Survival of the Snottiest
How Blink-182 overcame drugs, divisiveness and the plane crash that nearly killed their drummerFeatures September 27, 2009
Four years ago, Blink-182’s world fell apart. After an argument about whether the band would keep touring or take six months off escalated out of control, guitarist Tom DeLonge quit the group, had his manager deliver the news to bassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker, and changed his phone number so they couldn’t reach him. DeLonge started a new band, Hoppus and Barker started another; neither did as well as Blink. DeLonge developed an “insane” addiction to prescription painkillers. Barker got divorced; trying to blot out the guilt of giving his children a broken home, he consumed “excessive amounts” of pills, weed and booze.
Then, last September, a plane Barker was on crashed during takeoff, killing two of his best friends and leaving him with second- and third-degree burns over half of his body. Improbably, the tragedy brought the three friends back together. “When human life comes into the equation,” DeLonge says, “that trumps everything.”
Ten months after the crash, Blink-182 stroll onstage for soundcheck at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. It’s the first night of their first tour since 2004 – and it’s already become one of the summer’s hottest tickets. In cities where the band used to sell 8,000 tickets, it’s now selling 28,000.
Backstage, the band members have separate dressing rooms (plus an extra one for their children). But although Hoppus, 37, and DeLonge, 33, no longer share a deli tray, they keep visiting each other – pretending to make out for a documentary film crew and cracking jokes. “When Blink plays, there’s no difference between that and everyone getting a slow, awesome hand job,” DeLonge says, before turning to Hoppus to add, “the way your dad used to do to you.”
“Are you wasted?” DeLonge asks a little later. “Do you need another drink?” Hoppus declines; he’s already downed Red Bull and Bombay Sapphire cocktails (which he calls “the Queen”). “I hate alcohol – I only drink when I tour,” DeLonge says. “And I tour nine months out of the year.”
DeLonge and Hoppus have been fucking with each other for nearly 20 years. In 1992, when Hoppus was 20, he moved to San Marcos, California (near San Diego), for college. His sister was friendly with the 16-year-old DeLonge; so on Hoppus’ second day in town, he hung out in DeLonge’s garage. They played music for hours, cracking the same jokes, finishing each other’s sentences. By that night, they had started a punk band. “I can’t believe we’re still playing music in our 30s,” DeLonge says. “I remember the day we wrote a song about a Boy Scout troop in the forest falling in love with each other.”
Barker, 33, joined Blink in 1998, improving the band’s dynamics and rhythms just in time for its third album, Enema of the State, which sold 5 million copies, fuelled by bratty, hypercatchy songs like ‘All the Small Things’ and ‘What’s My Age Again?’ Over their next two albums, Blink-182’s music became moodier and more expansive, as if the Descendents had morphed into the Cure. But they never stopped telling dick jokes onstage, and fans relished the spectacle of these pals showing off their immaturity for global audiences – right until they stopped talking.
“They thought I was trying to control the band by wanting to take time off,” DeLonge says of the 2005 breakup. “I thought they were trying to give me ultimatums over the fact that I needed to go home and be a family man.” Hoppus formed the electronica-flavoured +44 with Barker, started producing other musicians’ albums and took up scuba diving. Barker played with everyone from Rihanna to Dwight Yoakam, and starred with his then-wife, former Miss USA Shanna Moakler, in the MTV reality show Meet the Barkers. (He and Moakler have three children, including one from her prior relationship with boxer Oscar De La Hoya. Hoppus has one child and DeLonge has two.)
DeLonge’s new project was Angels and Airwaves, with an epic sweep heavily influenced by U2. DeLonge started abusing prescription pills around the time Blink broke up, because of an old back injury. “I was losing my mind because I was so hopped up on narcotics,” he says. When he finally stopped, he “cut it cold turkey and sat in a room for two weeks, puking my brains out and hallucinating.” He thinks the painkillers were responsible for his grandiose statements about his new music – he called it “the greatest rock & roll revolution for this generation.”
“It’s weird,” DeLonge says. “You start a band so you don’t have any rules – do it your way, fuck the system. And then you get in a partnership with your buddies, and every time someone makes a decision it directly affects you. And you’re like, ‘Wait a second – I didn’t want to be controlled.’ ”
Travis Barker was always afraid to fly. Even when he was a teenager working as a garbage collector at Laguna Beach, he was sure he would die in a plane crash. The artwork for the 2001 album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket has a Zoso-like icon for each Blink-182 member: a jacket, a pair of pants and an airplane. “Please don’t give me the plane – I have a really fucked-up fear of flying,” Barker begged. He ended up with the plane anyway.
On the night of September 19, 2008, Barker and Adam Goldstein, better known as DJ AM, got on a Learjet heading from Columbia, South Carolina, to Van Nuys, California. Also on the plane were Barker’s assistant, Chris Baker, security guard Charles “Che” Still, and pilots Sarah Lemmon and James Bland. Goldstein and Barker had done a gig that night. They regularly play together; Barker enhances AM’s grooves with live drums.
