Buddy Arnold speaks with uncommon ease about the lowest point in his life. “I was in New York City, homeless, in somebody’s funky pad, I had no-where to go, and I just took a handful of garbage pills,” he says. “I figured they couldn’t ask me to leave if I was half dead. It was humiliating and degrading, where I was so down I didn’t know if I was capable of even thinking of how to get out of this.”
That was some 45 years ago, following Amold’s auspicious beginnings as a musical protege at Columbia University and his high-profile livelihood as a jazz saxophone play-er—before his career flickered out as heroin became life’s guiding force. He was an active addict for 31 years, spending time in federal prison as a side effect. Even today, he admits that temptation is ever looming. “Compulsion is an allergy of the body,” Arnold says.
“Drugs are clever, an obsession that can grab you when you least expect I don’t think there’s any point where anybody has it licked; if you think you do, you’re in great danger.”
With the lessons he has learned, Arnold and wife Carole Fields formed the Musicians’ Assistance Program (MAP) in 1992, an out-reach program for musicians suffering in the battle against drugs and alcohol. MAP offers treatment, regardless of financial circumstances, as well as transitional housing and public prevention and educational efforts. With assistance from the Recording Industry Assn. of America, among others, the nonprofit program has expanded throughout the country and into London.
“Carole and I put eight people through our first year,” says Arnold, 75. “Now we’re approaching 1,000,” including Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis and Dr. John, pictured above left with Fields and Arnold. “It’s often easier for celebrities to end up with problems associated with abuse,” he suggests, “because you get that feeling of entitlement and you’re used to special treatment, which in some respects is in direct contrast to what you need to get clean.” It is MAP’s hope that the common interest that musicians share will thread a natural system of support.
“Look,” Arnold points out, “musicians don’t listen to plumbers. We do our damnedest to get people together with the same interest in music, so with that bond, they’ll be willing to hang with someone that’s clean.” Arnold claims a 60% success rate, which he attributes to the program’s unique peer network: “It’s one fucked-up musician talking to another; one of them just happens to be clean. That’s what works.”
Despite his tell-it-like-it-is demeanor, Arnold is certainly not void of feeling pride for all that MAP has accomplished in the past decade. “This has given me a great feeling about myself,” he says. “It’s a hell of a payoff for the oldest living Jewish junkie.”