September 14, 1976.
We had just gotten through a very red, white, and blue summer, as we celebrated the country’s bicentennial. Gerald Ford was still in office, “Charlie’s Angels” ruled TV, and Boston’s debut album had just come out, so “More Than a Feeling” was all over the radio. There was no cable TV, cell phones, VCRs or, perhaps most shocking, light beer. Coors was the closest thing to that and it was just arriving on the scene.
For us – that is, me and my little juvenile delinquent friends – it was all about Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine, Schlitz Tall Boys, and bourbon and coke… along with weed that was only $10 to $20 per “lid,” rationed out in joints rolled in tasty strawberry rolling paper. (Aahhh… those endless days, in a constant haze.)
I was also smoking Marlboro reds (.60 per pack) and even those little Winchester “cigars” which looked more like cigarettes, except darker. They tasted like dogshit, but only cost .29 per pack! In more desperate times, I would steal my father’s Pall Mall Gold 100s, or one of my grandfather’s King Edward cigars… which I actually inhaled. Great idea for young lungs.
The “King Edward” Kid. (Good God…)
Half of my wardrobe consisted of Black Sabbath T-shirts; the other half were weed-inspired gems featuring captions like Smoke the Best, Smoke Columbian or Acapulco Gold Forever. I always wore these shirts with corduroy pants, Earth shoes, and a roach clip that had a small cross attached to it, permanently hanging from my belt. Meanwhile, my bedroom was wall-to-wall blacklight posters, as a red sparkle Rogers drum kit sat in the corner with a pot leaf sticker affixed to one of the toms. And on the record player was a constant rotation of bands like Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Black Oak Arkansas, Kiss, Ted Nugent, Mahogany Rush, Santana, Robin Trower, UFO, Johnny Winter, Blue Oyster Cult, Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin, early Rush, and most often, the aforementioned Black Sabbath.
Typical wardrobe marketing message…
although in reality, we could seldom afford the “good shit.”
My friends and I jammed together almost every day after school, smoking weed on the walk home. At night, we had a special affinity for sneaking out of our respective homes and vandalizing shit; paint on cars, eggs on houses, piss on door mats. Don’t ask me why. It was just our thing: being fucking punks.
But all good things must come to an end, as they say. And with only a few weeks into fall semester, things weren’t looking so good. I was already getting into constant trouble at school, and shit was really starting to come off the rails at home. I was also feeling sick to my stomach and depressed all the time and didn’t know why. So one of my best friends who I’ll call TC – no doubt one of the most notorious problem children in the history of the Houston Independent School District – actually suggested that I go to a rehab program. It was called the Palmer Drug Abuse Program, PDAP for short, and he said that if I went there with my parents, the counselors would chill them out, and we could still keep getting high on the side. That was the master plan. I was 13. And that brings us back to…
September 14, 1976.
My parents knew I had been “experimenting” with cigarettes and alcohol, even though all kinds of domestic warfare would break out on the rare occasion they caught me. They didn’t know to what extent I was indulging, and they had no idea I was smoking weed almost every day, as well. So one afternoon as I returned home from school with yet another special note from the principal, I bit the bullet and told my mom that I thought I “needed some help” (part of the scam), and then mentioned PDAP as a possible solution. My poor mother, shocked by this revelation, went to the White Pages right away and booked an appointment with some PDAP counselors for the very next day: September 14, 1976. Of course, I had already gotten fucked-up earlier that morning before school, but I figured I should refrain prior to the appointment on the 14th. Little did I know at the time that I would never have another drop of alcohol, or any kind of weed or drugs, from that moment forward. Ever.
Meet the Counselors
The particular branch, or “satellite,” of PDAP that was closest to us was called Memorial Drive. I got out of school (just like it was a doctor’s appointment!) and went with both my parents to meet the counselors. The woman’s name was Betty (although Sandy Zimmerman would turn out to be the longer-term co-counselor there). The man…. well, I will never forget this character: his name was Joe Peddie. Also, coincidentally, the founder of PDAP, Bob Meehan, just happened to be hanging at Memorial Drive that day, so we met him, too. (Another character I will never forget!)
