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VH1 helps Leif Garrett confront his demons


Citizen Calendar Editor

They looked as if they’d been through a war, these two men. One, in a wheelchair, had long, straight blond hair, earrings in both years and tattoos on each arm. The other was scruffily dressed, a bandana tied over the top of his balding head and a week’s worth of beard covering his face. Both shared the same blank, shell-shocked expression – a look that comes from living through hell but not quite being able to recover from it.

On this day, at a picnic table in a Los Angeles park, the pair is there to meet face-to-face for the first time in almost 20 years. The man in the wheelchair is Roland Winkler, an aspiring dancer in the late ’70s whose career was cut short by a fiery car crash on the Hollywood freeway that left both of his legs paralyzed. Sitting next to him, on the picnic bench, is Leif Garrett, the ’70s pop idol and Tiger Beat pinup sensation who made young girls cry with such Top 20 remakes as ”Surfin’ USA” and ”I Was Made For Dancin’.” At the time of the crash, they were best friends; blond-haired buddies indulging in the Hollywood fast lane. Roland dreamed about fame and money and success. Leif already had it.

But, as VH1′s new ”Leif Garrett: Behind the Music” documentary makes startlingly clear, the dreams and the reality all went spinning out of control Nov. 3, 1979 – just five days before Garrett’s 18th birthday.

The pair had hopped into Garrett’s Porsche after a midnight party and set out in search of more cocaine. As they sped down the highway, Garrett lost control of the car. It clipped the rear end of another vehicle, hit the curb, spun around and rolled 80 feet down an embankment. Neither were wearing seat belts. Garrett, whose blood-alcohol level was three times today’s legal limit, was thrown from the car and suffered only minor injuries. Winkler was trapped inside the car and broke three vertebrae. He would never dance again.

The ensuing seven-year legal battle, which resulted in a $7 million judgment for Winkler, tore apart their friendship. It also sent Garrett spiraling further into a personal and professional morass that ultimately led to heroin addiction. The meeting at the park last summer, initiated and filmed by VH1, was the first step in laying to rest those agonizing memories. It’s riveting television – so intensely personal that at times it’s difficult to watch.

”People have told me that – that it’s hard to watch,” Garrett said, on the phone last week to promote the documentary, airing this week as part of VH1′s Teen Idols Week. ”Oh, God. The day we went to film it, I was shaking. I was trembling. I was nervous as hell. At the same time, it was good to be able to see him myself. To say hello to him. To shake his hand and tell him how I felt. And hear how he felt.

”That’s part of the reason he and I had never gotten together. I didn’t know if he wanted to kick my ass or if he had forgiven me. It’s tough when somebody who’s your friend all of a sudden . . . we were together every day. I was there every day at the hospital. Then the second the attorneys get involved, you’re separated and pulled apart and told not to see each other. It’s funny how we both said the same thing after the meeting. That a weight had been lifted off of us. We had finally gotten to the horse’s mouth. To the source. And I think that was important.”

They haven’t gotten together again since the meeting, but they have talked on the phone.

”I want him to come over and check out my new music,” Garrett said. ”But he hasn’t been able to make it yet.

At the time of the crash, Garrett’s career was at its peak. He had started as a child actor, with featured roles in ”Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” ”Macon County Line” and the ”Walking Tall” trilogy. By the time he was in his early teens and starring in the short-lived ”Three For The Road” series, the teen mags had picked up on his fresh-faced good looks. That’s when Scotti Bros. Records entered the picture, signing him to a five-album deal even though he had no singing experience.

”I was gonna be a rock star,” Garrett says in the special. ”I was gonna be Mick Jagger. I was gonna be Robert Plant. But that’s not the way it went.”

Instead, Garrett was churning out limp remakes of old hits, such as ”Surfin’ USA” and ”Put Your Head On My Shoulder.” It was fine at first, but soon he was champing at the bit to rock out. Record company execs, however, were firm: You don’t change a winning hand. He would record only what they told him to. The only chance Garrett got to stretch himself musically was onstage, where he spiced up his live set with Stones and Zeppelin covers. Offstage, he was beginning to live the raucous life of his idols.

