Friday, May 22, 1998 | 10:26 a.m.
If it's true that you don't know what you've got until it's gone, it is easy to wonder whether Chuck Negron recognizes exactly what he had to begin with.
Mountains of money, luxury cars, homes -- even a jet -- and women vying for his attention. The former lead singer of Three Dog Night, one of the most popular rock acts of the 1960s and '70s, was living the high life -- in more ways than one.
Negron, along with his bandmates, had 18 consecutive Top 20 hit singles -- "One," "Joy To The World," "Mama Told Me (Not To Come)" and "An Old-Fashioned Love Song" among them -- and has sold 90 million albums to date.
So how was it that by the late '80s, the mustachioed Negron was living on the floor of an abandoned building/crack house in crime-ridden South Central Los Angeles?
Credit a heroin habit that spanned two decades for emptying the singer's bank account and obliterating his personal and professional lives.
But these days, 56-year-old Negron, who performs his solo act Saturday at Arizona Charlie's, chooses not to tote his mistakes around like chips on his shoulders, nor does he attempt to excuse them.
Rather, he chalks the whole tragic episode up to a character-building experience -- one that allows him to appreciate his current life path that much more.
The father of four children (ages 4 to 27) will tour throughout the summer to promote his 2-year-old CD, "Am I Still in Your Heart," between work on a duets album, due out later this year.
His autobiography, "Three Dog Nightmare," is set for release this fall and there is talk of turning it into a movie.
"This is the best life I have ever had," Negron says. "Even when I was a multimillionaire and had every car, every woman, every house I wanted, I was in hell because of this horrendous addiction.
"I do not wish to shut the door on the past," he says, "It's a reflection of what I've become, not what I was, and some of us have to go where we have to go to become what we become."
Given that he spent 20 years in a drug-induced stupor, the crooner's casual frankness about his rough-and-tumble days is, at first, a bit unnerving. But to hear him tell the tale, his situation was par for the turbulent '60s course.
A clean-cut jock who played college basketball, Negron says he began experimenting with drugs shortly after meeting Three Dog Night bandmate Danny Hutton.
"Everybody was getting high," he says, recalling how Hutton introduced him to people who manufactured the drug LSD. Other psychedelic drugs, cocaine and heroin eventually followed.
"If you didn't do drugs, you were kind of (considered) an outcast, especially in music (industry circles)," Negron contends.
Stoned or not, he fondly remembers the nearly 20 years he spent recording and touring the world with Three Dog Night.
"It was fantastic. I was a millionaire before I was 30 years old," he says. "We were part of a generation; it was more than just having hits. We forged the way for a whole new show business," by demonstrating to music industry executives that playing sold-out arena shows was "really where the money was."
Life on the streets
"I remember them as being a very hard-working band; they toured a lot," says Brian White, program director and on-air personality at rock oldies station KBGO 93.1-FM. He saw the band perform in 1969.
"They hit at a time," White says, "when ... the music being played on Top 40 radio was kind of getting segregated" between what White describes as the "San Francisco sound and the sounds of the Sunset Strip.
"Some people liked the hard rock and other people continued to like Top 40 (songs)," he says. "There (were) only a couple of bands that crossed into both areas and one of those bands was Three Dog Night.
"I remember Three Dog Night as being one of those bands that (fans of both music types) really liked, so they kind of bridged a gap there."
The band's music has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years: "Mama Told Me (Not To Come)" was featured in the films "G.I. Jane" and "Boogie Nights," and is also included on the soundtrack of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (opening today) while "One" was used in a Burger King ad.
Not a day goes by, Negron says, "when I'm not punching the (radio) buttons and hear one of our songs come on. Every once in a while, it's one I haven't heard in a while and I go, 'That was really good.' "
But those years spent touring only perpetuated his addiction.
"What happens is you're on the road and you run out of drugs and you realize you're getting sick," Negron explains. "You realize you need the drugs to continue, so all of a sudden, your priorities change (and) you're in search of the drugs so you can feel well and then you can think about the show."