Where it all began: Memorial Drive Presbyterian.
Most PDAP satellites were based out of churches, although
the program itself was without a specific religious orientation.
They took my parents into a separate office so they could talk to me alone. They asked if I smoked, then offered me a cigarette. (Criminal these days, but no biggie back then.) They asked questions about my drug/alcohol usage. I told them what I had been up to. I also told them I had shot up some opium the week prior. This was an exaggeration. (I had actually smoked some, while an older kid from the hood shot it. I was terrified of needles.) I guess I felt like I needed to bolster my “stoner resume” a bit for some extra street cred, since I didn’t think what I was really doing was a problem.
At any rate, Joe, taking the lead, was organically persuasive and Serpico-cool. He told me where the path I was on would lead and offered me a new group of “running buddies” to hang with. Then he said something I will never forget:
“Give this program an honest shot for 30 days: go to the meetings, hang with the kids on the weekends, and stay clean. If at the end of the 30 days you decide this isn’t for you, come and see me and I’ll buy you a bag of dope.”
And that is pretty much a direct quote, because I clearly recall he said “bag of dope,” and I wondered how he defined dope: Weed? Pills? Powder? Nonetheless, the wheels were turning as he was making me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
And then, the cherry on top.
“I’ll tell ya what. I see you like to smoke,” he said.
“Sure,” I responded.
“Well how about this? You promise to give me an honest 30 days, and I’ll see to it that your parents allow you to smoke in front of them… no more hiding!”
Impossible, I thought. But if this motherfucker could pull off that hat trick, I’m in.
Sure enough, he left the room to go and talk to my parents. I was thinking, Man, this fool ain’t gonna convince them to let me smoke… especially my dad. But, he returned about 15 minutes later and nonchalantly said, “Okay, you’re in. You can now smoke in front of your parents. We have a deal, right?” he said, extending his hand for a shake.
“Yes,” I replied, and we shook hands; hippy-style, of course.
The third and final critical component to my decision was this: my drumming mentor, Cole Newbury – the kid who actually got me interested in playing drums, and who I always considered my “older brother from another mother” – had been attending PDAP meetings for several months at this point, as well. Of course, Cole had inadvertently gotten me interested in cigarettes, weed, and alcohol in addition to drumming. So to see that he, too, was giving this thing a shot, well… how could I say no at this point?
The first meeting I attended was a couple days later on a Saturday morning. Man, was it ever a trip; a charming assemblage of degenerates, in the 13 to 16-year old range, all openly affectionate with one another. Guys hugging guys, girls hugging girls, guys and girls kissing each other hello and goodbye… this was like nothing I had ever seen before. And none of this was done in any kind of creepy, cultish sort of way. It was way more family-like… almost like an extension of a 60’s flower children kind of vibe. We were clearly all in this together, and I could see how many of these kids regarded this group as their extended family.
When it came time for the actual meeting, we all sat in a large circle, with virtually everyone in the room smoking cigarettes. I distinctly remember a thick haze of white smoke quickly developing in the room, just hanging there like San Francisco fog. (For the few kids in the room who didn’t smoke, they might as well have.) I believe the topic of this first meeting was gratitude, and I was actually called on to “share.” It was pure agony, speaking in front of that many people. But the puke never made it past the back of my throat, thankfully. And in that moment, that’s what I was most “grateful” for!
