(A beacon of hope on Cape Cod. Nobska Lighthouse, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.)
In 1994, I vanished. I didn’t reappear until sixteen years later, in 2o1o. As far as the fans of my music were concerned (and I was fortunate enough to have quite a few around the world) Grayson Hugh had evaporated. He had stopped releasing records and doing concerts. People shook their heads, clicked their tongues and wondered “Whatever happened to Grayson Hugh?”
In that decade and a half, I went from the top of the music world, having two gold records, songs on the radio, videos on tv, world tours with a band, tour buses and stage crews, playing big venues and actually making some money for a change – to living in a single room above a barroom, playing the piano for my rent, spending my unemployment cheques on booze, and hiding from life. My brother put it perfectly, during a concerned phone call back in those dark days. He said “Grayson, it’s as if your life is getting smaller and smaller”.
How can one descend into such bleak insanity, settling for so little? The answer, I know now, is: denial and fear and the unwillingness to face my demons. In my case, the demons were alcohol and xanax.
I had quit drinking in 1980, after getting steadily worse from age 14, in 1964. After getting arrested and put in jail, fired from jobs, I got scared when I pushed my girlfriend down and gave her serious bruises. I had never been violent towards women, and this frightened me. I went to one AA meeting in 1980 and did not pick up a drink for twenty years.
However I did start taking xanax in 1990, prescribed by a psychiatrist for panic attacks and anxiety disorder. It cured the anxiety, but at a terrible price I would only discover fourteen years later.
During that twenty year dry period, many things happened, some of them very good. In 1986 I moved to New York from Hartford, Connecticut and was signed to a multi-record deal with RCA Records. With their support, I formed a new band, went on several U.S. and world tours, made videos that were on MTV, VH1 and BET, did national television network appearances, and had hits on the radio around the world. My first album “Blind To Reason” and the single from it “Talk It Over” both went gold. I was grateful, and prayed often, thanking God for His blessings.
(“Blind To Reason”, RCA Records 1988.)
(“Road To Freedom”, MCA Records 1992.)
But in 1994, after two critically acclaimed albums and songs in Oscar-winning films, “Thelma and Louise” and “Fried Green Tomatoes”, the person who signed me to my second record label was fired, and I was dropped from the label along with the rest of his acts. I couldn’t find another label, and didn’t really try. I also found out my business managers had not given me good advice about my taxes, while taking their cut from my earnings each month. As a result I eventually had to go bankrupt.
Fed up, I moved to the south, and did what I did best: hide. Living with my girlfriend in a rented house just over the North Carolina border from South Carolina, I was increasingly unhappy and unfulfilled creatively. I eventually moved back north, alone, and got a job teaching songwriting at a prestigious music school – Berklee College Of Music in Boston. A couple years later I moved in with my stepdad and mother at their house in Newton, to help take care of mom who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. For a couple years I did well at Berklee, but the resentment against the music business derailing my career (and my fear of doing anything about it) started to eat away at me.
I started to think about drinking, more and more. I knew I shouldn’t but the attraction seemed irresistible. As my first sponsor told me later “the most natural thing for an alcoholic to do is drink”. Who cared if twenty years of not drinking was about to go by the wayside? And so drink I did.
Well, you know what happened. My drinking at first didn’t work, so I drank more. I started going right from being sober to a blackout. I got fired from Berklee, for drinking on the job, refusing help when it was offered. Then I got kicked out of my stepdad’s house for doing things like jumping over the balcony stairs in the middle of the night, causing him to wake up to bandage my wounds.
(The Nimrod Restaurant and Jazz Lounge, Falmouth, Massachusetts.)
In 2002 I was without direction, had no money, and was wondering where I’d go. I remembered a restaurant/bar where I had played in Falmouth for the Woods Hole Film Festival. The owner had told me he had “rooms for musicians” on the second floor. I called him and moved up there. I was literally living above a barroom, playing the piano for my rent, and drinking and still abusing xanax.
It was an old colonial building with alot of history that I dubbed “that house behind the hedge”. I had three other housemates. We were all lost souls, gypsies that were stopping temporarily at this place. Jam sessions in the bar downstairs occurred on most weekends and the music and booze flowed freely and copiously.
(Hand of one of my housemates waving from his attic apartment at The Nimrod.)
(The Nimrod and its overgrown hedges, shortly before it was closed down in 2013.)
Finally the doctor who had been prescribing my xanax refused to refill my prescription, since it was obvious I was taking too much of it. So, terrified of the seizure that would most likely come, I started drinking 24/7. I rarely left my room. My anxiety increased to intolerable levels and only blind drunkenness eased it. I was too naive (and too lazy and anxious) to try and get the drug on the street, but not smart enough to check myself into a hospital. That was taken care of for me.
That seizure I had been fearing did indeed come one night in an alcoholic blackout in late October, 2004. The only thing I remember about it was the fire department breaking down my door, and me being unable to move, lying in the darkness in front of my door where I had fallen. I had knocked out a front tooth, hit my head hard on something and fractured my nose. Carried out of there on a stretcher, I wound up in the hospital where, after treating me for a few hours, refused to discharge me since I was still drunk. I was not welcome back at the restaurant, and, after some phone calls to my bothers in Connecticut, they and the doctors decided it would be best for me to go to a detox facility in Falmouth called Gosnold. I agreed, sensing a finality of things.
