On heartrending new song, David Haerle ponders a life lost to addiction
When alcoholism darkened the doorways of his family home, it spared singer-songwriter David Haerle.
It found his father, who got sober in 1967. It claimed his mother, who would find recovery later in her life. And it wrapped its thorny tendrils around his brother, Christian, a brilliant man who died suddenly in 2019.
A Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter with a lifetime of experience in the music industry, what helped David Haerle cope was turning to his guitar and writing music. The result is the powerful, heartbreaking “No More We,” in which the pastoral childhood the two boys experienced spending summers in Middle Tennessee fades to the forlorn realization that with Christian’s death, David is the sole witness to the many memories the two shared together — and in that sense, there is “No More We.”
“It’s very personal and was very fulfilling to write,” Haerle told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “My brother had these problems, and the truth is, our relationship in his adult life was limited. Some of the feeling in the song was about the mourning of what our relationship might have been. I always had that hope that my brother could have found sobriety, and that we could have had a more multi-dimensional relationship later in life, but it was very limited, especially in the last 10 years.
“In the song, I wanted to express my love for him, but also the sadness that I feel about what happened, and that his life ended at what was certainly not an old age. The song came together more quickly than many that I have written. I had a chord progression and melody I’d come up with a few years prior, and I felt it would work well with the story I wanted to tell about my brother.”
David Haerle: Summers in the Tennessee countryside
These days, Haerle — who released the sublime record “Death Valley” last year, an album with through lines to works by Eels, Neutral Milk Hotel, Fruit Bats and others who traffic in folk-pop beauty — calls the West Coast home, but a part of his boyhood heart belongs to the Volunteer State. His maternal grandparents owned the first full-time country music radio station in Nashville, and later in life they returned to his grandmother’s hometown, the Middle Tennessee hamlet of McMinnville. Although he grew up in Los Angeles — his father, Martin, immigrated from Germany and cofounded the independent label CMH Records, which got its start in the family garage — Haerle and his brother spent their summers on the family farm, about five miles outside of McMinnville.
“I love Los Angeles, but McMinnville was a wonderful experience and a way of life that was so very different,” he said. “I touch on that in the song, looking back on this time when we were children, a time that was the most carefree and joyful. I picture (Christian) on his yellow Honda Trail 90 motorcycle — we called it ‘The Yellow Bomb,’ and I’d love to have it today in L.A.! I picture him riding it, or on the tractor, because my grandfather taught us how to drive the big tractor at a young age, pulling a bush hog on the back with the big blade spinning!
“I picture him riding his motorcycle, or on the tractor, just us running around in the outdoors. In L.A., every season except during and after the winter rains has more of a brown landscape, and I remember I couldn’t get over how green Tennessee always was. I recall enjoying the vegetables from my grandparents’ garden. I didn’t really know what a a tomato, or what okra, tasted like until I had it fresh out of their garden.”
Martin Haerle got sober when David was 1 year old, so he has no memories of his father’s drinking days. He was active in a sober self-help program, and while David and his brother were exposed to the principles of sobriety, they witnessed their mother’s problem with alcohol before she also got sober.
“I’m of the belief that it’s a family illness, that the kids are affected, that if a person’s spouse, parent, son or daughter is drinking, they themselves are usually affected in some way,” he said. “In my case, because of my dad’s sobriety, I did hear early on this idea that it’s a family illness. Family members are well to remember that they didn’t cause a loved one’s alcoholism, that they can’t control it, that they can’t cure it. In my case, because I felt like I had that knowledge, I thought I would be fine.
“But what happened to me was that in my teenage years, I started to develop a number of obsessive-compulsive problems — compulsive hand-washing as one example — as well as irrational fears and phobias, and what I would later learn is obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. I didn’t personally go the route of any significant alcohol consumption — that wasn’t attractive to me — but I certainly began to develop problems, even though on an outward basis, my life was going very well.”
Christian, on the other hand, picked up the torch.
