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Sex and Drugs and Tennessee

There's a connection between America's biggest musical state and the drug epidemic there; our Tennessee correspondent investigates.

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By A.J. Dugger III

05/07/14

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Nashville, Tennessee is the home of the Country Music Hall of Fame. It is also the place where Todd Harrell, bassist of the rock group Three Doors Down, was arrested after a fatal car accident last year. At the time, he was allegedly under the influence of Lortab, Xanax and hard cider. According to reports, Harrell displayed signs of impairment during the field sobriety test. He checked into rehab shortly after the accident. The other driver in the accident, Paul Shoulers Jr, was pronounced dead not long after being transported to the hospital. Harrell was again taken into custody in February when police found him passed out in his vehicle at an intersection in Mississippi.

Memphis rappers are known for dabbling in drugs, particularly marijuana and Sizzurp—a mix of  Promethazine with codeine (from cough syrup), the soft drink Sprite, and sometimes Jolly Rancher Candy as a flavor additive. The result is a feeling of lethargy and drowsiness. Lord Infamous of the Academy Award-winning rap group Three 6 Mafia shocked the rap world when he suddenly died in mother's house last December. 

"He had a heart attack in his sleep," said his half-brother and former bandmate DJ Paul. "His mother found him dead. He had been dead, the doctors say, for about five hours. And when she came home, he was sitting at the kitchen table with his head down on his arms. He had told his girlfriend that he was sleeping and he wanted to go to sleep. His girlfriend left and was like, 'You going to be fine?' And he was like, 'Yeah, I'm going to be good.' And she was like, 'You sure?' and he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I'm positive, I just want to get some sleep.' So he laid his head in his arms at the kitchen table and he went to sleep and then when his momma came home, he was sitting at the kitchen table passed away.”

Though Lord Infamous' family and bandmates have never publicly mentioned drugs as a contributing factor to his demise, others have gone online with their suspicions. “Got a check, bought drugs, overdosed and died,” said a user named TucoTuco on the site hiphopdx.com. Some sources don't want to reveal their names but gave their own personal stories of witnessing Lord Infamous' alleged drug use. “I did a show with Lord Infamous a year ago and he was really bad on drugs,” said an anonymous commenter on hiphopdx.com. “He had an 'I need a Xanax bar' shirt on. While he was shooting a music video with my boy, Phsyco, he kept takin 'coke breaks.' Even being f*cked up, he rocked that show like no other. RIP Lord Infamous. I feel blessed I was able to perform n meet him. I just wish he would've got clean and sober because that man was a beast!”

Tabitha Smith, a 40-year-old rap fan in Memphis, followed the career of Three 6 Mafia. “They put the Memphis rap scene on the map,” she said. “Nobody was more excited than me when they won that Oscar (for Best Original Song) a couple of years ago. They deserved it. But what's so sad is that no one close to Lord Infamous is saying the obvious. I understand that they want to protect his reputation and legacy and all that, but drugs was one of the things Three 6 Mafia used to rap about. You write and rap about what you know. They were part of that street life and I think it caught up with him, sadly. His health was already bad.”

DJ Paul agrees with Smith's comment about his half-brother's health. In 2010, Lord Infamous suffered a stroke and a heart attack. "We don't know yet [if the two incidents were related]," he said. "It probably did. A lot of times people have heart attacks and a lot of people survive heart attacks and usually when they have that second, third one, it's pretty much over with." 

Another tragic drug-related death happened in 2010 when Memphis Musician Jay Reatard died of cocaine toxicity and alcohol at the age of 29. With his long curly blond hair and arrogant attitude, Reatard was the epitome of a rock musician. He got his start playing in the underground punk rock scene with bands such as The Reatards and The Lost Sounds. He was a multi-talented musician, able to play keyboards, guitar, bass, percussion, as well as writing catchy songs and having a singular high tenor singing voice.