That night, a kid named Frank Pietrowski had a party at his house. It was a 60’s themed gathering where everyone was supposed to dress up like we were going to Woodstock. What? A party where no one’s getting fucked-up? What will they do? This I have to see! So I went and had a great time. In many ways, it was just like any rowdy kegger you might imagine, minus the drugs and alcohol. It was a raucous, fun, and loud affair … until 10:30 rolled around and this new show called “Saturday Night Live” came on. Then everyone crowded around the home’s lone TV set and got quiet as John Belushi and co. did their thing. During the commercials, everyone would carry on and raise hell, then quiet back down when the show came back on. I remember thinking, Holy shit… this is like a giant family.
After the show, I was talking to a kid named Kevin McCarthy. I admitted that I was interested in the “30-Day challenge” that Joe had proposed, but I still had four joints in a plastic baggie back home and I wasn’t sure what I should do with them.
“Flush that shit down the toilet,” he said without hesitation.
“What the hell?” I responded.
“Flush that shit, brother. You don’t need it anymore, and you definitely don’t need it hanging over your head while you’re trying to get sober.”
I nodded and actually considered it. Then, later that night when I got home, I woke my sister Pam up and had her follow me into the bathroom. I opened up the baggie and watched those four joints tumble into the toilet water, then spiral down the can with a single flush. It felt like I was watching an old way of living go down the toilet. And I was. I guess I just needed a witness.
So I diligently started catching every meeting – Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings. PDAP is a 12-step program, very similar to AA, but with a few variations. So I asked Kevin McCarthy to be my “sponsor” – kind of a mentor/advisor; another AA concept – and I really tried to work the steps. The second step had to do with associating exclusively with “winners,” aka kids who didn’t get high. But this would be in direct conflict with the original game plan. TC and I were close friends and in a band together. Certainly I could make an exception here… even as I tried in earnest to stay clean for 30 days. Certainly TC would understand that I really wanted to give this sobriety thing a shot, right?
Man, this motherfucker was relentless. For those last couple weeks in September, as we tried to carry on as we had been with our after school jams and weeknight hangs, he was just not having it. I dealt with a constant barrage of poking and prodding.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he would yell. “I didn’t mean for you to really go straight!”
Then he would blow superchargers at me (where you put the lit end of a doobie in your mouth and blow smoke in someone’s face). Great. Thanks for the support, bro. I would turn my head in protest and stumble away, arms flailing around to divert the smoke. Sure, it was kind of playful… but not really. He was not happy about this and, soon enough, we had to go our separate ways.
The good news was, I had a boatload of supportive new friends I was seeing every week, and I joined a new band within a month, made up of guys from PDAP, of course: Gary Pinkstaff on bass, and Bryan Hearn on guitar. We basically only played Black Sabbath songs, which was fine by me.
My first real band, with Bryan Hearn (left) and
Gary Pinkstaff (center). Look at these little thugs!
A Life Anew
I went to at least two meetings a week and was an active member of the group for a solid four years. About 10 months in, somewhere around my 14th birthday, I was asked to be on the Steering Committee, which meant that I would actually be involved with leading some of the “breakaway” meetings on Wednesdays. It also involved a deeper dive into one’s internal psyche, as we would all meet twice a month for a more intense “purpose” meeting amongst ourselves and the counselors.
Around this time was also my first foray into public speaking. Occasionally, a few of us would accompany one of our counselors to an area junior high or high school and speak before an assembly. We would tell our personal story and make a case for the sober lifestyle. (I would go on to do a number of these kind of talks through the years.)
In retrospect, being that heavily involved in PDAP was a rare opportunity for accelerated personal growth, the likes of which is almost unexplainable… unless you were actually there. I mean, this was the 70s, the apex of the personal development movement, where we were evolving beyond the pseudo-hippy, Eastern-tinged philosophies of the 60s, and now into a more streamlined stew of spirituality, psychology, and self-help that was rocketing into the mainstream. And here we all were, at fucking 14, 15, and 16 years of age, really and truly entrenched in this material for real; challenging ourselves and each other to walk the talk, to live these philosophies; to journal, meditate, seek deeper spiritual understandings; to commune with the Divine in ways that defied some of the rigid religious precepts most of us had grown up with; and even to try and forgive – an especially tough challenge for some of the members who had really fucked-up home lives.
