I remember the smell of crime and desperation as I sat among the discarded bags, vials, and syringes on the littered banks overlooking the Hudson River. Clusters of hustlers, deteriorated hookers and homeless folks scattered on the rocks in Washington Heights, all equally bankrupt emotionally and spiritually. I sat there with my friend, Buzz, a homeless guy that I spent my days and nights hustling with. Buzz had a life at one point and told me stories about his life as a successful man with a generous expense account that traveled the world. He could name the bars, hotels and restaurants you should visit if you get to just about any place in the USA and Europe. Being a Dead Head, I knew his suggestions were legit having traveled tens of thousands of miles following the never-ending party myself. He knew a lot about art and history and could talk about politics and finance for hours. He told me he had AIDS but during the years we ran together, the only disease that seemed to be taking his life was his dope addiction. Why were the two of us, people with above average talents and abilities, sitting there like vacuous fuckin boogie men, sticking needles in any blood vessels that hadn’t collapsed yet in the Grim Reaper’s waiting room?
Under the bridges in NYC in the early 90’s, those destined for death, if they were lucky, wasted their days trying to find a way to fix the unfixable. Chasing the Dragon that could never be caught. Equally as pathetic, were the crack heads that waited like coyote for a junkie to nod out or die so they could ravage through their painfully empty pockets. A soulless and awful existence, day after day, where daylight and sunshine were the enemies of all of us that made up a nation of zombies.
Buzz lost his job, marriage, money and family to cocaine and gambling and could only find relief from the constant mental torment of it all in the increasingly more brief moments that followed pushing some more poison into his veins. Heroin provided that period of absolute thoughtlessness. A place where the mind completely stops processing anything at all… Brief moments of mental stillness that are quickly replaced by periods of internal torment and ongoing struggle that come straight from the pits of Hell and last forever. Pain in every joint of the body along with every tooth in your mouth. The feeling of red ants marching through your veins and arteries eating you alive from the inside-> out. You’re convinced the solution is just another shot away regardless of all evidence to the contrary. Those that have been there know that demons exist and have no mercy at all.
I’ll never forget walking the streets of Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem in the earliest hours of morning. Having grown up with supportive, intelligent and loving parents, it was strange to see 7-year-old kids riding their bikes through the streets at 2:00 AM. Even stranger when we’d score our bags from their older brothers that were 11 or 12 years old. All of this happening a 30-minute bus ride away from mansions in the burbs and under the same shadows cast by opulent skyscrapers where the elite reside.
It was on May 15th of 1993 that I sat with Buzz on the hellish hillside and said, “If God exists, I’m begging him to get me out of this mess… HELP ME GOD!!!”
The journey that started that day has had its share of Heaven and Hell. The torment of withdrawals… A week of living perched over a toilet or garbage can heaving as hard as a man can heave only to produce a few drops of bile or stomach acid. The wicked dreams that come with it all, waking up when the needle was just about to pierce my skin. Trying like hell to go back to sleep just long enough to get the fix.
Once all that physical stuff passed, the mental part continued for years. Trying to shake the lifestyle that fosters the condition and the friends and acquaintances that were still in the grave and wanted me back in it with them. The calls from friends still on tour telling me about the numerous friends found dead in their hotel rooms. It was a long and winding road…
I’ll never forget the night that I tossed and turned, too hot for clothes one minute, freezing terribly the next minute. I was about a week into being drug-free. Nighttime, my only friend in the years that preceded, now my worst nemesis. The clock didn’t seem to move as minutes felt like hours. When I finally dozed off, I heard my name being whispered in my ear by a soft and feminine voice. As I cracked my eyes open, an angel was hovered over me but looked kinda like seeing something while under the water. Hazy… Blurred but totally present. It scared the ever-loving shit out of me. I pressed myself into the mattress that was under me in fear. The angel spoke clearly and said, “I’ve always been with you and I always will be but you’ll never need me like this again.” With a touch on my face, that angel moved on and since that moment, 24 years ago, I’ve never had the desire to drink alcohol or do drugs.
I’ve never told this story to judge the decisions anybody else makes with their life. I’ve certainly spent plenty of time at thousands of shows and musical events since then. I’ve said, “No thanks” close to a million times since that day. I can still admire a beautiful flower without having any desire to smoke it. I can achieve the state of mind I’m looking for without having to add the chemicals nowadays. I’ll never forget my first clean Dead Show at MSG in 93. During the transition between China and Rider I found myself dancing without any effort of my own. The music was moving me like the wind through a flag. My eyes would catch the eyes of those around me when I opened them and we’d lock on each other for that second of intense mutual acknowledgment of what was taking place. There were musical notes flying through the air that couldn’t be attributed to anyone that was on the stage but they were completely real and present none the less. When the jam reached its peak, in that spot we all know well, Garcia’s pick was plucking at the neurons that make up my brain and the resulting flood of neurological charges caused shock waves through my anatomy. Every hair rose off of my body and stood in the direction of the band. The lights that filled MSG seemed to enter through my eyes and create as much of a show inside of my skull as they did outside of it. When the first chorus of Rider began, my ears drew closest to Garcia’s voice in the mix and it covered my soul with comfort and ease that couldn’t be found anywhere else. While pictures flashed through my mind of all the friends we’ve missed since they’ve been gone, the music reached inside of me and began to heal parts of me I hadn’t yet realized were broken. The parts most obviously dark and broken were brought boldly to the light of forgiveness and mercy. I realized in that moment that it really was always the music. For so many years I attributed so much of that experience to the drugs and at that moment I discovered how completely real ALL of it was. That it really was the music that helped me to tolerate the drugs, not the drugs that had elevated the music. The experience was exactly as I’d known it all along…
I haven’t been to a meeting in over 15 years so according to the 12 step philosophy I’m supposed to be getting fucked up again already. Without my early and intense involvement and service in Narcotic Anonymous, I guess I might’ve never made it this far to begin with. I do live daily according to the principles learned there and live my life primarily to serve others. I try to help folks get free from all the prescription garbage that drug companies want everyone to embrace as a permanent lifestyle. I don’t spend time in Opium dens and if there’s no band playing you most likely won’t find me at a bar. I don’t judge anybody’s shit because I’ve lived as low as you can live. I tell this story a few times a year, not to be congratulated because I’m passed any tremendous sense of pride regarding all of it. I say it in hopes of helping a parent with a fucked up child to remain optimistic and hopeful for their kid’s life. I had great parents, it wasn’t their fault. I guess I say all this to say, If you or someone you love is struggling with a beast that’s killing them, they can make it out. Too many folks are dying from dope and I’m endlessly Grateful I’m not one of them. Things can change… People can change… Life can and will change… How it changes might be up to you… I’m always here to help if I can. Don’t be afraid to reach out!
I often wonder what happened to Buzz….
Love you forever!
Dead To The Core,
Dean Sottile (pronounced So Tilly)
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