Here Chris Robley sat down to chat with Joan Jett guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ricky Byrd about addiction, recovery, and his non-profit Clean Getaway, which harnesses the power of music as a way of helping addicts.
Guest post by Chris Robley from CD Baby’s DIY Musician
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inductee Ricky Byrd has been clean and sober for thirty years. Over the last few years, after a long career playing guitar for Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Roger Daltry, Ian Hunter, and more, Ricky realized he could combine his music and recovery to create songs that are useful to people struggling with addiction.
The result is Clean Getaway, both the name of a 501(c)(3) non-profit Ricky founded to reach addicts through the connective power of music, AND a brand new album of songs related to his experience with addiction and recovery.
The music moves from energetic rock to acoustic ballads, performed with an impressive lineup of guest musicians, and the lyrics — as Ricky accurately puts it — shoot “straight as an arrow,” spare and evocative, empathetic, illustrative without being preachy, some deep and some funny, and all of them meant to show that hope and change are possible for addicts.
On this blog we’ve talked about a lot of issues that musicians regularly face, so it surprised me to find that we’ve never written an article that focuses specifically on addiction and recovery. Of course that struggle isn’t unique to the music industry, but because of the nature of performance and publicity, addiction is perhaps more on-display when it comes to musicians.
I thought Ricky’s album launch provided a good opportunity to get this conversation started on The DIY Musician Blog, so I interviewed him about Clean Getaway, his sobriety, addiction, and how music can show a path forward.
I’d love for any musician that needs a place to talk about addiction and recovery in their own lives to please feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below.
An interview with Ricky Byrd about addiction, recovery, and music
CR: Before we talk about your new music, can you talk about what Clean Getaway does?
RB: Clean Getaway is our non profit. In 2018 we are going to do outreach events around the country using music as the centerpiece. The overall event will be about Prevention, Awareness, Education, Hope and Possibilities but with a heavy dose of Rock N’ Roll to help spread the message.
In other words whether it’s just me on acoustic, a full all-star band or something in-between we will be playing the tunes from my new album of the same name.
We will also have professionals in the field of addiction and recovery to talk about the Opioid epidemic and treatment. There will be tables set up with information about how and where to get help.
The music part will be fun and have variables as far as all-star players go. For example let’s say I start in New York and I travel with a rhythm section, such as Liberty DeVitto on drums who played with Bill Joel, and Kasim Sulton on bass who played with me and Joan back in the late 80’s version of the Blackhearts… Maybe we have an event booked in austin at a school or a treatment facility, or an outdoor sober-fest benefit for some local outpatient facility, so I call Bobby Whitlock from Derek & the Dominos who lives in Austin, and say, “We’re doing this cool thing; you want to jump on board?”
No matter where we go across the USA there are musicians in recovery, or who support the lifestyle or just wanna help out when called upon. I am not anonymous about my recovery and I know plenty of rockers that feel the same way. A lot of the people I know in the biz don’t mind talking about it. We didn’t mind everybody seeing us drop-dead high, so we certainly don’t mind everyone knowing we’re clean.
And then there are those that want to stay private and that’s cool too.
CR: So every town has the chance to see a slightly different presentation of this music…
RB: Absolutely…same message…same songs…sometimes different players.
And the other thing is I have a few different variables on how big or how intimate we want to do this. It could be just me and an acoustic guitar. Or I can add another songwriter or two which I call my Recovery Troubadour Series. I’ve actually done a couple of those. One with Mark Hudson and one with Genya Ravan. We do those shows like a Nashville songwriter in the round thing. Each person takes a turn singing and talking about how addiction affected them and how they changed their life. It’s all about the message.
There’s also all different sizes of the all-star band we can run with if we go that route. It could be a full band with horns, background singers and da works, or a 3-piece. Depends on the place and the budget. If you go on the Clean Getaway site, you see the all-stars. When the time comes I just call em’ up and say “Hey, gonna do something cool near you, if you’re available, you want to join the circus?” That simple.
