Julie Christensen: Alt-country godmother finds renewal in the Rooms

Courtesy of Stacie Huckeba

Julie Christensen: Alt-country godmother finds renewal in the Rooms

Julie Christensen’s spiritual awakening took place in the Colorado mountains, behind the wheel of 1966 Plymouth Valiant, a Chrysler Slant-6 engine growling around switchback curves while the singers of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 crooned a Beatles tune on the radio.

In that moment, she tells The Ties That Bind Us, she realized: Those women were singing about her. “The Fool on the Hill,” originally recorded and released by the Beatles, may have been inspired by Paul McCartney’s ruminations on God or the Maharishi (depending on which urban legend you believe), but in that moment, dopesick and desperate, every word of the song hit home.

“I went to go get that car in Colorado, because my brother had found it in Iowa, and it was just beautiful; while we were there, we were going to use my uncle and aunt’s cabin up in Alma – this ghost town near Vail – to kick (heroin),” Christensen says during a phone call from her East Nashville home. “Talk about an idea that had gone wrong! This was a place with an outhouse, and it was cold even in August, and we had to keep stoking this wood stove at night to keep warm, and we’re puking and had (diarrhea) and everything else that you do.

“We kept telling people when we came down the mountain that we had altitude sickness. But the moment of clarity, when we were still up in the mountains, was when I had to go to the store for something, and I was driving that that car for the first time, and I turned on the radio. That song came on, and I just started crying. I was in this beautiful car, in the beautiful mountains of Colorado, and I remember thinking, ‘If I (screw) this up, I’m going to lose this. I’m going to lose everything that I have. I’m going to lose the beauty of this moment.’”

Midwestern Beginnings

Courtesy of Michael Kelly

Like so many of her peers in recovery, Christensen’s life had been, until that point, a collection of lost moments, all of them tied to the desire to purge the smoldering fires of self-doubt and existential hunger she’s had within her since childhood. The first time she got drunk was back home in Iowa, at a New Year’s Eve party her parents threw. She remembers sneaking sloe gin and 7-Up, watching “Monkey Business” with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe and eventually “puking purple in the snow,” she adds.

Her disease had awakened, but it didn’t nudge her again until several years later, when she got to high school. On the outside, she was a straight-A member of the student council, but her boyfriend  was growing weed in the attic of his parents’ home. When he left for junior college the following year, Christensen continued to move fluidly between two worlds, a duality that would stay with her throughout her days as a singer in both the jazz and punk scenes of Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

“I was just a real good student – on the debate team and the drill team and all of these extracurricular activities, but I lived this double life,” she recalls. “I hung around with the stoners and the smart kids. I was promiscuous, but that’s because I was an alcoholic, and I was doing all of the things that alcoholics do, the things we keep secret from everybody, the stuff that just pushes the envelope.”

In college, she threw in with “dark ringleader types” whose problems were bigger than her own; beside them, she was the girl who managed to keep it together, and when a guy tried to hit on her by inviting her to audition for a spot in his band, she called his bluff. Not only did she show up to audition, she landed the role of lead singer – on her 19th birthday. Although she fell in love with the guitar player, the entire band was a dysfunctional mobile circus of mayhem and drugs, and today, five of the seven members are dead, and another is serving a 30-years-to-life prison sentence.

“The fiddle player, me and the roadie are the only people left out of that band,” she says.

She was 19 years old and hit the road; Longshot toured the country, and in order to meet the tour requirements, she dropped out of college. Her group notched some modest accomplishments, opening for Asleep at the Wheel and John Prine, and touring the same circuit as Cheap Trick and Shawn Colvin’s band at the time, the Dixie Diesels. But by 1978, she had joined a show band and flirted with the more glamorous side of music.

“The people that booked us were these Italian, ‘Goodfellas’ type of people, and I looked like Sharon Stone in ‘Casino,’” she says with a laugh. “I would go out and date guys with names like Butch or Sonny, in places like Kansas City, Ohio and Florida. I made $800 a week, but I spent it drinking and doing blow.”

From Texas to Los Angeles

In 1979, she was living in Austin, Texas, where she waitressed at a bar owned by Willie Nelson and served beer to blues hotshot Stevie Ray Vaughan, before he got sober.

“I was drinking all during my shifts, and it just got worse and worse,” she says. “People in Austin would hand you a vial of cocaine when you went to the bathroom. I worked all the time, singing, and I was pretty drunk and stoned all of the time, but I was high-functioning.”

In Austin, she met Roscoe Beck, a bassist with the jazz group Passenger; he was playing with Leonard Cohen at the time, and a few years later, he would suggest Christensen as a replacement for Cohen’s long-time backup vocalist, Jennifer Warnes. That was after she got sober, however; by 1981, she was living in Los Angeles and moving fluidly between the city’s punk underground and the more respectable jazz world. She and her first husband had separated, their problems exacerbated by her drug use and outside issues, and that’s when she met Chris “D.” Desjardins, founder of the seminal L.A. punk band Flesh Eaters. Their relationship was tumultuous and desperate, full of passionate highs and bitter lows, the kind of love story that fueled the punk energy of the band they started in 1984, Divine Horsemen.

