'The Harder They Fall': Fame and Addiction
In The Harder They Fall, a new collection of stories of addiction and recovery, writers Gary Stromberg and Jane Merrill take readers through the spinning, drug-induced decades of the '60s and '70s.
Musician Grace Slick, comedian Richard Pryor and poet Franz Wright are among the many celebrities who share their personal accounts of fame, fortune and the sudden ruin of addiction. NPR's Jackie Lyden talks with Stromberg about the book.
Excerpt from 'The Harder They Fall'
Note: The following excerpt contains adult content.
Chuck Negron was the long-haired, mustached lead singer on the Three Dog Night superhits "Joy to the World," "Old Fashioned Love Song," "Easy to Be Hard," "Pieces of April," and many others. His band had twenty-one consecutive Billboard Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1975. The song "Joy to the World" alone sold 12 million copies. In 1972, Rolling Stone magazine's cover story called Three Dog Night "the top of the rock & roll heap," with "more gold," bigger crowds," and " fatter purses" than any other rock band. Other people may have dreamed about a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll; Chuck Negron lived it.
Chuck was a multimillionaire by age thirty—talented, rich, and famous. A few years later, he was living in a corrugated cardboard box on Fifth Street on L.A.'s raunchy skid row. I thought I was the king of reckless drug use who could handle more drugs than anybody. Then Chuck became my client.
Handling public relations for Three Dog Night was a dream gig. I was getting paid big money to hang with one of the hottest groups in the world. Almost every kid in America had a TDN record, and almost every publication wanted to tell the group's story. TDN was the first rock-and-roll band in America to play large stadiums, with the exception of The Beatles, who had appeared at Shea Stadium in New York and Candlestick Park in San Francisco on their U.S. tour in 1966. Promoters had been afraid that a rock-and-roll act wouldn't fill the seats. TDN's management promised that if a promoter took a loss, the band would make up for it with another concert.
During the summer of 1970, a series of twenty-two summer concerts were booked at outdoor stadiums across the country, where TDN performed in front of audiences numbering in the tens of thousands each night. The massive undertaking included large video screens behind the stage that projected images of the band members as they performed. This technology, new at the time, is still prevalent at large rock concerts. Deals were negotiated whereby the promoter had to pay for limousines, food, and other perks. This too was a new concept, and it blazed the trail for other rock acts.
At home and off the road, the members of TDN needed a place to feel like regular people. So to relax, Chuck hung out at the infamous Rainbow Bar & Grill on the famed Sunset Strip. The Rainbow was built to accommodate people like us. I was one of the original owners. There was a sense of a new rock community brewing. Musicians could feel isolated and separate in the outside world, but here they hung out with other rock stars. It wasn't about the food, which was mediocre at best. The booze poured freely. The sweet odor of marijuana filled the air, and cocaine was snorted at semiprivate booths. People got high and weren't bothered. The waitresses wore jeans and funky tops. Wall Street guys, movie moguls, and bankers had their special restaurants -- this was our place.
The six-block-long Sunset Strip is located in West Hollywood, a separate incorporated city within Los Angeles. It has its own sheriff 's department. In the old days, unlike the Los Angeles police force, which was known to be among the strongest in the nation -- a no-nonsense, incorruptible, hit-first-ask-questions-later outfit -- the West Hollywood sheriff 's department at that time was a more "reasonable" group. Thanks to good relationships, no one would complain of fights or if the sex and drugs got out of hand. We could pour after hours and indulge in our pleasures.
The place was homey, paneled in dark wood with lots of big, leafy plants and large, stained-glass windows. Rock music pulsed throughout. Upstairs was Over the Rainbow, a private club where we continued the party after hours. An office the size of a phone booth had holes drilled in a wall separating it from the ladies' room. A piranha swam in a large tank over the bar. We fed it 250 goldfish a month. You could flip them into the water from your seat at the bar.
