Ricky Byrd’s Clean Getaway Helps Spread Message of Recovery
By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief • April 11, 2018
Pictured above (l-r) is Ricky Byrd with Joan Jett and Byrd with The Who's Roger Daltry
Ricky Byrd knows a thing or two about making his guitar sound down and dirty. Now he’s using his musical gifts to help people get clean and sober. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and former Joan Jett & The Blackhearts guitarist, who has also performed with Ian Hunter, Southside Johnny and countless other musical legends, has been in recovery for more than 30 years. For several years he began sharing his own recovery story through song at treatment facilities, where many struggling with drug and alcohol addiction would connect with him through his music. That inspired him to found the non-profit Clean Getaway 501(c)(3), whose mission is to help spread the message of recovery through prevention, education, awareness…and songs.
In October, Byrd, released Clean Getaway, a collection of 12 songs – from some straight-up rockers to acoustic ballads to a rollicking cover of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Kicks” - evoking the intricacies and emotions behind addiction and recovery. The album, recorded with an all-star band of legendary rock musicians, is available via CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, and all other online stores, with a portion of the sales going to the Clean Getaway non-profit 501(c)(3).
Byrd, who is now taking the steps to become a certified recovery coach and drug and alcohol counselor, recently spoke to ASCAP about his mission to help those struggling with addiction by harnessing the power of rock and roll.
What’s the origin of Clean Getaway, the album?
The foundation of the whole thing is that I’ve been in recovery for 30 plus years now. I got clean and sober in September of ’87. The responsibility I carry for being blessed with that gift is to be there for people caught in that dark hallway between denial and surrender, and walk them into the light when they reach out for help. Part of the responsibility of that is if you were blessed enough to be pulled out of that lifestyle, you know, you have to turn around when somebody asks for help and reach out and pull them out.
That’s part of what people do in recovery, hopefully. I do that in my community support groups. That’s what I love about community support groups. The common thread that runs through all of us is pretty much the same. Whatever your poison is, through trial and error and a bunch of hard lessons learned, most will come to the conclusion that we can’t do the first one. We all help each other try and achieve that end game, which is acceptance!
When you go to meetings with these groups you are helping people by sharing your story. Someone in the room is sure to identify which makes them feel less unique. and you are giving out your phone number, and hopefully people call you and you can talk them down off the ledge. I know it still helps me after all these years to hear someone say something I can identify with. Also when I hear someone new to recovery share with some fear and desperation in their voice it reminds me why I am there and how far I have come. It keeps the gratitude in my attitude.
Then I started to get involved in various recovery events where I was part of an all-star band to raise money for different non-profit treatment facilities.That’s where I really started to learn about the opioid epidemic that our country is having right now.
I started to learn what's really going on and how many people were dying and the ages of the people dying, and I decided that I needed to do something a little bit more than what I was doing. So I started to write a batch of songs which are the songs on this record. Then I kind of finagled my way [LAUGHS] into treatment facilities, mostly on the East Coast, but I’ve also been to some across the country. Hopefully this year I’m going to do more.
What would you do at these centers?
I would go with my guitar and lead recovery music groups. All the songs on the record are about addiction, recovery, hope, possibilities. Some of the songs are really dead serious and some of them have a sense of humor because when I look back and think of all the insane things I did when I was using, I’d have to write something with a sense of humor [LAUGHS] because of the stupidity of everything.
As I was doing these sessions with music groups, I would always end with, “I’m easy to find. You can always find me on social media. When you get of here, let me know how you’re doing and just give me a shout.”
I started getting all of these messages of how the music was affecting them. One kid said that he was about to leave that day and then he heard my story and my songs and he decided to stay for his whole treatment. He’s been in clean for six months now.
It inspired me. I thought wow, maybe I got something here. Maybe I could actually help by combining the things that I love, which is rock and roll and recovery.
Did you write all of the songs by yourself?
Most of them. Some of them I co-wrote with people like Richie Supa, a longtime friend and a famous great songwriter. And then I wrote two songs with my pal Mark Hudson.
What compelled you to record the songs?
So, after I would finish performing for these groups, the kids would line up and I would have a few words with them. Every one of them would say: “Where can I get this music?” And this went on for like two years.
I kept telling myself that I was going to do a record. But I thought, how am I going to get a record deal for doing a recovery record? So what I did was an online campaign, like the kids do today [LAUGHS]. I don’t know why we didn’t think of that a long time ago. It’s like buy the record in advance. What a brilliant idea!
So there you go. I raised the money. I made a really cool record. I pulled together some cool people to perform on it, like Steve Holley on drums [Paul McCartney, Ian Hunter], Bobby Whitlock [Derek and The Dominos] and some friends from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
I got the horn section and Jeff Kazee, Andy Burton who’s out with Little Steven now. Bob Stander, my co-producer, played bass. And a couple of cool singers: Christine Ohlman, who’s been in the SNL band for like 20 years, and a very well-respected blues and soul singer, Marge Raymond who used to play in a band called Flame back in the ‘80s.
What’s cool is if you listen to the record, you’ll hear gang vocals on some of the stuff. I reached out this facility where I lead a music group called the Mainstream Sober House Riverhead on Long Island. I called the guy who runs it, Bobby and said, “Listen, we’re recording in Huntington, grab me 12 newcomers, I got some gang vocals.” So, he brought over some people with very little time in recovery and they all sang. They shouted out some of the lyrics on the record, which was very cool.
So now you have a great rock and roll record as your calling card.
The main purpose for the record is that I can give it away. What I do is when I go to these places, I give the record to the people after the meeting group, which is really cool. Well, actually, the asterisk is I say to them, when you complete your stay here, on your way out you get a record [LAUGHS]. A little manipulation or maybe motivation there.
