Although he was on the cusp of 30 back in the late summer of 1987, guitarist Ricky Byrd felt more like he was about to turn 80.
By that point, the drugs and the booze were breaking down his body as much as they were his mind, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently. Four years earlier, while on tour with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, he flirted with death after severely collapsing a lung from too many long nights of doing too much of everything, and as the band — which Byrd joined for the “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” album and subsequent superstardom — continued to dominate the charts, Byrd found himself slowly slipping away.
“I was 128 pounds, doing a lot of blow, not in good physical shape, and I couldn’t stop — but then, I never really tried to,” he said. “I had a night here and there that went on too long, bad stuff that would happen and all this remorse, but I never really gave it 100 percent, and as the days went by, I kept telling myself, ‘Tonight I won’t be as bad.’
“By the time I turned 30, I thought, ‘This is it. I’ve got to stop,’ because all the telltale signs were there, so from Oct. 20 of ’86 until Sept. 25 of ’87 — which is my clean date — I tried to stop, and I have my diary from that year, which shows that I was not very successful. For that year, I would tell myself, ‘I’m just going to go out for dinner and have a club soda,’ and then it would turn into, ‘Well, maybe just one,’ and of course it never was just one. And the more you fail, the worse you feel about yourself, and the more you have to use to get rid of the pain.”
As the summer of ’87 came to a close, Byrd found himself at a wedding, sitting next to an old acquaintance with whom he’d partied in the past. As was par for the course in their particular circles, he leaned over during the reception and asked if she was holding.
“She said no, that she went to these meetings now and was this and that, and I was like, ‘Good for you,’ and I started to look around the room for another victim,” Byrd said. “But she kept talking, and funny enough, one night almost a month later, I was looking in the mirror. It hadn’t even been a horrendous night, but I was staring at myself, and my nose was bleeding, and my heart was beating out of my chest, and there was nothing left in the house to use.
“I picked up the phone and I called her, and the next day, she took me to my first meeting. And that was it. I was done. I didn’t go to rehab, because there weren’t a lot of them at the time, but when I walked into my first meeting, I just felt completely at home, and I just kept going. Because don’t we all just want to feel a part of something? As a little kid, I never did.
“I wasn’t a jock, but I played sports; I was a musician, but I played guitar,” he added. “So when I walked into this place, and everybody was talking about shit I had been thinking, my first thought was, ‘Whoa — how long has this been going on?’”
Ricky Byrd embraces those 'Sobering Times'
Thirty-three years later, Byrd continues to return to the recovery meetings that helped save his life. Although he stepped away from the Blackhearts after a 10-year stint during the height of the band’s success, he’s continued to serve as a guitar-slinger extraordinaire for some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll: Roger Daltrey and Ian Hunter among them, and over the past three decades, he’s shared stages with everyone from Paul McCartney to Ringo Starr to Bruce Springsteen to Joe Walsh to Alice Cooper, just to name a few. When Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, Byrd was part of a searing finale, rocking the stage alongside Walsh, Starr and McCartney, among others, after receiving his statue and giving a speech.
Despite such high-profile accolades and opportunities, however, the most meaningful work of Byrd’s post-Blackhearts career has been his last two records, which celebrate his sobriety. His most recent, “Sobering Times,” is a blistering set of bloozy rock that’s reminiscent of early-‘70s era Stones, dirty hooks and freight-train melodies that swagger and stomp through 12 tracks that demonstrate Byrd, who recently turned 64, has lost none of his chops and in fact sounds better than ever.
“It’s important to me that the music is rock ‘n’ roll, because this guy’s not going to put out a goofy self-help record,” Byrd said with a chuckle. “What I wanted to do was slip the message in there, so that if you’re struggling, you’re going to immediately hear something you connect with and identify with. If you’re in recovery, hopefully it reminds you of why you’re in recovery. If you support the recovery lifestyle, fabulous. And if you’re a rock ‘n’ roll fan, it just kicks ass.”
“Sobering Times,” released Sept. 25 (his 33rd sobriety “birthday,” incidentally) and currently available exclusively through his website, has received a slate of glowing reviews, but like everyone else in the industry, Byrd is stuck at the starting line in terms of promoting it because of COVID-19. It’s frustrating — to all musicians who aren’t able to tour, make a living and play before live audiences as they once did — but if sobriety has given him anything, it’s the ability to accept the things he cannot change.
