As I keep mentioning, music has been the one consistent, reliable ‘tool’ for me in recovery. I think it had at least something to do with following through with the decision to quit. I keep thinking about what it was, musically, that gave me a push to change things up, and I keep coming back to the same band, the same album, consistently over the past 10 years:
Most people, including me, think about Grunge when referencing ’92. And yeah, that music is all over this tale. Especially Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and early Pearl Jam. I had a steady diet of that bunch of bands since I heard the Singles soundtrack, which again is pretty on par for that era.
But Helmet was, by a large measure, a total kick in the ass. Especially after hearing Unsung on the radio in June/July, just before shit hit the fan for me and I realized, with no hesitation at the time, that I had to stop all drug use or die. That song came from out of nowhere, and I distinctly remember hearing it on the radio when I lived in Dixon, California, just down the road from Sacramento. I’m not sure why I was listening to the radio: I generally detested it. I was probably waiting for Man in the Box or Outshined, with the Seattle boys starting the seriously eat into the steady stream of Motley Crue, Cinderella, and the other bands who’d given me almost a decade of nausea (I’m much more open and accepting now- but at the time I DETESTED the hair bands and power ballads Clearchannel and their ilk had smeared us with over the years.)
But hearing Helmet was…so unexpected that it remains one of those flashpoints that’s stuck with me. The whole vibe of Unsung is so unlike anything out there, even to this day. The urgency of the opening, the tension of repeating, the staccato riff, the controlled anger, and sarcasm in the vocals. It’s also as close to ‘pop’ as they would do for the next few albums.
But the vocals and lyrics. To die unsung: Suicide is far too boring these days. This hit home for me then, and just as hard for me today. Everything is clearly enunciated and produced, like the band wanted you to hear them. Quite remarkable. And then, they sing that speaking clearly reveals too much. Irony as well! The song is so damn heavy, especially the cacophony at the end. There was just no way this was popular. No. Fucking. Way.
I’m pretty sure I ordered the album that day, from Columbia House. I was terrified of driving even 5 miles at the time. Dixon had no stores that sold CD’s at the time, and the closest was in Davis, about 8 miles away. It had to be Columbia House, and within a week or so I had the whole CD. I got an even bigger surprise then.
THE WHOLE ALBUM WAS HEAVIER THAN THAT ONE SONG ON THE RADIO!
I don’t think I listened to it a lot. I mean, Meantime really messed with my buzz, made me aware that I was killing myself. Not in dramatic fashion but in a dull, pathetic and boring way. Helmet made me too aware that there was actually life out there. Regardless, I loved it then, and 30 years later, the whole album gets regular play. Along with Betty, which overall I think is a better album.
Helmet retains their shock value, in that it was a truly original work. Sure, there was a lot of inspiration, but it was well outside Metal. One could argue Voivod, but even then, the syncopation and overall style is nothing like them except for the use of jazz chords and techniques. Helmet simply came from somewhere else entirely, and only Page Hamilton can speak to that.
Even more surprising was what they looked like, though I wouldn’t see a Helmet video for a couple years. The only TV I had was over-the-air, 3, sometimes four channels. I wasn’t even aware of Bevis and Butthead until late 94, or early ’95. My stereo was ancient and cheap by any standard, my speakers even cheaper. That’s what I’d been reduced to: third-hand equipment that barely functioned. My TV was a 25-inch Sanyo. Even my bass gear was horrible: a very cheap Precision Bass copy and a 5-watt amplifier bought 3rd hand for maybe, maybe, $50. A Christmas present from my girlfriend from a year or so prior.
But I was living the life, man. I had a small room for $250 in a boarding house out in the middle of nowhere, on Pitt School Road just outside of Dixon. I had my own porch, where the cheap gear would keep people up to the wee hours, me drunkenly banging away on that poor old bass. To be honest, just 7 years earlier, I was actually pretty good, with decent gear. Peavey bass and Peavey amp, but I bet they’re both still functional somewhere. Peavey was looked down upon by most bands I knew, but it was built like a tank, virtually bulletproof. I sold them both for fifty bucks and a case of Heineken back when I was in the Navy.
