A chance conversation backstage at the Dane County Coliseum on the night of Nov. 16, 1977, suddenly made everything seem possible for the Madison rock band Chaser and Michael Massey, its front man and lead singer.
It also opened a trapdoor which eventually swallowed Massey, taking him to a dark place from which he very nearly did not return.
A dream and a nightmare, though both took time to materialize.
On that night 45 years ago, Massey was working backstage at the Coliseum for a Jethro Tull concert. At 155 pounds, he was an unlikely security guard. But Massey had an in through his Chaser bandmate, drummer Tony Cerniglia, whose dad ran Tri-State Security.
Before the show, Massey was talking music with a friendly young man who introduced himself as Rick Ambrose, director of national publicity for Chrysalis Records, Jethro Tull’s label. At one point Massey said, “I’ve got this band.”
Ambrose, inexplicably, did not excuse himself. Instead, he asked when this band of Massey’s was playing next. “Tomorrow night,” Massey said. That was an open night on the Jethro Tull tour, and Ambrose allowed that perhaps he could attend. It was a frat party at the Karakahl Inn in Mount Horeb, but Chaser rocked like it was a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden. Afterward, Ambrose said, “If you guys can write songs and perform them with that kind of energy, I’d like to get involved.”
Massey relates that tale early in “More,” his candid and compelling new memoir, later noting how Chaser, after some twists and turns, traveled to New York City on the cusp of a recording deal with Atlantic Records — the brass ring. But even before the backstage Coliseum story, Massey let the reader know that while “More” includes famous names and showbiz sizzle, his embrace of rock and roll excess exacted a steep price.
“The first hallucination was the belief my teeth were melting,” he writes, in the book’s prologue, of the horrors of alcohol withdrawal.
But Massey made it, he got sober. He took his last drink in 1993.
“The intent of the book is to help people,” Massey said, when we spoke last week.
He continued: “It’s the biggest reason I wrote the book. To show people it can be done. When you’re in the throes of substance abuse you feel there’s no way out. I’m not a preacher or a counselor, but I can tell my story and be an example that it can be done. If I can do it, so can you.”
Massey is a Madison native and lifelong east-sider. Music hooked him early. “To this day it remains magical,” he says. “It was an epiphany that this was what I was going to do in some way shape or form forever. I’m going to be involved with this my whole life.”
Massey formed his first band at 15. A year earlier was the first time he got drunk — on a church choir trip to Houston. Drinking and playing, playing and drinking. As Chaser toured, Massey, out front, assumed the bad boy persona that seemed nearly required of lead singers in rock ‘n’ roll. “Everybody held up a bottle of Jack Daniels in a 10,000-seat auditorium,” he says.
In 1981, Chaser recorded six songs at Atlantic Studios in New York. Andy Warhol was there and stopped by to chat. The demo was a formality — everyone knew Chaser was getting a record deal. Except they didn’t. Atlantic passed. “Devastating,” Massey says.
Across the next decade, more music, more drinking. He formed a new band — Boys in White, which made it onto “Star Search” with Ed McMahon — but, ultimately, more disappointment. One late ‘80s highlight: Massey met and married a woman named Robin, who by 1993 had tried and failed to loosen alcohol’s grip on her husband. She delivered an ultimatum. Massey, defiant, stalked out.
He soon returned, chastened, determined to quit, and did, for several days, at which point the withdrawal hallucinations began. Melting teeth followed by hideous trolls, perched on his dresser, menacing. Robin took him, terrified and shaking, to the hospital, where an emergency room doctor later told Massey he wished they’d videotaped him to use as an alcohol deterrent for kids.
And then, well, he got better. “A perfect storm of recovery,” he says. “I was lucky.”
Massey spent time at an inpatient rehabilitation facility. “I woke up one day and I could smell the food cooking. My appetite had returned for the first time in three years. I started eating, gaining weight and exercising.” The cravings that bedevil some in early recovery largely passed him by. He and Robin, married more than 30 years now, have two daughters.
After a brief time during which he proved inept at selling furniture, Massey reinvented himself musically in the mid- ‘90s.
“It was the beginning,” he says, “of making music a vocation and taking it seriously, rather than chasing rock stardom. I became what I call proudly in the book a blue-collar musician. I was doing whatever I could, wherever I could, to make money and get better.”
Massey played piano, wrote music, recorded albums and won awards as an important figure in the Madison musical landscape across three sober decades.
And now, an author. Massey credits Madison poet and creative writing instructor Matt Guenette with helping him organize the prose he said poured out of him stream-of-conscious.
“I’ve been talking about writing a book for 20 years,” he says.
Massey today has many reasons to be grateful. Be assured, he knows it. “I can close my eyes,” he says, “and still see those trolls.”
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