“I’ll have to adapt. We’ll all have to adapt, because musically, this pause is going on for at least another six months or a year, if not longer — who knows?” he said. “Right now, I’m just doing interviews and trying to sell the record and spread the recovery message.”
And once he is able to get out and play, one of the first stops will likely be a drug and alcohol treatment center. For years now, Byrd has carried the message into facilities around the country , leading recovery music groups where men and women are just starting out on their journeys, and while few things rival the sheer joy of banging out power chords with a full band surrounding him, one that does is seeing the light of connection come on in the eyes of his fellow addicts and alcoholics.
“The reaction I get from clients sitting in front of me is worth the price of admission,” he said.
A rock 'n' roll lifer is born
All these years later, Byrd still marvels at the people and places to which sobriety — and life, for that matter — has led him. Growing up in the Bronx, he was a child of divorce, and when he and his mother moved in with his grandparents, the swinging sounds of Sinatra and big bands were the soundtrack of his youth, along with early rockers, crooners and singers from the 1950s. (His mother, he added, was a fan of Dion, he of “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” fame — a man who’s now one of Byrd’s personal friends.)
Everything changed in 1965, however, when “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a variety program that aired on Sunday nights, featured two British upstart bands in the same year: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
“I always felt different when I was a little kid — I was quiet and shy, and I loved music, art and baseball. I lived up the block from Yankee Stadium, and Mickey Mantle was my hero,” he said. “When I saw the Stones and the Beatles in one year, I just kind of knew, because it tied into feeling different. I remember after seeing the Stones, I identified with how different they were, and then there was the thing about how the adults on the show kind of looked down on this new music that made it very attractive to my outlaw side.”
He immediately pleaded with his mother for a guitar. Her boss, Byrd said, gave her a knock-off acoustic that he would, later in life, donate to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he immediately fell in love with this new form of expression. At 13, when he and his mother moved to Queens, he fell in with other kids who were caught up in the changing groundswell of popular music, all of them on fire for the cacophonous sounds of rebellion, fed by the no-genre limits of AM radio stations that broadcast across the city.
“There were all kinds of genres on one station, because it was just Top 40, and that gave me something I could soak up like a sponge,” he said. “It still comes up now in my music. That’s when I knew what I wanted, when I kind of got an inkling that I was attracted to this life.”
In junior high, he connected with other budding musicians who invited him to jam, impressed by his talent to play from memory. He didn’t know many chords back then, he said, but he had the innate ability to hear a song on the radio, pick out the notes and replicate them while another teen banged away on a garage drum kit and another laid down bass lines.
“In Queens, playing in garage bands, that’s when I kind of crossed the line,” he said. “I don’t think I ever thought of doing anything else. I never thought I’d grow out of it and be a lawyer or something.”
That’s also, he added, when he smoked his first joint.
Ricky Byrd and the art of circling the drain
“Being a kid that felt a little different and off center, that first joint made my brain feel like, ‘This is interesting,’” Byrd said. “Now, the deal is, my dad died as a result of alcoholism, and so did his grandfather. I definitely have the genetic part of it. And then I always felt different and shy, so when you put all those things together, it’s the perfect storm.
“When you’re 13, and eight of your friends are behind the schoolyard smoking a joint, not all of them are going to wind up with an addiction. Some people grow out of it; some people reach 50 and still occasionally break out a bowl with the wine. But for me, I was locked in.”
As time went by, his use progressed slowly, not unlike that of so many others who start out using casually, never suspecting they’ll one day be sitting in a drug rehab or standing in line for coffee at a 12 Step meeting. Playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands eventually led to being a part of the city’s sprawling music scene, and as he gained a reputation as a guitar player, his various projects evolved in scope and stature, eventually taking the stage in some of the city’s most famous nightspots. Beer lead to liquor; weed led to pills that aren’t around anymore, like Quaaludes and Tuinals.
“I did quite a bit of everything until the late ’70s,” Byrd said. “Now, the clinical part of it, the part of it for people who have addiction, is that when you switch on the pleasure center of your brain, it turns on this craving for more, but it’s actually a physical response as well. It wasn’t an accident. The part of my brain that’s wired a certain way is common among people who have addiction issues. I just had that, and the deal is, you did more regardless of the consequences.
