How Musicians are Responding to the Opioid Crisis

 

MOD BEHRENS

On Friday, April 13th, the Parlor Room was sold out. At 8pm, I was told there might only be standing room as I entered into a mob of people: recognizable locals from the music community, religious leaders, both staff and members of the Northampton Recovery Center, and a swarm of others from all over. Finding a chair, I sat down next to a man who told me he’d driven from a town past Springfield to be there, and another told me he’d come from Albany. All of us were there for the first On Ramp: Songwriters in the Round (An Artist’s Response to the Opioid Crisis), a song and story event organized to open up conversation about the opioid crisis and raise money for the Northampton Recovery Center (NRC), an organization offering peer support to those struggling with addiction.

The house lights dimmed as Brian Foote, director of the Northampton Arts Council, took the stage. With the Arts Council as a driving force, Foote had organized the event alongside singer-songwriter Mikey Sweet, who had pitched the idea to him in a public park with a vision of using their mutual resources to shine a light on and support those both in recovery and looking to find help. [Full Disclosure: The Shoestring has received funding from the Northampton Arts Council.] Foote explained that this would be the first in a series of events, which will take place across the Pioneer Valley from Holyoke to Springfield to Turners Falls. Finishing his introduction, Foote brought Lynn Ferro to the stage, the chief coordinator of the Northampton Recovery Center and former head of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan’s Drug Abuse Task Force.

(It is worth mentioning that Sullivan, acting as DA, doesn’t exactly have clean hands when it comes to the drug war. Last year he also promised police investigation into low amounts of marijuana being sold on Craigslist, once again showing his willingness to immediately invite the police into even small and victimless drug offenses with his Anti-Crime team while using his Drug Abuse Task Force to help people in need and simultaneously promote a more progressive image.)

A number of Recovery Center members were in attendance, as donations had been gathered prior to the event to grant entry to people unable to pay the $30 ticket price. According to Foote, 170 donations were given, allowing tickets for seven people who otherwise would not have been able to attend. Lynn Ferro said a few words about the Center, proudly announcing their upcoming move from downtown Northampton’s Edwards Church to 2 Gleason Plaza (around the corner from Deals & Steals). In Ferro’s hand was a collection of poems written in the Center’s writing groups, one of the “wellness activities” (as Ferro described them to me) offered in the program. She read an anonymous poem called “Behind the Facade”, before José Brown took the stage to read his piece, “A New Life”. Ferro traded the microphone with different members (including John Sullivan, the group’s leader) as they read their own or their peers’ work. She grinned wide as she told us about one author and former member who couldn’t be there to read his poem because he had just gotten a job after completing his recovery training at Westfield State. She also introduced a poem called “Beautiful Blemishes” by Luis Santiago, a man currently serving time at the Hampshire County Jail, which the Recovery Center has partnered with to lend resources to inmates since its formation in 2016.

During the intermission following the reading, I snagged a printed copy of the collection, available alongside various pamphlets about the Center and other local Hampshire/Franklin County recovery resources. They sat on a table next to the small bake sale run by Recovery Center members, who traded cookies for donations. Amidst the crowd scrambling for snacks, I caught Lynn Ferro, who was more than happy to speak with me. She explained that the program is completely funded by donations, although they’re beginning the long process of applying for grants and possible government funding. Ferro told me about the various activities and support groups offered at the Recovery Center, including less structured social time for members to connect with each other. She clarified immediately that it was not a rehabilitation facility but a support program. While in Edwards Church, the Center has only been able to operate for about ten hours a week, but with their own space, Ferro hopes to be more accessible and introduce more resources to the community. She told me about plans for more NA meetings, something difficult to find easily in the area and more difficult to fit around one’s schedule – this will eventually include early morning meetings for parents after dropping their kids off at school as well as evening ones for those who work late. “But you know, we’re starting small,” Ferro said. When I asked if there was any religious affiliation, she shook her head and smiled. “The church was the only place that would give us space for free,” she shrugged.