Sober now, with Crazy Buddy and Big Ronnie, kickin’ it
in my room… still covered in blacklight posters.
Certainly, there were flaws, inconsistencies, and things that probably needed to be tweaked with the program. And I’m sure, at times, some of what we were all bantering around was homogenized, bumper-sticker soundbites that were more “recovery vernacular” than true wisdom. (But again, most of us didn’t even have driver’s licenses at this point.) Still… regardless of what any of us old-school PDAPers could say in the rear-view about what could have been different, what was probably a bit extreme and, perhaps, what never should have been, I personally wouldn’t trade it for the world. I always felt like the PDAP experience gave me a unique education on life and elevated living that, quite frankly, most adults would not have been privy to.
A New Kind of Party Culture
While the meeting and “content” part of the program was all based around positive, personal development stuff, let’s not forget: we were still a bunch of rowdy, misfit kids looking to have fun and raise holy hell. And that we did. It seemed like there was constantly something going on: parties at different kid’s houses, PDAP-sponsored dances, functions, and various shindigs, weekend beach retreats and occasional camping excursions, and the constant late-night cruising of coffee shops and pizza joints… particularly after weeknight meetings. And because we were all clean and sober, it seemed like many of us enjoyed an unusual leniency from our parents.
My main band through the years, playing one of many PDAP parties:
(L to R) Dr. Watson Davis (guitar), Gary Pinkstaff (bass), Yours Truly
Here we are some 30+ years later, playing at a PDAP reunion.
And yes, this is the same Dr. Watson who I do my annual writer’s retreat with…
(Pic by Andrea Guerin Stinson)
Hell, at 15, I remember very specifically that my school night curfew was 3:00 AM, and my weekend curfew was 5:00 AM. This gave us all plenty of time to get into trouble. Some nights, we would “street surf” around quiet neighborhoods. This is where you jump on the back of someone’s car – feet on the bumper and hands gripping the luggage rack on top – then have them speed through neighborhoods at 60 to 70 mph with the headlights off, so as not to draw attention to what we were doing. Of course, any kind of collision or even a sharp swerve would have likely ended things for us “surfers” pretty quickly. But hey, who’s sweating those kind of details? (If only GoPros would have been around back then!)
The 5:00 AM curfew also meant that me and my gang of young hoodlums would usually come storming into the crib around 4:55 AM on any given Friday or Saturday night. My folks would wake up a few hours later and find motherfuckers crashed all over the house, on couches and floors, like it was a Salvation Army shelter. Then my mom would fix us all breakfast. (Aahhh… the joys of cool parents.)
Truthfully, there were times when we got a little carried away with the hell-raising. This was especially true of a small group of us who would routinely go over-the-top, led by me and my primary co-conspirator, Kevin Mathis. (Love ya, bro!) It was largely just a phase we went through, and I deeply regret some of the debauchery we wound up getting into, especially to the extent that we damaged other people’s property. However, the flipside was this: as we would take new kids with us on some of these adventures, they would usually become die-hard members of the program and the sober life, saying things like, “Wow! We weren’t doing this kind of crazy shit when we were getting fucked up! This is cool!” Eventually, though, police and parents got involved, so we all had to dial it back a bit, thankfully.
By the end of my sophomore year of high school, I was always out so late fucking around somewhere, that it became increasingly difficult to wake up in time for school. No problem. The vice principal knew I was sober, took a special liking to me, and would occasionally have me counsel certain students who were dealing with drug issues. In return, I could show up to school at virtually any time in the late morning or early afternoon, go directly to his office, and he would write me a pass, no questions asked. Life was sweet!
In 10th grade, with a PDAP Absolutely Free T-shirt and my ever-present monkey’s fist
necklace; the iconic PDAP symbol of sobriety (awarded to members after 30-days clean).
