Before he was the sage of Celebrity Rehab, Bob Forrest was a notoriously drugged-out singer on the LA punk-rock scene. Now he's clean and devoted to helping save others. Meet addiction's unlikely idol.
Bob Forrest probably spends as much time talking to, thinking about, and helping addicts as I spend breathing. And I am an excellent breather; I’m doing it right now, while typing. Meanwhile, Forrest is probably out there somewhere coaxing an addict from the brink of death in a sloppy bathroom along a sketchy strip of California highway, simultaneously texting another addict in Beverly Hills with a stay-in-sober-living-you-idiot message, and all the while mentally rewriting his personal addiction epistemology. We each have our talents is all I’m saying.
Still, most people under 30 might be surprised to learn that the funky be-hatted, bespectacled Brahmin sitting next to Dr. Drew Pinsky on most episodes of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab—now simply Rehab—has a past. In fact, the famed addiction counselor is the star of a feature documentary that shows a new side of Dr. Drew’s favorite wingman: the drug addict rock star. You see, prior to his current incarnation as addiction oracle, Bob Forrest was an active addict himself. And active addicts, as you know, behave rather differently than sober ones.
So meet the other Bob Forrest: Before the new millennium, he was the lead singer and songwriter for the punk band Thelonious Monster, which was perched on the brink of Big Fame for more years than most bands even exist. Forrest was (and still is) best friends with the guys in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction and Fishbone and just about every other LA punk band that initially made it big in the 1980s. And yet, time and again, Forrest was bedeviled by addictions that make Keith Richards’ battle appear tame (yes, really).
There’s no way of separating out the lifestyle from the art when your heroes are Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.
In Bob and the Monster, Keirda Bahruth lays out an extraordinary portrait of Forrest in a documentary that is part rock doc, part recovery doc. By using incredibly vivid footage, the audience meets a young, charming Forrest on his way up—making records with his friends (Flea produced Thelonious Monster’s demo) and living out his rock fantasy (girls, beer, art, road trips, the usual). But that image is all too fleeting: Soon Forrest is climbing the scaffolding around the stage at a stadium show in what can only be viewed as a disquieting and very public attempt to kill himself. And so the film morphs into a chronicle of one really, really determined drug fiend. But perhaps that is the through line between the active addict Bob and the sober addict Bob: dedication. As the film continues, Forrest emerges as an advocate, activist, and counselor.
These days, he only rages against the rehab machine. Now that’s punk rock.
While watching the film, I was struck by your desire to become a junkie, as though that’s what being cool meant.
For me, it was art—what art represented and what an interesting life represented. There’s no way of separating out the lifestyle from the art when your heroes are Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. How are you going to screen that out when you’re 15 or 16? It becomes this package, and you just enter into that world because you want that interesting life. Everyone I know was like that.
But now it’s a generation later and no one wants to be a junkie.
Yes, no one. I have a theory of why kids aren’t like that anymore: Because art is so awful. When I was a kid and you went to the movie theater, Chinatown was playing and Lenny and The Parallax View, and you could see really creative movies at a regular movie theater down the street. Now it’s awful. My pet peeve of life? I sit at fundraisers and art openings where grown adults are talking about cartoons as if it’s a serious thing. “Have you seen Transformers? Have you seen Iron Man?” I’m like, “No, I don’t go see child movies.” Now that’s all they make. It’s the lowest common denominator in this country.
But I will say this: If you look at me, John [Frusciante], Anthony [Kiedis], Perry [Farrell], we’re all kind of spoiled brat, late baby boomers who were spoiled by our parents and grew up in some sort of affluence or upper middle class. That’s part of why I’m so good at dealing with these rich snotty kids—because I am a rich snotty kid.
When did you figure out that the drugs and the art were not necessarily inextricably bound? That you could have the art without the drugs?
It really took me a long time. When John Frusciante [former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist] and I were living together up on Hollywood Boulevard—which is the house where Johnny Depp made the 12-minute Stuff movie—I realized in a moment of clarity that we weren’t making records. We weren’t creating any more. We weren’t doing anything and we hadn’t been doing anything for years. Then, I had other friends who were still doing things, like Johnny Depp. I realized, he doesn’t do drugs like we do. He’s not like us.