Now the key to this is I have to raise money to do it, because obviously it’s not going to be cheap. It’s on the cheap if I just go solo or we do the Recovery Troubadour Series, but when you start bringing a whole band then you have production and other expenses. So, it’s about bringing in sponsorship.
We did something two years ago up in Torrington, Connecticut, which has been hit really hard — as has every town— by the heroin epidemic. We played in a beautiful theater, the Warner, from the 1920’s, and there’s a treatment center in town called the McCall Foundation. They’re a non-profit and a really great place, so we did a benefit for them. I pulled together an all-star band. I got Bonnie Bramlett from Delaney & Bonnie. She drove up from Nashville to do it. And what we did was we got local sponsorship and they paid for the expenses, and then the ticket sales go directly to whatever charity we’re giving to. In this case the McCall Foundation. And that’s really the model of how we do it. And in a nutshell that’s what I want to do over the next couple years. A Rock n’ Roll Travelin’ Clean and Sober Circus, providing education, awareness, hope, inspiration, and most importantly to show you can have a blast without doin’ a blast.
Sometimes it’s cool just to do a concert so people can see you can have a great time being clean. That’s a big important part of the message. Also going to schools and talking to kids before they start is a big part of what I want to do. PREVENTION. Once somebody get’s in too deep it’s a difficult thing to make them change. Try and talk to them about better choices before they experiment.
When I lead Recovery music groups in a detox or treatment facility I’m talking to the clients when they are fragile, which is an advantage to me as far as getting them to listen to the message. That’s when I try and reach in and grab them with a lyric until recovery has a chance to take hold.
The other side of that coin is trying to reach someone in the middle of a run…It’s incredibly difficult if not impossible. Easier to get through once they have hit the wall or a bottom as we say. I try to get them when they’re in a spot where they know they’re out of options. And I play these songs that were all written by an addict for an addict. So they relate. And after three songs, I say, “Did you get any of that?”
And they say, “Man, that’s my story!”
So I know I’m on the right track. Again I can’t stress enough how important Prevention is. Maybe eight months ago I went to Seattle. I went to a juvie center, I went to two high schools, and I just sat there with my acoustic and told a bit of my story. I said “Hey, you guys are probably too young to remember my band Joan Jett & the Blackhearts I played with back in the 1980’s, but you all know the song I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, right?”
And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah! We do.”
I say, “Well lemme tell you a story.”
And then they all love it. And I play these cool songs. I don’t play “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” though. That’s not in my set. But my angle is I’m this rock-n-roll guy. I’m in the Rock Hall of Fame, and I come stumbling into this school and I’ve got my guitar and I play these gritty, straight-to-the-heart kinda tunes.
Then I slip in about my choices in life and how they affected me and the people around me. I talk about how I almost kicked the bucket a few times, and how I learned there is another way to live that’s fun, exciting and won’t kill ya. Finally I explain in my RnR way how serious this epidemic is and how many their age we are losing.. I don’t preach… I talk like a person that’s been there.
That’s what Clean Getaway is. And if we can get benefactors funding, then I don’t have to go around looking for dough to implement our outreach events. because there’s a whole stigma with addiction. If it were raising money for cancer or for another disease people are quick to reach into their pockets. But once you start talking about drugs and alcohol it becomes a different animal and there’s a stigma attached. Not with everybody, because it’s such a big problem right now and people are waking up and they’re seeing what’s going on. But some people think, “Hey man, you chose to live that life.”
It’s like, “No, you just don’t get the disease concept, do you?”
So my answer to those people every time they say that, it’s like, “Would you go into a hospice with your dad hooked up to tubes with Stage IV lung cancer — because he smoked three packs a day for forty years — you know, and look him in the eye and say hey man, you had a choice to smoke those cigarettes; that’s the way it goes.”
If you can do that, you come back and talk to me. Addiction is addiction.
CR: So as you’re presenting this show, is the healing and outreach component solely in the songs and stories you’re sharing, or are you sticking around talking to people afterwards one-on-one?
