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How Rock 'N Roll Can Save A Kid's Life

In New York, one program is bringing teens back from trouble with the power of black skinny jeans and electric guitars.

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By Neville Elder

05/14/14

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About 45 minutes from Grand Central Terminal the Graham school sprawls across 48 acres in the town of Hastings, New York. Elegant Victorian buildings peer down the Hudson river towards New York City. It could be a small university or an exclusive private school. It’s not. The Graham school was the first foster care institution in the US. It started the concept of foster care. Now it houses over 300 ‘at-risk’ day and resident students from New York City.

Downstairs in the canteen a dozen teenagers fill two hexagonal canteen tables with fixed seats. Other tables are stacked in the corner, the room is empty of furniture but full of life. A dozen girls and boys between 14 and 16 sit around and sulk, and chat and gossip. They doodle on notebooks and journals. They talk with staff, occasionally having to be gently reprimanded. They talk constantly, some never looking up from phones. One has a Fender Bullet electric guitar. I sit with him and try to tune it with an app on my phone, but the phone struggles to find the pitch without amplification. As stragglers shuffle in they have to knock on a heavy locked door to get access.

The whole idea is to say fuck you to society and fuck you to the fact you think these kids are garbage and you want to lock them away.

I’ve come to watch the beginning of the Road Recovery’s (RR) workshop. It’s an organization that connects musicians and the arts with vulnerable and troubled kids in care. RR partners with the institutions in a unique way to help change the course of their lives for the better.

Adam Roth is pure rock‘n’roll. With his grey hair slicked back over shaved sides, his guitar-pickin veteran hands are covered with old-school tattoos. He’s tall and skinny with a boyish face and wears desert boots with black skinny jeans. He’s been sober for ten years. He opens a guitar case and takes out a beautiful vintage Hofner hollow-body guitar and plugs it into an amplifier with an electronic ‘squawk.’ He sits down amongst notebooks and backpacks and strums a few chords. The amp stirs the empty room with a natural reverb. Some of the kids look up.

“Who’s got some words? Who wants to go first?” says Adam, a gold tooth gleaming in his beaming grin.

This is their last chance. The children who come here to Graham from the care of NYC social services are in serious trouble. Many have problems with drugs and alcohol. They’re not yet adults but if they don’t get their shit together soon they’ll be flushed into the New York State penal system.

Cheyenne, 15, sits down on the seat next to Adam and without too much encouragement starts singing a lilting bluesy ballad a capella. She reads from a crumpled piece of paper torn from a legal pad.

“We try so hard to be different - but it’s never gonna be alright,

This is the present - my life is a constant fight...”

Her voice is sweet and surprisingly well rounded. Something like Macy Gray meets Billie Holiday. A natural vibrato lifts above her shyness and above the hum of conversation.

“Like a decaying flower - everything just dies,

I will some-day have the pow-er I’m tired of these lies..”

Adam strums his guitar gently with his thumb and fingers, his head tilted towards her song picking out the root notes for her sad melody. He finds the chords easily and they grow stronger as Cheyenne’s voice repeats the phrases to her song. They go around again. She closes her eyes and repeats the phrases, gently swaying to the guitar player's swinging 6/8 rhythm, it’s got an almost Cuban feel and on the last lines - No more judging.. no more fighting - Adam lets the strings ring out and instinctively Cheyenne takes the cue to deliver the last line. 

“I will survive.”

Applause breaks out. It’s a song, virtually fully formed in three takes. Everyone is impressed. Cheyenne giggles, reveling in her moment. 

By the end of the hour Adam has helped two more kids write songs. These will form the basis for a live concert in 14 weeks' time. It will include dance, art and just about anything else the kids enrolled in the RR program can get excited about. 

Gene Bowen, one of the founders of RR, believes that building a relationship with these children through music and art will get them off the fast track to prison. 

“A lot of these kids have never had a solid continuous committed relationship in their life. We say, we're going to be here every Thursday night at 6pm for 14 weeks. Even that basic thing.. seems like a foreign idea [to them].”

Adam, like other sober musicians, brings a unique cachet to the project. Rock ‘n’ rollers are anti-establishment by their very nature. They bring their experiences into the Graham school and say:

I identify with you.This is what I did to get myself out of these situations and I’m in recovery from drugs and alcohol. This is where it took me. No one else gave a shit so I had to take responsibility. Whether you can see it or not this is an opportunity. I know, because I’ve been down this road.

Bowen, a former tour manager with the Allman Brothers Band and Alice In Chains, was brought to his knees by his addictions. From touring the world with the biggest rock bands he ended up turning a wrench at a venue in New Jersey, building the stages for the stars he once hung out with. When he got sober in 1993 his life turned around and he got a gig working for Columbia Artists Management putting together tours for orchestras and ballet companies. It kept him busy and kept him off the road. A couple of years later, Jack Bookbinder - who was managing Jeff Buckley for Sony - asked him go out on the road. Jack wanted Gene because he was sober. He refused. If he wanted to stay sober the madness of a rock ‘n’ roll tour was precisely the last place he could go. 

“Sony’s hierarchy at the time was full of sober people who knew they needed a babysitter for their ‘pet rock.’ They’d made a huge investment [in Buckley], they knew they needed someone sober to protect their investment.”

