REDEMPTION SONG: Artist, musician George Terry finds renewal in recovery

REDEMPTION SONG: Musician, artist George Terry finds renewal in recovery

It’s been 11 years since George Terry McDonald — a.k.a. George Terry of the long-time rock band The Zealots, who often performs solo as George Trouble — got popped in the classroom.

The Ties That Bind UsHe’d been on the run from his addiction for most of his adult life, and when he landed in Charlotte, N.C., he thought he might have it licked. He got a public teaching job, lived with his parents and taught elementary school art classes to pay his child support bill. Normalcy doesn’t work well for rock musicians and artists, both of which apply to McDonald, and that screaming demon of the spirit howled until he gave in to temptation.

He thought classes were canceled, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, and had just set up his works when the door to the classroom opened.

“I had just tied off, and the principal walked in, wondering where I was,” McDonald said. “I got arrested, of course, and went to jail. There was some argument about whether I should be allowed to have probation or whether they should just lock me up and throw away the key. I ended up going to rehab, and I learned all about the recovery scene, and after I got out, I was really fortunate to find a great home group.

“They really saved my life. For three years, I was going to meetings just about every day, and they saved my life. I stayed pretty tight with the Steps.”

In return, recovery has given him a great deal, he added. He’s a respected artist, continues to perform with The Zealots and in June released “Plow,” a solo record anchored in a cowpunk aesthetic that addresses a myriad of spiritual subjects. Credit that to his growth in the program, he pointed out.

“I’m aware in a way I never was, so I’m jumping off a cliff,” he said. “I feel like I’m definitely where I’m supposed to be for the first time in my life. It’s not a snap of the finger, and there’s your career. It’s taken a long time to accept who I am, and now with the identity of who I am as an artist, there’s nothing separate. It’s been integrated, ever since I got away from being addicted. For that to happen, you have to be in tune with whatever your Higher Power is, and that faith is hard.”

From hoop dreams to art scenes

In some ways, McDonald has been searching for that identity since basketball didn’t work out in college. Throughout his childhood, his two loves were art and basketball, and when it became apparent that he wouldn’t be joining the NBA, he found himself wondering what he wanted to be when he grew up. He’d picked up the guitar when he was 18, and he’d always had a love for the written word, so he gravitated toward an English degree, looking for ways to turn it into a boost for both his art and his tunes.

“I got an English degree rather than an art degree, thinking there’s more of a chance of making a living with an English degree, and I could always paint,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in the late ’70s algorithm through which you had to go through to get famous in the art world; that seemed fairly obscure and not exactly what I wanted to do.”

It was in Chapel Hill, N.C., that he started to write songs on the side, and he found that the art and rock worlds of the college rock heyday in that town were, more often than not, twin planets orbiting one another.

“That’s when I turned into an artist, at the end of my college career, and some of it was generated by the bands coming through Chapel Hill in the early ’80s,” he said. “I decided to flock to New York, which is where, as the Reagan years ensued, people who were not wanting to tow what appeared to be the line all ended up. It seemed like the natural thing to do, because there, both things were happening simultaneously.”

New York was an education for McDonald in and of itself: His “mark-making style and paint application was nurtured during his years in Manhattan's Lower East Side where he became steeped in all that the Neo-Expressionist underground had to offer,” according to his art website. “While working in the Whitney Museum and as a teacher in Harlem, his paintings began to reveal the nature of the psycho-spiritual dialectic at work in his creative process. He learned to weave his individual experience into a collective historical continuum.”

“I certainly was very curious and jumped in with all fours, into the East Village scene and also the Lower East Side scene, which was a little more raunchy and edgy and punky,” he said. “I discovered I had the chops to paint and express what I wanted to express.”

It was also a time when he began to develop a habit, he added.