The realization that we weren’t doing anything and we hadn’t for a long time—it came full circle: “Oh my God. We’re supposed to be making records and playing music.” Whatever you do in your private life is your own business, but when that just takes over and becomes everything, which is what happened to me and a bunch of my friends, that is the destructive nature of addiction. It’ll kill you.
I also realized later, when I read Keith Richards’ book, Keith Richards was a skin popper! [That is, he injected drugs under the skin, not into a vein.] If I would’ve known, that would’ve been tremendously valuable to me! Here I am thinking I’m Keith Richards and he’s just maintaining his habit and making records and touring. I’m shooting a speedball every 20 minutes for five years thinking I’m Keith Richards. We were under the assumption that we were doing things the way our heroes did things. But we were a new hybrid of drug addicts. It was a street drug addict in the art world.
When Charlie Sheen was having his crazy kind of wackiness, he said something that was pretty funny, which was, “I make Mick Jagger and Keith Richards look like school girls.” It’s probably true! The film revealed that you could be a real jerk in your disease. Was that difficult to see?
Yes. I’d already kind of dealt with that but when you have a reputation of being very selfish, things get blown out of proportion and exaggerated. But I know the things that I did and where it came from and who it harmed. Basically, you’re talking about a bunch of kids, who are all drunk and high, trying to steer a career and a business in the right direction. It was just crazy. That’s why I quit [Thelonious Monster]—just to get out of that chaos and go do my own thing with managers who made me the number-one priority. Pete [Weiss] saw that as a betrayal, but you got to look out for yourself. That’s seen as selfish, and it was selfish. The way I did it was selfish.
I think Perry Farrell hung out with me thinking, “Well, I’m not that bad.”
You mentioned your friend John Frusciante. There’s disturbing footage in the film of a super-high Frusciante. It’s more disturbing than some of the footage of you.
Obviously I don’t like to think about it personally all that much, but other than John Frusciante—who then eventually got clean, which is also shown in the movie—there’s no worse a drug addict than me. No worse.
So you put yourself right there with John Frusciante?
You always have to have somebody you think is worse than you, so that you can continue. Some lower companions or whatever. John, though he had a lot of money, was a lower companion. So I could feel like, “Well, I’m not that bad.” I think Perry Farrell hung out with me thinking, “Well, I’m not that bad.”
What has happened to everyone from that 1980s L.A. rock scene?
Everybody who has survived has transformed their lives. That’s the message that I think is so important. I don’t know what effect rehab centers have on addictions—not much it seems to me. But everyone I know who was a drug addict? A handful of people died, and everyone else is sober and thriving in one way or another.
You have some pretty strong opinions on rehabs and how rehab should work.
You have these rehabs and they’re just a bunch of bullshit. They discourage the addict from thinking that real sobriety is possible. Not everybody does AA, and that’s a very controversial thing. AA in its own doctrine says it isn’t for everybody, but now there’s a multibillion-dollar, for-profit industry that says, “Oh, yes it is for everybody, and if it’s not for you, then that’s your disease.” Rehabs have ruined AA. It’s really very destructive to the 12-step world. Now you go to an AA meeting, and all you hear is a bunch of psychobabble bullshit rehab-speak: “I’m anxious.” If I hear one more 20-year-old say he’s anxious, I’m going to fucking explode.
The quarter-life crisis is very in vogue right now. There are a lot of anxious 20-somethings.
Yeah, well, you’re supposed to be anxious! You’re coming into the world and the world is a harsh reality. You’re supposed to be a little apprehensive and concerned and cautious about it. Now they’re taught by psychiatry that it’s “anxiety” and that they need benzos in order to cope. It’s unbelievable how the world has evolved in the last 10 years. Half this country is on medication.
Speaking of which, something that stood out in the film is your strong opinion about Suboxone. Are you against using Suboxone in every case?
No. Look, I know what it’s best used for. It’s best used like everybody markets it: for detox. It eases that day three of the opiate withdrawal. Longer maintenance would only be used for certain kinds of people: 50-year-old, 30-year junkies who are in and out of prison, hopeless, never going to have a thriving life. You would just medicate them and bring them into a relationship with a psychiatrist, and that patient population would be helped. But mostly, it would be used as a detox medication.
It’s not being used for either one. It’s being used for 19- and 20-year-old kids who’ve only been on dope for a year. It’s an interrelated for-profit thing. The rehab centers measure success by whether or not you go back to your drug of choice so the success rates at the rehab centers look better because kids are just staying on Suboxone and not migrating back to their drug of choice—whether it’s OxyContin or heroin. It’s all a big circle of mutual benefit. It’s certainly mutually beneficial to the drug companies.
