Good Riddance to destructive habits: The sobriety journey of punk provocateur Russ Rankin

Russ Rankin
Courtesy of Lindsey McGuire | Lindsey Lu Photography

It’s not surprising that Russ Rankin got clean and sober — after all, a lot of his peers found that doing so was a lot more preferable than the alternative, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

The Ties That Bind Us“As time goes on, people who are kind of from my generation of punk rock either sobered up, or they died,” Rankin, the frontman for the West Coast punk outfit Good Riddance (along with a handful of other projects), said. “There are actually a lot of people I know in and around bands of varying sizes who are in recovery, because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be with us.

“I remember going on Warped Tour, and we started a (recovery) group on the tour. It turned out there were a ton of us in recovery, and to deal with the stresses of an eight-week festival tour, we would find a spot and all agree to meet there an hour after the last band was done. It turned out to be band members, roadies, crew members, even some fans who found us, and it was really cool.

“And over the years, I’ve discovered there are a lot more of us than I would have thought who are doing the deal, but are also massively involved in living the punk rock lifestyle,” Rankin added.

What might come as a surprise, however — at least to those who aren’t invested in Good Riddance’s brand of political and social activism through punk rock — is just how long Rankin has been sober. Good Riddance played the Warped Tour in 1995, 1999 and 2000 … and by the time the latter two runs came around, he already had more than a decade free from alcohol and drugs under his belt. He’s become something of a straightedge icon since Good Riddance came up out of Santa Cruz, California, in the early 1990s, and he’s been involved in a recovery program since he was 20 years old.

Which might beg the question by some: Just how much hard living could he have done in the first two decades of his life? A whole lot more than you might think, but the pull of straightedge punk rock spoke to him even as he was circling the drain, he said.

Russ Rankin: Acceptance as the key to sanity

Good Riddance is, from left, Luke Pabich, Sean Sellers, Chuck Platt and Russ Rankin. (Courtesy of Alan Snodgrass)

“I can vividly remember sitting in one of my apartments toward the end, drinking and listening to a band like Uniform Choice, which had very potent anti-drinking and anti-drug lyrics — and there I was, chugging peppermint schnapps and reading the lyrics,” he said. “I couldn’t fuck with (what they were singing about) — it made perfect sense. I just didn’t have the capacity to do it on my own. Living a drug- and alcohol-free life with all these positive principles — equality and social justice and anti-racism — sounded great.

“They were all good things, but I was stuck in a dark place, and I didn’t personally know anybody who was like that. Everybody I knew was as bad as me or worse, and I didn’t think you could be a punker and not be fucked up. To me at that point, you had to be Darby Crash or a Mormon. There was no middle ground that I was aware of.”

Sobriety, Rankin discovered, was the key to unlocking the Middle Path. These days, he embodies the lifestyle he once thought was impossible to attain, working for Apple from home, living with his fiancé “and a couple of cats” and maintaining his music career as best he can during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: songwriting, livestreaming the occasional acoustic concert from his couch and keeping Good Riddance on the radar for a time when live shows are able to resume.

“We just released a four-song EP of unreleased songs on Fat Wreck Chords to benefit the World Food Programme (the nonprofit food assistance arm of the United Nations), but right now everything’s on hold,” he said. “We were supposed to be in Europe in June, but it looks like everything is on hold for the rest of the summer. We have some stuff in the works for the fall, but everybody’s in a bad space right now.”

It is, as his sponsor says, “a tremendous opportunity to practice acceptance,” to meet uncertainty with the acceptance of his lifestyle and his recovery program. A full-on coronavirus freak-out wouldn’t be an unreasonable response to the paralysis that’s seized all aspects of American life, but really, he pointed out, what good would that do? Besides, if recovery has taught him anything, it’s the ability to be present — and even with life on hold, he’s still got a full plate, as do his bandmates in Good Riddance.

“I try to hit two (recovery) meetings a week for sure, including my home group and maybe other ones sprinkled in there, if I get asked to speak. I’m talking to my sponsor, and I have sponsees who have sponsees who have sponsees, so there are a lot of questions I get called about when one of the guys needs to run something up the chain,” he said. “And then I also have a standing assignment to call other sober men in my support group — guys I’m not sponsoring, but who are my peers that I wouldn’t normally call every day.

“And I don’t do it for me, necessarily. Of course it helps me, but it also gives them two or three minutes when they’re not thinking about themselves and get a reprieve from what’s happening.”

In recovery parlance, it’s known as service work. It allows Rankin to get out of his own head and the mental and emotional clutter that can accumulate there and be there for someone else. It’s a far cry from his days when alcohol consumed every aspect of his life, and the inability to function without it made the sort of existence he enjoys today seem unattainable.