An opioid 'maintenance plan'

It was a love-hate affair with opiates from the beginning, McDonald said: He didn’t particularly care for them, but once they sank their fangs into his neck, he couldn’t quit them. His breakneck schedule — teaching school during the day, painting his own works during the afternoon, going out at night — meant that the energy opiates gave him (“I had a somewhat unusual chemistry with that drug,” he added) worked to his advantage. By 1985 or ’86, he would return home to North Carolina during the holidays and over the summer, kick his habit, then resume it when he returned to Manhattan.

“I did that like clockwork for four or five years,” he said.

He stayed in New York for roughly seven years, and spent a year or so afterward playing music in Rhode Island or driving an elderly art patron around the Tarrytown, N.Y. area — “It was ‘Driving Miss Cora,’ and I was Morgan Freeman,” he joked. “That was also my year of vagabonding with the guitar.”

In the early ’90s, he landed in Los Angeles to attend graduate school. While there, he discovered Mexican black tar, and from that point forward, heroin seemed to pop up in the most unexpected places — or perhaps, like most addicts, McDonald developed a radar for it. A teaching gig in Maryland after grad school? It was there as well.

“I found it wherever I went,” he said.

That was also the time period when The Zealots began to incur something of a reputation as indie rock darlings. The band released its first album, “Roar of the Crowd,” in 1998, and when a teaching gig at the University of Maryland ended, he opted to return to public education as a way to make a living. He was writing songs as well, and for a while, it seemed he might be able to maintain as a functioning addict.

“Most of the time, I was a maintenance addict; I liked to stay the way William Burroughs was able to stay on it, but that’s obviously an illusion, because it catches up with you,” he said. “Eventually, I came to Asheville (N.C.) to clean up and paint some landscapes, and I got a job teaching here — but lo and behold, that’s when the Oxycontin thing kicked in.”

A self-discovery journey continues

He became a father, and frustrated with his inability to get a public teaching job in the Asheville area, moved to Charlotte. That’s when the infamous classroom incident took place, and his name and face was plastered all over the news for a little while. Eventually, The Discovery Channel asked to feature his story as part of its “Heroin Nation” documentary, and he agreed; there was something cathartic about the telling of his “guy next door” story that gave him some closure, he said.

Today, he’s living back in Asheville and focusing on his art. The Zealots just released their fourth album earlier this year; “Jawbone,” like previous releases, features McDonald’s artwork on the cover, and he’s discovered that recovery has allowed him room to move in and out of certain spiritual confines that help define his art, he said.

“It’s really true what they say in some ways about the arrested development of addiction, because when you become addicted, part of your maturity stops,” he said. “As an artist, the maturity level that remained kind of wide-eyed and youthful for a protracted period was not helping me after a while. By the time I was a heroin addict for years, it was fake. It wasn’t really where I was as a human being, and where I stopped off last time, I got energized.

“What’s happening now is that in trying to integrate the directions I might have first gone in, I’m getting a little bit clearer identity with the zeitgeist I have of myself. Whatever stories I have to tell, it’s at least like a Gatling gun, if not a Star Wars laser. Looking at my experiences in history and culture, I have a perspective and an identity within it that’s becoming more focused.”

He doesn’t want to grind it down to too fine a point; keeping it loose allows him artistic freedom, but a sharper focus gives his work more depth. He’s unable to get a public teaching gig because of what happened in Charlotte, and even college courses are merely temporary; whether that’s fair or not is an entirely different conversation, but one thing he is certain of: Recovery has given him an entry into the public discourse about creativity.

“Any artist will struggle with ego, but having gone through recovery, I’m able to consider more objectively my motivations and what’s really sincere and genuine,” he said. “I can look at what I’m after in everything I do and find the wave of energy that’s there — that benevolence, that redemption. There’s a guy here in my art building who’s in recovery, and we talk about it a lot, and I’ve come to realize that I’m a very lucky guy.

“I didn’t go to recovery until I was in so much trouble that I was going to jail or treatment. It took what it took, and it took a lot for me, because I was as hardheaded as anybody. Now, whether it’s faith or hope or belief or trust in myself, the powers that be or the universe, I know that what I’m going to do is going to be good, if I do it as well as I can do it.”

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