Why the Death of Celebrity Rehab Veteran Mike Starr Makes Laughing at Charlie Sheen Hard

Photo: VH1/Courtesy shot
Photo: VH1/Courtesy shot

Last Tuesday afternoon, the Celebrity Rehab reality show suffered its first certified death: Mike Starr, Season 3, dead at 44. While it’s unclear how this particular reality will affect the show’s tenability and ratings, even obituary headlines seemed to recognize the milestone, identifying the deceased as “Celeb Rehab Rocker” or “of Alice in Chains/Celebrity Rehab,” — epithets reflecting Starr’s dual role in public life during his last two years alive. Decades ago, Starr would have been a former rock star who died a rock star. But today, he’s a low, single-note counterpoint to the merry melodies of Charlie Sheen, his passing marked not by candlelight vigils or teary radio-show call-ins, but those cursory, dot-dot-dash micro-eulogies of the multitasker, tweets. “R.I.P. Mike Starr!! Such a sad day!” “Drugs and alcohol aren’t a joke.” And from Dr. Drew Pinsky, Celebrity Rehab’s creator, host, and chief medical officer: “Devastating to hear of Mike Starr succumbing to his illness. So very sad. Our prayers are with his family.” XOXO

If nineties rock has a sadder story than Starr’s it’s hard to find. Kurt Cobain died instantly, the world wept, his music was enshrined, and the spotlight moved elsewhere, which was more or less the same trajectory following the overdose deaths of Sublime’s Brad Nowell, Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, and other musicians whose fans, friends, and families were left to grieve offstage. Even Alice in Chains singer-songwriter Layne Staley — whose much longer, grislier demise ended with the discovery of his body still upright in a chair, two weeks after his death and six years after his band’s last studio album — got off easier than his former bandmate Starr did. Nobody laughed at Layne Staley. Nobody laughed at any of the famous victims of that strangely nineties rock syndrome, heroin addiction, because none of them lived to see the media culture that drafted Mike Starr’s epilogue. And I get the sense none of them would have been quite so wounded by indignity as Starr seemed to be when I saw him.

In early June of 2009, I had been assigned to write an article on Dr. Drew Pinsky and spent a few days at the Pasadena Recovery Center to observe Celebrity Rehab as it was shooting its third season. I sat with the director and various crew members in a small, dim, gear-packed inpatient bedroom that served as the production’s control center, where a wall-spanning grid of closed-circuit TV monitors carried static shots from different rooms. As the crew steered coverage of the unfolding events, they gave the kind of running commentary any sleep-deprived surveillance team does sometime after their 36th hour in front of a screen. In this, the lumbering, ponytailed Mike Starr played like a character from some John Cusack–helmed comedy about aging Gen-Xers, stuck in a grunge time warp.

His life story provided a steady supply of one-liners: Here’s a guy who managed to get himself kicked out of Alice in Chains … for drugs; a guy who walks around with earphones blasting nothing but Alice in Chains songs; a guy who, word is, now plays in an Alice in Chains cover band — “playing for, like, 82 people a show,” a crew member marveled as Starr sat in one screen, seemingly staring right through the camera at the peanut gallery running the show.

He knew we were there. Starr was probably the most camera-conscious member in that season’s cast and frequently complained about their intrusions. “I mean, I’m sound asleep, I wake up, and there’s a fuckin’ camera on me,” he said at one point. “What the fuck is that?” (Many more such complaints came than would ever make final cut.) Starr’s endurance for it all finally broke on the third day I was there, when, to provoke a dramatic moment whose therapeutic merit I’m unqualified to assess, the producers flew in Starr’s main using buddy, who also happened to be his father.