Just before midnight, the plane was racing down the runway when the occupants heard a loud bang. The pilots told the control tower that a tyre had blown out and they would be aborting the takeoff. Instead, the plane hurtled through the airport’s fence, across a highway and crashed into an embankment. “When everything stopped, I tried to get everyone I could,” Barker says. “I opened a door, and my hands caught fire. I ran to get out of the plane, but I fell through a wing. I immediately soaked up with jet fuel and caught fire. And then I was on fire, running like hell. I was running for my family: I didn’t care about anything except being with my dad, my sister, Shanna, my three kids. I’m completely naked, holding my genitals – everything else is on fire – and I’m running, trying to put myself out.” Barker ran toward the road and heard people shouting, “Stop, drop and roll!” When he did, Goldstein helped him put out the fire on his feet. “I was lying next to AM as the plane was exploding, and I was screaming, ‘Are we alive?’ ”
Barker spent more than 11 weeks in hospitals and burn centres. Chris Baker and Che Still, along with the two pilots, had died in the crash. Addled by medications, Barker asked how they were doing for two months, never remembering the terrible answer. Barker had 16 surgeries: blood transfusions that lasted 48 hours and skin graft after skin graft. “There were times when they were talking about amputating my foot because I didn’t have enough skin on my body for my grafts,” he says.
In his dressing room, Barker looks much as he ever did: a skinny, tattooed skate rat with a baseball cap and a T-shirt slit down the sides. It takes a while to notice the angry red tendrils of scar tissue snaking around his right wrist and fingers. When I tell Barker how remarkable it is that his extensive body art survived the fire, he matter-of-factly pulls up his right pants leg, showing where some tattoos are abruptly truncated by the transplanted skin from his back. Just above his right knee is his latest tattoo, reading rest in peace lil chris & che. “Chris was my best friend, the brother I didn’t have,” Barker says. “And Che was a huge teddy bear.”
Barker continues to see a psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder. He feels intense guilt, made worse by the knowledge that Still wasn’t supposed to be on the plane. Barker had invited his ex-wife Moakler: “We’re on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again. It was an ‘on’ weekend – once every three months, it happens.” Moakler declined, saying she had a weird feeling about leaving the kids. With a vacant seat, Barker invited Still, figuring he’d be good company and would enjoy the trip. “We all thought it was kind of a treat – we were on a private plane,” Barker says. “Obviously, I wouldn’t want it to be my babies’ mama, but I don’t want it to be one of my best friends either. That always fucks me up.”
Before the accident, Barker was a citizen in good standing of the party nation. After he and Moakler split up in 2006, he was frequently spotted at nightclubs – and photographed necking with Paris Hilton. “My crash happened, and all that ended,” he says. “I don’t go out since my crash, I don’t have the crazy drug problem, I’m not making out with socialites. I’m focussed on my kids and my music, and when I do have fun, I try to keep it private.”
Hoppus was woken up by a phone call telling him Barker’s plane had crashed. “I jumped out of bed and got on the next flight to the burn centre,” he remembers. “You feel helpless to do anything other than be there for your friend.” Boarding a plane at an airport the next morning, DeLonge saw the shocking news on the terminal’s TV screens. When DeLonge got off the plane, he printed out two photographs: one of the members of Blink-182 on a submarine in the Middle East and another of himself with his two children crawling on him. “One was ‘Do you remember who we were?’ and the other was ‘This is who I am now,’ ” DeLonge says. He mailed them with a letter to Barker. “It had nothing to do with the band,” DeLonge says. “No one knew if Travis was going to live or if he would play drums again. It was a good moment to put the shit aside.”
Barker called DeLonge from the hospital. “He’s cracking jokes,” Barker remembers. “I called Mark and told him, ‘Tom’s the same dude we used to know.’ ”
After Barker got out of the hospital, DeLonge drove up from San Diego to LA to meet with him and Hoppus. As Hoppus tells it, “We had two gnarly heart-to-hearts, really opened up and said a lot of things, and after that we were cool, and we don’t talk about it. We’re guys.”
They agreed that they would all make Blink a priority but leave room for everybody to do outside projects. “We come to Blink because it’s something that we all enjoy, rather than an obligation,” Hoppus says. “Everyone’s trying to be respectful of one another.”
The trio went into the studio for two months, getting comfortable with one another and kicking around some song ideas. (Hoppus had been planning a solo album but is now bringing all those songs to the band.) They completed the demo for one new tune, ‘Up All Night,’ and then spent a few months rehearsing for a tour. They weren’t sure whether anyone still cared, but it turns out there was a Blink-size hole in the music world, with a new generation of Warped Tour acts (and fans) who see the Blink dudes as elder statesmen. “They’re smart dudes,” says Gabe Saporta of Cobra Starship. “They showed me how to be big and still enjoy it.”
In Vegas, the band walks onstage to a deafening roar. The 23-song set is divided fairly evenly between the band’s last three albums; but no matter what the song, Barker is the motor. He’s always been one of the best drummers of his generation, but now he’s attacking his kit with redoubled passion, breaking sticks and raising pulse rates. As ever at Blink-182 shows, the group careens from forlorn songs about heartbreak and divorce to utterly juvenile onstage banter. After playing ‘Feeling This,’ DeLonge tells the crowd, apropos of nothing, “Motherfuck fuck shit.” Hoppus concurs, “Good point.”
After the show, Barker removes his shoes, making sure that his feet – where he suffered some of the worst burns – aren’t bleeding. “I just stopped burping up jet fuel three months ago,” he says. “I faced my absolute biggest fear, looked it right in the eye – but I don’t know if I’ll ever fly again.” Barker peels off his socks, and nods when he sees that everything’s OK. “It feels like death’s way over there, and every day I’m running away from it.”