Little Boy Blue
If I could stick my pen in my heart And spill it all over the stage Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya Would you think the boy is strange? Ain't he strange?
— Mick Jagger, "It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)"
Despite the all-day rains on a recent May Saturday, a sold-out crowd of more than 8,000 people welcomed modern rockers Blue October back home to Houston. To judge from both the quantity of fans and the quality of their adoration, it would seem as if the drop-off in the band's popularity from 2006, when the band's album Foiled sold more than one million copies, to today (Approaching Normal, their most recent album, sold only around 10 percent as many copies) had never happened. They were raucous and hanging on lead singer Justin Furstenfeld's every word.
And he had a lot on his mind. During the encore to the show, just before performing a suicide lament from early in his career called "Black Orchid," he launched into a two-minute tirade about, well, me.
Rice Owls Mens Basketball vs. St. Thomas University Men's Basketball
TicketsWed., Dec. 21, 7:00pm
Advocare V100 Texas Bowl
TicketsWed., Dec. 28, 8:00pm
Rice Owls Mens Basketball vs. Middle Tennessee State Univ Blue Raiders Mens Basketball
TicketsThu., Jan. 5, 7:00pm
PRCA XTreme Bulls
TicketsFri., Jan. 6, 7:30pm
The diatribe was captured on YouTube. Furstenfeld, who has long proclaimed his own mentally ill status to his fans, is alone at center stage, the stage lights bright and zeroed in tightly on his Mohawked head.
"There's a writer named John Lomax," Furstenfeld begins.
"I know that guy," a man yells in the audience.
"He writes for the Houston Press," Furstenfeld continues.
A woman — maybe several — screams drunken salutes to the paper, unaware where Furstenfeld was taking this.
"I was supposed to do an interview with him today, because we've been doing this tour..."
"But he's a prick!" a man shouts in the audience. Scattered jeers come from the Blue Meanies, as Blue October fans call themselves.
"Hold on real quick, hold on," Furstenfeld gently continues, shielding his eyes from the hot lights, a platinum-selling rock star with utter mastery over his flock — the largest ever to come to see him. "We've been doing this tour on suicide prevention. We went up to Capitol Hill to talk to them about how every year 30,000 Americans die of suicide and we need to try to figure out a way to talk about it. We need to figure out a way to help."
Cheers go up from the Blue Meanies.
"So I have this interview set up with this guy named John Lomax."
"John Lo-Max," he repeats very slowly, letting his contempt drip from every syllable.
"And the first thing he says is, 'I don't believe you're mentally ill. You need to bring a prescription bottle to the interview to prove it to me.'"
Eight thousand Blue Meanies erupt in boos, jeers and catcalls.
"He's a prick!" another guy can be heard to holler over the din. Furstenfeld is back on the mike. "I'm like, 'First of all —'" A woman cackles. "Hold up...I'm like, 'First of all, fuck you!'"
Harsh laughter and a lusty cheer.
"'And second of all, the reason we have 30,000 folks dying of suicide every year is because of ignorant fucks like you!'"
Another huge cheer greets the announcement that I have caused 30,000 deaths.
"'If I have to explain and prove myself to you, dumbass, why the fuck would I be here?'" Furstenfeld snarls.
The crowd goes nuts, but what does that even mean?
"I'm pissed off," Furstenfeld continues. "Because seriously there's a lot of people that I've lost" — he's waving his arm around over his head, pointing and gesticulating — "there's a lot of people that you've lost, and this fuck had a chance to help a lot of people, and he didn't. And I just needed to say something about it, so thank you for letting me talk."
"And fuck you, John Lomax."
How did it come to this? I asked a question and wham? How dare I?
Well, as Furstenfeld said, it really did start with a simple request to see proof of his mental illness. And while a request like that might not be polite dinner-party repartee, it is pretty much standard operating procedure for a reporter, especially when the subject makes as much of his allegedly shaky mental health as Furstenfeld does.
And boy does he ever make hay out of that. He performs his rare solo gigs as "5591," which he says was his patient number when he was a mental patient in the 1990s, and his dramatic lyrics are peppered with references to suicide and prescription meds. While he often acknowledges his music's messianic powers, he also says his songs are tragically insufficient to offer their author much relief from his agonies. "If I have saved others, I don't know what to say," he once uttered. "But if I can do that for them, why the fuck can't I do that for myself?"
