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Rising singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle looks back at a year of recovery
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) ' In the days following Justin Townes Earle's arrest last September in Indianapolis, he slipped so deeply into a cocaine psychosis it began to change his personality.
Gone was the brash, cocksure young singer-songwriter who against the steep odds of addiction and a tough upbringing had transformed himself into a true artist with the critical acclaim to prove it. In its place was a 150-pound wraith haunting the East Village in New York City with an overriding paranoia brought on by an eight-ball of cocaine and a half-gallon of vodka every day.
The continuous binges were destroying his talent and making his intense live shows occasionally forgettable. They were destroying his friendships one by one. Nearly six years of sobriety, all gone during an increasingly tight downward spiral over a year's time.
Earle fixated on an erroneous news report that said he hit a woman while destroying his dressing room in an Indianapolis club. For a man raised by a single mother, the idea he would hit a woman was devastating. It prompted a five-day bender.
"I'd just be walking down the streets in Manhattan thinking everybody was looking at me," Earle said. "I thought everybody knew about what happened and it absolutely was just crushing me. I remember vaguely calling my publicist at the time ' I fired my manager not long before that had happened, and my publicist and my booking agent were the only people still working for me ' and just hysterically crying and saying I just didn't want to do this anymore. I didn't want to tour any more. I didn't want to make records."
Not long after, Earle entered formal treatment for the 13th time.
In the 10 months since he completed rehab, the 29-year-old son of country rebel Steve Earle has experienced a series of highs and lows he shared in several interviews.
He's slipped back into heroin use and rallied, turning to a new treatment that seems to have helped him settle into a healthier routine. He's been hailed as a new voice for his generation and targeted by cruel attempts at gallows humor. He split with his old girlfriend and started a new relationship that's brought him back to his hometown.
Today he's on the "marijuana maintenance plan" and enjoying the benefits of anti-addiction drug Soboxone. He's exercising and feels as fit as he ever has. He's touring much of the fall and is preparing to record his fifth record, a significant step that has Earle pointed directly into the future.
"And I'm as content as I've ever been," Earle said. "Which doesn't mean I'm content, but I'm as content as I've ever been. I'm still always going to be a little bit discontent because I'm a little bit crazy and I'll always want more than I have. That's what keeps me going. That's what keeps me driven to keep on doing what I'm doing."
Perhaps it's that drive that's kept him alive so long.
Sometimes, Justin Townes Earle is amazed he's still above ground.
Images flashed through his head as he sat backstage at The Mercy Lounge last November, staring out a window at bejeweled luxury high rises. The Nashville he's looking at doesn't much resemble the lazy town with the seedy side he grew up in during a nearly feral, often lonely and always confusing childhood. At the same time, some things look very much the same.
"I remember when you'd look out this window and there wasn't (expletive) anything there," he said. "It was a rail yard. Well, hell you can still buy crack on 8th Avenue."
A few weeks out of rehab, Earle admits his mind is often on drugs. He catches himself falling prey to the classic addict behavior of daydreaming about scoring.
"I feel good now, but at least once a day I come up with some kind of hare-brained scheme to get high and get away with it," he said with a laugh.
The view out the window seems to jog memories and he spends an hour telling stories that would fit nicely in a "Scared Straight" curriculum ... of a childhood spent mostly alone after his famous father Steve Earle, extremely gifted but also haunted by drugs, left his mother ... of crimes committed as if they were nothing ... of difficult relationships that still sting ... of horrors no child should have to endure.
"I've come to the decision basically or the belief that it's just who I am," Earle said. "I'm a songwriter. I'm an artist. I am my mother's son. I am my father's son. And I'm a drug addict. And it was a behavior that I displayed very early on in my life. When I was a kid, my mom would buy granola bars and stuff and I would eat the whole box. One after the other until I was sick."
His mother, Carol-Ann, had to work and the home was often empty. But there were times when it was too full as well with the occasional boyfriend. The result was the feeling that he had no safe haven.
Drugs quickly became a diversion from an existence that "hurt all the time."
"I remember I got high the first time when I was 10 off of reefer and I just loved it," Earle said. "By 11 I was just an avid marijuana smoker. I smoked constantly. It wasn't heroin, it was Dilaudid, the pharmaceutical pain killer, that was first thing I got my hands on. I just remember getting hit with it and it just felt like everything was just going to be OK, until of course it wore off and I was sick as (expletive) until the next morning. But even with the sickness, I wanted to go back and capture that feeling again, you know? I started to shut down at that point."
His teen years flashed by, a montage of searches for drugs, living with both his mother and father at times before leaving to live on his own in his late teens.
He went to Chicago at 18 and found really pure heroin for the first time in his life. He eventually had to come back home, penniless, hopelessly addicted and pretty much washed up already as a performer. He sold what he thought would be his last guitar at 20. He awoke one morning and couldn't believe what he saw in the mirror of his rundown motel room.
"My hair was singed from smoking crack," Earle said. "I had this mustache that was just burnt to pieces. I was missing my front tooth. I weighed about 125, 130 pounds. My arms looked like somebody had been throwing darts at them. I remember just standing there and looking at myself and having no clue who it was I was looking at."
It took years, but Earle pulled out of it. He tried a number of treatments, including four years of methadone, which left him with a soft-brained feeling for years. He had good days and slips and eventually reached a kind of equilibrium that allowed his gifts as a songwriter to emerge.
"At 20 years old I just had to start learning to live," he said. "I just had to learn what it meant to be a man. That's a thing I'm still completely totally devoid of. I think I'm learning, but I still don't think that I know what it really is to be a man."
He released three increasingly well-received records and appeared to be carving out a career with six years of sobriety in tow.