Tell me a little more about Clean Getaway, the non-profit?
Clean Getaway, the non-profit, came first. I wanted to do something, so I said, “how can I do outreach programs all based around music?” As I started to build the catalog, I said, “how can I use this?” One goal was to lead music groups. But now it is how can I take this across the country? My dream is to have a tour bus that says “Have Recovery, Will Travel” [LAUGHS] and go across the country and do awareness and prevention outreach programs with music as the centerpiece.
I put together a nonprofit. I got a great board of directors. You can go on www.cleangetaway.nyc and see who is involved. On the advisory board there’s Steve Earle, Andrew Loog Oldham, Maureen van Zandt and others.
What are your immediate goals for Clean Getaway?
What we’re trying to do in 2018, now that the record’s done, is start the process of fundraising. When we get the right amount of funds, we want to do a five-state tour with an all-star band. So it will be a concert and then around the concert there will be an informational table set up with treatment answers and all kinds of materials for parents and kids.
I envision the shows to be in small theaters or something like that — it won’t be in rock and roll clubs or anything because of the booze. Then I can invite people in whatever town we go to. I could call the treatment facilities and say, I’m doing this thing, you know, get a couple of buses and bring over some clients so they could hear some rock and roll, you know, recovery rock and roll.
We’ll bring along somebody who's kind of like a professional on the clinical side in the trade, and they could come up and talk about what's going on in the country right now and how to get help. Maybe someone from local government or law enforcement to speak on that side of the epidemic. But in the end it will be a rock and roll show and it will be this album. These will be the songs. Kind of like a musical town hall meeting in different communities.
I was on my way to one of those support groups and somebody asked me: “After 30 years you still do that?” And I said, yeah, absolutely, because “I prefer wakin' up to comin' to.” And my songwriter brain went, ooh, that’s a good title. And there it is, on the record.
When I first started, I remember having a conversation with Richie Supa and he said, “when you write this record remember you’re not trying to get songs on the radio, you’re trying to send a healing message to the people you’re playing to.”
So although there are plenty of hooks on the record, my main motive was about getting the message across, and that’s really how I wrote those songs.
You mentioned Mark Hudson earlier. Tell me about one of the songs you wrote with him.
I came to Mark and I said, “I got this record, man, the songs are pretty deep. I want to write one or two songs that don’t hit you over the head with the message but they’re still about recovery, you know?” And we wrote “Kid,” which is about sitting down with with your kid and talking about what you went through. I know at your age you’re probably not going to listen to me. I just have to educate you on the consequences. You’re going to do what you want to do. And that’s how “Kid” came about.
The whole message of that song is that you need to communicate with your kids because of the nature of society today, where most parents both work, maybe dinner is on the fly, you never really get a chance to communicate. I know when I was 16 I was sneaking around and doing this and that. I mean, I started using when I was 13, right? And I started off with pot but, you know, by the time it ended it was pretty much everything. So you got to really be on top of your kids these days. It’s not the ‘70s, man. The stuff that’s going around now is much more dangerous. I mean, we’re losing about 170 people a day, 5 people an hour, every day, mostly between the ages of 18 and 27, and a lot of it started with prescribed pain medication. But then that’s led to heroin and fentanyl and all kinds of nasty synthetic drugs coming from China, here, there and everywhere.
As an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what’s your view of the state of the music these days?
I’m very lucky that at my age I was a teenager when I saw where we had bands like David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars. No one had ever seen anything like that before. I mean, now everything’s been seen, but back when Zeppelin took African American blues music and turned it heavy electric like that, it was whoa! You know?
I mean, everything’s been done now, so I was lucky that I got to be part of ‘50s experience to glam to straight-up rock and roll and the Stones’ Exile on Main Street. But I’m glad that kids are going back to listen to their parent’s vinyl now. And you can hear it in some of the music that’s out now.
The image of rock and roll is one of glamour, but it has also killed many of its creators over the years.
Well, the illusion is that you need that. That drinking and drug use are a good muse for creativity. It might be in the beginning but it always turns its back on you. That’s just the way it goes. There’s nobody that gets out of this without suffering if you’re a drug addict or an alcoholic, nobody. And the only way out is through baby! You either get clean, you die or you don’t have a real problem.
I mean, there are people that just have a few drinks and they come home and feed their kids and watch the ballgame. But the people that really get hit hard, it's always a bad ending. Or it’s a good ending. If you find the other side.
So what do you tell like other musicians about how to avoid that fate, how to maintain that creative spark and that creative drive but not let it consume you?
Well, first of all don’t believe the hype. That whole glamour thing is an illusion. It has nothing to do with how much money you have in your bank account.
Just watch TMZ and see people with big mansions in the sports world, the music world and the acting world and they still wind up OD’ing or in detox 14 times. It’s an emotional/spiritual hole in your heart and you’re going to have to work through that.
As far as being creative, if you’re creative, you’re creative. Now, maybe in the beginning smoking pot or taking acid back in the ‘60s opened up a world to you that helped you write some songs that are now classics. But unfortunately, a lot of those people are burnt out now [LAUGHS] or they’re gone.
I would say this is nothing to play with anymore. This is a massive epidemic right now. So you should try to live a clean life.
You have to trust that you’re creative without using anything. You have to trust your talent.The point is if you want to live life, write some rock and roll. Listen to the record. You know, these are good songs written by a guy that’s been clean over 30 years. What can I tell you? The proof is in the pudding! In the end my responsibility as someone in recovery is to spread the message. Music is my method of communication. Hopefully someone out there will hear something that needs to be heard.