Fooling With Fentanyl: Don't

Fooling With Fentanyl: Don't

By Eugene S. Robinson

Photo courtesy of OXBOW
SourcePhoto courtesy of OXBOW


Because stupidity is a many splendored thing.

By Eugene S. Robinson

In 2002, my band OXBOW was touring the U.K. With a raft of records, six full-length albums at last count with the seventh scheduled for March 2017, no fewer than three documentaries made about the band, and bows with everyone from The Melvins and King Diamond to Neurosis and Dälek, Vice has pegged us “the greatest art-rock band of all time.” And our tours have taken us to Japan, all over the U.S. and all over Europe since we formed back in the hinterland of the late ’80s.

Which means, yes, if you’re doing the math: We’ve been doing this close to 30 years. Thirty years of jumping off of PA stacks, jumping around on stages scattered with broken glass, hitting, getting hit and in general, living life dangerously. All while maintaining a parallel professional editorial existence. While the music and the stage shows have refined themselves and evolved into a more sophisticated mélange of mixed instrumentation and dark theater and less frantic freak-out, the reality remains: Getting on and off the stage takes a toll, both emotional and physical. Especially physical.

“Here. You can have these. They made me violently ill, but I’d been awake for three days and hadn’t eaten when I had taken them.” The speaker was a friend, who was not a doctor. A friend who weighed about 100 pounds. In a box where I kept my physician-prescribed antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antinausea, antidiarrhea pills and tablets — the so-called Magic Box for the Aging Musician — I tossed in the two fentanyl patches. “They’re supposed to be 10 more times more powerful than morphine.”

She was almost right. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, they’re about 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Morphine got us through World War II. But somehow, getting through a two-week OXBOW tour, I figured I needed something a little more stringent in the painkilling department than aspirin. And apparently I needed it right before we played our first show in London in seven years. 

I mean it was a little patch, this fentanyl, which also comes as pills and gas. And I was achin’ and painin’. So I peeled it off and slapped it on under my underwear. The tour van careened along and I lounged in the backseat for the remaining hour before we pulled into the club, the New Cross Amersham Arms, and sound checked. I mean that’s how things were supposed to go. But 45 minutes later I was no longer in a van. I was in a ship on roiling seas. With waves and waves of nausea rushing in and over the gunwales. 

So: not your father’s ibuprofen. And while waiting for it to plateau and ease off with 15 minutes to go until club time, it was clear to me that that might never happen. In the meantime? The worst high in the world. For a painkiller, while physical pain was absent, every move of my body kicked off fresh waves of nausea. Nausea now so bad I couldn’t really see, and despite the now-quieting murmur of an inner voice that said “Ride it out,” I knew that with a couple more upticks in nausea, I might not actually be able to make it. The show, for certain. Life, possibly. So, as we pull up to the club, I yank off the patch, toss it in the garbage and grab some orange juice from the greenroom where I sit to gather what few wits I had that were still functioning and wait to return to some version of reality.

Except this didn’t happen. Not at all. The nausea continued and my friend’s voice returned to me. The part about being violently ill. For three days.

“I need to walk around a bit.” Our tour manager Manuel snaps a picture of me and says, “Come back soon.”

I’m stumbling through the streets of London. Being given wide berth by passersby. I don’t know how sick I am until the store clerk where I am trying to buy a Red Bull — to “take the edge off” — refuses to take the money from my hand. He tells me to put it on the counter first. I’m too wobbly to complain and so I comply. I drink the Red Bull on the way back. When I get back, it’s time to play. I had not been gone for a five-minute walk. I had been gone for hours.

I made it through the show and now had shivers and a generalized fear of trying to sleep. I weighed 240 at the time and in the face of what can comfortably be called the worst high in the world, I remained baffled: Who would make something so horrible and why?

Not too long after that, in the midst of a Chechen siege of a theater, Russian special forces guys pumped the theater full of fentanyl, killing the bad guys and a bunch of theatergoers. A bunch of years after that, Prince succumbed to the effects of some possibly mislabeled fentanyl. Then, 71 percent of the drug deaths in New Hampshire? Attributable to fentanyl. On account of heroin dealers crystallizing it and using it to cut heroin with. So while I’m still playing shows with OXBOW and I still have failed to find a clock at home that runs backward (so they’re not getting any easier), if I can’t stand up after an hour-plus of getting down? Aspirin will do me just fine.