The Dead Kennedys’ Sober Drummer
D.H. Peligro broke stereotypes as one of the few African-Americans in the punk movement. He also nearly broke himself, through a harrowing mix of heroin, crack and one very dangerous lollipop.
D.H. Peligro may hail from the wrong side of the segregated St. Louis tracks but after becoming the drummer of the Dead Kennedys and making his way into the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he has seen much of the world—including the dark side of addiction. Two years after a nasty relapse, Peligro is back with a new band (catch them at the Viper Room next Sunday night). He's also now ready to tell the world what it’s like to be punk, black, and trying to hide a drug habit from Anthony Kiedis.
So, how did it all begin? How did you go from a segregated African-American community in St. Louis to being a leading member of the punk movement in San Francisco?
“Leading member?” Fancy. Well, my uncle was a drummer in a band called the Jellyroll Kings, and we would go visit him in Mississippi and he had a drum kit, a piano, and a bass guitar. He played all that stuff even though he lived in a shack with no electricity or water. I was amazed how you could touch this instrument and it made this sound that reverberated to my soul. I wanted a guitar so my mom bought me an acoustic but I wanted an electric guitar. We couldn’t afford that so instead, she got me a toy drum kit. I was eight or nine and music gave me focus like nothing else.
How did you make your way out to the West Coast?
Growing up in St. Louis, we lived in the shade of the Budweiser brewery. Even as a black man, if you got a job there, you’d be on easy street. But that never interested me. Because I had dyslexia, I was bussed into a white high school, and it was like seeing a freedom I had never seen. They had this huge music room, and they had all these instruments. It was a lot of stuff so I stole a snare drum and cymbal from the junior high, and really started to play. They would make fun of me in my neighborhood because I was always hanging out with “the white boys” but I loved the music coming from that world: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Kiss. And then I started playing in garage bands all over town, playing covers. Finally, a friend invited me out to San Francisco. I had never seen anything like it. Here I was this pretty innocent black kid from St. Louis and all of a sudden I am thrown into this world of gays and drugs and playing alternative and punk rock music.
"Though I was still getting royalty checks, I started selling drum kits and classic guitars. Doing what I had to do to support my habit."
Is that when you started using?
Yeah, I mean, I was drinking and smoking pot at that point. But in San Francisco, there was still a lot of hippie stuff going on: bondage parties and dropping acid. I was living in my van when I met Paul McKinney from a punk band called SSI. I was really resistant to punk at first because I wanted to play metal, but then I joined SSI and they started teaching me all these different types of music. Paul was all dapper and drove a cab. He had a finger missing, but always wore these high-polished pointed shoes with pleated pants and one suspender. We played around SF and developed a following. But then when we would have time off, I started doing more drugs.
And when did you join the Dead Kennedys?
It was the early 80s. SSI had opened for them a couple of times and then they needed a drummer. I auditioned but I didn’t think they were going to let me in the band because I was black, but I killed it, and went back for a second audition. Two weeks later, we recorded the first single, and then we went on a national and international tour. That’s when the drugs started to get a little worse but not necessarily out of hand. I was still producing and performing and I would show up at the gigs. But little shit started to add up, like there were a couple of times when I missed flights and almost missed shows because I was too busy shooting cocaine.
When did you make it to LA?
I was with the Dead Kennedys for seven years, until 1987. After we broke up, I started drinking a lot. By then I had also started smoking crack. I had carte blanche at clubs in SF and would drink for free and go home with some beast. The Red Hot Chili Peppers would party at my house and one time Flea was there, and he suggested that I move to LA. I was like, “Ugh, don’t LA people get a record contract and like write their songs by the pool?” And then one day it was really cold in San Francisco, so we moved down.
And that’s when you became a junkie?
Only in LA. I got there and we were living on Curson Street, which was like a mini-Animal House. My friend Dougie and I would go score crack in Compton and then one day, I see Dougie and he is on the nod, and I asked him what he was on. The next day, I met Giuseppe, who was this Italian with a thick accent and the big American car. He had China White cut with Fentanyl, and it’s was all pretty much downhill from there. Nothing mattered anymore. I remember waking up strung out, and I knew that I was going to have to figure out a way to get high all time. Though I was still getting royalty checks, I started selling drum kits and classic guitars. Doing what I had to do to support my habit.
And ironically that’s when Flea showed up?
Yeah. Low and behold. I had just moved to Miracle Mile with some guys from Fishbone, and Flea comes by and tells me that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were looking for a drummer. I went to the audition and borrowed some drums, and got in. I was trying to conceal my drug use and I was asked not to use around Anthony [Kiedis, who was newly sober at the time]. It was tough to go on tour and be strung out—going from city to city, and getting so sick. Whenever it was show time, I would get out there and kick some ass, but the 22 hours before and after the gig were hell. Anthony took me to a meeting and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get it but I did know where to go. Not long after, I got kicked out of the Chili Peppers. That’s when I went over the edge. I decided, “I‘m just going to get loaded to the bitter end.” There were a lot of hospital visits and rehabs and methadone clinics. And then finally, in 1998, I got sober. That’s when I got the six years.
Then what happened?
The Dead Kennedys had started touring again with Brandon Cruz singing. We were touring across Europe, South America, and the Americas. We were on the way to Turkey and some guy on the plane gave me a morphine lollipop. I though, “What kind of balderdash is that? A morphine lollipop.” I knew I shouldn’t take it but I did. I started sucking on it and a few minutes later, this overwhelming wave of euphoric sensation just washed right over me. It was hard to come back [to AA] and tell people. They were so shocked, and though I was able to get three months back at first, I relapsed again and it just felt like I couldn’t stop.
What finally brought you back to solid sobriety?
I kept trying to play music. I did some gigs and I was so out of it, I couldn’t even really play. They had to get another drummer to show up for me. It was exhausting. I would get sober and then I would get loaded again. Finally, I called up MusiCares and they got me into a treatment center in Georgia.
And what’s it like now?
I started up my band Peligro again and play with the Dead Kennedys here and there. I just did some acting in a new film Dumped. I’ve been writing my memoirs—I’m at the end of the editing process. And in February, I’ll have two years sober.
I remember when you relapsed. It was really sad. You were one of the first people who was nice to me at meetings, and I felt that this place couldn’t be that bad if some famous punk rocker was willing to reach out and be kind. And then I saw you when you were relapsed and it was like the lights were off.
Thank you. You know I forget that sometimes. I forget how much you can help people when you’re sober. And how dead you become when you’re not.
I’m glad you’re alive.
Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about old timers in AA and sober travel, among other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life.