The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories
Some time in 1996, 16 years old me was drawn to the cover of Heaving Petting Zoo at the local record store. NOFX quickly became one of my favorite bands, and 20 years later I’m still listening to them. In 2016, they published a book titled NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories. I really wasn’t sure I would want to read it. Their Backstage Passport series surely were entertaining to watch, but I didn’t think I would invest the time for a whole book about their shenanigans.
However I had a lot of train traveling coming up around last Christmas. I thought I could use that time and give audiobooks a try. I subscribed to a free month of Audible and downloaded The Hepatitis Bathtub. It was 12 hours long. Twelve hours! I thought it would take me ages, but somehow I was done in a weekend. I guess it was more interesting than I expected.
You learn a lot about the early years of the band. Then there’s personal stuff. You’ll learn for example that Melvin had a perfect childhood until some random guy molested him. Or that Fat Mike’s and Smelly’s dads were alcoholics. Or that Melvin was a Dungeons & Dragons nerd. Or that Smelly was one half of the Moron Bros. Or that Melvin’s 17 years old girlfriend got an abortion when he was 19. Or that Fat Mike lived with bike messengers when he first moved to San Francisco:
being a bike messenger is less of a job and more of a life style. […] They all partied constantly. I have a lot of fond memories from those days.
Sounds familiar. There are a lot of personal stories, which if really true, I find a bit weird to reveal to your best friends, for the first time after over 30 years, in a book.
Somehow the book ends up being mostly about Smelly, as Kyle Ryan notes in this SXSW video. Therefore it’s no surprise that while listening to the audiobook, I bookmarked 3 parts narrated by Smelly. Many of NOFX’s songs contain autobiographic bits. For example, in the lyrics of Drop The World:
I returned to LA after the tour and DJ and I moved into a run-down 1920s-era Hollywood appartment occupied by my friends Anna and Dana, and my drug dealer Carlton. Dana’s boyfriend was in a band called the LA Tourists. She was riding home from a show with them, when their van ran off a cliff. Everyone in the car died except for her. 15 years later, she came to see NOFX in Hollywood, and on her way home, she was killed by a drunk driver. She left a voicemail on Fat Mike’s phone just before it happened, saying how great it was to see him and Erin at the show. They played the message at her funeral, and Mike memorialized her in a lyric in the song Drop The World.
As you can read, Smelly was heavily into drugs. He wrote he started around age 13, just out of curiosity. One drug let to another and he became a heroin addict. At one point he mentions that he was “the worst junkie that Courtney [Love] had ever seen” (he lived and slept with her at some point). He got his shit together somehow, went to rehab and has been clean since 1992:
The hepatitis is still in my system. I was officially diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1999. It’s in remission now, but it can flare up at any time, and maybe even kill me. But all things considered, I’m fucking grateful. I was living with disease-carrying murderers, I was sharing dirty needles, I was using an infected home-made tattoo gun, and I was filling my body with the worst possible poisons. My friends were going to prison, or dying from overdoses. Why was I the lucky one? When you live the junky lifestyle, chances are slim that you’re going to make it out alive. I played Russian roulette so many times, and the worst thing to come out of it was hepatitis C? I’ll take it. The absurdity of it all hits me now and then. I’d be on stage, looking out to the crowd, and my mind would wander and wander about the horror that might have been. Or I’d be surfing and looking at the horizon and think “what a beautiful day! I shouldn’t fucking be here”
Much respect to Smelly for succeeding to get out of it, and distracting himself for example by founding Moto XXX, who sponsored a 17 years old Brian Deegan who later created the Metal Mulisha and became one of the most famous FMX rider.
It surely wasn’t easy for Smelly to resist drugs, especially since Fat Mike and Melvin more or less started getting into them right around the time Smelly stopped.
Mike kept his head relatively, relatively, clear during the Punk Voter days because he knew his politics were under the microscope. He wanted to stay sharp. And during Erin’s pregnancy, and Darla’s early years, he held it together pretty well.
The problem might have been that he was able to hold it together so well at home, that he needed a release, so he partied to a self-abusive extent when we started touring again.
Throughout our cross-country touring with the Loved Ones in the early 2006, Mike was always saying “There’s no more Darby Crash, there’s no more Sid Vicious”. He somehow felt obligated to take up the banner of the punk rock wastoid and take his drinking and drug use to the next level. I don’t know if he was using that as an excuse for his declining behavior, or if he was trying to design a new image for himself, but he wasn’t the fun party drunk anymore. He was becoming a wreck.
I’ve always known that Mike was unpredictable. Before every show, ever since that very first performance at the Cathay, part of me wonders “OK. What are we going to get tonight?” because some nights, Mike is a diamond, and some nights, he’s a lump of coal. Depending on his mood or his substance intake, he may blabber on and angrily alienate the crowd and kill the flow, or he may land every joke and nail every song, and leave everyone wanting more.
On that Loved Ones tour, it was coal almost every night. He screwed up the songs, ran off to the side of the stage to talk to friends in the middle of the set, and wasn’t funny. Part of being punk is that you’re not supposed to give a shit. Well, I give a shit. I want to be known as a tight, funny, good band. Not a drunk, sloppy, careless band. I felt like Mike was trying to sabotage the shows on purpose. He was trying to make some sort of “There’s no more GG Allin” point, but really he was just undoing everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish. And you know why there’s no more Darby Crash, Sid Vicious and GG Allin by the way? Because all those motherfuckers are dead. That’s why.
But bullshit built up as the tour went on. And the inevitable reckoning came in Washington DC. During the show, Mike put out 2 lines of coke on his amp, and he and Melvin snorted them right in front of me. Up to that point, I had tolerated their drug use with relatively little complaining. But snorting a line of coke, right on stage, felt like a slap in the face. It was stupid rock star ego bullshit. “Look at me, I’m doing coke.” And for all of our cheeky lyrics and adult sensibility, there’s a fine line of responsibility that is definitely crossed when you’re doing cocaine in front of a mostly young, impressionable crowd. Yeah. Maybe I sound like a grown-up talking about protecting the children, but the way I see it, if we feel enough of a responsibility to tell people how to vote, we should probably feel just as much of a responsibility to be real with them about drug abuse. And I’ve seen enough friends die to know just how fucking impressionable kids can be. Mike always contends that drugs are fine in moderation as long as you don’t strain to addiction, but I can tell you firsthand that addiction is not a choice. But mainly I felt completely disrespected. I have been respecting their party space for over a decade, and they couldn’t wait 2 more songs and take their drugs out of my sight?
I walked out of the club to go to our hotel the second our set was over. I was ready to explode. My anger had been building not only since the beginning of that tour, but since August of 1992. Ever since I got out of rehab, I had worked hard to manage my emotions and keep myself in check. And I was being tested every night we played. Those guys could not give a fuck about my sobriety or what I had to go through every night on tour just to keep myself from punching the walls. After more than 20 years together, I was ready to quit NOFX. Fuck Mike. Fuck Melvin. Fuck it all.
I have seen NOFX live 4 times if I remember correctly:
- at the Deconstruction Tour 2003 in Kloten
- at the Reithalle in Bern in 2005
- at the Greenfield Festival 2008 in Interlaken, which so far had the craziest lineup ever
- at the Loudfest 2011 in Zurich
My sister and I remember the show in 2005 being really shitty. Smelly’s anecdote places it around the time where Fat Mike was getting out of hand, so maybe that explains it. Or it’s just a coincidence.