When a Musician Gets Sober, Can You Hear It?

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When a Musician Gets Sober, Can You Hear It?

By Paul Fuhr 08/18/17

When James Hetfield returned from rehab, he came back raw, exposed and uncertain what the future held.

Image: 
Metallica frontman
When artists embrace sobriety, their music and lives are often profoundly changed.

In early sobriety, I collected vinyl records with the same empty, single-minded purpose that I used to collect drinking buddies. I’d spend an hour gathering records I hoped would impress the checkout person—not even necessarily albums I wanted. Like my barstool friends, the records were just props. I just wanted that split-second jolt of acknowledgment, a momentary rush of being appreciated. Truth be told, it’s never happened. Not once. I’ve never had a handshake, high-five or even so much as a nod from a record shop clerk. Recently in a record shop, somewhere between the “G” and “H” sections, I became overwhelmed with a sense of wonder about artists and groups that have decades-spanning careers. Unless you’re Led Zeppelin, it’s damn near impossible to have every one of your records be vital (I’m looking at you, R.E.M.’s Around the Sun)—especially if you’re struggling with as many external forces as you are internal ones.

Volumes have been written about musicians, addiction and recovery—so much so that those stories are almost as predictable and well-worn as overused hooks and choruses. What’s not clear, however, is how sobriety has impacted the music itself. When a singer-songwriter gets sober, can you hear it in between the notes? Does a group sound battered and hollowed out, but somehow better for it? Is the music jarringly different like when Natalie Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs, yet they still toured as 10,000 Maniacs? (P.S. That was insane.) Here are some artists and groups who changed their behaviors and, as a result, had the notes of their careers change on them in ways that are as fascinating as they are profound.

Trent Reznor

15 years of sobriety doesn’t simply inform the Nine Inch Nails frontman’s music now, but it’s in direct contrast to the haunted, darkly industrial mood NiN evokes. In an interview with Fast Company, Reznor revealed that “getting sober and getting my life in order has really changed my perspective on the creative process. It used to be fraught with fear.” He added that he “would try to trick myself into avoiding working, because it was the most difficult, painful self-examination imaginable. That process is no less difficult, but it’s become actually enjoyable.” I’d argue that his triptych of David Fincher soundtracks (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl) are as vital and alive as anything he produced with NiN, if not more so. In fact, each wordless track (composed with Atticus Ross) is textured and layered in ways that, say, Reznor’s influential The Downward Spiral doesn’t even aspire to be. No matter what, the frenetic, pulse-pounding track “In Motion” off The Social Network remains directly tied to my sobriety in that it was the first song I put on repeat after getting out of treatment. Even now, “In Motion” somehow recalls the sound of my own brain chemistry percolating and changing, bringing me to a better understanding of who I really am.

Eric Clapton

The Crossroads at Antigua founder (also the same man who spurred a rash of “Clapton is God” graffiti in the 1970s) is an unarguably different artist in sobriety than he was when he was drinking and using. I once detailed how Clapton’s alcoholic past is ruining his musical present, in that he’s suffering from peripheral neuropathy as a result of his drinking: “Clapton’s battle with substance abuse has been in the spotlight for decades. In fact, at one point, it was quite literally in the spotlight. His heroin addiction had spun so far out of control that he passed out during the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden.” An NPR profile on the “Cocaine” singer also revealed that he was spending $16,000 per week (about $55,000 in today’s dollars) on heroin. Ever since he got sober in 1986, though, he’s been present in a way that’s almost painful. When his son Conor died tragically in 1991, Clapton didn’t retreat to the bottle—he faced the pain, full-on. In fact, hearing his beautiful “Tears in Heaven” beats those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials by a narrow margin in its ability to reduce me to tears. Sobriety has brought a clarity to his studio albums that’s impossible to ignore—especially in his most recent effort, I Still Do, which was widely praised by critics for a refined, confident sound that can only be attributed to his recovery.

Phish

The jam band’s frontman Trey Anastasio was notoriously out of his mind on drugs and alcohol for much of Phish’s early run—so much so that the group broke up in 2004. A Rolling Stone profile revealed that much of Anastasio’s rock bottom was on full display for Phish fans, too: “At the band's 2004 farewell concert in Coventry, Vermont, Anastasio actually appeared to be nodding off onstage, but things only got worse from there.” After a few arrests, community service and treatment, Anastasio finally managed to break out of his downward spiral, releasing six studio albums, composing a Broadway musical, and reuniting with Phish. He’s also now an advocate for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, through which he shared his story of recovery on Capitol Hill. While some critics continue to level complaints at Phish’s self-indulgent jams, there’s certainly nothing self-indulgent about Anastasio’s commitment to recovery.

