Jeffry Lee had a simple goal when he began working on the record that would become Hard Drugs: to tell a story that wasn't as bloated and impenetrable as two of rock opera's definitive albums.
“I wanted to write something that made more sense than Tommy or The Wall,” says the Brooklyn-based former Vancouverite, on the line from the Sunshine Coast, where his wife's family has property. “I have a background in film, and I've worked on some scripts. The idea of doing a rock opera seemed to be a challenge.”
It's a challenge that Lee proved more than up to meeting on Hard Drugs, which is also the name of the band he put together with his wife, Jenni Lee Nelson, drummer Jason Dana, organist Shira Blustein, and bassist Kevin Grant. The sprawling double LP tells the story of Lloyd and Aline, two star-crossed, drug-addled lovers trapped in the grindhouse that is Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. She's a hooker working the streets for a pimp named Slim; he's an addict too weak to do something about the fact that his girlfriend prostitutes herself. Over the course of 13 stellar tracks, the two do their best to extricate themselves from the life they're leading, which leads to people getting shot, drug dealers looking for revenge, and a tension-dripping saloon showdown.
Packed with the kind of details that separate great stories from good ones, Hard Drugs plays out like a stage production or movie waiting to happen, something Lee is quick to acknowledge.
“If that happens, it happens,” he says. “For me, I wanted to do this just to prove to myself that I could do it. But there's a fellow in Vancouver who said he was interested in working on a screenplay [based on the record]. I met with him, gave him some suggestions, and he's going to take it from there.”
With help from a small army of the Vancouver music scene's heaviest hitters, the music is just as epic as Lee's story. At a base level, Hard Drugs sound like the house band in shit-kicker heaven, with Lee and his massive supporting cast trafficking in an unvarnished brand of classic country. “Lloyd and Aline” finds Lee and his bandmate-wife trading verses like Johnny Cash and June Carter during the booze-drenched years, and “Terminal City” makes a good case that someone was mainlining melted-down Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn records.
But as much Hard Drugs aims straight for the hearts of those still mourning the demise of No Depression, Lee looks well beyond the badlands for inspiration. Listen for the Tex-Mex trumpet flourishes in the title track, the druggy prog-rock breakdown in “Salvation Blues”, and the crystalline piano in the pop-tinted “Happiness”.
Now located in Brooklyn, the singer-guitarist sees Hard Drugs as a gritty love letter to Vancouver. His mission was simple: to find the humanity of the lost souls that haunt the junk-wrecked alleys and streets of the Downtown Eastside.
“When I look down there, I see human beings, not the monsters which a lot of people do,” he says. “They go down there and don't know what they are seeing—they think they are in zombie-land. These people are humans, and they deserve to have a life, no matter what kind of choices that they've made.”
Hard Drugs plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday (July 25).