The crowd moved back into their seats and Brian Foote introduced Mikey Sweet and Peter J. Newland (FAT) as they took the stage, looking like a cowboy and a college professor sitting side by side with their acoustic guitars. Both are in recovery, and over the next hour would delve deep into their histories and stories between songs, repeating many of the words I’d heard in the poetry readings half an hour before. Mikey Sweet became a resident at Cole’s Place (a recovery center for men in Springfield) five days after completing his first international tour – as he said this the crowd clapped, and a few men in the room cheered in appreciation. Soon after he was granted his cellphone back in the facility, he received a call from Newland, who had found his music on YouTube. When Newland offered Sweet a show at the Iron Horse Music Hall, Sweet said he wasn’t allowed out past 10pm, and explained his situation. “And that’s when Peter started opening up to me about his own struggles,” said Sweet.

Both musicians are veterans of the famously ebbing and flowing Northampton music scene. Before Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. came out of the Valley and hit their stride in the eighties and nineties, FAT (started by a group of Holyoke Community College students in 1968 and fronted by Newland) was a big name in Northeastern rock – even in 2017, their 50 year anniversary show in Northampton was sold out. Their first (self-titled) album was released by RCA records, who currently represent artists like Miley Cyrus, Brockhampton, and Cage the Elephant. Together in 1975, FAT founded Dream Merchant Records (the first independent label in the Pioneer Valley) and produced their second record independently, the cover for which can still be spotted on flyers for reunion shows. The three song LP, “Footloose”, is catchy acid rock, blending vocals that sound like a middle ground between a calmed-down Mick Jagger and Jerry Garcia with danceable psychedelic riffs. I appreciated this older rocker’s obvious mentorship of Sweet, whose tunes are more folk than rock. Sweet has played every venue in Western Massachusetts, not to mention throughout the country, even crowdfunding his second album Road Dog Gospel by hitchhiking and busking in-between semi-local gigs. He’s described the album as “Western Massachusetts Appalachian,” his music inspired by Bruce Springsteen and Townes Van Zandt. In 2017 he brought his heartfelt on-the-road Americana to the Valley Advocate Sessions, after gaining a large local following of true folk fans in the years since his first release of “The North King” in 2014 (both albums produced through local Spirithouse Studios in Northampton).

Newland remembers the DEA busting down his door. He remembers the State Police barging in as well. The first song he played was called “Living Like an Outlaw”, a FAT single whose original cover art shows Newland and his bandmates with flowing curly hair holding rifles. Even seated on a little stage with his acoustic instrument, he belted it out solo like he was in a stadium concert in the early seventies. But after he finished singing, his manner softened again as he spoke of the old man in the retirement home by where his band used to live, who had been abandoned as a teenager at the Belchertown State School and moved to the home when the facility closed. He lovingly spoke of his friendship with this man who died in his arms, and the sandwiches he had liked to eat and his love of trains. Newland played a song he wrote after the man’s death, inspired by the life Newland imagined he could have had had he been able to grow up outside institutions and “if people had just left him alone”.

The two spoke highly of each others’ music after each song, complimenting back and forth like a father and son, and joking with each other. Newland compared Sweet’s music to that of Nashville country heroes, to which Sweet replied the only time he’d spent in Nashville was a brief stint in the county jail. It was honest and lighthearted – the stories they told were entertaining and they intended them to be so, even when it involved a trip to jail or a blacked out night. Sweet and Newland spoke genuinely about their rock bottoms and most terrifying moments, offering advice and comfort. But they also laughed about how Sweet used to always lose his boots when he was drunk and dove into Newland’s views on spirituality in recovery and how a path to sobriety didn’t necessarily require a path to a specific God. On stage, behind the two, sat a large banner from the Peace Pagoda in Leverett. Two monks sat across the aisle from me, and Sweet thanked them, telling us he had joined them for a prayer walk earlier that day. Both Newland and Sweet regularly mentioned the members of the Recovery Center and their poetry and the work the Center does. There was a sense of inclusivity between performer and audience, a connection that felt stronger than what you would see at your average show. As Sweet played a song called “Mill River,” I was reminded of how much I love twangy confessionals. “Brick Wall” (the third track of “Road Dog Gospel”) was a particularly catchy personal ballad about a traveler who ends up in the county jail, and Sweet got the crowd clapping along – he told us it was inspired by a woman at his show years ago who had asked Sweet’s wife if he’d fallen off the wagon, but described it as “hitting the brick wall”. “I thought that was funny,” he laughed.

