Singer-songwriter Glenn Jones spent a good chunk of his young adulthood touring the country, playing rock ‘n’ roll and giving full-time music his best efforts, and while he may have overindulged on occasion, alcohol was never a problem.
Even after he got married in his late 20s, embraced the corporate life and relegated music to the weekends, alcohol was social lubricant more than anything else. Sure, there were times when he drank heavily, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, but it wasn’t until he reached his 50s that he realized he’d crossed the Rubicon.
“I think that’s where my story is a little different than most,” said Jones during a phone interview, conducted en route to the 30A Songwriters Festival in South Walton, Florida, where he performed solo and as part of the Peter Holsapple Combo. “I’m not a case of someone who learned to party like Axl Rose early on. Traveling with the band, we smoked some dope, got cases of cheap beer and got drunk, but it was just something fun you did mostly on the weekend. There were some times I really regret drinking over the years, and a lot of heavy drinking along the way, but as far as it really affecting my life, that was something that really started happening in my 50s.
“My main message is that you can be a moderate drinker or a heavy drinker, as I was for much of my life — maybe once in a while you overdo it or do something stupid or something bad happens, but maybe you’re not what doctors or most folks would define as an alcoholic, because it doesn’t really hurt your life. But later in life, the stress and anxiety build up, and you can become an alcoholic and really start wrecking your life later on, even though you’ve been drinking the same for 40 years. Your body starts, later in life, metabolizing it differently, and as you get older, your body gets less tolerant both of alcohol and stress, I believe.”
Raised on rock 'n' roll
By the time Jones, now 59, realized that the bottle was threatening to take everything he had accumulated and destroy the dream he still had left to fulfill, he was stuck in its mouth, desperate to pull himself back into the light but feeling himself inexorably tugged toward oblivion. For a guy who had managed to meet all challenges head on throughout his life, it was a curious place in which to find himself.
He was certainly no stranger to the ravages of alcohol, he added. His older brother, Davy — an iconic Austin, Texas-based punk rocker for bands like Hickoids, Ideals and Big Foot Chester who died on Thanksgiving Day, 2015 — was an alcoholic, as were others in his family.
“Davy drank a case of beer a day in his early punk days, and then one day he turned purple, and the doctors told him he had pancreatitis, and if he didn’t stop drinking, he was going to die soon,” Jones said. “He never drank another drop of alcohol the rest of his life, even during the whole time he was playing in punk clubs and doing all those tours. He lived a pretty happy, healthy, full life until cancer got him.”
It was Davy’s death, Jones added, that was a part of his own unraveling. The two were close (along with a third brother, Ken), and Davy’s prescient musical tastes during their childhood helped inform his own.
“When he was 12 and The Monkees were the thing, he made my stern, type A military dad take him — not because he cared about The Monkees, but because he wanted to see the opener, Jimi Hendrix!” he said. “He was always into way cool music, so I grew up hearing The Who and stuff we now think of as old, classic rock. I was hearing ‘Exile on Main Street’ and all kinds of cool music all the time, because it was always around me.”
Jones started his own band when he was 12, he said, and even then, he threw himself into the endeavor with the same sort of passion that drives him today. Eclipse remained a band until the middle of his junior year, when the family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he immediately formed another outfit, Night Shift. As much as he loved it, however, he didn’t consider it a career path at the time, he said.
“I thought I was going to be a scientist, so I was majoring in biology at the University of North Carolina and commuting back to Greensboro to play in a bunch of different bands,” he said. “It just seemed to be something I did all the time and most of what I thought about, and my grades pretty much reflected it, too.”
Glenn Jones: Trading the spandex for a suit and tie
By the time he reached his junior year, one band in particular — Ezra — seemed poised for something bigger. The group enjoyed a healthy following on the “Southern redneck rock ‘n’ roll circuit,” Jones said, but in addition to a respectable collection of covers, the guys were also playing more and more originals.
“Somewhere in there, I decided that was going to be me,” he said. “I ended up dropping out of Carolina to do that full time for a few years.”
From Ezra, he joined The Suspects, a Greensboro-based power trio that churned out almost all originals (save for a few Alice Cooper covers) with a pop-punk feel. That was his first attempt at songwriting as a craft, and while he didn’t fully embrace it until three decades later, it was that craft that gave him the most satisfaction.
Of course, the taste of success back then didn’t hurt. He lived in London for a brief period in 1983, remembers playing one particular New Year’s Eve to 500 people at at a nightclub in Greensboro and sporting a curly perm “down to my ass, wearing spandex,” he added with a laugh.