Just about every touring rock star came to the Rainbow. If the Rolling Stones, Elton John, or The Who were in L.A., they would go to the Rainbow. It was also the haunt for hip stars like Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper. They could be themselves, undisturbed by the "squares" or reporters. The Rainbow's character combined sophistication with silliness. And it gave us seven owners great cachet. I could get you a table at the Rainbow or entertain you at my table. I eventually got tired of the business—being called by everyone I knew with requests for tables or other considerations— so I sold my interest .The scene has changed, but the Rainbow is presumably still a gold mine. This was one of the places where I often saw Chuck. As TDN's PR guy, I sometimes traveled on their private jet as they went from city and arena to city and arena and gave concerts to audiences of phenomenal and unprecedented size. The tours were completely hedonistic. One of their managers would hire groupies, contracted as one-day flight stewardesses, for the entertainment of the stars and their entourage. Chuck and I also shared drug dealers and sometimes saw each other at various dens of iniquity and party palaces.
A year or so after I got sober, I started seeing Chuck on the edges of recovery, making halfhearted tries in what seemed like a record number of rehabs until he got a grasp on his life. We decided on the Rainbow for a meeting place, and based on our conversations, here are some of Chuck's reflections and memories.
Unlike The Doors and the Rolling Stones, who had bad-boy images, Three Dog Night was perceived as All-American boys. It was ironic because we messed with every drug known to mankind.
I started singing in the fifties when rock and roll started. I made my first record in 1958 and then made another in 1959 with a group I formed called The Rondells, and it got some airplay in L.A. and New York. We got to play the Apollo, which was a big deal back then.
My life was beginning to work itself out. I got an athletic scholarship in 1961, and at this time, I still didn't drink or use. I went to college on a basketball scholarship. It was one of the best times of my life. I made records my first, second, and third year in college. Columbia Records then signed me, and one thing led to another, and I ended up leaving college to give this music thing a shot. The record company wanted me to be involved in the L.A. scene, so they took me to premieres and things. One of their producers took me to a party, and I walked in, and it was like being in another world. I had short hair and was very well groomed -- I'm sure all these people thought I was a narc. They were all hippies -- beautiful young people -- women, guys. It was wonderful. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were playing. There were all sorts of drugs around, which I noticed, but it wasn't my thing.
It was such an exciting, glamorous setting that when the drugs came around -- stuff I'd turned down for years 'cause it was not like me, I was a world-class athlete and so forth, the kids in the neighborhood in New York City did it -- I didn't want any part of it.
The interesting thing was I had been talking about the stuff I had heard my friends talk about. They were doing Romilar cough syrup, so I boasted it was really a good high, although I never did it. Even if my friends had asked me, I'd think, "Why would I do that? I don't have a cold." It wasn't actually the Romilar cough syrup that they sold over-the-counter. It was a behind-the-counter pharmaceutical they had to special order.
I made a decision in a heartbeat that I was going to do something with total naiveté, with no sense that this could be a problem, because these new people were so cool and they seemed to know what was going on. I was at a table upstairs in the Rainbow one night, and two tall, gorgeous girls were selling Quaaludes and I bought them all. They invited me to a party in the Hollywood Hills. So I got loaded. I started fooling around, and a girl came over and kissed me and dropped something in my mouth, and it ended up being a combination of peyote and LSD. Apparently I was standing near a glass-topped table in the living room, and passed out, and fell face-first onto the table, because the next morning I woke up with my face ripped up and blood all over the couch. I became the guest from hell, and I was on my way.
From that time on, I got high just about every day, unless I was sleeping or arrested. Boom! I was just an accident waiting to happen. I started with Romilar and had done most of the other stuff, but heroin became my love. It had been offered to me countless times and I had refused, but one time I said yes. I loved it! I'd never felt anything comparable to that first heroin rush. All the emptiness and fear inside vanished. Everything seemed fine. Even throwing up felt good. Soon I was devoting my life to heroin. I stayed faithful to it for ten years, seven months, and two weeks. I didn't care about anything or anybody. I just wanted my dope.
Soon we were touring, and life was unbelievable. I remember that sex at this time was wild, and so were the women. Our first real orgy came on tour in Tulsa in 1969.B. J.Thomas was in the Top 10 with his song "Hooked on a Feeling." He was our opening act. After the concert, we went to a club filled with guys with crew cuts and cowboy hats. We got drunk and were carrying on. Eventually B. J. Thomas, guys from Vanilla Fudge, and Three Dog Night got up on stage to jam with the house band. The girls were staring at us, and those country guys were mad as hell to have us take over their territory. The evening progressed to our wing at the Holiday Inn. There was sex going on in the hallway, in the bathtubs, and on the floor, everybody switching partners. It was gruesome and unreal. It was rock and roll!
