Prince’s Addiction and an Intervention Too Late
Prince appears to have had a problem with pain pills, one that grew so acute that his friends turned to an addiction doctor just before his death.
By Chekesha L. Ellis
JUNE 6, 2016
CHANHASSEN, Minn. — Prince Rogers Nelson had an unflinching reputation among those close to him for leading an assiduously clean lifestyle. He ate vegan and preferred to avoid the presence of meat entirely. He was known to eschew alcohol and marijuana, and no one who went on tour with him could indulge either.
But Prince appears to have shielded from even some of his closest friends that he had a problem with pain pills, one that grew so acute that his friends sought urgent medical help from Dr. Howard Kornfeld of California, who specializes in treating people addicted to pain medication.
Dr. Kornfeld, who runs a treatment center in Mill Valley, Calif., sent his son on an overnight flight to meet with Prince at his home to discuss a treatment plan, said William J. Mauzy, a lawyer for the Kornfeld family, during a news conference on Wednesday outside his Minneapolis office.
But he arrived too late.
When the son, Andrew Kornfeld, who works with his father but is not a doctor, arrived in Chanhassen, the Minneapolis suburb where Prince lived, the next morning, he was among those who found the entertainer lifeless in the elevator and called 911, Mr. Mauzy said. Emergency officials arrived but could not revive Prince.He was dead at 57.
As law enforcement officials continue to investigate exactly what killed the pop and rock icon, there is mounting evidence that he had become seriously dependent on painkillers, something sure to rattle some of those who knew him well. Many have insisted in recent days that they never even saw Prince take pills, let alone abuse prescription medication, even though some knew he had had hip surgery years ago.
When his private jet had to make an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., in mid-April after he went unresponsive, friends decided they may need to intervene, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Prince assured his friends in the following days that nothing was wrong. He had the flu, his publicist said.
“I’m doing perfect,” Prince told his lawyer, L. Londell McMillan, two days after the emergency landing. Three days after that conversation with Mr. McMillan, though, Prince’s representatives were looking for help from an addiction doctor.
A VERY PRIVATE STAR
Prince’s penchant for privacy may help explain how he kept his secret from so many. At the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall near here, where Prince was a worshiper, congregants scoffed at the first reports that Prince may have been abusing painkillers.
And rarely did he let the musicians who toured with him know how much his hips actually hurt from decades of high-voltage performances, jumping onstage in platform heels. They would only notice small things, like that he stopped doing splits.
“There wasn’t a tour we did where he wasn’t sometimes performing in pain,” said Alan Leeds, Prince’s former tour manager in the 1980s and later the president of the singer’s Paisley Park Records. “He was that kind of old school, the-show-must-go-on guy, so the idea of him medicating himself in order to perform isn’t strange to me.”
But Mr. Leeds and others said Prince never discussed pain pills with him. And questions about how he felt would often be met with a shrug or an assurance that he was O.K.
Unlike many stars of his magnitude, who are known to employ extensive entourages and teams of staffers to handle everyday business, Prince was also surprisingly autonomous, friends and associates said, often driving himself around and making appointments without the knowledge of his assistant. Such insistence on maintaining his independence may have made keeping a secret easier, they said.
Many of Prince’s closest friends, relatives and associates have declined to answer questions about his health. So it is unclear who contacted Dr. Kornfeld, but a person with knowledge of the situation said the musician had willingly sought treatment.
The younger Mr. Kornfeld was sent to Paisley Park to try to get Prince’s condition stabilized, Mr. Mauzy said. Dr. Kornfeld then contacted a doctor in the Minneapolis area who cleared his schedule on the morning that Prince was found dead so that he could have time to meet with and assess Prince, Mr. Mauzy said.
“The hope was to get him stabilized in Minnesota and convince him to come to Recovery Without Walls in Mill Valley,” Mr. Mauzy said. “That was the plan.”
Dr. Kornfeld “felt it was a lifesaving mission,” Mr. Mauzy said.
Prince began taking painkillers for his ailment years ago and ultimately decided to have hip surgery in the mid-2000s, after which he was prescribed more pain medicine, according to a person who worked with him and requested anonymity because of the nature of the case.
Jason Kamerud, chief deputy at the Carver County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the death, said that investigators are looking into, among other things, whether Prince may have overdosed from painkillers at his residence. But Deputy Kamerud declined on Wednesday to comment on Mr. Mauzy’s statements. The sheriff’s office has said that it did not believe suicide or murder were to blame for Prince’s death.
Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that they were joining the investigation.
The mystery of Prince’s death mirrors the enigma of his life. He shunned the selfie culture and didn’t allow people to take his picture at his estate. Yet at the same time, he regularly opened his doors here and invited the public in for house parties where he would address the crowd.
On the Saturday before he died, Prince had done just that, giddily unveiling a new purple guitar and piano before about 200 guests. He had just started on his memoir, tentatively titled “The Beautiful Ones.” He had tour dates lined up in eight cities across the country.
Fans have visited Paisley Park, Prince’s home and studio in Minnesota, to remember him.
Talk of Depression
Yet people who knew Prince wondered whether he was in a malaise, his ailments limiting his ability to tour, and battling melancholy after the death in February of Denise Matthews, also known as Vanity, a former girlfriend and collaborator. In Australia during a show on Feb. 16, the day after she died, he became emotional.
