Addiction is a crippling disease that afflicts people from all backgrounds, across every economic status
But creativity and substance abuse have always gone hand in hand. Many of history’s most prolific and talented artists have dealt with some form of addiction, and within the music community of the Coachella Valley and High Desert, issues with addition, past and present, are well-known and shockingly common.
When I decided to write a piece about musicians and addiction, I quickly learned that many musicians don’t want to talk publicly about addiction. More than a handful of local musicians who are now in recovery declined—understandably—to talk on the record about their pasts, fearing consequences at their current jobs, or perhaps wanting to avoid flat-out embarrassment.
However, three individuals, all of whom are now in recovery, were courageous enough to share their stories. (It should be noted that even they asked that certain parts of their stories not be shared.)
Why? They all said they decided to speak out in the hopes that they might inspire others who are dealing with addiction to get help.
In a rather short amount of time, The Flusters have become one of the Coachella Valley’s most popular bands. The group was voted “Best Local Band” by Coachella Valley Independent readers in late 2015—even though the band had not yet existed for a whole year. The group has played numerous local shows, and was picked as one of the two local bands to play at Coachella in April.
However, it wasn’t long ago that frontman Douglas Van Sant was dealing with severe drug addiction. He’s been sober since Sept. 11, 2013.
“Back in my early 20s, painkillers and pill mills were on the rise,” Van Sant said at his home in Palm Desert. “You could go to four pain doctors in a day and get Oxycontin—and I’m talking the real deal, the higher doses of Oxycontin. This was in South New Jersey, which was 45 minutes from Camden, N.J., which is notorious for heroin. It was like the movie American Gangster, with the stamps on the bags and the ‘blue magic.’ Where I grew up, it was like an episode of The Wire. There were white neighborhoods, Mexican neighborhoods, African-American neighborhoods, Puerto Rican neighborhoods—and they all had their hands in it. It was easy to score.”
Van Sant said he used drugs for years.
“I had been addicted to substances mentally and physically for 10 years,” he said. “It was one thing, onto another thing, back on another thing, and being addicted to a few things at once. I was in alleys in the rain with toothless hookers doing drugs. I wandered around a campground in Ohio in leather pants and eyeliner, out of my mind. I was wandering the streets of South Philadelphia and Seattle all strung out. It was tough times—very tough times. In Seattle, I didn’t have parents to manipulate, and I was disconnected. I was in Seattle straight out of rehab, living with my cousin, and I started getting in trouble there and living in a drug house.”
Van Sant showed me a scar on his hand. He said it was created when he shielded himself from a board with a nail sticking out of it during drug deal gone wrong.
“It’s real; it’s not sensationalized.” Van Sant said about the nasty side of addiction. “Anything in the media, they don’t sensationalize it enough. It’s bad; it’s dirty; it’s grimy; and it’s dangerous. People in that world don’t fuck around at all. They get what they need to get one way or another. You always think about the next high, and you don’t really ponder your mortality.
“I was in my parents’ basement on a diet of chicken broth and oranges, trying to kick drugs, and banging my head on the door, trying to knock myself out to go to sleep. I’ve been so sick, I couldn’t move. The last time, I was really suicidal and deeply depressed. … It was bad, and in the end, I got to a really deep place and had to stop.”
Herb Lienau is known today as the spooky organist Herbert, but he has been part of the local music scene since the early ’80s. He’s played in bands with Mario Lalli of Fatso Jetson, Scott Reeder of Kyuss, Sean Wheeler of Throw Rag, and many others. Lienau was interviewed in the recently released documentary Desert Age; one of the subjects discussed was drug use in the early desert-rock scene.
Lienau talked to me at his Cathedral City home about his addiction to crystal methamphetamine.
“I was always kind of a mellow person and needed more energy. When I smoked pot, I’d just want to eat and go to sleep—and that’s it,” Lienau said with a laugh. “With speed, I enjoyed being awake and having energy to do stuff. Physically, for me, I didn’t have any teeth fall out, or anything like that. But you do lose a lot of weight.
“It all started with speed around 1984. When I was in high school, there wasn’t any crystal meth. You could get speed in pill forms. Crystal was a whole different thing. The first time I did it was with Mario Lalli. Mario was playing music with some bikers at one point, and I think that’s how he got exposed to it. I came down and visited, and we were hanging out at Mario’s parents’ house, and that’s when I first tried it. I was in love with it instantly. With cocaine, it’s over in 20 minutes, and you feel like killing yourself afterward or getting more. With crystal meth, you felt like you got your money’s worth: It lasted for hours and hours.
Lienau said drug use was simply part of the scene back then.
“We all partied really hard, and it wasn’t considered addiction,” Lienau said. “It doesn’t become addiction until it’s an issue. It was an issue for me around 1985. We all did everything and anything as much as we possibly could—and unashamedly so. That’s right when speed started happening, and no one knew anything about speed and the long-term effects. They didn’t even know you could get addicted to it.”
Lienau said the drugs were fun at first—but he started noticing the negative side effects fairly quickly.
