Recovery gives Greg Antista a second chance in the storied SoCal scene: ‘Everything I’m getting is more than I deserve’

Greg Antista musician in recovery
Courtesy of Harmony Gerber

For Greg Antista, the halcyon days of the 1980s resonate with the nostalgia and innocence of youth.

The Ties That Bind UsBack then, Antista, who now fronts his own project the Lonely Streets, was part of a crowd of second wave punk musicians who softened the rage of bands like Black Flag with the melodic freight-train boogie of ’50s rockabilly and surf music. It was a scene that included guys like Mike Ness, frontman of Social Distortion, whose initial club gigs and backyard parties counted Antista as one of the attendees … Tony Cadena (now known as Tony Reflex), who started The Adolescents as a 16-year-old in 1980 … Casey Royer, a veteran of both groups who would go on to found D.I. … and the late Steve Soto, Antista’s closest friend who established Agent Orange and helped Cadena get The Adolescents off the ground.

In promotional photos, videos and interviews from those days, they might have come across as surly, punk-loving teens who were as enthusiastic about breaking stuff as they were playing rock ‘n’ roll, but Antista’s reality paints a different picture, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“What’s funny about our little scene was, if you look at the photographs of that era, everybody comes off as angry and tough and f--- you, but really, at the parties, everybody was just a goofy Southern California kid straight out of ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’” Antista said. Now, I’m aware of how magical and special that time period was. Through that time, there were probably 50 of us that became really good friends out of Orange County, some of whom went on to play in Agent Orange and Social Distortion and The Adolescents. (Antista himself spent a bit of time in the O.C. punk outfit D.I.) We were all a bunch of outsiders who became a family, and it was really special.

“Mike Ness was a jokester … Dennis (Dannell, Social Distortion’s original bassist who switched to guitar) was this happy, go-lucky surfer who happened to be a punk rocker, too … the whole makeup thing and all that stuff, they just had fun with it. If you watch ‘Another State of Mind’ (a 1982 documentary that focused on Social Distortion), Mike talked about watching ‘Bonanza’ and ‘General Hospital,’ and that was the Mike we all knew. When we were in high school, it was just a party.

“Everybody was blasted on alcohol and weed,” he added, “and then the heroin seeped in later.”

A rock 'n' roll resurrection on the Lonely Streets

Greg Antista musician in recovery

Greg Antista and the Lonely Streets: Warren Renfrow (from left), Jessica Kaczmarek, Antista and Jorge E. Disguster. (Courtesy of Harmony Gerber)

Heroin would ultimately prove to be the unraveling of a lot of Southern California talent from that era, but speed would become the drug that led Antista to bottom out in 2002. He hasn’t touched a drug since then, and the past 17-plus years have been a slow regrouping process that didn’t see him get back on stage again until the end of 2017. His recovery path wasn’t a conventional one, but they’ve produced similar results: a life once ruined now restored, along with a reputation, a rock ‘n’ roll dream and real hope for the future.

That hope is plastered all over “Shake, Stomp and Stumble,” the debut record released by Greg Antista and the Lonely Streets earlier this year. The album is grounded in that muscular SoCal punk tradition, but there’s a sunnier vibe stretching through all nine tracks. It’s a clanging collection of melodic hooks and driving grooves that celebrates Antista’s journey as a survivor, and while he has no illusions that he’s going to be on a Grammy stage on the back end of the release cycle, he’s content. And contentment, he added, has been a long time coming.

“I realize that a thousand records come out every week, so why should anybody care about mine? Contemporaries with much bigger names than me put out incredible records, and these are guys with international recognition who still don’t get their due, so why should anybody care about me?” he said. “Making this record was the accomplishment for me, and I walked out of the studio thinking I’d made the record I wanted to make. Everything I’m getting is more than I deserve.”

In a way, he added, it’s been a rediscovery of his first crush, back when his older sister landed a part as a dancer on “American Bandstand.” The family was conservative Catholic who came from Colorado coal-mining stock, eventually moving to Southern California so his father could work in the aerospace industry. Watching his sister thumb her nose at convention by dancing in a short skirt on a small stage while Dick Clark introduced musicians like Michael Jackson and the Osmond Brothers, young Antista felt a calling.

“I started singing choruses and realizing how a good chorus makes you feel great,” he said. “I think I was destined to pick up the guitar at that point.”

At 13 or 14, an older friend took him to see a show by the Naughty Women, a short-lived hardcore project that featured Rikk Agnew, who would go on to play in The Adolescents, and a young Izzy Stradlin, who found work as a guitarist for Guns N’ Roses later on in the 1980s. It was, Antista said, a life-changing experience.

“They were all dressed in high heels or platform shoes, and the singer was diving in and out of the rowd with a goat’s head that he’d gotten from a butcher shop on a stick!” he recalled with a laugh. “People in the crowd were fighting for it, and by the end of the show, it was just torn up into goat meat. So between those two spectrums of rock, ‘American Bandstand’ and Naughty Women, I wanted to be a part of that.”

A lifelong friendship is forged

Greg Antista musician in recovery

Steve Soto (left) and Greg Antista, in one of their first projects, Teenage Love, circa 1982.

