Live and Learn: Rikk Agnew on Addiction, Sobriety and Being the “Brian Wilson of Punk”

By Paul Gaita 09/20/16

The L.A. rock icon speaks with us about his music, joining punk in the late '70s, being told he had three months to live and then getting sober in 2010.

Live and Learn: Rikk Agnew on Addiction, Sobriety and Being the “Brian Wilson of Punk”
Rikk Agnew (center) and the Rick Agnew Band.

Rikk Agnew’s c.v. reads like a three-decade history of the Los Angeles and Orange County punk music scene. With his brother Frank and Casey Royer, the Newport Beach native was part of the original lineups for Social Distortion and the Detours, then joined the Adolescents for its seminal “Blue Album” in 1980 before departing to record and perform with such acts as Christian Death, D.I., ADZ and .45 Grave. In the midst of this prolific period, he also released a remarkable solo album, 1982’s “All By Myself,” which featured Agnew on every instrument, a feat which earned him an enduring sobriquet, “the Brian Wilson of punk.” The label was both complimentary and morbidly ironic: in addition to sharing a sense of boundless creativity with the Beach Boys’ mastermind, Agnew also struggled with punishing addictions to drugs and alcohol. 

As a result of his substance use, Agnew’s health deteriorated so precipitously that in 2010, doctors gave him just three months to live. With the help of his wife, singer/lyricist Gitane Demone (Christian Death, Pompeii 99), Agnew regained his health and resumed his passionate pursuit of music; his latest effort is the Rikk Agnew Band’s debut album, “Learn,” which streets on October 14 through Frontier Records. The label’s founder, Lisa Fancher, who has collaborated with Agnew since the early ‘80s, says that “Rikk’s probably one of the top three most talented people I’ve worked with at Frontier. I cannot be happier that he’s stuck with it and gotten clean and made probably the record of his career – I think it might even be stronger than ‘All By Myself.’” Agnew spoke to The Fix about the various facets of his life and career via phone in Los Angeles.

The Fix: What drew you to the Los Angeles punk scene in the late 1970s?

Rikk Agnew: What got us involved was the music that was coming out of the UK, along with the New York underground scene - quote-unquote New Wave bands like Blondie and the Ramones. We were just like, “This is fantastic.” These people were dressing crazy and the music was very aggressive – it was a fresh change. Casey Royer and I were into progressive rock – Yes, early Genesis - and when punk came along, we mocked it, but then it just hit our hearts and minds and souls.

What drew me to it was also the individuality and independence. There was no regimen at the time. Whatever you wanted to do was punk rock – it had nothing to do with Mohawks. It was about getting crazy and enjoying the music and having fun. Partying was a big part of that, of course, as it is with all youth cultures. It’s an adolescent thing, no pun intended.

The bands were all different from each other, but we all supported and loved each other’s band. It didn’t matter if it was the Screamers or the Deadbeats, which reminded me of progressive music gone insane, or the Weirdos or the Bags, which were really powerful. And in Orange County, there was the surf [influence] and the rejection of suburbanism. It was all one big group.

After establishing yourself in the punk movement with the Detours and Adolescents, you took a bold move and released a solo album that offered a more nuanced take on that sound. What convinced you to do that?

What’s funny about that is a lot of the songs on that album were songs that I was going to incorporate into the second Adolescents album. I was already showing the songs to the band, but I got my serving papers and was no longer in the band. So I had these songs and didn’t know what to do with them, but John Lee – rest in peace – had a record store called Up Another Octave in Buena Park, and I used to go there and talk. He released an album (“The Up Another Octave Transmission”), which had a song by my first band, the Detours (“Hang Ten in East Berlin”).

John Lee said, “You know, Alex Gibson (.45 Grave) did an album and played everything on it except the drums. So you could one-up him and do everything!” And he told me to talk to Lisa Fancher at Frontier about it. So I called her and told her about the idea, and she said, “Okay.”

There were different sounds on that album, and that was because I wanted to go in a different direction, even when I was in the Adolescents. That’s why when I left them, I joined Christian Death, because I wanted to progress. I treasure every bit of what I did before, but as a musician and artist, you want to express yourself in different ways. I just read a book called “Spray Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag.” and I can relate to Greg Ginn in that he wants to play what makes him and just go for it. For me, that’s punk rock. That’s honest, and music that sounds honest always feels good.

The press labeled you “the Brian Wilson of punk” as a result of “All By Myself.” How do you feel about that?

