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7 questions for Tony O'Neill

December 19, 2008 |  1:03 pm


On the one hand, Tony O'Neill  lived a charmed life. The British-born musician -- who performed in Kenickie and Brian Jonestown Massacre -- had a place in Hollywood and a generous girlfriend with a convertible. They had lots of fun.

On the other hand, there were the drugs. His girlfriend was much older, and, it turned out, siphoning money from her employer to support their habits. Things got pretty bad. When the two of them left for England, they were desperate.

This is the beginning of "Down and Out on Murder Mile," Tony O'Neill's somewhat fictionalized account of the drudgery of drug addiction, written with a raw (but guilt-free) clarity.

Jacket Copy: After a brief halcyon period of rolling around L.A. in an "egg-shell blue '80s Mercedes with the top rolled down, blasting punk rock," things go downhill. You and your girlfriend are addicted to heroin, living in squalor, entirely broke. You're brutally honest about how bad things were -- but how they got that way is more of a mystery. How much of that period is a mystery to you?

Tony O'Neill: Well it was quite obvious to me that things were not going to end well. I had a really big heroin and cocaine habit, and we were so engrossed in getting high that we barely had time to do anything else.  Our days revolved around getting money, getting drugs and getting high. Money was just frittering away, and although we were both making money -– at the start -– soon we weren’t able to keep the money coming in, and thousands were going out every week.  When I was in rehab, the doctors and the headshrinkers and the caseworkers would all ask me the same thing.  “Why?”  You know, “Why did you use?”  That’s one of the great failings of AA and the 12 steps.  Everybody has to have a reason. “My mommy didn’t love me enough!”  “My uncle molested me!” “My pet cat died when I was 7!”  They dug and dug.  They’d say things like “Maybe you’ve forgotten the trauma.  Maybe you have post traumatic stress disorder!” I mean, all of this NONSENSE.  The truth was -- I told them this then, and they couldn’t get their heads around it -- the truth was I used so many drugs because they felt GREAT.  That’s why I did it. Despite all of the hardships I had to put up with, all of the terrible things that happened because I was strung out, once I had a needle full of strong Mexican heroin in my veins I felt GREAT, and it was all worth it then.

JC: Were you writing all along? Or is writing something you've done since getting off heroin?

TO: Heroin is a very demanding mistress, and while I was using I didn’t have much time for anything else.  I wrote some poems that appeared in my book “Songs from the Shooting Gallery” but it really wasn’t until I was detoxing that I was able to sit down and write in any kind of sustained manner. I wrote my first book literally while detoxing from methadone with a trash can to vomit into next to the computer.   

I had to have some separation from that world before I could write about it with any real clarity.  I was very lucky in that my wife supported me throughout my detox, and encouraged me keep going, to keep writing. Writing really saved my sanity, and that’s not an exaggeration.  If I didn’t have something creative to fill that void that the heroin left, then I would have gone crazy.

What it took to get kicked out of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, after the jump.

JC: You were living in L.A. and playing in the Brian Jonestown Massacre. How exactly did you part ways? They aren't known for being the most strait-laced group of guys.

I was in the band sometime in 2000.  My memories of that period are a little hazy.  I was injecting a lot of cocaine, and a lot of heroin at that point.  Well, I guess it’s no secret that everybody was using a lot of drugs, and I was one of the many musicians who passed through their ranks when then band was at a pretty unstable and chaotic point in its history.  I think the final argument was over a carton of orange juice, and I do remember that I -- and the drummer -- had a sword swung at us. That said, you know Anton is one of the greatest songwriters out there.  He’s incredibly gifted and prolific, and totally unlike most rock 'n' guys are now.  I mean, the music industry is so dull right now.  Everybody acts like little accountants or something. Safe, pedestrian, unexciting.... So it was great to work with someone who truly lived it, and meant it, and wasn’t afraid to put themselves out on the edge.  That’s what art is all about, after all.  We need more people like Anton in the music industry.

