But despite that lack of courage, Higgs took care of his friend as best he could. Eventually, Higgs would step up and do what was best.
“I got a call from a bartender at Woody’s, telling me how bad [Brandin] was, asking what they wanted me to do. So I said, ‘Keep serving him, tell him to meet me at Lola’s at 2 p.m.”
Somehow, Lea made it to Lola’s on time. Higgs told him he had to go to the hospital.
“And he’s shitfaced,” Higgs recalled, “and he agrees, but he wants to play one last song before he goes to rehab. So he gets up on a barstool, picks up someone’s guitar that was left here, and it’s awful. And he falls off the stool. That’s when he and our friend Aaron [Cox] took him to Pine Street.”
At the time, however, Pine Street, a public rehab facility on Lancaster Avenue, didn’t have a bed.
“When that happens, they keep you long enough to dry you out and let you go,” Higgs said. “He was back drinking a week later.”
At the end of that week, Higgs got a call from Fletcher’s wife, telling him that they were taking Lea to the hospital.
On September 13, 2013, Brandin Lea finally went to rehab. Pine Street had room for him, so he did the full 28 days.
“That place, it’s where people straight out of prison go,” he said. “The food is even like the food in prison. It’s pretty hardcore.”
And over that period, he took the recovery process seriously. Besides learning about his addiction, he also learned he was bipolar.
“They give you a psych test when you go in there, and I tested strongly for bipolarity,” he said. “What was funny was that when I told my friends and family, nobody was shocked.”
So now he takes lithium, but he also smokes a lot of weed. It’s why he refrains from calling himself truly clean and sober.
“I went to rehab, almost 19 months ago,” he said. “I don’t call it my sober date because, hell, I’m prescribed narcotics. And I smoke a lot of marijuana. Pretty unabashedly, in fact. I’ve heard about a lot of alcoholics smoking weed when they get the craving to go to the bar or the liquor store. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s what works for me. I knew the alcohol was killing me, but I haven’t lost any desire to stop smoking weed. And I know that’s offensive to a lot of sobriety purists.
“I’m not anti-drug,” he continued. “I’m not anti-alcohol. I just can’t drink it. It’s weird, because I’d do coke for a couple days or whatever, but I never really fiended for it the way I would for booze. Now, I won’t even take Nyquil,” referring to the cough medicine he’d pound while waiting for the liquor store to open. “Shit, I used to drink mouthwash. No more of that, either.”
Lea’s rehab stint came in the midst of his attempt to get back into music, during the early days of his new project, Jetta in the Ghost Tree.
“I’d play acoustic gigs for drinking money, and they were usually horrible,” he said. “But Jetta, that band was kind of … it’s me, you know? It’s what I sound like. I quit keeping up with what’s cool, but music is what I do. I don’t really have a lot of other skills, outside of music, outside of performing.”
But even with that raison d’être, making music without having alcohol to lean on was a chore, and the band took awhile to get off the ground, even after rehab.
“Going onstage for the first time without booze, it was really scary, and I didn’t know if I could do it,” he said. “But I did it. And it felt good.”
Carney, who refused to see Lea perform during the dark days, finally caught Jetta in the Ghost Tree at Lola’s not too long ago.
“It was night and day,” Carney said. “One thing a lot of people don’t get is that Brandin Lea might be the last great frontman of a local band. Lots of people can sing, but Brandin just has those little nuances that you hear and go, ‘Oh, this guy is a real performer.’ It’s incredible to see him singing like he did 10 years ago.”
Roberts agrees. “When Brandin wanted to put on a show, nobody could touch him,” he said. “So it’s really great to see him doing what he was made to do.”
Lea, reflecting on his tailspin and the upward climb from rock bottom, is adamant that he will never drink alcohol again.
“I don’t get cravings,” he said. “I’m just lucky. Those last hospital trips and the amount of physical pain were so vivid. I couldn’t hold a job, barely drive a car. Just that alone is enough for me.”
Higgs knows Lea means it. “Brandin is — what? — 19 months sober?” he said. “I’ve lived with him for 17 of those months, and I have never seen him have a drop.”
Of course, many friends have their doubts. When asked if a hypothetical Flickerstick reunion would be a good idea, Roberts was iffy. “I’d be afraid that situation would trigger old memories, and he’d put the ol’ Flickerstick party pants” –– and possibly the much-maligned white belt he’d often wear –– “back on.”
But Lea is confident in his own willpower. “People ask how I can go to bars, and my therapists weren’t crazy about me getting back into music,” he said. “But I am that determined not to blow it again.”
When he goes to bars now, he drives himself, so he always has an out. “When the fun’s over,” he said. “I’m outta there. Could be all night. Could be 20 minutes. I just leave.”
Besides music, Lea also has been working at his mom’s studio, Frances Lea Dance Center, and picking up bar-backing shifts at Upper 90, a sports bar that Higgs co-owns on West Magnolia Avenue on the Near Southside.
“It’s been a year and a half,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out a long-term plan, but in the meantime I’m gonna keep playing my music, and I don’t care if people like it. Those that do, I’m glad. But more than anything, I’m just glad to have another chance.
“I’m too old to fight for unattainable credibility,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter to me anymore. Now I’m just happy to be alive.” l