Heroin takes center stage
Joe Bonni descends into Boston rock's junkie underworld
"That's my ex-boyfriend," she explains, pointing out one Picassoesque portrait. The painting shows a punk rocker as he shoots up, tourniquet held in teeth, face eerily melting, the bright colors contrasting starkly with the dark subject matter.
"I used to hang out in this punk-rock house with him," she says. "There must have been 10 kids living in the place in Brighton. I knew he drank a lot and had used a lot of drugs, but then he started using dope along with some of the kids who lived there. I left for New York for a while, and when I came back they were almost all using."
You've probably already heard that heroin is once again the scourge of rock. Less than three weeks ago, Smashing Pumpkins' touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on the stuff while shooting with Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain in a hotel room. Many others have fallen: Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Hole's Kristen Pfaff, Stefanie Sargent of Seven Year Bitch. Now, in the wake of the popularity of the novel and film Trainspotting, we are told that a new "heroin chic" has taken hold. Even the prim Partnership for a Drug-Free America is making heroin use among the young the target of a new ad campaign. Smack, the media chorus sings, is back.
What you probably aren't hearing is that the supposedly "sudden" resurgence of heroin in rock and roll is hardly sudden. Resurgence stories have been popping up for years.
What you also aren't hearing is that in its own way, Boston is a leader in the sorry world where music and the needle intersect. Heroin use here has been on the rise since at least the mid 1980s. It has grown into a problem of such serious proportions that Morgan's story begins to seem depressingly familiar.
"I've lost three people in Boston as a result of heroin," says Cliff, a 29-year-old Boston musician who was a junkie for 10 years.
Indeed, almost everyone I talked to for this article -- dozens of people in the course of just 10 days -- had stories of loss. After eight years of personal involvement in local rock, both as a writer and musician, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that virtually everyone in the Boston music scene, whether in a band or just a fan, has been close to someone involved with junk.
For us, the national rediscovery of heroin is anything but a surprise. The drug's resurgence in Boston has already claimed a number of young talents. Here, they just hadn't hit the big time yet.
"When you talk about the whole punk-rock thing," he says, "that was the beginning of [people like me] looking at musicians and seeing that heroin seemed to be working for them. But it wasn't. The people that I was into -- Sid Vicious, Johnny Thunders -- really had miserable fucking lives. But I tried to adopt their stance. I started to believe in their whole myth, the `elegantly wasted' mystique."
But it was economics, much more than image, that brought heroin back: the drug's users could get more bang for the buck than ever before. Over the past 20 years, the purity of street heroin has been increasing much faster than its price. In the 1970s, the average purity level was hovering at around three or four percent. By 1993, a three-month DEA study revealed that heroin in Boston had the highest purity average among all major American cities: 88.7 percent, a number that would have seemed staggering not long ago. Other cities weren't far behind.
The results have been only too predictable. Here in Massachusetts, cocaine seizures by police dropped by 66 percent between 1990 and 1994, while heroin seizures increased almost 50 percent over the same period. According to the most recent figures, heroin use is up across the board.
Project Assist is a voluntary screening program run by the emergency medical department at the BU Medical Center. In a poll of 13,000 admittances over the 21 months ending last December, a steady seven percent of patients filling out the questionnaire admitted to heroin use -- about one in 14 people. It's probably not an exaggeration to say that, next time you hit a local rock-and-roll nightspot, if you're not using, someone bellying up for a drink probably is.
While preparing a photo shoot for this article, the photographer and I realized we didn't have a metal spoon. (Perhaps a good sign: all the spoons in the loft we were in had plastic or wooden handles, none of which could be bent into the proper shape for the flame and the syringe.) We called friends in other lofts in the area. The first two calls led to answering machines, but with the third we hit pay dirt. Not only were the kids home, and not only did they have a metal spoon, but when we told them what the shoot was for they replied, "Oh, we have a spoon already bent into shape. Do you need any syringes?"
This one arty neighborhood may be a focal point, but heroin is hardly confined to any single part of Boston's music scene. The drug is found just about anywhere musicians gather.
"Serge" is a Berklee student and staffer who left Europe about three years ago to come to study here in Boston. "I came here to go to school," he says, "but also to get away from everything I was doing there. I started using drugs at about age 14 with a friend of mine. She and I did all our `first' things together -- smoked our first joint, dropped acid together. But with heroin, she drifted away. I would only use heroin when it was available -- I never went looking for it -- but I watched others get caught up in it."
Shortly after coming to Boston, Serge realized that it would be a real challenge to stay clean, because Boston was an even more fertile environment for heroin use. "At Berklee," he says, "a lot of people who you wouldn't think of as using, are. Heroin is as easy to get as pot. Kids who I knew were using cocaine regularly have definitely switched to heroin because it is so much more available."
