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Heroin Deaths Fuel Music Industry's Soul-Searching

Recording: Executives rethink skepticism about anti-drug drive, wonder if rock should be tamed.


With the life of yet another promising young musician cut short by heroin, the record industry is facing increasing heat from within its ranks to take the drugs out of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

The latest victim is Jonathan Melvoin, a keyboardist on tour with the acclaimed group the Smashing Pumpkins, who died Friday of a heroin overdose in a New York hotel. His father, Michael, a jazz musician, is the former head of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

Although Jonathan Melvoin is not the most famous of those in the rock stratosphere to have succumbed to heroin, his death has intensified the debate over whether the record industry has been quiet too long.

"It's a tragedy what happened to Jonathan," said Michael Greene, current president of the academy, who is spearheading a month-old anti-drug campaign in the industry. "But the bigger tragedy will be if we don't use this as more fuel to stoke the passion of the effort. His death will truly be in vain if we don't get even more hard-nosed about this situation."

Though many record company presidents had voiced skepticism about the fledgling effort, they said they have been shocked into rethinking their views in the tragic aftermath of Melvoin's death and a string of other recent heroin casualties.

The question is: Can--or should--rock be tamed?

"I believe in drug use," said the head of one major record label who requested anonymity. "It's part of growing up and the creative process. It's not for me as an individual to interfere with what people are doing with their destiny."

Although that view is extreme, it illustrates the degree to which the industry is at odds with itself and the obstacles ahead for those behind the effort to combat heroin use among young musicians.

Rock 'n' roll is steeped in rebellion, but each new drug-related incident offers a sobering reminder that the lifestyle has also produced a sordid tradition of addiction and death that is ingrained in the music.

The roll call of acknowledged heroin abusers in rock includes such illustrious names and influential figures as John Lennon, Keith Richards, Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Eric Clapton.

It's a veritable junkie hall of fame that has inducted a new generation in the '90s, including Nirvana's Kurt Cobain--widely hailed as the John Lennon of his generation before his 1994 suicide ended a lengthy battle with heroin--and Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon, who also struggled with heroin before dying of a cocaine overdose last fall.

Others who have publicly admitted heroin use in recent years include key figures from some of the most celebrated bands in pop music: Courtney Love, Cobain's widow and leader of the band Hole; Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots; Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Layne Staley of Alice In Chains, and David Gahan of Depeche Mode.

Bob Timmins knows the seduction of heroin.

A former junkie and gang member who turned to armed robbery to support his feverish addiction, he spent six years in prison in the late '60s and early '70s before turning his life around and eventually working as a drug counselor to members of rock bands Aerosmith, Stone Temple Pilots and Depeche Mode, among others.

"At some point [during their addiction], artists tell me that they lose their edge and their creativity and their passion for what they were passionate about doing, but that's never at the beginning," Timmins said. "That's part of the seduction of heroin--it never happens at the front end. But at some point it robs them of their dreams. Sooner or later it will take everything from you."

Heroin abuse, of course, is not limited to the rock world. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that as many as 1 million Americans are heroin addicts and that another 3 million are users. Data from police, ethnographers and treatment providers suggest a recent surge in heroin abuse.

Highly addictive, heroin is a powerful drug with a relaxing, euphoric high that can last as long as six hours. Over time, however, the body's increasing tolerance of the drug requires greater and more frequent doses just to achieve a lesser high. Eventually, addicts keep using the drug simply to stave off the flu-like symptoms and despair of withdrawal.

Much of the rise in use comes from the increased purity of powder heroin (from 4% in 1980 to 40% in 1995), allowing users to snort or smoke it, thereby eliminating the stigma of "shooting up." Many, however, graduate to the needle, the most efficient and cost-effective method of ingesting the drug.

"All the signs are there that you have a new generation using it the way others did cocaine in the '80s," said Ginna Marston, an executive vice president of Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "It's got this glamorous image from the culture, and there's very low awareness of the risks among the younger part of the population.

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