July 10, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Patrick O'Neil's Gun, Needle, Spoon is a harrowing and vividly told memoir of addiction and recovery.
Emily Rapp wrote of the book:
"Gun, Needle, Spoon is a wild, tender ride of a memoir that you'll never forget. Fierce, funny, and true to the bone, O'Neil's voice as as real and memorable as they come."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
It feels odd to be asked to compile a playlist for my memoir Gun Needle Spoon. Not because I can't put one together—it's more like, why didn't I include one? Because, "dude, music was my life!" Well, that is until it wasn't. And what I mean by that is for as long as I can remember music has been an integral part of my very existence. Since I was a pre-teen youngster I've been an avid listener, rabid concertgoer, and a mediocre bass player. After punk rock exploded I spent the majority of the ‘80's playing in bad bands, working as a roadie, then a tour manager, then a layout artist for an indie record label, and my final stint in the music industry was a stagehand for a concert promoter in Los Angeles. But when my addiction to heroin completely took over, I lost all interest in most creative endeavors and basically missed the majority of the ‘90's. Actually, I think I saw one movie, Trainspotting (for obvious "research" reasons). I definitely didn't read a book. However, I did listen to a lot of industrial metal and rap—mainly because everyone I knew was listening to it—but really it was all just background "chatter" to the insanity that was my life at the time. But now, given the opportunity, here is the music that would have, in some obscure and not so obscure ways, accompanied my memoir.
"Burning Inside" – Ministry
1997, my life was an out-of-control-free-for-all, and at the end of my "junkie/criminal career" the music I listened to was assaulting, in your face, and loud—possibly to counter the immensely overwhelming opiated mind numb of heroin—but more than likely due to my anger at EVERYTHING in the ENTIRE FUCKING UNIVERSE, and if it wasn't LOUD enough to be an adrenaline attack on the senses then it wasn't worth shit. The first chapter of Gun Needle Spoon opens with the cops busting in my apartment's front door to arrest me, and the soundtrack in my head was no exception. I had just shot up a huge hit of heroin and the warm rush was coursing up my veins and into my brain. I might have absentmindedly scratched my nose as I went to answer the knock on my door… and then all hell erupted as the door broke into splinters and an army of cops stormed inside.
"Can't you see it up in the sky
As it kicks you in the face and lets you die
You never have the answers
And now you tell me the facts of life
I really couldn't be bothered with you
Get out of my face and watch me die
Burning inside! Burning inside!"
Al Jourgensen's Ministry had evolved from new wave synthpop (which I totally ignored) to hardcore headbanger industrial. Jourgensen's acidic lyrics screamed to the disenfranchised, which was definitely me, and the deafening repetitive mechanical rhythm section brought it all home to an angry post punk, also me, and when I rediscovered Ministry's The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste in '97 I kept it in the CD player on repeat for a whole month.
"Wild Horses" – The Rolling Stones
Before I discovered heroin, before there was punk rock, before I went off the deep end and fucked it all up – I was this innocent kid afraid of the world. By the time I was eleven my father was about to abruptly leave, my totally self absorbed mother was definitely not present enough to be supportive let alone nurturing, and my siblings had their equally important issues to deal with, so I was on my own. Plus, we were a nomadic family that moved a lot and I was continually the new kid in a strange environment. I had no role models or supervision and it was the late 60's - early ‘70's. Listening to rock and roll was my outlet and I identified with the musicians. There was something incredibly cool about these guys and it wasn't just that they were rock stars. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and of course, Keith Richards, all had this aloof demeanor, which I later discovered was due to drug use, most notably heroin. But I was a kid and they were my heroes. I wanted to be them. And I can remember this anti-drug TV commercial that was playing then and it had these kids saying who they wanted to be when they grew up, "I want to be a fireman", "a ballerina", and then the voiceover said, "no one says they want to be a junkie when they grow up." Except that I did. I couldn't wait to be a heroin addict. Everybody I admired was a junkie and no one exemplified that more than Keith Richards. He was the one my mom despised. He was the rebel I wanted to be.
"I know I dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom but I don't have much time
Faith has been broken, tears have been cried
Let's do some living before we die"
And when Gun Needle Spoon takes a step backwards in my life's timeline and I'm a child in 1966 Las Vegas, I'm just about to begin my love for music, and the Stones will be one of the few bands that will have withstood my evolving musical tastes. In the beginning when what defined you was whether you were "Beatles or Stones?" I was definitely Stones. My parents listened to the Beatles, so that was kind of a deal breaker. I have been fortunate to see them live. I still own the majority of their catalog, albeit on CD as I no longer have a record player, and I still want to be as cool as Keith Richards.