Serge hasn't used heroin in a couple of years now, but says, "After seeing Pulp Fiction, I began to really notice that heroin was everywhere here in Boston. A lot of people were using it, and at school it definitely has a `cool' reputation." The name of his latest music project is telling: Smack 3000.
Cliff, who was also at Berklee, did some dealing while he was there. Eventually, he overdosed. "You don't OD immediately," he says. "It takes a minute or two. I was with a friend and went into the bathroom and injected. I sat back down on the couch, put on my sunglasses, and the next thing I remember is waking up with an oxygen mask on my face and feeling incredibly ill. My friend tells me she had been talking to me, and I had nodded off and turned blue." Cliff had, in fact, flatlined; he would have died if not for an injection of Narcan, which reverses the effects of heroin.
Yet even that episode wasn't enough to make him go clean for good. "My last semester at Berklee," he recalls, "I signed up for classes, paid the tuition, then went back a couple weeks later, dropped all my classes, and got my tuition back -- $6000. I went to New York for a couple weeks, and when I got back my friend Dave had killed himself. This began a complete descent into hell."
Cliff's girlfriend sits there listening as he talks. She has been his friend, and sometimes his lover, for the last four years. When our interview ends two hours later, she shows me some of the poetry she has written about their relationship. Three pages of free verse describe lying awake at night to make sure Cliff was breathing, hoping for him to get well. "Come back to life," it reads, "before my telephone rings."
"Smack?" he says. "It's everywhere. We just lost our rehearsal space because of complications with heroin and other people there. We got a friend staying with some other friends trying to get clean -- he's been off about a month and half now.
"You go to a keg party in Allston," he says, "and it's not like it was before, where someone's always sharing a joint, or passing a bong, or pumping at the keg. You constantly see people leaving the party or disappearing to the bathroom, and coming back a few minutes later as if nobody knows."
(Elsewhere, the drug's presence is even more obvious. I had a friend who lived briefly in Mission Hill, in a Calumet Street house occupied by low-on-the-totem-pole dealers. The rent on the house was long unpaid, electricity had been shut off, the phones disconnected. The décor was pure junkie squalor: trash never taken out, belongings strewn throughout the house, a layer of grime everywhere.)
Later, as Franks and I continue talking, he points out two small-time dealers walking by -- people he used to cop from. "One of those guys," he tells me, "basically lives behind the old Sears building outside of Kenmore Square."
And sure enough, when I take a ride out behind the building the next day, I find a recently disposed syringe in a urine-stained corner of the abandoned warehouse parking lot.
That, it seems, is the glamorous life of the dealer.
Franks explains to me that there's a kind of trickle-down effect in the heroin economy. Boston has only a handful of genuine dealers, he says. Many others deal just to keep themselves fixed. "You wonder why they can't keep an apartment, or their phone and electricity have become disconnected -- it's because the drug has become their entire focus, and they'll do whatever they have to to maintain."
"It started as a social thing," says Dave, a 36-year-old former booker for one of Boston's premier rock clubs. "Me and a few friends might split a few bags one night, and probably still have some left over the next morning. . . . Toward the end, my habit was up to 12 bags per day, $100 to $130 per day." Dave went through all his money -- he was working a $42,000-a-year computer job as well as his $300-a-week club gig. And he still gets depressed when he thinks about his two gold cards: one with a $10,000 credit limit, one with a $9000 limit, both maxed out.
"There should be a service," says Cliff, "that comes to your house the first time you stick a needle in your arm -- to take your guitar, put it in the pawn shop, disconnect your phone, get your girlfriend and take her back to her place. Because that's what happens."
It's an obsession that destroys bands. Stompbox were Boston's answer to the rash of progressive hardcore bands (like Helmet) that have seen so much recent success. When the band broke up a year and a half ago, it was well-known that they'd had enormous trouble with their label, Columbia/Sony. In local bars and clubs, it was also well-known that heroin and other drug use by one of the members had played a large role in the band's untimely breakup. (In an interview after the split, the other band members refused to discuss the details; the musician in question diplomatically declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Last year's breakup of the psychedelic 360's was also rumored to have been, in part, heroin-related. When contacted, a member of the band readily admitted heroin's powerful sway in Boston rock, but would not go into specifics about the band's breakup.
Sadly, overdose deaths and heroin-related suicides are common locally. Take the recent OD of Rick, a former member of several local hardcore bands, including the up-and-coming Reason Enough as well as New Hampshire's the Bruisers. Rick died of an overdose just about a month ago, eating his stash rather than face a police search.
