Calm like a Bomb: Rock to Recovery’s Brian Plink reflects on the serenity of sobriety

Brian Plink
Brian Plink, a.k.a. Brian Bourke (fourth from left) and the Rock to Recovery crew. (Courtesy of Steady Jenny)

One of the elements of addiction, according to a certain 12 Step recovery program, is obsession, defined as “that fixed idea that takes us back, time and time again, to our particular drug, or some substitute, to recapture the ease and comfort we once knew.”

The Ties That Bind UsIt's something Brian Plink, the original guitarist of the Bay Area pop-punk band Tsunami Bomb, knows all too well. It was, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, the driving force behind his own addiction, which plagued him for more than two decades.

“The first time I was ever intoxicated by anything or ever tried anything illegal, I was 15 years old, and my best friend and I were at his parents’ beach house in Laguna Beach, and we bought some weed off of somebody,” said Plink (real name: Brian Bourke). “We had no idea what we were doing. We ended up finding a coke can on the beach and turned it into a pipe, so there was almost an innocence to that process.

“We spent the night literally feeling like we were flying. I remember we were all sandy from jumping off the dunes, and we went back to the house, and I remember I laid down in bed and put on my Sony Discman and fell asleep listening to ‘Return to Innocence,’ by Enigma. It felt like I had fulfilled this dream, and it was honestly the most innocent, the most fun and honestly one of the most joyful times I’ve ever had in my entire life, and I spent the next 22 years chasing that.”

“The ease and comfort we once knew.” It’s also known as chasing the dragon, because it amounts to the same thing: a desperate attempt to turn back the clock to a time when drugs and alcohol did so much with so little, and the consequences and pain of hardcore usage had yet to cast long shadows over lives slowly spiraling out of control.

For those who end up crossing the Rubicon, however, it’s a place that can never be returned to again. Case in point: Plink in 2016, waking up to his 77-year-old father standing over him, unable to remember the night before.

“I had called my parents in a blackout one night and basically said goodbye,” he said. “I wasn’t actively trying to kill myself; I just didn’t think I was going to wake up the next morning. I was so spiritually defeated and physically broken that I didn’t think I would have the energy to wake up the next day. So my dad drove up overnight from San Diego and found me. Two days later, I was in a treatment center, and this month I’ll celebrate five years.”

Brian Plink: A Rock to Recovery soldier

Courtesy of Paul Hebert and Rock to Recovery

For an addict who couldn’t go five hours without ingesting some sort of substance, five years is truly a miracle, and it’s not one Plink takes for granted. These days, he carries a message of recovery into treatment centers exactly like the one in which he found himself five years ago, only this time he’s part of the nonprofit organization Rock to Recovery.

That same organization, in fact, was the one that made a difference in his own efforts to get clean and sober.

“I was the nerd who always brought my acoustic guitar or ukulele to rehab, because my joy for music always comes from playing other people,” he said. “The treatment center I was at actually had Rock to Recovery, and that quickly became my favorite part of the week, because I completely understood it, and it was awesome. (The late) Christian (Heldeman) brought it in the first week, and then Brandon Parkhurst picked it up, and I had this kinship with both of them.

“I moved into a sober living after I left treatment that time, and part of that program was that I had to go to this morning (12 Step) meeting in Pacific Beach — and it turned out that was their home group.”

He developed a friendship with both men, eventually asking Heldeman to sponsor him, and three months into his sobriety, Plink started studying to become a California Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor. He attended meetings religiously, threw himself into Step work, read the literature — all of the suggestions of newcomers to recovery programs, and Heldeman and Parkhurst took notice.

“After I had about eight months of sobriety, Christian and Brandon were like, ‘We’re swamped in San Diego; what do you think about joining Rock to Recovery?’” Plink said. “I thought they were punking me at first! They told me that Wes (Geer, the organization’s founder) wouldn’t even talk to me about doing groups until I had at least a year (sober), but what did I think about learning the ropes and hanging out? So I was basically their roadie for three months!”

