Steve Perron: A Guitarist Who Almost Made It -- Then Came Smack

The Children's ax man is sitting in hospital pajamas instead of on stage and it's drugs that got him here

Credit: Foto Maximum

But for a few missed junctions, a few missteps, a few too many needles and pills, Steve Perron might now be wearing suede and fringe instead of hospital pajamas. He might be performing for thousands instead of singing for a solitary visitor in his room in a mental hospital.

For Steve, the breaks didn't come and he missed the junctions and took a few wrong steps and a few too many shots and pills and his band dissolved and he hit rock bottom.

To find him a year or so ago, you could call Lou Adler's offices at Ode Records; today, all you have to do is to exit off loop 410 in San Antonio and take a right through a recently bulldozed expanse of dirt which surrounds a blockhouse-like private mental institution, Park North General Hospital.

Inside room 208, Steve Perron struggles to awaken. He has managed to make his room somewhat livable, with the addition of a phonograph, TV, guitar, tape recorder, and posters of Mick Jagger, B. B. King, Gene Autry, and Steve's group, the Children.

Their name probably isn't familiar, but their story - and his - will strike a responsive chord with anyone who's ever been associated with an "almost" band, one of those groups that struggles along for years on the periphery of success, almost on the verge of making it. Always almost. Eventually, the situation of trying to live and work on an "almost" basis extracts a certain toll. For Steve, that point came last November when he realized that he was virtually to the point of no return. He had kicked speed, survived hepatitis, cold turkeyed heroin once, got back on smack and then exchanged that for an unshakable dolophine (methadone) habit that was up to 300 mg. a day when he finally sought help.

Today, after about three months' treatment (which consists mainly of a gradual reduction of dolophine dosage), he's down to 40 mg. a day but still hurting.

He is 26 and has played professionally about seven years. His first "successful" band was the Argyles, who moved onto the bandstand at the Blue Note Lounge in San Antonio after Sir Douglas finished his long engagement there.

The group later became known as the Mind's Eye, named after Perron's club here, which he says was the first psychedelic club in the South. They were christened the Children by Davy Jones when the band was brought out to California by the Monkees for an unsuccessful go at the big time. That was their first L.A. outing. More about the second later.

Steve pushes aside a slice of cherry pie, locates his cigarettes, lights up and begins talking. His words come hesitatingly at first and he sits cross-legged on his bed, his eyes closed.

"Cassell [Cassell Webb, the Children's female singer] told me that Johnny Winter has been in the same shape that I'm in and that really surprised me," he begins. "Johnny used to be our back-up band when we played at Love Street in Houston. We always used to talk backstage that if we made it big first that Johnny could trail along behind us and he always told us that if he made it big first, we would sure be his back-up band."

That was in the days when the Children were recording for Atlantic-Atco and were virtually the local band in Houston. Fever Tree had their hit ("San Francisco Girls") but they were chiefly a studio success and didn't have a large local following. The 13th Floor Elevators, pioneers of acid rock, were disintegrating and the only real competition the Children had was Shiva's Headband of Austin, who regularly played Houston. The rest of the Houston bands made their perfunctory trips to California and came back to Texas and vegetated.

"We were back in Houston and I think we were destined to stay there," Steve half - laughs through a cloud of cigarette smoke. "We did do one job with Johnny after that, in Fort Worth. Bloodrock was also on the bill and Johnny did us a favor and at least got us billed above them. After that, things went ... crazy for us and - well, I got hepatitis from speed. I had only shot up like three or four times in my life but I really dug it, really really really and, uh, people here in San Antonio that I'd known all my life and that were wealthy and well-to-do and everything were doing it so I figured it was all right for me and I was behind a six pack of malt liquor and just got off and lo and behold about six months later I had hepatitis."

He had a good case and spent seven months on his back. That gave him time to think, he says, to think about whether or not he would ever get back with the band and if they would ever get going again.

They did and went on to enjoy moderate success. They were playing an outdoor concert in Hermann Park and while they were on stage a black man ODed on acid and drew the attention of police as well as several crazies who loudly proclaimed they weren't going to let "the pigs rip off our brother." The police closed the park.

"Meanwhile," says Steve, "there were about 10,000 kids in the park who could have gone either way. So Cassell and I got on the mike and started rapping about peace and love and we cooled that scene and it could easily have exploded. You know how the Houston cops are. What really got me though, and which says something about how hard it is to make it in Houston, is that Space City, the underground paper, ran a story on that and just mentioned us, just a bare mention. All they talked about were the pigs. I think they were pissed at us because we had an AM hit, 'From the Very Start,' and Houston is an FM town. I think they were mad at us for not pushing the kids on. They would have dug it."