Russ Rankin: A punk rocker is born

Courtesy of Lindsey McGuire | Lindsey Lu Photography

Rankin is a lifelong Santa Cruz resident, and music grabbed him early on. His father sang in a local church choir every Sunday, but it was rock ‘n’ roll that caught his attention more than sacred hymns.

“I remember my first record I ever bought was ‘KISS Alive,’” he said. “I got really into KISS in fourth and fifth grade, and I would get my parents’ badminton racket and pretend like it was a guitar and did the whole thing. And then I had an older cousin who was two or three years older than me, and she was into Styx and Rush and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and she would play me stuff, so I was getting into some heavier music pretty much right off the bat.”

As much as rock intrigued him, however, it was punk rock that claimed his soul. The first time he listened to Bad Religion was a turning point, and the way that band refused to bend to the rules of convention sent him down the path of social dissidence.

“It was like, ‘Whoa, this guy is using melodies that weren’t, at the time, so common in punk rock to carry these interesting thoughts and lyrics and words — what a cool platform that would be to deliver some kind of socially relevant message,’” he said. “It wasn’t really a fully formed thought, but that was the first time the idea popped in my head that I would like to do that.”

His parents weren’t necessarily politically active, but they leaned left during a time when Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party weren’t exactly popular outside of traditionally blue cities and states. The news was on every night in the Rankin household, and discussions about current events were the norm. Whenever Russ asked questions, his mom encouraged him to seek it out for himself, which at the time meant consulting an encyclopedia.

It’s little wonder, then, that when he discovered the Dead Kennedys in the early 1980s, Rankin realized he’d discovered his lane.

“I just dove in, and I became really politicized by that band’s music,” he said. “Obviously, that led me to others, but I was really drawn initially to bands that had a more strident political or social message than the party bands. There were plenty of those, too, but there was something about what these political bands were singing about that resonated with me and drew me in and made me question things more and more. I started to become more cynical and question the status quo and the things I was being taught at school.”

Throw in the punk zine MaximumRockNRoll, which gave the budding punk rocker a glimpse into corners of the subculture from around the world, and his future was cemented.

“They put out ‘Welcome to 1984,’ this compilation of punk and hardcore bands from all over the world, and I was so stoked to hear bands from Finland and Brazil and Italy,” he said. “It made me feel like there was a resistance happening not just here, but everywhere.”

Youthful experimentation becomes a problem

Russ Rankin

Courtesy of Lindsey McGuire | Lindsey Lu Photography

“Chemical Warfare,” off the 1980 Dead Kennedys album “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” was the turning point. At the time, Rankin was a Central Coast surfer mostly into reggae and New Wave, but the speed, aggression and grit of that particular song slaked his thirst for something more visceral, he said.

“It was like walking through the desert for a month and finally finding some water,” he said. “I went out and bought a couple of their albums the next day, and every song was political or socially relevant. I had never thought about things that way, that my country did this or was involved in this, and at the time, it was really, really relevant for me.”

So much so that when some friends started a band playing AC/DC covers, Rankin volunteered to sing — but only if they would play Sex Pistols covers. Shortly thereafter, he began dabbling in songwriting — “pretty pedestrian” at first, but the seeds had been planted … just as they had with alcohol and drugs.

His freshman year of high school, his parents sent him to a preparatory academy, a decision that didn’t sit well with the young Rankin. On the weekends, however, his peers found creative ways to procure booze, and his social life there revolved around getting plastered.

“The quality of your weekend depended on how fucked up you got, so I didn’t notice anything unusual about my drinking, relative to my peers,” he said. “But during the school week, I would be sitting in class, thinking about getting my alcohol on the coming weekend. It would be a Monday, and I was already thinking about drinking on Friday night.”

His rabble-rousing ways meant he was disinvited the following year, and he went to public school in Santa Cruz. It seemed to be a typical teenage existence at first — hitting the community party spots on the weekends for general good times that, at first, ended with him “remembering everything the next day and not really hurting anybody.”

“For a while, it was fun and cool and not a lot of consequences, and everybody was doing it — everybody was going hard and drinking until they threw up or blacked out,” he said.

By the time he started singing in that fledgling punk band, he had moved out of his parents’ home, gotten his own place and doubled down, working at a fast food joint during the day and befriending 21-year-olds who could buy him liquor. The “weekends” eventually stretched into six or seven days, and at that point, he started to crave it, he said.

“It was that sense of, even though three beers were all I would need to feel good, if I had one, I would keep going,” he said. “I would drink mine and everybody else’s. I would drink before I went to parties, and when I got to parties, would hide liquor in bushes outside, because what if the cops came, or what if the keg tapped out?

“It went from recreational to pathological right around that time. I didn’t drink very long — probably for about a year like that — but the last seven or eight months, there were blackouts every single time … waking up with scars and bruises and having no idea where I had gotten them … with less friends than the night before. I was barely employable at a fast food place; I would get loud or disrespectful and get evicted from apartments; or I was the kind of person who just stopped checking the mail, so I didn’t think I had bills, and the power or the cable would get cut off. That’s where it ended up for me.”

