No Regrets, Only Lessons Learned: Travis Barker on Planes, Pills, and Prophecy
Following the release of his debut book, the blink-182 drummer talks with us about almost dying in a plane crash, loving his kids, and losing his best friend to an overdose.
Image by the author
If Travis Barker has learned anything from surviving a plane crash, it’s that he is not in control. Since he was a teenager, his wild lifestyle routinely put him face to face with danger. But it took a true brush with death to put him in check. Humbly, he admits, he has no idea what the future holds. But clear and clean, he’s ready to share his story with the world.
On October 20, Barker released his debut book, Can I Say: Living Large, Cheating Death, And Drums, Drums, Drums, which was co-written by Rolling Stone’s Gavin Edwards. The nearly 400-page book is a tell-all story, a transparent portrayal of his childhood, career, and the plane crash that changed the trajectory of his life. It also may be the only book in history to have ties to King Diamond, Paul Wall, and Chain of Strength.
On page one of the prologue, Barker places us at the scene of the 2008 plane wreck, where his two friends, Lil Chris and Che, died alongside the two pilots. He's literally doused in fuel and burning alive as he sprints through a dark field in South Carolina, he and DJ AM barely escaping the Learjet 60 that would explode momentarily. He’s in hell. There’s no other way to put it. It’s a jolting way to start a memoir.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of Barker’s memoir is the wave of recklessness he managed to ride until the night of the crash. Can I Say details the experiences of a man who’s survived drive-by shootings, smoked angel dust, and drunkenly drove his six-figure Mercedes through strangers’ front lawns. The type of guy who would lead cops on a car chase just for the thrill of it, the type of guy that needed to carry a pistol at his own wedding.
At 39 years old, Barker’s success has far exceeded the expectations he had growing up in the Inland Empire of Southern California. When drumming in one of his first bands, Feeble, he was featured in a magazine next to a spread on Blink-182’s debut Cheshire Cat. A few years later, after a brief stint and recording an album with The Aquabats, Barker joined Blink-182 and Enema of the State was released. The album introduced pop-punk’s cultural relevance to America’s general audience. Sixteen years since, Barker is a staple of the multi-platinum recording entity. With Blink-182, he’s released four studio albums, a live record, and an EP. He started his own grassroots lifestyle brand, Famous Stars and Straps, which at its peak had over $100 million in sales. He’s released a solo record where he drummed with rappers like The Game and Cypress Hill. His side band, The Transplants, has released three records. +44, his other band with Mark Hoppus, also released an album. He’s dropped an EP with Yelawolf called Psycho White. The list goes on, but you get the point. Barker’s music has influenced over a decade of pop-punkers, emo kids, and hip-hop heads, creating a generation of 20-somethings comprising the rosters of many independent labels. For the most part, they’d be lying if they said they never bought a Blink record. He made it cool to not only like rap and rock, but play them both too. You could be silly as shit, but hard as fuck, too.
The memoir isn’t a laundry-list of Barker’s success and fame. It isn't about his brand or his image. It’s a story about a man with humble beginnings who’s built the world he envisioned. He’s transformed from someone his friends once called “dumpster dick” to a responsible father. He’s made it from a full-on pill addict to a stone cold sober man.
Currently, Barker is involved in a number of projects. A new solo record, Transplants record, and Blink-182 record are all in the pipeline. In November, he’ll be touring with Antemasque, a new band with members of The Mars Volta. Between gigs and book-signings, we spoke with him about his representation in the media, his fatalistic history with drugs and airplanes, and the importance of family.
Noisey: A lot of the guest entries in your book implied that in order to connect with you, someone has to earn your trust. But you were so open in this book, why did you decide to open up for the world?
Travis Barker: The idea of writing a book was thrown around after the accident, people were hitting me up to do something like Oprah, but I was in no shape, I was still struggling. When I did decide to do it, I wanted it to be brutally honest and raw. I’ve read some memoirs where I was like, “Man, this is bullshit.” I wish they were interviewing someone else so you know it’s real. I always say that I wish books could make eye contact so I know if they’re lying or not. I don’t really dog anyone out or say anything negative about people. If anyone is humiliated, it’s me.
