An ‘Outsider’ no more: House of Pain’s Danny Boy O’Connor finds his calling

Danny Boy O'Connor
In 2018, Danny Boy O'Connor appeared in the teaser trailer for PBS' "Great American Read."

Danny Boy O’Connor was 13 years old the first time he saw “The Outsiders,” and the film has stayed with him ever since.

The Ties That Bind UsGrowing up, O’Connor told The Ties That Bind Us recently, life was a series of one hard knock after another — some metaphorical, some physical, but always difficult for a kid from a broken home whose father went to prison when he was 2 months old.

In “The Outsiders,” based on the classic coming-of-age novel by S.E. Hinton, O’Connor saw himself, and in the camaraderie of the Greasers, the gang of underdog friends and brothers who cling to one another as small-town society puts its boot upon their necks, he saw what was missing from his life.

“The world changed after seeing that movie for me, because that was the first time I could identify with the stories of a broken home and finding brotherhood elsewhere on the streets,” he said. “I related to the wanting and the necessity of some type of bonding and camaraderie, of wanting someone to look out for me. I saw it in these characters, who were all from broken homes but had each other, and in each other, they’ve got everything.”

For years, O’Connor found himself looking for a place to belong, a union with like-minded souls who could stand tall even during the harshest of circumstances. He didn’t find it on the streets of New York or Los Angeles, nor did he find it in the world of hip-hop as a member of the ’90s mega-platinum trio House of Pain. He didn’t find it at the bottom of a bottle, and he didn’t find it in the meth to which he would eventually become addicted.

Where he found it, he said, was in the rooms of recovery. There, his people taught him an important lesson:

“It doesn’t’ start on the outside. It comes from doing the work fixing the inside stuff,” he said.

And since April 15, 2005, that’s what he’s been doing. He doesn’t do it perfectly; no one does, but thanks to the guidance of 12 Step programs that have helped millions of addicts and alcoholics like him find a new way to live, he makes a decision daily to clean house, trust God and help others … and it’s brought him all of the contentment he longed for walking out of that movie theater at 13 years old.

Danny Boy O'Connor finds his lane

Danny Boy O'Connor

Courtesy of Phil Clarkin

By that point, O’Connor was living in Los Angeles, where the West Coast kids called him “Disco Dan” because of his thick New York accent and a preference for his mom’s record collection over the guitar rock du jour of the early 1980s.

Before they moved west, O’Connor and his mother found themselves evicted when his dad went to prison, but for a brief respite, he got a taste of an idyllic suburban childhood while living with his grandparents. His mother soon remarried, however, and the family moved to the projects a few miles away, where his stepfather demonstrated the same affinity for alcohol that his biological father had, and that Danny would eventually develop for himself.

“Growing up in that environment, there was a lot of violence — in the projects and even in our apartment, because he’d be drunk sometimes, and there would be fights,” he said. “It was an unstable environment, and when we moved to California, he died of cirrhosis at 35. I thought that was young even as a kid, but when you reach 35 yourself and deal with your on problem, you’re like, ‘Wow — I don’t know what kind of drinking you’ve got to do to get cirrhosis at 35 and die from it.’”

“The Outsiders” set the tone for what would become his performance persona, and in marveling at the all-star Brat Pack cast, he gravitated most to Matt Dillon’s Dallas Winston and Ralph Macchio’s Johnny Cade.

“Who doesn’t want to be Dallas Winston cool and tough, and as sensitive and insightful as Little Johnny?” he added. “If I could make a hybrid and become a little bit of both, those were the two that resonated with me.”

In the world of popular culture, he found his lane when hip-hop made its way to the West Coast. He loved rock ‘n’ roll, but it felt like it belonged to an older generation. Even punk seemed to have been claimed by older peers. Hip-hop, though, was something else entirely, and in the vein of Suicidal Tendencies, it didn’t take long for he and his friends to post up as members of street gangs that competed with one another through music rather than violence.