"Sacrifice" – Flipper
I graduated from art school in 1979 and two things happened: heroin and punk rock. But in 1978 I had hair down to my ass. I wasn't a hippie, I was a "rocker" or maybe a "stoner" or maybe a little bit of both. Only I was pretty disillusioned with rock and roll. It was all BIG bloated bands like Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Steely Dan, or worse, that disco infused crap. So instead I smoked a lot of pot, listened to Jazz and Reggae, and strived to play "fusion bass" a la Stanley Clark. Then one night I went down to a local San Francisco club and saw the band Crime open for another band called The Ramones and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The sheer energy that was missing in my life was right there on stage. Not long after that I cut all my hair off, quit smoking pot, and it was on—I was out at the clubs seeing live music every night.
"Can't you hear the war cry?
It's time to enlist
The people speak as one
The cattle, the crowd
Those too afraid to live
Demand a sacrifice
A band that really caught my attention was Flipper. Their sound was a slower dirge assault of noise and their stage shows felt like the audience and the band were all part of the same inside joke. Years later I would tour with Flipper as their road manager. Bass player/lead singer Will Shatter would become a close friend. His death from a heroin overdose in '87 would be the forbearer for many more friends' deaths to come.
"Hey" – Butthole Surfers
In 1983 I was a roadie for the band Dead Kennedys out of San Francisco. I was at their guitarist East Bay Ray's house for a party. This was back in the days when the band still talked to one another, before the lawsuit, before all the bad blood. Lead singer Jello Biafra was there and he had a stack of EP's. The cover graphics were the repeated bottom half of a naked starving child's bloated stomach, genitals, and spindly legs, which looked revoltingly bizarre, even for punk rock standards. I was intrigued and asked him who they were. "Butthole Surfers," he said as he handed me one, "from Texas, they're insane!" Later that night at home I put the disc on the turntable. The onslaught to my ears was not only intense, but it was like nothing I'd ever heard before. And by the second song "Hey" when lead singer Gibby Haynes monotones, "let's go to hell," I was right there with him, ready to follow.
"Well, I don't know,
and you can't say.
And even if you could,
you wouldn't anyway
Let's go to hell
A few years later I got to know Gibby and guitarist Paul Leary pretty well. They tour with the Kennedys, and when the band plays San Francisco, I roadie for them and score them drugs. That is until Gibby and I have a falling out over money and I never talk to him again.
"Fuck tha Police" – N.W.A.
I'm like a gangster, baby. I'm slinging drugs and toting a 9mm. My pager is going off 24/7 and I'm driving a bad ass El Camino with a metallic blue paint job and chrome rims. Yeah. Put my hands in the air, like I just don't care! Never mind I'm not from Compton. Never mind I ain't no OG gangbanger. Never mind I'm 35 years old and still stuck in a never-ending adolescent dream of drugs and money. Hey I'm punk rock, I'm rap, but I listen to metal, and really I just do a lot of drugs.
"Fuck that shit, cause I ain't the one
for a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun
to be beatin on, and thrown in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
Fuckin with me cause I'm a teenager
with a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics"
There is nothing better to reinforce one's misguided ideas like a really cool song that basically says it's a good idea to "go to toe to toe" with the police. Although in reality I was already there, having long before been diagnosed with "having issues with authority." The ‘80's were all about urban decay. The cities were being abandoned by white flight to the suburbs and an all out war was happening through drug sales and criminal activity. Los Angeles, New York, and yes, even San Francisco were hitting an all time low. It was mayhem in the streets and Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Easy E were literally singing my song.
"King Heroin" – James Brown
I spent the entire ‘80's and the majority of the ‘90's loaded on heroin. When I was on the nod, so high I'd be in that dream state between reality and sleep, I'd have a lit cigarette loosely held in my fingers that inevitably I was going to drop when I passed all the way out, but it didn't matter. In fact nothing mattered. Not the rent, not the lack of necessities, not my health, or wellbeing. And I've got the perfect accompaniment on the stereo. Because yeah, the music I have on makes a difference when I'm high. And tonight it's a classic, "King Heroin." And James Brown is laying it down about the dangers of the "little white grains." Only dude, I know the dangers all too well, so instead it's like some private joke between me and James. Hell, James got busted in Georgia after a high-speed chase and he only stopped because the cops shot out his tires. But when he got out of the vehicle, he did the good foot dance because he was all wasted on PCP. So James, PCP is better than heroin? Really? Brother, please.
"I'm a world of power and all know it's true
Use me once and you'll know it, too
I can make a mere schoolboy forget his books
I can make a world-famous beauty neglect her looks
I can make a good man forsake his wife
Send a greedy man to prison for the rest of his life
I can make a man forsake his country and flag
Make a girl sell her body for a five-dollar bag"
But then some nights I just can't take The Godfather of Soul yammering away over that smooth yet tight-ass rhythm section and instead I have to put on Brown's backup band, the JB's, who do an instrumental version: "Theme From King Heroin" and saxophonist Maceo Parker leads the Collins brothers on bass and guitar, Jabo Starks precision drumming, Bobby Bird on the organ driving down a deep groove that can only really be appreciated by an opiated high.
