Now more than two decades sober, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm reflects on the dark days of his addiction

Courtesy of RIT Production Services
Courtesy of RIT Production Services

During the 1980s, Lou Gramm was the singer for one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, but success still wasn’t enough to buy him happiness.

The Ties That Bind UsToday, Foreigner remains one of the most successful groups of all time, with worldwide record sales in excess of 80 million — much of that a credit to the strength of Gramm’s powerhouse vocals and band founder Mick Jones’ penchant for melodic guitar hooks that dominated the airwaves during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The band’s first six albums, from 1977’s self-titled debut through 1987’s “Inside Information,” all achieved platinum sales status, selling at least 1 million copies, and the first four of those did at least five times that number.

Still, Gramm told The Ties That Bind Us recently, there was something fundamentally broken within him that money and fame and drugs and alcohol could not fix. There were no public meltdowns or incendiary spectacles that landed him on the front page of grocery store tabloids; if anything, he added, there was a slow-dawning sense of impending doom as his drug use began to outpace his ability to control his consumption.

“For a long time, I had the false belief that I could control my use, if I wanted to, but I didn’t control a thing,” Gramm said. “I let it consume me to the point where, in my secret heart of hearts, I knew I was addicted. And then it wasn’t about trying to stop the addiction anymore — it was trying to control it. And that’s a farce.”

The birth of a rock juggernaut

Lou Gramm, during Foreigner's heyday.

If music has sustained him throughout his addiction, recovery and the later-in-life tribulation of a brain tumor, it was also there in the beginning. Born to a trumpeter/bandleader and a singer, Gramm grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and found minor fame with the band Black Sheep. Signed to Chrysalis Records, the group made the leap to Capitol and was booked to open for KISS on a 1975 tour, but a Christmas Eve van accident destroyed much of Black Sheep’s equipment, and the band never recovered.

A year earlier, however, Gramm had met Jones, a British guitarist who came through Rochester with his band, Spooky Tooth. The two exchanged pleasantries, bonded musically and Gramm gave Jones a copy of Black Sheep’s album. In early 1976, during the process of putting together a new project, Jones gave Gramm a call and invited him to New York to audition for what would become Foreigner. There, the band’s classic hit “Feels Like the First Time” was created on the spot, Gramm remembers.

“The rest of the guys had done a rough version of it, and while the music was playing back in the control room, Mick was singing the melody in my ear,” Gramm said. “He had written down the words, and they just threw me in the deep end, and I went out there and sang it. I sang it a number of times, and if I missed a word, Mick would more or less show me the way the phrasing would be, and it wasn’t long at all before we had a real palatable version of the song that was a real good representation of it. We did it a number of times until we had it.”

It was, as the saying goes, lightning in a bottle. The band’s first eight singles all landed in the Billboard Top 20, making Foreigner the first group to do so since The Beatles. Two of Foreigner’s ballads were mega-hits: “Waiting for a Girl Like You” spent 10 weeks at No. 2 on the 1981/82 American Hot 100 chart, and “I Want to Know What Love Is” became a No. 1 hit in eight countries. Gramm co-wrote many of the songs, and with a range and a delivery that put him in the top tier of rock singers, fans threw themselves at Foreigner’s feet.

“I thought that the quality of the songs were excellent and different from what was real popular at the time,” Gramm said. “It was toward the end of the disco era, and bands like Boston were coming out, and people started hearing some really quality rock bands. I believed in our writing abilities, and the band we put together was really exemplary.”

Cracks in the foundation

But when came the trappings of fame, excess soon followed. Booze and blow were never hard to get once Foreigner reached a certain level of success, but throughout the late 1970s, it wasn’t a problem, he said.

“Up to that point, I was real confident that I could do a little bit and then say goodnight,” he said. “I wanted to hang around and see what was going on, but I did not want to indulge to the point where I knew I was going to be up all night. I was able to walk away and go to bed, and I thought, ‘This is pretty cool. I can do this, and it doesn’t have the best of me. But at some point, I kind of gave in to the temptation to party and indulge as much as anybody else in the band that was doing it, and then of course when I wanted to go to bed, I couldn’t.”

A lack of rest made for frayed nerves, heightened tensions and a general sense of unhappiness for Gramm, who would be up until the eastern sky began to lighten, collapse for a few hours and wake up filled with regret. At first, he said, it was easy to chalk it up to the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” mythos of the world in which Foreigner moved, and to be fair, there were plenty of reasons to celebrate: the first headlining tour, the first top 10 single, the first Grammy nomination (in 1977, for Best New Artist of the Year).

