Rockers, Models And The New Allure Of Heroin

I never tried heroin, but I used to think I wanted to. White and middle class, just out of college in 1987, I read Jim Carroll's ""The Basketball Diaries,'' a cornerstone of modern heroin mythology: he made it seem like the ultimate rite of passage, a drug that made you funnier, wiser, cooler and full of hilarious stories about running wild on New York's Lower East Side. I listened obsessively to the Rolling Stones' ""Exile on Main St.'' and read accompanying literature like Stanley Booth's ""The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones'' that told how strung out Keith Richards was during this peak of genius. I even knew someone, a musician, who did heroin. For a long time he didn't do it around me. I nagged him to let me try it, and he laughed. ""You're not starting,'' he said.

When he finally did use it around me, my romantic image of heroin collapsed. He nodded out on my couch midway through a sentence; he threw up in my bathroom; he went face down on a restaurant table in front of my friends. From then on, I hated heroin. When at last he offered it to me, holding a knife point piled with ivory powder under my nose, I backed away. ""I thought you wanted to try it,'' he said. ""Not anymore,'' I said. Now I'm old enough to know better. I have a husband and a house and a nice life. When I hear that a musician I admire uses it, I'm concerned but no longer curious. When I hear of a tragic rock overdose, like Jonathan Melvoin of Smashing Pumpkins, I feel sad and shake my head, just like anybody would. I can enjoy a heroin movie like ""Trainspotting,'' and all the while I'm secretly thinking: Whew! Glad it's not me!

Yet no matter how smart we think we are, heroin's allure persists. In the past two or three years, its presence in pop culture has risen dramatically. Maybe it's Kurt Cobain's fault. His was the most high-profile drug-related rock-star death since the '70s, and he was battling heroin when he committed suicide in April 1994. Maybe it's his wife Courtney Love's fault: her torn dresses, matted hair and bruisey demeanor put a fashionable spin on junkie chic. Maybe it's the rock world's fault. In the past few months, Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland and Depeche Mode frontman David Gahan have all been busted for heroin and/or cocaine. (All three pleaded not guilty; Weiland and Gahan entered rehab.) Aerosmith could be the latest drug-troubled band: they just fired longtime manager Tim Collins, an anti-drug crusader credited with helping singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry get off heroin in the mid-'80s. Sources say Tyler may have relapsed this year. NEWSWEEK has obtained a copy of a pained letter the band wrote to Tyler in June, citing his childishness, negativity and denial. The band members threatened to break up Aerosmith, telling Tyler to ""get the help that you need'' and ""reach out'' for counseling. The band is said to have spent weeks with Tyler at Steps, a treatment center in California. Tyler denies all this. ""I'm still sober and have remained sober for the last nine years, going on 10,'' he says. ""Sometimes the creative zone and joie de vivre I get into throws people. If that's what they see in me, so be it, but I'm as sober as I'll ever be.'' Collins hopes Tyler is clean. ""Steven's an icon of recovery,'' he says. ""If he dies of an overdose, the people around him are going to be in big f-ing trouble.''

The resurgence is Hollywood's fault, too. Quentin Tarantino revived John Travolta's career when he cast him as a dope fiend in ""Pulp Fiction.'' (And we got to watch Uma Thurman's lips turn overdose blue.) ""Trainspotting,'' a techno-color trip through Scotland's junkie underbelly, is the most hyped film import of the summer. Actor Robert Downey Jr., so effective on screen as a druggie in 1987's ""Less Than Zero,'' got busted in June for coke and heroin possession, arrested in July when he wandered into the wrong house and now resides in a lock-down detox center. (He's pleaded not guilty to the June charges.) CAA, a top agency, has dropped three clients because of alleged drug use, including Downey.

Meanwhile, there have been growing complaints about ""heroin chic'' in fashion. Designer Jil Sander drew flak when her catalog showed a druggy-looking woman with one sleeve pushed up. Waif extraordinaire Kate Moss has made a career out of looking wasted. Model Zoe Fleischauer, 21, developed a heroin habit almost immediately when she moved to New York three years ago, and she says she wasn't alone: ""There are a lot of junkies in the industry. It's very hush-hush.'' Now clean, she blames the fashion world for glamorizing the problem. ""They wanted models that looked like junkies,'' she says. ""The more skinny and f-ed up you look, the more everybody thinks you're fabulous.''

What all this cultural noise means is that heroin is back up from the underground. Back in the '80s, higher prices, lower purity and the AIDS-crisis fear of needles kept it out of the mainstream. Part of the resurgence is simple economics: heroin is now cheaper and purer, and the volume being imported into the country has doubled to around 10 to 15 metric tons since the mid-'80s. Abundant supplies of high-grade blends attract everyone from hipster rock stars to Wall Street executives to inner-city addicts. A new government report scheduled for release this week will show that overall drug use among those 12 to 17 years old has risen almost 80 percent since 1992 (page 57). Baby-boomer parents may be shocked by the new casual attitude toward heroin, which even in the drug days of the '60s carried a stigma that seemed to set it apart from pot, acid and the Summer of Love.

