An Addict Living In The Music Industry

By Arnold McCuller

Arnold McCuller is what’s going on, that’s always been the case and it always will be. – James Taylor


At 19 years old, I was about to go off to Kent State University in Ohio. Just before starting school, I received a job offer as, among other things, the voice in a song called “Aquarius” in the first national tour of a Broadway show called Hair. I accepted the job and never looked back. After the tour, I eventually landed in the Big Apple to pursue a theater career. I failed miserably, then met this guy named James Taylor. I have been a singer touring with his band ever since.

In 1984, I was home getting high when a dear friend and bandmate saw me packing for another summer tour with JT. After a week of rehearsals in Los Angeles, I was preparing to leave for the tour in my usual fashion. When my friend saw a fresh bag of syringes on my dresser, he realized I’d been shooting drugs at home alone. He refused to let me pack them and said if I needed to use, then just smoke or snort instead. It scared him to think about me shooting up on the road. I imagine he must have envisioned a hotel overdose scandal. I understood his concern because all of us in the band were like brothers. We looked after each other in every possible way.

I didn’t take the syringes on the road. I “only” snorted my drugs. Up to that point, my experience was that musicians got high in order to work, got high after work and then did it all over again. It was a way of life for all of us. I was not alone and thought in our industry it was just the way we lived.

However, something funny happened during that summer. One of the guys in our band was going to these strange meetings and getting chips for staying clean. What amazed me was that an addict like him could not only get clean, but stay clean for a period of time. He physically looked like a different man during those first six to nine months. I noticed his eyes were getting clearer. It was as though his spirit reawakened inside him. I was impressed, but couldn’t believe just attending those meetings was going to keep him clean. The list of addicts I knew in the industry who got clean was small compared to the ones who used until they became sick, went to jail or had to be institutionalized.

After coming off the tour, I again started getting high at home alone. One Thursday around 4 pm, I came to, looked in the mirror and saw no reflection. I scared myself to death and thought I had lost my soul. I picked up the phone, called the hotline for those meetings and showed up the following Thursday. I distinctly remember that it was Thursday because it was very difficult getting through that first weekend. After that, I was in meetings every day.

I didn’t understand what was going on, but I followed every suggestion I heard. I came early, stayed late, cleaned ashtrays and washed cups. I eventually pulled a speaker aside who I thought had an amazing story. He happened to be a professor. I asked him to sponsor me. He said, “Well, let’s go to coffee and talk about it.” That was my first introduction to the Twelve Steps, how they work and how I could begin to do the real work of staying clean. I was right about one thing. Just going to those meetings was not going to keep my friend in the band or me clean. We had to work the Program.

I stayed clean. Almost three months later, I went on my first international tour. We went to Brazil, the home of my drug of choice. I had 90 days clean. At the time, all I knew was to go to meetings. I went to a meeting every day and met other people on the tour who also were clean. A few guys from our band and other bands sat around the pool at one of the hotels reading recovery literature and sharing with one another. That’s where I learned that two or more addicts gathered together for recovery makes a meeting. I am among the blessed ones. Some of the people who sat around that pool, including me, have been clean for over 30 years now.

Sharing with the band about being in recovery was always easy. The difficult part was sharing about my profession with other people in recovery. I learned to do this first with my sponsor, the professor. He was my first sponsor and helped me work the Steps. In that relationship, I learned how to open up to others in recovery and, more importantly, how to sponsor other men. While I have outlived three sponsors, the consistent thing in my life continues to be the men I sponsor. With them, I get to work the Steps and support their dreams the way mine have always been supported by the men helping me on my path of recovery. I love sharing how the Steps can and do change our lives.

That mutual sharing has created a large family of recovering addicts in Los Angeles who want nothing more than a better way of life. Any addict seeking recovery can achieve what we have gained in our recovery. But work is necessary – working the Steps, service commitments and giving back what was so freely given to us when we got clean.