By the release of 1981’s “4,” arguably Foreigner’s high-water mark, the band was less of a rock ‘n’ roll group and more of a multi-million dollar business. That sustained throughout that decade, even as Jones and Gramm disagreed over the sound of the band — after two successful solo records, Gramm left Foreigner briefly, and when the band released a 1991 record with a replacement vocalist, fans revolted. Gramm returned to the fold in time for new tracks recorded for a greatest hits compilation, and Foreigner was primed for a return to world dominance, but by that point, his using was out of control, he said.

“I remember we were kicking butt around the country and Europe and headed down the home stretch, and for the last show, the record company was there — and that was at a time when you could count on reps to be carrying,” Gramm said. “The band and I, we all indulged, and there was a huge party after the sold-out show. I remember getting back to my hotel room at about a quarter to four in the morning, so wired that I honestly couldn’t stand it, and I didn’t know what to do.

“I just started drinking lots of water, hoping I could flush things out and maybe feel a little normal, but more than anything, I literally laid down on the floor and started crying because I didn’t want my life to be like that. I knew my parents, my wife and children, would be heartbroken if they saw me in that condition. I was certainly letting them down. I was brought up in Rochester with first-generation Italian Americans — their parents were full Italian, and so I was brought up with that kind of background, and this stuff I found myself buried in, I had the upbringing that I should have been able to stay away from it.

“But honestly, it was so prevalent within the band and within the record company and within all the very good ‘friends’ that want to take care of you with what they had in their pocket and what they wanted to sell you, that I eventually submitted to it lock, stock and barrel,” he added. “I was, a little bit at a time, destroying my life.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Foreigner, circa 1981: From left, Ed Gagliardi, Mick Jones, Dennis Elliott, Lou Gramm, Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

Eventually, he passed out from exhaustion, and when he awoke a couple of hours later, he knew he’d missed his flight home. He called the band’s manager and asked for help finding a drug rehab.

He was ready, he added. And so his manager sent him to the Hazelden Foundation, a nonprofit addiction treatment center in Minnesota.

“They said they would take me right then, so I called my wife — and of course she was certainly aware of my problems and my addictions — and I told her that I was going to go away for a bit,” he said. “She was very happy that I was confronting this and wasn’t angry with me at all, so after I took most of the day to get back to some semblance of normal, I took a cab to the airport and flew directly to Minneapolis. I came off the gate and was met by two people who work there, and they took my bag, put their arms around me and let me know that everything was going to be okay, and that I should be excited that I was going to put my life back together. And I was.”

Gramm describes the 30 days he spent in addiction treatment as “the most important 30 days of my life,” and not just because he stopped using. He had tried that in the past, during a previous rehab stint in Upstate New York, primarily for alcohol, a few years earlier. That experience had been informative, he added, but as soon as he arrived at the airport to leave, he hit the bar for a couple of drinks. (“Visually, I could see myself putting a dagger in my heart,” he added.)

At Hazelden, however, he soaked up everything they taught him — about the disease of addiction and its effects on his body, mind and spirit … about the difference between abstinence and recovery … about the physical and psychological components of the process that had kept him returning to alcohol and cocaine, even in the face of mounting unhappiness.

“They also had pastors there, so as you were healing your body and learning about the process, you could also heal your soul,” he said. “You were allowed one or two calls maybe a week, second to last week I was there, the week when your spouse could come for two days, and she could learn what I was learning. They also had some people speak who were business executives and models and important people in their own realm, and they talked to us about how alcohol and drugs either did destroy or were on the verge of destroying their lives and what they did about it.”

It was, he added, eye-opening. The biggest revelation? That he had to turn over all reservations of using successfully again.

“You could want to get clean and do all the things you need to, but if you’re still even have an inkling of thinking about any of that again, you might as well not have bothered,” he said. “When I think about that final concert and the party afterward, I had never done that much cocaine, and I had done quite a bit on the road. It was just overwhelming, and when I let myself fall to the floor, I started crying because I knew if I continued any further down this road that I was going to die. I just knew it.

“At that time, a lot of people in this business and in the sports world were overdosing, and I could just visually and spiritually see that was going to be my end unless I did something about this. And when I did, I knew it was not my strength, because I have no strength against this. I know it was God that made those calls when I asked for help.”

A return to form

Mick Jones (left) and Lou Gramm in the 1980s. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

With a renewed faith and a determination to stay clean and sober, Gramm returned to Foreigner after 30 days of residential inpatient treatment. It was awkward, especially given that many of his peers in the industry, and even in the band, continued to use, and there were times on the road, he added, that were trying.