Embracing a straightedge daydream

It was, he added, a dark place. By that point, it had stopped being fun, and his decision to stop drinking was made and broken regularly. Before going out, he would make a pledge not to drink, then end up buying a six-pack of Coors Light, demolishing it and drinking everyone else’s beer, too. He was self-aware enough to realize what was going on — he was drinking against his own will — but he had no idea what to do about it.

“The morning after my last night of drinking, I was looking in the mirror at how bad I was and how beat up I was, and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m done,’” he said. “There was no spiritual apex, no recovery … I just ran out of bullets. I remember that morning, a buddy of mine who had gone out with me drinking had crashed on my couch, and we were sitting there listening to 7 Seconds, drinking our coffee and licking our wounds.

“We started talking about straightedge — ‘If we were straightedge, we wouldn’t be feeling like this. We would be feeling so much better, and maybe we would be out skateboarding.’ So we talked ourselves into being straight edge.”

Straightedge emerged as a subculture of hardcore punk in the early ’80s as a pushback against the genre’s more hedonistic tendencies. Adapting the title of a 1981 song by Minor Threat, straightedge adherents refrain from alcohol and drugs, and some members go so far as to give up tobacco, meat and animal products and even promiscuous sex or caffeine. Rankin didn’t radically transform overnight, but that particular night he bought a 2 liter of Coke instead of Coors Light.

“I did that, and I did it the next night, and I just never drank again,” he said. “My other friend fell off after a few days and ended up dying of a heroin overdose a few years later. I wasn’t doing anything different, but the compulsion had been removed. It was not difficult for me to not get drunk and not have alcohol, but I still had a lot of chaos in my life.”

Recovery came several month later, when his younger brother — attending the same boarding school at which Rankin had gotten something of a reputation — was caught with LSD and sent to a drug and alcohol treatment center. By that point, Rankin’s abstinence had helped him begin to mend fences with his family — at the end of his run, he had effectively been excommunicated by his folks because of the lies and theft and wasn’t even allowed back home.

As he began to sober up, however, they welcomed him back into the fold — and when the treatment center where his brother was a guest invited his folks to come to a family therapy weekend, Rankin also attended. It was, he said, an enormous turning point.

“It was huge for me, because that’s when I learned about the disease of alcoholism,” he said. “For me, I just thought I was a fuckup who couldn’t drink right, but listening to them talk about alcoholism, I thought, ‘Whoa — this sounds exactly like me.’ The counselors were in recovery, and they talked a little about their experiences, and so I made a commitment to go to meetings with my brother when he got out. And that was my first exposure to any kind of 12 Step situation.”

Russ Rankin: From dry to sober

Russ Rankin

Courtesy of Lindsey McGuire | Lindsey Lu Photography

His brother decided 12 Step recovery wasn’t his gig, but in those meetings, Rankin found a connection. At first, it was a bizarre experience, and he struggled to relate to others in the meeting hall that was once a train station and had become a gathering place for everyone from buttoned-up lawyers, to 1 percenter bikers, to homeless men and women who showed up strictly for the free coffee.

“I would hear the craziest stories, and I just tripped on it,” he said. “I showed up with my skateboard and just sat and listened. I didn’t talk to anybody, and I didn’t do anything — I just didn’t drink and went to meetings. I was so inexperienced that I thought that was the only meeting!

“The speakers would tell these stories — ‘Then I got my fifth or sixth DUI, so I went back to prison, and that’s when I went through my third divorce’ — and here I was, 19 and with a skateboard, thinking, ‘I don’t think this is the right place for me, because I don’t relate at all.’ But I kept showing up. My biggest regret was that I didn’t dive in, because I didn’t have the gift of desperation on my own, because I had already been sober for four or five months.”

However, in the punk community where he still maintained close ties to friends and fellow musicians, a fledgling sobriety movement was afoot. Others in his extended social circle got sober, and Rankin suddenly had a support network of similarly aged peers with whom he shared more similarities. They turned him on to other meetings, including a young people’s meeting that had begun in Santa Cruz, and Rankin started attending those.

“I went to that and then go out to Denny’s and act like an idiot with a crew of young, bored sober people,” he said. “That was really fun and really cool, but I was just dry. I was suffering unknowingly from untreated alcoholism. I had taken away one solution and hadn’t put anything else in.”

One at a time, the members of his sober crew started getting sponsors in the program, and their rowdiness and restlessness began to be replaced by an earnestness to work Steps and read recovery literature and take on service commitments. The changes Rankin saw in them were positive, but he also felt like an outsider looking in.

