'Happiness Is Weird'
Thelonious Monster's Bob Forrest Talks Kicking Heroin and Celebrity Rehab
Television viewers know him as the rough-hewn guy in hat and glasses helping Dr. Drew on VH1's Celebrity Rehab. But decades before that, Bob Forrest won renown as leader of the shambolic rock band Thelonious Monster, which rose out of the same '80s LA melting pot that produced Fishbone, Jane's Addiction, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Then he fucked everything up with drugs, booze, drugs, unprocessed trauma, grandiosity, and more drugs. Forrest's music, fuckups, and amazing ongoing second life as a hugely influential addiction counselor are covered in full in Bob and the Monster, Keirda Bahruth's documentary that screens on Thursday, October 27 at the Uptown. Following the film, Thelonious Monster will play their first Seattle show in 20 years. In advance of the screening and the show, I interviewed Forrest via phone from his Los Angeles home.
How did the documentary come about? Specifically, where in your trajectory from druggy rock fuckup to renowned sobriety counselor was the idea of the film introduced?
[Keirda Bahruth] loved the band and just wanted to make a documentary about Thelonious Monster. The sobriety part unfolded deep and richly from there. I really became Drew's right-hand man after she started making the movie.
So she thought she was making a music documentary, and you presented her with this amazing second act?
What's it's like watching a movie about what a monumental asshole you used to be and what an amazing person you've since become?
It's very weird. [Bahruth] didn't let me see it until it was finished. People say things [to the camera] they wouldn't normally say to you—bad things and good things. It's almost like I'm dead. I don't think a lot of people have this experience that they're still alive when the documentary about their life comes out... I watched it with my older son in New York, and I was really nervous about what he'd think. But he loved it. It was basically an explanation of why he didn't have a dad growing up. But he hates Celebrity Rehab. He doesn't care that I was a heroin addict, but Celebrity Rehab—to him, that's the height of grossness. [Laughs]
The Seattle screening will be followed by a performance by the band. What does a Thelonious Monster show look like in 2011?
Aged and bigger—heroin has a way of suppressing your appetite.
You described the '80s—'90s version of the band as "all heroin addicts who hated each other." Now the band has zero heroin addicts—how many of you still hate each other?
It's getting better! It comes and it goes. There's just this tenseness. Successful bands have a lot of animosity, but it gets cleaned away with success. Whoever comes in conflict with a hit band has to go—see Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. But when you're not successful, no one has to go, because nobody cares! I love that we're still doing it. A lot of bands that had success and are getting back together, they're just trying to capitalize on their success. It just seems more pure that we never succeeded and we've never gone away.
Exploring the '80s—'90s Thelonious Monster albums, I was delighted by the out-of-left-field cover songs—Tracy Chapman's "For My Lover," Joan Armatrading's "The Weakness in Me"...
One reason we weren't successful is that we always played lots of cover songs. We had a repertoire of maybe 200 songs we could play. Then we'd get self-sabotaging, where we'd get some big show and play only cover songs. When we toured with Hüsker Dü on their Warehouse tour, we'd open our set with the first song on their new record. Bob Mould didn't like that at all! When we opened for Jane's Addiction, we played "Jane Says." When we opened for Guns N' Roses, we played "Welcome to the Jungle." They were like, "Are you making fun of us?" And I was like, "No, I love that song!"
As a sobriety specialist, you work with a lot of young musicians in LA. Having lived through the tornado of chasing fame and drugs, are there seeds you can plant in up-and-comers to help them avoid the traps that got you?
I use myself as an example. I tell 'em, "Whether you succeed or fail, it's not gonna fix what's wrong with you. The system [of the music business] and fame is incapable of fixing traumatized people. Don't pretend it's okay that your mom beat you. It's not okay. Pretending that it is is fucked up, and probably why you're smoking crack. If you start fixing your trauma now, while chasing your dreams, maybe you can be well and successful."
After all the shit, you seem happy.
Happiness is weird. Like, I was happy when I scored a bunch of heroin for a cheap price. The other day I bought some Lakers Adidas and I was so happy! Being happy is overrated. Purpose is what's important. I'm purposeful.