“Being a native New Yorker living in L.A., I felt like this was my birthright, if you will,” he said. “We were a part of this group called the Mickey Mouse Club, and even though it sounded silly, this was a real thing, this punk gang, and we got pretty serious. We were in the papers and in Rolling Stone, and there were all these gangs around that time, like LADS and Suicidal Tendencies and Circle One the Family and FFF.”

By the time he was in his early 20s, however, hip-hop became his primary focus, especially when he threw in with a couple of former high school classmates: Erik Schrody, a.k.a. Everlast, and Leor Dimant, a.k.a. DJ Lethal. Together, the three men formed House of Pain, which channeled the rich tapestry of West Coast multi-culturalism, O’Connor’s and Schrody’s Irish roots and laid-back SoCal hip-hop vibes for a potent and infectious sound.

Drinking to numb the pain

Danny Boy O'Connor, left, with Everlast in 2011.

O’Connor doesn’t remember the first time he drank alcohol, or the second, or even the third. What he does remember, he said, was the one that worked: “the one that finally gets in the right spot and changes everything,” he described.

Genetics and environmental factors combined to give him addictive tendencies from the jump, he added: His mother noticed it in the way he smoked cigarettes at 16 years old.

“She was disgusted by the way I pulled so hard on every inhale, like I was trying to get every drop of nicotine out of that cigarette with every puff,” she said. “My sister might have been 14, and she smoked, too, but my mother had no problem with it because she didn’t look like she was trying to get high off of it.

“When I started to drink, it, too, was the answer I’d been looking for. It made everything kind of feel alright. I drank and was always in trouble, the kind of trouble you build a reputation off of — petty crime, fighting, tough guy shit, the things I’m not proud of now, but at the time, I was. It was how you made a name for yourself, and I did.”

With House of Pain, that name got supercharged. As the hype man and second emcee for House of Pain, he was on the front row for the group’s multi-platinum self-titled debut, released in 1992. The hip-hop group Cypress Hill took the trio under its wing — DJ Muggs produced “Jump Around,” and B-Real guest-rhymed on “Put Your Head Out” — and over the next several years, House of Pain became an international hip-hop trio. The sophomore record “Same As It Ever Was” came out in 1994, and two years later, the guys followed it with the most complex and mature hip-hop record of the year, “Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again.” By that point, however, Schrody had one foot out the door in search of a solo career, Dimant would join Limp Bizkit and O’Connor wrestled with the fact that booze wasn’t getting the job done any longer.

“I needed other substances to keep me from killing you or killing myself, because it was getting that bad,” he said. “I was in an outlaw motorcycle gang looking for that home I always wanted, but that didn’t fix it. Money didn’t fix it. Music didn’t fix it. So I started with Ecstasy, and I graduated to cocaine, and then I tried meth.

“I thought that was the cure, the fix to all of my immediate problems, because it took my lethargic, depressed, semi-suicidal mindset and turned it into, ‘There’s hope! We can make up for lost time and stay up around the clock and drink with impunity! I can keep you bolt upright for 72 hours or more!’

“So I continued doing that until everything came crashing down,” he added. “It didn’t take long.”

Danny Boy O'Connor: sobriety, take one

Courtesy of the Outsiders House Museum

While House of Pain was still active, O’Connor had gone to drug rehab once, after he had started dabbling in cocaine. At the time, however, he had no intention of quitting, but treatment seemed like the best way to get his bandmates and managers to stop hassling him. And, he added, he was familiar with 12 Step recovery: He remembers sobriety medallions around the family’s apartment when they moved to Los Angeles, evidence that his stepfather, at one time at least, tried to get sober.

He even went to a few himself in a supportive role, there to hear a friend speak or watch a pal pick up a chip. And every time, he said, he would hear the addicts and alcoholics in those meetings tell their stories, and a voice deep in his own mind would whisper, “Hey, man. Maybe you drink too much, too.” But it wasn’t until meth wrapped its chains around his soul that he became willing to give them a try.

“It was only at the gates of insanity or death that I was willing,” he said. “Even if I had a bad idea, I was going to try it before I tried (recovery meetings), but the one thing I remember most from the few times I went was hearing laughter. Nothing was funny in my life for a long time until I got to those meetings and heard people laughing at each other’s stories.”

The turning point was his second “real” meeting, he said: A friend accompanied him on night one, but the next day, something came up, and that same friend called, telling O’Connor he wouldn’t be able to make it.

“And I was like, ‘I’m not going by myself!’ Here I was, this 6-foot-6 alpha male, and I was scared. Maybe it was stranger danger, I don’t know,” he said. “But something told me, ‘If you don’t go now, you may never go again. And so I was like, ‘Fuck it. What do you have to lose? You’ve got nothing worthy going on anyway.’

“That willingness on day two was the defining moment. I went even though I didn’t want to go, and even though I sat at the end of the row and put a backpack in the seat beside me, I was there.”

On day three, he asked his friend: What’s a sponsor? A mentor, in a sense, he told O’Connor. O’Connor asked, and his friend agreed with one stipulation: that Danny call him before he decided to drink or use again, so they could talk it through. And for the next three years, O’Connor did exactly that.

“In year one, I did a Step a month. I was of service, and I started chairing meetings at 6 months, which is what you had to have at that meeting,” he said. “I had the willingness, and I started to clean up, and at the end of year one and with a couple of different commitments, I got a solo record deal. They gave me half a million dollars, and I bought a nice car and a lot of sneakers, and I started working on the record, and that’s when the ego and attitude came back.”

Danny Boy O'Connor: sobriety, take two

Danny Boy O'Connor in front of the Curtis brothers' home from the film "The Outsiders," in July 2016.

Abstinence does not equal recovery, but it took a while for O’Connor to figure that out. At the time, it seemed to be the case: stop drinking and using, and good things will happen.

“In my mind, I forgot what the deal was,” he said. “I thought that if you stopped killing yourself on a daily basis with alcohol and drugs, you get the property and the prestige back. But that’s never been the deal. The whole point of the 12 Step program is to introduce you to a power greater than yourself to keep you from drinking, and then Steps 10, 11 and 12 are really about giving it back. Trust God, clean house and help others — but I didn’t want to hear all that shit.”

His second year of sobriety, take one, was spent working on a solo album, and his meeting attendance slowly fell off. In year three, the deal fell apart, and while he had been paid handsomely, he’d also spent most of the money. He got the master recordings back, but by that point, he was burned out and ready to give up, and his ego felt too bruised to even try again.

“That when I thought, ‘Fuck it — I deserve a drink,’” he said. “I could see that drugs had destroyed my life in the past, but I was going to reshuffle the deck. Drinking, I thought — how bad could it be? And if it doesn’t work out, I could always come back to (meetings).”

He took his first drink in more than three years, and nothing bad happened … although the next day, walking back from the liquor store with a 40oz. in a brown paper bag, a veteran of his 12 Step home group happened to be cruising through his neighborhood and gave O’Connor a wave and a honk. Coincidence? He thinks not, but it wasn’t enough to deter him from his determined path, he said.

“I drank that beer, and it didn’t do the magic trick,” he said. “On day three, I realized that what I was looking for wasn’t going to be found in the bottom of a bottle of beer, so I called up my old dealer to score some meth. She came running, and within 30 days, it was all falling apart. Everything I had worked for was literally on fire.”

His rip cord was the rooms of recovery — but coming back is so much harder than staying in, and he learned that the hard way. He would go to meetings, put together a couple of weeks, and then something would happen: an overdue bill would come in the mail. His girlfriend would break up with him. The two would get back together. His car would break down.

“All these things were dealbreakers in my mind, and I was on a downward spiral for the next two years, until I was sleeping in a warehouse with a couch and a bathroom, but no shower,” he said. “I lived there for six months until I finally got sober. I had to just get the willingness back again. I had tried to go back to the program so many times, but I just couldn’t do it.

“Finally, I was at the end of my rope — suicidal and homicidal in a real way, and probably more homicidal, to be honest with you. People were giving me problems in my mind, and I finally said, ‘I’ve got to do something. I can’t live like this anymore.’”

From 'Outsider' to insider: Recovery at last

Danny Boy O'Connor (right) chats with S.E. Hinton, author of "The Outsiders," on the front porch of The Outsiders House Museum. (Courtesy of the museum)

On April 15, 2005, an old friend from the program happened to be in Hollywood and called O’Connor up. He’d been thinking about Danny and wanted to reach out and hey, if O’Connor ever wanted to hit up a meeting, let him know.

“I told him, I would love a meeting, and he said, ‘Hey, I’m on my way to one that starts in 10 minutes!’” O’Connor said. “He told me where it was, and I told him I lived right by there, and he said, ‘I’ll pick you up right now.’ And so on the 15th of April, I celebrated 16 consecutive years of sobriety, and it’s the best life I’ve ever known.”

This time around, the true purpose of the program truly dawned on him: being of service to other addicts and alcoholics through sobriety and a connection to a Higher Power. It’s a simple concept that gets complicated by human minds corrupted by years and decades of diseased thinking, but through the guidance of his peers and predecessors, he not only found the strength to stay the course, he also found his calling as an artist.

That, he said, came about when he picked up his 10-year medallion in 2015. When he stood up to claim his coin, he was hit first by overwhelming humility and gratitude: “I remembered clearly when I didn’t know how to get 10 minutes,” he said. “Ten days? I couldn’t fathom it. Ten months? You might as well call Byron Allen and get ‘That’s Incredible’ out there to cover it.”

And that, he added, was immediately followed by a single excoriating thought: “What the hell are you doing with your life?”

“Everybody in that room had careers to speak of and were doing great things. Story after story were these success stories, and I thought, ‘Where is your career? Where are your kids? Where’s your white picket fence? Where’s your shit?’” he said.

Standing there on the precipice of self-pity, he made a decision: It was time, he said, to get busy living. He’d experienced modest success on the other side of that attempted solo effort: He and his House of Pain bandmates had built the hip-hop supergroup La Coka Nostra with Ill Bill and Slaine, releasing an album in 2008 that featured contributions from Snoop Dogg and members of Cypress Hill, among others. In 2011, House of Pain had reunited and played several festivals around the world, but permanence was elusive, and O’Connor was restless.

Fortunately, he said, he said, he found inspiration in the same rooms.

“I looked around for the happiest people, and the most happiest were those being of service: taking meetings to jails, driving people to and from meetings, things like that,” he said. “So I doubled up on my service commitments and doubled up on my meetings. Instead of looking for what I could get, I started looking for what I could give.”

Answering a calling

Actor C. Thomas Howell, who played Ponyboy Curtis in "The Outsiders," donates the sweatshirt he wore in the film to The Outsiders House Museum. (Courtesy of the museum)

And that led him full circle, back to the movie that changed his life at 13 years old. While he wasn’t rock star rich, he was time rich, so he set out on solo road trips to explore cities and places across America that had long captured his interest. One of those places: a house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that had been used as the home of the Greasers in “The Outsiders.” He first discovered it on tour in 2009, he said, and even then, he felt like it was an important piece of Americana that should be preserved.

“But being a resident of L.A.,I thought that had nothing to do with me, but I would still visit it two or three times a year on my way to other locations,” he said. “I always thought, ‘This would make a really good museum. Why hasn’t someone done this already?’ And then I started to wonder, ‘Why don’t you do it?’”

In the years since, his appreciation for “The Outsiders” had deepened. For one thing, he read the 1967 novel by S.E. Hinton upon which the film was based. As much as he loved it, however, the film was his first love, but Hinton’s loving ode to a classic American era turned O’Connor’s passing interest into a passion.

