Anyone who ever had the opportunity to see Prince perform live—especially in his younger years—witnessed a dynamic and almost otherworldly talent at work as he commanded the stage with his voice, guitar and often acrobatic moves. For this writer, the first time was in 1984 at the Purple Rain tour stop in our shared hometown of the Twin Cities, Minn. It was a Christmas Eve matinee, and a nine-year-old me was alternately mesmerized and scandalized as I watched the Purple One writhe, squeal and glide his way across the stage at the former Saint Paul Civic Center.
According to a new book by veteran journalist Touré, that tour stop may have marked the beginning of what would become a decades-long dependence on painkillers; one that culminated in Prince’s tragic death from an accidental overdose of fentanyl in April of 2016. As Touré writes in Nothing Compares 2 U: An Oral History of Prince, an accident occurred while the musician was rehearsing a song from inside in a bathtub suspended about 10 feet or more in the Civic Center. The set piece broke, “sending Prince hurtling to the floor,” reports the New York Post.
“It fell 10 or 12 feet with him in it. I never moved so fast in my life,” Prince’s former tour manager Alan Leeds told Touré, adding: “After that, his back hurt day after day. Then in LA, he slipped and hurt his knee. He got some meds and finished the tour, but I don’t think his hip and his leg were ever completely normal after that.”
It has long been speculated that chronic pain was the source of Prince’s dependence on the synthetic opioid. But as those in his circle make clear, despite his often provocative image, Prince’s early life and career weren’t largely marked by the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” ethos so often endemic to the industry.
“He wasn’t hip at all. Prince was a square,” his cousin Pepe Willie recalled, while The Time’s Morris Day shared a single incident in which he and Prince experimented with psychedelics in their teen years, telling Touré: “I got some mushrooms and we both tried them...Next thing I know, he’s sitting on the floor with his head in his hands, and he was tripping like his mind was playing games on him. He was like, ‘I’m not never doing this [shit] with you no more.’”
In fact, his bandmates remember Prince being vehemently anti-drugs, prohibiting them within the band and reportedly ending his relationship with the late singer-actress Vanity because of her drug use. “He had a borderline paranoia about having anybody around who was into drugs,” Leeds claims.
Nevertheless, that stance reportedly shifted in the late ‘80s, as Prince “began taking ecstasy and hallucinogens recreationally, according to a former girlfriend,” writes the Post. The usage apparently affected his musical choices; Touré writes that Prince’s infamous Black Album was shelved last-minute in favor of Lovesexy, which was subsequently considered a commercial failure in comparison to his earlier successes.
Longtime keyboardist Morris Hayes also speculated that Prince may have done a stint in rehab in 1994, during what was an unusual and unexplained absence from recording. However, what the musician couldn’t shake was his need for painkillers; Neal Karlen, another Prince biographer who knew the singer well, claimed Prince “gobbled a third of [a] bottle” of painkillers prescribed to Karlen while visiting his home in 1997 (h/t Page Six).
“I think the thing that controlled him was his drug addiction,” Wendy Melvoin, longtime guitarist for Prince’s band the Revolution, told Touré. “[He needed] something to take that pain away, but then it got to the point where the addiction settles in, but he’s keeping it hidden because the thing he lived by [was], ‘Never let anybody see you sweat.’”
“He wasn’t doing drugs like a hedonistic rock star,” Touré further explains. “He was doing drugs like so many working-class Americans who need pills to get breaking-down bodies through the workday so they can show up for the people who rely on them.”
Nothing Compares 2 U: An Oral History of Prince will be released by Permuted Press on Aug. 24.