“When at the end of the road, we find that we can no longer function as a human being …”
Those bitter ends: Oh, how Geoff Rickly remembers them well.
There was a time when his band, Thursday, was considered one of the pioneers of the post-hardcore/emo boom of the 2000s. Throughout the 1990s, Rickly had worked toward that dream, playing in basements and seedy clubs and wherever else would have him as he hammered away at the doors of an often fickle industry.
“… either with or without drugs, we all face the same dilemma. What is there left to do? There seem to be these alternatives …”
He didn’t wake up with a heroin habit, and while the fame Thursday found might have made access to substances easier, he doesn’t blame his drug problem on music. But that’s the thing about addiction: It knows no distinction between a Jersey boy in a rock band or a kid growing up in Chicago gang culture or a Southern sorority girl or an airline pilot.
“… either go on as best we can to the bitter ends — jails, institutions and death — or find a new way to live.”
It took him to the same bitter ends, and once there, he indeed faced that dilemma, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently. His girlfriend at the time had found out that he was hooked on heroin, and he tried to stop. He’d go 20 or 30 days, maybe even hit up a recovery meeting, but it was never enough.
He always fell back into the abyss of those bitter ends.
“My lady found out, and I got kicked out of the house again,” Rickly said. “I remember thinking, ‘Do I have enough money on my credit card? I could go to Mexico and live as long as I can, and if I die, I die.’ But I remember, all of the sudden this voice said, ‘Or, you could get sober.’ And that’s when I realized that I could take everything I had left and put it into getting sober and let go of it all.
“I went from being so filled with anger and hate and hurt to feeling like the sun was shining on me wherever I was. I was filled with this warm idea of, ‘What if I could actually do this, for real?’ And from that moment on, I was willing to do whatever. Whatever it was — all the clichés, all the things I thought were stupid, all the stuff I hated so much about getting clean, I was like, ‘Who cares? I’ll do it all.’”
Geoff Rickly: Crossing the dark Rubicon
Does he do them perfect? Absolutely not, and like most folks in recovery from addiction, Rickly will be the first to cop to his foibles as an imperfect human being. The difference between then and now, he added, is that he’s able to own up to his mistakes instead of blaming them on others, and by so doing, the likelihood of repetition is far less.
Because as the colloquialism goes, that’s the very definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. And at his worst, Rickly certainly qualified.
“I had the experience of by the time I had crossed the line, I realized I was miles over it, just way out over the cliff,” he said. “My marriage fell apart around the same time the band broke up (around 2012), and I just kind of got in a real dark place and got real depressed for a while. I kept using, and then one day I got held up at gunpoint, and one of the things the guy got was a huge bottle of opiates.
“The next day I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t actually go without these.’ I had fooled myself into thinking these were things I was doing for fun, because I always had money or pills, and then suddenly, I didn’t, and I was going through withdrawal. I knew a guy who would front me some heroin, and I thought, ‘I’ll do it long enough to get straight and then get out of it.’
“So I did it, but it wasn’t as strong. The heroin wasn’t as strong,” he repeated. “That’s when I realized that every day, I had been taking more than enough opiates to equal several bags of heroin.”
As the gravity of the situation hit him like the impact of a meteorite, he realized with dawning horror that he had become the one thing he had been warned against as a child. Growing up, he said, his mother’s side of the family included a bunch of hard-working, hard-partying Irish uncles who would gather regularly to play cards, smoke cigars, spin jazz records and drink.
“I kind of associated that with, ‘This is what the guys do,’” he said. “But my one uncle who had gone to Vietnam and stuff, he would come by on a motorcycle and sometimes ask for money, and the rest of them were like, ‘He’s not OK. He’s a junkie. He’s a bad guy.’ And so I think from an early age, I thought that as long as it wasn’t like that, you can do all the other stuff, and it would be fine.”
Until he got clean in 2016, shortly before Thursday returned after a five-year hiatus, Rickly spent the last several years of his addiction trying desperately to salvage his personal life while putting on a professional front that still managed to move forward. He joined No Devotion, a Welsh alternative bound formed from the ashes of Lostprophets, in 2014 and signed the band to his Collect Records label. Whatever success he enjoyed, however, was eclipsed by the growing realization that his drug problem was slowly consuming everything.
