Aaron Neville Reveals How He Became Addicted to Heroin at 16: ‘Your Brain Is Hooked’ (Exclusive)

The famed Neville Brothers frontman chronicles his extraordinary life and harrowing addiction journey in new memoir 'Tell It Like It Is: My Story'

As the title of his new memoir Tell It Like It Is: My Story might suggest, Aaron Neville is not holding anything back. 

The 5-time Grammy winner and Neville Brothers frontman — best known for his silky R&B classics like “Tell It Like It Is” and multiple hit duets, including “Don’t Know Much” with Linda Ronstadt — has survived a life as rocky as his tenor is smooth. From an early stint in jail for stealing cars to a decades-long struggle with heroin addiction, Neville was brought to his knees time and again before faith and love got him through.

In this week’s issue of PEOPLE the 82-year-old New Orleans native shares an exclusive excerpt from his gripping book, out Sept 5, and reveals when and how his devastating heroin addiction first began.  

“For my sixteenth birthday, I gave myself a present that has lasted all my life. I got the tattoo on my face,” he writes of his signature ink. “My school buddy came around, we sat down on my parents’ back steps, he tied two needles to a matchstick, and he put the tattoo on my cheek. It’s a dagger. Some people see it as a cross, and it was one thought away from being a skull and crossbones. Don’t ask me why I did it. I guess stupid was set in place at that age.”

Related: Your Guide to the Nevilles, New Orleans's First Family of Music

It was the same age he chose to experiment with heroin. Writes Neville, “I’d heard people talking about it way back in the Calliope [housing projects, where he grew up]. And I knew plenty of other people who were doing it. They seemed to be having a good time with it. I wanted to do it too.” 

For the the young, mischievous musician, there was nothing stopping him. “I was playing gigs and making money, so I had some cash to score," Neville writes. “And I was an inquisitive kid, always looking for the next sensation, the next experience, the next adventure. For me, heroin was just one more thing like that.”

Neville, who tried the dangerous drug while on a friend’s stoop, writes that the lasting effect was instant: “The first time you do heroin your brain is hooked in and wants it, even if your body isn’t craving it yet. It’s a kind of curiosity, and then it turns into a yearning that you shake off on the weekends, and then before you know it, you’re in the game, running and looking for it everywhere.” 

The addiction took him to dark places, including an N.Y.C. basement boiler room where he recalls sharing drug paraphernalia amongst others while praying, “Dear Lord, please get me out of here.” 

<p>Courtesy Aaron Neville</p> Neville in 1977, before he got clean from his heroin addiction

Courtesy Aaron Neville

Neville in 1977, before he got clean from his heroin addiction

It would be years before he decided to enter rehab in the ’80s, after learning he and his brothers had landed a promising new record deal. 

“I was really tired of running,” writes the star. “I drew a picture of myself on a cross with syringes as the nails. It was killing me slowly. I was ready to kick for good. I was excited and afraid. I knew what mainlining did to me. I knew what withdrawal feels like. But begging off the drugs entirely—that was a new venture. I was 40 years old, and I hadn’t been clean since junior high school.”

Following that first rehab stint, Neville says he never touched heroin again, though many years later he’d have a brief struggle with prescription opioid abuse. Now sober, healthy and happily living on the farm he shares with wife Sarah Friedman, 54, the star tells PEOPLE “it’s time” he opened up about his life and darkest days. “I didn’t want anyone else writing it,” he adds. “I was there. I know.”

For more on Aaron Neville’s fascinating life and long journey to sobriety, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, available Friday. 

Excerpted from Tell It Like It Is: My Story by Aaron Neville. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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