Song of David

Singer-songwriter overcomes addiction, jail, homelessness and psych wards to start a family and pen some of the best songs you've never heard

When David Grossman came to on the hospital bed, he thought he'd suffered a heart attack. That's what it felt like, that pain and shortness of breath. If it weren't for the cabby, he never would have made it to the hospital. Most likely he'd be dead.

Things are messed up when you OD on crystal meth.

In the months leading up to the OD, Grossman lost his job of four years, his long-term girlfriend, and his car. All this was 11 years ago, and things got worse. The sanity was the last to go.

David Grossman
Paolo Vescia
David Grossman

Grossman knows that the world can be so perfect, and then it can just suck. Today he can be found six or more nights a week performing his songs throughout Phoenix, sometimes with a band, but mostly solo. Ten years before the OD, he was the wunderkind of the San Francisco neo-folk scene. A major Bay Area publication wrote that the 14-year-old Grossman was "a kid who's so good he's going to have songwriters in the city scared silly."

When you first do speed, you're taller than trees. It makes you the dad of Superman. You're able to drink 10 times more than normal and your nerves are made out of gold. Life is forever, rushing in glorious Coltrane time. On speed, Grossman thought he was accomplishing more, being productive, and it made him happy. He didn't notice when it all turned ugly.

Grossman would dump meth in his coffee like sugar. He snorted and smoked it. A typical week was like this: He'd stay juiced and sleepless for three or four days straight, crash for two, then eat, and hit repeat.

Still, he managed that year to record Heaven on Earth, a lovely, sparse guitar and vocal record that documents with eagle-eyed precision a life coming to pieces. The record smacks of necessity, like it was made because it had to be.

A bluesy ballad penned just before he OD'd was used recently on two NBC soap operas, Another World and Passions, and a UPN series called Special Forces.

Grossman quit speed soon after the OD, but the drug left a residue. The pleasure receptors in his brain went numb. He turned humanoid. He would walk the same San Francisco street back and forth for hours. The simple task of purchasing a pack of smokes would first require an hour and a half of deep contemplation. Twitching pains in his gut wouldn't go away.

In 1991, doctors at Herrick Hospital in Berkeley believed Grossman was a paranoid schizophrenic, and incorrectly diagnosed his recurring abdominal pains as "physical hallucinations." They stuck him in a locked ward and administered strong anti-psychotic drugs, namely Haldol. The drug gave him lockjaw. The doctors gave him drugs for lockjaw.

Grossman started to believe he was crazy, and behaved accordingly. Between mental wards and boarding houses, Grossman slept in doorways, stairwells and anywhere the cops wouldn't kick him awake. He ate in churches and stood in food lines. A one-legged cowboy who believed he fought in the Civil War became Grossman's street pal. A 90-year-old woman thought it lovely if Grossman would wear her dead husband's clothes.

"I couldn't even stay at people's houses," he says. "I couldn't function at all. It was this extreme paranoia. It wasn't until I was institutionalized when I thought something was wrong with me. Maybe it was the drugs, maybe it wasn't. Maybe I was crazy and that's why I did the drugs."

Over the next five years, Grossman became acquainted with the insides of five different mental wards, and was institutionalized eight times, in the Bay Area and in Phoenix.

Possibilities for Grossman started narrowing down in 1988. His band at the time, the San Francisco-based Dave Grossman and the Breakdown, scored a development deal with CBS Records. The hope and promise of a career as a rock 'n' roll star was huge. The band recorded a record on spec, meaning the forthcoming label money would cover costs. The Sony takeover of CBS resulted in myriad label changes, one of which was the shelving of Dave Grossman and the Breakdown.

"That's when I really stopped caring," Grossman says.

The record came out in 1989 and received five stars in Bay Area music bible Bam.

Now, after years of homelessness, jail, addiction and institutions, he's a popular club draw and plays at least six nights a week in area clubs. In February, he's doing 32 shows in 28 days. He hosts his own open-mike night Mondays at Joe's Grotto. The 35-year-old man is tireless, hyper-intelligent and prolific as all hell, particularly when the chips are down. A 10-CD boxed set, a complete catalogue of his music beginning in 1983, came out last year.

The volume of music on the box is astonishing. It reveals a consistent level of songwriting and a depth drawn from life experience that can't be duped. We're lucky to have him. The October 1999 issue of Songwriter's Monthly said Grossman is a "career artist, with a real past, a real present, and a real future -- none of which can be manufactured, borrowed, or contrived."

Grossman's married with a son, and supports them playing music. A new album will be out momentarily on the local Stump label. Colin Cook, a singer hailed as the Australian Elvis, just recorded a song that Grossman wrote in his 11th-grade Earth Science class at Central High. He won a national songwriting competition.

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