Musicians Come Clean on How They Live, Create, and Thrive While Sober

Steven Tyler of Aerosmith on Aug. 15, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

For GQ, Chris Heath interviews nine musicians about their journeys to sobriety, and how they create today without alcohol or drugs. “Some delight in a dark humor about their earlier excesses,” writes Heath. “Others talk in a way that suggests that to dwell on these too much, to give such memories too much oxygen, would be to take too lightly something they simply can’t risk taking lightly.”

The roundtable of musicians includes Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, Phish’s lead vocalist Trey Anastasio, and other singer-songwriters like Ben Harper and Jason Isbell — plus an additional perspective from rapper Vince Staples, who has never had a drop of alcohol or taken any drugs in his life.

What were your drugs of choice?

Baker: I don’t want to be defined by the sort of drugs that I used to do, and I also don’t want to roll out a litany of my past, like, escapades. More than the specific drugs, what is more significant for me to identify is that I never liked things that were stimulating. When I sought substances, I sought things that would put a blanket over my feelings. Numb them down, turn it all off. Things that would bring me down and things that would make me feel less.

What scared you most about getting sober?

Anastasio: When I first got sober, they had me do all this writing. You have to start journaling like crazy. I was asked to sit down and write this list of everything that I lost to drugs and alcohol. And I remember with shock the first thing that came out of my pen, I wrote “sense of humor.” And it made me so sad. It’s making me sad right now, like I’m gonna cry. Because I laughed with the three guys from Phish from the day we met. Our chemistry together was so funny and so edgy, and they’re such smart guys, and the humor was like seven layers deep. And as soon as those drugs came into it, that was what went away.

Do you worry about remaining sober?

Isbell: No—I worry about a lot of shit, but I don’t worry about staying sober. What used to be a craving for alcohol is now more of a romanticized memory. I let the tape play out, watch the movie until the end and see what it would really do and what would really happen, rather than just remember the buzz.

How has being sober affected what you can and can’t create?

Walsh: I tried for maybe two years to sit down and write a song—I had never written sober. And this little voice in my head would say, “Well, you know what works…just get a little buzz.” That was always my justification: Could Hendrix have played like that if he wasn’t in outer space? I don’t think he could have. Could Hemingway have written those amazing stories if he wasn’t an alcoholic? And that was not an option, so I would have to put down the guitar and walk away. If I never wrote anything again, that was going to have to be okay. Once I decided that, I had this big sigh of relief. And about four months later, I wrote a song.

What do you think would have happened if you’d carried on as you were?

Tyler: Well, I’d be dead by now.

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