“The last few years of using heroin, of course I wanted to stop, but it was literally impossible,” he said. “They tell you (in recovery) to take it a day at a time, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to make it another 10 minutes. What are you talking about?’ It was so hard to imagine having to be without the thing that made me feel like a person, because unless I got really high, I didn’t really feel connected to people. If I wasn’t high, every sensation, every thought, was another expression of unbearable pain. Spiritually, I was so empty.”
Baptized in the warm waters of rock 'n' roll
It didn’t start out that way, for Rickly or anyone who finds themselves lost in the wastelands of addiction. For most of his life, music was an expression of the wonder and beauty his soul felt during particularly powerful experiences, like the time his mother took him to see U2 at the Meadowlands near his New Jersey home. His folks, while music enthusiasts themselves, had grown weary of that band’s songs being in top rotation in his bedroom, but that show changed everything, he said.
“It was either ‘War’ or the ‘Under a Blood Red Sky,’ and I was just listening to it all the time, and my parents were really annoyed that I wouldn’t stop playing U2,” he said. “I got my mom to take me to this concert, and I was enjoying it, because I liked U2 enough, but I looked over at one point in the concert, and my mom was in tears. The next day, I came home from school, and she had all 13 of their CDs stacked on the table and was just listening to the music.”
From that point forward, shows became a family affair. At least once a week, the Rickly family would hit up shows, and not just any shows — groundbreaking ones that left quite an impression on his young mind. The Jesus and Mary Chain, with Curve and Spiritualized opening? Check. A multi-night run by Fugazi? They were there each night. And then there were the times they’d give him permission to pay $3.25 and catch the bus into Manhattan to see a show.
“Looking back, it seems insane, and then by the time I was 16 and still in high school and had a terrible band, and I remember we played the Pyramid Club on Avenue A (in Manhattan’s East Village),” he said. “Everybody heard we had to park our van on Avenue B, and I remember a guy tried to sell me a television outside the club, and everybody was like, ‘Ooh!,’ because it was such a bad neighborhood. Of course, now it’s all million-dollar condos.
“They were pretty permissive, but they had also grown up loving music. They saw the New Yardbirds before they became Led Zeppelin. At the time, I just thought that was old people music, but I didn’t realize how cool they were.”
It was, in many respects, an idyllic childhood. He remembers his father giving him a cold Miller High Life after mowing the lawn one summer, and drinking and smoking weed with friends, the same as millions of teenagers who came of age in the 1990s. But when he broke his arm, addiction found its in.
“They gave me heavy opiate painkillers, and I had a moment with my family while we were watching ‘Malcolm X,’ the Spike Lee movie, and I was so high I started saying, ‘I want to be a Black Panther!’” he said. “My parents were just laughing, because I was obviously messed up, but I just felt so connected to everyone. I felt like I was in the brotherhood of man, like, ‘This is what other people feel — that connection. They love each other!’ And that never stopped for me with opiates until I was deep into a $300 to $300 a day heroin habit and still didn’t feel that.”
Geoff Rickly: Thursday rockets out of Jersey
By 1997, Rickly had found a group of like-minded musicians that remain part of Thursday almost two decades later: guitarist Tom Keeley, bassist Tim Payne and drummer Tucker Rule. Along with former guitarist Bill Henderson, they started out like most garage bands, playing in literal garages and basements until they felt confident enough to invite friends over to hang while they did so. The guys drew on a number of hardcore and punk elements that earned them the tag of post-hardcore, although Rickly’s emotional, plaintive vocals put them comfortably in the emo scene as well. The band’s first official show, according to some records, included a number of like-minded contemporaries, all of which would go on to varying degrees of fame: Midtown, Poison the Well and Saves the Day.
“The scene we came from, playing basements and playing to 10 or 15 people, you would see bands every week that had never sold 1,000 copies of their record, but I thought were truly special,” Rickly said. “Until we released ‘Full Collapse’ (in 2001), I thought that was us. I convinced the guys to drop out of school and do a year of touring, and I might have even said, ‘I know this isn’t going anywhere, but it’ll be awesome.’
“Then ‘Full Collapse’ came out and sold 600 copies the first week, and the label (Victory Records) was like, ‘It’s a failure,’ and we thought that was it, but we kept touring and getting good tours, and people seemed to like us. We weren’t selling a lot of records, but Saves the Day asked us to go on tour, and then MTV picked up ‘Understanding in a Car Crash.’ We were the first band out of four, but by the end of the tour, we had to play encores as an opening band.”