“Someone dear to us has passed away,” Prince told the crowd before dedicating the song “Little Red Corvette” to her, according to local news media accounts of the show. Later, he told the audience, “I’m trying to stay focused, it’s a little heavy for me tonight.”Concerned friends said they had recently been discussing Prince’s emotional state. He had told some people that he was feeling depressed, and some suspected he was going through a period of professional stagnancy.
In fact, Prince shunned an $85 million offer to do a large-scale world tour in favor of smaller shows, said Kim Worsoe, his tour coordinator. “I don’t do tours, I do events,” Mr. Worsoe recalled Prince telling him.
Others said they did not detect any depression. His small concerts, said Damaris Lewis, a friend and dancer, were an indication that he had found peace with himself. “His fans were his family,” she said
For his final acts, Prince, who on New Year’s Eve had given a powerful show in the Caribbean, shunned his high-energy performances with a big band for something more intimate and less taxing: just himself, playing piano and singing. The “Piano and a Microphone” tour, he called it.
In March, he held a last-minute party and performance in New York to announce his memoir. He held three concerts in Canada before returning home on March 23 and attending a service at his Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, dressed in a suit and tie, his hair slicked back.
Prince was baptized into the faith in 2003 under the guidance of Larry Graham, a bass guitarist whose band regularly performed with Prince and who moved his family to Minnesota to be near the entertainer. As a witness, he would go door to door with a fellow congregant in their three-suburb territory, quoting the Bible and introducing himself as Rogers Nelson.
“He was very into spiritual things,” Mr. Graham said. “He already had been interested in the Bible and a love for God.”
Associates said that Prince’s dedication to religion, in addition to his commitment to pure living, may have contributed to a sense of shame about his growing dependency on medication.
Prince’s next scheduled tour dates were two back-to-back shows on April 7 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. But as she was brushing her teeth around 10 on the morning of the show, Lucy Lawler-Freas, the Atlanta promoter, said she got a call from Mr. Worsoe: Prince was sick with the flu.
“He can barely speak; his voice is really hoarse,” she recalled Mr. Worsoe telling her.
It was the first time in the more than a quarter-century that he had worked with Prince that the artist canceled a show, Mr. Worsoe said.
But two days later, Prince rescheduled the show for the 14th.
On the rescheduled date, Prince landed in Atlanta late day and needed a police escort to make it to the theater on time. He said he was still feeling sick, but back in the dressing room where water and fresh fruit was awaiting Prince, Mr. Worsoe said he did not notice any visible signs of illness.
With his Afro picked out, Prince took the stage, sidling up to his purple piano and surrounded by candelabras. He performed two sets, at 7 and 10 p.m.
“He was epic,” Ms. Lawler-Freas said. No signs of the flu.
Prince said it was his best show ever, Mr. Worsoe recalled. But afterward, Prince said that his stomach hurt. Prince wanted to go back to Minneapolis to get checked out by a doctor, Mr. Worsoe said, and asked to postpone shows in St. Louis, Nashville and Washington that were scheduled, but not yet announced, for the next week.
Midair Medical Crisis
Prince and two other passengers boarded his private jet, which left at 12:51 a.m. Eastern on the Friday after his Atlanta show. Just over an hour in, the pilot radioed to air traffic controllers that he had an unresponsive passenger on board. The plane, only about 48 minutes from its destination of Minneapolis, turned around and quickly landed in Moline, touching down at 1:18 a.m.
Prince’s bodyguard carried him off the plane to emergency responders waiting on the ground, according to city records. They rushed him to an opioid overdose, according to published reports. But he stayed at hospital. Prince was treated with a Narcan shot, typically administered to those suffering from athe hospital for only a few hours before flying back home.
A master of image control, Prince started shaping the narrative right away.
He hastily organized a party at his home for the following evening. Later, he casually rode a bicycle in a strip mall parking lot.
Prince’s representatives asked Jeremiah Freed, a blogger who runs drfunkenberry.com, to help spread the word of the party on Saturday night. Before that night, Mr. Freed said, he never really had any concerns about Prince’s condition, though he was struck by something that the musician told him in January. Prince spoke of David Bowie’s death, Mr. Freed recalled, saying he was having lucid dreams in which he communicated with people who died.
When Prince first strolled into the party, before he was in full view of the public, “He looked upset to me,” Mr. Freed recalled. They locked eyes, he added. “When I saw him, there was no smile.”
Other friends reached out to Prince over the weekend, concerned about what had happened to him on the plane. He had a resounding message: I’m O.K.
Knowing how much Prince, who didn’t use a cellphone but was constantly surfing his silver MacBook, valued his privacy, friends said they did not press him.
On Monday, April 18, Ms. Lawler-Freas, the Atlanta promoter, said that Prince’s representatives told her to hold off on confirming the eight tour dates she had arranged for him. He was going to take a break that week, and they would get back to her the next Monday, April 25, to confirm the concerts.
Prince seemed to lead a mundane life from there, stopping by a show at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis on Tuesday, April 19. The next day, police said, someone dropped him off at his compound at about 8 p.m. He was found dead the next morning, setting off the sweeping investigation.
“If we really want to be accurate and get it right, I think you have to pump the brakes,” said Deputy Kamerud of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office. “Some investigations are like 50-piece puzzles, some are like a 10,000-piece puzzle. This one is the latter.”
Mr. Freed, the blogger, said he could hardly believe reports of the painkiller dependency. Prince, he said, would help anyone in his band with a drug problem and even pay the cost of their recovery.
If you abused drugs, he said, “you weren’t going to work with him. You didn’t have a job.”