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Between Hell & Kelly

By: Andy GreenwaldWarped Tour headliners the Used escaped Orem, Utah, only to faceaddiction, police hassles, and–in the case of over-the-edgefrontman Bert McCracken–the wrath of Kelly Osbourne. The ridealmost killed them, but not quite

An unseasonably cool wind whips over the East River as a Cadillac with a busted headlight patrols the empty streets of Brooklyn’s industrial Williamsburg neighborhood. On a side street lined with abandoned warehouses, a scuffle is brewing. The three members of the Used not named Bert McCracken have had enough. Under cover of darkness, they grab the scruffy-haired lead singer in a headlock. Guitarist Quinn Allman pulls on McCracken’s arm until he screams for mercy, bassist Jeph Howard secures a leg, and drummer Branden Steineckert slowly pushes a switchblade against McCracken’s neck. “Gonna kill you, motherfucker!” he yells.

A camera begins snapping. “Great, Branden,” says a photographer. “But can you look angrier?”

Probably not. You can only muster so much anger-be it the authentic screamo rage that has made the Used heroes with the LiveJournal crowd or the forced theatrics of a record-company photo shoot-before you see some cracks. The strapping lads from Orem, Utah, are in New York City to perform their blistering single “Buried Myself Alive” on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and to sit for some press shots, and they’re showing the strain of more than a year on the road. The band have a laundry list of complaints: Steineckert’s girlfriend has broken her foot; Howard’s neck seems to be swelling due to excessive head-banging; and Allman recently spent a night in a Jacksonville, Florida, jail after defending some fans from police harassment. (“I probably made ’em mad when I told a joke about how you stop a cop from drowning.” How? “By taking your foot off the motherfucker’s head!”) Curiously, it’s McCracken-the band’s hard-drinking, headline-generating frontman-who seems healthiest at the moment. “Honestly, things have never been better,” he says, popping his third beer of the night. “We’re having a great time.”

McCracken’s good humor is a little spooky considering the media mess recently endured by the 21-year-old recovering drug addict. A few weeks earlier, ex-girlfriend Kelly Osbourne dissed McCracken from the stage at a New York City show, saying, “He thinks he’s Kurt Cobain, but he’s not.” It added a bizarre postscript to a relationship that began during Ozzfest 2002 (when Osbourne mistook McCracken for a roadie), blossomed on MTV, and ended last Valentine’s Day, when McCracken unceremoniously dismissed America’s sweetheart via cell phone, minutes before a show in Indianapolis.

“I think young girls get their hearts broken very easily,” he says, refusing to go into detail. “Yeah, I’m destructive-I’m always looking for something to do.” He hocks a rather impressive loogie, takes a sip of beer, and watches Allman chase Steineckert through the street with a Wiffle-ball bat. “But come on, man, I just want to jam.” He chuckles and unleashes his now-famous scream: “I just wanna rock!”

The Used make an especially compelling case for self-medicating rock’n’roll. With brutal-youth singles “The Taste of Ink” and “A Box Full of Sharp Objects,” they’ve sold a half-million copies of their 2002 self-titled debut. McCracken sings like Tori Amos fronting Earth Crisis, and the band waver between catchy pomp pop and passive-aggressive prog rock-like wasted-teen metal in search of a group hug.

I first met the Used last winter in Chicago, two days after McCracken’s tabloid-grabbing breakup with Osbourne, and after spending a couple days with the band, I wondered if he’d be around long enough to enjoy the spoils of success. The Used played two sold-out shows to a young crowd a lot like the band itself: tattooed, wide-eyed, and constantly flipping an internal switch from sad to ferocious. McCracken was unhinged onstage-he’s infamous for singing so hard he upchucks on the PA. But that weekend he saved all his purging for after the show, drawing “666” on groupies’ foreheads, dipping Funyuns into microwave ravioli, and making stuffed animals lip-synch 2Pac songs. Back at the hotel, McCracken chain-smoked and tore into the minibar, downing beer and whiskey. At 2 a.m., he sent a hotel concierge out for a 12-pack of Corona and more smokes. When he found a disposable camera, he jumped onto the bed, cackling like a psychopathic stoner, and took 22 straight shots of me.

“I’m clean now, but I’m a drug addict,” he says. “That’s not something you get over. It was meeting these guys and making this music that saved me. I was at the lowest point of my life, doing nothing but sitting on the couch, watching TV, and thinking about doing drugs and how shitty it was that I didn’t have any drugs. When I started singing, I found my second wind. The band reminded me why I loved music in the first place.”

McCracken seemed both sweet and scary at the same time-“If you have to say anything about Kelly,” he said then, “just say that I’m a fuck-up and don’t deserve to be responsible for such a beautiful person.”

Some in the Used camp-particularly those who count the money-quickly grew worried about “McCrackhead,” as he is sometimes called. “Bert is a rock star already, and he isn’t ready to be one yet,” says John Feldmann, the Used’s producer and singer for ’90s ska survivors Goldfinger. “If he can keep it together, this band can reinvent music. No one sings like Bert. But how do you grow into being a rock star?”

His bandmates-straight arrows who wear POISON FREE T-shirts and leave McCracken to drink and detox-never lost faith. “Bert’s a, well, a wanderer,” says bassist Howard, with a gleam in his eye. “But he’d never let us down.”

McCracken’s life changes-from junior-high theater geek to champion gymnast to drug addict-may be the nightmarish flip side of Utah’s Mormon church state. The rest of the group-especially guitarist Allman-share a background of kids torn between the church pew and the mosh pit. Allman’s only prior criminal activity involved stealing a copy of Magnolia from a local Blockbuster. And it was Allman’s liberal family who took in McCracken and his then-girlfriend, schlepped the singer to rehab, and even supplied him with cigarettes, a permissiveness that drove the teetotaling Allman to move out of his own home.

That clash between the focused Allman and the frenetic McCracken is the engine that fuels the Used’s schizophrenic creativity, allowing them to switch from gothic balladry to hardcore punk. It also provides the lyrical tension that pushes McCracken to find ecstatic highs in his gruesome lows. “It’s all about how you mix the two,” McCracken sings on “Blue and Yellow,” his apology to Allman.

“I didn’t want a junkie in my band,” says Allman. “And there was one night in Utah when we had it out, pretending we were at war, in this old steel factory. There was steam flowing out of these gigantic pipes, and Bert wouldn’t stop reading me all of this poetry he had written. Seeing him like that made me realize we were supporting him, yeah, but he also had his own motivation to come clean.”

Seeing the band in Brooklyn, grinning and goofing and full of excitement about this summer’s Warped outing (“There’s such a crazy good vibe on that tour, dude,” says McCracken), I begin to think that McCracken’s clean-cut bandmates are right. He slips a little, but he doesn’t fall. He has internalized his 12-step experiences and externalized them as teenage rallying cries. Despite singing about burying himself alive and puking the day away, everything about the Used is positive-or at least tries to be. “Today I fell / And felt better” goes the chorus to “A Box Full of Sharp Objects”-one of the songs that got the Used their record deal. Bad shit goes down in the songs, but the lasting emotions are celebration and release.

“I went to a lot of those fucking [rehab] meetings,” McCrackensays. “I think it’s a good way to look at life in general: We have this day to be alive. We better lay down and give up or stand up and really make some worthwhile memories for ourselves. ‘Cause we’re not going to be alive forever.”