From there, Thursday exploded. Label shuffling led to signing with Island/Def Jam in 2002 and releasing the album “War All the Time” a year later. In between, the band’s fortunes changed almost overnight, a jarring adjustment for a group of guys who had been told repeatedly they’d never go anywhere.
“The first headlining tour we did, it was 3,000 and 5,000 seat theaters, sold out every night, and we didn’t know what to make of it,” he said. “We were a little distrustful, because all the major labels came out and we were being told, ‘You’re the next Nirvana!,’ and Spin was putting us on the cover.”
Thursday was never a party band, Rickly emphasized, although he and the guys certainly indulged. Their rider always included a request for a bottle of Jameson, which they’d pass around before take the stage. It was a shot of courage, more than anything else, he added.
“We called it ‘the help’ — like, ‘Yo! You got the help? I need some help! Give me some help!’” he laughed. “But it wasn’t like we were getting hammered before we got on stage. The kind of band we were, it wasn’t like drugs and debauchery were everywhere. You always knew how to spot that hidden connection, and then when we really blew up, everybody wanted to come by and bring eight balls of (cocaine), and a couple of nights every tour, I would get drunk and do a bunch of coke.
“But that wasn’t generally how I used. I was more solitary. If we had a long ride on the bus, I would get in my bunk, take an 80mg Oxycontin or whatever I could get and ride it out, maybe read some Thomas Pinchon. I wanted to be alone and read.”
'When at the end of the road ...'
By the end of Thursday’s initial run, the band had put one album after another on the Billboard 200 albums chart, toured the world and etched itself as one of the more intellectual rock bands to come out of the post-hardcore/emo era. But the center didn’t hold, and by 2011, Thursday had become a brand as much as it was a band, and the parts of the job that made it a transcendental experience became secondary to all of the business decisions that were required.
The guys remained in touch, however, and his bandmates encouraged Rickly to get help. He even tried — for them, for a girl, but never for himself, he pointed out.
“I would stop for 20 or 30 days, enough to go through all the withdrawals and think that I was OK, and then it would be back to the same old thing,” he said. “That went on for a long time, and the band found out, and even though we weren’t playing at the time, everybody tried to talk to me and do this thing or that thing. I would go to a (recovery) meeting, and it was just bouncing around, not wanting to use, but also not wanting to quit.”
By the end of the road, however, one thing he heard in one of those meetings clicked: “Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point.” From there, he did what most 12 Step recovery programs encourage: He surrendered to a process he wasn’t sure he believed in, but he couldn’t argue against, given that the men and women who had found tranquility in them seemed to be in much better shape than he was.
“It’s funny; I used to read and save articles about why 12 Step programs don’t work, or shouldn’t work, or how they’re not scientific,” he said. “But once I started doing it, there’s all this stuff I started to understand that they involve: reconditioning, behavioral therapy, empathy training, socializing. I felt like I started to hear the literature, and the stories in there told the exact moment I had: the feeling that I needed to let go absolutely. When it all clicked, I realized, ‘Holy shit — this is me, not somebody else, and how it is, is how I have to do it.’”
To escape from the darkness, Rickly traveled to Mexico for experimental Ibogaine treatment. (A psychedelic compound, it’s been shown by some studies to have positive effects on the addicted brain.) It was, both literally and metaphorically, a trip — but he was able to see his addiction for what it had truly become. Spoiler alert: It was terrifying.
“I was a low-bottom addict. I wasn’t just a cool guy in a band who used drugs; I was a low-bottom, losing-everything, strung-the-fuck-out junkie,” he said. “It was harsh to see myself that way, but in some ways, it was helpful, because it was extremely humbling, ego-death type of experience. I just knew that after that, I was going to try every meeting, whether it was 12 Step, SMART Recovery or whatever. If there was somebody who swore by it, I was going to try it.”
Geoff Rickly and the journey back to the light
Back home, Rickly began his recovery journey by reaching out to his immediate circle of family and friends — not to apologize, because they’d heard those words before. Instead, he thanked them. And even the small act of doing so helped reestablish connections that had long been frayed by heroin.