Once a month (touring schedule permitting) about 15 guys I sponsor come together for a breakfast in my home. We enjoy fellowship and laughter, then clean up and catch up. In the catch-up portion, I usually express what’s going on with me and how I’ve been affected. We talk about things we haven’t had time to get into or have found too personal to share in meetings. We talk without interruption. I try to listen with an open heart to what is being expressed. Unlike a regular meeting, if someone requests feedback or suggestions, we work together to help the person who wants it. Creative solutions are always a byproduct of our gatherings. Together we definitely do what we aren’t able to do alone; and, as a result, the outcomes are miraculous.

When I’m on the road, we find ways to keep our recovery family connected. Group gratitude lists via email have been very beneficial. We began to circulate a daily gratitude list for a week or more. If we are grieving or working through something challenging, the gratitude list gives us resolve we never knew we had.

It is in the spirit of sponsorship which I learned in the Program that I give voice lessons to people with a desire to improve their pitch, performing chops, musicianship and endurance while touring. Just when the app business seemed to be taking off, I saw a need for singers to have something personally focused for them to train with before performing. I created “Vocalease,” a vocal warm-up tool. As a result, I receive letters and emails from artists around the world thanking me for helping them get their confidence back or their career extended for the better because of the training I provided. This is an example of how the Twelve Step Program expands the power of “one helping another” in all of my activities.

Helping others is vital to recovery. Even when I’m on the road, I look for creative ways to be of service. Last year I was blessed to have a very heavy touring schedule. I decided that while I was on the road, in addition to hitting meetings, I needed to write to currently imprisoned addicts who are seeking recovery. Through a Narcotics Anonymous program called “Sponsorship Behind the Walls,” I’ve written to and worked the Steps with four recovering men in prison. Their letters have enriched my life beyond measure.

Recovery works one day, one addict, one phone call, one letter and one meeting at a time. Through this simple process, I have learned that anything is possible and dreams do come true – if I am willing to do the work necessary to change my old thinking and behavior. Being in touch with the God of my understanding on a daily basis and through my meditation practice, I deepen my belief system. I can say to anyone seeking recovery that it works if you work it.

The Twelve Steps and Program do more than just keep me clean. They have given me a work ethic I never had prior to coming into the rooms. I always wanted to be an actor, but using got in the way. I was offered a role in a movie in 1977. That’s actually how and why I ended up in Los Angeles. While the band used a sub for the next tour, I was given a role. All I seemed to learn was that everyone there got high, which is probably why the movie only took four months to finish. My next role with the same team took even less time. I had a smaller part in that film. The party continued, but another role never followed – in retrospect, not a surprise. That was the end of my acting career until 25 years later. I had 18 years clean and did a cameo in The Sum of All Fears. Recovery completely redefined my experience with acting. I finally knew how to show up, be on time, be fit and be teachable in the process.

Using the work ethic I’ve learned in recovery over the past 30 years, I have recorded nine solo albums, been in many more films and recorded with some of the industry’s finest artists. I’m a senior member of the band I’ve been with since 1977.

Through all of the trials and tribulations, both in and out of recovery, I have continued to show up. Even with years of recovery, I still get to work toward lost, reawakened and newly realized dreams and goals. I get to worry about things like hip replacements and home renovations while preparing to go on international tours. I get to work on recording new songs and writing new material with people I love, while staying committed to the same things that got me to this place in life. After all of these years, I still love what I do. I continue to record and play worldwide with the band and on my own.

Recovery is about loving the moment and looking forward to a future that did not exist before becoming clean. Before recovery, there was nothing but the next fix. No one looked back at me in the mirror. During those final days before recovery, all I wanted in life was to feel that my soul was not dead.

Today when I look in the mirror, I see more than just my reflection. I see the light in the eyes of all the recovering addicts I have met on this journey, every meeting where I didn’t understand the language and every heart that has reached out to touch my own. Together, we have been able to do what this addict could never do alone.

Together, we recover.

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