How has it been doing all these cheesy anchorman talk shows like Good Morning America?
I felt a little displaced. It’s easy to talk to people like you. But honestly those were the guys who ended up getting me. Chris Connelly (ABC News) asked me something about my kids after the plane crash, and man, it felt like I was right back at that moment in time. I almost broke down. Some of it has been hard. When I knew the book was about to come out, I had a dark day because I knew I was going to have to speak on everything I put in it. Good Morning America was probably the first interview that really dug in. Then afterwards it got a lot easier. I guess the more you talk about it, the less it stings.
How do you feel about how the media has reacted? Almost all the headlines read, “Travis Barker offered friends $1,000,000 to kill him!” Did that bother you?
Yeah, I was kind bummed when I saw that, like, really? That’s what you took from my book? But, it was a dark time. In the hospital I wasn’t sure who had lived and who didn’t make it through the crash, I was waking up during surgeries and overhearing doctors talking about amputating my foot, I couldn’t have visitors. It was the truth. I would call Skinhead Rob all the time and tell him, “Rob, get one of the homies I don’t know to get in here and smoke me, I can’t do this anymore…”
Then you have some websites who are only concerned with Kim Kardashian.
It says I didn’t hook up with her! [Laughs.] Come on! She actually turned out to be the homegirl, if anything I put it in there to break every stereotype people make of her. If anything, I was a dog because I was with her friend and secretly gawking at her.
The amount of run-ins you’ve had with guns early on in life is insane. Did you think this was how normal people lived?
I wasn’t sure. It was strange because I was close enough to all this crazy shit, having a gun to my head while almost getting carjacked, being in a house that got shot up two days before my friend was killed. I was always close to danger. I had to really check myself, “Are you doing the right thing? What do you want to do with your life?” Walking away from a house as all my friends are outside shooting at a moving car and thinking, “Holy shit! We just got shot at and could’ve been killed!” Those things were just a confirmation that I wanted to play music and get the fuck out of there.
Even when you were younger you always had this fear of flying, but you were also putting yourself in dangerous situations with guns and drugs. Was the risk acceptable, as long as you were in control?
Before the accident everything was so reckless and day-to-day, live without ever thinking of the consequences. There was a time in my life after my mom died and really up until the plane crash, that I thought the worst thing that could happen is ending up where my mom is. I had this like, not a Death Wish, cuz I was very happy and I started to tour with Blink, but at the same time I was still just very young and I was living for the day.
When I was reading it I couldn’t believe some of the sex stories. It’s on some Gene Simmons level status. Did 30-40 women really suck your dick at your bachelor party?
[Laughs.] Oh my god, that was submitted like a week before we turned in the book! [Gavin Edwards] was like, “Here’s the interviews Trav...” He showed me, and I was like, “Oh my god, can this not go in the book? Are you kidding me!?” [Laughs.] And he was like, “Trav, put it in there. You didn’t get hurt from this. And it was the fucking truth. So let it be told.” We didn’t manipulate or change any words from any interviews that were contributed. There’s stuff in it that’s humiliating for me and I’m not proud of. But it’s the 100 percent truth. A lot changed when I had kids. I went from being this dog who was with a different girl every day of his life to treating a woman in the same way I would want my daughter to be treated, and I’m gonna teach my son to treat girls right too.
Some say that once you’re addicted to something, you’re always addicted. Do you think you’re still a sex addict?
Oh yeah man, you’re always an addict. I went from being addicted to drugs, to being addicted to spending time with my kids now. So much has changed, but at the same time, I’m not gonna lie now, I’m girl crazy. I always have been and I always will be. It was very rare that I was in a relationship. I had my girlfriend in high school and my two ex-wives. Ever since then, I’ve been very content with the love I get from my children. I always tell girls that I would be such a horrible boyfriend; it’s just the truth, and I’m so consumed with music.
