A new book – which the Herald on Sunday has an exclusive extract of – details the trials and tribulations of Kiwi singer Keith Urban, including within his marriage to Nicole Kidman.
Country superstar Keith Urban came from humble origins.
Born in Whangārei – which a new book about his life says was “better known at the time of Keith’s birth for its crime and unemployment problems than for being a hub of musical creativity” – his family later relocated to a town just outside of Brisbane.
His alcoholic father worked at a tip before opening a corner store and living in a tiny house at the back of the shop. Urban and his brother slept on mattresses on the floor as they couldn’t afford beds.
Urban was a high school dropout, but he had a plan. “Nashville’s not my dream,” he once said. “It’s my destiny.”
It didn’t come easy – he was constantly on the road and his early trips to America were disasters. But he never gave up and has since gone on to win four Grammys, several country music awards and collaborated with music royalty including the Rolling Stones and Taylor Swift to Pitbull.
And in 2006 his celebrity status soared when he married actress Nicole Kidman in 2006. But their marriage has faced upheaval. This abridged extract in a book by former Rolling Stone writer Jeff Apter – who has penned more than 20 music biographies – details how bad Urban’s drinking had become, forcing Kidman to stage an intervention and send him back to rehab for the third time.
Keith’s marriage altered the way in which the broader public viewed him. Before he met Nicole, he was a big name in country music circles but not so well known elsewhere, a situation that seemed to suit him just fine. Nicole, however, was a global superstar, whose every move and every role were monitored closely by the general public. Keith was now part of her much bigger world.
The life of the Kurbans, over time, would be scrutinised in much the same way as the lives of other celeb couples, such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt— aka Brangelina—or Victoria and David Beckham. It was a big adjustment for Keith.
Admittedly, Keith played a minor role to his more famous wife. While not quite a human handbag, he was typically referred to as the “husband of Nicole Kidman”, her “other half”, “Mr Kidman” and all the rest of it.
Harsh comments were made about them. “Physically they have always made a slightly odd couple,” sniffed the Daily Express, “she the graceful, elegant Hollywood star and he the shorter, scruffy, tattooed Urban cowboy [with a] history of addiction.”(To her credit, it seemed Nicole got Keith away from the spray tan, which had rendered him a strange shade of orange more than once in the past.)
In some circles, Keith was a celebrity by association, as unfair as that was considering his achievements. Even when Keith sat down with Elton John for an Interview magazine story, John’s first question was: “Some of [your new songs] seem to be specifically about Nicole.” Yet it was Keith who drew a huge amount of public attention to the couple, for all the wrong reasons, within a few months of their wedding.
A pre-nup and an intervention
In mid-October 2006, Nicole was in Rome promoting her Diane Arbus biopic Fur, and spoke warmly about Keith to the press. “I love being married to my husband,” she said.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Meanwhile, Keith had just been photographed for the cover of his new album by high-end
fashion photographer Max Vadukul, and had been voted the sexiest man in country music in a poll in the Country Weekly mag. But a couple of weeks earlier, when he played a show
at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, something was clearly up.
He seemed physically drained; there was a faraway look in his eyes, totally out of character for a focused performer who was always very much in the moment.
Then, according to at least one person who knew Keith well, he slipped. It was just one night, one boozy Cognac bender, but that was enough. Clearly, his upcoming new
album, and all it would entail, was weighing on Keith, but he was also adjusting to his new, higher-profile life. And, according to some reports, he also had to cope with the
added pressure of a prenuptial agreement that, in short, stated clearly that he shouldn’t get f***** up — which was precisely what he did. (Both newlyweds denied that any such
Despite going through “the programme” twice, Keith didn’t have a sponsor, a fellow recoveree to whom he could speak and unload. He didn’t attend AA meetings. Keith had no support group, nobody he could depend on to get him through the rough patches. He wasn’t properly equipped to cope with his addiction.
“I went off the rails,” Keith said. “I hadn’t conceded to myself that I needed help and a new direction in my life.”
When Nicole learned about Keith’s bender, she booked a flight back to the States and reached out to some of Keith’s closest friends and allies, mostly from Nashville, and arranged an intervention. Soon enough, Keith was sitting in a room surrounded by his wife and a group of people who genuinely cared for him. “The love in that room in that moment was just right,” Keith told Oprah Winfrey. “To see love in action in that way … I’d never experienced anything like that before.”
He was completely humbled. “I was very, very blessed to have Nic call an intervention on me,” he would tell Rolling Stone. In his own words, he was ready “to make a decision which road I was going to take, once and for all”.
Keith had a show booked at the Mohegan Sun Casino in upstate Connecticut, but rather than plugging in and playing, he packed his bags and checked into the Betty Ford Center at Rancho Mirage, California, on October 19. (Fellow rehab-er Tommy Emmanuel said that Betty Ford was right for Keith. He believed it had a “really good, solid programme”.)
