Music Helps Henry Lee Summer Keep Drug Demons At Bay

Henry Lee Summer is singing onstage, but the loudest person in this strip-mall bar is arguing about a card game.

Nearly everyone here on a recent chilled night is focused on cards, not actively listening to Summer or even facing the stage.

Yet the 1980s Hoosier hit maker plays Drifty’s on the Far Southside every Wednesday, skillfully executing covers of songs popularized by the Animals, Bill Withers and the Commodores.

When no applause arrives at the end of songs, Summer stands up from his electric piano and takes an exaggerated bow. Humor makes the gig bearable, and Summer figures that playing music is better than the alternative.

“I have to keep myself busy,” he tells The Indianapolis Star after the show. “That’s the main thing. The enemy that I have is idle time.”

Summer once viewed his music as a lifeline for others instead of himself.

When opening shows for the Doobie Brothers, Chicago, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eddie Money, Summer introduced himself to crowds coast-to-coast with this statement: “I sing the blues, and I’m from Brazil, Ind. I’m gonna make everybody feel good tonight.”

The good times rolled in 1988, when Summer’s “I Wish I Had a Girl” reached No. 20 on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 singles chart. He can’t be classified as a one-hit wonder, because “Hey Baby” climbed to No. 18 in 1989. Summer sang on Arsenio Hall’s late-night talk show, and he shared the 1990 stage with Guns ‘N Roses and Lou Reed at the RCA Dome.

“We did a lot of shows together,” said Jim Ryser, a Columbus, Ind., native who recorded a self-titled album for major-label Arista Records in 1990. “Just being part of the night with Henry was always an exciting time. Any time we played anywhere, the audience wouldn’t have room to breathe – let alone dance.”

In the context of John Mellencamp’s massive mainstream success during the Reagan decade, Summer represented the next Indiana rock ‘n’ roll sensation – but one relegated to working in the shadows. He was Southside Johnny to Mellencamp’s Springsteen. Megadeth to Mellencamp’s Metallica. The Alarm to Mellencamp’s U2.

Although the hits stopped coming for Summer, he maintained a respectable career as a regional act through the 1990s and beyond. In 2004, he performed for thousands of attendees at Rib America Festival in Military Park.

The next time Summer made noise on the radio, it was on a police scanner.

On Sept. 15, 2006, he was arrested for driving drunk through a Far-Eastside mobile home court. The episode featured Summer’s 2006 Ford Explorer bouncing off cars, trucks and at least one mobile home. On May 5, 2009, he was arrested for possessing methamphetamine. Police used a Taser electroshock gun to subdue Summer in the former incident and pepper spray in the latter.

Summer’s midlife decline began with a prescription of cough medicine in the late 1990s. At the time, he lived in the Meridian Hills neighborhood and was a neighbor of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

Citing hydrocodone, an opioid present in the cough medicine, Summer said he shifted highs and moved on to “speedball” combinations of meth and heroin.

He performs in small-time rooms all over town to keep a drug relapse at bay.

“Music keeps that demon off my shoulder,” said Summer, who has three rounds of rehab on his resume. He says he’s been clean and sober for more than two years.

Had he landed a few more songs on the charts, Summer’s tumble from the top would make a spectacular episode of “Behind the Music.” His redemption song has yet to be heard, but Summer may strike the first notes on Friday at 8 Seconds Saloon.

The 1,500-capacity venue is larger than ones Summer has played lately, and he’s headlining a benefit for lobbying group Tavern League of Indiana.

In contrast to the low-key duo show at Drifty’s with vocalist-guitarist Zanna DiBartoli, Summer will play his own songs at 8 Seconds and be accompanied by his rock band: guitarist Wade Terry, bass player Gary Checkeye, drummer Tim Berry and DiBartoli.

Summer said he offers a stylistic authenticity that’s rare today.

“When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, I know I can do that,” Summer said. “Rock ‘n’ roll is about attitude and intensity, and I can always get that going. I’m obviously no top-flight musician, but I can bang on the chord and be passionate about it.”

Ryser recalls Summer as being somewhat aloof offstage in the early 1990s, as well as being staunchly opposed to excessive partying (a trait shared with Mellencamp, Ryser said.)