A family divided by addiction
For David, though he experimented a handful of times with alcohol and weed as a teen, he made the decision early on: He didn’t like the taste of alcohol, and he preferred being in control and not under the influence. Lastly, he said, he remembered his father’s wisdom.
“Hearing my dad talk about his recovery from alcoholism, I really bought into the idea that people do not choose to become alcoholics,” he said. “Whatever the causes or the combination of causes, it sneaks up on them, and the next thing they know, they’re in the grips.”
He saw it happen to his brother: While it’s up to the individual to label themselves an addict or an alcoholic, he added, he saw his brother’s struggles early on.
“He had a big and adventuresome life, and some great success in his career, but it’s my view that he had addiction problems, and he never really came to terms with that,” he said. “He never, to the best of my knowledge, wanted to seek treatment or help, and that led to a really rough road for him.”
While he bore witness to his brother’s battles, he was also fighting his own: At 21, the combination of panic attacks and obsessive fears and phobias brought on a breakdown and a hitting bottom, and he sought out help to deal with those issues, he said. He began his involvement with a program of recovery and self-help groups that would give him the tools needed to recover and to navigate the family legacy of alcoholism and addiction, he added.
“I became involved in a recovery process as a family member, having grown up in an alcoholic family,” he said. “I wanted to have a path of healing for myself. I wasn’t motivated necessarily by how to better ‘deal’ with the alcoholics in my life, though it did help me greatly in that regard. Rather, I concluded I needed help for me, so that I could live more peacefully and comfortably with myself. I needed to be part of an active and ongoing recovery process with others.”
It wasn’t until his late 30s, he added, that he was officially diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder thanks to a loved one steering him toward proper treatment. He also realized he wasn’t alone: Roughly one in 40 people suffer from OCD, and the average time between the onset of symptoms and finding the proper treatment averages 14 to 17 years. Fortunately, a solution exists: ERP, or Exposure Response Prevention therapy, which is the gold standard to help those with OCD get better. Some OCD sufferers also find properly prescribed medication is essential in conjunction with ERP, as there is a biological side to OCD. The nonprofit International OCD Foundation, Haerle pointed out, is a great resource for learning more information about OCD and finding the proper treatment.
David Haerle: A lifetime love of rock 'n' roll
While his childhood tastes varied, with David Bowie’s “Fame” and Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” both finding a place in his heart alongside disco and so many other songs and artists, he eventually found his wheelhouse in hard rock, particularly lead guitar, he said.
“At a certain point, rock guitar spoke to me in a specialized way — Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix and all those great bands and artists, and guitar became the main thing for me,” he said. “Put simply, I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar star.”
He found a place in the L.A. music scene, playing guitar and singing with a band, but at a certain point, he needed a way to pay the bills. His stepmother, he said, had a connection at the global talent agency International Creative Management, and he landed a job in the mailroom. There, he met the woman to whom he would be married for a number of years, and she helped him get an interview and position in the music department, where he eventually became an agent.
But when his father died in 1990, he had a decision to make. After taking a week to think it over, he decided to leave the company and devote himself to CMH Records, which his father had founded in 1975 with renowned songwriter, guitarist and performer Arthur Smith, who wrote both “Guitar Boogie” and “Dueling Banjos” (of “Deliverance” fame). The label had become a home for bluegrass acts, and when his father died, David said, he didn’t want the label to die with him.
“I felt it was going to go down the tubes, as it was on hard times in those years with only one or two employees, and I felt a sense of duty — this is what I need to do, and I want to keep this label going,” he said. “I resigned from ICM, and for the next 20 years, I really applied myself to the record label, and it became a great part of my life. I was never really looking to go into my dad’s business at all; that wasn’t an aspiration, but I took to it.”
Under his guidance, the label experienced something of a revival in the 1990s, with the “Pickin’ On” series of records — bluegrass tributes to classic bands like The Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Thanks to the creativity of his colleagues, the label would also launch the Vitamin String Quartet (VSQ) and Rockabye Baby brands and series, which are mainstays of the company today.