RB: Absolutely. Sticking around. Talking to people. Taking pictures. Signing whatever they want. There’ll be tables with educational stuff. I’ll bring along a professional to talk to the kids on the clinical side a little bit. Yeah, there’ll be all of those things.
That’s the whole point, to bring a traveling RnR Recovery circus. You come see some great music. The music is all about addiction and recovery, hope, and possibilities, and then there’ll be tables with pamphlets, treatment options, education about drugs and alcohol, people to talk to about it. Because at this point, everybody you see has a story; they’ll come up to you and say, “My cousin OD’d three times and went to seventeen detoxes.”
And I get calls all the time because people know I do this, and they say, “There’s this guy I know, he’s a guitar player; he’s really addicted to Oxy; can you help?”
And then I make a phone call and I say, “Look, I’ll turn you onto the right people. I can’t point you to a place, but lemme put you in contact with someone who knows more about that side of it than I do.”
I mean, I know people who run sober houses. But that’s the thing, anything we do we have to really vet well because there’s so much corruption going on in the recovery industry.
RB: Oh, it’s crazy and sad. Look what’s going on in Florida with all the places closing and the pill mills and a some doctors selling bags of Oxy to dealers who turn around and sell them on the streets to kids. Some bad treatment facilities that are like a revolving door, and they use the insurance system to make a lot of money, plus they buy and sell patients to each other. Then they open these sober houses where people run free, getting’ high in the place, ripping off the parents that are just trying to do the right thing. Ya know, it’s a small percentage, but they’re out there, and unfortunately people are dying in those places. It’s all about the money. Thank god they are finally going after them.
So with Clean Getaway, before we do anything for anybody, I go to the facility first and check out how they do business. We vet the place.
CR: So regarding addiction and musicians, I feel like there’s this perception that artists are more prone to addiction. Do you think that’s true or is it just that artists are more in the spotlight?
RB: The latter. Listen, I still occasionally put records out but I’m not actively in the music business like the old days so I’m not sure what’s going on now. I see it on TMZ like everyone else, but I know how it was.
Back in the day when album sales were huge, and a big rock band would sell millions of records, companies most times turned a blind eye. If you had a recording budget, there’d be a bit extra on there for drugs. I mean, not everybody of course. But it was pretty commonplace. We lost a lot of those great musicians to the disease… Many others found recovery and some never really had a problem.
So I think there was a lot more leeway back then, but it’s just as bad today in any industry, or in schools. It’s just awful across the board. It’s everywhere, ya know? It’s just that we read about it or we see on TV something about Lamar Odom or Lindsay Lohan or Robert Downey Jr. It’s just that we’re in the public eye. So “Is it more accessible in show business or sports?” Maybe back in those days, drugs and alcohol were more accessible in some circles, and you’re on the road and everybody wants to get you high because everybody wants to hang with the band. So it might have been more accessible then to some degree within music, but today anybody can get anything at any time, day or night.
Let’s face it, when I was a kid and started listening to rock and roll and reading rock magazines, I’d read about Keith Richards or Jimmy Page or whomever and they always had a bottle of Jack Daniels, a big grin and they looked glamorous at some party. But it wasn’t all that glamorous, being one that had the chance to go through it a bit. You still wind up in the room at 5am trying to navigate through what you just ingested. But when you’re a kid and you’re reading that stuff and seeing the giant crowds, everybody looks so cool. Hey look, in the 1930s and 1940s when your parents or grandparents saw Humphrey Bogart smoking, everybody wanted to smoke, right? Then the truth about lung cancer comes along.
CR: Yeah, the myth makes it seem like the two things are naturally linked in some way.
RB: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s any more in the music business than anywhere else. I think you’re right, we just read about it happening there. But believe me, it’s in every school and business. Wall Street is notorious for drug use. And nurses that get addicted to pills, and then they’re right there with access to steal them. If you get addicted, you’re addicted, period.