Wilco

I’m not sure when Wilco transitioned from being an indie darling to a confused act that suddenly lost its way, but I’m guessing it’s when lead singer Jeff Tweedy found sobriety. Wilco once effortlessly churned out one flawless album after another (a mantle eventually stolen by Arcade Fire), but you could suddenly almost hear them laboring to put their music together with inert records like Sky Blue Sky. “There is some creativity to being an addict. It’s a hard job. It’s a lot of work for every aspect of my life. There’s still a part of me that will always be an addict and that’s part of how I am defined,” Tweedy told Vice. That said, in hindsight, it’s fascinating to watch the arc of Tweedy’s recovery play out over the course of several albums, culminating in 2015’s beautiful Star Wars. Tweedy demonstrates a daring that’s both creative and confident, thanks to knowing exactly who he is and what he’s capable of. He’s also put together a side act simply named Tweedy that’s just him and his son Spencer, which is both touching and a testament to healing.

Brian Wilson

I’d love to say Pet Sounds and the genius of The Beach Boys was embroidered into my musical DNA, but it’s not. No, the most I’d known about Brian Wilson was that he once stayed in a bed for years, growing to 300 pounds—or so the Barenaked Ladies tune goes. That genius is debatable, much like staring at the splatter-smart artwork of Jackson Pollock and wondering if the work truly is art. Looking at Wilson’s music career, he went from being a meticulous technician constantly tweaking the most minute details (hilariously sent up in the criminally underseen Walk Hard) to a moribund, overweight recluse, crippled by drug abuse and mental illness. Wilson overdosed in 1982 on cocaine, alcohol and other drugs, which resulted in him getting kicked out of the Beach Boys. And while he spent the next few years in the controversial care of Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson recovered and released an acclaimed, self-titled solo album. He’s since released ten albums, been the recipient of numerous awards (including two Grammys), was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reunited with the Beach Boys, and was the subject of three films—a far cry from the pained work of someone struggling with addiction who couldn’t get out of his own way.

Metallica

If you haven’t seen Some Kind of Monster, Joe Berninger’s fascinating 2004 documentary about the torturous process of creating Metallica’s St. Anger, go watch it now. I’ll wait. Done? Good, now we can talk about what it says about the impact of recovery on the creative process. Set aside the turmoil and strife and Lars’ temper-tantrums. Even ignore the group sorting out its problems on camera. Some Kind of Monster is the can’t-look-away chronicle of an uber-popular band plagued with problems—chief among them being Hetfield’s alcoholism. When Hetfield returned from rehab, he came back raw, exposed and uncertain what the future held. “Rehab really worked for me,” Hetfield told podcaster Joe Rogan, describing how he was torn “down to bones.” And you can see that in the thrash-rocker’s face in the documentary. But there’s a big distance between the blood-and-anvil cover of Kill ‘Em All and the sight of the band members arguing over studio schedules around a conference room table. They might not be the vital band they once were, but it doesn’t diminish their endurance or resiliency. And while St. Anger might not be a great album, it (like Metallica) still exists—and that’s a minor miracle itself.

Neil Young

When Neil Young gave up drinking and drugs in 2011, he was shutting the door on 40 years of substance misuse. According to a New York Times profile, the prolific activist-rocker used to smoke “pot the way others smoke cigarettes”—a habit that, in sobriety, has challenged Young as much as it’s opened him up to new creative perspectives: “The straighter I am, the more alert I am, the less I know myself and the harder it is to recognize myself,” he said. “I need a little grounding in something and I am looking for it everywhere.” Drug addiction has coursed through Young’s life as much as its consequences have. In fact, in 1975, he released the mournful Tonight’s the Night—a pitch-black album that’s a reaction to the drug-induced deaths of his bandmate Danny Whitten and his friend/roadie Bruce Berry. It’s difficult to frame Young’s recent sobriety against a career that spans a staggering forty-plus studio albums, but perhaps the notoriously prickly site Pitchfork put it best in its review of Young’s 2016 Peace Trail: “While Young’s voice has certainly never sounded older than it does here, there’s something youthful about his energy [and] his music is guided by a restless determination to cover new ground.” For anyone in the twilight years of their career, it’s encouraging, if not electrifying, to see an artist able to change—especially if that means finally surrendering themselves.

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