At the time of his death, he was receiving international stardom. His 2006 solo album, “Blood Visions,” made major waves far outside of Memphis and helped him cross over to the mainstream. According to Reatard's friend and fellow musician Daniel Stewart of the band, The UV Race, Reatard's upbringing might have had something to do with his sometimes hostile and addictive personality. “Jay grew up moving between small houses with paper-thin walls and trailers in the country. He also grew up poor in Tennessee, and he says he also felt very aware of being white. Jay grew up fast because he had to,” Stewart wrote on his website. Like many other addicts, Reatard struggled with his addictions, temporarily overcoming them but always regressing later. “He explained to me that his body had come to accept the delicate balance of stimulants and depressants that had defined his nocturnal activity since he was a teenager,” Stewart explained. “I know he was an insomniac because we usually crashed in the same hotel room where he’d basically talk until his mouth fell asleep. His drug binges had pushed his weight up and down drastically, and his back muscles were completely f*cked as a result, so he was in continual chronic pain.”

Stewart witnessed many occasions when Reatard would do well for a noticeable length of time but then submit to the temptations. It happened once when the two were on an international tour. “He stayed off the drugs entirely until we got to Perth where we were given a handful of acid. In the hotel room, buzzing, we sat around listening to each other's iPods, enjoying Hawkwind and Antidote as we fried.”

Steward has a clear memory of one of the last times Reatard dedicated himself to recovery. “One time when I spoke to him he was really drunk and depressed. He told me he’d started drinking again. He told me that his girlfriend had left him because he was being a f*ckup and that he’d fired the band. I was very sad to hear this, as I knew how much he loved their company, speaking about them with the kind of affection and frustration usually reserved for older siblings. He told me he was going to get his sh*t back together soon though and quit drinking, and he was excited to play some shows in the Midwest with us if we made it to the US.” 

Sadly, the shows never happened because of Reatard's sudden death at his Midtown Memphis home. “He was a legendary individual with a reputation for completely insensitive asshole behavior, but what I really appreciated about the time I spent with him was the self awareness that he had — that he knew his time was limited and he wanted to make his mark on the world through music. His favorite topic was himself, but unlike most people with incredibly uncomplicated existences who like talking about themselves, Jay had lived a very long life rich with hilarious, mortifying, disgusting and tragic experiences that made for great late night conversation.”

Drugs was also part of the story of The Dealers, a regionally successful funk band from Memphis who were label-mates with the late pop megastar Michael Jackson on CBS Records at the height of their popularity. On any given night, The Dealers could be in any city in the country or in Canada sharing the same stage as Marvin Gaye, The Eagles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kool and The Gang, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and other acts. Roy McClaine was once a club owner who booked The Dealers many times during the 1970s and '80s. “They were the best band in Memphis for two decades straight,”  he said. “The dance floor was flooded with people whenever they played. They put on a hell of a show.” “They were the best,” added a former Memphis Musician named Randall Pearson. “They had songs on the radio all over the country and seemed poised to take off.”

Being on the same record label as Michael Jackson during the Thriller era hurt the band because CBS spent most of their time and money on promoting the new King of Pop. In addition, some of the band members let their addictions get the better of them. The Dealers' bassist and lead choreographer Elton Johnson succumbed to congestive heart failure in 2007 at the age of 49. Though he was clean for several years before his death, his family agrees that his fast living lifestyle and years of drug use caught up with him. “He used the hard stuff - cocaine, crack, marijuana, and other substances,” said a family friend who wished for anonymity. “Elton was so talented. He was the best bassist in Memphis. I'm serious. He could sing, dance and play the bass all without missing a beat. But those drugs, man. Women and drugs. When you have access to whatever you want, you take it. Fame and money will change you.” 

Ricky Townes, who has been The Dealers' drummer since 1975, says that he's seen musicians rely on drugs because of their hectic schedules and lifestyles. “I saw a lot of people party too much,” he said. “If you're running your body nonstop, you can easily become dependent on drugs to sleep and do your shows. When you get that big, it's hard to balance your time. A lot of hard workers don't get rest.” Townes also points a finger at alcohol, which can also become a drug of abuse. “Alcohol is a drug too, but a lot of people don't acknowledge that. Some people say they're more creative when they're high or drunk. I don't agree with that. I never smoked or was high on stage. To me, performing is a job. If you're a lawyer, you wouldn't be drunk or high in the courtroom, would you?”