“I wanted to call my friends and tell them, ‘I’m going to try this thing, and I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I’m going to give it my all, and the only reason I got here is because you helped me,’” he said. “I wanted to tell them, ‘I understand everything you’ve been saying to me, I love you for it, I’m sorry I’m such a piece of shit, and I hope I can talk to you in six months or a year,’ because I wasn’t ready for a real conversation.
“And then I decided I was going to try. I might make it, or I might die, but I was going to give it my best shot, and just that feeling of wanting to reach out instead of wanting to hide it from people was a big difference.”
Recovery, in the beginning, was about the baby steps: finding the motivation to do the mundane tasks of life that had fallen by the wayside because the effort of finding drugs and using drugs had consumed everything. Even today, he added with a chuckle, dishes and laundry can be a good barometer for his emotional state of well-being: “Am I shrinking away from the discomforting things?”
He also took the suggestion of most 12 Step programs and got a sponsor — one who intimately understood the idea of being in recovery and making a living as an artist. Initially, it was suggested that perhaps Rickly might need to give up rock ‘n’ roll in order to stay sober, but that wasn’t an absolute he was willing to accept without a fight.
Having someone really like me who could do it, who could say, ‘Yeah, you’re going to figure this out,’ that was a very transformational moment,” he said. “That was big. And my band, just knowing where I was at and supporting that was huge. We actually took some people on tour in our crew who were sober and just wanted to be my bud and hang out and not drink with me, and the guys supported that. I wasn’t asking the whole band to go dry or anything like that, but they were very much aware of where I was at and tried their best to support me.”
Thursday reunited shortly after Rickly got sober, and with three months clean, he went on his first post-sobriety tour. It was, he recalled, a logistical headache, but wherever he was, he found a recovery meeting in cities around the world. Putting his recovery first, he said, helped establish habits that continue to pay dividends today.
“Now, I know a lot of musicians in recovery,” he said. “It’s almost like a subculture within a subculture.”
Geoff Rickly: Redemption through connection
More than anything else, recovery gave him the opportunity to reconnect with the pure, unbridled joy of rock ‘n’ roll he remembered so well from the days of driving his parents nuts by playing U2 on repeat. Making that connection with his mother at the band’s concert, he said, set the stage for why he began playing music in the first place, and recovery reminded him of what was important.
“Connection — it’s wanting to connect with another human being, and that translated in a way that was much more profound,” he said. “At the end, it had gotten to a point where I put up a wall at the front of the stage, and I would be playing to this brick wall, and the crowd would be on the other side. When I got sober, that changed. I could look people in the eye, I could laugh with them. I could have fun. Sure, the songs are serious, but it was like, ‘You guys love these songs, and I get to play them for you. We’re at a concert, and we’re having a good time.’”
COVID-19, of course, has put the entire music industry on hold, but there’s been connections to be found through Thursday’s streaming events. In addition, there’s a No Devotion record on the horizon — “I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I’m really proud of it,” he added — that he hopes will be out soon. If anything, being able to step back has given him perspective on ways to make what he does more impactful, and to lessen the impact of whether what he does sells the number of records required to meet his past unrelenting standards.
“That’s the other thing that’s really different now with Thursday — it used to feel like each record, each release, was life or death,” he said. “It felt like if it did well was more about whether anyone would give a shit about me, was about my worth as a human on this planet — ‘If this record is good, I get to live another day.’
“Now, people either know us, or they don’t. We have our place, and some people like us and some don’t. But we get to keep doing what we do, and that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t live or die by that anymore.”
Coming so close to death — or at least the general malaise of not caring whether he lived or died — means that Geoff Rickly has a newfound appreciation: for music, for relationships, for connection, for all of it. And when someone reaches out — a fellow musician, a friend or a fan — and seeks his guidance on navigating their own sober journey, that he’s able to offer both comfort and perspective is one of the great honors of his second chance.
“I just want to tell them, ‘I feel for you. I get it. It’s fucking tough.’ I just try to relate to them and offer some of the things I’ve tried,” he said. “I try to let them know that there are a lot of ways to deal with it, and that it takes time, and if one of those ways doesn’t stick, don’t get discouraged. Don’t give up the faith. The energy you put into reaching out for help is that foot in the door, and I just tell them that even though it’s tough, not to stop now.”