Alive Again

Chris Newman returns from oblivion.

Chris Newman shouldn’t be here. Not in Portland, not in the yellow house near Mount Tabor where he lives with his girlfriend and her daughter, not leaning back in a chair in his basement rehearsal space, his heavyset frame sheathed in all black, toking from a purple bong. For much of his life, the Oregon Music Hall of Fame inductee, known primarily as the frontman for grunge prototypes Napalm Beach, worked hard on becoming a cliché: the punk-rock martyr, found penniless and forgotten in some gutter, a needle jabbed in his arm. It’s only been a few years since he crawled back onto the grid. As he approaches 60, Newman finds himself not just alive, but enjoying luxuries—like sleeping in a bed of his own, under a roof not made of sheets strung between shopping carts—that he hasn’t experienced since he was a teenager.

It’s not surprising, then, that Newman would want to detach from his past once and for all. On Thursday, Newman will play his own birthday party, revisiting his old projects before dissolving them for good. He says it’s so he can focus on Boo Frog, the blues-punk trio he formed in 2009. But Newman is in a period of purging: He just finished writing his memoirs, and a methadone program has kept him clean—from the hard stuff, anyway—for three years. After this show, only the scars and discolorations criss-crossing his biceps will remain as reminders of his old life. “I did everything full-on, 100 percent,” Newman says, “and I just got lost.”

Born in Longview, Wash., to a  devout Pentecostal family, Newman was drawn to rock ’n’ roll precisely because it repelled his parents. He taught himself to play guitar, and formed his first bands in Portland in the early ’70s. When punk came along, Newman was attracted to its immediacy, though he never fully bought into the “Year Zero” rhetoric. In Napalm Beach, he fused late-’70s fury with bits of the psychedelia and electric blues he grew up on, creating the primordial stew from whence grunge would later emerge. Greg Sage included Napalm Beach on his now-legendary Trap Records samplers, and the band became regulars at Satyricon, the epicenter of the city’s punk scene. 

A star within his self-contained world, Newman, a student of rock mythology, began living like one. At the time, Satyricon was awash in cocaine, and Newman gained a reputation for holding: Audience members would throw wads of bills at him onstage, trying to cop baggies midperformance. “I started getting known more as a small-town drug dealer than as a musician,” he says. At first, he only used heroin to come down from his own binges. It spiraled from there: His soon-to-be wife, a stripper named Valerie, began prostituting for drug money, and Newman supplemented their income by stealing purses. He got banned from local music stores for hawking hot equipment. Then he got banned from Satyricon. By the early ’90s, Newman had essentially run himself out of Portland.

He and his wife escaped to San Francisco, and for the next decade they lived in and out of motels, on street corners and in bus stations. Music became a way for Newman to keep his head barely above water: He began “bootlegging” himself, recording albums for small domestic labels then sending the master to Germany under a different name for more money. Occasionally, he’d get asked to do a gig. He’d play the show, blow his payment on drugs, and go back to sleeping on the street. “I realized that, after a while, any kind of behavior can become normal if you do it enough,” he says. 

Music would eventually save him. After Newman played a show at Ash Street Saloon in 2003, friends clamored for new material. It took a few false starts, but he eventually got in the studio, producing another album for his heavy psych-rock project, Snow Bud and the Flower People. Welcomed back to Portland, he joined many of his old Satyricon buddies in recovery. He broke up with Valerie, got married again and divorced in the span of 15 months, relapsed, then met his girlfriend, Erika Meyer, who plays with him in Boo Frog, which finally stabilized him.  The Star Theater show represents the last step in his return from the brink—an exorcism masked as a celebration. Newman isn’t proud of who he used to be, but he can’t say he regrets it all: After all, he’s been told by fans, more than once, that his music saved their lives. He chuckles at the irony. “Maybe by being an example of what not to do,” he says. 

A top 5 of Newman's side projects can be found here.

SEE IT: Chris Newman’s 60th birthday, featuring Napalm Beach, Snow Bud, Boo Frog, Divining Rods and the Chris Newman Experiment, is at Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave., on Thursday, July 11. 9 pm. $8. 21+. 

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