Nick Petty was still on probation after having spent a year in jail in San Francisco, but he was doing well.
Living in a sober house. Attending drug court classes and showing up for regular check-ins before the judge. Taking part in medication assisted treatment that kept his cravings for opioids managed through a combination of Suboxone and counseling.
And playing open mic nights as he found the musical creativity that always eluded him when he was high.
“I really didn’t get creative until I stopped using drugs,” Petty told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “That was really amazing for me to realize, because as an addict, these psychotropic drugs fuck with the chemistry of your brain and everything about you — your self-esteem, how much you value yourself, what you think you need to be successful.
“To me, playing music gave me the positivity and self-confidence I was looking for in drugs. I wanted to play live, and open mics helped me get clean.”
And then one night he looked out in the audience, and sitting a few tables away, staring a hole through him, was the head of adult probation for Marin County. And because Petty was still enrolled in drug court — a judicial diversion program that allows low-level drug offenders to take part in rehabilitation in exchange for reduced jail time and expunged records — he wasn’t allowed to be in places that served alcohol.
His stomach sank — after all, the judge had put him back in jail for 24 hours for missing a counseling appointment; violating the program’s ban on patronizing establishments that serve booze? But he kept playing. And a curious thing happened, he said:
“I played a set, and I see her face, and it’s just lit up! I could tell she knew it was me, and afterward she said, ‘You know what, Nick? I think it’s a really good thing for you to play.’ So she talked to my probation officer, ands they set up a new mandate that I could go into places like that if I was playing music.”
Nick Petty: A 'Happy' Accident
And just like that, music became another tool in the box for Petty, who now fronts the Bay Area indie rock band The Happys. It was a breakneck pace, those early days of recovery, but it was also what he needed at the time, after a long, slow decline that left him ostracized from family members and accused of selling drugs. (He wasn’t — he was actually hoarding them for personal use, he said. More on that later.)
And it paid off, both personally and professionally. The Happys released the full-length record “Trippin’” in 2016, and followed it up with the four-song EP “Bipolar” two years later. With the sort of infectious hooks reminiscent of Pavement burnished with a West Coast pop-punk shine, the band’s music is infectiously undeniable. Despite the attitude, however — a little irreverent and a lot manic, to be sure — the band’s name is earnest in every respect, Petty said.
“It’s all about striving for happiness, and for me, the combination of therapy and recovery filled what I needed when I got clean,” he said. “For me, I just felt like I had a very good chance to get connected in with good people who were doing very positive things I really needed at the time. Our first guitarist was in jail with me, and he and I got sober together and would go to open mics.
“Going to meetings, I ran into James Hetfield (of Metallica), and I talked to him about music and how it was for him to get sober, and that shit helped me for months. I don’t know if I was lucky or what, but I met a lot of musicians in recovery.”
And from them all, he picked their brains, eager to learn a new way of living life without substances that left him feeling like he was circling the drain. His new drug, he found, was music, and despite his previous misconception that creating art required feeling tortured and medicating that torture with drugs, he discovered that, for himself at least, the opposite was true.
And that, he added, led to a burning desire to harness that creativity to a rocket and hang on for the ride, thrilled — happy, even — at wherever it might take him.
“I think subconsciously, I literally thought if you wanted to be Kurt Cobain or Johnny Cash or Bradley Nowell and write good music, you had to take the shit they took, and a big part of me when I got clean was to carry the passion, but not burn out,” he said. “I was really sparked with a lot of creativity once I stopped using drugs, and I realize that society will say whatever it wants about all that type of shit, but at the end of the day, there are people out there who are way more creative without it.
“That was really big for me. I thought, ‘What if Kurt tried to work on his shit and kept playing? What would that have sounded like?’ And that became what I wanted to be, that person who beat his addictions and who inspires people so that they don’t have to indulge in drugs to get somewhere, because they really didn’t help me. I could get shit done because they really siphoned my creativity.”
A West Coast small town upbringing
Growing up in Novato — a bucolic Wine Country town about 30 miles from San Francisco that was the first home of the Grateful Dead, the town where the Steve Miller Band recorded its “Fly Like an Eagle” album and the city of origin for both Hetfield and Sly and the Family Stone — there was always something going on come the weekends ... but most of those happenings involved house parties and other gatherings where alcohol, and eventually drugs, inevitably turned up as party favors. Petaluma and San Rafael, nearby towns, had live music venues and other outlets for young people to congregate, but in Novato, Petty said, they had to get creative.