“People started changing,” he said. “They were doing bad stuff; scandalous things started to happen; and bad relationship stuff happened. Being up for days at a time isn’t the best thing, either. It gets its hooks in you, and it’s hard to quit. It really changes you, and you get weird, and you start hallucinating.”
During the ’80s, there were not yet any regulations or restrictions on the ingredients used to make crystal methamphetamine.
“There were a handful of people locally who were selling it back then, and it was easy to get. It just happened, and it was the new thing,” he said.
Lienau went to rehab for the first time in the mid-1980s.
“I don’t know if I decided or someone decided for me,” Lienau said. “… I think I was the first one out of all of us back then who went to rehab. I went to either The Ranch or the Betty Ford Center. … I have been to The Ranch a couple of times, the Betty Ford Center once, the ABC (Recovery Center), Cedar House in Bloomington, and a couple of detox centers. But that’s nothing compared to a lot of people.”
Lienau said he’s been sober for five years now.
“My M.O. has been get a year, get a couple of years, and then go back, and go off for a year or two, and go on and off. Right now, I have five years clean—so I have to really be careful, because right around this time, I have to be aware what’s going on.
“I’m hopefully done for good. Every time is worse than the time before. I’m older now, too, so I don’t really have a desire to do it anymore.”
Rick Chaffee (right; photo by Guillermo Prieto), who plays in the band Gutter Candy, is one of the best guitarists in the valley. Gutter Candy takes all the things about late-’70s punk and ’80s glam metal—and makes them funny and entertaining.
However, there was a time when there was little that was funny about Rick Chaffee’s life.
“I started drinking and smoking weed at 15 or 16,” Chaffee said during a recent phone interview. “But then when I was 25, I ended up getting hooked on heroin. From 25 to 35, I was a heroin addict.”
He said heroin back then was simply part the Orange County musician’s lifestyle.
“I can’t really say if I hadn’t been hanging out with those people that I wouldn’t have tried it somewhere else and at another time,” he said. “… It was that and cocaine. I didn’t do it every day.”
Chaffee said he’s always been an addict.
“I was always smoking weed and drinking all the time before heroin,” he said. “I had an addictive personality. I can’t say my upbringing was a root, but my parents drank, and I grew up with divorced parents. I was unsupervised as a kid growing up, and that may have had something to do with it, too. I was roaming the streets at 14 and 15 and always seemed to fall into the wrong crowd. I was playing music when I was 16 and hanging out with other guitar-players and harmonica-players doing Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash.”
Chaffee’s life was imperiled by his drug use.
“I hit bottom when I was in and out of jail,” he said. “My relationships always seemed to fail. I also didn’t have a steady place to live. I wasn’t really on the street, but I did a lot of couch-surfing during those years. The last relationship I was in back then—she’s the mother of my son, and she’s been through it with me on and off.
“My family turned their back on me, and everyone else turned their back on me and said, ‘We’re not helping you anymore, and we’re done with you.’”
Van Sant, Lienau and Chaffee are currently clean—although they all know that could change if they aren’t careful.
One motivation to stay clean is the rehabilitation process, which Van Sant said is simply awful.
“They medicate you. You have to go through a medical detox, and you’re not just going in there to get your life together,” Van Sant said. “The 24-hour suicide-watch detox … you are in psychosis at that point. You sleep a lot, or you sleep not at all. You can’t eat, and you can’t do anything. You get to the point where you can’t function. For drug addicts, it’s like Chinese water torture—it’s slow; it’s long; and it’s annoying. You can’t get any rest, either. In rehab, they keep you busy. I knew I was done, and I needed to be done. I needed to stop and couldn’t do it anymore. It was so exhausting mentally, physically and spiritually.”
Lienau explained that crystal methamphetamine addicts often go through rehab many, many times.
“Studies have shown that it doesn’t stick. There’s a very low success rate,” Lienau said. “To get to that point where you’re not using—it takes what it takes. Some people can do it the first try, no problem, but others like me, I was a serial-relapse case. I was the earliest of our group to get sober the first time, or even to start, and I just wasn’t ready.
“Having a kid and being a parent helped me try to not be a fuck-up, but even that didn’t stop me, and there were even a few relapses after that.”
Through all of his relapses over the years, Lienau said he’s survived because he sticks to the mantra of “one day at a time.”
“You’re full of remorse, self-loathing and all that stuff—especially after it’s a repeated thing. But it’s one day at a time, and I hope I don’t do it again,” he said. “I’ve been through this whole thing long enough to know nothing is for sure. You have to take it one day at a time. I know better than to say ‘no more’ forever. It’s one day at a time. I hope I never do it again, but I’ve done this long enough to know that nothing is for sure.”
Unlike Van Sant and Lienau, Chaffee has been clean and sober for decades.
“At 35, I got clean and sober. I’ve been clean and sober ever since—and this September will be 25 years,” Chaffee said. “I ended up getting clean because my life was just getting more difficult, and I was in and out of jail. I needed some help and tried to quit for the last three years of my using on my own, and then I started going to 12-step meetings. That’s what’s helped.”
