Songwriter Eric Dwight: Addicts aren’t the only ones ‘Born Into Addiction’

Eric Dwight

A great many musicians touch on addiction and the ravages of it in esoteric or cryptic ways, but not Eric Dwight.

The Ties That Bind UsThe Boston-area singer-songwriter’s new record says it all in the title: “Born Into Addiction.” Writing it, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, began as a way to process the death of his older brother, who lost his battle with drugs a few years ago. And in the heartfelt angst with which he sings it, filled with a combination of the howling grief of loss and the raging sorrow of addiction’s cruelty, is something a great many family members of addicts and alcoholics are intimately familiar.

In taking stock of his brother’s loss, and navigating the complexities of blame and anger and heartache that followed in his wake, Dwight came to the conclusion that it was he who was born into addiction. And as the watcher on the walls of a life surrounded by the destruction it wrought, his role has been to bear witness.

“‘Cause I was born into addiction / a family’s curse that didn’t choose me / but it chose almost everyone I loved / to lose someone was a guarantee …”

“My brother was an addict for 30 years, and if you know it, you know the story — he put us through hell,” Dwight said. “I’m just trying to get through it, day by day, and what you hear on the record was me remembering what it was like during the worst parts. The album is just as much about grief as it is about addiction, and this has kind of been the last step.

“I’ve been pretty happy with life since then, but that was after a long, dark period. And for me, I think it was just a genetic roll of the dice. It took me a while to figure it out, because it could have been me, and then when you understand the biology of it, you’re asking, ‘Why him and not me?’ I think it was just dumb luck, but that also helped me forgive him, too.”

Eric Dwight: 'Born' into it

Eric DwightJeff Kneipfer (Dwight’s last name, and the one he goes by as a professional educator) was five years older than Eric, and he wasn’t the only one with addiction problems in the family. Their mother had a predilection for alcohol, but she promised her husband she wouldn’t drink until the boys went off to college. It was during his return visits home, Dwight recalled, that he saw what it was doing to her.

“I would come home, and she’d be a monster,” he said. “I remember I lived with friends for most of one summer, but then she sobered up right at the birth of my first daughter. She’s lived through losing her son, and she never went back, and I’m so proud of her for that.”

Jeff, however, wandered further into the wastelands, and it took off in the late 1990s, around the time that Dwight got married. He was a paramedic, and part of the pain that Dwight explores on the record is witnessing the transformation of a sibling he viewed as a hero into an addict he couldn’t trust.

“He saved people’s lives, and he was out there on the front lines because he was really, really good at it,” Dwight said. “I like to joke that he was the Eddie Van Halen of paramedics. But I had this one image of him just being this normal character, and I found out later that he was stealing drugs from his patients.”

The first person to uncover the scope of the problem was his former sister-in-law, who divorced Jeff for, Dwight pointed out, “obvious reasons.” At the time, he and his parents didn’t understand, and for a while, they blamed her for leaving him. As something of an amends, he wrote the song “She Stood Her Ground Today,” a gentle ballad reminiscent of Toto’s “Africa”:

“Well it did not go so well / his opioids made him angry as hell / and he fumed and foamed and raged around the kitchen / so she left him there alone / and in her car she began to atone / for all the time she had put into his addiction …”

“She had the bravery the rest of us didn’t, and once she left the picture, we were in charge, and it really slammed on the rest of us,” Dwight said. “He finally hit one of his bottoms in 2007.”

A respite and a renewal

Eric Dwight

Eric (right) and his brother, the late Jeff Kneipfer.

From 2008 to 2012, the old Jeff returned. He earned back Dwight’s trust, and the two repaired their relationship, stepping up to help one another as brothers do and talking about the past, the present and the future.

On Father’s Day 2012, however, Jeff called and confessed: He had relapsed. At that point, Dwight said, he knew it was just a matter of time.

“If you look around, you’ll see: There aren’t any old people who are addicts,” he said. “They either die, or they get better. Our mom got better, but I knew that the body could only take so much. Maybe if you stick with alcohol, you can drag it out longer, but the opioid users, their tolerance goes higher and higher.

“And I just knew that he’d had his chance, and that he couldn’t do it. I don’t know how much of it was choice or fate, or if he was doomed, but I just had this very strong suspicion that he wouldn’t make it.”

This time, they two stayed in touch. Jeff tried to contain his destruction to his own life, and they maintained a relationship, strained though it was. However, at the end of 2013, Jeff hurt his back, and he wasn’t honest with the physician from whom he sought relief. He died from an overdose of fentanyl, and his body was found with the patches all over it.

For Dwight, it was the moment that changed everything, and the lovely piano-driven dirge, equal parts Billy Joel and Ben Folds, that opens the record. It’s a song called “Grief Is Doing Time,” and it details the emotional box in which he felt himself locked after his brother’s passage, he said:

“I waited for the moment when I knew he would be OK / twenty-five years of waiting but it never came / I waited for a sign that I would somehow get him back again / instead I got a phone call and I was never the same …”

“For 5 ½ years, I went through the grief, because I was really, really close to him,” Dwight said. “He was my hero. But then right before COVID, it started to not feel as heavy, and I wanted to do something new. I hadn’t written a song in years and years, because I had settled into the suburban dad/husband lifestyle, and I was happily married with two healthy girls.

“Only now they were older, and I thought, maybe I’ll give this a shot. I had some sound bites on my phone, these riffs I had collected for years, and I went through all of that and started building off of it.”