“I didn’t know how much it would take to feel the effects, so I was constantly drinking too much and getting sick,” he said. “I was never too big on drinking, because the opiates? The opiates just trashed me. I don’t know why, but I remember I was 16, and I specifically wanted to try opium for some reason.”
Not prescription opioids: opium, the sticky resin used as a base substance for the production of heroin and legal pharmaceuticals as well. However, a friend procured black tar opium — much more potent than the stuff Nick had in mind. And that, he said, was probably a bad idea.
“Opium, regular opium, is like 10 percent as strong, so we’re talking huge difference,” he said. “Once you’re exposed to that high, if you’re an addict and you’re born with that genetic component, that’s going to flip the switch. That’s what led me to let my guard down.”
It wasn’t long before he was seeking out any opioid he could find, and eventually milder ones led to more potent ones. By the time he was taking Oxycontin, he would go into withdrawals without it.
“At that point, I started doing some bad shit — writing bad checks, just some gnarly stuff that kept me clean later when I got sober and had to think about it,” he said. “That was the descent.”
Looking back, it all started innocently enough, he said: Booze and drugs, with the occasional whippet (nitrous oxide, an inhalant) and, on rare occasion, cocaine. That led to Ecstasy, which led to Vicodin, which lead down the opioid rabbit trail until he hit the end of the line: heroin, a drug that also stole his platonic and romantic relationships, he said.
“Pretty much every friend I had got into it as well,” he said. “I’ve seen so many good friends die, and for a while, I was really just losing every girlfriend I had to addiction. It was just crazy. Even after I got clean, I lost two or three people just back-to-back to addiction, but as that happened, that got me more into mental health treatment for myself.
“I was definitely a dual diagnosis person for sure, right out of the gates, and I think they coincide. If you don’t take care of your mental health, the urge to want to use is there. For me, it hasn’t been there in a long time, but when it is, it’s became I’m not taking care of my mental health.”
Nick Petty: A bottom, a bounce and a resurrection
And when everything came crashing down, he wasn’t taking care of anything, he added.
“I was physically dependent at that point, kind of like insane,” he said. “I was stealing from family and friends, and I got arrested for it and spent time in the San Francisco Jail.”
Because he had a prior arrest on his record, a blackout, combined with the raging insistent that his wallet had been stolen, led someone to call the police. What they found at his house was an enormous stockpile of drugs — all of it, Petty said, accumulated and hoarded during his manic, drug-fueled runs in which he was terrified of running out. The cops, however, were convinced that he was a drug dealer.
“They thought I was selling, so that’s how the case stuck,” he said. “I just couldn’t stop. I kept being like, ‘I can do it a couple of times. I don’t have to do it so many times.’ I would tell myself I was just trying it out again, but then I’d wind up with another case, another charge.
“And that time, my family told me, ‘We’re not bailing you out. We’re not going to enable you and your stealing, your lying, your bullshitting us. You’re not welcome at the house.’ That was when I did a year at the county jail, and I just had to sit there and think about what I’d done.”
It was time, he realized, to grow up. So when the opportunity to enroll in the drug court program came open, he applied and got accepted, willing to do whatever it took to earn his freedom and take his newfound determination to stay sober and apply it to life on the outside.
He'd dabbled in music while still using, but it was always impossible to stay awake long enough to write a song or learn to play it when that heroin nod hit. Sober, after his probation officer agreed to his extenuating creative circumstances, he started getting more into self-expression — playing open mic nights in San Rafael and eventually putting together The Happys. Smaller shows led to bigger shows, which led to festivals, and The Happys eventually settled on a lineup that includes Petty, Brett Brazil on bass, Alex Sanchez on guitar and Ryan Donahue on drums.
Right out of the gate, Petty approached music with the same work ethic that he did his recovery. They went to work building their fanbase by playing as many live shows as they could, never turning down a gig. They traveled to the Northwest and Southern California on shoestring tours, toured in support of the Mad Caddies, opened for Agent Orange, Del The Funky Homosapien, and played the main stage at San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, 3 miles from where Petty spent his final days of addiction in the Tenderloin district.
The difference between then and now, he added, is like night and day.
“Still to this day, I see so many people I knew through the court system, and a lot of them come up and say, ‘I can’t believe that’s you! You’ve really changed!’” he said.
