Interview: Deadlights Frontman Duke Collins’ Mother On His Death, Addiction, and Legacy
A few weeks ago, I reported on an upcoming memorial show for Wilfred “Duke” Collins, frontman of nu-metal band The Deadlights, who are reuniting at the show and of whom I was a big fan growing up. Duke had passed away due to a drug addiction about a year ago, but I hadn’t heard anything until then.
The response to the post brought me two surprises. First, I was amazed to discover that many of our readers loved The Deadlights’ self-titled debut, and also hadn’t heard anything about Duke’s death until then. Second was an e-mail from the publicist for the memorial show, asking if I would be interested in interviewing Duke’s mother Sharon Gipson, AKA Mama Duke, who now runs Bridging the Gap to Recovery, an organization that helps addicts pay for living expenses during their recovery.
When I call Sharon at her home in Kansas City, KS, it’s late — she takes care of her grandkids full-time, and couldn’t talk until they were all in bed. Though she occasionally becomes emotional during our conversation, she answers my questions about her son’s addiction as unflinchingly as she does my questions about his boyhood.
Below is our conversation. The Duke Collins Memorial and Concert is tomorrow night in Santa Ana, CA. Those interested in going can find more details here.
What was Duke like growing up as a boy and teen?
Well, I can tell you that as a very small child, he was the most amiable, smiling child. He was an absolute avid fan of Star Wars. Everything was Star Wars. I think he got every single toy that was made for Star Wars. He was really intelligent. I remember him reading at a really young age. He was always sweet, he was always kind. Never had a problem finding someone to babysit, because he was just a really great kid. He had an imagination. I have some pictures of him that we’ve posted, and a couple of them show him being a ninja. He had the throwing stars and everything. Generally loved by everybody that came across him.
When did he start getting into music?
That’s the funny thing—and this is going to be first, because I just remembered it. We’d be at my mother’s house, and she had a television in her room. And he would sit there on the chest at the end of her bed and do air guitar to Metallica. He absolutely loved Metallica. He did a five-by-four drawing of Lars that was absolutely beautiful. He did that probably when he was about 15 or 16. That was how much of an impact they made on him. I took that drawing and entered it into the county fair, and it won second place. Now, the sad part is that through a couple of a different moves, it was rolled up into a tube for protection and somehow got misplaced. I was so sad we couldn’t find it. But I do still have the ribbon that he won for that. So, his interest started with Metallica.
Was it 100% guitar for him, or did he try different things?
Nope, it was guitar. When he was probably about 14 or 15, he said, ‘Mom, I want to get guitar lessons.’ I said okay, and we bought him a real nice acoustic, and I found him a guitar instructor and took him. And believe this or not, I paid the guy for a month and the second week in Duke said, ‘I don’t need to go back anymore.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding. We’re not done.’ My rule is if you start something, you need to finish it, even if you really don’t think you’re good at it. And he said, ‘That’s not it, mom—I know more than he does.’ At 16, he told me he was going to sign a deal with a record label by the time he was 26, and if he didn’t, then he was gonna quit. And then he signed with Elektra. He was a natural. I remember once asking him to play something off the wall that I would like during one of our visits—“House of the Rising Sun”. I love that song. And he picked up his acoustic and started playing it, just like that. He was a musician. That’s all he ever wanted to be. He was a fantastic artist, too. He could draw any superhero. I thought for years that he had laid that aside, but in the last couple of months before he passed he shared some artwork with me. The last project was going to be of me, and he had it all laid out to do. But he didn’t get to finish it.
When did The Deadlights come together? Were those guys always around, jamming in your garage?
Well, Duke spent a lot of time with his Nan and Pops, my mother and father. He loved them dearly. I lived in the country, and Duke didn’t like it. My mother was very sick with cancer, and he was a very positive thing for her. So he spent a good deal of time going between their house and my house. When he started Suction, I think that was the beginning of the rebellious stage. They would play at people’s houses, in yards, in the garages. Suction was The Deadlights. The only reason that The Deadlights weren’t called Suction was because there was already another established band by that name, so legally they had to change it. Duke was also a very avid sci-fi fan, and he loved Stephen King, so that’s where he took the name. They struggled, and did what they did, and got where they needed to be.
When did Duke begin to have issues with addiction?