Not long after the staff informed Starr of this meeting, he gave what was probably his most memorable on-camera performance: He got up and began an ominous, silent, relentless patrol through the facilities, armored in a black leather jacket with black sunglasses perched atop his bandanna-encased head, headphones audibly blasting him into oblivion, and his slitted, unseeing eyes like a Great White’s. As camera operators followed he stared right into their lenses at point-blank range — none too concerned about breaking the “fourth wall.” He was, Pinksy told me, in a psychotic state, which required him to give Starr a gluteal injection of Ativan. As Starr received it, he stared at the camera the whole time, adding, in fractured speech, “Not too dignified. On TV. In the butt.”

If four seasons of Celebrity Rehab have proven anything, it’s that while opiate addicts may make great rock music, they make terrible TV. There’s no Sheening with them. They don’t give the audience hilarious roller coasters of pressured speech filled with headline-ready pull quotes and imaginatively egomaniacal imagery. They’re comatose when high, asleep when crashing, and cranky, abusive, and insufferable in withdrawal. They may throw something or assault someone, but they’re not going to give you any fun moments to share at the water cooler. Former Grease and Taxi star Jeff Conaway may have stood out as the most unbearable cast member on two seasons of Celebrity Rehab, but his behavior would hardly distinguish him in the larger population of opiate addicts. As Bob Forrest (Dr. Drew’s Panama-hatted right-hand counselor and the subject of the SXSW doc Bob and the Monster) told me during one lunch break, they all act exactly like he does. The audiences watching Conaway hurl epithets from his wheelchair, we weren’t watching an irascible TV character, we were watching a syndrome.

After having seen Starr and others endure some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives over hours of raw, unedited live feed, I can’t say I’m finding Sheen Season such a blast. If you’re new to the species, lots of addicts really are fun to watch. They’re tweaky, grandiose, arrogant, melodramatic, emotionally labile, and, at first, unpredictable. But only at first. To anyone who has lived with one, they aren’t wacky, outrageous characters but an unmistakable collection of behaviors, assumptions, thought habits, speech patterns, and even syntax. The most surprising thing about them is how unsurprising they are, how perfectly they conform to the boilerplate. Even with all his wealth, career, and media access, Sheen does and says nearly the exact same things every other one does, give or take a warlock.

By far, the saddest moment I saw during Starr’s time at the PRC was when, after his on-camera benzo shot, he finally did sit down for that meeting with his father, a rangy, ruggedly handsome career junkie of some 60-odd years, who seemed to show genuine concern for his son. In the presence of this man, with whom he had smoked crack and shot heroin for many years, Starr, the brooding, ursine figure who had just menaced the entire facility, quickly, and quite audibly, became a child. He spoke like a 10-year-old just back from a field trip, recounting moments from his current rehab stay with the eagerness of a bounding, face-licking puppy — all while his half-dad half-listened.

There’s no use, or even merit, in chiding tabloid shows, gossip sites, pundits, T-shirt-makers, and everyone else drinking from the gushing tap of found comedy that Charlie Sheen’s providing, for now. But if we start to feel a bit like we’re laughing at a quadriplegic’s attempt to go down stairs, that’s understandable. Sheen’s main appeal as folk hero and rock star probably rests on his loud, lively resistance to the warm, enveloping hug of Oprah. His new fans are as sick as he is of the dopey rhetoric and tidy recovery arc of pop culture’s addiction narrative. But as Mike Starr has shown, the reality behind this reality narrative is usually a much longer, downward arc, with few twists and turns, and a very predictable ending.

Thursday night, at the end of VH1 News’s hour-long special Charlie Sheen: Winning … or Losing It? With Dr. Drew, the host shared his optimism for Sheen’s recovery and, as an example of the success that could be Sheen’s, cited Starr’s castmate on Celebrity Rehab and Sober House Tom Sizemore, now apparently prospering in sobriety. Watching Sizemore at the PRC — sweating, grizzled, glassy-eyed, and shaking through what he estimated was his hundredth-odd rehab stay — I’d have said the smart money was on him predeceasing Starr. But neither death would have, or should have, surprised anyone. This story is old. This record needs changing. It doesn’t play anymore.

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Why the Death of Celebrity Rehab Veteran Mike Starr Makes Laughing at Charlie Sheen Hard