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When Luck and Trouble front man Brian Blush came to — handcuffed to a hospital bed somewhere in Arizona after flat-lining not three hours before — he could only wonder why he wasn’t dead. The heroin OD left him clinging for life through a chopper rescue from a schoolyard. At that point, his life to him (and others) wasn’t worth two cents. Had it not been for a swift-thinking paramedic/helicopter pilot who resuscitated him, Blush would have cashed out on the cheap.
That was five years ago. The tomb-skirting incident was the end result of a pharmaceutical pill-and-junk habit, a souvenir of a fleeting moment of rock ’n’ roll stardom.
The years leading up to the OD-bust had been rather charmed for the Detroit-born Blush. The kid from a well-heeled family had co-written a song called “Banditos” that peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Alternative Rock charts and crossed over into the Hot 100. The song’s accompanying video beamed Blush and his Arizona band the Refreshments into millions of MTV households. The group did the Conan O’Brien show and hosted an episode of MTV’s “120 Minutes.” The “Banditos” album, Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy, spent nearly five months in the Billboard album charts and went gold. Blush co-wrote the theme song for “King of the Hill.” The band’s tours saw sold-out venues throughout the country. Blush had a lucrative publishing deal with Warner/Chappell. He got married, bought a house and two cars and was on course to achieving his life’s goals before he hit 30. Basically, Blush had it all.
Then things soured. The second Refreshments album, 1997’s The Bottle and Fresh Horses, spent one week on the charts and evaporated. The band lost its deal with Mercury around the time drugs got Blush by the throat. In 1998, the band could no longer tolerate his junked ways, and he got the boot. His money soon ran dry.
Blush held steadfast to the poor-man’s junkie cliché and began stealing. In Tempe, Ariz., the guitarist became a symbol of well-worn junkie truth, a character worthy of a Harry Crews novel and hell-bent on slow suicide, much like his mentor and friend, the Gin Blossoms’ genius songwriter Douglas Hopkins, who blew his head off in 1993. People were taking bets as to whether or not he was going to live out the 1990s.
“I would’ve bet against myself,” Blush says, “and I would’ve won.”
He ripped off his friends, his own band mates, his family. Blush pawned his lucrative publishing rights for both “King of the Hill” and the Refreshments catalog for a paltry $2,500. The money unto dope was quick as rainbows, on par with Blush’s ability to burn bridges. For Blush, it was like living life at the bottom of the ocean with misshapen fish, bodies formed and deformed by permanent dark and permanent cold, that place where even despair fades. His family disowned him. He lost everything, including his wife. He was homeless. Rumors circulated among hardcore Refreshments fans that he was dead.
“And no doubt about it, I directly pissed everything I had away,” recounts Blush penitently, in a tone that suggests harsh lessons learned. “It’s such a ‘you shoulda known better’ cliché. I was so naive about addiction. Especially the physical part of an opiate addiction, I just didn’t know. My parents tried to help me and help me and help me, and I fucking was a dickhead.”
Finally, after the OD, the cops popped Blush, and he kicked a gnarly dope habit in a Phoenix jail. His brother Doug came through and delivered him to a California rehab center.
“When I got out of jail I had made arrangements to go to a real street kind of rehab center in LA,” he continues. “The only thing I had left was the breath in my body. I took that and I said, ‘If I am going to survive, I gotta do something.’”
When Blush emerged from rehab, he resided in a sober house. He did a short stint in a punk band called the Bleeders.
“LA was problematic; I didn’t have a car, a guitar. I relied on the kindness of others. I ended up borrowing money from my brother for a Greyhound ticket.”
He took the bus to his parents’ home in Detroit, the place he had left in the mid-’80s to attend school at Arizona State. The bus trip was an allegorical ride; it reintroduced him to a sober world outside of recovery walls.
An old pal from his days at Adams High School in Rochester Hills got him a job in factory as a machine operator. Then he met unsung guitarist Bob Monteleone, a storied Detroiter who plays with reggae band Black Market, did time with Scuba la Boobala, Electric Mud and, in the ’80s, the near-hit the Look.