During the band's heyday, Townes says drugs and women were easy to get. “We have to be careful as musicians. Whatever your drug is, they (the music industry) will flood you with it. They'll do anything to manipulate you. Enablers give you anything you want to make money. This happens with athletes, too.”

Tennessee's most famous example of this is the late King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. His personal physician,  Dr. George Nichopoulos (whom Presley affectionately called “Dr. Nick”), wrote Presley 199 prescriptions from January through August 1977. The total was more than 10,000 doses of amphetamines, narcotics and sedatives. Presley had problems sleeping that only got worse after his mother's death and his stint in the United States Army during the late 1950s. In addition to taking medications to improve his sleep, he also took amphetamines, which kept him awake and helped him maintain his slender frame. As the years went by, Presley became more and more dependent on prescription drugs. When Nichopoulos refused to provide them, he would suddenly find his job in jeopardy. "He'd get mad at me, and he'd get on his plane and fly to Vegas or Palm Springs or California and stay for a few days and get what he wanted. And I'd have to take it away from him when he got back home," Nichopoulos explained. Despite the warnings that his friends and family would give him, Presley thought his prescription drug-intake was fine. "Elvis's problem was that he didn't see the wrong in it. He felt that by getting it from a doctor, he wasn't the common everyday junkie getting something off the street. He was a person who thought that as far as medications and drugs went, there was something for everything.” With Presley, one addiction would often lead to another. He overdosed twice on barbiturates in 1973. He then became addicted to Demerol, and to combat that addiction, Nichopoulos would give him methadone. Eventually, Presley overdosed in his Memphis Mansion, Graceland, in August 1977. When he died, the drugs in his system included Dilaudid, Percodan, Placidyl, Desbutal, Escatrol, Ritalin and others.

The stories of Memphis musicians using drugs do not end there. Eric Gales is a blues musician from Memphis who was arrested there for cocaine possession as he was unloading band equipment in June 2010. Over a year before his 2010 arrest, he served 21 months of a three-year sentence after violating probation four years earlier for gun and drug charges. “I was smoking weed on the road and I didn’t want to risk them telling me to come home in the middle of the tour because of a dirty urine sample,” he said in an interview. He was released in March 2010 but was arrested again that June. “I got caught up on Beale Street, man. I had some cocaine and some Xanax pills on me and wound up going to jail again. After that I made a decision that it wasn’t conducive for me to stay any longer in Memphis, Tennessee. I knew too many of the wrong people, and too many of the wrong people knew me.”

“I think there's a real conspiracy about this stuff,” said Evan Marshall, a bassist from Memphis who currently resides in Nashville. “I've seen it all. When you reach a certain level, they give you what you want. They don't give a damn about you, personally. They just want to make money off of you. It's a game to these record industry folks. And it ain't just them doing it. When you get big like that, people come from out of the shadows and want a piece of the pie. They want to get on your good side and enable you.” Marshall has played with different bands over the decades and witnessed several stars, including Presley, getting whatever they desired, despite the toll it took on them. “My girlfriend at the time worked for Mr. Presley,” said Marshall. “I met him a few times. He was a nice guy but he used to pace around and looked so bulky and sweaty. I remember after one show he couldn't calm down for nothing. But there were people around sitting by trying to act normal or giving him his drugs of choice. My girlfriend was afraid to say anything for fear of losing her job. Everyone else on Elvis' staff felt the same way.”

When asked if things will ever improve regarding this situation, Marshall closed his eyes and shook his head. “I've been in the business for over 30 years. Tennessee has a blessing and a curse regarding this. The blessing is the great music booming from these cities, especially country in Nashville and blues and rap in Memphis. No other cities do it better. The tragedy is that drugs and leeches always find their way to these talented musicians. That happens to musicians everywhere.”

A. J. Dugger lll is a journalist based in Clarksville, Tennessee. He recently published his first book, The Dealers: Then and Now. His last piece was on the prescription drug epidemic in his home state.

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