“I was thrashing around, trying different bands and different genres, figuring out what my thing was,” he said. “Part of it was just me trying different musical things to figure out where my heart really lay. I think it took me about 40 years to finally come home, literally and figuratively.”
That long detour began in 1986, when Jones finally finished college, met the woman he was going to marry and found himself as a father figure to her 2-year-old son. By the end of that year, they were married, and the demands of domestication quickly put the kibosh on his rock ‘n’ roll dreams.
“The stress started early and completely, and I went from being a carefree, beer-drinking musician to dad and husband,” he said. “I got my first job, a terribly stressful job at a life insurance company, and it wasn’t until I was in therapy for the stress and the alcohol almost 30 years later that I realized the stress started then.
“I went from no stress to insanity, complete and total. My wife at the time had some health problems, and when we had our second daughter, Morgan, I needed more money, so I became a workaholic, and the anxiety of that just kind of builds on itself. I always felt like I had to do more, so I was always taking on more work.”
After a brief stint from 1994 to 1996 as the bass player for the unsung alt-country outfit Jeff Hart and the Ruins, Jones had to put music on the shelf completely. At the same time, his work in the insurance industry led to an epiphany: Why draft the insurance contracts that attorneys rubberstamped for several times as much money?
“I knew the lawyers were making four times the money I was as a clerk, so I started going to night law school four nights a week,” he said. “I was working a 60-hour-a-week job, I was the primary caregiver for two young kids, and I had a wife with some pretty severe health problems.”
A Northern sojourn toward the end
While stress ebbed and flowed, from that point forward it was always there. After obtaining his law degree in 2000, he grew frustrated with the low-ball job offers he received, so he looked elsewhere — and found a job with a life Insurance company in Baltimore. That was the start of a 15-year sojourn away from the Tarheel State.
After six years, he moved on to a smaller company in Alexandria, Virginia, and started pulling himself up the corporate ladder. That, he said, is when alcohol became a constant companion.
“I was going to board meetings, and the fine French Bordeaux (wines) were always there,” he said. “There were lots of after-work happy hours and traveling, and drinking was not only part of the culture, it became part of my life. Drinking was expected on certain occasions, and it was something I came to more and more rely on to deal with stress.”
Like a lot of functional alcoholics, however, vocational success led to prolonged suffering. As long as he was putting numbers on the board at work, he was able to overlook drinking three or four cocktails and nodding off in his easy chair at home, or losing entire Sundays to booze. Finally, the end announced its arrival when he was offered a job in Massachusetts, as the chief counsel and chief compliance officer of a startup company making too-good-to-be-true amounts of money.
Literally, it was too good to be true: The family moved to Massachusetts in May 2013, and Jones was immediately thrown into crisis management mode as the company faced difficulties. After almost two years of working in that high-stress environment, drinking heavily every day to cope, he lost his job in January 2015.
“My career fell apart, just in time for the worst winter in Boston history,” he said. “We got 9 feet of snow in seven weeks, and it was during the first of the two blizzards, which kept us trapped inside for two days, that my wife said, ‘This isn’t working.’ So my career that I’d been nuts building fell apart; my marriage fell apart; Davy had Stage 4 lung cancer and was terminal; and my dad had developed serious Alzheimer’s. My entire life fell completely apart.”
By May 2015, he was back in the Carolinas, and while there were many positive things that came of it — reconnecting with old friends, making new ones, playing music again — alcohol “turned from being a problem to being the main focus of my life for a good, long while,” he said.
There were cringe-worthy moments along the way: crashing his car … leaving a show after a gig with a tribute band and waking up in front of a mansion in one of Charlotte’s finer neighborhoods with his car still running … waking up halfway to New Orleans with no memory of leaving North Carolina.
He did get another job for a time, and after that Big Easy roadtrip scare, he even quit booze cold turkey for a while. But his last-ditch attempt to get back into the corporate world fizzled when he was laid off in 2016, and that was the final piece of the Jenga puzzle of Glenn Jones’ life that sent everything tumbling down with a great and mighty crash.
There and back again: Glenn Jones, v. 2.0
“I stayed up all night one night, literally pacing, and then when it got light, I just had this one obsessive thought: ‘I gotta get to the beach; I gotta sit and think on the beach,’” he said. “I was two hours from Carolina Beach, and it was a very cold December day. Now, I know in hindsight it was an overwhelming panic attack. I only know through the receipts, but on the way, I bought two large jugs of Tanqueray, bought a beach chair and went to sit on the beach and drink and think.
“The next thing I remember was waking up near midnight in the ER, because apparently I not only thought it was a great idea to sit and ponder my next steps, but somewhere in there I decided to go for a swim. When they pulled me from the water, my temperature was 92, and my pulse was 40-something. They kept me for three days, and that gave me a lot of time to think.”
