Sax, Drugs and Rock and Roll: Are musicians prone to substance abuse?


As more biographies and documentaries hit the market glamorizing the drug-use and alcoholism of musicians, an important question is raised—Are musicians and performers predisposed to substance abuse?

Andy Gorto, who has just celebrated his 50th birthday, has lived in Luzerne County since he was a child. Gorto joined his first band by the age of fourteen and has been a part of the local music scene ever since.

“I had a high school band as long as I could remember,” Gorto said. “Ninth grade we knew about 11 songs and the Dallas Band director asked us to play their banquet. My guitarist was two years older and he brought a six-pack with him and the four of us had one beer.”

Beer was not the only thing that left Gorto feeling good that day in high school.

“As soon as we started playing, the entire student body got up and started dancing. Cheerleaders, band geeks, strutters and everyone in the place went nuts,” the musician said. “We played three sets of those 11 songs and they danced like they never heard the songs before. That right there was the biggest ‘high’ I ever experienced.”

Collin Strunk, a junior and P1 in Wilkes University’s pharmacy program, also began playing music at an early age. He has been playing saxophone since the fifth grade and began playing at bars as a freshman in high school. His interest for the saxophone was inspired after going to a jazz bar called The Deerhead Inn.

Strunk plays frequently in bars, country clubs, picnics and in auditoriums. He also currently plays in Wilkes University’s Jazz Band and Picture Perfect, a wedding band. He said that, as a musician, he finds himself surrounded by alcohol often.

“When surrounded by alcohol, it is definitely easy to succumb to the desire to drink. Having a few drinks before performing also helps some musicians relax, which is an important component,” Strunk explained. “I feel like some musicians drink or smoke [marijuana] just to overcome nerves and I know a few musicians who would call it liquid confidence before they had to play a solo.”

Gorto also agreed that alcohol could serve to alter the mindset of a musician before a performance or while working on the creative process.

“Musicians are always looking for an escape. That is what draws us to music,” the musician said. “It also doesn’t help that all of our idols posed in every major music magazine with a bottle of Jack Daniels. So our influences influenced us for all the wrong reasons.”

Gorto continued, “We thought a case of beer was almost as important as our guitar case. Luckily we recorded ourselves during a practice and realized that we weren’t very good blasted while blasting our guitars.”

Both musicians spend much of their time performing in bars and agree that this environment and the lifestyle of a musician leave them and musicians like them vulnerable.

“Most venues for bands just happen to be bars and guess what,” began Gorto. “Bands get free drinks. Fans buy band members more free drinks. It’s a catch 22. They want you to party as hard as they are. You just have to know your limits.”

Strunk spoke on the influence alcohol could have on a musician but feels “there is far less drug affiliation in music now than there was in the past”. With more than 35 years as a musician, Gorto has seen a number of his colleagues fall to both alcohol and drug abuse.

“I’m lucky. I don’t have an addictive personality so I never really abused anything where it became a problem. I can say I indulged in a lot of things, some alcohol and some other things. I would do a little but it never turned into a lot,” Gorto explained. “Unfortunately so many musicians think that is the lifestyle and I have seen a lot of great musicians become great drunks and druggies and, when I say great, I mean they greatly ruined their lives and their talent. They believed the interviews and the stories about the party lifestyle and spent more time on that side of the music business than they did on the creative side.”

Strunk and Gorto continue to perform. While they agree that the environments in which they perform can be breeding grounds for substance abuse, neither are willing to let their music suffer by indulging in excessive drinking or drug use.

“I have played too many shows to count and have recorded a number of songs that actually get requests. That was always my goal, to live forever by having a song or two of mine played forever,” Gorto said.

Gorto is currently a member in the punk band, The Haunting, and a cover band called KAOS, an abbreviation for Kiss and Other Songs. It was with fellow band members of KAOS that Gorto and two band members coined a phrase to describe the euphoria they really chase while performing.

“We all have experienced a feeling called ‘the Swirl’ [coined by KAOS], where the music actually starts spinning around us and we get lost in the song, so much so that all of the concentration is to impress each other until the last note of the song,” Gorto explained. “It happens more than not and I credit that to what music was created for in the first place—to make emotion something you can actually feel circling you. It’s the original high that I felt at the Band Banquet [in high school].”