In the late ’70s and early ’80s, vocalist/guitarist Dave Smeltz was one of the most prominent musicians in the Cleveland music scene. His band, I-Tal, wasn’t the area’s first reggae band, but it was the first BIG one, the one that turned the local rock kids onto reggae.
After a key contingent of I-Tal split off in late 1983 to form First Light — who turned out to be even bigger, I-Tal seemed to fade out. In reality, they had hit the road, doing long residencies in resort towns like Charleston and Hilton Head.
Unfortunately, something else was going on in Smeltz’s life. He was gradually being consumed by the disease of addiction. Now sober for 13 years, he’s just published a book titled Clean: From Reggae to Recovery, A Memoir that tells his story, no holds barred. He says it’s intended to be part of the recovery literature he held on to during his process of getting better. And he says it’s been a healing process for him.
But it’s also part of what he sees as giving back to the community that rescued him. He’s started a nonprofit called Clean House Inc., which has purchased and is rehabbing a building on Buckeye Road that will be a transitional clean living space for men coming out of recovery programs. He published the book with his own money and any profits will go to Clean House.
Smeltz will be at Mac’s Backs on Coventry Road on Sat 7/12 @ 5-7PM with his publisher and Clean House board member Jennifer Coiley to talk about his book and sign copies.
“A lot of people don’t realize that some of us are just wired differently,” he says, when asked what led to his addiction. “There is a difference between social use and those of us who can’t control it. Some people have a drink and feel out of control and stop. Me on the other hand I have a drink and feel a little out of control, so I go ‘I wonder what two will do.’”
Smeltz’s journey into addiction began in his very early teens when, he says, “I would hitchhike down to Coventry and sit in front of Record Rev and watch the bikers at the C-Saw Cafe. I bought my LSD from a guy named Sherman.”
While he attributes some of the initial impetus to using to the common adolescent feeling of not fitting in, he says the problem blossomed once I-Tal hit the road in the mid ’80s.
“I don’t want to blame my addiction on other people and places though,” he adds — a realization he says in his book was crucial to his recovery. “I take responsibility for all of it happening. I think the travel, playing six-seven nights a week, having to wake up and be on all the time. The more we played, the more I drifted in oblivion. Any time I’m playing in a bar where there’s free alcohol all night, I rewarded myself after a performance. It’s hard to blame my addiction on anything because I was a willing participant. I looked around and saw other people doing some of the same things. I didn’t see anything wrong with it.”
In the early ’90s, he enjoyed a brief respite from his downward spiral when he met his wife, got married, had a daughter (and later another), and went to Tri-C to get his degree in physical therapy.
“During that time we played a few gigs around town, but I wasn’t using,” he says. “I was trying to be a father to the new daughter in my life.”
Unfortunately, good intentions weren’t enough. He figured if he had stopped for four years, drinking wasn’t a problem.
“I didn’t know anything about the disease,” he says. “After I took the first one, it was like I never stopped for four years. For a little while I was a decent dad, but once I really started indulging that became more important. That’s the thing about addiction I think a lot of people don’t know. To be truly addicted doesn’t mean you want to be. I knew I was hurting my daughter but the urge to use was so strong.”
He describes in the book his daughter begging him to stay home while he leaves the house to score. When he hit the bottom — losing his wife, his daughters and his mother, and still putting scoring dope first — he ended up in Orca House, a Cleveland-based recovery program. There he slowly started doing the internal work he had to do to lose his need for drugs and alcohol. His book details the harrowing process.
“My bottom was being with me and I didn’t like me,” he says. “It was a desperate state of being. Not being able to do something when everyone tells you all you have to do is stop makes you feel less. I had a better idea of what addiction is once I got into Orca House. This is a spiritual disease. The universal music of reggae is a spiritual and healing music, which is why I got into it. Once I put dope on top of it, it changed. My meditation has to come from not putting a substance in me.”
In 2010, he came up with the idea of Clean House.
“I was in Orca House for 104 days and then I went to [Salvation Army transitional program] PASS for eight months,” he says. “They gave us free meals and meetings and life skills classes, access to attorneys. We who finally get sober tend to find we made a mess of our lives. I had idea of putting together a house where guys could come after they’d been to treatment to give them a good foundation for recovery, just learn how to stay clean and sober.”
The road to Clean House hasn’t been easy. Indeed, nothing has. He’s lost a few of the mentors who had his back during his recovery. But without drugs, he’s learned to soldier on. His nonprofit took possession of their building last November, discovering that the building they bought had been stripped (they got a discount on their purchase price). They’re trying to get the electric back up and running after putting in $1,500 worth of work and having someone break in and steal the copper wiring. For obvious reasons, they’d like to put bars back on the building.
“But I believe I this so much,” says Smeltz. “For one thing, I think the area could use it. I’ve spoken to people on the street and they’re happy about what we’re doing for the area. I’m not going to stop. What was given me was valuable this new way of life, I truly believe it can help other people.”
I-tal, which still plays out from time to time, will headline a benefit for Clean House Sun 8/31. I-Tal. Local reggae band Outlaws I & I (which features former I-Tal/First Light member Mike “Chopper” Wasson), blues performer Austin Walkin’ Cane Charanghat, the Nazz and the Flavor will also play. Stay tuned for more details.
Learn more about Clean House Inc. here.
Photo of Dave Smeltz performing with I-Tal at the House of Blues, November 2012, by Anastasia Pantsios