It was, Plink added, the calling he’d been searching for all his life. He added that work into his regular rotation of sobriety rituals, and after he got his one-year sobriety medallion, they arranged for a meeting with Geer. Geer was impressed with Plink’s potential, arranged for some training and then had Plink run a couple of Rock to Recovery groups under Geer’s supervision before bringing him on board full time.

For the next two years, he worked with the organization to take music-centric recovery exercises into treatment facilities around Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County, but he told Geer up front: His plan was to move back to Northern California to be closer to his son. Geer saw an opportunity to use that plan as a way to spearhead Rock to Recovery’s entry into Northern Cali, and so during that two-year period, while Plink learned the ropes and served as a session leader when needed, they began to build a blueprint for the organization’s expansion into the Bay Area.

“On June 5 of 2018, I drove back up to Gilroy to be with my son,” he said. “I had zero clients, but a crap-ton of faith and a whole lot of connections, and within a month, my schedule was almost full. In less than a year, we brought on another guy up here, and from day one, we’ve been able to grow thanks to the amount of trust Wes has given me over his baby.

“I feel like a surrogate parent of this organization, like all of us do. I was the first to fly the nest, the first one to leave Southern California, and it’s all been because of my own recovery.”

Joining the Bomb squad

Brian Plink

Brian Plink, around 19 years old, on stage with Tsunami Bomb.

Like all addicts and alcoholics, developing a substance abuse problem was never a part of Plink’s childhood bucket list. Music, however, most certainly was: He grew up playing the piano, and while he’s not certain when he started — likely first or second grade, he estimates — his recollection of the way it fed his soul is still vivid.

“I remember sitting down and just creating melody, and just feeling satisfaction that I never got from anything else,” he said. “I played sports my whole life, and I loved them. I loved interacting with people, but at the same time, music gave me this joy. And it’s biological — it releases chemicals in your brain like dopamine and oxytocin, and all those things were firing at such a young age for me that I was hooked.”

His father introduced him to jazz, and some of Plink’s fondest memories are of tagging along with his pops to a local jazz club in San Diego, where the local jazz station would do a live broadcast, and father and son would order drinks — a martini for his father, a Roy Rogers for Plink — and eat oyster shooters and bask in the soundscapes of those players on stage.

That, he added, was when he realized how integral music was and remains in his life.

“One of the things when I was with my wife was that she came to realize, she was marrying a musician, and that even if I was doing something else in life as a vocation, music will always be some form of a lover,” he said. “If you’re not a musician, it’s really hard to put into words and explain to somebody what that’s like, but today my job is getting non-musicians to feel that healing power of music.”

Drugs, however, quickly grew to rival music in their importance. Plink, however, found a way to maintain a functionality for most of his using life that allowed him to maintain a habit with relatively few consequences. He played sports throughout high school, he said, and “was loaded all the time.” With Tsunami Bomb during college, he was similarly blasted whenever the band left for tour. After he departed the band and joined the corporate world, he continued to use with relatively little repercussions, he said.

He graduated high school in 1997 and moved to the Rohnert Park area to attend Sonoma State University. Shortly thereafter, he received a random email from a girl named Emily Whitehurst. She played bass and had a friend who played guitar, and found out through mutual connections that Plink had been in a punk band in San Diego, and did he feel like jamming?

“We formed a band, the three of us, this super happy-go-lucky punk rock band called Plinky,” he said. “I had a radio show all through college, and my radio name was Brian Plink, and so that just stuck. Not long after, we had other friends in the scene up there who were wanting to start another band, and Emily was being recruited to be the singer. That was at the beginning of sophomore year, so I went home over Christmas break, brought a cheap-ass guitar and learned to play some power chords so I could be in the band with Emily!”

Tsunami Bomb, with Plink on board as guitarist, released the EP “Mayhem on the High Seas” in 1999 on the Checkmate label, founded by AFI bassist Hunter Burgan. That was six months after Plink first picked up the instrument, but it kicked open doors for the band that became a white-knuckle thrill ride during his tenure and beyond.

