Advocate article on Imagine/Send Me a Friend Lifeshop
Balancing music, sobriety: How Ivan Neville, Anders Osborne got sober and now help others
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.
Shortly after the backstage photo was snapped, Neville, drunk and high on cocaine, threw up in a bathroom and passed out, alone, in a dressing room. When he woke up, the show was over.
“It was a big blunder,” he recalled this week. “I blew it.”
Now 20 years sober, he is still shocked by his appearance in that long-ago photo. “I look green,” he said. “So out of it.”
On Tuesday, Neville shared the photo and discussed his journey to sobriety during a workshop at Imagine Recovery, an Uptown treatment center. The session was presented by Send Me a Friend, an initiative co-founded by guitarist Anders Osborne to support musicians in recovery.
Tuesday’s talk was led by Harold Owens, the senior director of MusiCares, the Grammy organization’s charitable arm. Within the music industry, he is a rock star of recovery. During his nearly 20 years with MusiCares, Owens, a recovering addict himself, has assisted scores of famous and not-so-famous musicians.
He supplied critical friendship and support in the early stages of Neville’s sobriety. A decade later, Neville and Owens aided Osborne in his own recovery.
All three are committed to helping musicians who struggle with substance abuse in an especially challenging environment, where partying is often perceived as part of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
But getting and staying sober, while difficult, is possible. Neville and Osborne are living proof.
“There is a process. It is a challenge, but you can do it,” Owens said. “There are folks like Anders and Ivan who show that you can do it, and here’s how.
“Both of these men, when they hear about somebody that needs help, will call. It’s been a really rewarding relationship."
As the son of Aaron Neville and the nephew of Art, Charles and Cyril, Ivan Neville grew up in New Orleans music. He also was exposed to drugs and alcohol at a young age. He smoked his first joint at age 11.
By the time he was 18, he was drinking and/or using drugs daily. He didn’t stop for two decades, even as he released acclaimed solo albums, joined the aptly named X-Pensive Winos and toured as a member of 1990s alternative rock band the Spin Doctors.
Substance abuse affects people in all professions. But in the music industry, “you think it goes with the territory, and you get a free pass to do that,” Neville said. “That’s what I thought as a youngster: I get to get loaded for the rest of my life and don’t have to deal with the responsibilities most people have.’”
But even Keith Richards, no stranger to drugs and alcohol himself, was spooked by Neville’s addictions.
“Keith hated that I was smoking crack,” Neville said. “He’d look at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Get it together.’”
Neville made several attempts at rehab; none took until he entered Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, California, in the wee hours of Aug. 14, 1998. He spent 28 days in the program.
“I’ve never had a drink or any mind-altering drug since,” he said. “I’ve had nothing stronger than a Tylenol or Advil. It was what they call the Big Surrender. I joined the winning side.”
Early in his recovery, he got in touch with Owens.
“Harold is somebody I saw in the trenches at meetings in Los Angeles,” Neville said. “He was helping a lot of people. A friendship developed between us. He’s a walking example of a righteous person.”
Neville knows first hand about the frustrations, doubts and misgivings faced by musicians contemplating sobriety.
“Back in the day, I was on coke and drinking and thought that was helping my already semi-genius-level mind and creativity," he said. After first getting sober, “I was like, ‘How am I going to play? How am I going to be able to write songs?’ But then I got a clear mind and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it. I can think and feel (stuff). It’s all there. It’s always been there.’
“It’s a process to realize what you’re capable of doing without mind-altering things. I started reaping the rewards of not being (messed) up. I immediately noticed I was playing better. I was writing songs like nobody’s business. I realized I was more creative. I started to appreciate the little butterflies I might get in my stomach before shows. I started loving doing what I do.”
He did his homework. His first sober tour was a European trek with the Spin Doctors. Before leaving, he looked up the locations of 12-step meetings in cities on the itinerary. “I was prepared. I knew the kind of situations I might be going into.”
In Munich, Germany, he walked by Oktoberfest celebrants on the way to a meeting, which was conducted in German.
“I didn’t understand anything they were saying, but I knew I was where I was supposed to be,” Neville said. “Whatever they were saying, they were talking my language.”
The promoter of a Spin Doctors show in Portugal hosted a party at a bar stocked with high-end port wines. “I’m sitting there with my 7-Up, eating cheese and crackers,” Neville said. “I felt a little odd as everybody else is drinking wine. The promoter kept asking me, ‘Why you not drinking?’ I’m like, ‘I had enough.’ He said, ‘What do you mean? I haven’t seen you drink anything.’ I said, ‘Look, believe me, I had enough.’
