By Chip Boddington
Addiction is a terrible thing; whether your poison is heroin, smack, crack, meth, dope, coke, wang, chittle, dongo, basil, dog, wench, pilchard, dirty-box, cake, horse, zebra, pony, penk, pills, poppers, razzle, double-entry, fluffer, upskirt or even britney, it destroys lives in a way nothing else in the world does. Families are destroyed by it, communities burn alive because of it and politicians say they want to help but are secretly stuffing their faces with the latest designer drugs, such as rentboy or vaz. A 2014 poll showed that the families of addicts are 73% more likely to stop taking baths and a 29% of those admit to using shampoo instead of shower gel when they’ve run out. With drug rehabilitation funding being cut every year since Take That first split up, victims of addiction are finding that even if they want to kick their habit, help is not easy to come by and many give up trying long before they even started the process. It’s a legacy of Broken Britain that addiction is on the rise while support for victims is in sharp decline; do the maths – they don’t add up to “support”.
Many people blame rock stars, who traditionally ignore the advice of health professionals and spend their earnings on all the drugs they can get their hands on, claiming it helps with the process of writing songs and making music. Popular Manchester skiffle band ‘The Beatles’ famously took copious amounts of drugs before recording their albums, which resulted in the infamous “With A Little Help From My Friends”, an ode to drugs that shocked the nation in 1986, among other years, and probably even before then too. If you look back through your vinyl, cd, minidisc and now mp3 collection you’ll probably find that most of the co-called artists you listen to have used or do use drugs regularly. If you like rap, you can be 99.9% certain they all smoked weed before making their songs, with only the far less popular Christian rappers who don’t (and while an argument can be made that Christian rap music is terrible, that doesn’t mean the lack of drugs is the reason for that, it’s more likely the subject matter). Rock stars all do cocaine, period, as did the funk and soul artists of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Do you like electronic music? There’s a good chance your favourite DJ or artists was high on ecstasy before they started making their hypnotic and repetitive songs, which is why they all sound so boring and derivative if you’re not high when you listen to them. These are known facts that are considered to be about as truthful as you can get when it comes to drugs, but what if your addiction is a different kind of drug, one you don’t literally swallow but ingest through your ears? What if your addiction is the music itself, specifically a rock band? What if your addiction is to music that is so horrible, so disgusting, so unhealthy, so impure, so shameful and socially-unacceptable that you can barely even admit it to yourself? Where do you seek help for that?
Robin Outvest, from Nuneaton, is a former addict of Nickleback, and his life was nearly destroyed by it. In 2001 while on a tea break at the parcel delivery warehouse he worked at, Robin heard “How You Remind Me” on the canteen radio while eating a fairly bland ham sandwich. “For me and people like me it all started with that song. When I heard it for the first time it was as if the world stopped. The emotion, the power, the lyrics, that chorus. If the world was a stadium it would be the only song you could play that was worthy of filling it. It was an epic moment in my life and for other Nickleback addicts they’ll tell you the same thing; everything changed once you heard it.” Robin’s hand’s were visibly shaking when he told me that, a sign that even now, some three years since he last listened to a Nickleback song, the pain is still fresh. Robin returned to the warehouse after his tea break in a trance and made a number of parcel-checking errors that night, so much so his supervisor called him into the office at the start of his next shift to scold him. “You were allowed one mistake per shift, and two mistakes a week. Any more than that and you got demoted to lorry-loading for a week. Two demotions a month and you got a warning. Two warnings and you got a final warning and then you were out. They didn’t mess around and one month after hearing Nickleback for the first time I lost my job.”
Before that first scolding from his supervisor Robin had woken up early to get to HMV to buy the single on CD. He played it on repeat all the way to work and had memorised most of the lyrics before his shift started. He didn’t hear the song again that day until he got into his car to go home. Just 24 hours after hearing Nickleback for the first time he was addicted, to that song. “There were three other songs on the CD but I didn’t bother listening to them, not even once“, Robin explained, despair and shame written all over his face. “By the end of the following week it was the only song I was listening to. I’d been a big Whitesnake fan as a kid but even they had been relegated to my CD rack. There was only one song worth listening to and everything that had come before it and everything that was to follow it was worthless.”
After countless checking and loading errors Robin was called in to see the Warehouse manager who was initially quite concerned at his sudden and unexpected dip in work performance. “He asked me if there was something wrong and I told him no, far from it, I was in heaven. He said in that case he was sorry but he couldn’t keep me on if I was going to mess up every bay I checked off and every lorry I loaded. He paid me up to the end of the month but told me I could leave immediately. It didn’t sink in, I just couldn’t hear what he was saying and I went back to the Warehouse and started working again. It was three hours before someone told the bosses I was still working, still fucking up. I was man-handled off the premises and told not to come back. I drove just down the road to the Odeon Cinema, parked up and spent the next day and a half listening to that song in my car. Talking about it now I don’t understand how I didn’t realise I had a problem but any addict will tell you that admitting the problem is the first step to recover and I couldn’t admit I had a problem.”