He claims that the first song he wrote back in high school was about teen suicide, and, tellingly, adds that he "knew that stuck with people once I saw their faces." His albums have sported titles such as Consent to Treatment and Approaching Normal, and rare is the band bio or interview that does not focus centrally on his teetering mental balance.
Indeed, on the very day I wrote to his camp to warn them of my misgivings, I read a brand-new Houston Chronicle profile in which Furstenfeld claimed to have suffered from depression his whole life and just happened to "drop" a bottle of prescription meds in front of interviewer Andrew Dansby.
All I wanted was to see what was in that bottle, or on that bottle's label. Is that so crazy? Is it the "douche move" so many of Furstenfeld's fans said it was? Would I do the same to, say, a cancer patient?
In a word, yes. If somebody is claiming to be ill, and it is not obvious that he is sick — if he is not missing a limb or suffering from open sores — you just never know. Only a few months ago, a Waco woman shaved her head to make it look like she had breast cancer, when all she really wanted was money to buy implants so she could be sexier for her soon-to-be ex-husband. You have to see proof.
But to really explain the origins of Furstenfeld's tirade, we need to rewind back to 2007. Back then, in my old position as Press music editor, I trashed Blue October's breakout single "Hate Me." I hated the creepy lyrics, such as "I have to block out thoughts of you so I don't lose my head / They crawl in like a cockroach leaving babies in my bed." I hated that it was supposed to be about his mom, and that she even appeared in the video, and that the video led viewers to believe that she had died before he could make amends to her. (In fact, Furstenfeld's mom is alive and well, four years after the video.) My extended review of the song was perhaps the most vicious piece I ever wrote.
Predictably, the piece struck a firestorm among the Blue Meanies, one of whom even sent me a death threat. Less predictably, others — old friends, schoolmates and associates of Furstenfeld's — said I didn't know the half of how obnoxious and fake Furstenfeld could be.
"I got a hell of a laugh out of your article about Blue October," wrote a High School for the Performing and Visual Arts classmate of Furstenfeld's named Jennifer Alexander. "There's more truth in there than the band would ever like to admit. Especially Justin. You see, the thing that no one realizes about him is that while he did go to HSPVA, he was never in the music department. Justin was a drama major — hence the overacting and the extreme melodrama. He's an actor, not a musician. He's always used the 'I'm crazy but deep and emotional' shtick to attract people. In high school he was hellaciously popular, though I could never see why. There's nothing about the man that's real."
Thanks to the Internet, letters like that one — which the Press printed in June of 2007 — continued to trickle in, and last fall I got two more from people who knew him quite well, but who didn't know each other. Each of them told similar things about Furstenfeld; each jibed in slightly different ways with what Alexander wrote in her letter. And neither wanted to be named in this article.
"Rachel" knew Furstenfeld through junior high and high school. Now living out of state, she was spurred to write when last fall, Furstenfeld canceled a mental health-themed headlining tour after he claimed to have had an "extreme mental anxiety attack" in the Minneapolis airport.
Rachel lives in another state, and heard the news from her mom. The tour was supposed to have been in support of people — especially teens and twentysomethings — who wrestled with depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts, and Furstenfeld dramatically collapsed mere days before its launch.
Like Rachel herself, Rachel's mother remembered a vastly different Justin Furstenfeld. Back in the '80s and early '90s at Hamilton Junior High School (now Hamilton Middle) in the Heights and at HSPVA, they both remembered Furstenfeld as a rambunctious, very popular, happy-go-lucky, somewhat athletic ladies' man — hardly the poster boy for teen angst he portrays himself to be now that he is in his mid-thirties.
Rachel's mom simply did not buy the idea that there was anything seriously wrong with him. "She said, 'Oh my God, Justin didn't show up, because he had a nervous breakdown.' And my mom was laughing, and I was like, 'That's not funny, Mom.' And she was like, 'Yeah, it's kinda funny. You do a tour for depression and you can't do it 'cause you flip out.'"
And the more Rachel thought about it, the more she started to wonder herself. The image of Justin Furstenfeld she read about online was so vastly different from the teen she had known — she even remembers him as something of a schoolyard bully and cold-as-ice high-school heartbreaker — that she started questioning all that she thought she knew about other celebrities. And then she pondered Elliott Smith, the suicidal songsmith Furstenfeld has called a hero and claimed as a kindred spirit.