Monteleone has a home studio that became a refuge for Blush, and the two guitarists wrote handfuls of dusty Americana-Refreshments influenced songs together. Hence, Luck and Trouble.
“We started writing these songs,” says Monteleone. “That went from recording in his bedroom to gigging up to five nights a week.”
Blush began giving guitar lessons to kids. “That was really helping. There was a certain amount of notoriety with some of these students from being on TV or whatever. But seeing these kids form the chords and see the look in their eyes helped a lot. It reminded to keep focused on what I have rather than what I don’t.” He now sees a handful of students on a weekly basis.
But Blush, who’s prone to fits of self-pity and depression, once again took aim at his foot. In a move of jackassian proportions, Blush impersonated a doctor and phoned in a prescription to a drug store in Auburn Hills. When he arrived for the pills, the cops were waiting.
“As I was working at this factory, I became introspective about the things that I had done to other people, and started feeling sorry for myself,” he explains. “After the phone-in thing, I went to jail. Then my girlfriend helped with a lawyer and I dodged another bullet.”
Blush got off with probation. But in 2001, a dirty urine sample landed him in the Oakland County jail. He spent six months of long days with the television scrolling inscrutably.
“I woke up in jail one day, ‘King of the Hill’ came on,” Blush says. “I took a look around at where I was and what I had. …”
Monteleone is a seemingly sympathetic and unassuming gent who says he foresees no trouble working with Blush now: “He’s a rock. He’s fine. He goes into depression for a few weeks at a time. He doesn’t do the H anymore. He knows he can’t do that.”
Monteleone recently started his own label, Hanzie Records, and he works with local upcoming bands. Hanzie released Luck and Trouble’s debut earlier this year, the suitably titled Malfunction Junction. The record has some truly haunting moments, particularly “I’m Waiting,” a loping, melancholic confessional of regret and lost love. Rave-ups like “Attitude” and “Hennessy” take stock in celebrations of joy and pain, whose reference points land between Steve Earle and the Gin Blossoms.
At the Luck and Trouble record release party in February, Refreshments fans, happy to learn that Blush was indeed alive, turned out from around the country. One guy from Tennessee brought a guitar for Blush to sign.
Blush is no longer in organized recovery, and he follows a mostly straight-and-narrow path while making his living in bars, which is no mean feat. But in certain circles he’s more famous for pills, dope, duping friends and ripping off band mates than for his accomplishments as a guitarist and songwriter.
The man is a breathing cautionary tale, the living example of somebody who should be dead. And he expresses himself like one who’s on top of things rather than smothered under them. The miles of hard road are scarcely detectable on Blush, and his clear brown eyes and youthful gait belie his bumpy 35 years.
Blush has begun the long process of making amends for his horseshit deeds of yore. He says he’s at last on the road to redemption. “I did some really stupid shit, some hurtful stuff to really great people really close to me,” he says ruefully.
He’s mended his relationship with his parents, but the guys in his old band may be a tougher win. “Look, I thought and they thought I was gonna be dead. I have no ill will toward any of those guys. I deserve whatever I got. I’ve tried making amends and I’ll keep trying.”
He continues, “I wouldn’t say it’s full-fledged redemption, but it’s moving in that direction. Maybe some of my songs will transcend my stupidity, and on a good day I might’ve written a few lines that someone else might be able to make a connection with.”
The duo of Luck and Trouble gig at a number of area pubs, playing “day-job songs,” acoustic sets that run the gamut of more obscure songs by CCR, Beatles and Stones, and the sporadic Gin Blossoms or Refreshments hit. Occasionally the band plays as a full unit, employing the rhythm section from Black Market.
“Just to get people hooting and hollering we’ll throw in the ‘King of the Hill’ theme at an acoustic gig,” laughs Blush. “Nobody believes me if I happen to say that I wrote that song.” He stops and shakes his head. “The obvious response is ‘Yeah, whatever, so where’s your Ferrari?’”
Brian Smith is the Metro Times music editor. E-mail email@example.com.