Your book said you’ve had sex with more women before you graduated high school than I have at age 24. When your ex-wife said you cheated on her with at least 100 women, was that an exaggeration?
I think she’s being dramatic. It was a lot of girls; we had a rocky relationship on and off and I was always in a position where I could be with other women, I don’t know. I’ve settled down quite a bit now. Maybe there was a point where I did just hook up with two chicks, [laughs] or maybe I did do all these crazy things, slept with however many girls, but something changed when my son and my daughter were born. “Are you Travis Barker, this crazy person rockstar you spiraled into? Or are you Landon and Alabama’s dad who just wants to stay home and never tour again?” And I really struggled with that. Over time, that very much changed who I was. That was my transition. It wasn’t like I woke up one day out of the blue and decided that I didn’t want to do drugs or fuck tons of girls anymore. But after they were born I sat there and was like, “God, what did I do to deserve such amazing human beings?” I just didn’t think I was capable of it with all the gnarly shit I had done.
Do you believe in fate?
I do somewhat. From a young age when teachers asked us what we wanted to be when we were older, other kids would say “Superman!” Or they wanted to be a fireman or a police officer, and I always wanted to be a drummer. From the moment after my mom passed away, I really followed the last words she told me. “Play the drums and don’t care about anything else in life but doing the things you love.” I did that. I did it in an unforgiving way, I didn’t care what anyone told me, and my mind was made up. I almost felt like she was orchestrating things upstairs, I don’t’ know if it’s fate.
It was almost for better and for worse. When you were younger you had these weird premonitions about airplanes. Growing up you didn’t know if you would make it to 21. Did you always have this bizarre fatalistic vision in the back of your head?
I wasn’t living the healthiest of lifestyles. My mom died of cancer pretty young. I was smoking cigarettes and doing drugs. I was abusing excessive amounts of weed, smoking PCP with Skinhead Rob [laughs]. It was crazy. I didn’t have a lot of confidence as far as staying alive. Right after my plane crash I got an email from Michael Ensch, who was my manager in Feeble, and he goes, “Man, I love you, I hope everything is OK, I see you all over the news this is freaking me the fuck out because years ago, you were drunk at my apartment in Laguna Beach and you told me you were gonna die in a plane crash.” It was one of the first times I had drank. He was like, “Where is this coming from Trav? You don’t even have enough money to fly!” I didn’t even know. But I had this weird feeling. I was balling my eyes out, buzzed on some alcohol. It was also something my mom hated doing, one time I flew with her, but she refused to get on airplanes otherwise.
Are you asking if I put it in the atmosphere, and that’s why it happened? I don’t know. Some people believe if you put your biggest fears out there then you’re probably gonna make them come true. And for me it was my biggest fear was flying. I would have to numb myself to get on a plane, numb myself to stay on a plane, and then numb myself to stay in whatever country it took me to. It was a vicious cycle.
There were also the weird instances. When Blink-182 did Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, you were assigned the plane logo. How did that shit keep happening?
Yeah man! I was scratching my head, really bummed when MCA [Records] came to me and said I had the plane for “take-off.” I was like, “The fuck I do! I hate planes!” [Laughs] Nobody would’ve thought that I would nearly die in a plane crash where I’m the only survivor. “What is this guy talking about, why does he care so much about the plane symbol?”
Barker performing with the Transplants at Terminal 5 in 2013. Photo by the author.
You kept referencing the “The Bright Horizontal Line.” Can you explain that?
Anytime I flew, I carried my mom’s rosary with me for a number of years. I would close my eyes and say a prayer. I would always look at this horizontal line when I closed my eyes. If you squint your eyes really close, really tight, I could always see the line. I didn’t see it the night that we took off in South Carolina. And I wanted to see it.