Making a record, he added, wasn’t part of his plans. In fact, he pretty much gave up on music back in 2005, when, according to his bio, he played his “last show at a bar in Norwell, Massachusetts, in April 2004. It was called Mount Blue and was partially owned by famed South Shore rock legends Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.”

The musical resurrection of Eric Dwight

“I rocked an acoustic set that night, playing my balls off for just a little money and a free entrée,” he writes. “The manager told me she had chosen my demo over 100 others so I thought that was a good sign for a music career side-gig. My sister-in-law was my roadie that night and my friend showed up and drank quite a bit. I stayed sober and sang until I was ready to fall asleep. I closed with ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and received a standing ovation from the schleps who stayed late. I drove home dog-tired and smelling like Marlboro Lights.”

His  mother-in-law greeted him with news: His wife was sick. Perhaps it as a stomach bug, they thought, but a few weeks later, they got the news: They were expecting. Dwight was enthusiastic and spent the next decade and a half content teaching. But Jeff’s death stirred something, and as time went on, the songs that began to escape from his wounded soul appeared without warning.

“I would be in class with my fourth graders, and they think I’m correcting their papers, but then I would be writing some heavy shit and get a little teary-eyed,” he said with a chuckle. “They would come up asking how to spell something like ‘probably’ and ask, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ ‘Oh, yeah, it’s just allergies!’”

Making “Born Into Addiction,” however, was cathartic. For one thing, music was something he and Jeff had shared. Jeff played bass, and starting in the fifth grade, Dwight began playing guitar. He taught himself to play piano in his 30s, and he eventually taught himself to sing as well. Making this record was a total do-it-yourself endeavor, one on which he played all of the parts, including teaching himself to play his daughter’s drum set down in the family basement.

“I learned all the other instruments because I like having complete control!” he said. “It’s worth it not to have to share, but mostly because I heard these songs a specific way. I just love music, and melodies are in my head all the time.”

And as “Born Into Addiction” began to take shape, he discovered something else: light on the other side of grief. For one thing, he pointed out, making the record was fun, especially drawing on a combination of ’70s singer-songwriter style aesthetics, ’90s alt-rock production and the confessional lyrical style of Lana Del Ray.

“I just thought, I’m going to let it all out and see if it sticks,” he said. “If some friends are uncomfortable listening to this, good, because it’s heavy, and in terms of spilling your guts, Lana is the (influence).”

And the second side, he pointed out, has some moments of levity. “Mailbox Messiah,” a jangly, bluesy shuffle about an encounter with Jesus, and “Lovely,” a song he wrote for his wife, date back to his earlier performing days but were re-recorded with better equipment and a refined technique.

And then there’s the swirling beauty of “Baby, These Are Dark Days,” another directed to his wife and the loyalty she gave him while he navigated grief’s rocky roads.

“I thought it was going to consume me, so that was an apology to my wife that I wasn’t there when she needed me,” he said. “I went to therapy to deal with not just the sadness, and that showed me that if you just try not to quit, you can stick with it and work it out and come back.”

From 'Dark Days' to light again

Presenting the record to his parents was difficult, he said. Even making it, he said, troubled him: He’s not trying to capitalize on his brother’s death, and selling the record feels weird, even though any money he makes will go toward upgrading his home studio so he can make the next recordings even better. As it turns out, however, his folks were incredibly supportive.

“My mom and I went to Cape Cod and went for a hike, and we listened to the whole thing on the way back and went through every song,” Dwight said. “I was a little worried, because it’s not kind to him at all. It’s not a tribute to him. I was angry, but I ultimately forgive him, and this record is kind of patting myself on the back for getting through this.”

Now that it’s done, how best to present it poses his next challenge. For one thing, COVID is still out there; for another, it’s not a collection of songs that he can play as a bar musician in between covers of music by Journey or The Killers — but he does want to play them, given the right circumstances. And he wants to sell copies of the record, so that he can upgrade his home studio, purchase a better microphone and make additional music.

“Streams are nice, but streaming services don’t pay artists what they’re worth,” he said. “I hope that if listeners find something in this music that resonates with them, or that comforts them, or that mirrors their own journey, that they would consider buying it directly from me. This was an incredibly personal project, but I know there are a lot of families who have gone through, and are going through, similarly painful experiences.”

In the meantime, he’s focusing on the next project. There are older songs he wants to revive, but whether they’ll end up on another album or as singles depends on the competitive nature of the music industry. All he knows is that for now, “Born Into Addiction” is the coda of the story he wanted to tell about the disease that took so much from him.

“I don’t want to write anymore songs about him. That’s done,” he said. “If there are fans out there, I hope they’ll give me a chance to hear what I have to say about other things.”

Besides, now that he’s processed it all through the writing and recording of these songs, he’s left with something purer: the memories of a time when his older brother was young and strong, untouched by the illness that would eventually kill him.

“We went on a family vacation to Yellowstone, and I was about 10 and he was 15, and he was worried that he couldn’t work out,” Dwight said. “He was trying to figure out how to work out in hotel rooms with the family around, and he was freaking huge even then! He could bench press 300 pounds, and he was a football player and an unbelievable javelin thrower.

“And I remember he said, ‘Eric, get on my back — I’m going to do pushups!’ And I just remember the power in his arms, feeling how strong he was, how he was somebody I want to be. It was a bonding experience for both of us, his little brother hugging him, our parents laughing. I remember his muscles being so strong and thinking, ‘This guy is my hero.’”