I started out as a shy kid. Now I'd have sex several times a day with different women. It seemed like every time I looked around, they were there. I even worked out a system to handle the overflow. I would book a suite with a couple of bedrooms. I'd have sex with a girl in one bedroom, then another. By the time I finished with her, a third one would be waiting in the first bedroom. Sex became a meaningless game, but it was all incredible fun.
Often I'd leave the stage after our encore while the audience was still chanting our names. Shortly I'd be back in the hotel with nothing but dead silence. It was spooky. Sometimes I promised myself I wouldn't go out and party. I'd stay in the room, eat, maybe watch a little TV, and go to sleep by myself. Soon I'd hear women in the hallway, and I'd inevitably check it out—more good-looking girls who'd pour into my hotel room, take off their clothes, and be ready to party.
I see my addiction as a forest fire that burned through everything in its path and left only charred remains. That's a curious thing about addiction and the consequences. Some people get to walk away; they're just not predisposed. Most of the people who were in our group were using drugs, although several moved on and didn't have a problem. But it just filled me up with a wonderful feeling of warmth that I knew I was going to do this. This was having a youth, a childhood that I never had. As a child, I spent time in an orphanage and it was tough. That drugs filled me up and was wonderful was an experience that little by little consumed more of my day and my time. And the next thing you know, by a casual progression, that was all our focus for the day: getting high, going to a party, getting high, going to a party, getting high, getting high . . .
I always loved the chance to perform and create music, from the very first, when we—Danny Hutton, Cory Wells, and I—got together. We were really very lucky young guys. We kind of tweaked the interest of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, and he wanted to make us the first act that he produced on Brother Records, and we go in, and he writes two songs for us. Brian brings in the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra. Huge tracks, and he's going to make it happen. And we'll be on our way. Unfortunately, the other brothers were feeling Brian was moving away from them. Doing his projects. It put in a lot of fear, and they really kind of bullied him into coming back to the fold and doing their thing. So it didn't work out.
We moved on, and about a year later, we had put our own band together. And all this time Danny and I are hanging, doing drugs recreationally. It was basically downers and some psychedelics and pot. I had found two trees in my yard. They were about six feet tall and had already fallen over. There was a female and a male plant of marijuana. I gave it away as Christmas presents. I gave kilos of marijuana away to about twenty people—that's how much this female tree produced. I smoked pot until I couldn't smoke any more pot, because I was getting paranoid. I was standing in the line of a movie theater once, and the next thing I know I was in the front, and the ticket seller said, "Can I help you?" and I said to her, "Whaat, whaat?" It had been so long I walked away, and the girl I was with said, "Why did you wait in line so long if you weren't going to the movie?" and I said, "I don't know, bad vibes or something." So I gave all my pot away because I realized it wasn't making me into who I wanted to be.
So anyway, I now have this manager, and he wants me to be a movie actor. He wants me to change my name to Charles Overon, so I'd have a Latin name. I tried to tell him Negron is Latin. So Danny, Cory, and I go to my manager. He wants the band. He puts a ton of money into us, and we get ourselves a record deal with ABC Dunhill, whose big act is Steppenwolf. They are also managed by my manager. So we became Three Dog Night, and recorded our first album, and went out on the road. From our very first show until the end in around 1975,we never did a show that wasn't frantic, standing ovations, and drove the audience nuts. There was something wonderful about the seven of us that captured the hearts and souls of young America. We turned 'em loose. I remember how once in Japan the promoter told us, "The audience will love you, but you won't feel it like in America, because they are very polite." We took it as a challenge, and we got them crazy, and they were frantic. There was something momentous about being able to excite people in that way with our music. It was something I had never experienced. I was a shy guy, a New Yorker whose concept of "cool" was very laid back, very subtle, so it was foreign for me to be the way I was on stage.
The drug element was always there, but when we went on stage, we were pretty together because the drugs hadn't consumed my life yet. Then, all of a sudden, we crossed this line where cocaine took over. I broke my nose in Germany. I hit a glass extension in the dressing room and shattered my nose. You could actually see my sinuses. It was very bad. So anyway, cocaine was introduced to us, lots of cocaine. Everyone in the band used cocaine except Cory. Cory was a different kind of guy. He had a family: two daughters. We were all bachelors. So I exclude Cory when it comes to drug talk, because he really didn't participate.