To his credit, the proprietor of the restaurant offered to bring me some clothes and drive me to the facility. Having no money, the State of Massachusetts paid for my eleven day stay there. For the first three days, I was too sick to do anything but lie in my bed. I hallucinated, watching a “movie” about Duke Ellington on the wall. It was then that a moment of clarity happened. As I lay there listening to the nurses’ conversations, I knew without a doubt that I was going to not only give up drinking, but also stay off of xanax for the rest of my life. After all, I told myself, I’d gone through the fire of the withdrawal; let’s leave that awful addiction behind once and for all. They put me through not one but two phenobarbital withdrawal protocols, and still I was shaking and generally in very bad shape.
When it came time for me to leave, I found out my brothers and father would not take me in. I’m glad now they practiced “tough love”. I know it was hard for them to refuse me. My after-care counselor gave me the address of a men’s shelter in Boston, and I was not too happy about that prospect. Then, at the last hour, she interrupted a class to tell me a bed had opened up at a sober house in Wareham called Evergreen House.
(Evergreen House, in Wareham, Massachusetts.)
You’ve heard that saying “God puts people in your path”? Well, the first angel he put in my path on my road to recovery was the director of that sober house, a short, heavy-set man with a heart of gold and the loud, bellowing voice of a drill sergeant named Bob Marshall. He put me on a rental grant for the first three months until I could get a job. That job was at McDonald’s, where I showed up from 7am to 3pm Monday through Friday for two and a half years, working mostly with teenagers. That job was one of the most honest stretches of work I ever did up til then. I showed up and worked hard, swallowing my pride and collected my paycheque which was just enough to cover my meager rent and leave some money left for groceries. I also faithfully attended twelve step meetings every night (that was mandatory at the sober house), got a sponsor, did chores with the other guys, had house meetings and group therapy sessions there. My brothers and father came up to visit and were thrilled to have me back in their lives. They were thrilled I was simply alive, and sober.
But the xanax withdrawl was not entirely done with me. During the first three weeks at Evergreen, I suffered a (mercifully short-lived) psychotic break where I thought dreams I had were real, until I would realize to my horror I had only dreamed things like getting a job as a detective at the Wareham Police Department. I also had bad hand tremors and even suffered one more seizure, during which I bumped my head on the bed post and developed a subdural hematoma. I was to later learn, from a neurosurgeon friend, that such alarming symptoms are common in what is called “abrupt benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome”.
After spending a few days in the hospital until my brain bleed resolved, my journey in sobriety began in earnest in late November of 2004. While I was in detox, I had missed the Red Sox winning the World Series for the first time since 1918. But more importantly I was back in the game, raw and still weak from the ravages of alcohol and drug withdrawal, but clean and sober and about to begin the best journey of my life.
The second angel God sent me was a counselor from the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission named Dean Gilmore. He came to Evergreen and interviewed me, to see if I might qualify for some funding to help me get back into society. When I told him I was thinking about going to college to get certified as a substance abuse counselor, he suggested another idea. It turned out he was a fan of my music and said “I know who you are, in fact I’d like you to sign these CDs of yours I have in my briefcase!” He told me that, while it was laudable that I wanted to help others, he would like to see if he could get his agency to obtain some seed money for me to do what I do best: make another album. He said that alot of people like himself were wondering what happened to Grayson Hugh.
His faith in me woke me from a sleep that had begun way back in 1994. I will always credit him with reawakening my desire to make records. We went on to become very good friends, and would get together on a regular basis for breakfast, talk about music, life and trade books. Sadly, he passed away in 2008, much too young. I will never forget him.
Dean was able to arrange this funding and, in the Summer of 2006, I recorded the first rhythm tracks of my comeback album at a recording studio in Acton, Massachussets called Wellspring Sound. I took a careful, slow route with this project, wanting my first album in over fifteen years to be a selection of songs that were really important to me. It would be released in 2010 as “An American Record”.
(“An American Record”, Swamp Yankee Records 2010.)
(“Back To The Soul”, Swamp Yankee Records 2015.)
In the process of making this record, an old friend of mine named Polly Messer, who had sung backup with me in the early 80s, got in touch with me and offered to sing (for free, even!) on this record. After a few recording sessions with her in 2007, we fell in love and were married in 2008. We also began performing my music together and even did a two week tour in Poland in 2012.
I have since released another record “Back To The Soul”, which was even up for a Grammy in 2015, and, though it didn’t get one, I now have a renewed career. And I have a new band, Grayson Hugh & The Moon Hawks, and have been doing sold-out concerts with them.
A few of the miracles of sobriety.
(Message on the Evergeen House pay phone, wishing me well on my departure.)
So, from the top of the world, to the dark, lonely bottom, back to – where I am today.
Real. Sober. Alive. And always, always grateful.
My song “Thank You Lord” says it best. To hear it click HERE
– Grayson H., March 25, 2017 Danbury CT