As a sophomore in high school, he met Soto, who was destined to become his lifelong best friend. Soto was Antista’s entry into the burgeoning SoCal scene that was brimming with talent, and he was also the one who pushed Antista to become more than just a spectating fan.

“He was the first one to put in my head, ‘Let’s put you on the bass guitar, and you can start a band of your own,’” Antista said. “It was, ‘Hey, you can do this, too!’ So Christmas was coming up, and I asked for a bass guitar. My parents asked why, but they got me one, and I started jamming around with Steve.”

Between Naughty Women and The Mechanics, a Fullerton-based punk outfit that was a major influence on that scene, Antista received a crash course in punk. It was a time of parties and girls and plenty of rock ‘n’ roll, and the use of alcohol and drugs had yet to take on a meaner edge, he said.

“In high school, we were scoring beer and smoking pot, and there was this one guy who sold Black Beauties, which was the speed of the day,” he said. “My entire high school career was spent in the punk rock explosion of Southern California, and it was weed, alcohol and speed every night. It was all a party, and I don’t think any of us experienced consequences until heroin started making its way in.”

That was around 1980, he estimated, but it was never his thing. Downers, depressants … those sorts of drugs, he could take or leave. The ones that jacked him up, however, sank their hooks in quickly.

“I’ve always been super laid back, so I didn’t like being down,” he said. “I think I figured that out when I was stealing my mom’s Valium. Everybody wanted some, but it did nothing for me. I liked being up, in the pit. I think the first time I ever smoked speed, I got hooked.”

It wasn’t an immediate crash-and-burn, however. As his friends floated in and out of touring bands, Antista went to college and considered becoming a teacher. He eventually settled on law school, but in 1989, The Adolescents broke up, and Soto approached him with an alternative.

“Steve was like, ‘Don’t go to college; let’s start a band!’ And that band became Joyride,” Antista said. “That was probably the most critically acclaimed band I had ever been in, and it was good for Steve, because he got noticed outside of The Adolescents and got noticed as a singer-songwriter.”

A real-life Joyride

Greg Antista musician in recovery

Courtesy of Harmony Gerber

That’s when things started to get real. While Joyride climbed a few rungs up the ladder in terms of popularity, there weren’t record labels throwing gobs of cash at the guys. To make ends meet, they needed full-time jobs, but playing rock ‘n’ roll at night and working a 9-to-5 got old fast, Antista said.

“I met some biker dudes that turned me on to smoking speed,” Antista said. “I remember the day I said, ‘I need this every day. I’ve got to figure out a way to always have some on me. I can’t go to work and I can’t do a gig without this.’”

Over the course of the next few years, Joyride released a pair of sophisticated and adventurous records. The band wasn’t content to plug into the same SoCal punk formula, and with Antista and Soto sharing guitar and vocal duties, the band managed to cobble together a sound that channeled Husker Du as much as it did Social Distortion over the course of two records, “Johnny Bravo” and “Another Month of Mondays.”

“We were playing with bands like Weezer and Everclear, and we really seemed like we were on the cusp of something,” Antista said. “I remember thinking the drugs made me better at guitar, better at songwriting, and you couldn’t have told me different at that point. Technically, I probably got better because I was up all night playing, but I didn’t write any classics — I was just noodling all night long!”

In addition to sleepless nights, speed began to steal the joy Antista got from rock ‘n’ roll. He would stay up all night smoking it, need more before going to work and found himself obsessing on the delivery apparatus and the ritual. He couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but he was powerless over it, he said. Eventually, his problem, combined with Soto’s own struggles, led to a rift in the band.

“We retreated to our separate corners, and we let the band self-destruct,” Antista said. “I think with me and Steve, we always felt sorry for each other, and we never blamed each other. We kind of always tried to pick each other up, even though we were both broken. I wish I could have fixed him, and I’m sure he wished he could have fixed me. But we were both busy trying to survive what we both had going on.”

The ride comes to an end

Greg Antista musician in recovery

Greg Antista (left) and Steve Soto, circa 1996 at Linda's Doll Hut in Los Angeles.

By the time Joyride came to an end in 1996, the two were headed in separate directions. Soto managed to pull himself together and went on to play in the band 22 Jacks. He broke the news gently to his friend, who was marinating in regret and meth.

“I think my biggest regret was that our second album could have been a great album, but my vocals were so blown out because I never slept,” Antista said. “But it was all there. We could have made a record that made an impact, I think, but I ruined it with my speeded-out vocals. I’ll take that on myself. And when Steve told me he was going to take a chance and start a new band, at that point I was on a real downward spiral, so I think he did the right thing.

“I lost that full-time job, I lost my apartment, I sold my guitar, my half-stack, all my vinyl. At that point, what I was pretty much going to do was living on the street, but Steve was the talent buyer at a bar called The Doll Hut, and they offered me a chance and put me behind the bar. That became a nice gig for the rest of the ’90s up until 2001.”

That was a long period of struggle, with months of abstinence broken up by a high dive back into speed-fueled chaos. He stopped playing music and subsisted solely on his job at The Doll Hut. Soto gave him a place to stay and served as something of a guardian during those dark days, Antista said.

