Q: You're so quintessentially Californian that it surprises some people when they find out that as a teenager you were part of the whole Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground scene in New York City.
A: I really wasn't in the middle of that scene. I had a job accompanying Nico in a club—Andy would come to the bar, the Dom, when he had this sort of circus. It was like something out of La Dolce Vita. There was this cascading conga line of freaks going through the place, and he would sit there for a short time and then he would split. He had film loops on the wall of skydivers falling endlessly, and there was another of Lou Reed eating a chocolate bar and sort of glowering at the camera.
Q: On your most recent album, Time the Conqueror, the song "Off of Wonderland" looks back on the Laurel Canyon milieu that spawned acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Eagles. What are your impressions of that?
A: The only word that I can think of is "infestation." It was swarming with freaks. It was just like the hot parts of Sunset Boulevard that people would go to on a Friday night—except that this was in the middle of the day. It was, like, noon, and people were hitchhiking up and down these canyons. It was one of those places where the inmates had begun to rule the asylum. I mean, there was a huge house that Frank Zappa lived in, and people were in and out of his house. There was a guy that would play the bagpipes in a kilt on top of Paul Rothschild's roof—just a kilt, no shoes, no shirt. You could live in a tree house with your friends. It was the embodiment of all the ideals that we were coming upon in popular music, but it was not all a Peter Max painting, you know? There was a lot of dark stuff going on in Laurel Canyon, as well.
Q: For years you ran with people who abused drugs and alcohol pretty intensely—Warren Zevon, Nico, David Crosby. Yet at 61 you seem unscathed.
A: No, I wouldn't say unscathed. Anybody that has alcoholism in their family is not unscathed, believe me. It doesn't even have to be a matter of your own drug-taking, but your enabling of others. In many ways you could say I enabled Warren. I've lost people to drugs—it didn't keep me from taking drugs, either. There were occasions when I could've died. I played around with all the drugs.
Q: You did?
A: Oh, yeah. But everybody did. You have to understand. You were just as likely to encounter somebody with a bag of heroin as a bag full of mescaline caps. I mean, it was just sort of back and forth that way, and eventually I sort of made a choice. But I didn't ever get addicted to heroin. I just stupidly, stupidly fooled around—in a way that endangered not only myself but others. I mean, like, at one point I shot up a friend of mine—and we realized with some horror that it was too much. We spent the next several hours trying to make sure that he, you know—I'm laughing about it now just out of a sense of outrage. The outrage that passed across his face. And he's such a good friend. I think he's permitting me to laugh about it, but in fact it was a horrible thing. Another time somebody passed me something that I assumed was coke in an airport. We were on our way to a concert, and I went into the restroom and was a bit greedy and I came out and I was like, "What is this shit?" And I sort of covered my mouth. We had to leave the airport and go to a hotel. It was heroin. I thought it was coke and it was heroin. Look, I'm telling you stuff that I would tell anybody if it was important to understand that you can definitely be in over your head and not know it. I count myself lucky that I didn't grow to like heroin. It's not something that really worked for me. On the other hand, there were other drugs that did. I began thinking that cocaine was really useful, and I began using alcohol because I never understood how uncomfortable I was in groups of people that were there for me—I started drinking when I started performing. At this point I don't take any drugs, and I don't think it helps. With the exception of some psychedelic drugs—I think that's helpful information, for me. But the people I took drugs with, many of them are dead now. I miss Lowell George every day. And a lot of my friends had to get sober or die—Warren Zevon created an incredible body of work because he was sober, not because he was out of his mind and berserk.