“Even if you fell in the street six times, if you got robbed outside of a club, if you wound up in strange places, you still did more. There was no remorse back then, because I was still a teenager and had no responsibilities yet. It’s all fun and games with some bumps and bruises, but then you get into your 20s, and you’re still acting like you’re a teenager. And now you’re mixing stuff, combining, experimenting, and odds are that won’t end well.”
Byrd, at the time, suffered from the same selective reading of suggestions as so many addicts and alcoholics do. Do not mix with alcohol? Nah, let’s see what happens. Take two every six hours? What if I take six every two hours? Fortunately, Byrd said, he had minimal experience with heroin, and it didn’t hurt that as a rocker, those substances were the bane of so many of his idols.
“That wasn’t a thought, then, but it was always grass, booze and pills, and then in the late ’70s, I was introduced to cocaine,” he said. “That was like, ‘Hello!’ If anybody asks me if I did any heroin, I tell them at the end, I snorted some. Not a lot, and that was right before I got clean in ’87, and I was really lucky, or I would have taken to that like a duck to water.
“But I wasn’t a guy who said no to anything. And once cocaine hit, it was just a matter of time before I was circling the drain.”
Blackhearts, big stages and the beginnings of sobriety
By then, Byrd had been part of a power pop outfit called Susan, which released one album on the RCA label in 1979. In 1981, Jett was looking for a new guitarist, and Byrd sat in with the Blackhearts. The chemistry was immediate, and he jumped feet first into the “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” sessions. One of the landmark records of the early 1980s, it would go on to sell 10 million copies, and the title track sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for seven weeks.
On “Album,” “Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth” and “Good Music,” he continued to hang in there, but it was a rough ride, he said.
“I used for 18 years, and maybe the first nine or 10 had some bumps and bruises, but it was still fun and games,” he said. “I was just playing in the sandbox. But the final stretch was brutal. I couldn’t stop, and it was just a mixture of cocaine and Jack Daniel’s and any pill I could find and a good deal of pot.”
As part of a world-touring rock band with easy access to any drug imaginable, Byrd doesn’t consider those days particularly difficult because of rock ‘n’ roll. After all, he pointed out, he has friends in the garment industry and the cooking industry who were able to get their hands on any and all substances as well, and if he’s learned anything about himself in the work he’s done in recovery and as an addictions counselor and recovery coach, it’s that the addict will always persevere. Whether they’re sleeping under bridges or in penthouse suites, if they want to get high, they’ll find a way to do so.
“Maybe it was more available, and maybe you got kind of a free pass (in rock ‘n’ roll), because you were supposed to be that person,” he said. “It went with the image, but I know plenty of people who fell by the wayside that had nothing to do with the entertainment business.”
He also knows this: Recovery can work for most anyone, if they have the desire to stop using and the willingness to do what it takes to stay stopped and be honest with themselves. It all starts with surrender and asking for help, he pointed out. It takes time, and it takes determination, and Byrd summoned up both. And what he found, he said, was that the communion of brokenness between addicts and alcoholics united in the common purpose of recovery was the lifeline he needed to pull himself back into the light.
“You can’t talk too much about the meaning of interacting with other people that sound and talk and feel like you do,” he said. “We in recovery speak the same language. One of the issues is that we feel unique and different, and (this process) takes that off your shoulders when you walk into a room, and someone is sharing something you were feeling two weeks ago. I’m reminded of that movie, ‘My Name Is Bill W.’ (the fictional biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), when Dr. Bob (Smith, A.A.’s other co-founder), played by James Garner, says to Bill when Bill first visits him, ‘There’s no way you could help me.’
“And Bill, played by James Woods, looks down at him and says, ‘I’m here so you can help me!’ That’s been one of the things that’s been helping me get through this pandemic semi-sane: reaching out to people with less time than me and just chatting with them. Just being involved and not letting this stop the process of recovery. Just doing the next right thing and spreading the message.”
