It was a foggy autumn night in New York’s Rainbow Room when Joe Walsh took center stage — no guitar in sight. So he addressed the elephant in the room: “I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” It’s a half-joke, meant to set the audience at ease while gently reminding the tables of suits and sequined dresses that addiction is not some distant, dark memory; but on the contrary it’s a specter that hangs over 45 million American families. Even the ones who sell out Madison Square Garden.
That night the 71-year-old old Eagles guitarist, 25 years a “sober alcoholic,” received the highest humanitarian award for activism in the addiction recovery community, jointly awarded by the nonprofit Facing Addiction and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). His wife, the elegant Marjorie Bach, was also honored and she stood behind him, wiping tears from her eyes with a napkin even when he cracked jokes. Bach is 27 years sober. Earlier, she spoke with unflinching gravitas about fearing at one point her husband would die. Walsh’s in-laws, Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach, presented them with the award. Between the four of them, they have over a century of sobriety.
The evening was full of humbling stories where glamorous, talented people admitted the insidiousness of their addiction battles. The floor turned over to an all-star tribute led by country singer-songwriter Vince Gill, the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald and Butch Walker. They rocked to Walsh’s classic riffs from “Take It To the Limit” to “Life’s Been Good.” Gill, 61, spoke in the breaks about the surreal joy of getting to play with the Eagles, but also, of the pain he felt watching his older brother succumb to alcoholism at a young age. That was over 25 years ago, Gill said. But as he began “Rocky Mountain Way,” it was clear that playing with Walsh in the Eagles was not just about childhood-dream fulfillment but about soothing a long open wound.
After checking into rehab for the final time in 1995, Walsh had to put his guitar down — possibly for good — in order to put his life back together. He didn’t think he’d ever play again. Over the course of 20 years, Walsh got married and eventually found his way back to music with the help of Ringo Starr, his actual brother-in-law and brother in sobriety. In 2012, Walsh released Analog Man, his first solo album as a sober musician. “People tell me I play better now sober than I did before,” he said. “But the only thing that matters to me now is that I can say I haven’t had a drink today.”
This is a story about sober musicians—about the life that has led them here, and about the life that they live now—but there is no single story here.
Some drank, some used drugs, some did more or less everything, and they did so to very different degrees. Some found themselves at the edge of the precipice, or worse; others simply re-routed from a path or trajectory that they came to see as unwise. Some were clean before the end of their teenage years; some only surfaced into sobriety much later in their lives. Some created the work that made them ﬁrst or best known before they were sober; some have done so since. Some see signiﬁcant correlations here; some don’t.
Ivan Neville stores a remarkable snapshot, both festive and bleak, on his phone as a stark reminder of life before sobriety.
The photo shows the New Orleans keyboardist and singer huddled with Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Lenny Kravitz before a Rolling Stones concert at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium in August 1994.
Richards had flown Neville to New Jersey to join the Rolling Stones onstage that night. Neville had contributed to the Stones’ then-current “Voodoo Lounge” album; he also was a member of Richards’ solo band, the X-Pensive Winos.
If the Giants Stadium show went well, he might have been offered a larger role with the Rolling Stones.