Oxycodone and Suboxone are the most deadly drugs that have ever come to market—ever. Before those two drugs were put on the market, the average opiate overdose deaths were 3,500 to 4,000 annually in the whole United States. That number’s going to be 30,000 this year; 26,000 more people are going to die. If this was happening because of some fucking lettuce that came from some fucking farm and had E. coli, you’d see it on the news! But the fact is: Nobody cares about drug addicts. They never have. They never will.
You opened your own rehab. Do you still have the Hollywood Recovery Services?
I don’t have those offices anymore, basically because I couldn’t compete with the for-profit industry. We were just put out of business in a matter of 18 months by Malibu. The clients that used to always come to us to be with Dr. Drew, now they want to go have gourmet food and hug a horse or something. That basically put us out of business. I’m not downplaying that it is creative or therapeutic to do art therapy or hug a horse, but it has nothing to do with why you stop taking drugs. Nothing to do with it.
So now I mostly do case management and placements and overseeing people. I’m on the road all the time. I drive out to Cliffside and Malibu, then I maybe I drive to Beverly Hills to see another client who’s out of treatment. Then I go see the television cast a couple of days while they are still here in Sober Living. You just can’t compete with the rehab machines that are out there. What does Bob Forrest’s ideal rehab look like?
I just know my patients. I know what they’re willing to do and what will probably be the best experience for them. Rehabs should all provide the exact same service: containment, accountability, and structure. That’s all. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a California king-sized bed with 640-ply sheets or not. Our rehab was a pretty traditional Minnesota model. We were like, “If you don’t want to be here, go home.” We weren’t punitive, but we weren’t accommodating. Just straight down the middle, like Hazelden or Betty Ford—though Betty Ford’s a little more punitive.
What an addict needs is love with boundaries. What an addict needs is compassion.
There is footage in the film of you as a guest on Dr. Drew’s “Loveline” from back in the day. It’s a quirky foreshadowing of things to come: You’re talking to Dr. Drew, and you’re very earnest about addiction. Yet you were still so far from your own final recovery. Do you remember that conversation?
Yes. They would bring me on a lot because of that ability—that compassion. That conversation in the movie is just straight Hazelden. I had just got out of Hazelden like six months before. I knew about addiction because Hazelden is the greatest rehab center you can go to, and you’re treated like an adult, with respect, and it’s relatively cost effective because it’s a not-for-profit. So that was Hazelden talking.
That’s one thing I’ve learned—you just have to be inherently compassionate and have this people-focused mentality. I’ve always had it. People call it codependency. But I don’t think it’s destructive to care about other people or want to help other people. I try to mentor counselors, and they’re taught in chemical dependency school that caring is a negative, that it’s codependency. They learn to just do reflective listening and constantly be breaking down denial. That just doesn’t work. As soon as you alienate the patients, they’re done with you. They’re shattered people, and if you try to shatter them again, they just become guarded. That’s how I was. That’s how thousands of addicts are when they’re brutalized by this archaic old-fashioned idea of what an addict needs.
And what do you think an addict needs?
What an addict needs is love with boundaries. What an addict needs is compassion. Bill Wilson had this right from the very beginning: love and tolerance. Nowadays, a lot of addicts meet their counselors in the rehab center. Those people have a very powerful effect on the addict. If the counselors are sarcastic or mean-spirited, it’s unprofessional and it doesn’t help anybody. Bill Wilson used to constantly talk about that. If you read his writings in the ’60s and ’70s, he could already see that AA wasn’t working that well. He was like, “What are we doing wrong? What do we need to do better?” Everyone else was like, “Shut up, Bill. It’s working just fine.” That’s what goes on in the rehab centers: “It’s working just fine.” No, it’s not.
I have a feeling that a lot of people who work in chemical dependency couldn’t get a job anywhere else—because of a personality disorder, because of their employment record, because of their education. You need an industry where people choose to be in it, because they have a passion for it, they’re well-educated about it, and they have just a tremendous drive about it. That’s what I have. For me, it’s an obsession.
Sacha Z. Scoblic is the science writer at The Fix, the author of Unwasted and a Carter fellow for mental health journalism.