But there were so many things leading to that flight that were so wrong. I didn’t like the idea of booking the plane. When I got to the airport, I called my dad, who is a tough Vietnam vet who rode a Harley for 60 years, and I was upset, “Dad, I have the worst feeling about this flight. I just want to tell you I love you. If anything happens make sure the kids are taken care of.” He was like, “Trav, are you upset?” My pops never hears me upset. I never hear my pops upset. It was weird. Sure enough, he gets a phone call 30-minutes later saying his son was in critical condition at a burn center in Georgia, that his plane had crashed and there were four people dead.
Your dad had crashed his Harley once, another time he had a heart attack, and on both occasions he didn’t want the hospital to call and worry your family. Your mother never wanted her famous sister to think she was asking for handouts or for sympathy in the hospital once she got sick. There is a huge sense of pride in the Barker family. Did you struggle with that when you were in the hospital, needing to be nursed and taken care of?
I hated it. It was the hardest thing for me to deal with. You go through life, and there are some things you can’t predict. You’re on a private jet saying “I need to get home tonight.” Next thing you know, two of your best friends are dead, two pilots are dead, and you’re 65 percent burnt in a hospital. It just goes to show you, you are not in control. If anything that was the biggest reminder, you can plan whatever you want, you think you have the answers, but at the end of the day, you don’t know what the fuck could happen at any moment. That was tough man, being laid out like that, especially me man. Everyone knows how busy I like to stay, I’m in the studio and I’m working these crazy hours—that’s what makes me happy. I couldn’t wrap my head around it! I was definitely in the most negative state I’d ever been in emotionally and physically.
You didn’t like feeling vulnerable.
Nah, I think I’m so used to taking care of other people, you know what I mean? Even when there is something wrong, I’m pretending like there isn’t, but in a situation like this there’s no acting you can do.
Once all the skin procedures done, were all your tattoos fucked up and gone?
I don’t show many pictures. I only wanted to put one picture from the accident in the book. The others were too graphic. They basically take a cheese grater and they peel and cut your skin off, so I had no skin on my back. I didn’t have a lot of tattoos on my back, I only had half of it done and then I ended up doing a whole new back piece afterwards. But I lost all my tattoos on my legs. Basically all of my legs and feet, the majority are grafts.
Was your back a cadaver? Does it hurt like a motherfucker?
Yeah. It definitely feels different. In my legs, all my nerve endings are messed up. My buddy Mike Giant, he used to tattoo me a couple of months after I got out of the hospital. It was the craziest feeling I’ve ever felt and I’m pretty good about getting tattooed.
When you say crazy, do you mean painful?
Yeah. I think it might’ve been too new. I’m gonna attempt to actually tattoo my legs soon, I feel like I have a whole second chance at it.
Barker getting new tattoos following the accident.
There was this fucked up relationship you had between flying and pills. You needed the pills to fly, then you were addicted, then you crashed, and the pills didn’t work because you built up such a tolerance to them.
I think I woke up during 11 out of 27 surgeries. I woke up swinging on doctors, not even knowing what was happening, just waking up in the most extreme excruciating pain, not knowing why there were people all around me. I’d be bloody and in the middle of a surgery. They couldn’t get my meds right but little did they know what monster they were dealing with as far as drug addiction or the abuse that I had done to myself. I went from using recreationally and abusing every time I would fly, then I’m in a hospital for four months on a morphine clicker and on 20 other drugs. Then I went home and refused to use any pain medication and it got me off of drugs.
As for DJ AM...
Ironically enough, my partner, who was 12 years sober, Adam Goldstein, DJ AM, he begins to fly and starts using Xanax and not telling anyone. That becomes his excuse for taking drugs, so he could fly. It was like what I stopped doing ended up killing him. And that was really hard for me to accept. Just hanging out with Adam you wanted to be a better person, he would rub off on you. Man, I looked up to him in so many ways. He got me sober for a small amount of time. To see him take Xanax in order to fly because he felt like he needed it, when he really wasn’t ready to fly, then ultimately overdosing or committing suicide, I can’t even explain to you the effect it had on me.
I know you and Skinhead Rob would dabble in angel dust. You had smoked weed, drank lean, popped Vicodin, Percocet, Norco, and Oxycontin. What was the worst drug for you?
