Part 2 of my 2005 coverage of SAIGON KICK drummer Phil Varone’s fall-from-grace documentary Waking Up Dead featuring an interview with the man himself, originally published by BW&BK. Call it a dose of “rock star” reality…
Phil Varone entered the heavy metal arena in 1991 with Saigon Kick, a little known band from Florida that would go on to become a cult favourite on the metal scene before imploding in the mid-90’s. Varone would take part in a Saigon Kick reunion tour in 2000 – reportedly where his troubles with drugs began in earnest – and would eventually resurface with Skid Row, going on to record on their comeback album, Thickskin, in 2003. The tour that followed and the addictions that went with it ultimately brought Varone crashing to earth. He’s clean now, however, focusing on his second chance at life.
“I’ve been off drugs for a while now,” Varone says. “I go to my cardiologist regularly, I go the gym six days a week, I have a trainer, so I’ve really done a 180 with my life and I feel great. I’ve never felt better, to be quite honest with you.”
According to Varone, it took leaving Skid Row and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle behind to bring about the change in his lifestyle.
“Basically, my doctor said that if I went back out on the road I was going to die” he reveals. “I made the decision at that point to quit what I was doing and clean up. I went through some mild heart attack situations on the road that we actually have on tape, got close to overdosing a couple times, all that shit. Bottom line is that the music industry and being on the road exposed me to a lot of things. My decision to stop touring was for health reasons, and because I also have children that I need to take care of, to be around. When we decided to do this movie and we had all this interest in it, I saw that I could help people with it. Waking Up Dead is part of my rehabilitation.”
Varone takes us back to the moment when Jafet proposed the idea of turning his self destruction into something positive.
“I actually remember the call. I was in Sweden with Skid Row, and Fabio called me to say that he’d been reviewing the tapes he’d shot and wanted to put together a trailer to see if we could get a movie deal. I was like, ‘Movie deal? Who the hell would want to see a movie about me?’ That was my initial reaction. The more we talked about it, though, I saw there was a story there, and not necessarily about me. I just happened to be living it. My name wasn’t going to bring people to the theaters, but we were looking at a story about a guy that wanted to be a rock star. Once Fabio put the trailer together the interest built really fast. We edited everything for a first version, gave it to John Daly (Terminator, Platoon), who loved it and signed on as producer. We’re ecstatic to have someone who is such a well respected producer to be involved. I mean, I’m just a drummer who was fortunate enough to get some record deals, so to have someone like John Daly to think that my story was interesting enough to be a movie is completely mindblowing.”
Any metal fan who has seen the trailer for Waking Up Dead and has read Motley Crue’s biography will undoubtedly tie the two together. The Crue’s drug fuelled escapades are laid out in detail in The Dirt, perhaps making Waking Up Dead seem like a wannabe adaptation.
“Let me clarify something about that,” says Varone. “Right off the bat, Motley Crue was the reason I got into music; they were my favourite band. When I first went to rehabilitation, Nikki Sixx was there for me. He gave me some great advice and made himself available to me when I was on the road. He was very, very kind in giving me his time. I have nothing but respect for the guys in Motley Crue, and The Dirt is so over-the-top it’s insane. To be quite honest I don’t think I even touched the surface of the thing those guys have done, so it was never an issue of going ‘Okay, here’s my version of The Dirt.’. When they make the book into that feature film is that it’s going to be Hollywood made. Waking Up Dead is as things happened; the cameras were rolling, and whatever image it caught, that was that moment. Watching someone simulate cocaine is something we’ve seen people do a million times. Seeing someone snort their life away and almost die is a different situation. That’s what separates us from The Dirt.”
Varone continues: “With this movie I’m opening my life up and admitting I’m a drug addict, and I have no problems with that. I’m not ashamed by the fact I’m a drug addict. There are drug addicts around the world, and there are many of us, but we shouldn’t be ashamed. What I try to do every day is stay clean and be productive. Fabio and I edited the movie, produced it, wrote the voice-overs, and I have say that, artistically, this movie really opened me up and made me explore areas that I didn’t know anything about. It’s been an exciting adventure in that respect, but it’s also been a very sad adventure because while I was sitting there reading transcripts I realized how much I hurt people, like my wife and my children. I also found out what some people really think of me, and some of it wasn’t pretty. But, I needed to see that in order to realize how important it is that I stay off drugs and get focused on the important things in my life.”
One can only imagine how painful it must have been going through some of the footage. No one likes to see themselves as the bad guy.
“It was horrifying, it was embarrassing, and initially it was very emotional,” Varone admits without missing a beat. “Men don’t like admitting to things like this, but I spent time in a corner weeping when I realized this was my life. Looking in that mirror was really, really hard, and even to this day, when the movie goes into the drug section I leave the room. It’s hard for me to watch that guy, and I refer to him as ‘That Guy’ because the guy on screen is not me.”
“I’m not proud of what I did,” he adds, “but I’ve moved forward, and I’m surrounded by some good, close friends. Matt Kramer, for instance, was there for me in the bad times and he’s there for me now in the great times. I can tell you now, if somebody came up to me with some coke Matt would beat the shit out of them. I have that kind of support from my family as well. I’ve spent a lot of time repairing friendships and relationships because of this experience, so it was an eye-opening experience editing the movie. It also gave me something to think about if I ever get urges to do drugs. And I do get them. I’ll get them for the rest of my life. Now, though, I think about the bad part of doing drugs whereas before I would think about the good parts. And there’s nothing good about drugs.”
And where does this leave Phil Varone the musician, given that his chosen profession was the environment that almost killed him?
“Well, I wrote a song (‘Just Hold On’) for the movie that Matt wrote lyrics for and sang on it, and we’re talking about doing some stuff together. I might play on his next solo record, and we’re talking about putting a band for the premiers only and jamming some stuff out. I like doing studio work, I love playing the drums, but I don’t care for the business right now. And, quite frankly, if I got on a tour bus tomorrow I’m not confident that I could tour in a manner that would be healthy. Right now I need to be home, I need to be responsible, and I need to live my life.”
“I’m very proud of Waking Up Dead,” Varone says. “I hold my head up high because I know it’s a great movie, and I know what I’m sacrificing by opening my life up like this. But, if it helps one person in the world, that’s all that matters to me. If one kid can look at this, can think about what I went through and say, ‘Wow, I don’t want to be That Guy,’ it’s worth it.”