Drummer Bogie Bowles: ‘Recovery is about finding empowerment’

Drummer Bogie Bowles: 'Recovery is about finding empowerment'

The Ties That Bind UsFor drummer Bogie Bowles, recovery didn’t give him the tools needed to reassemble a life shattered by rock ‘n’ roll excess. Instead, it opened the doors for rock ‘n’ roll success, courtesy of an early start to a journey that began in 1990.

Since his first trip through a residential addiction treatment center 28 years ago, Bowles has become one of the most respected sidemen behind the kit for artists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Bonamassa, two contemporary blues guitarists that travel the world. These days, he hangs his hat in Nashville, content to play in a cover outfit that does weekend runs throughout the Southeast, which gives him time during the week to pursue his other passion: sharing the message of sobriety through work at Cumberland Heights, a Nashville-based treatment facility.

“The thing about it is, my recovery allowed me to do all that stuff,” Bowles told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “A lot of people, especially in treatment, get hung up on the powerless thing in the First Step and think it means, ‘You’ve been powerless; been a slave.’ But recovery is about finding empowerment and finding ways to fully function. Through doing that, it allowed me to pursue my music and to show up when I needed to show up.”

Off to the races

A child of the ’70s and ’80s, Bowles cut his teeth on what’s now considered classic rock. Bands like Motley Crue, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden provided the inspiration he needed to pursue drums with a passion, and those bands influenced the way he hits today, he said with a laugh.

“I was never (microphoned); the guys I played with all had Marshall stacks, so I had to hit harder to be heard!” he said.

Growing up in Greenville, S.C., he started playing drums in his early teens, and during his sophomore year of high school, his was sent to a Lynchburg, Va., boarding school where he continued to hone his chops. He finished up his high school career in Greenville, then went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the fall of 1990 for college. He lasted four months before the dean summoned him in November of that year and told him that his lack of course attendance meant dismissal.

“It’s like a good friend of mine said: Alcoholism doesn’t run in my family; it gallops,” he said. “I had it on both sides. Certainly, my friends and I were very excited to start experimenting with stuff, and if anybody had seen us, it looked like we were having fun. Also in that era, it was very in-your-face — ‘this is what we do, this is how we party.’

“For me, the first time I hit it, it was not a magic potion, and it was not fun at all. I felt heavy and slow, I got dizzy, and I threw up. But I think the real core internal mechanism of addiction was there, because afterward, I thought, ‘You didn’t do it right. You screwed up, and now you just need to figure out how to do it correctly.’”

As a teen, there was a short time period when it was a magic potion. It acted as a social lubricant, and like most alcoholics and addicts, it allowed Bowles to feel okay in his own skin, he said.

“I could interact, and I didn’t care what you thought so much,” he said. “I could be the loose, cool guy I wanted to be. It took down the walls, so I could just be me. In recovery, I’ve learned how to take down those walls naturally and sustainably. Step work took them down reliably, and that’s when I realized they were all built out of fear.”

By the time he got to Chapel Hill, however, it was no longer working as a social aid. Blackouts were frequent, other drugs became part of the mixture, and Bowles sought refuge in anything and everything that might alter his ailing consciousness.

“I didn’t like who I was and that I didn’t have control over anything,” he said. “With drugs and alcohol, I felt like I was controlling my world and my existence.”

Which made his dismissal as much of a surprise to Bowles as it was to the parents to whom he returned.

“They had started this new freshman grade-tracking system, and every class took one point off of your average for each one that you missed,” he said. “I thought I could just make it all up at the end, but he told me it would take years to get my average back up to passing. Then he looked at me very frankly and said, ‘I think you have a problem, and you should probably go home and take care of that.’

“That was really the first time I couldn’t weasel out of consequences, because in addiction, we get so used to manipulating the system and getting what we need.”

The surrender

Back in Greenville, his parents called a meeting with a family friend who happened to be a physician. He recommended residential addiction treatment, and Bowles again tried to manipulate the situation.

“I really had other ideas,” he said. “My plan was to stop just to get the heat off and to go on about my business, but then my dad said this fateful thing: ‘The doctor said you should go; we think you should go; and you know you should go.’ And that just resonated with me, and I finally said, ‘Dammit, I’ll go.’”

Those first few days, he adds with a chuckle, he was not a model patient. He masked his fear with a lot of angry outbursts, “fought tooth and nail” and called everyone he knew to spring him, but no one would. One sullen afternoon, he told the nurse he was going to the gym to do tai chi and didn’t want to be bothered. The only problem? He didn’t know tai chi.

“I just wanted you to think I know martial arts, so you think I’ll kick your ass if you don’t leave me alone,” he said. “Ironically, tai chi is one of the most peaceful of the martial arts. So I’m in there, doing this Bruce Lee impersonation in black pants and no shirt, because I was so terrified that people were going to see me as weak that that was all I could do. So I’m doing all this stuff, and that’s when it kind of hits me.