"Home Is Where The Hatred Is" – Gil Scott-Heron
Drug use is all fun and games, until it isn't. Then it's a torturous gamble of trying to quit while simultaneously desiring the "fun" part that isn't happening any longer. Many addicts are chasing that first high for the rest of their dope-fiend careers and failing miserably. It's like being in an abusive relationship but remembering the first time you had good sex and desperately holding onto that memory while everything else turns to shit.
"A junkie walking through the twilight
I'm on my way home
I left three days ago,
but no one seems to know I'm gone
Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain
and it, might not be such a bad idea
if I never, never went home again"
The final chapters depicting my last days of using dope were an endless nightmare of committing robberies, doing drugs to cope with committing said robberies, and constantly knowing that the police were coming for me – which they of course were, and eventually did. Home life was a decrepit dank and dirty apartment with blackout curtains and bills piling up – an eviction notice arriving at any moment. This was not my beautiful life. But I didn't know how to get out.
"You're No Good" – ESG
I first heard "You're No Good" in 1981 and it has haunted me ever since. Sadly, it was now my internal anthem while I sat in county jail awaiting my fate. Every month I was getting dragged into court for another arraignment, and the continual threat of a 25 to Life prison sentence. Standing in front of the judge, in shackles, waist-chain, handcuffs, and dressed in orange, I needed no more evidence to prove I was no good.
"but you're no good, (you're no good) you're no good, (you're no good) you are no good, (you're no good) you're no good, (you're no good) ooooo"
The reverberated beat of the Scroggins sisters: Deborah's hesitant bass, and Renee's minimalist lyrics playing like a tape loop in my mind as I try and come to some sort of resolution as to who I am now that I am no longer the drug addict bank robber. And if they were to let me out of jail I'd have to do this thing called life, and I have no idea how.
"Nutshell" – Alice In Chains
I was lying on my bunk in a prison cell, headphones on, and listening to the radio and Alice In Chains' "Nutshell" would play and it would speak to me of all the remorse and depression I was feeling. And even though all of it was of my own making, I still felt that some how I'd been singled out to suffer more than anyone else. The dismal existence of incarceration was an intense wake up call. I had narrowly escaped a three-strike sentence, so I at least had a release date, something many of those around me didn't have. But the future still looked very dark.
"My gift of self is raped
My privacy is raked
And yet I find
And yet I find
Repeating in my head
If I can't be my own
I'd feel better dead"
It did not escape me that Alice in Chains' lead singer Layne Staley had his own battles with heroin. In fact it made listening to his haunting vocals that much more satisfying. Yeah, Layne, you were one of us. Sadly his death was not unexpected.
"People Who Died" – The Jim Carroll Band
This song is slightly self-explanatory. Jim Carroll, heroin addict/poet/author of The Basketball Diaries, reminisces on all his friends that have passes away from drugs and hard living. And when I was finally free of heroin, no longer incarcerated and out on parole, I felt totally alone. All of my closest friends were dead and gone. Everyone else I knew was either still using or locked up for the rest of their lives.
"Mary took a dry dive from a hotel room
Bobby hung himself from a cell in the tombs
Judy jumped in front of a subway train
Eddie got slit in the jugular vein
And Eddie, I miss you more than all the others,
And I salute you brother/ this song is for you my brother
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died"
I could literally change these lyrics by simply switching out the names and it would apply to everyone I knew. Punk was already a hard fast life. Add on being a drug addict and the life expectancy was even shorter. But what happens when you survive? Well, I was finding out.
"About Today" – The National
Playing The National is my attempt at a happy ending. In the memoir I leave the courthouse a free man with the possibility of attaining any future that I want. My options are endless and even though I am a convicted felon with a criminal record that will follow me around for the rest of my life, I do not have to live that life any longer.
"Today you were far away
and I didn't ask you why
What could I say I was far away
You just walked away
and I just watched you
What could I say
How close am I to losing you"
Maybe it's because I'm older. Maybe it's because I'm looking at life without the haze of drug addiction filtering reality. But I'm not angry any more. I've finally come to a place of acceptance for my role in all that has transpired, and I'm actually happy for the first time in my life. The writing classes I attended in county jail have afforded me a new creative outlet. I write nonstop for the next ten years, trying to makeup for all that lost time of doing nothing but drugs and crime. I enter grad school and obtain my MFA. I continue writing and the result is Gun Needle Spoon.
Patrick O'Neil and Gun, Needle, Spoon links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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