“From there, we just started playing,” he said. “We were super strategic with how and when we played local shows. We pitched in and got a 16-passenger beat-up Ford Econoline, tore out the back rows, built in storage and hit the road. Any time we weren’t in school, we were touring.”

Brian Plink: Treatment, take one

As a five-piece, Tsunami Bomb enjoyed plenty of pinch-me moments until Plink stepped down in 2001, after the release of the EP “The Invasion From Within!” Playing with The Ataris, with MXPX, selling out the Phoenix Theatre in Petaluma … it was magical at the time, he said.

“I met a girl my freshman year, and I always wanted a family. I grew up with siblings, and I wanted that family, I wanted the house, and so when I found a girl who was the love of my life, I wanted that,” he said. “I made a decision to go behind the scenes. My degree was in studio engineering and radio broadcasting, so I left Tsunami Bomb in 2001, and it was the hardest thing, because they’re all brothers and sisters of mine. I got married in 2002, but not long after, I realized working in a studio wasn’t cutting it.

“Even though I was working at two different studios, I wasn’t going to be able to live the life I wanted, because I wasn’t making money. So I got a part-time job at Best Buy, and I was hooked. All the sudden, because I showed up to work on time, I was getting promoted, first to assistant manager, then general manager, and then by the time I’m 25, I’m buying a house and making more money than I could have ever imagined, so I just thought, ‘I’m going to ride this wave as long as I can.’”

But there were sharks in those metaphorical waters, in the form of alcohol first, and benzodiazepines as his situation grew more grim. From the time he first tried weed at 15, he knew that he consumed substances differently than his peers, but the nature of young adulthood and rock ‘n’ roll made it easier to justify, he said.

“My lifestyle early on was pretty conducive to my addiction, but then I realize my addiction would have made any lifestyle conducive to it,” he said. “It ran in my family, so I was warned about it at an early age, but when you’re young, you think you’re bulletproof. You feel like you’re immortal, and you think, ‘I’m not going to be that one.’ I had very few consequences, if any, and I would always say, ‘If this is the worst of it, this is awesome! I can deal with this forever!’ But I didn’t understand the progressiveness of it.”

At 27, when his son was born, things took a dark turn, he added. He had continued to play music and missed his Tsunami Bomb bandmates fiercely, and while he played music on his own and did the corporate white-collar job gig and felt like his drinking was under control, his son faced an uncertain first few weeks. He’s healthy now and 14 years old, but at the time, he was placed in the neonatal intensive care unit, and chemicals became Plink’s refuge.

“That’s when happy-go-lucky, habitual-using Brian became, how quickly can I black out and not feel the pain of potentially using a child, and the guilt and shame of not being there emotionally for my wife?” he said. “I was physically present, but I wasn’t there emotionally, and once that switch was flipped, there was no turning back. Because of that fear and anxiety, I was prescribed Xanax, and I started mixing it with drinking, and it turned out all kinds of bad. It didn’t take long for that to become an issue in the family, and after many threats and many ultimatums, I checked into my first treatment program in June 2011.”

Brian Plink: The rise and fall (and rise again)

Brian Plink

Tsunami Bomb, circa 2015.

Like a great many addicts and alcoholics who start out on the road to recovery, Plink did so for other people: his family. Saving his marriage was priority, and quitting was all he needed, he felt, to right that ship. Five days after he left treatment, he relapsed, and the next five years were spent in and out of detox programs and emergency rooms. Even worse, his lack of commitment to recovery the first time through treatment introduced him to other pharmaceuticals, and it wasn’t long before he added opioids to the mix.

“What did I learn in treatment the first time? I learned how to get creative with hiding my disease!” he said. “I was able to abstain from alcohol for 3 ½ years, but I was loaded on opiates and benzos. I did know abstinence was the only way, but the thought process of what was going to get me and keep me sober was distorted. It was all about, how do I keep this marriage, this job, this income, this relationship with my son?”

