Prince’s pill addiction began with bathtub accident, friends recall

For his tour supporting the album “Purple Rain,” Prince planned to sing a song while sitting in a bathtub 10 feet off the ground. While rehearsing the scene in a Minnesota arena, the bathtub broke, sending Prince hurtling to the floor.

“It fell 10 or 12 feet with him in it. I never moved so fast in my life,” recalled Alan Leeds, Prince’s tour manager at the time, in the new book, “Nothing Compares 2 U: An Oral History of Prince,” by Touré (Permuted Press, Aug. 24).

“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.”

These incidents, as recalled by people close to the superstar, marked the beginning of a life of pain for Prince that most likely led to the addiction that killed him. Prince died in 2016 from an accidental overdose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

To those who knew and loved him, the manner of Prince’s death was especially ironic, as he was vehemently anti-drug from his teen years well into his time as music royalty.

Close friend Morris Day remembers a time when Prince tried psychedelic mushrooms, only to declare it the first and last time he would ever do them.

“He wasn’t hip at all. Prince was a square,” said Prince’s cousin Pepe Willie of the musician’s teen years. 

“We’d go outside, smoke a doobie and come back upstairs, and he goes, ‘Oohhhh, ooohhh, look at you! Your eyes are red! Look at you, look at you!’ And we’d be going like, ‘Oh, man, come on.’ He was square.”

During his teens, Prince experimented with drugs just once, surprising good friend and future frontman for the Time, Morris Day with a request for psychedelic mushrooms. The trip did not go well.

“I got some mushrooms and we both tried them. We went to a club and this dude starts freaking out,” Day told Touré. “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 s–t with you no more.’”

Even in the cocaine-heavy ’80s, Prince would sometimes record in the studio for over 24 hours at a clip fueled not by drugs, but by dessert.

“In his marathon sessions, he would eat cake. He loved, loved, loved cake, mostly vanilla with chocolate frosting,” said Susannah Melvoin, Prince’s one-time fiancée and vocalist in several of his bands.

“I would make that for him on a regular basis and that would keep him going. He would come up from the studio, take another slice, go back down. That’s how he kept going.”

Prince wouldn’t tolerate drug use by his band members, and Touré writes that friends of Prince claimed he even dumped singer Vanity as his girlfriend because she liked to get high.

“If he saw two crew guys in a corner looking suspicious, he’d have me check on it,” said Leeds. “He had a borderline paranoia about having anybody around who was into drugs.”

So it was a shock to all around him when, around the time of the commercial failure of the 1988 album “Lovesexy,” Prince began taking ecstasy and hallucinogens recreationally, according to a former girlfriend.

After his 1988 album “Lovesexy” flopped, the singer reportedly began doing drugs recreationally. It was a dramatic departure for a man who used to be known by his friends as a bit of a square.

“He started doing hallucinogens with [his then-girlfriend] Ingrid Chavez and all these different people and looking back now, for me, that’s a red flag,” says Jill Jones, a background vocalist for the star who also dated him on and off in the 1980s.

The drugs even affected key decisions regarding his music. Prince was set to release an album titled “The Black Album,” which Touré describes as a “lewd and aggressive record,” but nixed it unexpectedly.

“He had a bad feeling about the album while doing ecstasy with his then-girlfriend Ingrid Chavez and decided to shelve it at the last minute,” wrote Touré.

Ingrid Chavez and Prince in "Graffiti Bridge".
Ingrid Chavez and Prince in “Graffiti Bridge”.
Alamy Stock Photo

He recorded and released “Lovesexy” instead. (Prince eventually released “The Black Album” in 1994.) At least part of the reason for that album’s failure was a rushed rollout due to the last-minute switch.

While he was dabbling in these drugs, Prince was also dealing with the constant pain from his tour injuries. Touré writes that Prince, who had a dislike of doctors, may have been self-medicating “as early as the early ’90s.”  

Morris Hayes, Prince’s keyboardist for almost two decades, believes that Prince did a stint in rehab in 1994.

After hearing that Prince was messing with drugs, and believing that he was treating the band even rougher than usual — Prince was always a strict taskmaster — Hayes nervously confronted him.

“Hey man, I don’t mean to cause no problems,” he said to his boss, “[but] you’ve really been weird and acting really out of character lately. Word on the street is you’re messing with drugs.”

“Aw, man. I’m not doing anything like that,” Prince replied, according to Hayes. “I’m working, I’m doing stuff. It’s nothing like that. It’s cool.”

Hayes was relieved until the next day, when Prince failed to show up for rehearsal. This was remarkably out of character for a man who had no life other than recording music.

Prince returned a week later. He told Hayes that he spent the entire week, for the first time since his teens, without playing guitar or writing a song.

His use of pain pills was probably longer than maybe some of us might have thought … I think he really relied on it

Prince guitarist Wendy Melvoin

“I took some time to lie about and kind of cool out,” Prince said, “and I appreciate you coming in here and saying something.”

To Hayes, this explanation seemed incomplete.

“That he didn’t play or write for a whole week was really a big deal. I’ve never seen Prince go a day without doing something musical, much less a week,” says Hayes.

“I was like, ‘Well, what did he do?’ We didn’t hear from him; no one in the band did. I don’t know what else he could’ve did other than go somewhere where he was sequestered. I think he went to rehab. I hope he went to rehab. I think he was dealing with an issue and I hope that’s what he did.”

While no one is quite sure when it intensified, by his later years, Prince was relying on opiates to keep his pain at bay.

“I think the thing that controlled him was his drug addiction,” says Wendy Melvoin, Susannah’s twin sister and guitarist for Prince’s band the Revolution.

Susannah Melvoin
Susannah Melvoin recalls baking cake for the “tender” star to get hm through marathon recording sessions.
Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP

“His use of pain pills was probably longer than maybe some of us might have thought because, when he started getting his aches and pains, I think he really relied on it,” she added. “And he was little. I think it just got worse for him over time.”

“I feel that the whole fentanyl thing was just him escaping pain from the hip and it got out of hand,” said Mark Brown, the Revolution bassist who Prince christened Brown Mark. 

“[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.’”

Prince died on April 21, 2016, at age 57. According to Wendy Melvoin, Prince, who weighed around 145 pounds when healthy, was down to around 107 when he died. Jones noted that when he passed, there were “thousands of pills all over the building.”

While nothing about Prince was conventional, from his savant-like talent to a lifestyle that shut out everything but making music, in the end, the tragic manner of his death was the most normal thing about him.

“He wasn’t doing drugs like a hedonistic rock star,” Touré wrote. “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.”