"[Smith] actually killed himself. He's actually gone," she says. "I feel like [Furstenfeld] kinda trivializes people who have really gone through this shit." She grants that perhaps Furstenfeld has changed radically since she knew him, but she can't help but think that his breakdown of last October had been faked.
After the platinum success of 2007's 1.4 million copy-selling Foiled, the follow-up album, Approaching Normal, sold only 140,000 copies. There had been no hit single to match Foiled's "Hate Me." Rachel thinks that perhaps the sanity inherent in the title of Approaching Normal wasn't working for Furstenfeld, so perhaps the breakdown was a cynical publicity move.
"What if it's like 'Nobody cares about my band anymore? Maybe they will care if I flip out! Britney became more relevant when she flipped out.'"
It wouldn't be the first time Furstenfeld pulled a move like that, according to another old close associate we'll call "George." He remembered the band playing a hot outdoor show about ten years ago here in Houston. There had been a good crowd. Backstage, immediately after the show, a sweat-drenched Furstenfeld was sitting and winding down with a cigarette. He took a drag, tilted his head back and sent a cloud of nicotine towards the ceiling.
Furstenfeld's girlfriend at the time came over just then and asked him if he was okay. "Instead of deciding to sit up and say, 'Yeah, I'm fine,' he just stayed there," remembers George. "So she asks if he's okay again and you can tell she's starting to panic, so he starts to roll his eyeballs back in his head a little bit. He was totally fine, but she goes, "'Oh my God, Justin, are you okay? Somebody get over here!' And you see him slouch down and I'm like, 'Dude, sit up,' and he looks over at me and smirks. And then all of a sudden we've got first responders who were there for the show, they come running over, and then he goes limp and acts like he's in a catatonic state and they carry him out and the crowd's like, 'Oh my God! It's Justin!' He just milked the fuck out of it. It was brilliant, but I was just sitting there going, 'You drama queen!' But the crowd loved it. They were eating it up."
"Everything that I write about is the truth," Furstenfeld told the Houston Press's Hobart Rowland way back in 1998. "I can't write about anything that hasn't happened to me."
It's a lofty claim. To stake that high ground, you dare to attempt to elevate yourself out of the territory of a rock star — who purveys fantasies most would agree are unattainable — and toward that of a literary artist. And by saying that your every word is lived, you are not claiming to be a poet but a musical memoirist. As such, you'd better not leave much room for doubt in your wake, or you will end up like James Frey, the disgraced author of the damaged soul narrative A Million Little Pieces.
The trouble is, Furstenfeld's public statements of fact have wavered over the years, even on the most basic of subjects. Take the origin of his band's very name.
Until a few years ago, most versions had it that he and his bandmates were just kind of down on life one October and partying too hard. [He has told some reporters he was doing cocaine; others were told that he was abusing psychedelics.] He would often explain the name by saying things like he "just kind of wanted to make something good out of the negativity. It was this certain month, the low of all lows, it was October, and I said man, I've got to do something with my life rather than sit on the couch and do this stuff all day long."
In another telling — this one to the Texas Tech student newspaper — he credits someone else with coming up with the name: "Someone suggested Blue October and it just seemed to fit." In the Fall 2000 issue of Texas Music, Furstenfeld claimed to have named the band himself. "I made a decision that October that I needed to grow up, so I called the band Blue October."
More recently, however, the story has taken a turn for the melodramatic, and that is where it has stayed since. "A long time ago when I first got out of high school, it was in October that I had to go stay at a hospital because I wasn't doing too well mentally and so I had to go have a little stay in a little institution there for a little bit when I was a younger kid, like some kids have to do, and it was October," he told a radio interviewer. A version of that story was repeated in the official band bio.
Oddly, that tale of extreme mental stress didn't come up in many of the band's interviews until comparatively recently, and then did so inconsistently. For one thing, he says that he stayed in a mental hospital when he first got out of high school. Other versions say his stay came several years later — in a 2000 Chronicle interview with Michael D. Clark, it was reported as having occurred in 1998, even while he had a day job working as an orderly at San Marcos Treatment Center. "One day I worked in a mental hospital, and the next day I'm a patient," he told Clark.
