hot car and cool attitude and expensive shades. She was a young badass working in music, which she adored. Joan really dug Prince, especially those first hits. So, professional courtesy was one thing, but if there was a chance to meet Prince, she would take it. Further, she had a teen niece back here in Milwaukee who counted “The Artist Then Currently Known As Prince” as her fav. Joan was already the cool aunt for living in Los Angeles, in every way different than Milwaukee. Giving her niece a document of this cool via Prince himself meant a teenage lifetime of adulation and appreciation.
As Joan told it, Prince came to the office with his team of suits. Everything on the paperwork side of things was quick and orderly. Then, with it all wrapped up, Joan slid next to Prince and pulled out a copy of his 1979 self-titled album. She said he was sweet but brief. She introduced herself, then asked, “My teenage niece, Darlene, loves you. Can you sign a record for me to send to her? Can you write, ‘Darlene, Stay Sweet—Prince’?” She said Prince was courteous—”from the Midwest,” as she explained it to me—and quickly scribbled on the album, writing a nicety on a mass produced picture of his own face. Joan thanked him, and the parties parted, this time without any party. Joan said she mailed it out that day in the hurried splendor of a surprise gift given. She made no mention of his outfit or height, nor of his legal team’s possible use of dyed-purple giraffe blood.
A few weeks went by when Joan got a call at her office desk from her brother. He had finally wrestled the Prince LP from his teenage daughter’s hands and got a look-see at the famous autograph. Prince wrote what? The eyes of a father of a teenage girl do not miss such things. From Milwaukee, he called his hot-shot L.A. sister to complain.
“Joan, you idiot, did you read this before you sent it?” the brother yelled. “He wrote, ‘Darlene, Stay Wet—Prince.'”