Around the time Helmet came out, I was for the most part a proto-Incel. Like, no dates or even the ability to get a date. Until I met Sam, with whom I tried to have a very drunken and doomed relationship with. In May of ’92, I invited her over for a ‘date.’ I was madly obsessed with her, after she flirted with me at the corner gas station/convenience around the corner where I got my gas and most of my groceries. I had my speakers and bass all set-up on the porch, along with my constant pitchers of margaritas on hand. I did have my own blender after all: like I wrote, I was living the life.
I was so nervous, I started pre-gaming, belting down margaritas before she got there, so I was already pretty smashed. Sam didn’t drink much, and I finished hers while we got to know each other. I probably drank half a bottle over 3 drinks, finished it when she got there and it caught up to me pretty quickly. I fell off the railing of the porch, Black Sabbath’s Changes blasting away as I pledged ever lasting love to her.
Therapeutic aside: there is nothing cute or funny in this recounting. I do have a certain dark humor about it: it’s my personality, coping style, and I’ve also lived with it for 30 years.
Here’s the thing: I was extraordinarily intoxicated at that moment. Let’s assume I’m correct about roughly a bottle of 80-proof tequila consumed in roughly an hour. It was probably more, certainly not less. That consumptions equals roughly 17 or more shots. Now, at the time I weighed 160 pounds, which means I hit around a .34 Blood Alcohol Content, or BAC; over four times the legal limit. I didn’t black out, but I lost motor control and judgment very quickly. It was abnormal for me to drink that quickly: I generally ran a marathon, not a sprint, and would drink 6 beers quickly (2 hours or so) to a .12 BAC, then increase to about .24.
Here’s my point: if you’re thinking to yourself, “that’s not that much, I can…”, then you most likely need serious help. While the intoxication is bad enough, if you can tolerate that level of drinking or anything close to a regular basis, you have a serious tolerance to alcohol. Drinking might kill you outright.
I also remember the sound of the gravel under her tires as she sped away. But, that wasn’t the end of our story. Spoiler alert: some intense drama would soon happen, but against all odds, we became very close and reliable friends. Sam was seriously there when I needed her the most, and I’ll be forever grateful to her. For everything.
But thank-Gawd it never worked out for more than a day or two.
That’s a brief snapshot of what it was like prior to getting clean. But there’s another album, just as important as Helmet, and that’s Faith No More’s Angel Dust.
Like I wrote, I didn’t have access to MTV or any cable stuff, so I was stuck with word-of-mouth from people I knew and the darn radio, as I mentioned. Another bright spot was FNM. Epic may be the song most people know, but that whole album is epic. So when my one friend, Mike, told me about Angel Dust coming out, like a few million other people, I was pretty excited.
Like those millions of other people, I was unprepared for the album we got. I think I’d been expecting some Epic Part II featuring the irritating but compelling skateboard dude singer. Seriously, Mike Patton was not someone that you could take seriously, no matter how great the song is, and it is indeed a great song. But he came across like some deranged, spoiled frat boy.
Instead, we got a fully realized, adult album examining the dark recesses of American culture. Mike Patton was, and is, no joke. He may be funny at times, but he’s also not screwing around. Where The Real Thing was a great album to get hammered to, there was something unsettling about Angel Dust, beginning with the name of the album. I guess when I heard the title I figured it was some sort of post-modern metaphor. But no, it’s pretty literal in retrospect.
And from there, things get pretty dark. And the darkness hits home, quite poignantly, in fact. I couldn’t relax and get into the groove with songs like RV, Kindergarten or opener Land of Sunshine. Like Helmet, FNM totally ruined my buzz, and for a few months I pretty much hated the album. It was about a year later that I gave it another chance, and by then I was in a totally different, yet still totally FUBAR, headspace. But it always reminds me those days just before all hell broke loose for me.
Of course, other bands figure into the picture as well. Red Hot Chili Peppers definitely had an impact, especially with their focus on their own recovery. Soundgarden is the most vital band in the first couple of years clean. I first saw them at the Warfield, which I wrote about in detail here.
I saw them and Pearl Jam at Lollapalooza 2, at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountainview, CA. Heck, a lot of the biggies were at that one: RHCP and Ministry as well. I barely remember it. I do recall forgetting the tickets back in Dixon, and we had to drive all the way back about 45 to them. I wasn’t too popular with the guys on that trip. When we made it to Shoreline, I pretty much passed out and missed most of the show. I came to during the Chili Peppers, just another major event wasted by being wasted. It’s hard to think of anything as boring as addiction…
End of part 1.