In musician and magician Rob Zabrecky’s new memoir, “Strange Cures,” the Los Angeles of the 1980s and early ’90s is an alien landscape of raucous underground nightclubs, seedy Hollywood crack dens and low-rent Silver Lake duplexes; and the Valley is a place where errant teens roam free, sans supervision and GPS-tracking cellphones.
The youths sneak onto the Universal Studios backlot to drink beer on the “Psycho” house porch; huff brake cleaner on airport runways; race around in violent punk gangs; and fall prey to pedophile arcade owners and alcoholic machine-shop teachers.
“Strange Cures” is a punk poem to a forgotten Los Angeles. And like all good poems, its heart is full of tragic beauty.
Born in Burbank to a construction worker father and a good-hearted Scottish mother who coordinates weddings at the local Polynesian restaurant, Zabrecky is different from the start. Dozens of unseemly warts make him feel like a pariah in elementary school, but in high school his gaunt good looks, relentless individualist streak and innate kindness earn him the hugely unexpected title of homecoming king.
Zabrecky might be the only homecoming king in the Valley to have recently mainlined cocaine, and from there things just get more outlandish.
“Strange Cures” is a punk poem to a forgotten Los Angeles. And like all good poems, its heart is full of tragic beauty. It chronicles the coming of age of a young man who wants so little to do with established society and the accepted norms of living that he doubles down on self-sabotage. Despite almost dying from a heroin addiction that torpedoes nearly everything he holds dear, including his successful alt-rock band Possum Dixon, Zabrecky’s spirit proves indomitable.
The book is steeped in fragments of the rich alternative subculture that Zabrecky spent his early years seeking out. Now-defunct underground spaces such as the Lhasa Club on Santa Monica Boulevard — where punk legends Exene Cervenka, Henry Rollins and Lydia Lunch perform poetry — serve as catalysts for Zabrecky’s musical awakening.
He eventually aids two close friends with the opening of a coffee shop called Jabberjaw on Pico Boulevard near Crenshaw.
“It was unanimously decided among the three of us that L.A. needs a venue where John Waters and Lou Reed can be honored as kings and Keane big-eye paintings can be viewed as high art; a place with a menu that features Pop-Tarts, sugar cereals, assorted coffee, and live performances,” Zabrecky writes of the endeavor.
The place becomes an overnight sensation with artists, rockers and hedonists; and Zabrecky stands out as its “punkish Norman Bates.”
Soon after that, Zabrecky performs for the first time as the spastically eccentric frontman and bassist for Possum Dixon. The band’s first show is at another legendary, long-gone cult hang: Bebop Records and Fine Art in Reseda.
One show and Zabrecky is hooked, and what follows is a lesson in how major labels often suck the lifeblood out of major talent, especially when that talent is as green and erratic as the kids in Possum Dixon. In this case the label is Interscope, which courts the band in grand style, only to drop it seven years and three albums later after the group fails to deliver the elusive “hit single.”
But, man, are those seven years incredible. What is being dubbed “alt-rock” is exploding alongside the grunge scene; and Possum Dixon, which is informed as much by Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground as it is by Wall of Voodoo and Dadaism, is committed to breaking every musical rule in the book.
And even though he is engaged in a slow-motion death spiral with addiction, Zabrecky finds himself in the thick of a vibrant arts scene, rubbing elbows and sharing stages and inspiration with the likes of a young Beck, a still-stripping Courtney Love and a larger-than-life Vaginal Davis.
Possum Dixon tours with the Dead Milkmen and the Violent Femmes, and makes appearances on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and MTV’s “120 Minutes.” Producer legends including Earle Mankey and Ric Ocasek are enlisted to make records with the band, and Zabrecky is invited to a songwriting retreat at Miles Copeland’s Château Marouatte in France, where he co-writes a tune with a member of the Go-Go’s.
In “Strange Cures,” dreams and nightmares occupy the same space, breathing the same air and ending with the same startling wake-up call. At the height of his success, when everything he could have possibly hoped for as an awkward, wart-covered preteen has come to pass, Zabrecky hits rock bottom in a filthy, overheated attic room, vomiting into the same bucket he uses to pee in and not sure if he will live or die.
“The single upshot is that while being that sick and out of it, I couldn’t use. I stop for a day. Then two. Then three,” Zabrecky writes.
Zabrecky has stayed clean since that terrible day in 1996 and Los Angeles has reaped the rewards of that bargain. He is as much a colorful fixture of the city as the glittery names that populate his memoir. Today he is best known for his magic, and the dawning of that new and auspicious addiction is chronicled at the tail end of the book.
What began as a way for him to keep rock audiences amused between songs blossomed into a full-fledged career with regular appearances at Hollywood’s legendary Magic Castle, where he has repeatedly won recognition and awards for his adroit displays of legerdemain and distinctive, slightly unsettling, yet thoroughly charming onstage persona.
The boy is still in the man, though, just as the addict will always be.
“The scars on my arms — where a bullet or needle went in, or where the warts were burned off — are little souvenirs to remind me, not where I’m going but where I’d been,” Zabrecky writes.
So, too, is the reader of “Strange Cures” reminded that life is what you make of it, and what you make of it is rarely what you dream it to be.
Rob Zabrecky Rothco Press; 348 pages, $19.95