Rockin' for Recovery
Ricky Byrd, Joan Jett's guitarist, got sober in 1987 after suffering a collapsed lung. He tells The Fix how to avoid temptation on tour.
Back in the ‘80s, Ricky Byrd performed to sold-out stadiums. The venues may be different these days, but he holds just as much influence on his fans as ever. His uncanny knack for memorable hooks was responsible for the classic riff in Joan Jett & The Blackhearts' classic I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll. But while on the road during their heyday, Byrd wrestled with addictions that led to him suffering a collapsed lung and becoming dangerously underweight. After getting sober, he continued to work with Jett on albums like the 1988 platinum-seller Up Your Alley. These days, he tours with the super-group Rockers In Recovery and released his debut solo album, Lifer, last month. Byrd has long succeeded in avoiding temptation on tour and believes that his sobriety is affecting his music more than ever these days.
When did you get sober?
September 25, 1987. I was pretty much a garbage head. Cocaine was definitely in the mix, as well as booze, pills and pot. There was a little bit of alcoholism in my family to begin with.
Did being in a major band contribute to your addictions?
I was already an addict by the time things took off, so it didn’t really change things. It gave me more money to spend, but the juxtaposition is that when you have a hit record, everyone wants to get you high for free and drugs are always floating around. You’re playing for 30,000 people and you come off the stage sweating, but then you get back to your hotel room and it’s dead silent. So you go down to the bar and meet everyone, then after four or five Jack Daniels, someone has a bump. You take a cab to a weird part of town to score more drugs and it’s a cycle that just goes.
What made you decide to get sober?
It was a live or die situation. I had collapsed my lung back in ’83 and was down to 128 pounds in ’87. I got sober that year and we were still going strong with songs like I Hate Myself For Loving You and Little Liar. The first couple of months, I’d sit around and do blow with people and realized this wasn’t all that smart. [Laughs.] Then you start going to your room and some people make fun of you, so you’re not feeling like part of the gang. I had people around me who were still using, so I made a lot of phone calls to sponsors and mentors. Times have changed. I’m putting together a record and I’m consciously looking for people who don’t have problems. It’s just, like, who needs that shit? People show up late and are flaky and it’s a pain in the ass. I’ve learned to find people coming out of the clinic instead of coming in.
"The message we try to put out there is that you can get sober and still have fun."
How do you avoid the temptations of the road these days?
Going on the road is 90 minutes of rock and roll, then just traveling or sitting around the rest of the time. So now when I’m in a new place, I go and check out some of the attractions and investigate the shops. When you’re in the midst of your disease, it’s all about getting high and traveling to the next gig. Now I’ll get up early, go take a walk around town and make sure I go to a meeting.
What made you decide to get involved with Rockers In Recovery?
One of my oldest friends is Richie Supa, who’s been a songwriter for the last 40 years and worked with Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones. We were old using buddies and he got sober a year after I did. Five years ago, we reconnected on Facebook and he asked if I wanted to play at this Rally For Recovery event he was putting on. I agreed and when I got there, he wanted me to do an interview with this guy named John Hollis who has an online holistic radio network. We became friends and all just became involved in each other’s lives. We’re all on the board of directors and now bring sober rock and roll to treatment centers. The other people in the band are Mark Stein (Vanilla Fudge), Liberty Devitto (Billy Joel), Christine Ohlman (Saturday Night Live band) and Muddy Shews (Southside Johnny). We’ll normally go out with three acoustic guitars, but have the whole band together for bigger shows. We’ve written a handful of songs about the struggles with sobriety like Devil’s Hanging Tough. There’s no affiliation with 12-step groups, but the songs can be about any kind of recovery whether it’s drugs or sex or whatever else.
We recently interviewed comedians who perform at treatment centers and they claim to get a better response there than a non-sober comic because they can relate to the audience. Do you find the same thing as well?
Absolutely. The basis is you’re just another alcoholic, you’re one of many. People you watched growing up on MTV are now coming into your life and playing a dirty, gritty rock show without using. The message we try to put out there is that you can get sober and still have fun. I’ve also gotten e-mails and letters from people who said that our song Broken Is A Place helped keep them sober. There’s a lot of sober musicians out there, but they won’t write about it or don’t feel comfortable sharing that part of their life. But the thing is that when you’re high, you’re bulletproof and invisible. People saw me drunk and stumbling around a hotel at 5:00am, so why do I give a shit if people know I’m sober? It’s my personal choice.
You also just put out your debut solo album last month. Do you talk about your recovery in that as well?
It’s strictly a rock and roll record. In the liner notes, I thank a higher power and people will read between the lines on that one. My sobriety greatly affected the album. I once believed you had to be drunk or high to create good art and that’s not true. When I was working on this record, there was no self doubt—I just followed my instincts. It’s the best guitar playing and songwriting I’ve ever done.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org. He has written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.