As more details have emerged about Prince‘s death in late April, the mystery that engulfed his life has only deepened. But one thing is becoming clear: The funk-rock genius was struggling with a painful secret. Overwhelming evidence indicates that Prince was in the grips of an addiction to painkillers during the last years of his life.
To the world outside Paisley Park, Prince seemed vibrant and in control to the end. At one of his last shows, in Toronto on March 25th, he was typically animated: “Bouncing around the stage, clapping with his audience, running around the piano,” says the venue’s CEO, Mark Hammond. “He was having fun.”
But offstage, it was a different story. It remains unclear when Prince began taking opioids and how much his inner circle knew of any possible addiction – though Prince’s late half-brother Duane told his lawyer that Prince was addicted to cocaine and Percocet in the early 2000s, according to the attorney. Others close to Prince have suggested that his drug use may have been in response to a serious hip problem that he developed later in life.
The first public indication that anything was wrong came when Prince’s private plane made an emergency landing in Illinois on April 15th, on the way home from a concert in Atlanta. Reports suggest that Prince overdosed on Percocet. He was carried off the plane by a bodyguard and given a shot of the anti-overdose medication Narcan by a local EMS.
He appeared to bounce back quickly. The next day, Prince biked to a record store to buy Stevie Wonder and Santana albums. That evening, he hosted a party at Paisley Park, where he showed off his new purple piano. He tweeted he was “#FeelingRejuvenated” the next day. On April 19th, he caught jazz singer Lizz Wright at a local club, Dakota. “As always, he was relaxed and polite with all,” says Joe Doermann, the club’s assistant manager.
On April 20th, Prince met with Michael Schulenberg, a family-medicine doctor who has been practicing for nearly 20 years. Prince received an unidentified prescription, his second in a few weeks from the same doctor. Later that day, Prince was reportedly seen at a local Walgreens.
Then, sometime that night, came a desperate cry for help: Someone in Prince’s camp reached out to Howard Kornfeld, a Mill Valley, California, doctor who runs an outpatient clinic that specializes in treating addictions. Kornfeld’s son Andrew took an overnight flight to Minneapolis, but he was too late. When Prince was found dead in a Paisley Park elevator the next morning, authorities reportedly discovered prescription opioids on his body and in Paisley Park. Although results of an autopsy may not be released until late May, reports indicate Prince may have had Percocet in his system.
According to experts, Percocet can be as addictive and dangerous as heroin. “You start out being able to just take one to get the pain relief you need,” says Jonathan Wynbrandt, an assistant professor of medicine at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University Medical School who has no involvement in the case. “But then you get folks who abuse the drug who have to take five, six, seven at a time. That’s when you get respiratory difficulties, sudden death, cardiovascular problems.”
In the aftermath of his death, many who worked with Prince are attempting to reconcile their image of him as a driven, heath-conscious musician with information about his substance abuse. “He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, no drugs,” says Randy Phillips, who briefly managed Prince in the Nineties. Adds Sky Dangcil, a DJ who spun on Prince’s 2004 Musicology tour and at Paisley Park parties, “Everyone is flabbergasted – he was very anti-drug.”
Longtime friend and New Power Generation drummer Kirk Johnson told investigators that Prince had been taken to a hospital for an undisclosed treatment in 2014 or 2015. Reports indicate that the DEA, as part of its investigation in conjunction with Carver County police, will attempt to determine if anyone in Prince’s inner circle helped him obtain painkillers.
Prince led an intensely private life; it would have been easy to mask a drug problem. “Addiction is about secrecy,” says Dangcil. “Prince didn’t go out with his guard down. He was in full makeup and ready to go.”
Prince’s penchant for privacy extended to his physical problems. Some close to him have speculated that, over the years, his relentless performances began to wear down his body. On the Musicology tour in 2004, says Dangcil, Prince would routinely surprise audiences by emerging from a case rolled onto the stage. “I thought, ‘What a great way to get to and from the stage,’ but in retrospect, it makes me wonder,” says Dangcil. “There were a lot of golf carts and things where he didn’t have to walk.”
When Mavis Staples saw her old friend at an awards show a few years later, he wore some uncharacteristic footwear: sneakers. “Someone said, ‘He needs hip-replacement surgery, but he won’t have it, and he’s in pain all the time,'” Staples recalls. But Prince’s adherence to the tenets of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sect with restrictive beliefs about blood transfusions, nixed any surgery until 2010, when he reportedly had an operation on his hip. “Walking around with a cane was not just to look supercool,” Prince’s longtime hairstylist Kim Berry said recently. But despite the pain, he refused to slow down. “If his head was on fire, he’d put a hat on it and keep moving,” recalls NPG keyboardist Morris Hayes. “He was about getting the task done.”
The Estate Battle
No matter the result of the autopsy, a crucial phase in Prince’s legacy – the fight for control of his estate – is underway. As of now, a last will had not been discovered, which doesn’t surprise Phillips, the former manager. “Trust me, there’s not going to be one,” he says. “He never thought about dying, and he would never sign a contract. He thought it was slavery.”
If no will is found, the estate will be jointly handled by his sister Tyka, a 55-year-old gospel singer, and his five surviving half-siblings from his parents’ other marriages – Norrine Nelson, Sharon Nelson, Omarr Baker, Alfred Jackson and John Nelson. A Minnesota judge appointed Bremer Trust, a local banking and investment firm, as special administrator to catalog the assets and oversee the estate for at least six months.
The battle over the estate could get intense. Fifteen lawyers – representing family members as well as those who work for Bremer – are now involved. To deflect false-heir claims, the judge ordered a sample of Prince’s DNA extracted. (The first claim arrived on May 9th, when a woman announced via court papers that she and Prince had a son while having “unprotected sexual intercourse” in a hotel room in 1976 – two years before Prince’s first album.)
The financial stakes are considerable. In the two weeks after his passing, Prince’s back catalog sold 1.31 million albums and 3.93 million digital tracks, and five of his albums were in the Top 10 one week. Two years ago, Prince gained ownership of the master tapes of many of his classic Warner Bros. albums when he entered into a new agreement with the label. Prince also owned multiple properties, including the nine-acre Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota (valued at $7 million). By some estimates, the net worth of Prince’s holdings may be more than $300 million.
Prince’s estate will also benefit from the thousands of hours of unreleased live and studio material tucked away on shelves in his fabled vault in the basement of Paisley Park. Although Bremer is legally in charge of the vault, it has yet to be determined who will sift through that material. “It would take a lifetime,” says Alan Leeds, Prince’s former tour manager. “But who wouldn’t want to be involved?”
Blogger Jeremiah Freed, who helped promote Prince’s last Paisley Park dance party, says he is in possession of what may be Prince’s last video: a performance clip for “Xtralovable” (from 2015’s HitnRun Phase Two) that shows Prince in silhouettes. But in light of estate issues, medical reports and possible lawsuits, it’s unclear when that video may be seen by the public.
In the meantime, friends and fans alike are left puzzling over the duality of Prince, starting with the celebratory bash he threw at his home during the last weekend of his life. “The dance party was to show he was all right,” says Freed. “When you look back on it now, we should have known that him wanting to prove everything was all right should have been a red flag.”
This is a developing story.