JC: Your book doesn't glamorize drugs, but it doesn't carry the kind of shameful apology about drug use that I think we're used to in the U.S. You treated being a junkie kind of like a job. Was being a junkie hard work?

It was, and it wasn’t very rewarding work.  When you have a heroin habit to feed you can’t sleep in, and you can't take it easy.  There are no days off, and all overtime is unpaid. I would wake up around 7 each morning, already a little sick.  If I had some left over, I would take my first shot of the day.  If I was out of drugs, I would be trying to find a dealer who was awake and doing business. My day didn’t stop until I knocked myself unconscious at the end of every day.  I don’t feel that I, or any addict, should have to apologize for the lifestyle they have lived.  Addiction is not a moral issue; it’s a medical issue.  It would be like apologizing because you have diabetes.

JC: When you get to England, it becomes clear that junkies can live and function there, if somewhat miserably, with the help of the government methadone program. What do you think of the British system (methadone) versus the American system (jail, rehab)?

The only people who think that prohibition of drugs is actually working are people who don’t know all of the facts, or people who are blind to the facts because they have an extreme moral position on drug taking.  All drugs should be legalized.  All the prisoners of the drug war should be released from prison.  Drugs like heroin and cocaine should be taxed, and placed into the hands of doctors who could prescribe them to those who need them.  The American approach of criminalizing and jailing addicts does nothing except keep the prison industry and the drug enforcement industry in business.  It doesn’t help addicts.  It doesn’t stop them from reoffending.  It takes people who are not natural criminals and it places them into the penal system, disenfranchises them completely, and turns them into “real” criminals.  In the Britain, up until the late '60s, we had what was known internationally as “The British Method.”  Addicts were given prescriptions for heroin, cocaine or amphetamines.  At that time we had a small and aging addict population, and virtually no black market for drugs.  The U.S. decided that this was undermining their own war on drugs, and went to the U.N. to get things changed.  That was when we had the dawn of the methadone clinics in Britain.  And now Britain is a roaring success, just like America, with younger and younger addicts, a booming black market, and people murdering each other over turf wars.

Life as an addict in Britain under the methadone system is certainly no fun, but it’s better than what’s on offer in the U.S.  But it’s a bit like choosing between a kick in the face and a kick in the balls.

JC: Now you're back in the U.S., but you're in New York. Why not L.A.?

TO: Well, the main reason is that my wife is a New Yorker.  But there are other reasons.  You know, I came back to L.A. for the first time in eight years when the Book Expo was on.  When I left L.A. I was in pieces, a lot of my friends had spun out completely on drugs, I was homeless, and I basically fled the city to try and save my own life.  Coming back I went to a lot of the old spots. MacArthur Park. The Spot Light on Cahuenga. I even checked back into my old room at the Mark Twain on Wilcox for an hour. And you know, I realized that I owe Los Angeles a great debt.  It has inspired so much of my writing and it really forms a huge part of my aesthetic.  But I also realized that there was just too much history with the city and I. I think that honestly, if I were to move back to L.A., I don’t know if I could stay clean.  I don’t even know if I could stay alive.

JC:  What's next for you writing-wise? Will you write autobiographically about the post-heroin period of your life? Do you have more stories to tell about the period when you were doing drugs? Or will your creative work go in another direction?

TO: No, my next book will not be based upon my own life.  There are other stories that I want to tell.  I have just written a book of short stories that will come out in France next year first under the title of “Notre Dame du Vide” [13th Note Press] and that book really provides a bridge between the autobiographical fiction that I do and the “pure” fiction of my next novel. The new book will be set in L.A.  It will concern addicts, the recovery industry, celebrity, and all of the other things that fascinate me. It’s in its early stages, so that’s as much as I can say.  I am certain that I will return to autobiographical fiction  but I don’t want to repeat myself, and this new book is really itching to be written.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Ferny Chung