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X & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Heroin is making a big comeback among the young and senseless

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I remember when a case of beer would keep a houseful of people happy,” laments Mudhoney bassist Matt Lukin, who turned Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain on to punk rock in Aberdeen, Wash., way back in the early ’80s. But those innocent days are over. Both mosh rockers and post-Brat Pack actors have caught a scary new buzz: heroin. Since 1987, Grateful Dead keyboardist Brent Mydland, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak, former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, and Will Shatter of Flipper (one of Nirvana’s main influences) have all died narcotic-related deaths. Two weeks ago, Wiseguy TV star Ray Sharkey, who has a long history of drug use, was busted for possessing coke and heroin on location in Vancouver, Canada.

Last week the story broke that Nirvana’s Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, lead singer of the female grunge group Hole, were both stoned on heroin during Nirvana’s Saturday Night Live appearance last January, and that Love continued using smack during the first few months of her pregnancy.

Not restricted to show business, the drift to heroin is part of a nationwide post-crack trend. Between 1990 and 1991, the most recent figures available, heroin-related emergency-room visits increased by 82 percent in New York, 95 percent in Detroit, and 177 percent in Baltimore. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, global opium production has increased by one third since 1988, and the average purity of street heroin is up from 10 to 50 percent in some cities.

There’s a parallel growth in the press obsession with stars’ drug habits: The latest blood sport in the media is consigning celebrities to the junkie heap. Gossips say that a Hollywood romantic pairing was actually a publicity stunt to cover up a young star’s rehab trip abroad. Details magazine demanded that Keanu Reeves confirm or deny rumors of his ”Just Say Yes” behavior while researching his role as a hustler/druggie in My Own Private Idaho; Reeves said no.

”There is every indication that heroin is back,” says Charles Diamond, director of Rock Medicine, San Francisco’s health care unit for concerts. And Diamond predicts that with heroin, like AIDS, ”a lot of well-known artists will be dying.”

The opiate invasion can be observed in microcosm in Seattle, alternative rock’s hot spot and the fastest-growing capital for heroin overdoses in America. Late last month the federal government gave the town $800,000 in emergency funds to fight a 225 percent increase in heroin-related emergency-room visits. ”People used to come to Seattle’s boho community to dry out and drink wheat grass,” says arts maven Susan Purves, ”but starting in the mid-’80s, heroin became extremely cool here. Heroin is the crack of the ’90s.”

The first sign of a smack comeback, says Purves, was ”a line of ridiculous teenagers heaving away in the bushes” at a 1986 concert by Nick Cave’s bandmate Blixe Bargeld. Later signs were more tragic. In 1990 Andrew Wood, the leader of Seattle’s now-defunct Mother Love Bone, died of an overdose, followed this summer by Seven Year Bitch’s Stefanie Sargent (Entertainment Weekly, 128). ”She wasn’t a junkie,” says C/Z Records’ Barbara Dollarhide. ”You can just screw up once and it’s eternity.”

Wood’s friends were galvanized by grief: His bandmates formed Pearl Jam and with members of Seattle’s Soundgarden recorded a CD tribute to Wood, Temple of the Dog. ”I was completely inspired by the way the music scene pulled together after Andy’s death,” says filmmaker Cameron Crowe, who captures the Seattle ambience in his upcoming movie, Singles. Wood’s haunting song about his habit, ”Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns,” appears on the Singles soundtrack and in Crowe’s 1990 film, Say Anything.

But when local record executive Daniel House says, ”Every year or two somebody I know dies from heroin,” he isn’t impugning Seattle alone. ”I don’t think it’s any more prevalent in the Pacific Northwest than anywhere else,” says one prominent West Coast outlaw rock star who recently lived in Seattle. ”When I came back to L.A. there were a lot of people using here who weren’t when I left 11 months ago. Everywhere I go, it’s there.”

Jello Biafra, a veteran of the San Francisco group the Dead Kennedys who now owns an alternative record company on the West Coast, sees the heroin trend spreading among friends on both coasts. ”And the most painful thing about being involved in music,” he says, ”is watching my friends die. I don’t get along well with people who reek and stink of death and disease and failure.”

Maybe all this means that the next big trend will be heroin recovery. People will look for inspiration in the examples of Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis, musicians who have slam-danced with dope and wriggled free of the pit. Another, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, says, ”I was told that I had to do heroin if I wanted to be great. I spent $500 a day for five years on freebasing heroin. If I hadn’t screwed up like that, I’d be on easy street now.” Mustaine kicked his habit more than two years ago, and sobriety is a high he highly recommends: ”The party’s not over. The party’s just starting.”