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Finally Drug-Free, Drummer Dallas Taylor Hopes for One More Miracle: a New Liver

updated 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the early 1970s drummer Dallas Taylor set the beat that seemed to define the rock-and-roll times. Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, John Sebastian, and Crosby, Stills & Nash—all performed or recorded with the backing of Taylor's drums. Yet it was not the powerful rhythms of his playing that made Taylor known; it was the hard cadence of his life. "I was more famous as a junkie than a drummer," he admits.

Taylor's long, addictive spiral downward had the predictable results: a ruined career, marital breakups and even an attempted suicide. Then five years ago he kicked his habits. Now married for the fourth time—happily, for a change—he has been studying TV-music composition (with Snuffy Walden of The Wonder Years), counseling teens at an L.A. drug center and seems to have earned the right to call himself a survivor at last. Only now Taylor is not certain that he will survive. Last November the 41-year-old drummer learned that his years of addiction had left him with permanent liver damage and that he needed a transplant within a year. "Without the transplant, I won't live," he says bluntly. "With the transplant, I might."

Taylor, now one of about 800 people in the U.S. waiting for a liver donor, is getting help from old friends who have rallied to his side. To offset the expected $200,000 cost of surgery—if it happens—a fund-raising concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium this Saturday (March 31) will feature Don Henley, Eddie Van Halen and Taylor's old band-mates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. "Just being 45 makes me realize my mortality," says Stills. "But what Dallas is going through is altogether different. It's heart-wrenching, and we're here to do anything we can."

The gravity of Taylor's condition isn't obvious from his deceptively healthy appearance, but it does shadow his days. Recently, he rushed to an emergency room complaining of stomach pains that turned out to be simple indigestion. "We thought his stomach was filling up with blood," says his wife, Betty Wyman, 31, a treatment coordinator at the ASAP Family Treatment Center, where Taylor works. He also wears a beeper now so that he can be alerted if a suitable liver suddenly becomes available. Once, "it went off, and I nearly choked on my coffee," he says. "I called the hospital right away, but it turned out to be a mistake. My luck—a wrong number."

That, in many ways, is a metaphor for Taylor's life. Born in Denver and raised in San Antonio and Phoenix, he was the youngest of two children of a stunt pilot and his wife. By the time he was 4, his parents' turbulent marriage had ended in divorce and Taylor had developed ulcers. "My mother used to soothe my stomach aches with paregoric, an essence of opium," he recalls. "I can remember taking that stuff and thinking, 'Wow, this is how I'm supposed to feel.' "

When he was 13, Taylor's mother died of a heart attack, and three years later his father perished while competing in the world aerobatic championships. A high school dropout by then, he married his pregnant girlfriend and fathered two children. (Dallas III, 23, is now an L.A. car customizer; Sharlotte, 22, is a nursing student.) Leaving Phoenix, he moved to L.A. to look for work as a rock musician and there met singer-songwriter John Sebastian, who introduced him to guitarist Stephen Stills. So began an enduring, but often stormy, friendship. Stills hired the drummer to take part in some demo recordings, but Taylor says when he failed to pay, he reported him to the musicians' union. "That got Stephen real pissed," Taylor admits, "but I finally got my $75, which I needed in order to live."

The pair's musical chemistry proved stronger than their pique, and in 1968 Taylor was signed as the drummer for the newly formed Crosby, Stills & Nash. "Musically, Dallas was on the same wavelength as all of us," says Graham Nash. "It was very intuitive. You never had to instruct him on what to do, where to go or when to stay out."

Except when it came to drugs. Badly addicted to cocaine, Taylor was fired after the now classic Déjà Vu album was completed, and soon after, his plunge began in earnest. Divorced from his first wife in 1969, he was living with a groupie and shuttled up the aisle again when she too became pregnant. Three years later he split after learning that he wasn't the real father.

Moving beyond cocaine to LSD and heroin, he quickly went from Ferraris and a bungalow at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont to having his income attached by the IRS. ("I was a millionaire at 21 and on the streets at 25.") He moved into a room in West Hollywood's seedy Tropicana motel, where "two strung-out hookers supported me with money and drugs. But they finally had enough of me, and I was again on the streets."

Despite occasional financial help from friends—such as Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman—Taylor ended up in Phoenix, playing in rundown bars for drinks and change. A third quick marriage followed ("basically cocaine and drug-hazed"), and before long, "I was living this zombielike existence, wishing I could just die." Then one night in 1984, he tried to do exactly that, plunging a butcher knife hara-kiri style into his stomach. "My wife came in, and I remember her looking at me like she was just plain fed up. I said, 'Listen, if I'm still alive in the morning, take me to the hospital.' "

But Taylor did survive the night. "The doctors told me I'd missed everything vital by centimeters. It was literally a miracle I was still alive," he says now. Emerging from the intensive care unit, he was transferred to a rehab hospital for detoxification. "I woke up one day and discovered that I had gone 24 hours without methadone or anything," he says. "I felt like a kid, really pretty good, and I thought, 'Wow, maybe I can do it this time.' "

So far, Taylor has, thanks in large part to emotional support from Betty, whom he met after taking a job at the ASAP center. The two were married in a lavish, traditional ceremony at the Bel Air home of her mother in 1988 and now share a funky two-bedroom beach home in Santa Monica.

As he waits and hopes for the surgery that could save him, Taylor isn't wasting his time. He has just finished the autobiography he began writing two years ago, and his pal, actor Judd Nelson, has said he'd like to play the drummer if his tale ever gets to the screen. "There's a lesson in his story," Nelson says. "If you make bad choices and then you repent, you do not necessarily go without paying a price. It's a great story—I just wish it wasn't happening to a friend of mine."

—Cynthia Sanz, Todd Gold in Los Angeles

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