That quote would seem to indicate that he was admitted to the same hospital he worked in, but unless the hospital's admissions policy has changed since the '90s, that would have been impossible, as today that treatment center admits only adolescents.
Citing HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws, the hospital would not verify to the Press if he had stayed there. However, a representative of the hospital's HR department told the Press that while their records didn't extend back to the 1990s, she had heard that Furstenfeld had once been an employee there.
Some of his interviews lead one to wonder if he was ever a mental patient at all. There is an interview he gave to a St. Louis reporter in 2002 in which he speaks at length about his job in the treatment center at some point between 1997 and 2000. He said that he wanted to "understand that part of the human mind most [people] simply dismiss as crazy," and told her that while working there he learned to appreciate the little things in life like "being able to go home and lie next to the girl that I loved, and kiss her good morning, make breakfast and say, 'I love you.'"
In the same interview, he waxed eloquent about sufferers of schizophrenia. He said that they were "some of the most magnificent artists, and some of the most mad people in the world. Confused, lost." He went on to describe how he tried to understand them and wanted to get on their wavelength. "Just their style of living and the way they see the world is an art form to me, because it can't be explained," he said. "And people just call them crazy and blow it off because they don't even want to understand. I think that's why I try to do what I do. I don't really understand [them] — I'll never understand because I'm not in their head — but I will speak about it. I'll speak about it until the day that I die because I think they're misunderstood, and I think they're mistreated."
Oddly, he never mentioned having been a mental patient in that entire interview.
And now he is claiming to be in their heads — literally. Just as a rapper with a tame rap sheet will attempt to embellish his street cred by inflating his criminal career, over time, Furstenfeld's claims concerning the state of his mental health have grown as dramatic as those of the origins of his band's name.
Rachel points out a possible resemblance to the 2008 case of Margaret B. Jones, the author of the initially critically acclaimed, though quickly discredited, memoir Love and Consequences. In that book, Jones claimed to have been a half-white, half-Native American foster child who was also a drug runner for the Bloods in Los Angeles. It later emerged that she was fully white and from an intact middle-class family. While she did know about gangs, it was from working in gang outreach, not as a gangbanger herself. The cause was close to her heart, Jones later explained, and she thought she could best shine a light on it by writing a memoir. And of course make herself rich and famous while she was at it.
It is hard to deny that the cause of mental health and people with genuine mental illness are close to Furstenfeld's heart. He does speak out for them every chance he gets, and his recent Pick Up The Phone Tour did raise awareness for mental health issues. (Though awareness might be all it raised — when we asked Blue October's management if any of the proceeds of the tour were earmarked for mental health charities, they refused to answer.)
Furstenfeld's old associate George believes that the singer does believe in his cause, even as he uses it to advance his career. "I think he started off doing both," he says. "I think in the beginning he had altruistic reasons, but there was always that seed of 'I've got this talent and it's gonna get me adulation and validation.' And I think those holes in his soul became bigger than his genuine need to communicate with people. He followed the fame, the narcissistic side of his personality. Everybody's capable of that if you give them the opportunity."
None of this is to say that Justin Furstenfeld is an untroubled soul. It is fairly well corroborated that his parents sent him to a therapist when he was 14, and that he has long had a prescription for Paxil, which is often prescribed for people with depression and anxiety, if not bipolar disorder.
However, over time, in Furstenfeld's own telling, that sort of garden-variety malaise has morphed into far more serious ailments like bipolar disorder, and earlier this year, he made the claim on Capitol Hill that he had full-blown schizophrenia, though he later told me out of the blue that he was not schizophrenic. (He has claimed on numerous occasions — once to me — that he suffers from hallucinations, though he rarely describes them in detail publicly. Hallucinations can be a symptom of severe bipolar disorder.)
Furstenfeld's apparent gradual ailment inflation calls to mind the case of Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut politician who slowly embellished a perfectly honorable if unspectacular military record as a "chairborne Ranger" in the Stateside Marine Reserves into a more daring record as a Vietnam combat vet.
It's much harder to document the state of someone's mental health than it is his military service, but some of Furstenfeld's claims can be checked out, most notably his alleged breakdown last October. Back then, his band was supposed to have headlined a mental health-themed national tour called Pick Up The Phone, which was co-sponsored by national suicide prevention hotline 1-800-SUICIDE. (The Houston show last month was the culmination of a rescheduled and rerouted version of a tour with the same cause. About half the dates were in new cities, so you couldn't say that the tour had simply been rescheduled.)