CR: So you said the best time to reach people is BEFORE people get addicted obviously, so if you had a room full of young musicians who are about to go out on tour, or be in and out of the studio, and get into that busy aspect of the musicians life, do you have coping skills you’d share, or what advice would you give them to stay grounded and not turn to drugs or alcohol?
RB: Well, I talk to them like I would talk to my 16-year-old. I would say the illusion that you have to be drunk or high to make great music or to have fun in your life is just that, an illusion. Has great music been made like that, sure but there is usually a price to be paid eventually. It might work for a while then turns against you. But there has also been great music made by people that never got high or boozed as well. And not everyone has the actual disease of addiction and can socially have a drink or smoke a joint. But to be honest with the stuff that’s floating around this is not a good time to be using period. So to keep it simple I would try to get them to understand that it’s an illusion, and to not fall for peer pressure.
All you can do is try and educate people through your experience and the truth. We are all headstrong and feel invincible when we are young. It’s the “That will never be me” lie. So in the end all I can say is “Look, this is what I went through” and hope for the best.
In fact, there’s a song called “Kid” on the record that I wrote with Mark Hudson and it’s about that: “I’m not preaching, I’m just reaching out to you.”
Because nobody likes being told what to do. But if I can tell my story and say, “Here I am. I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I get asked to play with all these cool people. Why is that? It’s because they know that I show up. I do the work. I’m prepared. And I’m not gonna fall down in the middle of the set.”
CR: So if the topic of addiction is heavily represented on the album, is it a narrative or concept album, or is recovery more of a theme?
RB: A little of both. I guess it’s a concept album where the theme is about the journey from addiction to recovery and beyond…. All of the songs are the ones that I play in the treatment facilities.
The way the record came about is I’ve been doing this for three or four years leading music groups in the facilities, and after every single one of those shows, a bunch of people would come over and say “Where can I get this stuff?”
And for like a year or two I kept promising that I would do a record. But I had to raise the money, so someone suggested I do one of those online campaigns. I used PledgeMusic. I raised the money. I had the songs. And I did the record. Started in February and it’s just come out. The music is what you would expect of me, but the good thing is because it’s not a proper Byrd CD like my last one Lifer, I didn’t have to stick to any one genre. There’s really cool acoustic stuff; there’s some Chuck Berry kinda stuff; I covered “Kicks” by Paul Revere & the Raiders, because that’s one of the first anti-drug songs. A bit of Soul music… it’s all over the place but in a good way.
But the lyrics on the album are about recovery, addiction, hope, possibility. There’s a song called “Lighthouse” that’s about hope. Then there’s “Addict’s Prayer,” which is about relapse.
There’s a song called “Better Days” that goes: “When I wake up in a cold sweat, trying to remember what I want to forget, living my life like Russian roulette…”
I’m trying not to pull any punches because I’m trying to get into these peoples’ hearts and souls. It’s like a mirror I’m trying to hold up. I went through this and I’m not preaching, but here’s the deal, bro: this is where it starts and this is where it ends. And there ain’t no other option: jails, institutions, death, or recovery.
So it’s a theme, but I want to get some stuff on the radio, because the more it’s on the radio the more people hear it. And the people that need to hear it, they’re caught between denial and surrender, and they won’t admit they have a problem yet, but they’re having problems. So maybe they’ll hear these lyrics and go, “Huh, why’s that sound familiar?”
That’s why I did “Kicks”…as an introduction to Radio.. it’s an easy call.
There are actually a couple of songs that don’t specifically mention drugs at all, and hopefully I can get some people to play it on the radio: college stations, Underground Garage, stations with an open mind.
CR: So as a lyricist, was it easy or frightening to go there?
RB: Easy as pie. I mean, I’m not living in despair anymore. So I can look back at it from the outside and kinda write how I felt then and how I feel now. And basically the lyrics and the titles came easily.
If you listen to the record, the last tune “Broken is a Place,” was the first recovery song that I wrote with a friend of mine, Richie Supa, and then it started from there. I brought that into a detox and I would just tell my story and play one song. And it would start a conversation with the clients. Then I’d hear somebody say, “You know, I can’t stop relapsing.”