Eventually, however, he met a woman. They started a relationship, and Antista also fell in love with her children, ages 5 and 8. It was a new life … a good life … but speed still took priority, he added.

“Those kids were probably in my life for a year while I was on and off using, and finally my girlfriend realized it,” he said. “I had been lying to her before because we weren’t around each other too often, but she found a pipe in my pocket, and she just said, ‘I’m sorry. You’re never going to see my kids again if you’re not clean.’ And somehow, that did it.

“She realized that I didn’t tell the truth, so for the next month, she made sure I never had a second to go back to my old ways, which I probably would have. Through her watchdoggery, and me wanting to be a stepdad to those kids, I got through those first six months until I got a little bit of clarity.”

Starting over at the bottom

Greg Antista musician in recovery

Courtesy of Harmony Gerber

It wasn’t easy. The withdrawals, he added, were “awful,” compounded by an immense amount of guilt and shame. He made the decision not to go to 12 Step meetings because of that, he added, and he didn't go to drug rehab, either.

“I didn’t want to go and tell how bad it had been,” he said. “It was really private and really personal and really filled with a lot of shame.”

But he had something to live for. Slowly, his girlfriend allowed him back into her family’s life, and he became a surrogate father, taking the kids to Little League games and practices and being present for birthdays and Christmas. The children, he said, were his lifeline.

“I got through it because there was no way I was going to let those kids down,” he said.

Like a stone in a pond, his sobriety began to ripple outward into other areas of his life. Over the years, he had developed a reputation as unreliable and untrustworthy. He was never mean or violent; he just couldn’t be depended on, he said.

“They didn’t expect me to be on time; they just assumed I was going to be three hours late because I was a speed freak,” he said. “It was always, ‘You can’t count on Greg. Don’t ever expect Greg to show up. If soundcheck is at 7, tell Greg it’s at 5.’ If it was family, it was, ‘Don’t ask Greg to be the babysitter. Don’t count on Greg for Christmas. Greg’s a (screw) up; just leave him alone.’

“But people saw I had those kids under control, and they started trusting me. That’s what felt so good — people coming back and expecting you to be on time and to keep your word, to just do what you say you’re going to do. And having that back in my life, I never wanted to mess that up again. I’ve become the guy that’s always early, the guy that tries to be there, the guy that, if somebody’s down, tries to pick them up.”

The first five years, he believes, were the hardest. As a speed addict, he knew where to go and who to buy it from. He’d pass acquaintances and using buddies on the street and knew they probably were holding. But he kept one thing at the forefront of his mind:

“The faces on those kids when they found out I messed up was a bigger fear than wanting to do it again,” he said.

Love and loss and everything in between

Greg Antista musician in recovery

Steve Soto (left) doing his Robert Smith (of The Cure) impression, while Greg Antista apes Adam "Antista," for a 2017 tribute show to their old bandmate, Mike "Gabby" Gaborno. The three men played together in the covers project Flock of Goo Goo, which covered punk songs from the 1980s. This photo was taken during a memorial concert for Gaborno, who died in 2017; it would be one of the final times Soto and Antista played together before the former's death in 2018.

Even clean, life continued to show up. The relationship soured, but Antista stuck it out for the sake of the children. The entire time, Soto kept pushing him to make music again.

“I didn’t even know if I had another song in me,” he said. “I got out of that relationship at the end of 2016, started writing songs at the end of 2017 and recorded this record in 2018. And a lot of that had to do with how Steve was doing a lot of acoustic shows in those years, and he suggested it would be easier if I did it that way too, because it’s just impossible to keep a band together when you’re older.

“At the tail end of 2017, I played my first acoustic show. I hadn’t performed live on stage in 15 years at that point, and it felt great. I was as sober as I’d ever been and as clean as I’d ever been. Before, I thought I needed it to play, but doing that, I realized how much better you are when you’re all there and present, and now much better the experience is.”

It was a huge blow, needless to say, when Soto died unexpectedly in June 2018. Soto was instrumental in getting Antista back on stage; playing acoustic gigs, he pointed out, negated any pressure of putting together and maintaining a full band right out of the gate. It was exactly what Antista needed: It reminded him how much fun playing could be even while sober, and it allowed him to craft a footnote to his chapter in the SoCal scene.

“That’s what I wanted it to be — part of a lineage, to be a part of the family again,” he said. “It sucks that Steve can’t be here for it, especially because we had always been so close. We were tight like family, so he tolerated me when I was messing up, but we were tight like adult men when he died.”

The Lonely Streets is indeed a part of that lineage: distinctly Southern California, helmed by a man who’s received a new lease on life. And every time he prepares to celebrate his new music live for new fans eager to be a part of the experience and old friends just glad he’s back in the saddle, Antista feels like he’s got an angel on each shoulder: his recovery on one, and Soto on the other.

And he always takes the time to acknowledge them before he plugs in and rocks the room.

“I say a prayer before every show,” he said. “I always say, ‘You’ve got to be present. You’ve got to realize this is special. And you can’t take it for granted.’”

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