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Book Review

Following Godsmack singer's rough-and-tumble path to rock

Sully Erna is now a drug-free, rock-star father. Sully Erna is now a drug-free, rock-star father. (Jay Connor for the boston globe)

The Paths We Choose, By Sully Erna, Bartleby, 277 pp., $21.95

Sully Erna is lucky to be alive -- and he knows it. He's now the singer of the million-selling Boston band Godsmack, but he could just as easily be 6 feet under and forgotten. His story is a harrowing journey through a violent childhood on the wrong streets of the north-of-Boston city of Lawrence. His experiences prompt him to write of it as a "place that makes the South Bronx look like a tropical resort."

Erna is now a drug-free father enjoying rock-star status, but "The Paths We Choose" doesn't titillate with details of that stardom. Instead it probes his longtime street-punk anger in hopes of spurring similarly lost youths to do something constructive with their lives.

Erna writes in an entertaining, fast-paced style, but it's not for the squeamish. He doesn't sanitize his past in any way. The only son of divorced parents, he was expelled from nearly every school he attended. He once threw a desk at a nun in school. He stole money at 11 and at the same age did his first bong hit, a prelude to cocaine and other drugs.

He later burned his books in a school locker and would go to the Showcase Cinemas in Lawrence to smash the windows of cars and steal their stereo systems. "It really freaks me out when I think of those times," writes Erna, whose mother moved him to Fayetteville, N.C., to start a new life. After getting into more trouble there and suffering crippling anxiety attacks, he moved back to the Bay State.

The only thing that kept him going was music. His father, a trumpet player, led the Salvatore Erna Band, which played an annual festival in Lawrence. Young Sully discovered an aptitude for drums and feverishly studied such rock drummers as John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Joey Kramer (Aerosmith), and Neil Peart (Rush). Erna's first band was called Slaughter, but its debut gig in Salisbury Beach in 1983 was canceled because police discovered cocaine in the dressing room.

Other bands followed: Lexx Luthor, Attic Bratt, the Fighting Cocks, Meliah Rage, and Seka. Erna finally began writing songs based on his own experiences, and that sparked the success of Godsmack, which signed a three-record, half-million-dollar deal after a gig at the Tank in Revere.

Erna had previously financed his music by working in warehouses, on loading docks, and at Gillette on the assembly line, placing caps on underarm deodorant. He also installed carpets and worked at a collection agency. "My alias was Brad Sullivan for those of you who might have gotten a call from me," he writes.

For a long time, Erna seemed like a character out of Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets." He even had the gall to ask bikers not to wear their colors at early Godsmack gigs because he felt they were scaring off fans (especially women), and they agreed. And meanwhile he was living next to a police station in Methuen where he had once been arrested for larceny.

It's a rock-star-rags-to-riches story that feels genuine throughout. Erna has grown up, but the scars from his childhood still haunt him. At one point he goes back to his old Lawrence neighborhood and sees a fresh crop of kids standing on the corner and drinking liquor out of paper bags.

"I wanted to go over and talk to those kids about their dreams and goals," he notes in the epilogue. "I ended up doing what I felt was the next best thing: I wrote this book."

Steve Morse was a Globe rock critic for 30 years and can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

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