Not so long ago, Rick was well-liked and respected within the tightly knit hardcore scene. But by the time he died, few knew of his whereabouts. If not for a random conversation, I might never have found out about his death. The friend who told me added, "He's better off this way -- really."
Indeed, the real story of heroin is what it's doing to music at the grassroots. Six months ago, Cliff says, he was sitting alone in San Francisco, just before getting in touch with his parents and coming back to Boston to clean up. He tells me, "I've been a musician for 17 years now, and this is what was left of music for me: I had a box for a stereo chorus pedal, and in that box was seven or eight rigs, a spoon, all bent and burnt, and a bunch of empty heroin bags."
In the beginning, junk provides the perpetual orgasm that seduces like no lover can. But in due time, casual junk is not enough: a complete dedication to the drug is required. The telltale signs appear: track marks, welting arms, welting legs when the arms begin to weaken from repeated shooting.
Junk takes precedence over food. The stereotype of the emaciated user is accurate, at least in the late stages of addiction. Sunglasses are worn at all hours: junk-debilitated eyes shun light of any intensity.
"Heroin destroys the creative process," says Franks. "I've been clean for eight months, but I used to paint, and write, and I was a photographer. I have no creative energy left. Perhaps it's because so much of my energy has to be spent to remain focused on staying clean, but I think that heroin actually saps creativity. I figure, it took me years to lose the energy, it may take me years to gain it back."
Dave's position as booking agent exposed him to heroin-related band problems. "The reasons were never given as to why these bands broke up," he says, "but being an addict, I knew exactly why. I saw bands break up, and I would see a member walking around on the nod and there was no doubt. People would say, `we're not getting along anymore,' or the old `creative differences.' I saw it go on enough that you could see the damage it could do and just how many people were involved in it, whether they were admitting it or not."
It's hard to know how much potential is being lost. How many Berklee students, how many Chinatown lofters, how many lonely kids shooting up behind the Sears building could have been great artists? How many obsess over their next fix instead of their next creation? How many tens -- or hundreds -- of bands will never happen because their members decided to take the Heroin Road? No one knows.
For one, it has given a boost to Music Cares, a nonprofit organization formed in 1989 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the folks who bring us the Grammies every year). The goal was to "focus industry resources on human services that directly impact on the health and welfare of people in the music community." Music Cares, with its financial grants, health-insurance plans, and a vast human-resources directory, is the closest thing to a workers union that musicians can hope for. After the death of Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon last year, Music Cares promised a drug-abuse outreach program that would work directly with the industry in finding ways to intervene and offer assistance.
Early rumors about Music Cares had the organization calling for contractual clauses that would withhold royalties from bands with addicted members -- and, even more laughable, that would require artists to submit to urine tests. Ultimately, however, Music Cares looked not to the industry bottom line, but to those who had reached the end of the line. The project now includes a confidential national toll-free number (800-MUSICARES) staffed by social workers who refer musicians seeking help to local resources. And in cooperation with the Musicians Assistance Program, it reviews cases of abuse and offers financial assistance to those who cannot afford treatment.
Attitudes may be changing, too. "It's an extremely difficult issue for a lot of people to bring up, whether they are using or not." Franks explains. "I'm not sure if I would have been willing to talk about this a few months ago."
Indeed, if the Boston music scene is intent on protecting the lives of its own, it will succeed not by hiding the problem, but by admitting it and taking it on -- if not through public endeavors, at least through personal ones.
Ted Condo, lead singer and bass player for Boston's 6L6, sits with me at Trident Booksellers and Café, on Newbury Street. We drink too much coffee and smoke too many cigarettes as I tell him about the number of depressing conversations I've had about heroin over the past week.
Ted, 29, tells me he's never tried the stuff. He hasn't even had a drink in 10 years, having ending his experiments with intoxicants when he was 20.
"But I do remember," he says, "something that happened that may have been a bit of a turning point. I was 20 and hanging out with Andrew Padua (the bass player for early-'90s hometown heroes Cobalt 60). And Andrew lived between Codman Square and the Ashmont T Station. We were on our way out of his place, and I remember saying to him, `Uh, hey, I hear we can get some heroin in Codman Square, and it's only a few bucks for a bag. And if we just snort it we won't get addicted.' This shows you how little I knew at the time.
"And Andrew just gave me one of those looks -- a silent stare -- and said, `I think we need to go, or we're gonna be late.' So instead of taking a right out of his house and buying smack, we took a left and went to the T station. Less than two months later I decided to clean up and go straight, but I have to wonder what would have happened if Andrew hadn't been the voice of reason that day."