Two superluminary rock stars, Elton John and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, have in recent weeks presented addiction-recovery paths that seem radically opposed: One an apparent poster-boy for rehab and abstinence, the other openly rejecting 12-step tenets.
But are they really so different?
Elton John is currently the focus of a hit biopic, Rocketman, for which the star was executive producer. The film begins with John’s departing Madison Square Garden in costume to participate in a group session at a bucolic rehab. As he symbolically sheds his outrageous outfit, John reveals his traumatic past and various addictions—including alcohol, cocaine, pills and sex.
At the end of the film, he announces that he has now been sober for 25-plus years, is married, and has two young children. So 12-step rehab triumphs again!
But the film never engages in the 12 Steps, only the rehab setting and self-exploration process John underwent. In a joint New York Times interview, John and lyricist Bernie Taupin, his lifetime musical partner, discuss John’s rehab experience. Neither mentions the 12 Steps, “powerlessness,” or “disease.”
For Taupin, John’s rehab was a work cure:
“That scene in the film when I visit him [in rehab], and he’s mopping the floor, I remember how much he enjoyed doing his own laundry, mopping the floor, scrubbing the toilet. Once he was in that situation, he adhered to it 100 percent, he totally embraced it.”
The film traces John’s loveless upbringing; neither parent nurtured or seemingly loved him. Much of John’s adult unhappiness is linked to his relationship with John Reid, his “early manager and boyfriend, [who, per the Times] is portrayed as a sly manipulator.”
On the other hand, Rocketman depicts John’s live-in grandmother’s doting on him; his stepfather was likewise supportive. So John didn’t face life devoid of the care and love of others. And the film portrays John’s half-century caring relationship with his writing partner, Taupin. Their joint interview is a paean to their partnership.
The bulk of the film addresses John’s family relationships and search for love, with which he comes to grips in rehab. But he doesn’t attribute recovery to that therapy: “I think the film eventually is about redemption, and how anyone can get redemption, if they try.”
In other words, recovery is a natural path of development.
John has also praised and supported Johann Hari’s 2015 best seller, Chasing the Scream, which contests the disease theory of addiction. In Hari’s vision, the need for love and community and their absence are at the heart of addiction, depression and anxiety.
Real-life John completed rehab in 1990. And he did so in order to be more present in the AIDS crisis of the time.
Although Rocketman focuses squarely on his past, John downplays the need to do this. “I very rarely look back on my life, [although] of course I had to, to watch this movie.” His and Taupin’s joint interview begins: “Elton John is not a nostalgist. Neither is [Taupin] … ‘I think one of the keys that has driven us all these years, it’s the fact that we never look back,’ Taupin said.”
John likewise cuts two ways about the role of his high-energy, constantly onstage lifestyle: “I was on adrenaline, and sooner or later you crash and burn, and unfortunately the drugs helped me crash and burn.”
Reviews, naturally, focus on the addicted rockstar John, who the film shows was “reduced to a lonely, paranoid, angry junkie.” But real-life John completed rehab in 1990, when he was in his 40s. And he did so in order to be more present in the AIDS crisis of the time.
Speaking at Harvard in 2017, John declared:
“I had the luck to meet Ryan White and his family. I wanted to help them … Ryan was the spark that helped me to recover from my addictions and start the AIDS foundation. Within six months I became sober.”
Notice he doesn’t mention rehab at all.
Critically, John had adopted a new life purpose. Music, his passion, had underlaid his survival until then:
“That’s what kept me alive. During the hard times, I still kept myself busy. I didn’t shut myself away and just do drugs. . . . You can say that, initially, music saved me — the most incredible part of my childhood was the music. And then when I came to the difficult part of my fame, the music still saved me, because I still worked, and I still made records. And if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.” [My emphasis]
The Times says: “At 72, John remains artistically engaged—in the midst of a farewell tour, and still composing for films and theater.”
Bob Weir is more direct and radical in his unconventional views on recovery, his former addictive substance use and “sobriety.”
A founding member of the Grateful Dead, both Weir and the group are noted for their drug use and addiction. Like John, Weir began his musical career early—joining the Dead at age 16. Like John, 71-year-old Weir still actively writes and performs.
Weir performing in 2007 (photo via Wikimedia Commons)
In a deep portrait in GQ, Weir describes his life history of substance use. Before taking that trip with him, let’s note that Weir can readily find trauma in his life: His birth parents gave him up for adoption and he failed every school he attended. But Weir doesn’t go there in the interview. Like John, he prefers living in the present.
Here is GQ’s depiction of Weir’s addiction and recovery:
“This motion”—he mimics strumming a guitar—“this one limited motion, repeated a million times, has turned my right rhomboid muscle into a strip of gristle that gets extremely painful after a couple of hours, to the point where it’s like trying to play with an ice pick in your back. I went to doctors. I went to physical therapists. But the only thing that really worked was opiates, and so I got good and strung out on them. I would have to come home and go through withdrawal after every tour.”
He’s always used alcohol, too—wine, in particular—to combat stage fright, a condition he says he shared with Garcia. “Every night, before I go on, it’s, I can’t believe I put myself in this position again. Thousands of times.”
Today Weir is, to all appearances, healthy. He has replaced a drink before getting onstage with a shot of ginseng and, for the most part, pharmaceutical painkillers with herbal supplements. But he stops short of saying he’s sober.
We don’t usually hear prominent people oppose 12-step recovery head-on. Weir himself admits that he is reluctant to state his truth.
In fact, Weir does more than “stop short of saying he’s sober.” (Trigger warning: The following violates the 12-step belief system!)
“I’ve tried that, and I’m not as happy as when I drink,” he says. He is adamant that he is able to have a glass of wine these days and stop there. Likewise, the occasional painkiller when the exercise and herbal remedies prove inadequate.
“There was a time, way back, when getting trashed and completely nuts was, I felt, my best approach to the blank page … But I’ve been there and done that, and I don’t think there is anything more to be found there for me.”
What’s more, Weir continues:
“I’m not sure I buy the basic tenet, which is that you’re powerless. I think that we humans are enormously powerful, and I tend to think there’s nothing that you can’t do. It’s a matter of self-mastery, and if self-mastery amounts to total abstinence, I think that’s incomplete. I think you’re selling yourself short.”
We don’t usually hear prominent people oppose 12-step recovery head-on. The cultural pressures against doing so are too severe. Weir himself admits that he is reluctant to state his truth: “I get that that’s real dangerous for some people. So I don’t talk about it much.”
And so, we normally get homogenized addiction-recovery narratives like Rocketman. Yet despite the “sobriety” term that Elton John favors and his rehab trappings, is his story really so different from Weir’s?
Both have built lives around purpose, worked through difficult life issues, and settled into lifestyles with which they are comfortable and that they find satisfying. Neither gives rote testimony about his inescapable traumatic past, I-am-powerless recovery process, or I-am-forever-an-addict identity.
Elton John, after all, doesn’t abstain from love. (Or, as he says in Rocketman’s prelude, from his shopping addiction.)
Essentially, he and Weir are telling the same here-and-now, life-led developmental recovery stories.
Top photo via Flickr/public domain