En route from visiting his daughter in Nebraska (he and the three-year-old's mother Lisa are estranged) to Washington, D.C., and a pre-tour mental health lobbying stop, Furstenfeld claims that he blacked out — stone cold sober save for his prescribed Paxil — in the Minneapolis airport. He has said that because of this "extreme mental anxiety attack" — a medical event that does not exist anywhere on the Internet save for in relation to Furstenfeld — he did not come back to his senses until he was in a taxi on the way to a mental hospital. That's one version. Another says he came to in the mental hospital itself. A third version has it that he came to his senses in the back of a cop car on the runway at the airport.
Furstenfeld did eventually make it to Capitol Hill in April of this year, when the revamped Pick Up The Phone tour finally launched. There, he related his airport meltdown tale thusly: "They said they found me in the middle of the airport waving my arms saying, 'I'm gonna hurt myself, I'm gonna hurt myself, I'm gonna hurt somebody else, please somebody, help me.' Police just didn't know how to respond to it; they didn't know what was going on, whether to take me to jail or take me away.'"
Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission of Minneapolis-St. Paul, described a much less dramatic incident. In an e-mail, he said that Furstenfeld called the MSP International Airport emergency dispatch center at 1:08 p.m. on October 20, 2009. "He indicated he did not want to be near people and wanted to harm himself," Hogan says. "Airport Police and Allina Medical staff responded. Allina transported Mr. Furstenfeld to the crisis center at Hennepin County Medical Center."
At the very least, somebody seems to have misremembered some details and possibly inflated them for dramatic purposes. Furstenfeld himself calling the dispatch center and an arm-waving freakout in the terminal are two vastly different events.
Muffy Walker, the president of the San Diego-based International Bipolar Foundation, says that these competing versions of the truth could be simple calculated lies or symptoms of his bipolar disorder. "Sometimes in their mania they will lie and not know it's a lie — it's more a function of their grandiosity," she says. "They may have beliefs that they are extra-special or extra-famous or extra-extra-whatever — all the hypers that go in with the mania."
After the alleged breakdown and a short stay in Hennepin County Medical Center, Furstenfeld has said that he eventually wound up in Laurel Ridge, the same San Antonio-area mental hospital where he says he was admitted as a patient in the 1990s, and where the Blue October band name allegedly came to be. (Citing HIPAA laws, Laurel Ridge would not confirm either of Furstenfeld's claims.)
In the interviews that followed, he appeared to be using his stay there in an effort to enhance the credibility of his lyrics. He claims that he bonded with and inspired shell-shocked veterans from the war in Iraq. And while he used to say that he was fascinated by mental patients, now he seemed to think they were fascinated with him — they had finally found someone who could relate to their pain. "They were talking about hearing voices, and I felt like I'd finally found someone who understood what I was going through," he told a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman. "I think our music connects with some people like that. They identify with the lyrics. It's like, 'Finally someone understands.' "
During the same spate of interviews, he also told a reporter from the Daily Texan that his recent alleged meltdown showed how legit he was as an artist. "I'm not writing songs about breaking up with a girlfriend or a lot of the other stuff you'll hear," he sniffed of his competition on the rock dial. "I write about things like depression, which obviously I'm still going through if I black out in an airport when I'm 34 and have a child."
To be able to relate with combat veterans on such a personal level, you'd think Furstenfeld had some post-traumatic stress disorder issues himself. Maybe he had a tough childhood; maybe he grew up in a bad neighborhood, or was picked on at school, or had drunk or drug-addicted parents, or watched them tear each other to pieces (literally or figuratively) in a contested divorce or custody battle.
You'd be wrong. Several people who knew him when he was a student at Hamilton Junior High School in the Heights and at HSPVA described his parents as all-Americans, a dream couple. Furstenfeld's dad is a retired HPD undercover cop who later became the band's business manager before stepping aside when the group went national early this decade. Furstenfeld's mom is described as a beautiful and perky cheerleader type, and the two elder Furstenfelds have been married for almost 40 years now. The rocker was raised along with his brother Jeremy — Blue October's drummer — in Timbergrove Manor, the Heights's ranch house-dotted, more modern, Brady Bunch-looking neighbor.
