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Song of David

David Grossman
Paolo Vescia

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.

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.

He penned a novel that is loosely based on his life. The narrative is available as a text file on his latest CD Stumbling Off 6th Street. He wrote the first draft of the 60,000-word novel in two weeks.


Born in S.F. and adopted as a baby, his parents split when he was 4. Grossman went to live with his mother. Mom dumped Grossman off on Dad's doorstep when he was 10, said she didn't want him anymore. Dad, remarried with a small child and one on the way, took him in.

Grossman was raised Jewish. He studied Hebrew and English. He switched to Episcopalian when he moved in with his converted father and stepmother, and spent part of high school in a Jesuit school for boys. "I was the only kid in there with a Jewish name," he says.

The experience left him somewhat baffled spiritually.

"For me a spiritual experience was driving through Jack in the Box. You talk to the clown, you get a couple tacos. It was magic. That was instant gratification. It started freaking me out."

Grossman suffered from depression, and spent time on shrinks' couches as a kid. Eighth grade was spent in a school for children with learning disabilities, a school for "unhappy children." His dad reckons it had much to do with the divorce.

"I did feel unwanted when my mom didn't want me," Grossman says. "I thought everybody was depressed as a kid."

The family relocated to Arizona and Dad allowed Grossman to stay on his own in San Francisco to finish 10th grade and keep up with the music scene.

The music thing was going well. He was playing nightly and recording songs with a producer who took him under his wing. He put a band together and headlined the San Francisco Songwriter's Showcase at the Great American Music Hall.

That summer he moved to his dad's house in Phoenix. He graduated from Central High two years later in 1984. He commuted back and forth between Phoenix and San Francisco doing gigs. Eventually he moved into his '76 Ford Maverick and stayed in San Francisco. He found work at temp agencies for food and gas money.

"Living in your car was harder then," he says, laughing. "You have 24-hour Wal-Marts now. You would get hassled by cops all the time. I'd go down to the ocean and park. At five in the morning, there'd be the flashlight. The cop would say, 'You can park here overnight but you can't sleep in your car.' I liked that freedom. But you're not allowed to just sleep in your car.

"After that, you start copping an attitude. It's no wonder there's so much real crime. You get hassled enough for just being peaceful."

He moved into a Hindu ashram and played in a punk band. He chose booze and rock over enlightenment and bounced between friends' couches and share houses.

Things were going well. He recorded dozens of songs, many of which were getting attention on local radio, and he opened for the likes of David Bromberg, Maria Muldaur, Marty Balin and others. He hosted open-mike nights in venues all over the Bay Area. He did every Monday for two years at the infamous Mill Valley club The Sweetwater. "Guys like Dan Hicks would come up and play," he says. "Bob Weir would show up."

He met a girl and fell in love. He started a full-time job working as a converter box repairman for cable TV. Then everything slowly went south.


When Grossman made it back to Phoenix in 1991, less than a year after the OD, he had with him a guitar, some books and a paper sack of clothes. He crashed at a friend's house. A check-cashing card with a picture taken at the time is frightening. He's unrecognizable: sun-charred, bone-faced, the reflection of a defeated man.

One day he went over to his father's house and knocked on the door. The cops arrived and hauled him off. His dad, Michael Grossman, a prominent Phoenix physician, had known his son was a mess.

 

"I don't know what his version is," Michael says, "but I can tell you what happened. He came back and made the assumption that he could just walk into the house. He looked God-awful, long hair, long beard, tattered clothing and carrying a paper bag with his stuff. He's not the David you see now. He was really disoriented, he was a different person altogether, not in touch with reality. I told him he needed treatment and had to get better before he could come and stay."

Grossman's version is identical but he believes it was his dad who called the police. Either way, he says he's grateful.

"My neighbors saw this strange man hanging outside," the elder continues, "so they called the police, and they picked him up. He went to Good Samaritan Hospital and that was the beginning of his redemption."

Redemption in this life isn't perfect; Pat Boone doesn't exist. Grossman's troubles hit a watershed, and for the last five years he's been totally sober. But it wasn't easy.

He collected enough DUIs in Arizona to land him a sentence of four months in prison and three years' probation. A clerical error put him in maximum security for a month. There were more lockdown wards and boarding homes. He shared a room with a compulsive masturbator they christened Solo, a white power thug with a penchant for women's lingerie and a guy who thought he was Chewbacca.

He kept writing songs. He entertained inmates with private acoustic shows.

He still had the pain in the gut. "I had this pain in my gut and they kept saying that I was imagining it. That kept me in the psych wards."