Ricky Byrd: Reborn as the 'Recovery Troubadour'
When Byrd left the Blackhearts in 1991, he signed a publishing deal with Sony, and his services as a guitarist were soon tapped by both Daltrey and Hunter. In 2018, he went back to school and became certified as a counselor-in-training, as well as a recovery coach, and last year, he worked part-time in a treatment facility, something he hopes to resume when the pandemic eases. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment has been bridging the divide between his music and his recovery, which began over a decade ago, when he was asked to perform at a recovery event in Florida, he said.
“I had no recovery songs as of yet, but my good friend Richie Supa (a long-time collaborator of Aerosmith who’s now involved in the Recovery Unplugged program) said, ‘Come down and do this event,’” Byrd said. “I said yeah, and he told me we’d just play some blues, it would be outdoors in Fort Lauderdale, and that we’d have some fun.
“But then I had people coming over to me saying, ‘I grew up on your music; it’s so cool you’re in recovery!’ Or they would start telling me their story or someone in their family’s story, and I thought, ‘I kind of like this. This is cool.’”
Not long after, another recovery event led to a similar response, and Byrd sat down to write a recovery song with Supa. “Broken Is a Place” would become the final track on his 2017 album, “Clean Getaway.” The response was electrifying, he said, with fans from around the world messaging him to tell him how much they identified with the lyrics.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Huh. That’s interesting! Maybe I can combine my love for music and my love for recovery,’” he said. “The final stamp of approval was when I did an event in D.C. for another organization, and I remember coming down for soundcheck in the elevator of the hotel, and in the lobby, there must have been a few hundred people there for the events, and they were all wearing T-shirts with photos of people they had all lost to addiction on their shirts. They told me all of these stories, and that’s when I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ve gotta do something here.’”
The more invested he became, the more recovery-related songs he wrote, until eventually, with a half-dozen, he reached out to a Florida-based treatment facility with a branch in New Jersey. He was spitballing, he said, but he wanted to play music for hurting people. Administrators agreed, and Byrd found the muse he needed to push “Clean Getaway” over the finish line, four years after he released the album “Lifer.”
For like a year, I was doing four groups a week, and the clients would come up to me afterward, and I would see on their faces the tears and the laughter,” he said. “Not all of the songs are horrendous, because you’ve got to have a sense of humor about the dumb things we do when we’re high, but they would come over and say, ‘You told my story. I wanted to leave (treatment), but the second song made me want to stay.’
“And then they started to ask, ‘Where do we get this music?’ And I didn’t know! I procrastinated for a while, but then I came to the conclusion that I had to do a record.”
Keeping what he has by giving it away
Despite glowing reviews, all of them in agreement that the subject matter ranged from visceral to witty to hopeful without every approaching sappy or preachy, Byrd ran into what a lot of artists in recovery, who feel passionate about the combination of their sobriety with their rock ‘n’ roll, do: difficulty in getting it played. Undeterred, he distributed the record to clinical directors at treatment centers in the New York area, and he continued to embrace his role as a “recovery troubadour” — a guy with something to say, but a hell of a vehicle in which to say it, thanks to a smoking six-string in his hands.
He's returned to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on numerous occasions to serve as a recovery ambassador with his peers, performing his recovery-based songs and spreading the message to anyone who wants (or needs) to hear it, and when it came time to make another record, Byrd could only grin when that familiar theme of recovery’s redemption threaded the 12 tracks on “Sobering Times.” He made the record with a who’s who of his peers, including keyboardist Jeff Kazee of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Wings/Ian Hunter/Joe Cocker sideman Steve Holley on most of the stick work, “Saturday Night Live” vocalist Christine Ohlman on backup vocals and Willie Nile on the full-throttle thrill ride original “Recover Me.”
There’s even a cover of the old Merle Haggard classic “The Bottle Let Me Down,” reborn as a barrelhouse rocker that retains its essential truth: The bottle certainly did let Byrd down, but the one that that never has is the recovery to which he credits it all.
“My recovery is about doing the deal,” Byrd said. “Today I’ll do it, and tomorrow I’ll get up and make that decision again. I’m not anonymous with my recovery; I’m anonymous with the methods of my recovery, but I go on my social media all the time, and if anybody’s struggling, I tell ’em to private message me, (so we can) have a chat. And then I do the usual stuff through regular 12 Step recovery stuff, which always comes down to helping people. That’s what it’s all about for me.”