Rock Yourself Sober

By Neville Elder 01/10/16

Road Recovery—the program by sober, working musicians for at-risk teens—has been rock-steady for 18 years. Now, with the help of some Rock 'n Roll legends they've released an album.

Rock the Dope

Tonight at Road Recovery they need a drummer. It’s been a while since I’ve played, but I can keep a backbeat locked down if I don’t try to get too clever. So I pick up the sticks as John, 21, starts pushing a heavy groove on the bass, David, 16, starts noodling, looking for a lead riff on the guitar and Mike tentatively starts mumbling over a microphone that’s buried in his fist. Leading the session is Susan Campanaro, a singer, actress and entertainer who’s the group’s mentor for the evening. She’s 25 years sober and RR’s dance teacher for the outreach part of the program.

Kids [from the program] have gone back out. It’s hard—at that age, in your late teens—but some come back because they know they’re not going to be judged.

“You just have to be open,” says Susie. “Mentoring is the ability to listen and when it comes to young people, it’s about not judging.”

Susan also sings on the brand new full-length RR album Don’t Give Up, recorded over the last two years, with songs written and recorded by the participants in RR’s Trax program in collaboration with some of music's biggest artists like Slash, Peter Frampton and Tom Morello, all under the guidance of A&R executive and mentor Michael Alago.

Started in 1998 by Jeff Buckley’s manager Gene Bowen to help kids get sober and stay sober, the New York City based non-profit Road Recovery is dedicated to helping young people battle addiction with the help and mentoring of entertainment industry professionals who have battled drink and drug problems.

“When I started getting sober, I was out on tour with Ringo Starr. He took a huge leap of faith in taking me on,” says Simon Kirke, the drummer with Bad Company who adds drums to the song "This Feeling Won’t Last." 

It’s moments in Kirke’s life like that, that encouraged him to give back through RR.

“We’ve had failures,” says the drummer. “Kids [from the program] have gone back out. It’s hard—at that age, in your late teens—but some come back because they know they’re not going to be judged. Trust, it’s a huge responsibility—them looking up to you,” says Kirke. “Working with these kids is huge validation about the benefits of sobriety.”

Simon Kirke, Slash, Tom Morello, Peter Frampton and Jill Sobule all appear on the new album. The ease of modern recording allowed them to lay down their parts remotely. The session files recorded at RR were sent to the legendary musicians over the Internet. Frampton recorded his parts for "Get Out" in his Nashville studio and turned the session around in the same day!

There’s a direct link between sobriety and the music in the Trax program. The evening session that I joined on drums, started with a 12-step style recovery meeting. A group of late teens/early twenty-somethings and RR staffers shared about recent triumphs and defeats in their lives; just like any AA or NA meeting. Tonight’s focus was on the recent passing of Adam Roth from cancer—a mainstay of the RR program. He was well loved and helped many kids to stay sober by writing songs and playing rock music for the first time.

After the meeting, the group broke up into chatting and some of the kids plugged in amps and switched on the PA in the rehearsal room. RR is connected to James Walsh’s Threshold Studios, who helped record and produce the RR album. The facility is founded on the footprint of Jeff Buckley’s rehearsal rooms and was expanded into the studio, after his death in 1997.

In the office, after the session, I talk with John, the young bass player. We talk about the new album, Don’t Give Up.

“I like songs about redemption,” he says. “It usually comes from pain, my music’s always been about taking that pain and making something good.”

The song he likes best on the record is "Get Out." A driving rock tune with John’s revolving bass line making a foundation for layers of Peter Frampton’s harmonizing, lead guitar.

“It’s the first song I helped create here [at RR], I was really stubborn about getting what I wanted. Everyone said, ‘It should go this way.’ I said ‘No!’ I left the room, got a little teary-eyed,” he laughs, “but it felt good to stick up for myself. I don’t usually do that, it gave me confidence.

“We started with the music, Jen started singing some lyrics, Ryan played guitar. I had a good idea about structure and the rest was all them. It was natural, not forced.”

The mentors guided the process, helping to untie the knots. They challenged the musicians to understand their music: Is this a chorus or a bridge? What are you trying to say in this song? When the song was tight, they took it next door to the studio and recorded the track.

John says he grew during the process of making the album. “[Before] I wasn’t secure, I wouldn’t look people in the eye, I was full of myself, but now I can step into other people's shoes and see their point of view. I’m more open.”

Like any 12-step program there’s a spiritual aspect to the meetings in RR, but it wasn’t enforced. “As an atheist in this program it’s ok,” John discovered. “You don’t have to stand up and hold hands [and pray]. They didn’t shove it down my throat, that’s really cool. They accepted me and I trusted them.”

Road Recovery is partnering with PledgeMusic to make the new album, Don’t Give Up, available to the public to raise awareness for the charity’s non-profit services, and most importantly to raise funds to support RR’s youth outreach programs. 

When you pledge to the RR campaign, you get exclusive gifts including memorabilia and merchandise from rock & roll legends Alice in Chains, Jeff Buckley, Anthrax, Pink Floyd and Rage Against The Machine. All proceeds will help RR reach at-risk youth in New York City.

Behind the drums, I relax my wrists into a well-worn groove. Four-to-the-floor. A drumbeat I’d learned at 16 listening to Deep Purple, The Cars, The Beatles or whatever it was. Back then, I was desperate to play music. I played in my high school rock band with my best friend Matt, got drunk with him and crashed my dad’s car after our first gig. No one taught us rock & roll, we had to guess how to do it and we did ok, but young men in my hometown were prepped for the army, or for university or stocking shelves at the supermarket. Rock & roll? Nobody took you seriously.

I watch Mike, holding onto the microphone stand, leaning away from Susie’s attention. He looks shy and Susie is brash and pushy, she jabs him to sing his lyrics—it’s her own style of mentoring. She’s singing "I’m going to get you" as a refrain, over and over in a shrill punk-rock blast. Mike is smiling, still a little embarrassed, but soon his volume increases and a clear melody rises above the noise. With a couple of false starts and revisions, we have a chorus and a bridge; within the hour, we have a song. Mike, David and John are happy. They’re sober and they're making rock & roll.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He recently wrote about the end of the Silk Road and how the DEA under Michele Leonhart was rotten to the core.

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British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.