”It was like, ‘Hey kid, what do you need? Coke? Weed?’ It didn’t seem to bother anyone that I was underage,” Garrett said in the special. ”I was off doing drugs and partying with girls and sometimes their mothers.”

By age 17, Garrett was living with 15-year-old actress Nicolette Sheridan. When their stormy relationship broke up in 1985 after six years, Garrett’s life was in disarray. His teen-idol star had crashed and burned, and his efforts at re-establishing his film career were sputtering. For the next decade, he kept acting, kept writing new music, but he couldn’t beat his drug addiction.

In 1996, Sheridan tried to force Garrett into rehab. He stayed just a half-hour, but it made him wake up to the urgent need to turn his life around. Today, he says he’s clean; he beat his heroin addiction going ”cold turkey with meds.” You want to believe him.

Garrett is forging ahead with his music. He’s recorded an album’s worth of material with longtime pal Julian Raymond, who produced the hit Fastball album ”All the Pain Money Can Buy.” This month, he’ll release an EP of all-new tunes on his own Tounge & Groove label, which will be available through his Web site (www.leifgarrett.com) and mail-order (Box 5850 W. Third St., Los Angeles, Calif. 90036). The four-track disc features two mixes of ”Are You Satisfied,” a GarrettRaymond original heard in the VH1 special, a remake of The Kinks’ ”Lola” with former Nirvana member Dave Navarro on piano and another self-penned tune called ”Borrowed Time.”

”It’s basic rock ‘n’ roll,” Garrett said, noting that both original tunes were written about Sheridan. ”But it’s got a ’90s edge to it in the production and approach.”

Playing guitar on all the tracks is former Marilyn Manson guitarist Zim Zum.

”I’m friends with the whole band,” Garrett said. ”Mostly Twiggy and Manson. Realizing it couldn’t hurt publicity-wise to have Marilyn Manson’s old guitarist in my band for a couple of tracks, and the fact that we got along, I invited Zim to play on it.

”Oddly enough, in my absence from the music scene, I’d like to think I’ve pretty much stayed in step with current goings-on.”

Once the EP is out, Garrett will start shopping around for a major label to distribute the album. But he vows he’ll retain all creative control; he doesn’t want another Scotti Bros. replay.

Garret Besides music, he’s entertaining offers to pen his life story. He’s open to new acting assignments; his last film, 1997′s ”The Last Tenant,” won Best Murder Mystery honors at the New York Film Festival. He’s also begun producing and starring in ”audio movies.”

”Imagine going into a movie theater and closing your eyes and getting the full ambient sound, all the sound effects, the underscore, the new music, the different parts being played by different people,” Garrett said. ”It’s like live ’40s radio theater – except marketed like books on tape. But we’re trying to keep it separate from books on tape. We’re trying not to put anyone to sleep. We’re trying to keep them awake.

”We just finished our first one. It’s a murder mystery called ‘Double or Nothing.’ Bless his soul, Michael Hutchence, my good buddy from INXS, was in it. He was one of the leads. It’s the last thing he did (before he died). Michael Des Barre is in it. And myself, of course.”

”Double or Nothing,” available online for $16.95 through Amazon.com and other web retailers, was released last month and has received positive reviews in the trades. The Audiobook Buyers’ Guide called it a ”witty and very funny cross between ‘Chinatown’ and ‘The Big Sleep’ . . . Leif Garrett is a winning lead.” The Bookwatch said it’s ”a fully composed and highly recommended ‘theater of the mind’ listening experience.”

What Garrett really wants to do is play live. That’s the ”next plan.” But he won’t be doing any of his old hits.

”The last time I went to Japan, three or four years ago, was the last time I did any of that material. Even then, I refused to do them the regular way. I did a blues version of a disco song (‘I Was Made For Dancing’). That was a tough one. I wasn’t feeling so good then. I was in the middle of a kick. Oh, man.

”The things we do to ourselves.”


”Leif Garrett: Behind the Music” will air on Jan. 15 at 7 p.m., Jan. 16 at 3 p.m. and Jan. 17 at 5 a.m. and 1 p.m. on VH1 (Channel 52 on Cox Cable and Channel 41 on Jones Cable).


TEEN DREAM – The cover of Garrett’s 1980 album “Can’t Explain,” the only Scotti Bros. disc he “actually loved.”

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