But alternative rock has its roots in the punk movement, not the hippie era. When Nirvana's 1991 album ""Nevermind'' hit No. 1, a range of attitudes and behaviors from the fringe of pop culture suddenly hit the mass market: dressing rebelliously, flouting conventions, screaming real loud, taking drugs if you want to. The most revered bands carry out the message in their lives as well as their songs. Since kids emulate rock stars, they're liable to emulate their drug use. The number of top alternative bands that have been linked to heroin through a member's overdose, arrest, admitted use or recovery is staggering: Nirvana, Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, Everclear, Blind Melon, Skinny Puppy, 7 Year Bitch, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, the Breeders, Alice in Chains, Sublime, Sex Pistols, Porno for Pyros, Depeche Mode. Together these bands have sold more than 60 million albums -- that's a heck of a lot of white, middle-class kids in the heartland. Bob Dole is making drugs a campaign issue. How long is it going to take him to turn on MTV?

The music business, it seems, is already anticipating an attack. Ten years ago cocaine was so widespread that one former label executive reports getting hired after doing a line in the president's office. Today attitudes have changed. Ask executives if there's a heroin problem in the music business, and more than one will answer, ""Absolutely.'' ""It's worse than it's ever been,'' says one record-company vice president. Art Alexakis, singer for Everclear, has been drug-free for 12 years, but he still has to deal with other bands' problems. ""I've walked into my dressing room and had people sitting on my amp, shooting dope,'' he says. ""That was two years ago, when we were still at the opening stage. They wouldn't shoot up in their own dressing room, being the headliner. They'd come over to our place.''

Arts & Sciences, which puts together the Grammy Awards, is leading the charge by pushing an outreach program called MusiCares. Last December and again in June, he called together 400 members of the industry for closed-door symposiums to discuss the issue. The idea is for executives, managers and agents to stop looking away when an artist clearly has a drug problem. ""It's a moral question,'' says the label vice president, ""and we don't like to talk about morality and rock and roll. But the f-ing right wing does, and if we don't clean our own house, then we become vulnerable to them.''

This moral question has deeply shaken the music business. Judging from some of the responses to Greene's initiatives, the industry is far from a consensus on how the problem should be handled. Many musicians are suspicious of the executives' motives. ""They don't want their artists taking dope because they won't be able to milk more platinum out of them next season,'' says singer Henry Rollins. Even among executives, bitter factions are emerging. Conspicuously absent from Greene's symposiums were key members of Kurt Cobain's management team, John Silva and Danny Goldberg of Gold Mountain. (Goldberg is now the president of Mercury.) In the wake of Cobain's suicide, former Aerosmith manager Collins, who is closely allied with MusiCares, wrote a save-our-artists editorial in Billboard magazine that implicitly accused Cobain's people of allowing him to die. Neither Silva nor Goldberg will discuss the situation publicly. But Ron Stone, another manager at Gold Mountain, responds angrily. ""I find it the height of hypocrisy that people run around grabbing headlines about how they're going to do all these things,'' he says. ""The reality is, none of the record companies are going to let go of a platinum artist because they're on drugs. And if they would take a position saying "We don't want to do business with you,' then there's 20 other record companies that would do it in a second.''

At the heart of this conflict is anguish and guilt over Cobain. Two and a half years later, emotions remain raw over his loss. Cobain was like the star pupil at a high school full of promising young talent. He was a brilliant musician and a nice person. No matter how many Pearl Jams, Stone Temple Pilots and Bushes reach the top 10, he can't be replaced, and his decision to commit suicide has left a terrible pall over the industry. ""We constantly tried to get him help,'' says Stone. ""The truth is, when he sobered up, when he made a serious attempt to get his life in order, he took a real good look at his life and he killed himself.''

Despite all this, heroin's rep soars. People mistakenly think that it's not addictive if they snort it or smoke it. ""In L.A., people are doing it on a real casual basis,'' says Rollins. ""Like, "Oh, me and my girlfriend did heroin this weekend.' Like it's a trip. Like it's a vacation. And I'm looking at them, going, "Are you out of your f-ing mind?' ''

The fear is that the drug is becoming just another trend. ""You got a million needles tattooing kids,'' says singer Exene Cervenka. ""You got a million needles piercing their ears, piercing their noses, piercing their lips. You got a million needles shooting drugs into their veins. And to them it's all the same thing. I don't think kids can differentiate between behaviors.'' The streets of Seattle are cluttered with kids who've moved there to do heroin, just because Cobain did -- and this at a time when people in the Seattle music scene claim drug use among musicians is tapering off. Singer-songwriter Paul K, who's been clean for six years, finds the ""I have to do it because Keith Richards/Lou Reed/Kurt Cobain did it'' excuse pretty lame. ""It's like buying Paul Newman's salad dressing,'' he says. ""Have you tasted it? I mean, it's not very good.'' But even he admits the power of a junkie idol. When did he start using? ""Probably the day I put down "The Basketball Diaries'.''