I’m so flattered by it (laughs). The Beach Boys were one of my favorite bands since I was a kid. I always liked Brian the best, and when I was going through my drug and drunk days, he was kind of a hero to me. I liked people that were either insane or reclusive. So I thought it was a compliment.

And I understand some of the reasons [for the label]. That’s where I was at the time and I accept that whole-heartedly. 

Can you talk about that time, and how it led to your sobriety?

Sure. As a youngster, I always told myself that if I’m experiencing things and I like them, I’m going to keep doing them until I get completely bored with them or it kills me. And no matter how bad or excessive my drug and alcohol use was, I never pawned or stole anything. I’ve never been arrested on any drug charges. Though I was completely out of my mind, I did have a toehold on reality – I was a careful abuser (laughs). If I got too drunk or was too high on speed, I didn’t drive. I didn’t want to risk my life or the lives of others, and it would ruin the high, anyway. 

At first, I was having fun and being very creative, but as time went on, I started getting very down and negative. I was going through a case of beer and two fifths of alcohol every day. And what happened was that as time when on, I started getting really big. I weighed up to 350 pounds, and I’m 5’9”, so I was like a beach ball. And I couldn’t get drunk anymore. So what I did from day to day was to go visit people who had speed – I took all the money I had and spent it on speed and booze.

Back in 2007, some friends of mine had an intervention, and I was ready to quit – I was having dreams about it for about two weeks. And Gordon (Cox) from the Detours and Chckn (D.I.) and Steve Guevara (D.I.) showed up, and I went gladly. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot, but I didn’t like what I don’t personally like about NA and AA. 

God bless for whoever it works for, but I don’t like organized anything. It had a little bit too much religion in it, and it made me want to go out and do stuff - which is what I did six months after I got out. We went on tour with a Christian Death reformation called CD 1334, and as soon as I got on the plane, I exhausted the bar. And it went on from there, and it got really horrible.

So in early November 2010, I left a party here in L.A., and as I was driving, I started throwing up on myself, and I saw that it was blood. It felt like a knife right in the solar plexus and I thought, “This ain’t good. I better chill out for a while.” So I knocked off the speed and drank just a few beers a day. But on December 30, I was watching TV at my parents’ house, and I started feeling really strange, like I was leaving my body. So I went to the hospital and they did all these tests, and the doctor said, “Your liver is not filtering as well as it should, so you have over two gallons of toxic fluid in your gut. That’s what all that weight is.” 

They said I also had cirrhosis of the liver, anemia, an enlarged spleen, hepatitis C – the list went on and on. So I asked what it all meant, and the doctor said, “Put it this way: if you don’t quit everything – drugs, drinking, period – you have a maximum of three months to live.” And that was like, okay, I quit. And I haven’t touched it since. It’s been almost six years now.

Congratulations. Going that route alone must have been a challenge.

Yes, but as I said, nothing was working anymore. I couldn’t get high, I couldn’t get drunk. All it did was make me feel sick, so it wasn’t that hard to do, to be honest with you. But the temptation is still there – every once in a while, I’ll be watching a movie and I’ll see someone smoking speed, which was my favorite, and I’ll be like, “Oh…” But then I take a real quick tour in my mind, and I acknowledge it, and you go on. 

My wife, Gitane Demone, has been a huge help as well. She’s a radical dietician and knows what’s good for you in terms of holistics and food, and that’s really improved me as well. I haven’t felt this good since I was in my 20s. I’ve lost 150 pounds.

I’m more than willing to talk to and even help anyone in terms of wanting to improve their lives. I’ll buy them books – I just read this book called “Eat for Your Blood Type” and it totally got rid of the last 80 pounds I wanted to lose. And it helped me to feel great, and when you feel healthy, you don’t really want to poison it. You have more energy - I’ve done more in the last five years that I did in the twenty-five before that. And the pressure is easier to deal with because you’re doing it for real, and you’re doing it clean, and that’s the best feeling in the fucking world. There’s no high like being totally sober – I know that sounds totally cliché, but it’s true.

What do you want listeners to learn from the new album?

Learn from your mistakes, from others’ mistakes. There are all kinds of things out there that are fucking up people and this planet. The main song on the album that gets to the theme of it is “I Can’t Change the World,” and in parentheses, it says, “But maybe we can change it together.” If everyone did that, this world would be amazing. And if everyone would join a band (laughs) – I’ve told people that if everyone joined a band, there would be no hunger, because bands want to get fed. And there’d be no war, because you can’t carry guns and guitars at the same time.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.