We would also tie additional knots in them to denote each successive month of sobriety.
Rockin’ a Peter Criss-inspired Pearl octoplus-vibe at one of the
infamous “Willie’s Jam” parties.
Of course, all of these absences, along with my general apathy towards school, would catch up with me. And since I figured I was going to be a rock star anyway and didn’t need school, I wound up dropping out of 10th grade about a month before the end of the spring semester. My folks said that if I didn’t want to go to school, then I had to get a real job… which I did: doing manual labor in a warehouse for an insulation company all summer. A hot-ass Houston, Texas summer, I might add.
Needless to say, by the time fall rolled around, I was ready to go back to school. I had to bust some extra ass and spend the following summer in summer school, but I was able to rejoin my original class and graduate on time.
The “Rise and Fall”
During my first three years in the program, PDAP – which was founded in Houston – was growing like mad and beginning to expand into different cities. And then it happened; in 1979, Carol Burnett’s daughter, Carrie Hamilton, traveled east from LA to Houston to join the program and get sober. And that she did.
Carrie was super cool and a great singer/keyboardist, and our band became her back-up band for a bit… which was big news for me, Gary, and at this time, Mike Wheeler on guitar. Her People magazine cover story – which she shot with her mom – broke things wide open on a national level for our small but mighty Texas-based drug abuse program.
The cover story that would bring
PDAP to the national spotlight
Next thing you knew, Carrie, Carol, and various “higher-ups” from the program were doing the national talk show circuit, and PDAP became a media phenomenon for a minute. Attendance exploded at the various satellites. Affiliate rehab hospitals were raging with new patients who would transition into meetings as part of their recovery. Guys and gals were flying and driving in from all around the country to various PDAP cities – particularly Houston – to crash on people’s couches and attend meetings. It was an exciting, intense time, and somewhat validating, for all of us die-hards.
But then, with all of this media attention came an uncommon level of scrutiny on the program. It all seemed to be spearheaded by some suspect admin shit that had been going on… some shady financial dealings between some of our big wigs and some of the rehab hospitals associated with PDAP. This cast quite a shadow on the program for a minute and caused quite a ruckus among the staff… especially after founder Meehan was let go. It was high drama stuff for awhile, but eventually, things returned to a relative normal in PDAP-land.
As a senior in high school, I started devoting even more time to practicing the drums, so I gradually faded away from the meetings. I didn’t really need to go anymore, frankly. And by the time I went off to the Berklee College of Music in Boston the following year, I had a rock-solid five years of sobriety.
Since first joining the program, I never really looked back. I’ve never seriously considered using again. I guess I “reinvented” myself so thoroughly, early on, that I’ve never personally identified with being someone who would EVER, under any circumstances, drink, smoke weed, or do drugs. I’m sure I’ll take this way of being to my grave… along with my veganism.
Done a lot of this kind of stuff through the years…
Even with more than 30 years in the music biz now – while I’ve certainly seen a lot of “using” going on – ironically, I’ve always managed to wind up in professional situations where alcohol and drug use was either minimal or virtually non-existent. Strange how it kind of worked out that way. It’s not like I “hand-picked” all the gigs I wound up in.
Found a number of these kind of articles in the “vault.”
Making a Case for the Lucid Life
I’ve never been one to proselytize about my sober way of living. It’s not my style. That said, I have done my fair share of speaking engagements through the years on the subject. I’ve also typically gone out of my way to mention my clean living approach at the hundreds of drumming workshops I’ve done through the years, given the radical misconceptions young musicians have about the partying lifestyle associated with the music business. Yes, it’s prevalent to some degree. But the deeper truth is, being heavily into dope or alcohol is a huge liability for anyone looking to “make it” in the biz. No one has time for that shit; fellow musicians, management, industry peeps, etc. And it doesn’t matter how great you play. I’ve seen it a hundred times; folks will typically pass on the “better player” who has issues with drinking or drugs, for the more reliable one who doesn’t.
