The Sober Rebranding of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Throughout modern music, the mantra “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” has been both a catalyzer and a destructor. The cautionary tale practically writes itself: Artist finds purpose in music, sees commercial success, indulges in every substance known to man, falls, bottoms out, loses a career, climbs back out of the darkness through sobriety. That’s the happy-ending version; there are plenty who aren’t as fortunate.

Indeed, the 50th anniversaries of the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison straddle 2020 and 2021. In April, it’ll be 27 years since we lost Kurt Cobain — that number given added significance as it was the age of all of the aforementioned deaths, as well as Amy Winehouse, who will be gone 10 years come July.

One can’t help wondering if sobriety had been touted as the cool route for a musician, rather than the debauchery with which they’re so often identified, would things have been different? And where did the road turn on substance abuse for professional musicians, who now can opt to work on a “dry tour” and receive counseling or participate in AA meetings at each concert date?

“I thought it was part of the deal, part of the lifestyle,” says Steve Earle, the genre-spanning country and folk singer who recently lost his son, Justin Townes Earle, to addiction. The younger Earle died in August 2020 at 38, while at about the same age, his father turned drug arrests in 1993 and ’94 into a commitment to recovery.

Whether it’s the allure of the lifestyle or the veil of creativity, the dance of art and substance abuse goes back centuries, says Alice Cooper, who’s been sober for 37 years and was one of the first major rock stars to publicly promote recovery. He points to writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Byron, known for espousing the use of mind-altering substances in their work. “Those guys were the rock stars of the day, and they had the exact same problem that rock stars have today, which was they gave way too much credit to the escape valve, the alcohol,” he says, referencing his own experience.

It’s thanks to trailblazers like Cooper, who helped open the door to rehabilitation, that the likes of Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and Duff McKagan, Travis Barker, Eminem, Elton John, Eric Clapton and countless others got sober openly and without shame. Today, artists of all genres — from ASAP Rocky to Moby to Keith Urban — can wear their sobriety as a badge of honor. It’s become accepted, maybe even expected.

So how did that stigma ease? John Sykes, chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a top executive at iHeartRadio, was president of VH1 in the 1990s when the network launched its popular “Behind the Music” series. In telling the stories of such bands as Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac and Mötley Crüe, in addition to a variety of pop and R&B stars, a common theme would often emerge: addiction and recovery.

“The more we could be transparent about addiction and mental illness, the closer we’d come to help reduce it, because it’s the hidden problem in our country,” says Sykes. “Everyone has a family member or a friend who’s affected by mental illness or addiction. So the more artists that come out and make it OK to talk about, the better it will be for the welfare of the world.”

The strategy seems to be working. Between talking about substance abuse and promoting programs like MusiCares, which provides financial and other assistance for musicians in need, the music industry has made great inroads into erasing the stigma of addiction. In fact, some of today’s biggest advocates for sobriety were music’s biggest partyers; they include Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

“Golf had a lot to do with my recovery,” says Cooper. “All my other addictions, like cocaine and alcohol, were killing me. I knew I had an addictive personality — my stage show is a very addictive thing to do — so I had to find positive addictions.”

That insight comes too late for talented young artists like Mac Miller and Juice WRLD, two rappers who died of an overdose in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Earle, who nearly died himself, isn’t sure there is an easy answer. “The problem is kids think they’re immortal,” he says. “Death is not real to them; they haven’t lost enough people yet.”

Cooper concurs. “When I was 27, I thought I was bulletproof,” he says. “What I was really doing was killing myself slowly.”

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