And I thought, huh, and I wrote “Addict’s Prayer.” See what I mean? Every time I went in I’d hear these people talking and we had this conversation back and forth, it was like my muse to sit down with a blank piece of paper and write about stuff.
Now I’ve got enough material for volume II.
CR: Oh, that’s a good segue because I was wondering, besides taking this out on the road and making a bigger thing of the Clean Getaway model, what’s next? What’s after that?
RB: So here’s the deal: I’ve been doing these recovery music groups and at the end I’d say listen, the record’s not out yet, but I’m easy to find. Look me up on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, I’m right there. When you come out of this treatment facility, find me and tell me you saw me at such and such a place, and I’ll send you a copy when I have them.
That’s the thing, I’m gonna be giving this record away at treatment facilities to the patients I play to. But I’m gonna be selling it on CD Baby and all the other online sources, and I’m gonna put a percentage of those sales into our non-profit Clean Getaway so we can do some of these cool outreach events next year. I will also put away some money to make the second record. From the responses, I know it’s worth pursuing. On my laptop I have fifty messages from people who heard me who said, “I have your lyrics on my refrigerator. I can’t forget that song “Lighthouse” you played.”
I know I’m on the right track. Go on Amazon and read some of the reviews.
It’s like this, if you’re a certain age and you had a broken heart from somebody ditching you, you go straight to the Al Green records. It’s the same thing with this; music heals. It’s another tool, another form of treatment. And to me it opens up hearts. It makes people see what they’re going through and what they’re doing to themselves, through the lyrics. Sometimes poetry and music becomes part of our soundtrack. That’s why we relate so much to the Stones or the Beatles, or Kurt Cobain. Whatever you’re going through, these people write lyrics about it and it becomes something you refer to no matter how old you get.
CR: It’s a part of you…
RB: Yeah, it’s always a part of you. So I kinda stumbled into this. I never really thought to combine music and recovery, and then I started to get calls to do these benefits for a few treatment facilities with big all-star bands. Alice Cooper, Chad Smith, Simon Kirke, Elliot Easton, Ace Frehley and so on—and people would come over and say, “I grew up listening to you; it’s so cool that you’re clean.”
And a light bulb went on over my head, and I said maybe I can somehow use what I do with music and turn it inside out to try and help heal people who are struggling with addiction, or at least get them to where they’re willing to listen, maybe change a thought and ask for help.
When you are blessed to get the gift of desperation, when you’re at the bottom looking’ up…sometimes that’s when you hear the message clearly. And hopefully you have that little window of opportunity when somebody’s in the right place at the right time and says or does something that makes you go, “Hmmm, maybe this isn’t the way to live?”
CR: Yeah, I saw some of the testimonials on your site and it definitely seems like… it’s working, which must be so gratifying to know your creativity is being put to some good use beyond just entertainment.
RB: Yeah, it’s great to know you are a small part of the solution.. And as a songwriter, it’s like wow, that’s what a songwriter always wants. You want to touch people. You want to make people either laugh, cry, or think. Sometimes dance…
In this venue, I bleed over these lyrics. Every lyric has to strike like an arrow, and I have some funny ones. “Paranoid,” or “I Prefer Wakin’ Up… to Comin’ To,” they have some humor. Because I can look back now and laugh. And that title I got from someone who said, “You’ve got three decades of sobriety. Why do you still do those things? Go to meetings, and such?”
And I said, because I prefer waking up to coming to. And my brain said, “That’s a song title there.” So I put some rock and roll music behind it and there you go, it’s on the record.
You can check out that record today on CD Baby or any of the popular download and streaming platforms.
For more information about Ricky Byrd and Clean Getaway, visit cleangetaway.nyc.
Chris Robley is the Editor of CD Baby’s DIY Musician Blog. I write Beatlesque indie-pop songsthat’ve been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, & others. My poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, & more. I live in Maine and like peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, a little too much.