Greg Hammond was Furstenfeld's best friend in junior high. He says that Furstenfeld seemed happy to him as a junior high kid, though he did recall that Furstenfeld would battle with his dad from time to time. Dan, the elder Furstenfeld, is a hunting, fishing, George Strait-loving Texas good ol' boy, and several of Furstenfeld's friends recall him telling them that his dad once tore his son's Smiths posters off his bedroom walls. Furstenfeld told them that his dad believed that Morrissey promoted homosexuality, suicide and abortion.
Still, Hammond thought Furstenfeld's fights with Dan were completely normal adolescent rebellion. In junior high, Hammond says, Furstenfeld seemed perfectly fine. After going to PVA, he changed, but Hammond, who attended Bellaire, wasn't alarmed. "He got with that acting crowd, and they all had this tortured-artist thing going on," he remembers. "To be honest, the whole thing seemed pretty fake."
As teenagers, along with Amy Immel, Katie Hartzog, Leital Molad, Michelle Trautwein and Brady Hammond, they formed a band called The Last Wish. For a high school band, The Last Wish was very successful — they played everywhere from Zelda's to the Abyss to the Mucky Duck and made two CDs. Plans for a third and a national tour ended when the band broke up acrimoniously and at Furstenfeld's insistence.
In an interview earlier this year, Furstenfeld boasted that after his Last Wish bandmates accused him of being overly dramatic, he fired all of them. A persistent legend has it that the fired members of The Last Wish jointly sent him a kiss-off postcard wishing him well on his life as a "rock star," and to this day, Furstenfeld literally snarls if you call him that, as I found out firsthand.
And soon enough, Blue October was born. In contrast to The Last Wish, in which Furstenfeld was one of several singers, he would be the undisputed leader of the band.
That was when Furstenfeld started wearing guyliner. "When I saw him with all that makeup and that whole Goth thing, I just thought it was weird," Hammond says. "He had never been like that in any of his other bands."
His old associate George remembers the early days of Blue October well. He says watching Furstenfeld develop as a front man and a bandleader was like watching a monster take over. "When you were talking about Justin's acting ability, the cult of personality around all of it...There was a lot of just fakeness going on."
George says that Furstenfeld has at times turned his mental illness off and on. "There were a lot of moments where he would see that if things weren't working, he would go back to being paranoid schizophrenic," he says. "There was just a lot of acting going on. It was very disingenuous, but everybody believed it."
Throughout, George says, Furstenfeld was intensely goal-oriented, and very much the kid who remembered the reaction he got for singing songs about teenage suicide. "He looked around and saw that he was getting all these fans with all these issues and he saw what they were responding to, so he decided to gear what he wrote, the way he acted and the persona he put forward based on the response he was getting," George says. "He's shrewd. Give him credit for that. But the genuineness, the idea that he is actually that screwed up? No way."
Some would say it just doesn't matter whether he is or he isn't. A therapist who spoke to the Press anonymously said it was certainly possible that even if Furstenfeld had been diagnosed as bipolar or depressed or even schizophrenic, that didn't render him incapable of exploiting his own illness.
In setting up my interview with Furstenfeld, I was warned by his manager not to "ambush" him. I told his publicist that I would be asking to see his prescriptions or a medical diagnosis. His publicist didn't reply; his manager Paul Nugent did. Nugent told me that in his 30 years in the business, he had never been so insulted and that the interview was off and that he doubted he would even tell Furstenfeld about my request. And that was where it could have ended. But then, an hour later, Furstenfeld called me himself.
Furstenfeld didn't mention during his onstage tirade against me that our conversation went far beyond his telling me off. In fact, our conversation lasted close to 30 minutes, during which he first wrapped himself in self-righteousness — kind of like he said onstage, to question his mental state was to belittle the genuinely mentally ill people he was trying to help. "I've been on the road for two fucking months trying to keep kids from killing themselves, and you're treating me like a fucking joke!"
He also wheedled. He attempted to bond by saying we were fellow Houstonians either going through or having just completed divorces. He repeatedly asked what I wanted from him, and I told him I would just like to see a prescription bottle — perhaps the one he had dropped in front of the Chronicle reporter in the story that ran in that morning's paper. That was when he started getting angry: "How 'bout I ask to see your divorce papers?" he snarled.