“That was my first experience on the road (sober), and I got through it. That gave me confidence that I could do this.”
Still, he was scared to move back to New Orleans, with its culture of indulgence. “I knew some people in recovery, and reached out to them. I scheduled everything I did around something to do with recovery, to stay safe, to go to meetings.”
At the Grammy Awards, he would duck into the backstage “Safe Harbor Room,” where 12-step meetings were conducted for musicians and the show’s production staff. He attended 12-step meetings at the Bonnaroo festival and aboard ship during “jam cruises.”
“So there are safe places to go when you’re in the midst of a lot of madness,” Neville said. “It can be done.
“I’m a walking example of, if this guy can do it, anybody can do it. A lot of people didn’t think I was going to make it. I wasn’t one of the most-likely-to-succeed kind of guys. I wasn’t some garden-variety alcoholic that had a few drinks and got in trouble. I was doing drugs and drinking every day for years.”
Finding a friend
Osborne also was an extreme case. A native of Sweden who first rambled his way to New Orleans in the late 1980s, he built a successful career as a roots-rock/jam band guitarist, singer and songwriter. A song he co-wrote, “Watch the Wind Blow By,” was a No. 1 country hit for Tim McGraw.
But Osborne’s drug and alcohol use accelerated nearly to the point of no return. By the late 2000s, he was out of control, and he knew it.
“In the last year or so of my use, I kept reaching out to people,” Osborne said. “When you’re coming down or you’re feeling really depressed, you isolate a lot, but you also throw out these little calls for help. Ivan was one of my calls pretty regularly.
“We made a really nice connection; I knew as it was happening, even though I was messed up, that he was going out of his way. He took a couple of my calls while he was standing onstage. That shows you the dedication to helping each other that the program has.”
As Osborne bottomed out in late 2008, his manager at the time, Rueben Williams, spoke to Neville. Neville in turn contacted Owens, who arranged for Osborne to be admitted to New Perception, a rehab facility in Los Angeles, in January 2009.
Owens “is deeply involved in all kinds of healing,” Osborne said. “He was part of saving my life and getting me clean.”
When Osborne first got sober, some people advised him to change careers or stay out of venues that served alcohol. That wasn’t an option for him. “I barely finished high school — what else am I going to do (other than play music)? I’m an expert at this. This is how I make money.”
To support musicians in recovery as they get back to work, Osborne and Bill Taylor, an administrator at music-related nonprofits, founded Send Me a Friend as a project of the local Positive Vibrations Foundation. Send Me a Friend established a national network of “sober friends” to accompany touring musician and music industry personnel at shows.
As they launched Send Me a Friend, Osborne and Taylor often consulted with Owens. “He has so much experience and he’s so knowledgeable and connected,” Osborne said. “He’s a great adviser on anything related to healing and sobriety. The list is endless, what he has done.”
Owens understands how difficult it can be for musicians to make the decision to get sober.
“It’s a very frightening process to ask musicians to stop using drugs and alcohol and take a look at what sobriety will mean for you,” Owens said. “I’ve heard musicians say, ‘I can’t do this. I’m going back into the same environment.’
“You don’t stay sober by yourself. You need people. I needed people when I got sober. I still have people around me. I may not need them but I want them in my life. It is vital that people have that.”
Tuesday’s event with Owens and Neville was the third installment of Send Me a Friend’s “Lifeshop” series, workshops intended to help “creative sober people come together to share ideas, inspiration and learn new tools to stay creative, happy and connected.” It was sponsored by the Gia Maione Prima Foundation, named for the widow of famed New Orleans entertainer Louis Prima.
“We invited Harold and Ivan because they’re so closely connected to both me and Bill’s recovery,” Osborne said. “They have so much to offer. Ivan is an iconic figure. It’s really powerful to have a person like that tell you his story.”
Looking back, Neville is thankful he screwed up his audition with the Rolling Stones in 1994. “I might have been dead if I had got that gig,” he said. “It’s probably best that I looked like an a******.”
Owens tells another story that shows just how far Neville has come.
A few years ago, Owens was sitting with Neville and Paul McCartney at the Grammy ceremony at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. The road manager for a legendary artist scheduled to perform during the show approached their table and asked Neville if he was familiar with the legend’s music.
Yes, he was. Why?
The artist in question, struggling with his own addiction, had disappeared somewhere in the Staples Center. Neville might be needed to fill in for him at the last minute.
The irony of that moment is not lost on Owens: “For somebody to ask Ivan to perform for somebody else who couldn’t ... it’s come full circle.”