Lou Adler, who was then producing Brewster McCloud in Houston, happened to be in the audience that day and that, says Steve, is when his association with the Children began.

Adler took them to L.A. where they received the full treatment: "When we landed in L.A. we were picked up at the airport by a Rolls-Royce that had a cassette movie player in the back seat with quadrosonic sound and an ice box and there were photographers everywhere and they took us right to see Hair and we met the cast. The next day we went to the studio and Adler gave us each $300 and said to go out and buy some nice clothes, and we got in the union right away. Adler treated us right and it was all so fast. He put us in the studio and let us record what we wanted. Cassell and Louis [Louis Cabaza, keyboard and touch bass] and I had had the Hollywood treatment before when the Monkees had us out there. We were livin' high. Kenny Cordray, our lead player, was just 15 years old then and you can imagine what kind of effect this had on the kid's mind. He thought this was how it was gonna be forever."

Back in Houston, the Children's breakup began after they played a benefit for the Texas Rose Cafe. Cabaza called a band meeting and said he was quitting to go into club work unless they could promise him $900 a week.

"I said no, there ain't no way, but if you'll just stick it out with Adler and have faith in me, I think you'll be makin' a lot more than that in the future. Louis said he had already signed some contracts with some pizza parlors. So I said OK, but what about next weekend at the Whisky? Alder had us this gig at the Whisky, our California 'debut.' Louis said he was sorry, he couldn't make it. I had a knife, I had pulled a knife on him earlier, you know, just kiddin' around. We used to kid around real violently, you know, just kiddin' around. 'Hahaha I'm gonna cut your guts out, Mexican,' or something. Big deal. So he quit. That was it."

Then Kenny Cordray was injured in a car wreck. That left only a drummer and a newly-acquired bass player to back up Cassell and Steve. They had also been contracted to do a tour with B. B. King and they decided to forget the Whisky gig and concentrate on the tour. Perron called Adler two days before their engagement and of course that didn't sit well with him. But they went ahead with the tour and called Bill Gibbons, the lead guitarist for Z. Z. Topp, the Houston blues band. Gibbons and the band stayed up for 48 hours rehearsing and then were off to Huntsville to begin the tour.

"That's when I got back into the drug scene pretty heavy you know, uppers, and you know I'd get to feelin' so bad that I'd want a little...help or otherwise...and that help came in the form of heroin. I was on smack, about a gee-a-day habit, and I cold turkeyed it at home and then we went back on the road again and I started havin' to take a whole bunch of uppers, and so in order to combat the uppers and get to sleep at night, there happened to be a dude along with us who had a lot of junk on him and so I got into heroin. It was insane, the way we kept that tour going, and it was dangerous because we were a 'hot' band as far as the police were concerned, but we kept it going and that's all that counted.

"Anyway, at the end of that tour I was pretty well knocked out and depending on Adler to come through for the band. We did have a hit single and I've written about 700 songs and had maybe 200 published and two of them were hits under Adler. He did get the job done as far as promo and all...but he never really gave us a chance."

At the time, Adler was producing at least seven acts on Ode 70, (Merry Clayton, the Children, Carole King, Ole Blue, Jumbo, Barry McGuire and the Doctor, and Scott McKenzie). Perron told him at one point that the only ones in his stable that would make him money were Carole King and the Children. He was half-right.

We are suddenly interrupted by one of the orderlies, who has been kind of hanging out in the room. He picks up Steve's guitar and laboriously picks out the notes to "House of the Rising Sun." He finally leaves and then a nurse comes in with a 10 mg. dolophine pill for Steve.

Naturally enough, the talk drifts back to drugs: "I really started gettin' into drugs heavy the last time because things weren't goin' well with the band. Drugs were the easiest way out. In Houston you can't go fishin' or anything to get away so it was drugs. That mainly caused the break-up of the band, my dope. There were other reasons.

"I almost got off drugs completely with chanting, chanting for hours. It makes you so high, it really works. Jesus might work, but that takes longer. But chanting worked until I had to stop going to the meetings because we had band commitments. And we started having petty arguments about the worth of meditation versus chanting. Chanting worked for me so it made made feel bad to have somebody put me down for it. They won't let me chant in here now because I get loud and they're crazy here anyway, just like in Cuckoo's Nest. I can't burn incense, I can't play records at night, I can't do anything. They've never had anybody like me and they don't understand me at all. It's just so weird, this whole scene."