Beyond that – and speaking from the perspective of my personal journey – being sober has been the single most critical game-changer for me. Why? Because without the distraction of partying through the years, I have naturally focused all of my turbo-charged addictive-personality energy into more positive pursuits: serious amounts of practice, weight-training and running, a healthy diet, lots of reading, and other activities that have played a key role in my personal evolution. I just don’t know how you can effectively engage in a lot of these kind of things while getting blitzed all the time… especially in the meditation/self-reflection realm.
“…an evening of positive messages and blazing drum solos!”
That’s what the fuck I’m talking about, people! 🙂
On that note, I guess I would have to mention this idea that, indeed, “the mind is a terrible thing to waste.” It is, quite literally, your most valuable asset. So why would we want to fry all of those brain cells and jumble up all of those precious neural connections? I mean, if we watched someone at a dojo or boxing gym regularly spar without headgear, and observed them taking blow after blow to the head, we would wonder what the fuck their problem was. Why are you taking all of those senseless shots to the head in training? Protect yourself, idiot! And yet, to some degree, this is what we are doing with long-term use of drugs and alcohol.
The same could be said for the body. Man, I’ve led a life of serious physical exertion. The training, the touring, the toils of road living… often on minimal sleep and whacked traveling conditions. Again, I don’t see how this happens when you’re ingesting a lot of toxins.
The Ecstasy of Agony; the Sweetness of “Super-Clarity”
I’ve also observed that many people tend to reach for weed, alcohol, or drugs when they’re nervous or uptight about something. But to me, that adrenaline surge, elevated heart rate, or even the sense that you are about to “shit yourself” from fear, is what makes us feel alive. I say, embrace it! Live it. Breathe deeply through it. Feel the heart pound, the mouth go dry, the sweat bead up on your forehead, the natural chemicals rush through your bloodstream. It’s okay. It’s part of life. Why try and cover that shit up with chemicals?
And finally, perhaps the main upside to the sober life that I would tell someone who asked me is this: I love being lucid at all times. I prefer to experience all aspects of life through a sharp, clear filter of perception. I like recalling events of the past through this same crystal-clear filter, and with a memory that has remained scary-sharp and ultra-detailed as a result of my clean living. It’s just my preference.
I understand that a case can be made for blurring that filter with drugs and alcohol and enjoying the party train of nightly indulgences, especially when touring with a rock band. I get it. And I’ve also noticed how the public loves to read about such exploits in so many of the various rock and roll memoirs out there. But to me, touring with a rock band is when you would NOT want to blur that filter. It has often been like a three-ring circus out there on tour: the things you see, the experiences you have, the people you meet… it’s like no other lifestyle imaginable. So to me, I want to remember all of those things, recall all of those people, and assimilate all of that life experience in as clear and accurate a way as I can. And I don’t believe you can do that when the ol’ filter is tainted with drugs and/or alcohol.
Just my take on things…
On a certain level, I guess not much has changed
in the past 40 years: still love to hit the drums!
With Marty O’Brien, Lita Ford and Patrick Kennison.
Been hittin’ with Lita and the gang for nearly four years now:
Non-stop touring… just the way we like it!
(pic by Shovelhead Studios)
I know my journey might appear to be unusual, but really, I’ve just lived the “excessive musician’s” story arc in an unusual order. Most successful musicians manage to carve out a decent career for themselves, but then wind up going into rehab at some point. I went into rehab first, and then wound up carving out a decent career.
Wouldn’t have had things any other way…
I will close now with a special shout out, first to my PDAP sponsors from way back in the day: Kevin McCarthy, Matt Feehery, and Brian Blessing. And second, to the majority of my closest, inner-circle peeps who, just like me, share the same unwavering credo – not one fucking drop; not one fucking hit. Ever.
PS. 5 years later, still going strong. Here’s the latest addendum to the journey: