D.I. guitarist, Rock to Recovery administrator Clinton Calton: Thanks to recovery’s promises, ‘I’m living the dream’

Courtesy of Jason Cook
Courtesy of Jason Cook

Drugs led to Clinton Calton getting arrested in front of a crowd of his peers, an incident that became the stuff of urban legend throughout the rest of his school days.

The Ties That Bind UsIt was only weed, but Calton was in the seventh grade. And, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, he was already well on his way to the bitter ends of addiction.

“By sixth grade, I was already smoking weed, and I got arrested for the first time in junior high,” said the long-time guitarist for SoCal punk outfit D.I., who now serves as one of the program administrators for Rock to Recovery. “My first drug deal, and I got busted. It was very traumatic, because it was in front of the whole school, but it was also kind of cool, because I got some street cred, too — or as much street cred as you could get in seventh grade, I guess. But nobody forgot that day for the next five years.”

At the time, life wasn’t unbearable for Calton. Unlike many of his peers in the rooms of recovery, he didn’t fall in love with drugs and alcohol because it helped him forget feelings of discomfort. He doesn’t remember living with a sense of impending doom, or like he never fit in with his peers.

Drugs, he thought at the time, were a gateway to glamour and excess. And for a kid who worshiped at the altar of rock ‘n’ roll, it seemed there could be no better communion.

“I hear this a lot in meetings — ‘I always felt different’ — and I think I did, but I remember feeling like I wanted to be different, not change the way I felt because of anxiety,” he said. “I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be a rock star, pretty much, and I thought drugs and alcohol would enhance that journey.

“I thought they helped me become the person I thought I wanted to be, and it felt good. There were already consequences, but I was willing to accept the consequences, I guess. But for sure, I was already having consequences early on, and big ones.”

Southern California bound

Born in Texas, Calton moved with his family to Colorado when he was 1. His father was a regional sales manager of a paper company, and by the time he was 5, the family was on its way to Southern California, where they settled in Fullerton. A year and a half later, his father had died, and he spent the bulk of his childhood with his sister and his mom.

“My mom was a big music fan, and my sister played the flute in high school band, but there was nothing really going on as far as guitar in my household,” he said. “But my sister was dating some guitar player dude in a band, and she had some cool records, and then my stepdad came into the picture, and he did, too. I immediately wanted to get a guitar, and my mom bought me one when I was in the seventh grade.”

For the first three years, he struggled to master the acoustic, and even though he had a teacher for a year and a half, it wasn’t until he went to visit a couple of cousins that he began to see the awesome power an electric could have.

“He lived in Alabama, was six years older than me and in a rock band, and we went to see him out there,” Calton said. “He had a Fender Stratocaster made in Fullerton, where I was growing up, and it blew my mind to watch him play. I was like, ‘I could totally do that!’

“And then, I think the following year, I went to Baton Rouge, La., and hung out with (another) cousin who took me to see Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Def Leppard and The Scorpions, all within a couple of weeks. He also turned me on to some speed and gave me some beer, and I think we were smoking some homegrown.

“All of that set me up,” he added. “Seeing Alice and Ted high and being young, that was it. I thought, ‘I wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star!’”

In some ways, the idols of his youth encouraged him to practice consumption of alcohol and drugs like he would his guitar, to borrow a phrase from the Big Book. He remembers a poster on his sister’s bedroom wall of Rod Stewart palming a Heineken, or pictures of Led Zeppelin guitar god Jimmy Page clutching a bottle of Jack Daniel. And, he added, he remembers wanting to emulate those guys.

“I thought that was literally the case, that I had to be able to handle all of those things in order to play my guitar well while I was drunk or high,” he said.

A scene insane with talent

Courtesy of Sean McCracken

In high school, Calton fell in with a group of guys who would go on to form the bedrock of the Orange County hardcore scene: Casey Royer, who played in Social Distortion, The Adolescents and D.I.; and the Agnew brothers — Frank, Rikk and Alfie, who played together and solo in all three bands as well.

“To me, the Agnew brothers are the Wilsons (of the Beach Boys) of Fullerton,” Calton said. “Frank and Rikk were kind of scary to me, but their little brother, Alfie, was a year younger than me. Rikk was so gnarly, and he would do these crazy things, like smash his guitar or cutting himself, but then Alfie was pretty mellow. For me, it was a combination of intimidation, I guess, and not looking at these guys as rock stars, because I knew them, and I also liked the music.”

They weren’t the only musicians who had an influence on Calton’s playing. He remembers being at a party in high school and getting an up-close-and-personal view of a guy playing riffs that blew his mind. Others in his crowd were belligerent and antagonistic, but Rusty Anderson, Calton said, was always calm, cool and able to coax sounds out of a guitar that seemed impossible.

“Looking back on it, I never saw him drunk or belligerent, and I get it now — he’s not an alcoholic or a drug addict!” Calton said with a laugh. “He was just a guy with some rad talent, and hanging out with rad guitar players inspired me to become a better guitar player.”

Before joining D.I., Calton played in bands around Orange County, including a cover outfit for four years that turned into a full-time gig. He was on bass, but playing 150 songs during a four-hour set every night, everything from The Beatles to The Cult to The Cure, helped hone his chops. He played with the current bassist and drummer for D.I., Eddie and Joe Tatar, who ended up being instrumental in both his musicianship and his recovery. And another band, Rooster, enjoyed some regional success (and opened for Hed PE, which at the time featured Rock to Recovery founder Wes Geer), when Royer called and asked him to sit in on some recording sessions for D.I.

It was, Calton said, the call he’d been waiting for.

“I had been going to auditions, and I felt like I was getting older and didn’t have a career in music — or any career at all,” he said. “I was in and out of being able to hold a job and relationships and all the things that went along with that. My alcoholism and drug use was getting worse and worse, and when I tried to curb my drug use, I ended up drinking more.

“Then I ended up getting a call from D.I. to just be a session guy for them for three songs, to Casey asking me to join a band. A month before, I had done an audition with a band, and I actually already had the gig, but I showed up hammered. I felt like my life was over and that I was a loser, but then I got the call from D.I. I immediately went from thinking what a loser I was to being on tour with The Misfits.”

Life in the fast lane

As D.I. flirted with national fame, Calton got a guitar endorsement, the band got magazine spreads and his career, it seemed, was taking off. By contrast, his using got drastically worse.

“I think it was fueled by my ego and my overnight success,” he said. “I was ‘Mr. Punk Rocker,’ so I had a license to ill, so to speak.”

By that point, D.I. had been a fixture on the SoCal hardcore scene since 1981, when Royer first put the band together. After Calton joined, he joined the band on the road and appeared on two releases, 2007’s “On the Western Front” and 2012’s “United We Slam.” Both records were recorded while he was sober, however, because Calton’s run came to an end when he showed up to a practice in 2004, drunk.

“Up to that point, though, it had gotten so bad that I was having seizures,” he said. “They started off slow — they would maybe last for 5 or 10 seconds, and it would just be these lapses of everything. I would fall down a lot, and people gave me the nickname ‘Rocket Man.’ At that practice, I had a seizure, and they had an intervention, right then and there.”

“You gotta go to rehab,” his bandmates told him. Exhausted, he acquiesced, and the next month, he checked himself into an addiction treatment center. After a rough detox, the fog lifted, and Calton found himself with a willingness to put into practice the recovery principles he was being taught.

“It was like, this window of opportunity had opened, and it felt like I had woken up,” he said. “I didn’t breathe a sober breath for 20 years, so physically, it was not a very pleasant time, but I felt so much better after 30, 60 and 90 days that I thought, ‘This is pretty cool! Maybe I can stay sober for another day after I get out of rehab!’”

Credit some of his sobriety to sheer determination. Calton has always been something of an overachiever, he said, and routine is as important now as it was in early sobriety. He still attends meeting at his original home group, and he continues to work Steps.

“I was involved in my sobriety from day one, and I still am,” he said. “They said, ‘Keep coming back,’ so I just kept going — literally to the same group for 14 ½ years! It was so cool to me to be sober that once I came out of the fog, so to speak, I was on a pink cloud.”

Finding and embracing a 'new way to live'

Courtesy of Michael Bezjian

Music, in fact, took a backseat to his recovery. Once he stopped trying to achieve fame, he started becoming the musician he was meant to be, he added.

“I got back to when I first picked up a guitar and enjoyed playing it,” he said. “There at the end, I didn’t even want to play anymore, but sobriety gave me the opportunity to have fun playing music again, but also to concentrate on being a musician vs. being a rock star. And it improved everything.

“I started learning about the business aspect of being a musician and recording my own stuff, engineering and producing music on a nonprofessional level. I didn’t even know how to use a computer when I got sober, but because of that, my mind opened. I met somebody who taught me how to record on a computer, and I started learning about management and booking and all the business aspects of what was going on with my band.”

As he took a more hands-on role in D.I., he also began looking for ways to combine his passion for recovery and rock ‘n’ roll. When Geer started Rock to Recovery, a music therapy program that services treatment center clients throughout Southern California, word began to spread, and Calton reached out for a job. By that point, he had gone back to school to become an alcohol and drug counselor, and when he ran into Geer at a meeting, he broached the subject.

“He came to my home group one day, and because I was interested in working in treatment and had heard about Rock to Recovery, I hit him up for a job,” Calton said. “I quite literally go the job by going to a meeting. Talk about the Promises!”

That was in 2015. A couple of weeks later, he was named a program administrator, overseeing Rock to Recovery activities in Orange County. He’s making a new record with D.I., a covers album of old favorite done D.I. style, and the guys have asked Calton to mix it. He’s hanging out with his Rock to Recovery brothers, guys like Sonny Mayo and Brandon Parkhurst, and celebrity advocates of the organization, like actor Danny Trejo.

“I’m living the dream, by all accounts of the Promises,” he said. “What my sponsor still reminds me of, though, is to be careful what you wish for in sobriety, because you’re gonna get it. That’s the good news, but the bad news is, that stuff is not going to keep me sober. I’m living the dream, but I’m working hard at it.”

And with the willingness to also do some hard work, it’s a dream that attainable by anyone — outside of the industry, or with the same lifelong dedication to rock ‘n’ roll that Calton has.

“I literally thought that people in (12 Step recovery groups) had problems; I mean, why go through life sober when you can go through life high and have way more fun?” he said. “But what I tell anyone is, literally give it a chance. What do you have to lose? Think about it and put it on paper: warrants, hangovers and all the bad stuff that goes along with it. And what do you have to gain? A better life.”