Now that night has descended, Steve, who can't shake his habit of late hours, is just getting wound up but visiting hours are over and I am turned out.

* * *

The next night, Friday night, I arrive back at Park North just after a minor riot, of sorts. Four elderly women finally objected to being watched while they bathed and they staged a shortlived rebellion of banging on windows and writing "Free Us" on the walls. But the windows are unbreakable plexiglass and the walls are washable and the nurses know that nobody's going anywhere so they remained unperturbed in their glassed-in strongholds.

Tonight, Steve takes his Martin D-28 from the corner and is eager to sing some more of the songs he's composed since his confinement began. The first is "You Can't Feel It," a song about fighting alone.

"When I came off dolophine, after a month here, I was down to about six a day and I was sweatin' and feelin' like hell and hurtin' all over. My body was in enormous physical pain but in that window right there, big cargo ships came through and they were just dumpin' life out all over my bed. Wham, bam, you're alive! And that's when I wrote this song, the first thing I'd written in over a year and it got me started again. I played it for the nurses and some of 'em walked out of the room, I don't know why, and one who stayed, she walked up to me and grabbed my hand  and she said, 'You're the new messiah.' And she kissed my hand and cried and she said, 'You really touched me' and I was cryin' while I was singin' because I was so goddamned happy that I was gettin' back into records and TV and life, stuff that I'd wiped out for almost a year. The room was full of pink bubbles, it was like I was on the most beautiful mescaline ever made."

"Anyhow, that's the way I felt when I was coming off dolophine, 300 milligrams a day the last three and a half months, which is just completely unprecedented. Nobody had ever taken that much a day. When I started out, I was takin' it to get off heroin, but I didn't realize that it's about two and a half times more potent than heroin. I started with about six pills a day, 60 milligrams, and I was supposed to level down to zero. Well, I didn't. I knew that it was legal and I heard about the Carter-Raburn Clinic in Fort Worth and the clinic in Houston and one in San Antonio. So it became so easy to get that, pretty soon, well, the band had broken up and it was just one of those things. I was so completely bummed out and into dolophine that I was flying to Fort Worth and Houston every week to get it."

New federal guidelines governing the use of methadone caused the cessation of the dolophine program and the closing of clinics in Texas in December. Dr. Peter Joseph Carter, whose clinic in Fort Worth was closed December 1st, had been exonerated by the State Board of Medical Examiners in August of 1970 after a board investigator filed a complaint against him alleging the indiscriminate prescribing of methadone.The Associated Press recently said that the clinic had developed the reputation of being a place where addicts could receive at least a week's supply of methadone.

Dr. W. E. Raburn, who worked at the same clinic, is now involved in a case that went to the Travis County (Austin) Grand Jury January 19th. Austin Municipal Court Judge Ronald Earle ruled homicide in the case of an 18-year-old University of Texas freshman who died of an oral overdose of methadone. Judge Earle said that Raburn had prescribed methadone for the youth, James Andrew Knox, without performing the tests required of all public agencies to determine whether Knox was a heroin addict. Earle said an autopsy revealed a "relatively high concentration of methadone," which caused death by pulmonary edema (suffocation due to lung congestion). He said that Knox received the prescription the day before he died and that there was "no indication" that Knox had gone to the doctor for treatment before that time. The verdict of homicide was rendered on the basis of a never-used section of the Texas Penal Code, which says that a physician shall be punished just as anyone else who administers a noxious substance in a "grossly ignorant manner," causing death or great bodily harm.

"Raburn was fairly strict with me, though," says Perron. "The first time I went up there, he checked my arms and said that since I didn't have any needle marks he couldn't give me a prescription. I told him I was snorting it, but he wouldn't give me any. But he took a urine test and I called him three days later and he said my urine was dirty and to come on back to Fort Worth and he would give me dolophine."

Perron said he was taking 210 pills a week. He would fly to Fort Worth and get 100, then to Houston where he could get 30 and San Antonio was good for 30 more. But he still needed 50 and he bought those, for a dollar apiece, from a friend who was getting 100 a week in Fort Worth but was taking only 40. "I could get 100 at a time easy from Raburn and if I'd take Linda [his wife] along, I could get 200 a week. I would give her half a pill of dolophine, which wouldn't do anything, to her, wouldn't make her high or anything, but it would just show up dirty in her urine. So her urine was dirty and mine was dirty so I could get 200. So I was really cookin'. I really didn't leave much to chance because I couldn't leave much to chance. Some guys there said they lied to Raburn, told him they had spilled their supply or had it ripped off and he would give them more. I never did that, though. Besides the dolophine, he was givin' me reds every week. I started takin' them because I wasn't gettin' high off the dolophine. I didn't need 'em but I took 'em anyway.

