Playing It Forward: Music Keeps Recovering Addicts on Track

Ricky Byrd

by Theresa Litz

Ricky Byrd therapy Ricky Byrd, former guitarist for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, still loves rock and roll, but his fervor for the hard life has been tempered by time and recovery.

Byrd now has three bands, but between a successful career and a family, he heads up the Clean Getaway Unplugged group that provides therapy through music at Sunrise Detox Center. Two days a week he drives to New Jersey sites in Stirling and Toms River to conduct sessions for patients, leading discussions and performing original music with inspirational themes. With music, he hopes to motivate patients to stay on track to recovery. He calls it “healing through music”—and the response has been overwhelming.

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Even those who don’t know Byrd as the original Blackhearts guitar player, know the iconic “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” From there, he tells his story, “I lived it; I was a rock ‘n’ roll animal.” He knows all too well that detox is only the first step to recovery and emphasizes the need for patients to go directly to treatment. Relapse, he laments, is all too common.

Byrd takes pride in his New York roots and tells it like it is, conveying to patients in no uncertain terms the consequences of drug abuse, saying: “They have few options left: jail, death—or recovery.” Invoking the ghosts of other brilliant but tortured souls, from Lenny Bruce to Philip Seymour Hoffman, he says, “That’s the history of addiction, period.”

At Sunrise, there is respite, some time to reflect. “At 10 in the morning,” Byrd says, “There is a moment of clarity. At this moment, they have a choice, maybe the only choice they’ve had in a long time.” From a repertoire of 15 original songs he’s written with Richie Supa, longtime friend of Aerosmith fame, he plays four or five melodies, usually ending in Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” or John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith.” But, his song “Broken Is a Place” says it all: “Surrender was the only way to win.”

Sunrise’s National Marketing Director Ira Levy, a longtime administrator and respected health consultant in the treatment industry, says he had never experienced what music could do for

Ricky Byrd

troubled patients until he saw Byrd in action. “It’s powerful,” he says. “It redirects their thought process away from meds to a place of calm.” For patients still in the grip of addiction, medical detoxification is the first step—a short-term goal—in the recovery process. Levy says Sunrise sees a 95% success rate for patients who follow a facilitated after-care plan. “We try to get them to understand there’s life after drugs. Music can be a vehicle to successful recovery and a full life afterwards.”

One of the most dangerous drugs to re-emerge is heroin. And Levy emphasizes the need for society to begin educating children as early as elementary and middle school. If more people like Byrd would step up, he notes, kids would listen. “They tend to look at musicians and athletes as cool. They’re role models and if they can be part of the solution—those in serious recovery programs—people will listen.”

Byrd agrees, adding that the country now faces the worst opiate and heroin problem in decades. “Recovery has never been so huge a problem, and so much in the public eye. Kids get locked in fast. [It’s as if] they’re starting at the end of the movie—doing drugs which, back in the day, may have culminated in harder drugs. Now, there are pills in the schoolyard.” Like a movie, it will end—one way or another, he says. “The credits can roll at any time.”

Music transformed Byrd’s life. As a nine year-old kid watching the Rolling Stones perform on The Ed Sullivan Show one night, he remembers thinking, “They looked like I felt. Girls were ricky-byrd-album-cover screaming, and Ed Sullivan was horrified.” Years later, Byrd would end up playing with many of his idols, including Roger Daltrey (The Who) and Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople).

Now, Ricky along with Clean Getaway are going to raise money for Drug Prevention programs and try and help the still sick and suffering Addicts and Alcoholics by creating scholarships for those that have little or no insurance but desperately need treatment. One of his goals includes developing similar music programs at other detox and treatment centers across the country. Last fall, he attended the FED Up anti-drug rally in Washington, D.C., where he and the Clean Getaway All Stars performed “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Of the many memorable moments he’s experienced on stage, Byrd says, “this was by far the most powerful.”

In September, Ricky Byrd celebrated his 27th anniversary of sobriety. And, this year The Blackhearts will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Byrd is clearly overwhelmed by the news. It was their third nomination and, he says, “It was time.”

Byrd’s latest solo album, Lifer, was self-produced in his home with help of friends like Richie Supa and Southside Johnny. He went about it very definitively, he says, and very sober. The album is an homage to the music he grew up with in his parent’s Bronx apartment—influences like Wilson Picket, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters. It begins with “Rock ‘n’ Roll Boys” and ends in the eloquent “Turnstile,” which he wrote in the days after 911. Byrd says, “It’s my ‘New York, New York.’”

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