June 7, 2012

Natural High: The new (sober) concert culture

A movement is under way to make live music events safe places to rock.

By Dylan Barmmerer

Sex. Drugs. Rock ‘n’ roll.

Anyone who has ever loved music knows all too well that alcohol and drugs are as much a part of the music culture as road trips, guitar solos and groupies.

Of course, serious struggles with alcohol and drug abuse aren’t limited to the musicians themselves. The spirit of music, especially rock music, is rooted ferociously in rebellion. And, almost inevitably, rebellion in America means either experimental or excessive drug and alcohol use.

Although different genres, bands and venues all attract different kinds of crowds, it’s pretty much a given that if you attend a concert, especially a rock, hard rock or heavy metal show, a good number of people will be dancing, singing, screaming, stumbling and shaking in some form of a chemically altered state.

But living and loving music doesn’t have to mean abuse or addiction. In fact, if you’re playing or listening to music in an entirely sober state, you’re creating, experiencing and appreciating a complex, multilayered and beautiful art form at a much more meaningful level.

Guitarist and singer-songwriter Eric Clapton has beaten back heroin and alcohol addictions over the course of his legendary career and even owns and operates an exclusive rehab clinic on the island of Antiqua called Crossroads.

In a 1998 interview with 60 Minutes, Clapton said the belief that musicians write, record and play better when in an altered state is “an absolute farce,” calling it “a fantastic defense mechanism, which I think artists use to cover the fact that they’re not too sure of how good they are.”

Those who are overindulging as concert spectators may be doing so for a variety of other reasons. But logic alone would dictate that if you have more of your senses about you, you can better enjoy the atmosphere, music and spectacle inherent at a live show. And if you decide to attend a concert in an entirely sober state, rest assured, you won’t be alone.

On a larger and more organized level, groups such as the Wharf Rats have proved that there is in fact strength in sober concert-going numbers—even at places such as Grateful Dead and Phish shows.

According to their website, the Wharf Rats “are a group of concert-goers who have chosen to live drug and alcohol free. Our primary purpose at the shows is to make ourselves available to anyone who feels we may have something they want. We offer support, strength, fellowship and hope. … We are a group of friends sharing a common bond, providing support, information and some traction in an otherwise slippery environment.”

The Wharf Rats’ Southern California area coordinator, a gracious man who answers to the name of Chef Larry, says that the Wharf Rats “were the first group of sober concertgoers.” Larry, who attends more than 100 live music shows a year, says the group started when singer-song-writer

Don Bryant and some others decided to use a yellow balloon to mark a “sober gathering place” at Grateful Dead shows in the 1980s.

According to Larry, the group took its name from a Grateful Dead song by the same name, in which a character named August West chooses alcohol over many other things in his life and watches his problems mount as a result. Eventually, the Wharf Rats made contact with the Grateful Dead and were formally welcomed to the shows.

Larry made it clear that the Wharf Rats are “not affiliated with AA, NA, the Grateful Dead or any other Twelve Step groups.” But he said they do “follow Twelve Step traditions” including “holding Twelve Step-style meetings at set breaks.”

In the more than 20 years since the Wharf Rats first launched their sober ship, they have branched out to include an array of other groups dedicated to providing a safe space at other shows. According to Larry, that list includes the Phellowship (Phish), the Gateway (Widespread Panic), the Happy Hour Heroes (Moe) and the Digital Buddhas (Disco Biscuits), among others.

“We’re there to provide a drug- and alcohol-free space so people don’t feel like they have to partake in drugs or alcohol at a show,” says Larry, who has been sober for nearly 17 years. “We’re there to give one another support and to be a larger source of support for the sober community.”

Dylan Barmmer is the founder of the creative copywriting consortium Word Is Born.


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