"Finally, wow, it, I don't know, it just went into a big whirlpool of just slop, you know, complete and utter grunt. Finally, I went to see my doctor and he sent me to a shrink and the shrink said he could get me into this hospital. The first month I was in here I was in total screaming agony. These rigors you get, when you're pukin' shit and shittin' puke. It's so obscene. You shake so hard you can't even take a piss. The rigors start at your toes and then hit the base of your spine and then shoot up to your brain. The first month here they had to shoot me up all the time. My body felt like raw, exposed meat. The pain can't be measured, man, there's just no way. Pain's pain. I'm just glad I'm gettin' treatment. It's gonna take about three more months.

"I could've been off it by now, they could've reduced my dosage but I'd still be in pain and if I were on the streets I'd be lookin' to score at this very moment. No doubts about it. But they're gonna keep me here a month after I'm completely off the drug because these little passes out of here I've had have been complete screw-ups. I just can't cope with society right now. I get out on the loop and can't cope with it and I just have to haul ass."

Steve appears drained and leans back across the creased whiteness of the hospital pillows, a wispy brown lock of hair falling over his eyes. The room is horribly stuffy and I get up to walk around and try to open the window, which is of course a joke; the windows here will never open. Steve fishes out yet another cigarette from a weary, crumpled pack and I produce a last match for him.

"My basic goal now," he says presently, "is...I've got like a master plan, you know...I've got three albums down, three that I'm contracted to do, solo albums and I think the name of the group will be Little Stevie and the Starlings."

"I'm sure a lot of people have had master plans before...but my first album will be just aimed at, will be full of songs aimed at that part of the human being that is full of love for other human beings. Then my second album will be mostly love songs. My third album, after I've, I've aimed and hit maybe and gathered a following, you know, whether it be 10,000 or ten, I don't care, but then I'll start sneakin' in a little bit of my own personal experience with drugs...but not blatantly obvious. You can say a lot of things through music but it's hard to say pain. Then my fourth album, if I get to record a fourth album, will be just, it might be just one long scream, or one long gag or one long toilet flush or just putting microphones beside guys who are goin' through hell and screamin' their guts out for dope and that kind of album... My main goal, I guess, is just to keep people away from the needle and away form heroin and speed. For me, all the warnings came too late. Once you love speed, you love it, it's just like a woman. Oh yeah, I've been close to dyin' before, I guess many times. My arm, my whole arm was just one big bloody mess..."

Steve fishes out his Martin to sing a last song, one written for me which is, in a sense, flattering. It says, in part:

If I could run again
I sure could show you
That I could be your friend and I
could know you
And you could pull me out of this
hole
And life could breathe again down
in my soul
And with all your wit, won't you
please print my shit.

* * *

A few nights later, the phone rings and it is Steve. "Listen," he says, "I hope I didn't give you the impression that this is some great place. I was really happy while y'all were here, but this place is really fucked up. It's hard just to get by here, it's got its own kind of craziness, there's such a thin line between this place and the joint. Man, the minute you show pain here, they're on top of you and they never get off. They tape what goes on in my room and they've even watched me take a shit and then they examine my turds. Listen, tell the stupid little shits not to take drugs and get into a fuckin' place like this. If you raise hell here about anything, they'll stick you with a needle and tie your hands and feet. I'm fuckin' payin' $48 a day for this room and it's unreal, even here. I have to keep a dolophine chart on my own, or else they'd hold back on me. And if I wanta call my doctor, they 'advise against it,' and then his secretary says he doesn't accept calls from hospital patients, that hypocritical fucker. It's just as bad as jail. I was in the joint once and at least there you have buddies. Here, it's like isolation. The friends I've made here, they have shock treatment and the next day they don't even know me. It'd make me feel better if I could keep anyone from gettin' into this same shit. If you're on the outside, stay there. This's insanity multiplied."

A final note: As I was finishing this article, the phone rang. It was Steve: "Adler's office just called. They said he has renewed our option and he's gonna call me, so I hope I didn't sound too pissed off about him when I was talkin' to you. I think he kinda thought I was fizzled out until he found out about this article."