Village Voice: The Sober Bunch

If you believe Tommie Sunshine, there are only three reasons people go to clubs and bars: “They either go out for the music, which is incredibly rare,” he says, “they go out to get laid, or they go out to get fucked-up.”
As we talk in a café near Union Square, George Michael, the formerly pretty pop star who once crooned “I Want Your Sex,” is on TV after being arrested for alleged possession of pot and GHB in London. He looks bloated and is nearly unrecognizable.

Everyone who’s quit drinking or doing drugs has a bottom. Michael may not have reached his bottom yet, but Sunshine recounts his: “After doing five days of South by Southwest and seven at the Winter Music Conference, bumper to bumper—after 12 days of drinking till you black out and snorting half of Bolivia, when you feel like a piano has been dropped on your face every morning for 12 mornings—at what point is it enough?”

For Princess Superstar, it was after a three-week tour. She’d stopped drinking but, using some perverse reasoning, still did drugs. “I was like, ‘I’m an alcoholic, but yeah, pass the blow,’ ” she says. “I did drugs every day. I was on codeine, all this shit, and mushrooms. I recorded fucked-up. I played live fucked-up. I DJ’d fucked-up.”

Larry Tee calls himself “a classic garbage head”—somebody who does everything. Combining “ketamine and crystal meth is a recipe for the inside of Satan’s bowels,” he says. “I literally ran to St. Vincent’s once all the way from Twilo. Literally ran.”

Addiction is the white elephant in rooms filled with white lines. Not even the recent drug-related deaths of two college students, Maria Pesantez and Mellie Carballo, or the passing of high-profile hipsters like skateboarder Harold Hunter give clubbers pause. Murray Hill, who calls himself “the hardest working middle-aged man in show business,” unsurprisingly counted beer as his vice of choice. “I hit rock bottom eight, nine times.” he says. “I would tell my therapist, ‘Oh, I had seven, eight beers. It was a pretty light night out.’ And she was horrified. But that’s normal for us in the nightlife scene. You lose sight of the real world. You’re going home tanked in the cab and the sun’s coming up and everyone else is waiting for the bus to go to work.”

*BOB*, who started drinking when she was 14, says that after a while, partying loses its luster: “By the time I was 25, I felt like I’d been waiting in line for 12 years for the same ride.”

So nine years ago, she stopped waiting in line. Now she goes to “meetings.” Like Princess Superstar, *BOB* took a structured self-help path to sobriety. Murray Hill, Sunshine, and Kenny Kenny went their own way. But whether they did it themselves or in support groups, going out sober means relearning how they live and work. For some people, getting sober means leaving bars behind, but DJs and promoters don’t have the option of staying home, nor would they want to.

“I go to bars to socialize. I go to bars to celebrate life, to see my friends perform. I go to bars to perform, myself,” says *BOB*.

After Kenny Kenny swore off his favorites, whiskey and beer, 11 years ago, he went back to work. “It was like hyper-realism,” he says. “I normally go to the bar. Now I’m not going to the bar. Now I pass the bar. Now I don’t have a bottle in my hands. So now I have to walk to the club without the beer, and now I go to the club, so what do I do? It was like learning to walk.”

In the ultimate test of faith, Superstar, after a month of sobriety, had a gig in— of all places—Amsterdam.

But the nightlife business can make it almost impossible to stay clean. Professional clubbers are given fistfuls of drink tickets and offered drugs as if they were hors d’oeuvres—sometimes even in lieu of cash. Justine D., who has seen a guy shoot up heroin in the DJ booth while she was trying to spin, recalls when an out-of-town promoter palmed her a bag of coke as a bonus: “She said, ‘This is for you. I don’t know whether you do it, but thank you so much.’ That makes me feel so uncomfortable. This is illegal and I don’t want anything to do with it.”

“If there’s a plate full of Ho Hos following you around 24-7, like what essentially happens when you’re a musician, you’re gonna be eating a lot of Ho Hos.”

The normalcy of substances can make abstinence, or even moderation, difficult, if not impossible. “If you like Ho Hos and you’re sitting at a table and there’s a plate full of Ho Hos, you’re probably going to eat them,” says Sunshine. “If there’s a plate full of Ho Hos following you around 24-7, like what essentially happens when you’re a musician, you’re gonna be eating a lot of Ho Hos.”

Over chocolate cake at Le Gamin in the East Village, Superstar says, “I love free things! I get in the fucking car of the promoter, and it’s like, ‘What do you want? What do you need?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, a kid in a candy store.’ I get backstage and there’s like a bottle of champagne —and it’s always about champagne too. And you know, I’m 10 thousand trillion times more sparkly now when I’m clean than I ever was when I was drinking champagne and I was sloppy. Totally.”

She takes a bite out of the gooey center of the cake, mixes it with the vanilla ice cream, and sighs heavenward. “Larry. Larry fucking saved my life,” she says. “So I love Larry. He just told me, ‘You can do this. There’s a lot of people that are sober. You don’t have to live like that anymore.’ “