This piece is part of a series on substance abuse, faith, and different expressions of Wesleyan Methodist response. You can read the first installment about one congregation’s prayer vigil over the heroin epidemic in its community here.
There are two striking features you notice when Aaron Neville performs: his massive biceps and his ethereal falsetto voice. Once you come to grips with the incongruity of his hulking, muscular frame and his transcendent vocal gift, you take notice of the rosary bracelets, the distinctive mole above his left eye, and the numerous tattoos- including the dagger on his left cheek.
A few years ago, my best friend and I were invited to the CD release party for the Neville Brothers while we were in New Orleans. The Neville family has been a Big Easy music institution for more than 50 years. The brothers (Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril) were in their hometown promoting “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life” -a hip-hopish album of French Quarter funk, jazz, soul, rhythm and blues.
The crowd at the House of Blues was mesmerized as Aaron sang his classic ballad, “Tell It Like It Is.” Forty years ago, that song shot to the top of the charts. The heartbreak behind the hit is that although it had been selling 40,000 copies a week and was being played nationwide on the radio, Aaron Neville’s recording label was in a downward tailspin. He never saw the song’s royalties. Someone was getting rich off his artistry, but it sure was not Neville. While the song was topping the charts, he was busting his back as a longshoreman on the docks of New Orleans in order to feed his family.
Aaron Neville sings with a sincere earnestness. He is the least flamboyant on the stage, yet he is the most intense when he strings along his vocal offering-treating each note and harmony with the precision of a heart surgeon. He is grateful for his gift and he treasures the opportunity to share it with others. Neville earned his spot on the stage by triumphing over Jim Crow racism, drug addiction, prison time, and financial desperation.
For the warrior, the battle never seems to cease. His wife of 47 years recently died of a long bout with cancer and Neville found himself displaced from his hometown of New Orleans shortly after hurricane Katrina. In the midst of his losses, he sings to bring hope where life’s clouds have turned gray.
His tremulous voice is recognized all over the world. Neville has won three Grammys and has been nominated for numerous others. He has even become a modest pop culture icon by being periodically parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XL with Aretha Franklin, and making a guest appearance on “The Young and the Restless.”
Life was not always so sublime. There were the drug-induced clashes with the law-stealing cars and robbing jewelry stores. “Deep inside, I was always nervous and scared, but the dope pushed down the feelings,” he writes in the autobiographical “The Brothers.” “Before taking off, I shot up. I went to that otherworld place.”
Neville did the crimes and served his time.
He began smoking pot in junior high and started using heroin shortly thereafter. “First time I shot smack, I was in love,” he recalls. He even got high with the late Ray Charles.”Shooting smack didn’t help my thinking any. I thought I loved the high-and I did-but my mind checked out. I just wanted to stay high.”
Neville was raised in a God-fearing home. His dad was Methodist and his mom was Catholic. He attended Saint Monica, a school run by nuns who used to get death threats from the Ku Klux Klan for teaching black kids. “They were caring women who taught me about love,” he remembers.
The lessons he learned from the nuns faded for a time, but the core message never went away. Although he was a thug-lookin’ junkie with a criminal record, Neville wanted to be something different. “If you saw into my mind.and looked into my heart, you’d see someone who just wanted to sing. Sing with the Madonna. Sing with the angels. Sing the dreamy doo-wop, sing like Gene Autry out on the range, sing the old love songs, sing my prayer to God to find a way to get off the dope that was turning my mind to black night.”
He was desperate to be unshackled. He would get on a Greyhound from New Orleans to New York in order to try to dry out. “Just climb on that sucker and find a seat in the back and sit and sweat it out.Curl up in a fetal position, all fevered, throwing up in the bathroom, sweating and suffering through Indiana and Illinois, up all night, up all day, not eating, not drinking, just sweating out the dope, cold turkey..”
He went to the Big Apple to find his brother Charles, but what he found were the “shooting galleries” in Harlem where addicts were using heroin. “I got to the city clean, but the clean didn’t last. Those shooting galleries matched my mood-dark and lonely..I didn’t want to know about anything except floating away from a world filled with pain.”
Heroin was Neville’s undoing. For a while, his wife kicked him out of the house because of his habit. He was never sure if he was chasing the dragon or it was chasing him. All he knew was that he was a slave to the high.
“I knew I needed to make my transformation, needed to get back to the place where I was a little boy who believed in the goodness of God and power of prayer,” he remembers. He called out to God. He prayed with tenacity as he climbed up the steps of Saint Ann’s Shrine in New Orleans on his knees. He even called upon the intercession of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.
He finally checked himself into the rehab program at DePaul Hospital in New Orleans. That was 25 years ago. In addition to the one-week lock-down, Neville stayed an additional two weeks because he didn’t feel ready to deal with the outside. He did lots of praying. The man with the physique of a fighter was battling for his own soul. “When I left, I left clean,” he testifies. “I vowed to stay off drugs. With God’s help, I’ve kept that vow.”
When he got out, he changed friends-separating himself from the users and abusers. “If anyone came to me or my brothers with dope, I’d get in their face and scare them so bad they’d never come back again,” he says. “I became a watchdog. But a lifetime of drug taking taught me no one stops till they’re ready.”
Despite the temptations to bow once again to his addiction, Neville was ready for the next chapter of his life-one that would include three Grammy Awards and numerous nominations.
In his 1997 song “To Make Me Who I Am,” Neville doesn’t sugar coat the change in his life. “I’ve met a lot of lost souls in the bowels of hell / Traveled some crooked roads, got some stories yet to tell. I’ve shot up with the junkie / Broken bread with the devil, fallen on my knees to God. Some days I was blessed, some nights I was damned / But I always tried to lend a helping hand. Once I was a deceiver, but now I am a believer.”
The revelry of the Neville Brothers gig at the House of Blues came to an astounding and respectful silence when Brother Aaron began singing an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” Without preaching, the testimony went forth. “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” People wiped tears from their eyes. John Newton’s hymn is universally beloved-even in the midst of spilled beer and cigarette smoke. Although we may not all be ready to walk through the front door to the house of redemption, we still like to know that the porch light is on.
A few years ago, The New York Times reported: “In Britain, many social workers have sent Neville’s CDs to suicidal patients as spiritual medicine, hoping his voice will quell depression. In India a bridge has been named for him. Doctors at the Betty Ford Clinic, in California, sometimes use his gospel CD “Devotion” to comfort addicts in detox.”
It was Bob Dylan who was referring to Neville when he wrote: “There’s so much spirituality in his singing that it could even bring sanity back in a world of madness.”
He gets letters all the time about the healing power of his singing. “It’s the God in me touching the God in them,” he concludes.
Looking back, Neville considers himself blessed to have been arrested as well as for getting robbed of his early royalties. “When I did ‘Tell It Like It Is’ in ‘66, I didn’t get paid for it and that was God doin’ that. Man, if I got $10,000 when I was 25 years old, I’d be dead now. When I sing it today and get a standing ovation, that’s my pay. I’m still here, still singin’. That’s my pay.” Since he has tasted redemption, he refuses to lean on regret. “My life, I don’t think I’d change nothing, because everything I went through enabled me to have compassion for the next man. Whatever he’s going through out there, I’ve been through.”
This article appeared in Risen Magazine in 2007.