“We had this kind of creative love story, and so I felt like the combination of the heroin and doing something that was artistically important felt like a really good ride at first,” she says. “I felt like we were different from other people, that we were going to be able to do this. I actually felt like, ‘Oh, man, we should just go to England and be registered heroin addicts!’ It felt like it was really important work, especially during the Reagan years; in those days, you could really tell who was who, and everybody had this really kind of unusual, singular art music. You’d walk down Melrose, and you’d see that everybody was such an individual.”

She and Desjardins were on the verge of a breakup one particular night that she used heroin; the next morning, the two of them noticed a wildfire in the Hollywood Hills, and the Divine Horsemen classic “Time Stands Still” began to gestate in that moment. The record, released in 1984, featured contributions from Dave Alvin of The Blasters, John Doe of X and Brian “Kid Congo Powers” Tristan, among others, and put the band on the map as one of the progenitors of the alt-country movement, a combination of punk idealism and classic country instrumentation that would later spawn the genre known as Americana.

“Dream Syndicate, Gun Club, Rank and File, Divine Horsemen, The Plimsouls – there were all sorts of things going on at the same time, and everything was different from one another,” she says. “It felt so important that there was a darkness to it all, but the heroin thing was really dragging us down, and we were arguing a lot. When Wayne James got in the band, we were a triangle of using heroin. One of us would get a twinkle in our eye, and we’d go cop in North Hollywood. It wasn’t just the weekends; we were doing it every day.”

That fateful trip to Colorado happened a few years later. After returning to L.A., she used for another week, before a peer took her to a meeting in South Central L.A. Sept. 17, 1987 was the last time she got high, and things began to turn around quickly. She and Desjardins were unable to save their marriage, and he struggled in addiction before making his way to the rooms in 1996, he said through Christensen. In the light of the recovery, they reconciled their friendship and have continued to work on various projects over the years, including a new Flesh Eaters album for Yep Roc Records, and an upcoming West Coast tour of a reunited Divine Horsemen lineup this fall.

It Works If You Work It

Courtesy of Jeff Fasano

It was a wondrous thing, she adds, how life quickly began to get better after she found sobriety. Back then, Warnes and Beck suggested that she try out for Cohen’s band, and she quickly earned a spot as a featured duet vocalist on his classic “Joan of Arc.” In the late 1980s, she was signed to a major label as a solo artist, and Todd Rundgren was brought on board to produce an album that was ultimately shelved; a few years ago, she and her husband, actor John Diehl, moved to Nashville, where her reputation still manages to open doors. These days, she plays with a new band, Stone Cupid, and they released a new album, “A Sad Clown,” in March.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, and in the beginning, she was terrified that getting sober meant not just changing her lifestyle but forsaking her art as well. She’s grateful she couldn’t have been more wrong, she says.

“I was scared hearing all of these musicians talking about how they had to stop going around to bars and stuff, that some of them were even stopping playing music because they thought they were going to be around their drug of choice,” she says. “And I thought, ‘(Forget) that; I’m not gonna stop doing music! That’s part of my spiritual life!’ Part of the reason I came around the rooms is that I’d lost the lifeline to my spirit world. I felt numb; I didn’t feel like praying anymore, when before I often felt like I was kind of a channel. When I had the right combination of drugs and alcohol, and with my virtuosity as a performer, I felt like I had this channel open to the spirit world when I was out there. I used to drink Southern Comfort to be like Janis Joplin, and Southern Comfort and cocaine would work one night, and then the next night it wouldn’t.”

She went to 90 meetings in 90 days, and three years after getting sober, she met her current husband. Their son is now 25, and in 2013, they moved to Nashville. It didn’t take long being disconnected from a community of recovering people for her life to edge toward unmanageability again, however.

“A year and a half after we moved here, I really hit a bottom; I really hit a wall,” she says. “Old traumas and old sexual assaults kept coming up, and I ran into somebody I knew who was in recovery at the local farmers’ market. I asked him where a good meeting was, and I went the next day. I’ve been part of a (group) ever since, and I’m really grateful, because I did everything but drink. I had 27 years, and I was almost on my way out of here.”

She continues to stay plugged in to the fellowship, however; if anything, that flirtation with the abyss proved to her that she’s not cured, and she’s not immune. She doesn’t claim to work a perfect program, but she works hers, and for 30 years now, it’s been paying dividends in her life – as a wife, a mother, a musician and a human being.

“There are as many ways to work this program as there are alcoholics and addicts, and as a woman, you can get sober and stay sober,” she says. “If you read the Big Book, you have to recognize that it was written in 1938, mostly by two men with other men and only a few women, and that it’s talking about God as you understand Him or Her. Just relax and make it your own God; take what you need and leave the rest, and be really aware that there have been millions of women who have found this program, too.

“Even if you don’t have a lot of women friends out there, you’ve found your tribe here. We’re a lot like you, and we’re here for you. We know the stuff that you’ve gone through, even if we look all cleaned up! And if you come around long enough, you’ll probably find that some woman here is going to tell your story.”

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