“That whole time, my head had been really loud: ‘Nobody’s coming to get you, nobody cares, yada yada yada.’ But all of the sudden, it shut up. It got dead quiet, and I had this feeling, and this voice just kind of came over me: ‘Bogie, you’ve been fighting your whole life to live the way you want to live, and it got you here. Everybody here says they want to help you, so why don’t you just let them help you?’ That thing in my chest that resonated so loudly when dad said that about going to treatment went off again, and there was no other answer than, ‘OK.’ I actually said that — ‘OK’ — and my shoulders dropped.”

The noise in his head didn’t disappear completely, but he started to listen and take suggestions. He completed treatment. And he did what they suggested he do afterward.

“After treatment, I had to do the maintenance: go to meetings, get a sponsor, work the Steps,” he said. “Ever since then, I have not had the overwhelming desire and compulsion to get loaded.”

'The Sober Guy'

A few months later, he returned to Chapel Hill and put together the band Knocked Down Smiling; the guys did club gigs up and down the East Coast and released a couple of independent records, and Bowles developed a reputation as “the sober guy.” His playing improved, and he learned more about the business, and in 1997, eager to learn more, he headed West. In Los Angeles, he studied under jazz giant Joe Porcaro and got enmeshed in the Los Angeles recovery community — and he did so with the blessing of his father, who a few years earlier had sent his son to a treatment center.

“That was a big moment for us, because he was a stockbroker, but he supported me moving across the country to pursue music,” he said. “He really understood and supported it.”

Recovery, he added, meant more than just going to meetings: It applied to all areas of his life, including his music. He remembers going to another teacher and seeking criticism for the purpose of musical improvement.

“In recovery, that’s how we address issues — we look at our part in them, and so I asked my teacher to tell me everything that was wrong with my playing,” he said. “We got together, and he said, ‘This is what I’m hearing, and this is what you can do to address it.’ It was simple things, but for six months, I dialed in on really subtle stuff. At the end of that time, I was part of a recording session, and I remember being in the booth for playback, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was really about being present and paying close attention to what you bring to the situation musically, and that’s a recovery skill, not something I had innately.”

It was around the time he celebrated 13 years of recovery that he got word that Shepherd was auditioning new band members. He tried out and got the job, hitting the road for a year and opening for titans like B.B. King. He also got to know Bonamassa, who was the other opening act on the bill with King.

“We got to be friends, and when that tour ended, I had been home for two weeks when Joe called and said, ‘I’m giving my guys the rest of the year off, and I’ve still got a couple of weeks; want to come sit in?’” Bowles said. “That sounded fun, so I did that, and a few weeks after that, he called me back and said, ‘What are you doing for the next couple of months? Do you want to go to Europe?’ And that turned into five years.”

From music as therapy to music therapy

That was in 2005; with Bonamassa, Bowles played more than 200 dates a year through 2010, and while he got to see the world and rock huge stadiums, he was also ready to get off the road.

“I’d been able to get meetings and work steps with a sponsor, but I hadn’t really had that third part of the triangle, the service thing,” he said. “I was missing that and missing being part of a home group, and so I started to think, ‘I want more from my life than this.’ I still love playing, but therapy was a natural fit.”

Back in Los Angeles, he had sought outside help for depression; it was successful, and he remembered as well the counselors who helped him in treatment. And so Bowles went to school, got a bachelor’s degree and started looking around for graduate schools. As luck would have it, he wound up back at the very institution that had dismissed him all those years ago.

“After 25 years, the universe said, ‘Come back to Chapel Hill and make it right,’” Bowles said. “I got my master’s in social work there, and the greatest thing for me was walking back into my old home group.”

After completing it, he and his wife settled on moving to Nashville; his sister, who was once a Music City resident, suggested Cumberland Heights, and so Bowles sat down with singer-songwriter John McAndrew and other members of the staff to talk about music and recovery.

“I had been in recovery for a while, I had a degree, and it seemed like I was a good fit for what they were trying to do for a musician’s track,” he said. “John and I put that together, and after that was up and running, they hired me to work with the extended care population.

“It’s been a great piece for me, both clinically and recovery-wise. I earn a living, and I still get to play, because I’ve gotten hooked up with a wedding band, and that keeps me fairly busy. We play one to three weekends a month, and I get to go have fun, then come home and sleep in my own bed.”

And while he slides behind a kit with ease, those sticks extension of his hands as much as they are instruments, continuing to play allows him to identify with the musicians who seek treatment at his facility, just as his personal recovery helps him relate on a whole other level.

“Any therapeutic relationship has to be genuine; they have to feel like you’re telling them the truth, and that they’re not being judged,” he said. “Having been there, I think they understand that I am telling the truth, and who the hell am I to judge? We get to relate on that level, and I get to show them, ‘Hey, man, this is what’s possible.’ You just have to set aside your own BS, because all the stuff of addiction really isn’t true. It’s just you trying to cope with stuff in a way, and you’ve got to get to the truth of what’s going on with you.”

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