Jimmy Destri

Blondie keyboardist, effective drug counselor

[Editor's note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]

So, how long have you been clean, Jimmy?
Going on five years. It’ll be five years in February.

Nice work. How does it feel?
It feels amazing. Wait, is it four or five years? Five, yeah. You lose track after a while. Eventually you stop counting days and are just into life. You actually put it behind you. I’m not a proponent of the one-day-at-a-time, you’re-an-addict-for-life philosophy. I believe in total recovery. If you treat the life, the drugs will follow. It’s less about the actual addiction and more about what’s missing. What you’re missing in your life and your brain and your brain chemistry that makes you want to get high. We’ve all gotten high, but certain people are predisposed to not want to stop. I don’t think that anyone intrinsically wants to destroy themselves, unless they’re inherently suicidal, but the drugs are something that gets you to another place instantly, and it’s really hard to deal with.

What is it about musicians specifically that predisposes them to rampant drug abuse?
Well, when you perform live, for example, nightly in any size venue, you go from high to high to high...

Just in terms of the rush from performing?
Yeah, and when you’ve finished, and I know it’s a clich, but you’re still up there. And you want to stay up there. And a lot of time musicians get high on the road. I personally never did, because I was so satisfied after a show that I would have a drink and fall asleep. I was so healthy on the road, but the other issue was when I got home. And that rush is taken away and you have to get back to just boring, dreary life. And unless you have a strong support system at home or the kind of life that is equal to life on tour, that adjustment is hard. It’s an artificial rush. I mean, it’s a natural rush but an artificial way of living. Nobody goes through that sort of euphoria all the time. Anybody that tells you touring is a drag is full of shit, because it’s one of the greatest things in the world. What other kind of job, when you’re finished, do people applaud?

Certainly not mine.
And I don’t have it now. But I’m a very lucky guy. I’m in another career that I absolutely love.

The counseling? It’s a full-time gig for you now?
Yeah. I’d do it six days a week if I could.

You were born in Brooklyn, and now see the underside of the city up close. How has the drug culture here changed in recent years?
Oh yeah. I mean, in the ’70s and ’80s it was all cocaine. Throughout the country, and New York especially. Then it was barbiturates and heroin. Barbiturates have sort of fallen out of fashion with the medical community because of the addictive quality, so they introduced benzodiazepines in all these prescription drugs, which are being abused like crazy now. You can get them from doctors and they sell them on the street. And they’re very nasty things. Now a lot of people who get these prescriptions do need them for anxiety and stuff, but at the same time these are people who are addicts and their anxiety comes from stopping taking drugs. It’s just a new scourge. I see so many people that have prescription drug problems. It’s really scary.

What’re celebrity drug rehab centers really like?
I just don’t understand... Well, speaking of that one on TV, it’s impossible to get better on camera. That is the biggest joke. And why is that guy wearing a stethoscope? My boss, Harvey Karkus, who is a psychiatrist, has been in the addiction business for 35 years. He’s wonderful. Together we sit around and laugh at these shows and how ridiculous it is. You can’t better while you’re numb, first of all, so you’ve got to stop using. And it’s a private, intense experience, drug therapy, and you cannot do it in that way. I’ve gone to plenty of rehabs. I’m not Robert Downey, but I’ve been to a few. And the ones I’ve been in have been high class, like resorts, but the one that straightened me out was the one that said, Look, you’ve got a choice to make. You’re an asshole, and you’ve got to straighten your life out. There was no four courses to the meal, it was just one meal—recovery. No gyms, no swimming pools...

Well, I think I read something about the “icy north”...
Yeah! [Laughs] I went to a place way upstate in the winter. In the Adirondacks. The good thing is that it keeps you in the house, learning.

Yeah, what else are you going to do there? Build snowmen?
We actually climbed mountains. It wasn’t an Outward Bound sort of thing, but we were just going stir-crazy. All of these city boys going up the mountain. But I really got sober around the smoking table. You’d go out and have a cigarette and laugh with the other guys and realize, Hey, I’m laughing. For the first time, I’m fucking laughing. This place had like a 60 percent remission rate, and had nothing to offer except information on drug abuse and realizing that you have a choice to make. They have a wonderful program in Iowa now, which is also in the middle of the woods.

Yeah, middle of nowhere. Good place for it. They also have that writer’s workshop out there, too. Having no distractions helps, I guess.
Yeah, exactly. You have to concentrate on yourself. Who is going to concentrate when pool time is at 1pm and you have gourmet food?

Is it true that you had, at one point, a $1,000-per-day coke habit?
Yeah. Well, I never smoked it, because that would be addictive. [Laughs] I would constantly call these guys to come over and drop off 20 $20 bags, and then another 20. At a certain point, you get so paranoid that you have to give them something to leave with so they look like musicians. I’d say, “Here, take this guitar case,” or, “Here, take this envelope filled with CDs.” There was even a time where I went, “Here, take the guitar, just drop me some more bags.” I was hoping that they’d look like musicians coming in and out of my studio, so my neighbors wouldn’t think anything was wrong. It was really sad, when I think about it, that I had all of this great equipment and a 48-track digital studio—which was not in my home because I didn’t want to have coke around the house; all it was used for was cocaine fests.

You could’ve bought a nice car or something with all that dough.
A lot more than a nice car. A nice house. Luckily I make money still, but you have to turn the page. Regret and guilt are the two biggest killers.

What was rock bottom?
Well, rock bottom is relative. Rock bottom could be a long, long, slow tapering slide down. For others it could just be a fall off of a cliff. I mean, I had money coming in, and I had conditions enabling me to keep using, so it was a long slow slide. And when I got there, I owned a big home and drove one of four cars, and realized that I was sleeping in the back of that car and not going home. And my group had sort of benched me from performing live. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I finally woke up, and wondered what I was doing sleeping in the back of a Jaguar and not going home. What’s going on here? That moment was when I started to recover. The minute I made the decision that I wanted to get help.

So what’s your favorite Blondie track?
My favorite Blondie track? Oh shit. I guess "Fade Away and Radiate." That’s a great song. It’s like a B-side, I guess. I like all the ones that I did. It’s tough to pick a favorite. Oh, I know my favorite. "Rules for Living," off the last album. I think it’s my best lyric ever.

Destri currently works five days a week down at New York City’s Carnegie Hill Institute, a renowned drug- and alcohol-treatment facility.

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