A doctor ordered an upper GI test on Grossman and the results showed that he suffered from a physical problem, not a mental one. He was taken off the hard anti-psychotics and was prescribed a mild antidepressant. "After that I was able to decide things for myself again," he says.

Here's a guy who's been handed nothing. Everything he has, he's gotten through a combination of inspiration and effort. He's carved a niche in Phoenix simply by working his ass off. He makes a better living playing music in local bars than anyone I've seen.

"As long as I'm playing music every day, continue to create stuff, the process, that's what it's about," says Grossman in the den of the home he shares with his wife, Kriss, and son Paul. He's shy, and doesn't offer much about himself until he trusts you. There's nary a trace of self-pity, or ego.

"As far as sending packages out to record companies, I don't do any of that. The point is not to make it big, the point was I am writing.

"My wife can't work," he continues, "and my son has mild cerebral palsy. I'm not 100 percent sure in my abilities as a breadwinner, and I do it in this unorthodox way. But if I didn't have that family, I wouldn't have a reason to play every day."

Grossman met Kriss in a midtown mental ward in 1991. Kriss was there to change her medications. Both are bipolar.

"This will sound funny, but it really was a great way to meet," says Kriss. "All you do in there is sit around and read magazines and talk. We had all these hours to get to know each other. At first all I could think of was what happened to this person that he would be so beaten down to such depression. I had a great deal of empathy."

"When she said she lived in a trailer in the middle of nowhere," says Grossman, "I thought God was on my side. She was a lot more stable than me at that point. I had nothing to offer her."

Grossman moved into Kriss's trailer out near Carefree. There was no running water, no garbage collection, and the trailer's roof was dubious at best. When it rained, it rained inside the trailer.

Kriss started taking Grossman to gigs around the Valley, and things slowly improved. The couple married five years ago.

The family lives in the same sparsely developed area near Carefree, except a house sits where the trailer stood. There are two cars, a dog, a cat, and horses on one and a half acres.

His son Paul is two and a half years old. He was born three months premature, weighing in at under two pounds. Complications at birth nearly took the life of both mother and son. Lately the boy has been suffering fevers, which caused two seizures in the last six months. A series of tests eliminated known possibilities, and the doctors are stumped.

 

Grossman describes his son's first seizure: "The first time he was totally still, eyes wide open. He wasn't responding at all. We put him in the car and drove to the hospital. He was burning up and I undid some of his clothes and he started coming to. Now we have 24-hour watch on him."

Paul bounces in all wide-eyed and plops on the old man's lap. "I've had some bad luck," Grossman says. "I'd say some of it was self-inflicted.

"I believe that we have altered our environment so much in the last hundred years that people look for ways to medicate themselves just to deal with it. In the back of my mind, I wonder if things may have turned out differently for Paul if we didn't have all those problems."


It's Thursday night at Ice Breakers sports bar/brew pub in Scottsdale, and not much is happening. The place is well-lighted, and a dozen or so TV screens roll out an endless loop of sporting events. There are a couple of men in banker's suits eating dinner with saline-chested companions, some guys in cowboy hats, down-dressed regulars along the bar, and a neo-hippie couple near the stage area.

Grossman sets up the small PA and arranges the stool and mike stand. He distributes his "music menu" around to the tables. The menu is a 24-page volume that contains hundreds of song titles, all of which are available for request. From the Doors and Cat Stevens to Talking Heads and Tom Waits. There are country songs, classic rock, and dozens of Grossman's songs from 21 years of songwriting. He's a human jukebox.

Grossman sits down and carefully starts to strum. He runs through some cover songs, Louis Armstrong, Neil Young, parroting the vocal styles with aplomb. He makes no apologies for the covers, which at worst find him doing "Margaritaville" for the trillionth time. He says he doesn't see it as a compromise or a sellout.

"I've done roofing," he tells me later. "That's real work." Covers songs or no, he has defined success in every sense of the word.

He introduces a song of his called "Your World," saying: "This one goes really good with basketball." His bell-like vocal slides over the comely jangle, a voice thick with childhood influences of Cat Stevens and Paul Simon. "I'm not drunk," he sings, "I was just born like this."

The day Grossman turned 18 he signed a song publishing deal with a Nashville-based publishing company. The publisher's chief, Scott Turner, worked with Buddy Holly and discovered Charlie Daniels. He told Grossman that his talent would set the world on fire. Years later, Grossman had to sue to get out of the deal.

"I got polluted by everybody telling me I was gonna be famous," Grossman says with a shrug. "People that wanted me to be big because they want me to become big. I'm grateful to be able to do what I do. Just so damn grateful."


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