No song began without a five minute story before it, entwining messages of hope with wild adventures and acknowledging the enormous questions that don’t get answered in rehabilitation pamphlets: Will my life have any excitement in it anymore? What if the people I’ve lost don’t come back? How do I cope with my anxieties and depression without the crutch of a substance? The performers gave words to thoughts I didn’t even know I needed validated.

“Depression, anxiety, fear – all these things are universal to the human condition. The whole stigma thing, it’s really easy to be like ‘oh, that’s not me’, but we all find our medications, you know?” Sweet said. He described going from coping with alcohol to abusing opioids after tearing his ACL training for a fight and being given a prescription, although he cited alcohol as his greatest difficulty. “Thank God for songwriting,” he said. “Gave me a little something to try and spill some stuff.” He launched into a song called “Dry Bones”, the second track off Road Dog Gospel, about another run-in with the law. When he asked the audience afterwards who had been affected personally by the opioid crisis, three-quarters of the room raised our hands. It felt less like we were watching two men speak and more like we were all invited into conversation. Sweet described his alcoholism and the cycle of short-term recovery, as well as the feeling of general dependency on anything that can offer escape. People all around me nodded their heads. In all my time attending events and shows in the Pioneer Valley, I’d never seen an audience so diverse yet so equally enthralled.

“What do you do with fear?” Newland asked the crowd. He explained his reflection in terms of astrology: “I’m a Leo, you know?” he said, and the room laughed. “I don’t know about other Leos, but that was a cover for a deep amount of fear. I only know about my own, I don’t know about anybody else’s but I know I wasn’t the only person to feel that. And in some way, that shell cracked and this Peter Newland, lead singer, tough guy thing just kinda fell apart and I was enveloped by my fear.” He paused. “And then I found anger. They live right next to each other.” He described his battle with his own rage, and his inability to recognize his need for help over his pride. He described getting defibrillated after a night of too much cocaine. Newland said by that point he had written his own narrative where he was the tragic hero, the romantic lead, and the desperado all in one. He played an old FAT song that was more rock than anything else played over the course of the night. “I’ve never played it acoustic before,” he admitted, but even without a band behind him, his seventies rock energy came through even in the small and intimate space. “I won’t lie to you and say I didn’t have fun out there,” he admitted afterwards, reflecting on his addiction. I was glad he did. It was what made me trust him.

The last song was a sing-a-long and Mikey Sweet taught us the words: “Enough to carry me, enough to carry me/If I dig down deep, I say ‘Amen’”. I didn’t see a single person who didn’t at least mouth the words. The chairs had emptied bit by bit over the final half hour, but as Sweet and Newland left the stage, those remaining swarmed to meet them. Many wanted to open up and continue the conversation off stage about their own experiences, some just wanted to say thank you. As Arts Council members and various sponsors and organizers stood on the edges packing their bags, the audience and performers drifted together, becoming an unofficial roundtable, not just between us and Sweet or Newland, but with each other. It felt safe, and it felt genuine. It felt like community.

Mikey Sweet and Peter Newland are both residents of Western Massachusetts.

You can find Mikey’s music on his bandcamp or at mikeysweet.com – he is also on Facebook as Mikey Sweet Music // Peter Newland’s band can be found on Facebook as FAT or on their website. More information about the Northampton Recovery Center can be found on their website.

 


Mod Behrens, whose last piece for The Shoestring was “Changing How We Report the Heroin Epidemic,” dropped out of college to write about music and social inequity. A former DIY booker, current roadkill chef and self-proclaimed astrological expert, he lives in Northampton and tweets at @walmartromeo.

Illustration by Anya Klepacki

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