Robin moved back into his parents’ home shortly after his sacking after his girlfriend of 13 years told him she couldn’t cope with his behaviour. “She hated the song, lucky her” Robin confessed to me. Try as he might he could not find another job and spent the next seven years pretty much confined to the room he shared with his younger brother, headphones on, listening to that song. “I did start listening to ‘Rock Star’ a bit in 2005, or maybe it was 2006, but that phase didn’t last very long. Eventually even my parents gave up on me and they told me I had to go. I packed a rucksack with the essentials, my CD Walkman and that was a about it. I didn’t even take my toothbrush, although for some reason I did take toothpaste but I don’t even remember doing that. For some reason I packed a roll of sellotape too. I was out of my mind, blinded by my addiction.”
Robin drove to the east coast and lived in his car for the next two years, rarely venturing out except to piss or shit or scour the local fruit and veg market at night for anything edible they’d left behind. “I had no petrol left so I couldn’t go anywhere even if I’d wanted to. I’d parked near a campsite and people just assumed I was camping I suppose, not that I spoke to anyone. By then the only words I ever heard myself say were from the song. As time went on it just seemed to make more and more sense. I’d never made it as a wise man, and I wasn’t good at being a poor man stealing. I felt like a blind man too, but I could at least see a little bit of the world. As far as I know nobody came looking for me. Every now and again I’d wake up and find someone had put a note behind my remaining wiper blade. Usually the notes just said “Weirdo” or “Get lost you fucking mental” but I didn’t care. I realise now that the pain and the cure were both the same thing, that song.”
Disaster struck in 2009 but was to prove to be a pivotal moment in Robin’s life. He woke up one morning, started playing the song and as it neared the end the CD seemed to get stuck in a loop, repeating the words “Are we having fun yet?” over and over. Robin believes he listened to the stuck CD until the batteries on his Walkman died, so roughly six hours. When it stopped playing Robin left his car and wandered down to the local shops to steal some batteries, as he’d done many times. When he returned, however, the CD wouldn’t play at all. “It was weird, not hearing that song. I walked a mile or so down the road to the sea and I could hear sounds I hadn’t heard in ages. I looked out at the boats in the distance, listened to the seagulls screaming at me, listened to the sea and the occasional helicopter they flew by and they were amazing sounds to me. I didn’t eat for three days, and I slept on the beach for two nights. I still wanted to listen to the song but it was playing in my head. I’d hit rock bottom.”
The next few months are difficult for Robin to recall but what he does know is that a passer-by called for an ambulance after finding him unconscious on the beach. When he awoke in hospital he’d been told there was a missing person’s report active for him and his parents were on their way. He went into a rage and demanded that someone get him some Nickleback to listen to, anything at all, but eventually he was restrained and sedated. His parents agreed that he should be sectioned under the mental health act and was during this period that he met Manny, who’d been suffering from Nickleback addiction for 6 years herself. Unlike Robin, Manny listened to everything they’d ever made, even “Rock Star” which she admitted was the worst song they or any other rock band had ever made, but she still had to listen to it. Manny spend her days online reading everything should could find on the band and had spent thousands of pounds of her parents’ money on rare items, bootleg recordings and tickets to shows she would never be able to attend. Manny, like Robin, had been told there would be no listening to Nickleback during her rehabilitation and the two would sing songs to each other to help them get through the ordeal; Robin, obviously, only sang the one song and as he’d been out of society for so long he didn’t know what the internet was and found Manny’s knowledge of the Band intimidating. He fell into a deep depression.
Doctors at the Hospital were finding it difficult to treat the pair. While it was not uncommon for immature girls to have episodes when their favourite boy-bands split, Robin and Manny’s addiction was far more severe. Their case drew the attention of a visiting American Psychologist who asked to meet the pair. Dr. Andrew Staff had spent his career dealing with severe addiction and after interviewing both Robin and Manny he moved to England to help the pair and raise the level of public awareness of the issue. He, like many others, was shocked to learn that there were hundreds of Nickleback addicts with what he later described as “Tier One Level” addiction to “How You Remind Me”. Manny’s addiction, or “Tier Two Level” addiction was much rarer. Even more surprisingly almost ever addict lived within 20 miles of Nuneaton. Dr. Staff was publicly slammed for a comment he made to a medical journal in which he said “There must be something very wrong in Nuneaton, it must be a deeply depressing place to live for so many people to be suffering from this addiction. If the best thing in your life is Nickleback, and that feeling is shared by one in 500 of the local population, it’s time to seriously consider levelling the place and starting again, seriously.” Despite the outcry from local officials and representatives, Dr. Staff continued to work on new and inventive therapies for Robin and Manny and eventually, after over a year in Hospital, the two were considered well enough again to re-join society while the doctor continued to work with hundreds of other Nickleback addicts.