He agreed to tell me what drugs he took: the antidepressant Paxil, the antipsychotic Geodon, the antianxiety drug clonazepam and the sleep aid Ambien. In contrast to what he said on Capitol Hill the month prior to our conversation, he denied being schizophrenic without my even asking him.
Walker, the expert on bipolar illness, said she believed that particular cocktail of drugs would not be used to treat a schizophrenic, as Geodon is not a sufficiently strong antipsychotic. While she said a bipolar patient could well be prescribed that combination, she questioned the wisdom of prescribing Paxil — the drug that comes up in most of his early interviews — to someone who was bipolar. "Typically, people who are bipolar don't get antidepressants prescribed to them. They can — there are a lot of psychiatrists out there that don't really, really know what they are doing — but typically they are put on mood stabilizers."
I told Furstenfeld that it was important that he prove his mental illness because he was staking so much of his credibility and such a big part of his career on it. "And a big part of your career is a bunch of fuckin' bullshit," was his reply to that.
I later asked Walker if his abusive manner and refusal to show me his meds could be a part of his illness. I would have thought that someone so eager to destigmatize mental illness would be eager to show proof. She said it was certainly possible he would act the way he did.
"People who are bipolar can talk out of both sides of their mouth. If in fact he is truly bipolar and you happened to ask him when he was in an irritable manic phase, then yes, blowing up at you would be a very common aspect of the manic phase. They are kind of like drunks. You have your happy drunks and your mean drunks. It's the same with the mania — there are happy manics that are out there spending and shopping and the life of the party, and then there are the mean ones who are out there arguing and getting in fights. And he could have a narcissistic personality disorder or some other comorbidity going along with it."
If he is indeed bipolar, Furstenfeld was certainly in an irritable manic phase with me. He defied me to sit down in front of him, and bet me $100 that I wouldn't show. (In the end, I was told by his manager that the interview was off, so I didn't show up. Who won that bet?)
He mocked the fact that I didn't have a car and would have to get a ride out there. He reminded me of the time he gave me a ride home from an interview we did in 2002; he seemed to think that obligated me to him forever, and that I had betrayed him ever since.
I told him that somebody had told me that he had been an orderly at a mental hospital and not a patient. He heaved a long theatrical sigh. "That shows how much you know me, dude," he said, but quickly changed the subject.
He also tried veiled threats: "If you want to talk about mental illness and saving people's lives, then I don't have a problem with you, but I swear to God, if you fuck with me I'll fuck you right back." And later he told me to "watch your back, dawg, 'cause we're doing something good for the community." I asked if he was threatening me, and he said it was my karma I needed to look out for.
The bulk of the conversation revolved around Furstenfeld trying unsuccessfully to get me to surrender my sources. He desperately wanted to know who had leaked. "If somebody was going around town telling people that you sucked cock on weekends, you'd want to know who it was," he told me. I told him I wouldn't much care, because I knew it wasn't true.
A couple of days after our phone interview, Furstenfeld trashed me on the stage. (It's on YouTube for all the world to see; an inspired Blue Meanie also went on to build a We Hate John Lomax Facebook page.) In the week that followed, I wrote several e-mails to Blue October's management, reiterating my request to see proof of his ailments and requesting clarification on Furstenfeld's exact relationship with mental institutions. Since I had read in a published report in a credible source — the Austin American-Statesman — that Furstenfeld had been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, I asked when and where that diagnosis had been made.
"Based on principle alone, this isn't happening," wrote Blue October manager Paul Nugent. "Justin Furstenfeld and Blue October's passionate support of mental health organizations around the world as well as Justin's own personal battles with this issue has been well documented in mainstream media over the last decade to include the recent Houston Chronicle interview by Andrew Dansby. I have no desire to hear further from you on this matter."
This story could have gone a lot of ways. I could be writing about the mentally ill lead singer of a rock band who despite all his problems still manages to carve out a national career and carry a message.
To do that, though, I needed proof — the kind that comes from more than just a comfortable hour-long interview.
Saying you're sick and dropping a pill bottle in front of an interviewer is not documentation.
I asked a question. I think that's what I'm supposed to do — although thousands of other people apparently disagree. Justin Furstenfeld may have a stack of medical diagnoses an inch thick that support his public persona. But I haven't seen any of that, and as far as I know, no one else in the media has either. So what I have left are patterns and past comments and the few public records that exist.
Oh and yes, still a lot of questions.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.