So we were out there, getting a reputation of "don't follow this band." We go to the Miami Pop Festival and the Denver Pop Festival. Jim Hendrix headlining. Joe Cocker. Everyone who was anyone was there. All of a sudden we're getting bumped to go on later and later, and we found out that the other acts didn't want to go on after us. Of course Hendrix didn't care! Then we had our first hit record, "One," and it all started to change.
Money came into the picture. Mercedes-Benzes and big homes. The other guys had these things long before I did. I was busy working in the studio, and I still played basketball with my buddies. I had a full life. So one day our photographer showed up in a Mercedes to take some group pictures. He bought it with all the money he was making off of us. He said, "You ought to drive this, Chuck." And I did and said, "Oh, man." I was still driving a Volkswagen. So anyway, I went and bought three Mercedes.
The reason I bought three was that the salesman was rude to me. I found out years later from the same guy that "The reason I didn't help you was because you pulled up in an old beat-up Volkswagen, and you parked in the bus stop. You were in a bus stop, Chuck, and you got out of your car wearing cutoffs and a tank top, and you looked like you couldn't see. I wasn't being rude to you; I was afraid of you!" So I showed them; I bought three!
The drugs hadn't really hurt me yet except in my relationships. After seeing each other for a while, Paula and I got married in 1970 and had a baby, but she just couldn't take it anymore. On our honeymoon, I was stoned and fell asleep. Paula spent her honeymoon abandoned in a Palm Springs hotel suite. When I woke up, I got high and cheated on her. Then she thought I was going to kill myself or hurt the baby. And I'm totally oblivious to this. She ended up having an affair with one of our road managers, and she leaves me.
My next wife, Julia, and I started our marriage with a heroin honeymoon in 1976.We turned into recluses and had all our food delivered from Greenblatt's Delicatessen on Sunset Boulevard. Our day consisted of scoring heroin from dealers, going to the bank for more cash, and snorting until
it knocked us out. It took me years to understand that if you're going to be with someone, it's give-and-take, a two-way street. I was being a young rock star and not being faithful. That marriage ended. Secretly I was scared. I felt alone and beyond help.
Drugs led to all kinds of problems. Some dealers once shot through the walls of my house in Los Angeles when I was inside. They wanted me to pay my drug debts. I remember terrible fights -- one with Janis Joplin where I called her an ugly slut. She was a nice, sweet person and was one of many musicians I knew who died defeated, tortured deaths.
I don't know why I stayed alive. I used dirty needles. Four people were beaten to death with baseball bats at an upscale heroin shooting gallery in Laurel Canyon. Centering on porn-film legend John Holmes it became known as the Wonderland Murders. The carnage happened in the very place I was spending most of my evenings at the time -- except that murderous one. Once I almost drove my whole family into the canyon as we headed down Mulholland Drive in our little red Volkswagen. I had popped some downers before we left home and blacked out. At the last minute, Julia slammed on the brakes. I almost bled to death after demolishing my car on a Sunset Boulevard streetlamp. I cracked my head open, collapsed a lung, and mangled my body. The firefighters had to cut me out from that automobile.
With musicians I knew toppling like ten pins, death was very close up, and I thought about suicide and attempted it as well. Once I hung myself with a belt in the closet of a shabby motel room, only a rusty overhead pipe collapsed and saved me. Another time I walked directly in front of a moving bus on purpose. Compared to facing my probation officer with another dirty drug test, it seemed like a good alternative. I overdosed routinely. Other druggies had to beat me back to life after one overdose, subsequent to which my body was black-and-blue from the neck down.
One time I remember I went to see my business manager, who had connections with some doctors. When I walked in, I didn't even realize it, but I weighed 142 pounds -- and I'm well over six feet tall. He took me directly to this therapist, this high-end guy in Beverly Hills, who said, "Hey, we're putting him in the hospital, a lockdown nut ward." I was falling apart! The wear and tear of the drugs and the emotional give-and-take was getting to me. I was feeling all the feelings, but I wasn't caring. Kind of a drug-induced depression. I felt my feelings but my response was "I don't give a s***."
When I started seeing the people that were in the hospital with me, that really had problems -- young people my age, old people who had real mental problems -- I had a moment of clarity and said, "This isn't the way to live, Chuck. Straighten yourself out." My father came to pick me up and said, "I want you to live with me," which I did. Paula had taken all the cars, so I went and bought another Mercedes.