Jack persisted. Exasperated, Gene made them an offer he knew they’d refuse. But they didn’t. Gene demanded that if he felt squirrely or freaked out at any time on the tour he could bail. Suddenly, he was back on the road, but this time with a network of sober people embedded in the entertainment industry. 

What I saw in the canteen with Adam and the kids was the beginning of the RR program. Gene told me what comes next.

“We build a relationship, we build trust organically over a period of time - which is how we effect change, right? You’re 15, everyone’s told you’re a fucking a loser, a waste of time. We’re saying you have value. I’m 50 you’re 15 guess what? I can save your ass and you can save mine, we can do this together.”

As for the musicians, Adam says:

“We’re working as equals. I’m a rock ‘n’ roll guy - what could be better than writing a bunch of songs and then putting on a show. Fucking great, you know?”

Gene looks for a ‘seamless partnership’ with the methodology of the institution. The Graham staff must interact with the activities. 

“It’s the only way this works - no bystanders! You want to be in the room? Beat a drum! And support us with eyes and ears. [Obviously] RR staff don’t have the skills to spot behavior that may result in further problems. We had one kid handing a RR staff member poetry. That gesture, which seemed to be building confidence, was actually acting out. They [Graham school staff] spotted it. They said: ‘this is what you need to do - if this kid is going to be affectionate don’t be affectionate back.” 

When the Graham staff engage in the workshops, when they themselves are vulnerable, it breaks down barriers and opens up lines of communication. The kids then tend to seek out those staff members outside of their RR time. Perhaps they’ve been working on dance moves for the workshop, so they’ll take their ideas to that staff member who has been with them in the workshop stumbling around with two left feet. 

“We do a newsletter,” Gene told me. “All our staff have to shoot me an email with a synopsis of their workshops. I send it through the hierarchy and let everyone at Graham know what’s going on so when a Graham staff member sees a kid around the school, he says ‘hey you’re working on that song? That’s cool, how did you write it?' It brings everyone together. Pretty soon it becomes part of the culture of the institution.”

But it’s not all ‘High School Musical’. Some of the children at Graham have severe behavioral problems. What I saw with Adam was only the second workshop of that series. It was beautiful and the mood was upbeat and supportive. But tempers can flare from time to time and the Graham school staff then step in to break things up.

“We’ve had riots,” Says Gene, his eyes twinkling, “But you know, if it doesn’t go in a ditch at least once, it isn’t going to work.”

The successes are hard won. But they’re worth it.

“So there’s this kid. . . every time I see this kid he says ‘Fuck you..! I want to kill you.' That's my whole conversation with him! I don’t know what to do with him! All he wants to do is play basketball - I don’t like sports but I ask him: ‘You any good? Can you dribble?' He says: ‘Fuck you, of course I can dribble.’ ‘Can you dribble two balls?.. How bout you dribble two basketballs and create a drum beat?’ Suddenly he’s involved, and he’s on stage at the final concert as the backbone for a dance."

"The whole idea is to say fuck you to society and fuck you to the fact you think these kids are garbage and you want to lock them away. But there is hope, they can become productive members of society.”

Gene waited ten years to lean on his connections in the music industry. He didn’t want RR to turn into a circus and perhaps endanger the kids. New York City is a pilot for a bolder, more remarkable project. 

Recovery on the road. The idea Gene was kicking around started on the first Buckley tour in 1996. It was to use sober musicians and road crew when they’re on tour, passing through the cities where they put on the shows, to reach out to the local community and help kids in trouble, kids trying to get clean, to introduce the ideas I saw in Adam Roth’s workshop in the Graham School. 

When he was out on the road it was the downtime that bothered Gene - all that sitting around waiting for something to happen. When he came back from the Jeff Buckley tour, Gene was still part of the team but as Jeff was writing a new album Gene was sitting on his hands, trying to figure out what to do next. He didn’t want to be a tour manager for the rest of his life but he’d committed to another four years on the road with Jeff. He talked with Jack Bookbinder and Jeff Buckley about the Road Recovery idea, about maybe taking it out on the next tour. They loved it. But then tragically, Jeff Buckley died. Everything fell apart. In the chaos that followed Gene found an unlikely ally in Buckley’s mother Mary. She saw Road Recovery as a beautiful memorial for Jeff.

“‘I’m going to help you get this going,' she said. She [gave me] a good kick in the ass! She was [the] cheerleader! And she’s still on the board of RR. In those darkest hours she kept pushing me with the words: ‘random acts of kindness.’ She wanted [Road Recovery] to be Jeff’s legacy.”

The plan to set up programs within local communities by piggybacking on the rock shows on tour should work on two simple principles. The workshops must be a ‘seamless partnership’ with the institutions that host them, and once up and running they must sustain themselves when the Road Recovery staff withdraw.

“The crew going in is the tip of the iceberg. Local people, local sober musicians take over and [the local community] become[s] self-sufficient.”

“Getting the seed money to start things was hard work, everyone was saying when you’ve got something we can see working we can talk again, well now [Jack Bookbinder and myself] have proved it.”

It’s been fifteen years since Road Recovery began and now there are self-sustaining programs in such far-flung places as Texas, New York, Alaska and Oklahoma. How does that Jonathan Richman song go? Oh yes!

"1,2,3,4,5,6 Roadrunner roadrunner..."

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He recently wrote about online dating in sobriety and the incompetence behind lethal injections.

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