“There’s a front lounge on a tour bus where there are eight or 10 seats, and then bunks behind that, and then there’s a small back lounge, and when we would get off stage and were on the bus to the next city, that’s where we would play cards and do blow and light up joints,” he said. “After playing a show, we would do that for five or six hours, get to the next city at 5 or 6 in the morning, and get off the bus just totally inebriated, then try to sleep until it was time to get up and go play again. It was insane.

“I stayed away from what they were doing. I sequestered myself in the back lounge because I felt safe there, but eventually I felt like I was confined there, and when I had to use the bathroom, I had to walk right by them. They would be doing shots or whatever, and I would come out of the bathroom, and they would pat me on the back and say, ‘Lou, we’re so happy that you’re sober.’ I had to deal with that, and it was really tough.”

On top of that, the industry had changed as well. Although Foreigner released “Mr. Moonlight” in 1994, the album was lost amid the new sounds of grunge and alternative rock that had replaced classic rock on the airwaves, and three years after that, Gramm received some grim news: a benign brain tumor that doctors believed had been growing slowly over most of his life was now big enough to affect his cognitive abilities, and the prognosis wasn’t good.

“I had an extremely difficult time finding a surgeon to operate on me, and more than a few very well-known surgeons who did MRIs on me took me to their offices and told me to put my affairs in order,” he said. “I was home from one of those trips where I had just been told that when I saw a piece on ‘20/20’ about Dr. (Peter) Black at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and how he was a purveyor of laser surgery to remove brain tumors. I called him the next morning — that was a Tuesday — and he said, ‘Come in now. We have an opening on Thursday.’ And I did.”

Faith in the face of a medical crisis

A quick flight to Boston and a 19-hour surgery later, the tumor was removed. Recovery was long and difficult, but Gramm believes without a shadow of a doubt that if he hadn’t been sober, the tumor would have killed him.

“I know for a fact that they wouldn’t have been able to do anything had I still had drugs in my system,” he said. “That would have been a no-brainer, no pun intended, that they just couldn’t have done anything. I’m so thankful I was in recovery, because when they wheeled me into the operating room at a quarter to five in the morning and were starting to put me under, I had no idea because I was so deep in prayer.

“I think I was under for almost another day after the operation before I woke up, but when I was told the operation was successful, I knew right down the line that God had His hand in this, and I’m sure He was steadying the doctor’s hand. I was so thankful, and I was just living a different kind of life clean and sober. When I was praying going into surgery, I asked God that if it be His will, I was ready to go, and if He wanted me to stay here, I would continue to sing his praises.”

Gramm soldiered on with Foreigner for several more years, but the grueling schedule was one of the reasons he eventually stepped away in 2002. Doctors advised against returning to the road so quickly after the surgery, but the band had obligations, and the label pushed him to get back in the saddle.

“While I healed, I was in bad shape for about five years,” he said. “I had to turn in my (driver’s) license; I developed sleep apnea; I was on a ton of pills and steroids. It was so many pills and so many shots and that and that, that at one point I wondered if I had been better off just dying. I got up to 200-something pounds, and you could hear people in the audience jeering me as we were performing. It was very humiliating, but that was obviously what God wanted me to have to go through to appreciate what I had been given.”

Jones continued on with Foreigner, albeit as the lone original member, and Gramm eventually settled into a solo career that he eventually retired from at the end of last year. For the past seven or eight years, he’s been fully recovered from the brain surgery, he said, and in 2013, he and Jones began to mend fences, and he’s even joined Foreigner on stage sporadically in the years since.

“I believe that relationships can be repaired, and we have a good relationship again,” Gramm said. “I’m hoping we can create some new music at some point, because we’ve got some killer ideas going back to 2002 and 2003 that wouldn’t take much to finish up.”

A fulfilling life in recovery

In the meantime, he’s savoring the extra time he now gets with his family. He’s spending more time pursuing his hobby as well — collecting American muscle cars (his prized possession: A ’68 Camaro Super Sport). When he does make public appearances from the stage and at the after-parties, he’s able to be present and sober, and he’s honored for any opportunity he gets to spread the good word, he added.

“Every once in a while, someone will say, ‘Can I talk to you later? I have this problem, and I know you’re clean and sober, and I want to know how you did it,’” he said. “For a while there, I also got a number of people that had just found out they had brain tumors and didn’t know what to do, and I would give them the hospital and the doctor that I went to. And that’s a great feeling as well.

“All of it has been God’s will, and looking back in hindsight, I see that there was a reason for all of it. I accept that, and I’m so grateful I’ve come out the other side a better person and  can encourage other people, whether it’s something going on in their brains or, ‘Lou, how did you get sober?’ I’ll always take the time to talk to somebody about that, and I try to lead by example.”