Robin and Manny, unsurprisingly, had found not only health but love together and started their new lives together thankful that their addiction, while devastating and horrible, had brought them together. With Dr. Staff’s help they started a support group, “Nickleback Anonymous” for fellow recovering addicts and for people who were just beginning to come to terms with their disease. Over 150 people came to their first session, way more than expected, and so a campaign to raise funds through donations and charity support began. Those who attended meetings were introduced to different bands and different forms of music each session to help them explore ways of keeping Nickleback out of their lives and each week addicts would bring along items of Nickleback paraphernalia to destroy. Volunteer helpers provided essential moral support as addicts would smash, burn or otherwise destroy their Nickleback possessions within the safety of the group. “It was inspiring for me, watching someone take such pleasure and joy in destroying a box of DVDs with sledgehammers, regular hammers or even just their fists and feet. I felt so proud of them, doing what I hadn’t been able to do. Manny cries each time we do it, but they’re not tears of regret, they’re tears of relief, relief that we are standing up to Nickleback and destroying their shit music one song at a time.”
Robin can now admit that “How You Remind Me” was not the song he once thought it was. “I used to think that first verse was the most powerful thing ever written. I used to think he had really captured what it was like to lose someone to another man, someone who wasn’t sorry. Wow, I mean that really reached into me and grabbed my heart. The last time I heard anger like that was Phil Collins’ “Mama” which was heavy duty. These days though, I mean I’ve discovered old Soul records and after you hear Al Green or Marvin Gaye you can’t help but think Nickleback are just being whiny little bitches about stuff. I mean, if you listen to ‘Rock Star’ now it’s just about the worst thing anyone has ever released, it’s awful. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I think this way but it’s true and all those who come to our meetings know it too…we just have to help them realise it’s okay to hate Nickleback, it’s okay to admit they’re absolutely fucking shit, even though you once really liked them. It’s okay now.”
Robin has only heard “How You Remind Me” once since he left hospital, and while it was entirely by accident he admitted it to the group and started his sobriety again; he’s now three years clean and has never felt better about himself, although it was painful at the time and he admits he had flashbacks and a longing to listen to the song just one more time. “I was at Poundland buying cheap toilet rolls and a cover version of the song was being played over the tinny speakers above the tills. It was really weak, nothing like the original and while I laughed at first I became more angry that they had done such a shitty job of the cover. I told Manny when I got home and she could see I was having a relapse so she called Dr. Staff. He told me to go onto Amazon.com and have a look at the one-star reviews for anything Nickleback released. There were a lot of them. After reading the first few I started to calm down and after a dozen or so of them I was back to normal, although it was day one for me again. Manny’s been clean for five years now, and she’s my rock. I could not have got through that episode without her.”
The Nuneaton support group is now officially the world’s biggest, and only, organisation dealing with Nickleback addiction and their pioneering approach to curing people of liking, enjoying and even being addicted to Nickleback has resulted in both financial support, medical support and even the backing of one or two major bands and musicians. Now a registered Charity, “Nickleback Anonymous” boasts both Noel Gallagher and Dave Grohl as patrons. In a special video message to the group Noel said “Anyone, anyone, who dedicates their life to helping people stop listening to Nickleback is a fucking saint in my book. And to those who are recovering from having had to listen to them, you have my full support, whatever the fuck you need. You’re doing the right thing, you’re saving real music and I salute you all. You have a friend in me for life. Peace out.”
Dr. Staff was unavailable for comment when I interviewed Robin but after my article was posted online he did reach out to me and told me that he’s finishing a book on Nickleback addiction, focussing on both the disease and the its curious ground zero in Nuneaton. While he continually finds himself facing criticism for his opinions about the town, he hopes that the evidence he has gathered will show those running the town that there are a number of reasons why people might be depressed in Nuneaton and why Nickleback might seem like the answer, given the high level of apathy and dissatisfaction people who live there feel. He’s hopeful that now a spotlight has been shone on the grim, miserable and soulless town of Nuneaton there will be an opportunity not only to make it a better place to live, but to ensure that the disease of Nickleback addiction will become a thing of the past not only for people in and around Nuneaton but for humanity as a whole.