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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.


"All of pop culture in the '90s has really contributed to sending a message to kids that heroin is cool and glamorous."

The images have become so pervasive that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America has launched a counterattack: a widespread print and television campaign that the agency describes as the largest ever to target heroin.

When heroin replaced cocaine as the drug of choice for many young rockers in the 1990s, the industry continued to look the other way, despite widespread evidence that an epidemic was loose among alternative and hard rock bands. But that stopped the day Cobain's body was found in the guest quarters of his Seattle home. A genuine outpouring of grief followed--not only among his fans, but also in the industry, which viewed him as a remarkably sensitive and gifted talent.

Executives and managers began to privately question their responsibilities toward the artists, but they were faced with a dilemma: Should they step in and force the issue, possibly alienating the artist and maybe endangering millions of dollars in potential profits?

Still, nothing concrete happened until 18 months later, when Hoon's body was found on Blind Melon's tour bus in New Orleans. The academy's Greene stepped forward and began lobbying record companies to organize a concerted effort that would provide avenues for combating drug abuse at all levels of the industry.

An initial industrywide meeting was held in December 1995. Four months later, a greater sense of urgency was added when the Stone Temple Pilots announced that they were canceling their planned tour--and a potential $200,000-a-night gross--to allow lead singer Scott Weiland to seek treatment for the drug problems that surfaced publicly when he was arrested in May 1995 on suspicion of heroin and cocaine possession.

In May of this year, Bradley Nowell, the creative force behind Sublime--a promising Long Beach punk-ska band--was found dead in a San Francisco motel room. Three days later, Depeche Mode's Gahan was arrested in West Hollywood on suspicion of drug possession after an overdose of cocaine and heroin.

Greene called another industrywide meeting last month, which led to five record companies--Capitol, MCA, Virgin, Atlantic and Revolution--publicly endorsing the drug treatment campaign, which includes hotlines and intervention and treatment programs.

But several major labels have not yet come on board. Some executives have questioned the approach of the campaign, even accusing Greene of grandstanding in an effort to silence congressional and other critics who have taken the industry to task over violent and misogynistic song lyrics. Others simply expressed the desire to handle company drug problems internally.

With the problems escalating, however, other label heads said Friday that they are rethinking their reluctance to sign on.

"I really do want to pledge my support and attend these meetings," said Warner Bros. Records President Steven Baker, who has so far not participated in the industry program. "I'm anxious to hear what they have to say and help people who are willing to be helped."

For Chris Jones, who worked closely with Hoon as manager of Blind Melon, the latest incidents serve as a poignant reminder of heroin's deadly grip.

"They put an exclamation point on what we've been talking about," Jones said last month after the recording academy launched its intervention program. "Unfortunately, we're going to lose more people."

His words proved prophetic Friday in New York. Melvoin, touring with the Smashing Pumpkins, was found dead in his hotel room. The Pumpkins' drummer, Jimmy Chamberlain, who police said was with Melvoin, was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor drug possession.

Still, heroin remains a powerful force.

"The fact of the matter is, in rock 'n' roll circles, it's almost like a noble thing," said Mike Coulter, a recovering addict and leader of the alternative rock band Lifter.

But Greene and the recording academy are hoping to change that thinking.

"It's not always about the bottom line," said Stone Temple Pilots manager Steve Stewart, who was widely praised in the industry when he recommended that the band cancel its tour. "A lot of record companies will tell you about quarterlies and profits, but at the end of the day, this is about careers. It's about caring about someone's life."

Times staff writer Claudia Puig and freelance writer Steve Hochman contributed to this story.

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