This is from the last chapter of my new book, Prince: Purple Reign.
It seemed the mystery that always surrounded his life would only deepen with his death. The only thing that seemed to be certain was that Prince, for the final years of his life at least, had been guarding a secret. A study of the facts produces a disturbing portrait of a man whose woeful death belied his avowed mission always to celebrate life, through music, through sex, through God.
The first signs of something not being as it was supposed to seem occurred in the early 2000s, when his half-brother, Duane, reportedly informed his lawyer that Prince was addicted to cocaine and Percocet – the latter a ferociously strong painkiller often prescribed by doctors to someone who has recently undergone major surgery.
The first the world got wind of anything being really wrong with Prince, though, came when his private plane was forced to make an emergency landing on 15 April 2016, as Prince and his entourage flew home from a concert in Atlanta, the plane descending 45,000 feet in just seventeen minutes after an ‘unresponsive male’ was reported on board, with the fire department and paramedics alerted of the incoming patient.
At the time, Prince’s official management sources put out a press release explaining that Prince simply had a bad case of flu. It has since emerged, however, that an unconscious Prince was carried off the plane by his bodyguard, straight into a limo which sped to nearby Moline hospital, where the Emergency Medical Services team hurriedly administered a ‘save shot’ – medical slang for an injection of the anti-overdose medication Narcan, given to victims of drug overdoses in life-threatening conditions. (See the infamous scene in Pulp Fiction where the Uma Thurman character is administered the shot.) The doctors at the hospital were so concerned they insisted that Prince stay in for the next twenty-four hours. But Prince shrugged off the suggestion, ordering his team to take him back to his plane just three hours later, and get him home again.
The story was widely reported around the world but any suspicions that this was anything more than the ‘severe flu’ were somewhat allayed when Prince was seen bicycling around the Paisley Park compound the next day. That night he also held an impromptu concert at Paisley Park, showing off a new purple piano and assuring the crowd of fan club members, family and friends they should ‘Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.’
Two nights before his death Prince was seen attending a performance by the jazz singer Lizz Wright at a local club called the Dakota. The following day though, Prince met with Michael Schulenberg, a family-medicine doctor, who issued an ‘unidentified prescription’, his second in a few weeks from the same doctor. Later that day, Prince was photographed outside a local Walgreens [pharmacy]. It was later that night, Rolling Stone reported, that ‘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.’
According to the report, Kornfeld’s son Andrew took an overnight flight to Minneapolis, but by the time he arrived at Paisley Park the following morning Prince was dead. His body had been found slumped in one of the building’s elevators. Reports later suggested that police on the scene recovered paraphernalia and paperwork to indicate that Prince had been taking doses of Percocet, along with other possible substances.
Most damning of all was a story run in the online edition of the Mail, forty-eight hours after Prince’s death, purporting to be an interview with Prince’s main drug dealer, who wished to be identified only as Doctor D. Whoever this was, he claimed that Prince usually paid him, sometimes $40,000 a time, in exchange for six-month medical supplies of Dilaudid pills and Fentanyl patches – both in the same category at Percocet as grade-A super-strength opioid painkillers.
According to Doctor D, Prince was ‘majorly addicted’ and first bought drugs from him as far back as 1984, remaining in touch until around 2008.
‘I first met Prince in 1984 while he was filming the movie Purple Rain,’ he told the Mail. ‘I didn’t hook him on drugs, he was already a really heavy user. In the beginning he would buy speed as well as Dilaudid. He would use that as a counter-balance to get back up again from taking opiates. That lasted for a couple of years then he would just buy Dilaudid, which is a heroin-based opiate.’