Twenty years after he took over, however, David found himself in a restless state. He sought out therapy, and during one session the therapist asked a simple question: “Is there anything you’re not doing that you would like to do?”
Singing lessons, he decided. He wanted to take singing lessons, so he did, and what he found was that those lessons, unexpectedly, would be a catalyst for dedicating a significant amount of his time into making music again. Over a period of a few years, he transitioned to a part-time role at the label and turned his intention to writing and recording music, and in 2018, his debut album, “Garden of Edendale,” was released.
And while rock guitar still plays prominently in his work — the song “Smoggy Days” from “Death Valley” is a chiming banger that transitions into “Tellers,” a rumbling muscle car of a song that turns on bluesy chords and keyboard runs — the music he makes today also draws from a broader base, he said.
“I have many influences in my life, and, as we get older, we hopefully gain new influences and get newly excited by different types of music,” he said. “By the time I got back into making music, I had probably dropped most pretense of wanting to emulate my musical heroes, but they all continue to be sources of inspiration.
“I really needed and wanted to find my own voice, style and sound. I’m probably drawing from all my sources of inspiration, some I’m conscious of and some not, but I generally think of my music as having a rock spirit, my first love.”
Death, remembrance and a song: 'No More We'
One advantage of starting his music career later in life, he said, was that he not only had a broader palate of influences from which to color his songs, but he also had so much more life experience from which to draw upon for his songwriting.
His lyrical content, he pointed out, is often drawn from real life: The aforementioned “Smoggy Days,” for example, begins as a rumination about his father, and while he’s capable of spinning a fictional yarn like some of his contemporaries, he prefers to draw from the touchstones of reality when he pens his songs. Few topics, however, came from the deep wells of both memory and beauty as the words to “No More We.”
“Ultimately, that song was a way to honor my brother,” he said. “We can never know what kind of trials life is going to bring us — whether it’s trials in addiction that can complicate things and bring its own tragedies and difficulties, or your mental health and anxieties. I don’t know what life has in store for me or for any of us. My own recovery (from OCD) has helped me to better deal with uncertainty, which is at the core of getting better from OCD. And while life continues to offer trials, challenges and difficulties, it’s helped me to better navigate through those things. And I know I don’t have to do it alone.”
The same holds true for his recovery as the family member of addicts and alcoholics, a man who was spared the disease but wasn’t immune from the debris flung by the implosions and explosions of those he loved. Through seeking out others from similar backgrounds, he found a way to heal wounds and to draw closer to his family members, so that in 2019, in the countryside of Warren County, Tennessee, the Haerle clan gathered to pay tribute to Christian. It was an outdoor service, David said, with a fitting soundtrack: punk rock and science fiction movie soundtracks, just as his brother would have liked it, and while the denizens of that small Tennessee hamlet within earshot of Salem Cemetery might have been startled by the sound of The Stranglers blaring out across those fields, David could only smile, and remember his older brother fondly.
“It’s been my experience, coming from a family of alcoholism, that I was affected, and in my opinion, it’s good to seek out help, to find a program of recovery of some sort, and to do that for yourself and your own growth and well-being,” he said. “Family members of people who have addictions, if they seek help for themselves, are going to learn things that are often healthy for everything in the family. They are going to learn about not enabling an addict, the wisdom of taking care of themselves, and of not letting their own life revolve too much around an alcoholic. They may develop a helpful and useful faith in a power greater than themselves, whether that be the collective wisdom of a support group, a God of their own understanding or something else.
“In my case, my life has really blossomed by having relationships with other people who have been affected by alcoholism. We have these common backgrounds we’ve shared that often produce very similar results, and by having relationships and a sense of fellowship with other people who have been affected by alcoholism, it’s very healing — and it’s the same with OCD and the support group I attend for that. There’s not quite anyone else who can understand what you are going through because they themselves have been through our are going through the same thing or something similar.”