Unfortunately, cool images in books, movies and magazines don't jibe with the reality of addiction. While Sid Vicious was being mythologized as junk's favorite casualty in the '80s, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones was strung out on the streets of L.A. ""I lost everything, financially and emotionally,'' he says. ""Lost everything. I was literally walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard with one pair of jeans and one pair of tennis shoes, looking to steal a handbag off some old lady to get another fix.'' With the help of a 12-step program, Jones cleaned up 12 years ago. And even when the images are negative -- ""Trainspotting'' conscientiously focuses on the drug's unglamorous side -- the degradation can be part of the appeal. ""It has to do with being young and self-destructive,'' says Tim Foljahn of Two Dollar Guitar, who quit using three years ago. ""It's got the reputation as the meanest, dirtiest drug -- which I would not necessarily agree with, because I've seen them all destroy people. But it's got that death tag on it. It's as bad as you want to get.''

""An addict is an addict,'' says Dave Navarro, guitarist for Red Hot Chili Peppers. Clean for four and a half years, Navarro used heroin while in Jane's Addiction, an influential first-wave alternative band. But he started long before that. ""When my mother died when I was 15, I discovered I didn't feel it as badly when I was loaded.'' People speculate that the pressures of success and touring contributed to the deaths of Cobain and Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, but Navarro says it works the other way around. ""In Jane's Addiction I felt very unsure, very uncomfortable,'' he says. ""By the time we were successful I was so down in the depths of despair that I didn't experience any of it. Perhaps the level of success we did reach enabled me to get through the destructive side of my use quicker, because I was able to spend more money and go down faster. Whereas who knows how many years it would have gone on had my habit been $50 a day?''

Recovery has allowed Navarro to see his addiction in clear terms. ""Heroin ruined my dreams,'' he says. ""It made my work life an unhappy experience. Basically turned the one thing that I had worked my whole life for into the thing I wanted to get away from most.'' He tried to detox several times before entering a long-term rehab program after Jane's Addiction broke up in 1991. ""Being in the Chili Peppers, I'm able to experience what I'm doing,'' he says. ""I'm able to be present for it. And happy with what I'm doing for the most part. I would never trade that feeling for anything in the world. It's a long road, but it's well worth it. At least it was for me.''

Some L.A. musicians in need of recovery turn to Gloria Scott. A 67-year-old former beatnik, biker chick, hippie chick and junkie with fluffy blondish hair, thick round glasses and dentures that click when she chews gum, Scott is the kind of person a cool, tough, rebellious rocker could connect with, because she's cool, tough and rebellious herself. Her war stories could make any self-obsessed 27-year-old look like a wimp. In the '60s she lived across the canal from Jim Morrison in Venice Beach, and Morrison used to put his head on her pregnant belly and listen to her son, Solo, moving around. In the '70s she and jazz drummer Buddy Arnold, now a bigwig at Musician Assistance Program, ran a scam trading phony prescriptions for pharmaceutical heroin. She got clean 17 years ago, and works as a counselor at Socorro, a treatment center in East L.A. She can't name the young musicians who've come to her, due to the tenets of the 12-step program, but she understands their plight. ""I don't think it makes any difference if it's Keith Richards or Kurt,'' she says. ""They're all idols. It sounds romantic, it's gloom and doom, it's like a secret organization. Then it gets ugly. You've got a band you love, a career you love, but this comes first.''

Scott helps take some of the scariness away from getting well. She doesn't preach the 12-step program; in fact, she doesn't mind pointing out some of its flaws. ""I hated being clean,'' she says. ""Hated those goddam meetings,'' she says. ""We'd go to Beverly Hills, and these women all had sport coats and long f-ing nails. I said, "Give me a break! I wouldn't use with people like this. Why would I get clean with them?' '' She had an additional problem with recovery: she doesn't believe in God. When she was told to focus on a higher power, she tried to think of something that was bigger and stronger than she. First she decided on Neil Young, who sang the anti-junkie anthem ""The Needle and the Damage Done.''

Later, she chose the ocean. Sometimes Scott walks along the Venice boardwalk, past apartments and alleys where she used to shoot up and deal drugs, and the memories don't bother her. The water nearby takes her out of herself. She doesn't swim in the ocean. She hasn't since she got sober. She's learned a lesson that many young musicians are still struggling with. When something's more powerful than you, it's best to stand back and leave it alone. ..MR.-

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