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Smashing Pumpkins' Keyboardist Dies of Heroin Overdose in New York Amid Music Industry's Anti-Drug Drive



Jonathan Melvion, keyboardist on tour with the alternative rock group, Smashing Pumpkins, died on July 12 from an overdose of heroin, fueling discussions about responsibility and drug abuse in the music industry (Jerry Crowe, "Heroin Deaths Fuel Music Industry's Soul-Searching," Los Angeles Times/Washington Edition, July 15, 1996, p. B10; Karen Thomas, "Music execs band against drug use," USA Today, June 20, 1996 p. 2D; Randy Kennedy, "Musician's Death Creates Run On Suspected Heroin Brand," New York Times, July 15, 1996, p. B3).

Melvoin's death has also created a sudden demand for the heroin "brand" that killed him, called "red rum," according to police officers in New York City where Melvion, 34, was found dead in a hotel room. Captain Denis McCarthy, the commander of the Downtown Narcotics District, said that drug users in the area began seeking "red rum" when news of the musician's death led them to believe it was more potent and could "deliver a better high."

This tragic loss of another musician is the latest case in a growing debate about a drug program for the music industry. Some industry officials are concerned that a drug program could alienate artists and endanger potential profits. Record executives initiated the Industry Substance Abuse Intervention Program in December 1995 after Shannon Hoon, singer for Blind Melon, died of a cocaine overdose last fall.

The intervention committee met on June 20 in Los Angeles to discuss suggestions ranging from drug testing to withholding pay. Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) and MusiCares, says he is "not a proponent of drug testing, censorship or imposed royalty restrictions" and that his objective is "keeping people in the industry who have addictions safe and moving them into treatment and out of harm's way." Members of Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith and the Red Hot Chili Peppers also attended the meeting. Five record companies: MCA, Virgin, Capitol, Atlantic, and Revolution have publicly endorsed the drug treatment campaign, which includes intervention and treatment programs and provides a MusiCares hotline (800-687-4227).

There was a sense of urgency this spring when the Stone Temple Pilot's summer tour was canceled so singer Scott Weiland could seek treatment for drug dependency, which became evident after a May 1995 arrest. Also in May, Bradley Nowell, singer for the punk-ska band Sublime died of an apparent heroin overdose and Depeche Mode's David Gahan was arrested for possession and then treated for an overdose of heroin and cocaine. This followed a growing string of problems in the industry including Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994, after a long struggle with heroin, and public admission of heroin use by musicians such as Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Courtney Love, Cobain's widow and singer for the band, Hole.

The meetings come at a time when ethnographers and treatment providers are seeing a surge in heroin abuse due to increased purity of heroin (from an average of 4% in 1980 to 40% in 1995), apparently increased availability, and a "glamorous" cultural image. "All of pop culture in the '90s has really contributed to sending a message to kids that heroin is cool and glamorous," said Ginna Martson, an executive vice president of Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Critics claim that record companies have a responsibility to the artists they sign and to the impressionable fans who buy the music resonant with images about drugs.

The pervasiveness of the drug culture in the music industry is summed up by the head of one major record label who requested anonymity in telling the LA Times, "I believe in drug use. ... It's part of growing up and the creative process."

Melvoin's death adds to the list of musicians that died using drugs including Jimmy Hendrix, Charlie Parker, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and Jim Morrison. "It's a tragedy what happened to Jonathan," said Greene of the NARAS, "But the bigger tragedy will be if we don't use this as more fuel to stoke the passion of the effort. His death will truly be in vain if we don't get even more hard-nosed about this situation."