Back to Sully Erna

Singer's book of hard life in the '80s
By Russell Contreras, Globe Staff | March 18, 2007

Dad says he knew about most of it.

But after Godsmack front man Sully Erna recently published his memoir about growing up in Lawrence, his father, Salvatore Erna, admits he didn't know all of it. In fact, since reading his son's book, "The Paths We Choose," the former Lawrence resident says he learned a lot about what a young Sully was up to in his free time.

"The drugs. I didn't know about that. And I didn't want to know," said Salvatore Erna, 62, who now lives in Methuen. "But Sully... I knew he'd be successful because he was too intelligent for the boring life."

And that nonboring life is what prompted Sully Erna, lead singer of the band Godsmack, to write a book about growing up in Lawrence during the '80s.

In the book, the 38-year-old rock star talks about his days in Immigrant City when crime was high and drugs were plentiful. He writes of girls, weapons, racial violence, losing friends, and chasing dreams. He speaks of family problems, skipping school, and stealing money from his mom's purse.

Covering his childhood to the formation of his band, the book recounts a series of setbacks and triumphs of a Lawrence boy struggling to become a man. Like the lyrics to his songs, the prose is raw and full of emotion.

"There were four things that became habits for us: pot, alcohol, coke, and acid," Erna writes in one chapter. "They were our nightly ritual. We did so much back in the '80s that we would have to wait a whole day to trip again."

In addition to revealing his partying days, Erna also touches on trying to make it as a musician and jumping from band to band. "After Strip Mind" -- one of the bands -- "things got weird for me," he writes. "I was struggling badly. I had no band, no job, no money, and my girlfriend, Betty, and I weren't doing so well."

Erna turned out fine. Godsmack was formed in the mid-1990s and quickly turned into a favorite underground rock band in New England. The group later became nationally known with the release of its self-titled CD in 1998 after signing with Republic/Universal. The band's third CD, "Faceless," became a number one record upon its release in 2003.

Salvatore Erna, who is also a musician, says he always wanted his son to get a "real job" while he was pursuing his music, "just in case it didn't work out." That's also mentioned in the book.

"I had always fantasized about being a rock star, and my family truly supported my dream. Well, let me correct that; my mother and my sister supported me," Sully writes. "My dad wasn't cool with it.... He would say, 'Music is just a hobby.' "

But the elder Erna admits he's glad his son took his own path, because everything worked out for him. Not only is he in a successful band, Sully is a proud father and lives comfortably in New Hampshire, said his father.

"I'm proud of him, and I'm proud of all my kids," says the elder Erna, a father of four.

In its first few weeks in print, "The Paths We Choose" has caught the attention of rock magazines and local newspapers. It's even catching the eye of Lawrence politicians.

Earlier this year, the City Council honored Sully Erna by giving him the key to the city. Councilor Nunzio DiMarca invited Erna to the council chambers to accept the award for "making Lawrence proud." Erna gladly accepted.

"I've known him since he was a small boy, and I watched him grow up," says DiMarca. "He went through a lot and was able to make it."

Before accepting the key, Erna was invited into the office of Mayor Michael J. Sullivan for a chat. "I asked him which grammar school he went to, and he told me, 'All of them,' " Sullivan recalls. "That's because he got kicked out of all of them."

The book drew something of a backlash among some residents who complained in a local newspaper and on radio that Erna painted a negative picture of Lawrence.

The elder Erna defends his son, saying he just wanted to remain truthful to his life. "He doesn't sugar-coat anything," says Salvatore Erna, who came to Lawrence from Sicily. "I don't agree with the language, but this is his story. He wrote this book to educate people."

Erna said he and his son had a rocky relationship early on. But now that both have matured, he says, they have a good relationship. And he understands where his son gets his love of music. Salvatore Erna is the leader of Saint Alfio's Band, which plays at parades around the state.

"He comes to me for advice, and I go to him," says Salvatore Erna.

"He has taught me a lot."