Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tony O'Neill at Words & Music

Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 2008 at 8:48 PM

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Tony O’Neill has already had a successful career as a musician and writer. The two endeavors are even linked. O’Neill was the keyboardist for the bands Kenickie, Marc Almond and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. At the height of his musical career, he was derailed by heroin addiction and crack abuse. While seeking treatment at a methadone clinic, he started writing about his experiences, eventually finishing his first novel, Digging the Vein, a gritty autobiographical take on the life a drug abuser. Earlier this year, he worked with former NFL star Jason Peter on his memoir, Hero of the Underground. His new book, Down and Out on Murder Mil,e is another fictional take on some of his personal experiences. O’Neill will be making his first trip to New Orleans to speak at the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s Words & Music Conference (Words & Music). O’Neill spoke with Gambit Weekly about the festival and his work. — Bryan Davis 

 Gambit Weekly: The theme of this year's conference is the "American Dream," as inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. What do you think of today’s "American Dream?”Tony O’Neill: The Great Gatsby was – to me at least – a wonderful satire on the idea that the American Dream was somehow about financial success. It’s hard to talk about an American Dream for me, because America is so diverse. Can we all really share one dream? I am a bit of a misanthrope, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask about shared dreams. After all, a dream of mine is that one day my child will grow up in a world with sane drug laws, i.e. no more prohibition. For some people, that might be their idea of an American nightmare. GW: Do you have any thoughts on the significance of this concept to those rebuilding their lives in the recovering city of New Orleans?TO: I wouldn’t dare to offer advice to those whose lives were devastated by Katrina. In many ways, people there were left to fend for themselves, and I think that the reaction to Katrina was a watermark moment for the American nation. I think many people truly looked in the mirror and saw themselves for the first time, and they didn’t like what they saw.  I’d like to think that out of that dark, dark moment came a moment of soul searching that hopefully sent this country on a different and more positive course. GW: Before you started writing, you were a successful musician in several accomplished rock bands. Was there ever a point in your life when you thought, “Yea, I’m a rock star, I must be living the dream” but then you ended up living something else?TO: As an immigrant [from England], I never felt this sentimental connection to the idea of an American dream. However, coming to Los Angeles for the first time, I did get to see the “Hollywood dream” up close — the endless sun, the all pervasive entertainment industry, the stars on the sidewalk, blue surf and beautiful people. And then when I became a heroin addict, I got to see the city from another perspective. I really felt that I got so deep into the underbelly of L.A. that I became hyper aware of how transitory such ideas are, and how even in the most idyllic of settings, there is usually a seething, hidden, temporal city underneath, invisible to most people’s eyes. I identify more with the denizens of that world — the dispossessed, the crazy, the poor, and the addicted than I do with those who strive for some kind of idealistic perfection. GW: You have said that writing helped you escape from that difficult lifestyle; it was a tool of recovery. Similarly, many in New Orleans have used the written word as a means of healing after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. What do you think writing offers in the form of rehabilitation?TO: For me, writing saved my life. That is no exaggeration. The books, the poems, all of it were more use to me that a million years of traditional therapy could have been. It’s an old story — human beings have long used art to express rage, hurt, personal trauma as well as love, joy and happiness. Not only has writing allowed me to tame many of the demons that have fuelled my existence, it has also allowed me to connect and communicate with people in a way that was previously unthinkable to me. The process of creating something — a song, a painting, a book, a sculpture out of something that was personally devastating to you is an indescribably profound one. If I hadn’t discovered my voice as a writer, if I hadn’t met my wife who encouraged to me work on my writing, I would guess that I would be dead by now. GW: Many people in similar situations have turned to music when times got tough. As a musician, how was it different for you when it was the music that brought on the pain in the first place?TO: I played music professionally for all of my adult life, right up until the point that my heroin addiction rendered me totally incapable of that. I love music, and I loved playing music, but I have to say that when I sat down and started writing fiction it was like the veils fell from my eyes. I had my “Ah!” moment. “So this is what I am meant to do.” I still play music for fun, and there is barely a moment in my day when I am not listening to music, but the urge to be in a band, to express myself through writing music, I simply don’t have that anymore. But I don’t have any kind of traumatic associations with music. It will always be my first love. More information about Tony O’Neill’s work can be found at his Web site, www.tonyoneill.net. His appearance time and the rest of the schedule for the Words & Music Conference can be found at www.wordsandmusic.org.   

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