Pills are the scariest because they’re undetectable. You can’t tell if somebody is on them. I fooled so many people. Wives, girlfriends, they had nobody knew. I got so good at taking them. I ended up building a tolerance where they would keep me wide awake and numb. I wasn’t sleeping. I think it only got really noticeable when I started taking Oxycontin, because you’re literally melting and you can’t move.
Here in Staten Island and Long Island, kids are getting hooked on Oxy, and then they can’t get a prescription. So they go and shoot dope, and then they die. I never thought in 2015 that there would be a heroine problem in my own backyard.
I hear a lot about that, people can’t get Oxy then they go straight to shooting and smoking heroine, it’s terrible. For me I would constantly be replacing stuff. I would have the urge to suddenly stop doing things, so I would—I’d only smoke PCP once in awhile with Rob, and it gets you so fucked up that I ended up just standing in one place pressing myself against the wall because I couldn’t even move, I just got so tense. That was a weird high. But I quit taking pills, then I’d start drinking promethazine, then I would stop doing that and just smoke weed. One thing would stop and then I’d start another. Finally, the worst thing that could possibly happen to me in my life ended my drug addiction.
One time you were so fucked up on Xanax that you couldn’t even get onto an escalator. Tim Armstrong couldn’t even be around you and SR because he was afraid he’d relapse, which broke up the Transplants. Why did it take a plane crash for you to realize what a problem this was?
I was an addict. You don’t even see those things around you. Before my plane crash, I went to see this therapist. He asked me, “If you died today would you be the man you want your kids to remember, right now, the way you are?” The answer was no. That scared me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I had this longing to get rid of everything, I would flush pills down the toilet and throw cigarettes out the window, I was trying my hardest, but I was still hanging on. It wasn’t until the crash happened that I was actually forced to do all these drugs, then stronger drugs, then I didn’t want to do them anymore. Today, people ask me “Who would you be without the plane crash?” And I don’t know. Obviously, I wish I could take it back, and Lil Chris and Che would be here. DJ AM and the two pilots would be alive. But I can’t do that. I wouldn’t know me without the plane crash. It changed so much about me, all for the better, but it took the most unfortunate thing ever for me to wake me up.
Did you ever do any type of rehab?
Adam was my rehab. I would go to a meeting with him or sit and talk, have dinner. He would take me away from my normal routine. He was a big influence. Afterwards, when I did first get sober, I went to a few meetings, I surrounded myself with positive role models. But I didn’t ever go to rehab. After the accident my kids were so important to me. I came so close to death that I realized there was no way I was going to fuck up a second chance at life.
There were so many instances where you’ve faced bullshit discrimination; when you didn’t get attention at the car dealership or restaurants asked you to leave. Will you always face this because of the way that you look?
It’s 2015, so for it to still be a stereotype is weird to me. My kids have been with me when I’ve been pulled out of the car and asked what gang I’m in. Asked if I’ve ever done prison time and where. Asked if I had any weapons in the car. My kids at a young age didn’t understand, “Daddy, why do they think you’re bad?” I had to explain that sometimes people get the wrong idea based off the way you look. I’ve had guns pulled as they’ve approached the car. But not all cops have treated me bad. If I go to a restaurant and they don’t like me in a torn up Motörhead shirt and they want me to put on a jacket, I’m gonna kindly walk away. I wanted to put that stuff in there for anyone reading. Don’t judge a book from the cover. People are not how they appear on the exterior.
I think the most powerful thing I read in the book was that you wrote, “For my kids, I would be in a plane crash again.” Would you really go through something like that again?
Man, I would get in a plane crash again. I would battle an army. For my kids and my family, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do. After my accident being the only person to walk away from it alive, life is too short for any other bullshit. Some people have a hard time in life juggling everything, but it’s so easy once you have something so horrific happen, you know what’s good for you and what’s not worth your time. But yeah, that’s the truth. I’d go through it all again. For them, I’d do anything.
Derek Scancarelli is a journalist based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.