Life in SICK CITY with Tony O’Neill

Event: Feb 25, 2011


By Taylor Murrow

By the time he was in his twenties, Tony O’Neill had traveled from his home in the UK to Los Angeles, playing music with bands like Kenickie and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. He was on tour, living the life in the States, and even met a girl and married her. This sounds like a great story of one young man’s success, except for one small factor: Somewhere along the line he developed a healthy appetite for heroin. The wife he had? He met her at a party, did a bunch of speed, and three days later discovered that he was now a husband. Not surprisingly, that marriage failed.

Eventually, that life collapsed. He made himself get out of LA and get better. He found himself with a daughter on the way, and a new woman in his life who he was actually in love with. There were finally a good reason to get clean. As he detoxed, he wrote, furiously, the manuscripts that would become his guttural first novel, Digging the Vein.

Digging the Vein, O’Neill’s semi-autobiography, details that life he once had in a city that can chew you up and spit you out. The Guardian called it “the next underground classic,” and when O’Neill released his next novel, Down and Out on Murder Mile, critics started drawing comparisons to Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, and Bret Easton Ellis. Short story and poetry collections later, the praise keeps coming.

Sick City is his latest novel, also set in Los Angeles. This one features two drug addicts who meet in a celebrity rehab facility, one of them holding the key (or so he thinks) to their fortune: a sex tape featuring Sharon Tate. You can imagine the chaos that ensues as the two stumbling addicts try to figure out how to reveal it.

O’Neill is also co-author of two celebrity memoirs, Runaways frontwoman Cherie Curie’s Neon Angel and former professional football player and heroin addict Jason Peter’s Hero of the Underground.

O’Neill will read at the Columns Hotel (3811 Saint Charles Ave.) on Tuesday, Feb. 1, at 7 p.m. as the season highlight of the 1718 reading series, co-curated by the Loyola, Tulane and UNO writing programs.

Room 220: You used writing as a distraction from the suffering of drug detox. Do you feel like it saved you from relapse? What was your relationship to writing before then?

Tony O’Neill: I was always a voracious reader—and a writer, too, albeit a terribly undisciplined one who really didn’t know what he wanted to say. In high school the teachers thought I was promising, but they were put off by my subject matter. I remember in one English exam getting an A with the comments, “Excellent writing—is everything okay at home?”

When I was detoxing you have to understand that here I was—I was in my mid twenties, I’d quit school to play music, I hadn’t worked a straight job in years, I had a kid on the way and to top it all I was a penniless heroin addict. Getting serious about writing, and using my experiences as a junkie to form the backbone of the first novel (Digging the Vein) was really a last throw of the dice for me. I’d seen how people like Dan Fante, or Herbert Huncke, or Burroughs, or Bukowski had managed to take the chaos of their lives and mold it into art. So I tried again.

Rm220: Sick City is about two addicts who meet in a celebrity treatment facility. What do you think about society’s latest obsession/fascination with reality TV and addictions? Do you think shows like Intervention and Celebrity Rehab are actually helping the addicts?

TO: I find this whole obsession with addiction to be typical of the schizophrenic attitude we have toward drugs in this country. Drugs like marijuana, or heroin, or cocaine are “bad drugs,” yet booze is fine, doctors dope school-kids up with speed, we prescribe Xanax, Valium, all of that stuff. I honestly believe that all drugs should be legalized, across the board. Our current drug laws are rooted in cynical politics, racism and ignorance. They are not intended to actually “help” people. Look at what the war of drugs has done to Mexico. Look at the billions of dollars the poppy market has funneled into organizations like Al Qaeda. Here we are, 100 years later, countless billions of dollars later, and drugs are stronger, more plentiful, and more available than ever. Time for another approach. Let adults make their own decisions, and lets at least put stuff like heroin and methamphetamine in the hands of trained medical professionals and not drug dealers.

But to answer your question, no—I don’t think these shows help. I do feel that Intervention has more legitimacy than something like Celebrity Rehab. Intervention has more of a focus on helping addicts, and it does at least offer them treatment. Celebrity Rehab is basically a glorified freakshow, dressed up as social commentary. What [Celebrity Rehab creator] Dr. Drew is creating is a fiction, a poorly disguised excuse to gawk at some minor celebrities going through therapy. It’s no better than when the Victorians used to charge people to come gawk at people in lunatic asylums.

Of course I watch it every week.

Rm220: You’ve published poetry in addition to your fiction. What’s your relationship with poetry, and how do you feel it differs from your relationship with prose? Is there a medium that feels more accessible to you?

TO: Poetry was essential to me, as far as learning how to write good prose. The economy of language that you need in poetry really helped my novels and stories. I wrote a lot of poetry when I was using. I could only really focus on the short form. That book of poems I did, Songs from the Shooting Gallery, much of it was written on notebooks when I was in Los Angeles, scuffling as a heroin addict. I remember going through those notebooks looking for poems to use, and finding them on tattered, blood-splattered pages. I don’t remember writing many of them. But was surprised after digging them out: Some of them were pretty powerful. I still find it incredibly hard to look at some of that stuff.

Rm220: New York Times journalist David Carr read at 1718 last year, from his gritty memoir on drug addiction. Have you ever thought about writing your own memoir, or do you feel like your novels have somewhat served that purpose for you?

TO: Although the first two novels were basically autobiographical, I’ve never had a desire to write a memoir. I was inspired by people like Fante, Huncke, Miller, Bukowski—I think that this whole post-James Frey obsession over what is real and what is fiction is nonsense. Forty years ago we didn’t have people worrying about whether to file Tropic of Cancer, of Junky in fiction or non-fiction.

Rm220: What is your current relationship to music, and how does it fit into your life as a writer, if at all?

TO: I quit playing music professionally when I moved to New York to focus on my writing. But I’m a music lover—I listen to music every day, and music definitely affects what I write. The title Sick City came from a song I really love called “City” by Primal Scream. It was a track I listened to a lot as I was writing the book; it really summed up the mood I was going for. I still think of writing in music terms, if that makes any sense. I’ll know that I want to write something with the mood of a particular album, or a particular artist. I listen to music when I write sometimes, and it definitely affects how the words come out. I think being a writer from a rock and roll background definitely makes you a little different from the writers who come from a pure literary background. It gives your stuff a slightly different flavor; you approach it from a different angle.

Rm220: What’s next in the works for you? Any new projects planned?

TO: I’m almost done with the first draft of a new book. The working title is The Sun Bleached Nightmare, and it’s a follow up to Sick City. I just wasn’t done with those characters, and I found myself wondering what happened to them next. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involves the movie industry, black magic, a dead meth dealer, and a scene with a missing arm that even I thought might be too much when I read it back.

For more on O’Neill, visit

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