“I’ve always had a sweet spot, as I think most Americans and most of the world have, for that iconic ’50s and ’60s Americana — cool cars, denim jackets switchblades and hamburgers,” he said. “I was raised on ‘Happy Days,’ I remember seeing ‘American Graffiti’ as a kid in the theaters. I remember seeing ‘Grease’ and listening to Sha Na Na, and as I got older, I discovered ‘The Wild One’ and Marlon Brando and James Dean.

“I’ve always had a thing for the American outlaw, the American greaser, the American rebel, and when I was 13, guys like Matt Dillon and their cool, raw, visceral acting styles made them my wild ones. That movie was my James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’”

When he first visited the house in 2009, it was rundown and for sale with a price tag of $42,000. Seven years later, when he made the decision to buy it and turn it into the museum he felt it deserved to become, it was in even worse shape. Friends helped him track down the owner, and another friend negotiated with her to buy it for $15,000.

“We both got a fair deal, especially me buying it sight unseen, because it was a complete teardown,” he said. “With $15,000 to buy it, and another $5,000 to help move the existing tenants and set them up in another place to live, I had $8,000 left to my life’s savings, and I was going to have to completely redo it. I prayed on it and asked God for the next indicated thing, and it became clear that I should ask for help — even though when you’re a 6-foot-6 alpha male, the last thing you want to do is ask for help!”

Danny Boy O'Connor: Lost dreams awaken ...

Danny Boy O'Connor (right) with actor C. Thomas Howell. (Courtesy of Twitter)

But what help he got. Tulsa politicians supported his efforts and renamed streets to reflect their admiration for his work. Some of the actors who starred in the 1983 film, C. Thomas Howell and Macchio among them, appeared at fundraising events. Actor and “Outsiders” vet Rob Lowe visited. Hinton herself came by. Musicians Jack White and Billy Idol both contributed money. It was, O’Connor said, a labor of love — and not just his own, but The Outsiders House Museum is now a reality.

“It took 3 ½ years, a lot of support and a lot of gifts in kind, but we raised enough money to get everything done, and now we have this beautiful, shining museum,” he said. “It’s the largest collection of ‘Outsiders’ movie wardrobe and memorabilia known to man, and the largest collection of S.E. Hinton books and memorabilia. And then COVID hit. That had us down for a year and change, but as of late, we’ve started opening up on the weekends, and it’s been a tremendous sight to see the kids back and the community back. Little by little, we’re figuring out how to open up on a regular basis and figuring out how to live life.”

For O’Connor, his life is now in Tulsa. He doesn’t miss L.A., even though it’s an integral part of his past, just as New York is, but his present is now in the place where Coppola made the film that started it all, and the museum that became a living, breathing extension of recovery, he said.

“I don’t worry about all the stuff I worried about at year 10, because my job is to give back — and if you’re a real alcoholic and addict, especially like the one I am, you don’t like to give back!” he said. “I say I did, and I did it, but with strings, because I was always asking, ‘I don’t have enough for me, so how can I give?’ But so many people gave to me to make this museum a reality, it changed my life.

“And really, they weren’t giving to me. They weren’t giving me anything. They loved the actors, they loved Coppola’s work, they loved S.E. Hinton, they loved Tulsa. It was so humbling and eye-opening to see, and it made me realize that giving didn’t have to be drudge work. You can just be of service by showing up and opening your doors and greeting people, so that’s what I do.

“I show up and greet the people and keep collecting, so that when I’m not here, the collection can live on. I’ve found the best possible way for a creative like myself to not only give, but be rewarded in the same sense.”

In other words: He keeps what he has by giving it away, something that may see like an oxymoron to the uninitiated but is a familiar refrain inside the rooms where O’Connor found salvation.

“If all I get is sobriety, then that connects me with a power greater than myself, a power of my own understanding, and it allows me to trust God, clean house and help others — and my whole primary purpose is that,” he said. “Not to buy sneakers or to make money or to shine like fluorescent. That is not the deal. The deal is to trust God, clean house, help others and if I stay sober one day at a time, I can stay happy, joyous and free.”