Man, that’s a good question, because…my relationship with my son was beautiful. My son was always very, very respectful to me. To a fault. He would never raise his voice at me. He would never curse at me. He was always very kind and very loving. And he was a chameleon. He could morph and change, and…I have to honestly say it started around 17. It started with the typical stuff. Young guys go out, and there’s the smoking of the weed, some drinking, let’s try this, let’s try that. And I wasn’t aware of it because of the relationship that he and I had. It was not something that he would let me see. My son treated me like a queen. I was the most precious flower in the world to him. I’m kind of sad about it now. I wish that I had been able to see differently, and then maybe I would be looking at him now. The reason that I know it would be at that age is because I have all his journals, and I’ve read them all. So that’s when it started.
At any point did it barge into your life? Were his friends contacting you?
There was a time when he would come home from school reeking of weed. And I would say, “Hey, not good. We can’t have this. It’s not okay. You have your little brother here, watching you. You have to set an example.” And time would go on, and it would happen again. And I’d issue another warning. And it went on forever. My sewing business was well-known in town, and I had some customers who included some law enforcement and some judges, and I decided I needed to rattle his cage. So I had a police officer come to the home and talk to him, to say, “Hey, you can’t continue doing this.” And at a certain point, I found these kids coming to the door, asking if Duke was here, and he’d say, “Hey, mom, they’re just here to borrow a CD.” A red flag went up, and it turned out he was actually selling weed. And that earned him a two-week stay in juvenile hall. He was really angry with me. But I had to make a point to him. I had to say to him that it wasn’t okay. But after that, Duke being as smart as he was, he figured out how to keep everything away. He just wouldn’t let me see.
Around the time of his passing, how did he seem? Was he in good spirits?
Duke was very, very hard on himself. At this point in his life, it had become a demon within him. And he was very successful at not letting a lot of people see it. Very few people knew how bad it was. He would get clean by himself, and would remain sober for six or seven months. He would remain healthy and seem to be doing well. He wasn’t a scumbag, who came by and asked for money. He was a very undercover addict. He hated it, and he tried very hard to stay clean.
Is there any advice you’d give to those dealing with addiction that’s maybe often ignored?
This is the part where I’m adamant: family, friends, you’ve got to stand by and be there, because and addict can’t help themselves. Duke had to have a little surgery. He told me, “I’m really worried about going in, mom, because they’re going to have to give me narcotics, and I’m afraid it’s going to trigger.” And I said, “When you go into the surgery, you let ‘em know. Tell them you’re an addict, and you can’t have it.” I even called them and insisted to them not to send him home with anything. But they did. And he relapse. And it was really bad. He pulled himself back together, and would have intervals where he was doing really good, but then he’d relapse. He was ashamed of himself. It took a long time before I stopped hearing, “Oh, sorry, I lost my phone, mom. Oh, I had laryngitis. Oh, I was out of town.” And I said, “Come on, son. Come on, please stop. This is not just your problem, this is my problem. And no matter how old you get, a parent always has a moral responsibility to their child.” You cannot help someone if you cannot see the truth.
Did Duke ever try to get better?
We talked a lot about rehab. In the beginning, he would say, “No, mom, I don’t need that. I just need to get back into the gym.” And then he’d say, “Oh, I don’t want to quit my job. I don’t want to leave my car.” But then, there’d be something. He had migraines, and when he would take something for that, it would trigger. You cannot help an addict if you cannot see the addict, no matter how much you love this person. They will morph on you. They will do everything and anything to keep you from seeing your reality. If you don’t recognize the facts, then you have to watch. You have to make them comfortable enough to say, “There’s nothing wrong with my phone—I relapsed.” You don’t turn your back on them. You help them. You don’t enable them, but you don’t turn your back on them. Because you could be that one last little push that they need.
Tell me about Bridging The Gap To Recovery, your organization.
We provide people dealing with addiction with funds to move on to recovery. We provide living expenses. Are you worried you’ll lose your car? We’ll help. But we’re not buying anyone Lamborghinis!
What’s the goal with Bridging The Gap moving forward?
There’s a lot we’d like to do in the future, and until we meet with our board of directors I can’t really talk about it at this time. I can tell you that this is not it. We have plans. This is my mission. I sleep, eat, breathe, and dream about this. It’s what I have to do. I don’t want to hear anymore about, ‘If we’d just got him into recovery…’ Well, let’s get him into recovery. Let’s help him. We’ve got more things planned.
Will fans be able to give to Bridging The Gap at the reunion show?
Oh yeah! I’ll be there, and members of our board will be there. We have the program Rock To Recovery, which is a wonderful program, in attendance, and while we’re two separate entities we have the same goal in mind. If there’s anybody there that needs help, and doesn’t see how they’re going to do it, come up and grab me. Talk to me. We’ll find a way. No one needs to leave there feeling it’s out of their reach. It’s not. Recovery is not out of your reach.