One bright spot: He had remained close friends with most of the members of Tsunami Bomb, and around 2014, bassist Dominic Davi reached out about re-pressing some of the band’s older material. Davi even suggested getting the band back together to play a show or two under a different name, but Plink was insistent: If a reunion was in the cards, it had to be as Tsunami Bomb.

“I remember him being, ‘Don’t tempt me, Brian!’” Plink said. “I was gung-ho. I was loaded, my marriage was falling apart, and I was just looking for an escape. We got the original crew together except for Emily, who was out and didn’t want to do it, so we needed a singer. I was working at Apple at the time, and one of my best friends, Kate (Jacobi) had an amazing voice and was unique and was a huge fan of Tsunami Bomb growing up.

“I introduced her to the rest of the band, and even though we had a bunch of other people we were auditioning, we kept coming back to Kate, and it just took off from there. Even with Kate, we were only going to play a couple of shows, but after The Vandals Christmas show (a holiday concert by Orange County punk rockers The Vandals that’s been a holiday tradition for 25 years), it just took off again.”

What began as a way to release older Tsunami Bomb material, and became a lifeline for Plink to cling to as he circled the drain, became a full-fledged punk entity again. Fans embraced the new lineup (most of them, anyway), and the demand for live performances was robust.

But Plink couldn’t hold it together.

“I got kicked out of the band less than a week before we were supposed to fly out and play a festival in Texas,” he said. “They told me, ‘We would rather you hate us and be alive, than stay in the band and play with us and be dead.’ I said some really ugly things, and I don’t remember any of them. I was disgusted by it, just guilt-ridden and full of shame, because that’s just not me.

So the week before we were supposed to fly out, I tell them I’m checking into rehab. I’m not kicked out of the band at this point in time, and they made an announcement about finding a temporary guitar player, but as the dust settled while I was in treatment, it became clear.”

Treatment, take two ... and recovery

It was bitter pill to swallow — no pun intended — but it may well have saved Plink’s life. With a return to Tsunami Bomb off the table, the last frayed cords tethering him to his old life were severed. Nothing was left, he said, except to do it himself.

“That was the thing that always got me in trouble, was trying to get sober for reasons other than myself,” he said. “This last time around, the only thing I had left was myself. I wasn’t able to see my son; my wife of 15 years had already filed papers and was leaving me; I was homeless; I didn’t have a job; and I had gotten kicked out of my band. All I had left was this vessel I had been given.”

Once the fog began to lift, the work began — starting with the feelings of guilt and shame, and the overwhelming desire to fix it all. He learned the hard way, however, that only time could repair the damage of addiction, and the best thing he could do was to make living amends: feel the feelings, put one foot in front of the other and stay clean, one day at a time.

“My band was smart enough to keep me at a distance early on in my sobriety, even though I tried!” he said. “I called them every other day, every other week, telling them I was ready, because I still thought it was possible. It wasn’t until I started working with my sponsor a few months in, that I was able to learn that it was a process.”

And over time, the process began to pay dividends — spiritual ones at first, and then tangible ones. Today, he lives in Gilroy, on the south side of the Bay, working a Rock to Recovery circuit that takes him up into Napa and the Sonoma Valley and down to Monterey. He lives two blocks from his ex-wife, whom he describes as his best friend.

“We co-parent the heck out of our son, and we go to church together as a family, if we can,” he said. “We’re still just that unit where my family is very much in her life still, and our faith has a lot to do with that. That, and the process of forgiveness.”

But that’s the thing about absolution: The 12 Steps of recovery teach those who practice them to make amends, but forgiveness is a byproduct. Amends are made to clean up the addict’s side of the street, and by putting his head down and putting in the work and taking suggestions from a sponsor, a therapist and a recovery network, he began to experience the promise of freedom that recovery offers.

“Things were very different this time around,” he said. “I am a 12 Stepper, but what I am more than anything is a surrenderer. I was ready to surrender to a program, and I’ve been able to maintain a connection to a community of people like me. There were a ton of seeds planted along the way, but I was just ready, man, and I got out of my own way.”