His burning realization: Music was the only balm his wounded soul received in a healthy way. Despite his age, despite the seemingly long odds stacked against him, he was going to play music, he decided. But first, he had to make sure he could stay sober. That five-month dry period had been a productive one, he said, but it was also a nebulous time.
“I made an album called ‘The Drunkard’s Suite,’ and I’m proud of a lot of those songs,” he said. “It’s a really good record, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll — which I love, but now some of it sounds frantic to me. I wrote it as a guy who thought he had a terrible drinking problem and was writing songs like, ‘Oh, I’m not drinking now. I’m past that.’ But in the hospital, I realized I had some underlying problems.”
In addressing the alcohol, he followed the suggestions of other sober individuals he knew, including several sober musician friends. He hit 90 recovery meetings in 90 days, and it was a huge boon to his recovery, if for nothing else than the fact it kept his mind off of drinking and gave him the space he needed to open up to other avenues of healing.
“(Twelve Step recovery) was not my main path to sobriety. It was a key part in the beginning, but the key part for me was something the Big Book says: You can work on the alcoholism, but you’ve got to fix the underlying issues,” he said. “Whether it’s the terrible job, or the abuse you suffered, or in my case, the severe anxiety you don’t even realize you had that was crippling you: Until you fix that, you’re just plastering over a crack in the wall. You’re not fixing the house.”
A friend in the music community recommended a therapist in Chapel Hill, who used a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, imagery and meditation techniques that gave Jones the tools he needed to begin to change. Being free from job stress was critical, he added, as was 12 Step recovery, for which he’ll always have a measure of gratitude.
“If you’re an alcoholic, recognizing you’re an alcoholic and coming to terms with it is absolutely vital, and in my case, (12 Step recovery) really helped me recognize that,” he said. “If nothing else, as I’ve said plenty of times, when your life is falling apart and you don’t think you’ll get anything else out of it, it gives you an hour of time with other people who know what you’re going through and gives you an hour of peace. It gives you structure when you’re trying to deal with things, and I absolutely needed that.”
Living and singing about 'The Good Times'
As he got healthier, he began to dip his toes back into the performing world. Being in recovery posed something of a conundrum: He didn’t want to hide it, but neither did he want to use music as a form of recovery evangelism. The songs that emerged from that place of rumination would coalesce on “Ready for the Good Times,” a new album that draws more on folk and Americana traditions than it does the rowdy sounds of his past.
“It’s a little more thoughtful, a little softer in style, because I really wanted to do a new record that wasn’t about, ‘Hey world, I’m falling to pieces, and I feel really terrible!’” he said. “It took a long time, but good things in life take a long time. Finally, in the spring of 2019, I had enough songs that I thought were coherent, and I wanted to get serious about it.”
Producer Jerry Brown helped him harvest those sounds, which had sprouted from the seeds planted in early recovery. A month ago, he had an album release show at The Blue Note Grill in Durham, with five acts opening the show and a set with a full band during which Jones played the new record in its entirety.
It was, he said, one of the purest, most joyful moments of this second life he’s been blessed with on the other side of sobriety.
“The place was packed, and it was just perfect — not just musically, but that would be a thrill for any musician,” he said. “It hit me as I was up there that it’s been a long journey, one that really started in the bad old times of 2016, and now the circle has closed. I’m newly married to someone who’s wonderful and supportive, and I’m finally writing and singing music I really love.
“I’m still in the glow, and as always, that workaholic didn’t completely die. But I’ve got him tamped down to where he can work for me and not rule me, and now I’ve got this beautiful record and a budding career that I’m working to make sustainable. I never could have imagined I’d be happy and healthy and living a musical life.”
And, he added, sober — in his late 50s, to boot. His story isn’t unique, he pointed out, but it can be a cautionary one, especially for those who feel as he once did about booze and stress and sobriety, all of it misconceived and misunderstood.
“I just want people to realize that you can drink steadily all through life, but then late in life it can become a real problem for you and your loved ones,” he said. “And two, not to beat the horse, but you can stop drinking alcohol and go to the meetings and that’s important and wonderful, but if you don’t fix the underlying problem, you’re going to be a time bomb. When I thought about getting sober, I agonized, because I thought, ‘If I get sober, I’ll be boring! What will I do?’
“The thing is, if there are people who don’t like you when you’re not drinking, they’re the ones with the problem. And one more thing — a lot of people think it’s (Alcoholics Anonymous) or nothing, but there are many paths to sobriety. Don’t let anyone tell you that it has to be that one way or else, because they don’t know you or what’s best for you. Find what’s best for you.”