“Henry is only Henry when he’s playing,” Ryser said. “He truly is that line in that Fleetwood Mac song: ‘Players only love you when they’re playing.’ He’s alive. He makes his whole soul available.”

As related to the music, Summer’s optimism and energy haven’t waned. He refers to his songs as “three chords and a cloud of dust.” He’s written a new tune titled “Plan B” – as in, he’s never had one if rock ‘n’ roll didn’t work out.

“I’m not looking to do it again. To do it once is a miracle,” Summer said of his heyday. “When it’s all said and done, I want to do enough good music-wise that I erase the stigma that I put on myself with the drug stuff.”

He was prescribed the fateful cough medicine at age 43. “I’d never done a drug in my life,” Summer said.

On the downward spiral, his marriage fell apart.

“There’s no excuse. I don’t have any excuse for it,” Summer said. “I made a mistake, and I paid a heavy price for it. I’ve been clean now for over two years. It took a long time for it to take hold. I went to a lot of rehabs. It was hard for me to get off the stuff. I was about ready to die. That’s what usually has to happen. You have to get so bad that you’re about ready to die. ‘Oh, shoot. I don’t want to die.’ That’s when I cleaned up my act.”

Ryser is more than a longtime musical colleague of Summer’s. He’s a recovering addict of prescription medicine and alcohol who now specializes in the treatment of addiction.

“It’s never a surprise to me when somebody says, ‘Man, I started off a prescription medication and now I’m taking cocaine, doing meth and all kinds of things,’“ Ryser said.

Summer and Ryser formed a new bond in recent years. The musicians have played benefit shows together, including a Sept. 11 “America Remembers” event at the Rathskeller in 2007.

Ryser, program manager for pain services at IU Health Methodist Hospital, compares trading drugs – such as moving from hydrocodone for heroin – to “trading seats on the Titanic.”

“If you have an addiction, you’re not addicted to one drug. You’re addicted to “more,’“ said Ryser. “If you’re an addict, you always have a lack of a volume control on your intensity – with whatever it is that you do.”

Summer’s weathered face, topped by an “I Love New York” winter beanie at Drifty’s, shows evidence of tough times. The 58-year-old rents a Westside apartment for $100 a week, and he records music in a modest basement studio (“There’s no place to sit or eat,” he said).

He vows that an upcoming album will feature the best lyrics of his career.

“There’s so much I went through and can write about,” he said. “I think a lot of people will understand what I’m saying.”

Royalty payments have kept Summer afloat financially. Among eight films that include his songs, 1993’s “Sniper” (starring Tom Berenger) boasts two tracks: “Medicine Man” and “Turn It Up.”

Summer expects to receive a check stemming from “Sunday Night Football’s” use of “I Wish I Had a Girl” during the Oct. 20 telecast of the Colts’ victory over the Broncos.

He said he doesn’t watch TV, and a recently established Twitter profile, @HenryLeeSummer, is the work of an impostor who interacts with fans and promotes Summer’s videos available for viewing on YouTube.

“I don’t own a computer,” Summer said. “I don’t know what Twitter is.”

He reads books, and he spends time with his 16-year-old daughter. Mostly, Summer relies on rock ‘n’ roll to help him steer clear of drugs.

Unsurprisingly, performing in nightclubs can be a test of his discipline.

“People still come up and offer me drugs in bars, but I just tell them, ‘No, thanks,’“ Summer said. “People throw it in your yard, put it in your mailbox. They don’t want anybody to get clean, because that makes them feel bad.”

Although Summer compares the past seven years to being a caged animal on display, he doesn’t point fingers at others.

“You did it yourself. You can’t get mad at anybody but yourself,” he said. “It’s very humiliating, to go to jail. That’s not what I am. I’m not that type of person.”

Reflecting on the 1980s, Summer said his favorite moments were being called onstage to perform encores with headlining acts.

“It was like another world,” Summer said. “I had more money than I basically knew what to do with. Lived in a big house. I was on top of the world. Now, I’m down at the bottom. The good news is that I’ve got no place to go but up.”