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Launching a Clean and Sober Trend in Rock

Times Staff Writer

Jackson Browne has changed the lyrics to the song “Cocaine"--again. On his 1977 album “Running On Empty” he and Glenn Frey updated the old country blues, adding a note of caution while still conveying the drug’s allure. But in concert these days, Browne’s “clean” version leaves no room for doubt:

Ain’t it strange how a mind can turn and a life can change. . . .

There was damage to the body, damage to the soul, damage to the quality of the rock ‘n’ roll

It don’t help now but you can look back and see how some of us damaged our creativity . . . And there are those friends of mine who are dead and gone

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Browne sang the new version last weekend at the Paha Sapa (Black Hills) Music Festival here--an event one organizer billed as a “clean and sober Woodstock.”

It was hardly a Woodstock in terms of numbers. Concert promoter Mark Tilsen said that only 4,400 tickets were sold for a lineup that included Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Timbuk 3, Kris Kristofferson, John Denver and Browne.

What was important, Browne said, was the spirit--clean and sober performers getting together for a benefit concert at which drugs, alcohol and even glass containers were fiercely prohibited. Backstage refreshments were limited to juices, soda and coffee, and concert officials wore bright-red shirts proclaiming the need to “Celebrate Sobriety.”

Tom Campbell, the show’s producer, said he expects “clean and sober” to emerge as a trend in rock, simply out of necessity.

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“At one of Bonnie Raitt’s concerts not long ago, she talked about all of the greats who’ve died from drugs and alcohol,” he said. “There’s Lowell George and Mama Cass, and you go back even farther for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. . . . Sports has its list of casualties. I hope clean and sober does become fashionable. We need it as a trend.”

Many of those at the festival traced their new outlook to close encounters with tragedy.

Tim O’Connor, Willie Nelson’s production manager, said he lost his daughter to drugs and alcohol.

“She was doin’ speed (methamphetamines) and left the highway at about 85 miles an hour,” he said. “A 17-year-old girl was killed at the scene. These days, it’s even more important for all of us to be clean and sober. If a drug does not directly kill you, the result will.”

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Browne said he “wishes” he had stopping doing drugs after the death of his friend Lowell George, the lead singer of Little Feat, whose 1979 heart attack was brought about by drug-related complications.

“But it took me a couple more years after that,” Browne said. “The reason a person finally stops doing drugs is obvious. Your life is no longer manageable. My children and my work were greatly affected.”

An added motivation for getting clean, Browne said, was “to see so many musicians who didn’t take drugs, to see how much longer they could last, how much harder they could work. Over the time that you take drugs, you begin to get a tally of the mistakes you made, the decisions you can’t undo.”

Like it or not, John Denver said that pop stars, actors and athletes have an ability to mold the youth of America and that in some ways the past molding was misguided to the point of being sinful.

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“One of the biggest problems facing young people in the world today is alcohol abuse,” Denver said. “Right or wrong, we as performers can set an example. We can lead young people to a better way.”

Even while conceding clean and sober as a worthy trend, some performers seem ambivalent about the lengths to which it should go. Pat MacDonald of the husband-and-wife duo Timbuk 3 said he opposes “zero tolerance” and believes that some drugs, including marijuana, fail to pack the wallop that alcohol does.

But he hastened to note that he and his wife Barbara K are clean and sober “because we want to be,” and have been for four years.

Browne said that while he has been free from drugs for years, he views his experiences with psychedelics early in his career as “valuable” from a creative standpoint.

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He said the law-enforcement tendency to lump all drugs in a single category is not only wrong but pernicious, that some are far more damaging than others and that alcohol may be the worst.

“Four kids in my neighborhood were killed in a flaming car crash not long ago,” he said. “They were just burned alive in the car, and alcohol was the reason. The effects alcohol has on people’s lives are just devastating.”

The Rapid City show was designed to benefit various Indian groups, one of which was the Alcohol and Family Wellness Coalition. Roberta Whitecalf, a counselor who works with child and adult alcoholics, said that 98% of the people on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are “directly or indirectly” affected by alcoholism.

The other statistics encircling Pine Ridge are staggering--81% unemployment and an annual income per family of $2,637, according to officials in Shannon County.

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But it isn’t just the people who heard the music whose lives have been damaged by alcoholism. The artists who sang the songs have been victims as well.

Browne said that his father, who died several years ago from Alzheimer’s disease, was an alcoholic.

“It was hard to calculate the effects that his drinking had on us growing up,” said Browne, who as a child lived in Highland Park and Fullerton. “But in later years, it was evident that the effect was considerable.

“Dad died of Alzheimer’s, but it was vastly complicated by drinking. A neurosurgeon who was a friend of my father’s took me aside and said, ‘You should know your dad drank and drank and drank.’ I guess Dad prided himself on his ability to hold his liquor.”

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Even though the clean and sober concept derives in part from social and political views, Kris Kristofferson said “the need to recover” comes down to the most basic of all concepts: the family.

“I need it for clarity in my work and in my life,” he said. “I made it a policy never to get loaded in front of my kids, but my example was poor. I wasn’t there even when I was. . . . I don’t want to be a bad example for my kids or an embarrassment to the causes I believe in.”

Will the record-buying public follow rock down a clean and sober road? Greg Kouri, a 21-year-old resident of Sioux Falls who came to the concert, said the reason for the low turnout may have been that “some people were turned off by the clean and sober aspect. They knew they couldn’t get a drink here.”

Whether the public follows or not, Browne said the pop world has a necessity to rock to its own drummer. He said that being clean brings a remarkably good feeling, albeit one tinged with a sadness that nothing can change. As he says in the new version of the old “Cocaine”:

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Look at me now, sharp as a tack

Except for those billions and billions of brain cells

I wouldn’t mind having back.


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