Traveling across the U.S.A.
It's hard sometimes to keep it together...
Find someone or you'll be lost
And you're just the kind who's liable to never be found.
Those words come from Blackie Onassis's plaintive "The Mistake," the psychic centerpiece of Urge Overkill's last album, the erratic but powerful Exit the Dragon. The song--complete with eerie guitar moanings, Onassis's vulnerable falsetto, and an ominous "Beware the overdose" chorus--was written many months ago, but it took on an eerie prescience when the drummer, at loose ends after a tour, was picked up for possession last December. Charges were dropped last month, but the incident has fueled months of gossip and speculation about drug abuse on Onassis's part and the future of the band. Blackie was a junkie, people said; Urge threw him out of the group. Urge was breaking up. They'd been dropped by Geffen.
Onassis straightforwardly cops to drug use, but also says the rumors are greatly exaggerated. He's still in the band; Urge is together and beginning work on a new album after a management upheaval; and he's taking on a cross-addiction problem, as the saying goes, one day at a time.
"I first of all had a problem with heroin," he says. "I've taken care of that, but there's everything--pot, lines of coke, drinking. It was the whole lifestyle. I'd kick one thing and then do something else and that was essentially my problem. I have a problem with addiction. It's part of my personality."
As "The Mistake" details, and as many rockers before him have found out, such predilections are cruelly exacerbated by the rock 'n' roll lifestyle--the very lifestyle that Urge so famously at once embraces and satirizes with its matching suits, the fraternally raised martinis, the Humboldt Park playhouse known as the Bank--and most potently, the draining, demanding strain of life on the road.
"When you go out and tour and do the Rock Thing"--the words are capitalized in Urgespeak--"you're in a social situation all the time," he says. "It becomes a part of your job. When people come out to the show, it's their night out. For you it's every single night. It creeps up on you. It's like going from one party to another and never having to change your clothes. It's the feel of a bender."
Onassis grew up as John Rowan in Beverly. He got into rock drumming with a neighborhood basement band and eventually fell into the local rock scene when he moved to the north side. He answered a Reader ad and wound up in Friends of Betty, now Red Red Meat, but he also amusedly followed the course of a pair of soi-disant rock royalty who called themselves National Kato and King Roeser. Urge Overkill was a warped underground band with a weird classic-rock streak that at once confused and polarized the scene. "There were people who thought they were great and people who thought they were shit," says Onassis.
His brutal drumming marked Urge's 1991 sonic breakthrough, The Supersonic Storybook; soon the band was touring with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and, having been taken on in the great post-Nevermind alternative-rock signing spree by Geffen, recording its first major-label album. So began the Rock Thing. Harder than being on tour, Onassis says, was not being on tour. "What happens is that you get back and you're still in the party mind-set. It takes a while to get used to getting up and going to bed at normal hours."
Exit the Dragon's dark subtexts foreshadowed the problems Urge would have in 1995. Dissent grew in the band, the record never found an audience, and an accompanying tour collapsed. Onassis got busted in December but won't give the exact details. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says. "I was in a part of the city known for that sort of thing." Charges were dropped earlier this month.
Onassis says Geffen supplied him with a counselor--"They've had experience with this sort of thing before," he says dryly. "I was really lucky the band, the record company, and my family were there for me when I fucked up. I was sort of good at hiding it. I never saw it as a big enough problem to stop, but it became a major problem when I got caught."
The Urge breakup rumors came from the band's decision to play a pair of long-scheduled shows in Brazil without Onassis; Material Issue's Mike Zelenko filled in. "It was a bummer, but I thought I should get my shit together here in Chicago," Onassis says.
Meanwhile the band was riding rough waters. "Every day is like a vacation with you / King and Blackie and I," sang Kato hopefully on the band's 1993 hit "Sister Havana." Reality was a bit different. Roeser and Kato have been friends and partners for years, but no one else has ever described their relationship as a vacation. Things were complicated by the fact that Roeser's girlfriend, Beth Winer, was the band's manager. Now she's not, and the band is returning to normalcy, Onassis says.
Roeser, he says, is currently in LA with Winer, who manages Combustible Edison. Onassis is writing songs for the new album with Kato. He and his girlfriend have split the Bank and are trying to stay out of trouble. "It wasn't a terrible problem--though that's probably what a lot of people [in my position] feel," he notes. "But I think about what I'm doing every day, and I'm dealing with it. I want to maintain that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Spindler.