Chaffee said being in jail while addicted is hard—and can be deadly.
“I’ve kicked heroin in jail before. They don’t give you any special treatment, and they don’t send you into the infirmary or any medical environment to help you deal with it,” he said. “You have to kick it on your own. That’s scary.”
Chaffee has put the lessons he learned to good use: While Chaffee rocks out in Gutter Candy at night, he’s a certified drug-counselor by day.
“In 1996, I had five years clean. A friend of mine said there was an opening at a treatment center in Palm Springs, and I ended up going there and was the night tech guy,” he said. “I went to school to get certified, and I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s been almost 20 years of working in the field.”
Chaffee said as a drug counselor, he knows all about the frequent trips to rehab some people, like Lienau, have endured.
“Does it miss the mark? I believe if you’re ready for treatment and you go into treatment, it’ll help,” Chaffee said. “A lot of people are so full of denial and blame others, and they’re not accountable for themselves or taking the responsibilities of it being their problem. If people are done and want to be done with it, it’ll help. I only had to go once, and it worked for me because I was done. I was 35, and I was young, but a lot of people think when they’re young that they can handle it, manage it—and, ‘If it wasn’t for Mom or Dad or this and that, then I wouldn’t be addicted, and it’s their fault.’ If you have people enabling you, that keeps people stuck in the addiction lifestyle as well.”
While some artists claim they’re at their best when using drugs, Van Sant said it’s downright liberating for him to play music as a sober person.
“It felt incredible to know I could actually do it,” Van Sant said. “I thought that you had to be a Joplin, a Cobain or a Hendrix to be an artist—a certifiable wacko, and live in that insanity all the time. I thought that’s what truth meant. What I found is that it doesn’t need to be your story; your story is your own story. Find your own truth. To know I could write and create without drugs or alcohol is such a big part of my sobriety, and it still is. I’m actually a more vibrant artist when I’m sober. It was one of the most freeing experiences I ever felt in my life.
“Lately, I’ve become industrious about music to where I think I might be too industrious. I’m there to work and get my thing done; my social experiences aren’t at gigs. I’m there to think about my music and play. That’s such a weird concept to me, because it used to be the opposite. It was always, ‘FUCK YEAH! WE’RE GOING TO GO PLAY A GIG! IT’S PARTY TIME! IT’S NOT GIG TIME; IT’S JUST A PART OF PARTY TIME!’ Now it’s, ‘It’s gig time, and nothing else is a part of it.’ I’m there to talk to the people who came to see us, talk about music, make future plans, make future connections, and do whatever I can for the music.
“That’s my addiction now. I love it. It’s really exhilarating and fun. I manage the band well, and I manage it well because I’m focused.”
Lienau pondered the link between addiction and music.
“Maybe it’s the creativity—wanting to try new things and experiment,” he said. “A lot of artists are fucked-up to begin with, and that’s why they’re making art; it’s their outlet. They might think it helps expand their horizons or whatever. All I know is when I used to do speed, I would want to play guitar forever—but it didn’t take long to where if I was on it, I couldn’t touch a guitar. I didn’t want anything to do with it. It’s weird, but the whole thing sort of changed over time for me.”
Chaffee said he does not know why music and addiction often go hand in hand.
“I think maybe the artist or musician is a little bit more sensitive using the creative part of the brain and are more in tune to feelings, moods and emotions,” he said. “For me, the lifestyle of a musician being there in the ’80s and ’90s—it was all about partying, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
Van Sant and Lienau both admit they aren’t certain what the future holds.
“One of the smartest things I ever heard is, ‘There are things that we know, and things we’re aware we don’t know,’” Van Sant said. “There’s also this whole other category of things we don’t know we don’t know. My sobriety has been a constant exploration. … I’m living life differently and attracting a different person than I was before.”
Lienau said he’s learned honesty with oneself is the best way to address addiction.
“When you’re in denial, nothing is going to happen,” he said. “When you’re honest with yourself and accept that you have a problem, you can start addressing it. Until that happens, it won’t happen. I would say (to an addict who wants help): Go to a meeting. Find someone to talk to, and take direction from people who have done it, have been around for a while and have put in some years clean and sober. Someone who has done it before proves it can work, and that’s where you have to take instruction from. It’s too hard to do it alone, especially flying blind.”
Chaffee agreed that addicts almost never get clean without assistance.
“Seek help. You can’t live in both worlds,” he said. “Once you cross that line of moderation, you can’t go back. If you feel your life is out of control, seek some help.”
Below: Herb Lienau (top right) started doing speed back in 1984. “When I was in high school, there wasn’t any crystal meth. You could get speed in pill forms. Crystal was a whole different thing.” Today, Lienau (pictured in the second photo with Brant Bjork) has been sober for five years. “I’m hopefully done for good,” he said. “Every time is worse than the time before. I’m older now, too, so I don’t really have a desire to do it anymore.” Photos by Jordan Schwartz.