As Keith described it, “The night I went in, it was total surrender.” His mantra — which sounded a lot like one of his lyrics — was “Let’s do it and let’s do it right this time.”
Keith even left behind his guitar, as he had done during his time at another rehab centre, Cumberland Heights. It was a massive sacrifice for such an obsessed musician. But part of his rehab was the need to discover who he was away from music, which had defined him pretty much all his life. As Keith would tell a reporter, “I had to find out, ‘What am I doing and why do I do it?”‘
A post from Keith appeared on his website, which read: “As you’ve likely discovered by now, last night I voluntarily admitted myself into a treatment centre. I feel calm and optimistic about the future and with finally coming to terms with the reality of my condition.”
He may have been a wreck, but Keith understood clearly what personal peril he was in. “I’d caused the implosion of my fresh marriage,” Keith later admitted. He would have understood if Nicole had upped and left, he said—as devastating as that would have been. But for the grace of God, she didn’t. Instead, she contacted her publicist, Wendy Day, and
advised her, “Wendy, I’m standing by Keith and that’s all I have to say.”
In an unfortunate turn of events, Angus Hawley, Nicole’s brother-in-law, also entered rehab soon after Keith, spending several weeks at the Sydney Clinic, which specialised in drug addiction and mood disorders. He and Nicole’s sister Antonia Kidman separated soon afterwards.
Fall from grace
No crisis is complete without a formal press release, and one was duly issued on Keith’s behalf by his Nashville publicist, Paul Freundlich. It read: “Keith Urban voluntarily admitted
himself to a treatment rehabilitation centre last night with his wife by his side.”
Keith was then quoted: “I deeply regret the hurt this has caused Nicole and the ones that love and support me. One can never let one’s guard down on recovery, and I’m afraid that I have. With the strength and unwavering support I am blessed to have from my wife, family and friends, I am determined and resolved to a positive outcome.”
Everything related to Keith’s upcoming album — live shows, personal appearances, interviews — were put on hold indefinitely. Messages of support came from the obvious sources — Keith’s label boss, Mike Dungan, said, “we just want him to get healthy” — and some less obvious sources.
Country great George Jones, a notorious hellraiser once known as “No Show Jones” (until he got sober in 1999, after almost dying in a car crash), was asked what advice he had. The 76-year-old Jones said Keith should look into the damage booze and drugs had done to his career, and to his life. That would be a hell of a wake-up call. There was a caveat, though: “It’s hard to give the younger artists advice that they are going to take,” said Jones, “because they are still young in life.”
But Keith had more than his career to lose this time if rehab didn’t stick; his marriage was also at risk. And by his own admission, he was “ready” for rehab, probably more so than he had been for his two previous stints. Keith said he was hell-bent on shaking off “the shackles of addiction” and extended his stay from one month to two, while Nicole holed up in LA with fellow Aussie and friend Naomi Watts. Nicole’s sister Antonia, who was pregnant, also joined her.
Keith was so involved with his recovery, in fact, that a few weeks in, on November 6 when the Country Music Association Awards were staged in Nashville, he had completely forgotten, despite receiving several nominations.
The audience in Nashville, however, hadn’t forgotten about Keith, even though he was missing in action. When his Song of the Year nomination was announced, for Tonight
I Wanna Cry, the cheer that went up inside the Gaylord Entertainment Centre was the loudest for all the contenders (even though Keith didn’t win). Clearly, he had the support of all the key figures in Music City, some of whom understood all too well what he was going through.
Up-and-comer Joe Nichols, who’d hit big with the oh-so-subtle Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off, had recently been in treatment, as had the troubled Mindy McCready (who committed suicide in 2013) and Trace Adkins, who went through rehab in 2002 after crashing his pick-up truck while on a bender. Keith wasn’t alone.
Keith was also in the running for Male Vocalist of the Year, one of the key CMA Awards, which, in the words of elegant, shiny TV star Eva Longoria, who presented the award, “celebrates the amazing men of country music”. The crowd rose to its feet when Keith was declared the winner.
Keith’s old friend Ronnie Dunn, who would appear on Keith’s new album on the track Raise the Barn, stepped up to say a few words on his behalf, ending with a simple: “We love you, Keith. Good luck, brother.”
Back at the Betty Ford Center, a staffer walked into Keith’s room. “You just won something,” he said to Keith.
“Male vocalist? CMAs or something?”
“Really?” Keith replied, more than a little shocked.
“Yeah. Off to bed.”
With that, the staffer closed the door to the room and turned off the light.
Keith turned to his roommate. “Hey, I just won Male Vocalist of the Year.”
“How weird is this?” Keith thought to himself, lying there in the dark.
By Jeff Apter
Published by Allen & Unwin
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