Now I started going out every night. I really wasn't a club guy, but I became one. The Rainbow, the Roxy -- I became one of those guys. I found that I drank more than normal guys, so I was drunk every night. I started getting arrested. The police were actually quite nice to me. I became the town drunk, but the town was Los Angeles! They'd see me pull out of the Rainbow and they'd have a cop right there. The cop would say, "Chuck" -- he'd know my name -- "don't turn left, go right." And I'd turn left, and they'd take me in.
Eventually I lost everything and ended up living in a cardboard box near skid row in L.A., shunned and a goner. When I was forty-nine, I was cornered by circumstance. I needed a way to be sprung from jail, and all the rehabs refused me. My only option was another detox. Dr. Michael Myers, who had detoxed me many times, devised a new plan. "Forget detoxing," he said. He said I needed long-term care, and he got me into a last-chance drug rehab facility called Cri-Help in North Hollywood. I didn't believe I could quit. The desire to die and end it ate away at my soul.
I needed a supportive friend and found one in Mike Finnigan, who had been a professional musician his entire life, having done studio work with Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart, and many others. He toured with Crosby, Stills & Nash for twenty years. A recovering alcoholic himself, Mike came to visit me often at Cri-Help. I told him I couldn't take my life anymore and asked him what I should do.
His advice was simple: "Chuck, I've never seen anyone but God help a junkie like you. Maybe you should try prayer."
A few days after he said that, I got down on my knees in my room. What I prayed was for God to either let me die or to give me one minute of peace from the obsession and sickness that was tearing me apart body and soul. That's when the agony broke inside me. I was able to get a good night's sleep for the first time after weeks of sheer misery, and when I woke up, I knew I had been given a gift. I had a chance, some window had opened, because I felt willing to go through that day before me. I surrendered my soul. I remember the clear thought I had: "If I am so willing to die, why not be willing to live?"
Once I surrendered, I was so drained I couldn't lift myself off the bed. Yet I felt free from all the fear, anger, and rage that had beset me. I saw that the demons chasing me were nothing compared to the heroin hell I had chosen for more than twenty years. I went from feeling weak, desperate, and dying to saved. That's the only way I can explain the beginning of what was for me a miracle. I got a fresh start on life. It was an epiphany, and it was set in motion by the act of prayer.
I try to help others overcome their habits today. After receiving the gift of sobriety, I want to share it with others. I wanted to share it with Mark, who had lived with me in an abandoned building. I helped get him cleaned up and found him a billeting at a recovery center in L.A. He lasted five months before he went back to jail on a heroin possession charge. I know that even a few years clean and sober at the end would be better than a diehard junkie could imagine. It can be that way for Mark and others like him. I think of Mark as me. I cannot give up on any addict, because I know you can make it if you are willing to go the distance. It may sound simpleminded,
but if you are willing to change everything, everything changes. That reality has penetrated my soul.
Now I spend much of my time working with recovery programs. I also perform at ten benefits a year to raise money for recovery and sober-living houses. Sometimes a rock-and-roll manager offers to pay me to go out on the road and watch over a druggie singer. Most of the time I try to help but don't want to be paid. Helping others who suffer from this terrible disease is my favorite work. I'm not a Holy Roller or selling anything. I'm on a spiritual quest to be the best person I can be, knowing that peace in this life will come to me as I strive towards that goal.
As someone who had a lifetime of abuse, I can only see my success with my struggle today as a long, long process. Considering how long I used drugs, you could say I am a recovery baby. I've taken ugly shortcuts and wrong paths so much in my life that it's a fight to keep the proper focus. I still need treatment on a daily basis.
To be in recovery is to participate in a living miracle. Rarely does anyone address the fact that addicts really pay the consequences of their actions. We are often dismissed for having made a choice to do something bad. And we are not asking you to forget what we did or for a break. We change our whole lives -- from top to bottom -- more than most people do or even consider. I think addicts are taking more abuse than anyone could wreak on them for their mistakes -- I'm thinking of people who claim that alcoholics get off easy in the moral dilemma by crying, "Mea culpa." I would like to silence these people and get them to see the facts, because the alcoholic or drug addict does pay a huge price.
Excerpted from The Harder They Fall, by Gary Stromberg and Jane Merrill, 2005. Used by permission of Hazelden.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.