Though Three Dog Night's popularity had fizzled by the late '70s, Negron did not officially part ways with the band until 1985. By then, "I was in dire straits," he says. "I was spending every penny I made in the band for drugs. I bought a new car ... and everything else went to drugs."
Four years later, he was strung-out and living in squalor with another junkie in a building in which the upper floors were a haven for crack dealers. His weight had dropped to an emaciated 126 pounds and "I looked like I had full-blown AIDS," he says.
Though they frequently raided their upstairs neighbors for drugs, "the police never bothered us, that's how pathetic we were," Negron explains. "We were just burnt-up, used-up. They busted through our door once and said, 'No, no, leave these guys alone.' "
But there were times when Negron's fame came back to haunt him and he was recognized by fellow street addicts. Other times, he just thought people were staring.
"I remember sitting on a curb once and these people were looking at me and I'm loaded," he says. "I remember going to my friend, 'It's really embarrassing, these people ... want an autograph.'
"The guy goes, 'Chuck, you just peed in the street -- they don't know who you are; you're a degenerate.' They were looking at me in disgust," Negron says, chuckling at the irony.
Over the years, both of Negron's first two wives and his children left him because of his addiction. Aside from his father, "the only one that really took care of me was this lawyer (Robin Silna) who would help me from time to time" by paying his bills and taxes and collecting and distributing what Three Dog Night royalties trickled in.
"She was trying to fix my life, trying to fix everything, as I was going about destroying it," he says. In 1990, Negron stole Silna's car and she turned him in to the police. Before he was picked up, Silna's sister urged him to seek assistance at an L.A.-area rehabilitation facility called Cry Help.
It turned out that Negron's 37th trip to the rehab clinic was the charm.
Unlike other facilities, he says, the staff at Cry Help didn't give him the VIP treatment. During his nine-month stay, he cleaned the place's toilets. "They just treated me like someone as sick as I was needed to be treated.
"When you're sick, (enduring) methadone withdrawl, heroin withdrawl, and ... every scheme is gone, there's not a penny, there's no food and you know you're going to get sicker and your body is gonna start failing, all you want to do is die."
But Negron survived. He and Silna married in 1993 and have a 4-year-old daughter. He now volunteers time with the Musicians Assistance Program, counseling down-and-out, drug-addicted artists.
"I'm usually a listening ear and when they go on their tirades ... I try to give them perspective. They know I've been there." And, to some extent, he still is: As a result of the drug use, Negron suffers from Hepatitis C and emphysema.
It seems the only thing Negron couldn't salvage from the wreckage was his relationship with the remaining Three Dog Night members.
With his newfound sobriety, he says he approached the guys in the early '90s looking to renew their musical ties. "They kind of went, 'Get screwed,' ... so I went, 'OK, some things are too late -- move on.' "
But the friction continued: Plans for a proposed Three Dog Night reunion were quickly scrapped, and Negron contends that band members tried to halt him from using its name to promote his solo career. (A court settlement over the matter was eventually reached and Negron now bills himself as "the voice of Three Dog Night.")
It's just as well: Negron says the timing was perfect for him to branch out on his own. "I knew exactly what I wanted so ... it probably would have been inappropriate for me to be in a band.
"We're talking about 20-plus years as an addict, just dead, and all of a sudden, I'm reborn," he explains. "I'm alive and my ideas are flowing all over the place and I want control and a say in my life for the first time in 20 years."
But topping the music charts is not on his to-do list this time around.
"I've learned that for me, going out there and trying to make 50 No. 1 records or sell another 90 million records won't do anything for me," he says. "I know what fixes me: Doing the work, being a musician ... earning a living, taking care of my family and having my priorities in order.
"You must find some peace inside; you must come to terms with the gifts you have, the faults you have ... and learn to embrace your life," he says. "I'm getting more out of life than I ever have because of that."