If Bob Forrest were a fictional character, he’d be a beautiful loser: a drug-and-booze damaged soul who flits through books in a haze of bad decisions, uncomfortable encounters, near misses with the law, and, if it’s a good story, maybe a brush with luck. He’d be in Joshua Mohr’s Damascus or Rob Roberge’s The Cost of Living or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, or he’d be a lightly fictionalized version of himself, maybe as one of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.
You’d watch him piss on opportunity, or be next to the guy who wins it all and gets the girl, and you’d empathize with him for being a shambolic mess, because that could have been you, man, if you’d been the sort who liked heroin and had ready access to it. Then the book would be over and you’d go back to your life and Bob Forrest would just be a font on a page.
But, see, that’s the thing: Bob Forrest is real and his demons (literal and metaphorical) have played out in front of the world, both as lead singer of Thelonious Monster, and, later, in a far more cleaned up fashion, as one of the drug counselors on VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab. Those who knew Forrest in his earliest iteration and perhaps have stayed away from reality TV might be surprised to learn Forrest is even alive – in fact, Dr. Drew Pinsky, the host of Celebrity Rehab, presumed Forrest was dead just a few years before the show debuted – and that he’s over 15 years clean, after 26 stints in rehab.
How he got to this point is the grist of his memoir Running with Monsters: A Memoir (co-written with journalist Michael Albo), as well as the excellent documentary “Bob and the Monster,” which was a hit on the festival circuit and is out now on DVD.
The truth is that Forrest should be dead. And he knows it. He watched River Phoenix die in the street, he witnessed the notorious slow-burn descent of John Frusciante (and notably managed to get him into rehab…and then went back to his house and stole his drugs), and shot his own successful music career into oblivion, ending with him washing dishes in a restaurant at 35. He’d toured the world, had been at the forefront of LA’s late 80s post-punk movement, along with Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but by the time he found sobriety, he “couldn’t eat much more than mushy, half-liquid gruel,” a life of addiction robbing him of even the simple pleasure of chewing solid food.
As a kid growing up, though, the life of the heroin addict seemed to offer a certain kind of promise. “Charlie Parker had blown mad, furious harmonies under its sway. Keith Richard, the ultimate rock-and-roll outlaw, churned out thick, massive riffs with its influence,” Forrest writes.
After a childhood of essentially suburban normalcy, albeit in the home of alcoholics, and with one notable family secret, the needle offered a distinct entry into something decidedly more sexy: “The whole of the night-framed hip world grooved to its beat and pulse and created fucking art. Smack was their muse. My heroes had known its allure, felt its embrace, and I wanted what they had.”
Over time, that world would include people like Anthony Keidis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Depp and River Phoenix, most of LA’s punk royalty, and a few well-concealed names that don’t take much in the way of investigation to figure the identity of. But even among this world, Forrest was a noteworthy exception: he was fired from an early stint (kind of) managing the Peppers for being such a profound junkie, and no less than Paul Westerberg of the Replacements deemed him too drunk to be dependable, one of the greatest pot-calling-the-kettle-black anecdotes in music history. But as Thelonious Monster began to make its own mark, Forrest spiraled even further. The difference now, however, was that he had a son, a record label who wanted a hit, and band mates who were growing increasingly weary of his antics.
It’s a familiar story, of course, because anyone who knows an addict understands the lies and deceptions required to simply live day to day with a habit, even more so if you’re doing it in the public eye or, in Forrest’s case, as his career dimmed, next to those more directly in the glare.
The curious thing here is Forrest’s own empathy for those in apparently a state worse than his own – Frusciante, notably, and perhaps more in retrospect, the late River Phoenix – even at the height of his abuse. It provides insight into how Forrest shifted from addict to addiction specialist once he finally kicked for good after hitting bottom in 1996. That’s not to say it’s all roses from that point on, nor does Forrest portray himself as a saint. He clearly understands that the trauma he inflicted on others persists. He also understands that his role on Celebrity Rehab is both true and entertainment – “The [treatment] center has been converted to a film set and we’re all ready for another season under the unblinking eyes of the cameras” – and with that comes scrutiny, particularly when attached to tragedy, like the subsequent deaths of Jeff Conway and Mindy McCready after appearing on the show.
Running with Monsters isn’t your typical memoir – it’s non-linear and the conversational prose can make it a bit rough in places, but that’s part of the charm of the work. It ebbs and flows and what it might lack in narrative control, it more than makes up for with emotional honesty. Bob Forrest exorcises a lot of demons in these pages and the result is sad, illuminating, bawdy, and more hopeful than one might imagine.
RUNNING WITH MONSTERS: A MEMOIR, by Bob Forrest (with Michael Albo), Crown, 230 pages, $26 hardcover, $10.99 Kindle. Reviewer Tod Goldberg is an author living in California.