Doctor D insisted he’d never known Prince to take street heroin, ‘as that would leave you out of it for days whereas Dilaudid gives you an energy buzz as well as making you feel relaxed, so he preferred it’. He added a horribly plausible detail. Prince craved the drugs, he said, ‘because he was so nervous. He could be nervous in a room with just five people in it. He was scared to go out in public, he was scared to talk to people, and didn’t like to go on stage …’
According to Doctor D, Prince’s dependence on the drugs he was supplying grew to the extent where he was taking double or triple the recommended medial dose. This included the wearing of Fentanyl patches, a synthetic opioid approximately 40–50 times more potent than heroin, which police and paramedics were reported to have found on Prince’s dead body. ‘They come in boxes of five and I would sell Prince 20 boxes at a time.’
Because Prince was such a private, even secretive person, it’s not difficult to understand how this sort of behaviour might have gone on for years without those close to him suspecting anything. The fact that he always made such a big deal over what food he ate, what beverages he let pass his lips – no alcohol, not even any tea or coffee – again, it’s easy to see why no one would have looked twice at the idea that he might secretly be taking drugs. Doctor D recalled how, once, Prince was ‘eating a salad and a skinless chicken breast with no dressing and I commented about how healthy he was. He turned to me and said, “If I didn’t watch my food I probably wouldn’t last that long.” I think it was his way of counteracting all the drugs he was taking.’
The dealer also recalled how Prince would often invite him to Jehovah’s Witness Bible study groups. ‘He often used to preach about God to me. Maybe it was a form of guilt … He’d say, “You know there’s only one God and we’re all here for a reason, to serve God.” And he’d say, “We have to be good people, it’s important that we try to be good people.” He had a thing about being a good person.’
Yes, he did. And we should hold on to that knowledge now we start to hear about those sides of Prince he was too ashamed to ever let the world see while he was alive. A philanderer on the scale of Casanova, a musical genius as close to God as Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, Prince was also a conduit for acceptance and understanding for races and creeds from all corners of the world, no matter what their sexuality, age, background or talents. It was all there in his multi-coloured, multicultural music, all roads leading to the same destination.
That was certainly the larger message being given out in the days that followed his death. A week after he died, Prince had no fewer than five albums in the US Top 10, including the No. 1 and No. 2 spots with The Very Best of Prince and Purple Rain, respectively. Prince’s overall catalogue of albums sold 256,000 copies that week, reported Billboard, an increase of 5,298 per cent compared to the previous week’s estimated sales of around 5,000. The same week, in Britain, Prince held all five of the Top 5 positions in the albums chart, plus four in the Top 5 of the singles chart, with ‘Purple Rain’ at No. 1, ‘When Doves Cry’ at No. 2, ‘Kiss’ at No. 4 and ‘1999’ in fifth position.
In New York, the filmmaker Spike Lee threw a street party in honour of Prince for around 1,000 people at his Brooklyn headquarters. The crowd danced and sang along to ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’. Dressed in a purple T-shirt, Lee also led the crowd through an encore of ‘Purple Rain’. Many other stars paid tribute, Mike Tyson tweeting a weird picture of himself with his face transposed with Prince’s. Mariah Carey stopped her show in Paris and gave tribute.
More poignantly, Mayte Garcia, who had been mother to Prince’s only child, wept as she told reporters, ‘I can’t even think of the words of what I’m feeling. This man was my everything. We had a family. I am beyond deeply saddened and devastated.’ She sobbed as she added, ‘I loved him then, I love him now and will love him eternally. He’s with our son now.’ Sheila E tweeted: ‘My heart is broken. There are no words. I love you!’
Invited to reflect, briefly, in 2004, on the vicissitudes of getting older, of peering forward towards that endless night that awaits us all, Prince pursed his lips into that inscrutable smile that seemed to say I-know-something-you-don’t. Then said, simply, ‘I don’t look at time that way, and I don’t believe in age. When you wake up, each day looks the same, so each day should be a new beginning. I don’t have an expiration date.’
And he doesn’t. You can grab your phone and listen to one of his immortal tunes right now. Or turn to a computer and pull up a million-and-one of his one-in-a-million performances.
Or as he once sang it so sweetly on that song the whole world now knows, ‘I only wanted to see you bathing in the purple rain …’
Catch U there.