“Eventually, one of my friends told me, ‘You’ve got to get a sponsor or get drunk, because you’re an asshole, and you’re suffering, and I’m not going to hang out with you,’” Rankin remembered. “He told me about a speaker who was coming up, and that he wanted me to go and listen to this guy and ask him to be my sponsor. At that point, I was willing to do it, because I didn’t want to lose this guy as a friend.

“So I went to a meeting, heard the guy talked, asked him to be my sponsor … and that guy has been my sponsor ever since.”

That was in 1992. Rankin had been sober for four years at the time, but that was the year his recovery truly began.

Good Riddance and the roots of resistance

Russ RankinThat was also the year that Rankin and guitarist Luke Pabich released a nine-track demo cassette under the moniker of their old band, State of Grace. That particular hardcore project morphed into Good Riddance, which would grow into an internationally respected activist punk project.

“At that point, we were trying to just play a lot locally and practice and write original songs,” he said. “It wasn’t a huge time commitment, and it was pretty fun. As far as the music scene went, obviously I didn’t tell anybody I was in recovery; it was just easier to say I was straightedge.”

Pabich, he said, provided the impetus to get Good Riddance out of Santa Cruz. They went through a “revolving door” of band members until setting on bassist Chuck Platt and original drummer Rich McDermott, a childhood friend of Rankin’s who stayed on through the first album before being replaced by Sean Sellers. Sellers left from 1999 to 2004 but after returning has remained part of the lineup ever since.

“We didn’t have any expectation or idea of where it would go; we just wanted to do everything we could to make a serious go of being in a band, which to us meant writing original music that was continually getting better and booking as many shows as we could outside of Santa Cruz,” he said.

After locking down the opening slot for national headliners who came through town, they turned to that vaunted zine, MaximumRockNRoll, and consulted its annual guide “Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life,” which maintained a list of underground, independent and outside-the-mainstream venues, booking agents, fellow artists and other contacts to help bands like Good Riddance book their own tours.

“We toured all the way out to Texas with just a demo tape; all the way up to Seattle and back with just a demo tape,” Rankin said. “We lost money, but we wanted to do it just to get out and make a go. We were pretty determined to give it a good go, because we wanted to be able to look back later and not regret anything. We wanted to know we had at least tried.”

In 1995, Good Riddance released its full-length debut, “For God and Country,” a visceral and stinging indictment of American culture and politics that made appropriate nods to the band’s predecessors while setting a high bar for its contemporaries. They continued to write, to tour and to push themselves, and through right-place/right-time fortune and determination, they eked out a modest place for themselves in the hardcore pantheon.

“I don’t know if I would have been able to do it if I hadn’t been sober — I don’t know if I would have been able to be in a band!” he said. “I remember our very first show in Europe was in this town in Germany, and I remember looking out at German kids singing along to songs I’d written in my bedroom. It was definitely surreal.”

Russ Rankin: Clean, serene and still raging against the machine

Russ Rankin

Courtesy of Lindsey McGuire | Lindsey Lu Photography

Over the following decade, Good Riddance put out seven full-lengths on Fat Wreck Chords and toured around the world, building an enthusiastic and dedicated fan base through old-school DIY ethics and a willingness to always speak truth to power. As the band’s messages sharpened, so too did Rankin’s embrace of the straightedge lifestyle. The guys began donating a portion of their album sales to various nonprofit organizations and played numerous shows at events to call attention to causes they felt were worthy.

“For me, the stopping drinking and becoming straightedge encompassed stopping smoking, too, and the animal rights stuff came soon after that as a result of having my mind opened to ideas of bands I was listening to,” he said. “There was a straightedge zine called No Answers back then, and I remember they published a big article about vegetarianism. A friend recommended John Robbins’ book (“Diet for a New America”), and there was a song called ‘No More’ (by the New York hardcore band Youth of Today) that was one of the first straightedge hardcore animal rights songs.

“All of those things happened in a short period of time, and they shook me and made me reevaluate what I was doing. Once I realized I had been lied to my whole life, that not only did I not need animal products but could thrive without them and that the planet would be better off as well, I was in.”

In 2007, Good Riddance played a final show in Santa Cruz before the guys parted ways to pursue other projects. For Rankin, that meant more guest vocals and production work, and in 2012, he released his solo album, “Farewell Catalonia.” That same year, he and his bandmates reunited as Good Riddance and have released two full-lengths since, including last year’s “Thoughts and Prayers.”

“I have the band, and we stay fairly busy for four guys,” he said. “Three of us are married, three of us have children, and all of us have other day jobs,” he said. “We balance our schedules and stay in contact about doing shows, and we’re always writing new material. I play solo shows whenever I can, and I work what you’d call a 9 to 5 job — and then there’s recovery.

“Mostly these days, it’s all about, what can I do to be of service to the people around me. At home, that means helping out around the house and being here for my partner. And it means continuing to maintain the relationships in the recovery community that are vital for me.”