Then he started smoking a little weed from time to time. And having a drink occasionally. By the time he was ready to record his highly acclaimed 2010 breakthrough "Harlem River Blues" a year later, he was a raging addict again.
"I produced that (expletive) record doing an eight-ball of cocaine a day and choking down pain pills, you know, just loaded," Earle said.
He'd party all night, roll into the studio around noon still tweaked and somehow managed to pull off an album of folk- and rock-tinged country that would cement his status as a rising young star, net him song of the year at the Americana Honors & Awards this week and earn him more cash than he'd ever had.
While pleased with the reception, the album, tour and critical acclaim, all that was secondary to his need to feed his habit.
By the time he climbed in the van to head to Indianapolis for a show, he'd fired his longtime manager and lost most of the folks who worked for him. Tour manager Lauren Spratlin, who became Earle's girlfriend a few months later, quit soon after.
"I called him and told him I love working for him and I'd be happy to do it if he would get sober," Spratlin remembered. "But the way things were going it was too hard. It was too much emotionally to watch him. ... It was all bad."
Spratlin wasn't alone. Earle's closest friends pleaded with him not to throw away his future. His best friend, Joshua Black Wilkins, watched him quickly change from a reasonably engaged guy to something unpredictable.
"You didn't know if he was going to get into a fight or pass out on the bar," he said.
Knowing everything was at stake, Earle listened. He knew the difference between famous and infamous. It seemed to go well and he relaunched his tour. But he emerged with the old feeling he wasn't done with drugs.
"I've just become easy with it," he said last November. "I know that I have a slim chance of staying clean for the rest of my life and I have a very great chance of drinking and using drugs again, you know. It's as simple as that. I think it's amazing when drug addicts do stay clean."
The sentiment feels a little like a prediction. Earle stays clean for about three months, working his way across the United States and England. But along the way chronic back pain flares up. Instead of treating it by visiting a chiropractor, he says he turned to codeine on a solo tour of Australia.
By the time he returned, he was ready to slip back into the life of a heroin addict. Looking back, he calls it "my little vacation in the ghetto for like a month."
"Once that part of me comes out ' the really, really wants to get high part of me ' there's really nothing I can do to stop it," he said.
Earle realized there was too much on the line this time, though. He decided to take a more direct approach to recovery. He traveled to New York where a specialist put him on Soboxone, an addiction-battling drug that's an alternative to methadone.
Four days later he was back on stage. It's a recovery that feels something like a whirlwind compared to his previous experiences. He calls Soboxone "absolutely perfect" and notes that he's exercising, eating well and is probably in the best shape of his life. This time around recovery feels less temporary.
"Heroin, opioids are kind of like the mother of all drugs to me," he says. "And so it's definitely saving me in that aspect."
That fact is on his mind as he finishes writing a new album he plans to record this month. He started writing the new songs while clean, then continued during his backslide, and finished them up in July. After his treatment began he went back and paid particularly close attention to the songs he wrote while high to make sure they stand up.
He says he can see how the heroin affected his writing.
"I think I was just a lot meaner," he said. "I'm a lot more unfeeling and mean when I'm junked out. And, you know, it's kind of an interesting perspective to write from. It allowed me to write one of the meanest songs I've ever written toward a woman called 'Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now.' But then it also allowed me to, at the end of the record, write a song that examines what's left of my boiling (expletive) angst towards my parents. I called my stepmother (Allison Moorer) and told her just to be ready, because this (expletive) record's really heavy with daddy issues."
Wilkins is intrigued by the relationship Earle has with his father. They are brotherly friends, he says, who talk often on the phone.
Listen to them talk about each other and that's not always clear, though. Wilkins says hurt feelings remain, but there's also something of a rivalry developing.
"They are both very competitive against each other, which is really interesting to me because they're both making great records," he said. "Justin doesn't want to have his dad outshine him and Steve doesn't want Justin to outshine him."
You can hear it in the way the two talk about each other. Justin notes he's broken through at a younger age than his father. Steve notes Justin sounds an awful lot like him, whether he wants to or not.
"The stuff Justin does get from me he usually gets by going as hard as he can in the opposite direction of where he thinks I am, and then arriving back at what I would have done anyway," Steve remarked in an interview last spring in New York. "It's just the way that is. It's the way it is with fathers and sons."
Asked if he's had to watch Justin learn some of the same lessons he learned about life himself over the years, Steve said: "Sure, but you can't do anything about that. ... I can tell him, and I do, but he doesn't listen."
For the record, Justin says, his relationship with his father isn't hostile. His father really is a "generous" person and they get along as well as they ever have. The two occasionally pop up together ' they did an episode of the HBO series "Treme" last year.
After much consideration, the younger Earle has decided his father did what was best for him when he left all those years ago. The life of a junkie and that of a father are not a great mix, he knows. Steve Earle battled heroin addiction and alcoholism for years and was sentenced to prison for a year on drug-related charges in the 1990s. He left Justin's mother early in his son's life and wasn't much of a physical presence afterward, though Justin did occasionally live with Earle and Moorer.
"It's one of those things that still kind of baffles me even," Justin said. "I don't think either of us really understands what our relationship with each other is. We're father and son but not in any traditional sense whatsoever."
In the last few years, Justin has started to think about having children of his own. He knows he's not ready and wouldn't bring a child into the same situation he found himself in as a child.
"But I think I know how to handle it now: I know basically to do the opposite of anything my parents ever did," he says.
Thinking about the future, he can see a kid in a few years in the house he shares with Spratlin if things keep going this way.
And he can daydream about a career measured in decades rather than years or even months.
"I'm in the best position I've been in in my entire life," Earle says. "I actually look forward to next year instead of dreadfully wondering what the (expletive) is going to happen next."
AP Entertainment Writer David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.