Helping addicted musicians

Drug abuse `like an occupational hazard'

May 13, 2002|By Marc Ramirez | Marc Ramirez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

As it turned out, it was a sad, solitary exit for Layne Staley, the lead voice of Seattle's Alice in Chains, whose death last month followed a long-publicized battle with heroin addiction.

This latest celebrity death once again turns the spotlight on rock musicians, whose visibility has painted them, sometimes unfairly, as mirrors of societal woes and torch-bearers of a well-worn ethos that prescribes living for today because tomorrow may never come.

Those who loom larger than life leave lasting impressions in death, claiming our attention whenever heroin takes another life: Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, in 1994; Shannon Hoon, lead singer for Blind Melon, in 1995; Sublime vocalist Brad Nowell and Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, in 1996; John Baker Saunders of Mad Season, with whom Staley played, in 1999. And now Staley.

Heroin and other drugs are big-enough concerns for the music business that there's a need for agencies like Seattle's Musicians Assistance Program, a no-fee service funded by the Recording Industry Association of America, and MusiCares, the health- and human-services arm of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

As musicians become more successful, drug abuse is "almost built-in," says Harold Owens, who oversees MusiCares' addiction-recovery program in Los Angeles. "It's like an occupational hazard."

The chronicling of addicts' sordid struggles is a common theme in much of the grunge music written during its heyday in the early '90s - such as Alice in Chains' 1992 release Dirt.

Those known for staying clean - members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, for example - were overshadowed by those who succumbed to heroin, including Mother Love Bone vocalist Andrew Wood in 1990 and guitarist Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch in 1993.

In 1994, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain shot himself a week after nearly dying of a heroin overdose, just as Staley was returning from rehab at the Hazelden Foundation Clinic in Minnesota.

After appearing on a 1996 cover of Rolling Stone that read, "The Needle and the Damage Done," Staley all but disappeared, and his continuing addiction kept the band from developing significant new projects. Staley died in his Seattle home, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, two weeks before his body was discovered April 19.

This sort of downward spiral is a pattern MAP counselor Mike Kinder often sees. Calls come from musicians kicked out of newly signed bands at the behest of record companies unwilling to take on their addiction problems. Others are simply eager to deal with a habit that has earned them reputations among club owners or recording executives as unreliable or risky.

A longtime professional drummer and recovering cocaine and alcohol addict, Kinder has been helping musicians get treatment for four years, referring clients to renowned California facilities such as the Betty Ford Center and the Pasadena Recovery Center.

Many musicians, Kinder says, don't have health insurance. Even those successful enough to afford it often don't use it if they fear that news of their treatment might be leaked, he said.

Inquiries also come from touring performers referred by similar agencies nationwide.

"I'll get people in recovery who'll call me up and ask, where's a good meeting to go to, or it'll be the music community putting together safe rooms for people on tour," Kinder says. "You'd be surprised who can be on the other end of the telephone."

The influx of high-purity heroin into the country, mostly from Colombia, is a major factor in the past decade's substance-abuse trends, says Carol Falkowski of the Hazelden Foundation, whose treatment clinics have played host to Breeders guitarist Kelley Deal, among other performers. The purer blend can be snorted or smoked, so with injection no longer its only avenue into the body, the drug is losing its seedy aura.

"People who may have been deterred are now trying it because it can be put up your nose," Falkowski says.

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