Get Happy(s): The continuing rock 'n' roll adventures
That change came about through a recovery program, in which he found like-minded young people who were working on staying clean and sober as well, and Suboxone — the brand name of buprenorphine, often referred to as the “gold standard” of medication assisted treatment. He had tried methadone in the past, but it never seemed to work. Suboxone, however, made a world of difference.
“It was a huge problem for my brain, and I think for a lot of people, it works as drug replacement therapy,” he said. “I’m talking about people like some of my friends, who were kind of lifers with drugs and couldn’t stop. If you’re going to keep using, at least you’re under a therapeutic order of talking to people, and there’s something in your system that blocks out opiates.
“If you did relapse on heroin or Oxy or fentanyl, it won’t work. There are certain properties in (Suboxone) that makes it so those drugs don’t work. And for me, I had to go to counseling and take drug tests, and those are things that get in the way of people just living a street life, because to me, I loved the street culture of using, too. I loved that it was illegal, and I thought that if you could live in a counterculture, you were cool.”
Suboxone, he added, gave his life structure, and going to recovery meetings helps him, on bad days, see that it never gets any better out there. Addicts and alcoholics who come to the rooms seeking the new way of life he’s found are like looking into a mirror’s reflection, he said, and if he can help them by telling his story, he doesn’t hold back.
“I just don’t want people to die,” he said. “It’s more important to me than my ego if it will help someone out there, especially that diehard addict who can’t put shit down. What I went through was exactly what I needed. I needed people around me who weren’t obsessed with getting high, or who were but stopped. Knowing that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only person to go through this shit, was really big. The second I went to meetings, I had a strong sense of community.
“It just made me feel part of the world,” he added. “It helped everything — my job, my family life, everything.”
And when life threw knuckleballs at his face, as life is wont to do, the foundation he laid in those early days helped him get through to the other side. His father’s death from pancreatic cancer, for example, was a huge motivator — not just to stay clean, but to do more work. The day of his father’s death, he added, he heeded the advice of his sponsor, a recovery mentor, and played a show.
“I found it was really helpful to immerse myself at times when things are really bad, just to distract myself,” he said. “That was the hardest time for me not to just indulge in anything. I felt like, at that point, I had to step up. I had to do a lot of therapy, because I had a lot of demons going on. Every single day, I was waking up and staring at a picture of my dad, just crying and feeling sorry for myself.”
Nick Petty: Getting it together, one day at a time
Addressing his mental health and dealing with depression, he said, reinforced one of the central tenets of recovery: that drugs and alcohol are just a symptom of a much deeper problem. Looking around his hometown of Novato, he sees it in other young people who struggle, as he did, to find meaning in a world that often feels unfair.
“Everybody’s dying, or doing some crazy shit to get drugs,” he said. “There’s a big, big problem with opiates and a lot of other drugs.”
And while it may be a while before The Happys are the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” even that level of fame can’t buy the thing he sought in heroin. He looks at stars like Demi Lovato, he said, and sees that seeking an escape from life is embedded in all levels of American culture. At least with Suboxone, other addicts have a chance to get better, he said, because right now, the addition of fentanyl into the supply chain is killing them before they get a chance to see that there’s a better way. That way isn’t always easier or softer — it still takes work, and sometimes that work isn’t pleasant.
“Grief and bad relationships — those two things you want to make sure you’re handling and talking out,” he said. “I’m really glad I chose to do a lot of therapy, because I could have easily said fuck it, like a lot of people do.”
Petty’s work, however, has led him to a good place. The Happys are planning on releasing several singles in the months to come, and they’re planning to get back in the studio soon to work on a new album slated for 2021. They hope to get back on stage when COVID-19 allows it, and because the pandemic has forced the band to slow down, he’s excited to capture the new songs for fans, and for himself.
It's a good life Petty’s built for himself, and one for which he’s profoundly grateful — especially because it’s one he never thought he’d have.
“A lot of people didn’t!” he said with a laugh. “A lot of people have told me, ‘I didn’t think you’d get your shit together!’ I try to keep that in mind and just look at everything differently. A lot of people can forget where they came from, but I try to never do that.
“I always keep in mind that I was a gutter variety alcoholic and drug user, and every day I wake up and say, ‘thank God I’m relieved of the bondage of myself and addiction,’ and that I don’t have to ask, ‘What am I going to do to get high today?’”