Kevin Bowe: Songwriter, producer, rocker and 40 years sober

Kevin Bowe

Growing up in the 1970s, Kevin Bowe — recording artist, producer, engineer and a fixture of the Minneapolis scene for four decades — operated under the assumption of the American dream.

The Ties That Bind UsHis mother’s family came to this country after escaping the horrors of the Holocaust. His father was a nose-to-the-grindstone upper middle class worker bee who came from stock that believed if you labored hard and long enough, the best you could hope for was not going to bed hungry.

Together, they built a nice little life, and as a kid born into white, upper middle class privilege, Bowe started out his teenage years a few rungs up the ladder from his folks. It didn’t take long, however, for drugs and alcohol to yank him back down to reality, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I think the first thing I had working for me was that I had this really well-developed sense of upper white middle class entitlement that, in an odd way, worked for me,” he said with a chuckle. “I was raised and conditioned in a way that only white people with money in this country can be. My generation was the first one that got that message of, ‘If you dream it, you can do it — you can be president!’ I was born and raised to believe I could do anything, but by the time I was 18, life wasn’t working out the way I had planned, and I realized, ‘I can’t be president! I don’t even think I can run for Congress!’

“I was 18 years old, and my family did a traditional intervention on me to get me to go to treatment. I didn’t have to go, because I didn’t have anything legal hanging over me, and I was already 18, but I decided to go. I remember sitting in that intervention and hearing them talking about rehab and thinking, ‘This sounds really horrible, but I have to admit — things aren’t going as I had planned!’ In a way, I kind of did it out of arrogance: If I don’t do something, I’m not going to have this dream life I feel I’m entitled to.”

Kevin Bowe: A man of many hats

Kevin Bowe signs his first publishing deal with Leiber and Stoller in 1993.

Of course, the “dream life” he envisioned at 18 turned out to be nothing like reality — but it’s something of a dream, nevertheless. Consider Bowe’s pedigree: He signed his first publishing deal with the iconic duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, back in the 1990s. He’s gotten to work with everyone from Paul Westerberg and The Replacements to Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Etta James, Joe Cocker and John Mayall. Lucinda Williams and Bruce Springsteen have both sung his songs.

He’s written songs for three platinum-selling albums and two Grammy-winning ones, and while he no longer plays music professionally, he still works on the other side of the studio glass to help others with their career. His own studio, The Kill Room, is a boutique sound lair in Minneapolis, and when he talks about new acts he’s working with, his voice takes on the hyper-excitability of a kid talking gushing over a new toy.

“Lately, I’ve been working with Johnny Solomon and his band, Communist Daughter, which is amazing,” he said. “They’ve got something coming out fairly soon, and it’s some of my favorite music that I’ve worked on. I’m also working with this Pittsburgh band, the Ghost Hounds, which is sort of nuevo classic rock. These guys are some of the only people I've met in the recent past who love rock ‘n’ roll and are really good at doing it.

“They’re just finishing a new album that me and Vance Powell worked on, and the other singer I’m super excited about is Jessie Key. She lives in Nashville now, and I just did a bunch of stuff with her that we wrote and recorded together. I haven’t worked with a singer that good since Jonny Lang or Joe Cocker.”

It’s the same excitement when he was 13 years old, and a friend introduced him to the seminal “Live at Leeds” album by The Who. Everything about it spoke to his young brain — the tracking of the instruments, the lack of overdubs, the incendiary nature of a performance captured in the moment — and it was the catalyst that made him pick up the guitar, he said.

“I liked Pete Townsend,” he said. “He wasn’t a handsome man, and he had a nose the size of Kansas, but I had this idea in my 13-year-old mind that this guy probably has limos full of girls and drugs. And I thought, ‘That’s for me!’”

A Twin Cities rock 'n' roll fairy tale

Kevin Bowe

Kevin pre-show at the Rolling Stones' Washington, D.C., performance in 2019. A band for whom he's served as songwriter and producer, the Ghost Hounds, opened the gig.

That was in the mid-1970s, and Bowe began playing in a high school band around 1976 that covered the Rolling Stones, among others. The rock ‘n’ roll he heard on the radio, however, felt alienating — too complex, almost.

“When you first start learning guitar, to learn music by bands like The Who or the Ramones, I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s easy to understand,” he said. “More calculated things like Journey or Foreigner didn’t really do anything for me. I’m able to see now the value in that music, but I felt really alienated by it, and I felt really bad, because I couldn’t listen to radio anymore. I couldn’t imagine trying to learn guitar by listening to a Journey record.”

That’s when he began to discover punk — specifically, the clanging cacophony of the burgeoning Minneapolis scene. The late 1970s were a heady time, and in retrospect, Bowe’s musical upbringing is the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll fantasies: Paying $3 at the seminal Minneapolis venue First Avenue to see Prince in the main room, then wandering over to the second hall and seeing the Replacements or Hüsker Dü.

“I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be in this musical nirvana,” he said. “It was kind of the place to be, and I was so ready.”

And because he experienced those things after he got clean and sober at 18, he still remembers them. In fact, he pointed out, he’s never had a drink in a bar because he got clean so young.

“The first two years of getting high for me were awesome; nothing bad happened, and it was great,” he said. “But after that, it was kind of not great. It was all chasing my tail, trying to get back to that original time I had, and it didn’t work, so I had to do harder and more drugs.”

And, he added, booze was only a part of his regimen when he ran out of drugs. While the intervention that changed his life may not have been completely altruistic in the wake of his parents’ divorce — “I was living with my mom, who was pretty permissive, and I think my dad saw it as an opportunity to help me and make my mom look bad,” he added — it was still a reckoning that he faced up to from the outset.

“I got called to the principal’s office at school, and I was high,” he said. “Right away, I decided, ‘OK, you assholes, I’ll do it.’ I definitely didn’t have a good attitude about it. And at the end of the intervention, they said, ‘OK, we have a bed waiting for you!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, you mean NOW?’”

Kevin Bowe grows up

Kevin Bowe, circa 2015.

While residential addiction treatment laid a solid foundation, the house of recovery that’s become his permanent home was completed when he left treatment, 28 days later, and transitioned to a halfway house. The rules there were strict, and for an entitled kid, it was exactly what he needed.

“I was coming out of this white bread suburb, and they told me, ‘You have to get a job.’ I said, ‘I have a job — I’m a drug dealer!’” he said with a laugh. “They told me, ‘You can’t own a car; there’s no sex, drugs or drinking; you have jobs at the house; and every night, you have some kind of group.’ It was maybe one of the luckiest breaks I ever got in my life.”

Mostly, he said, because it opened him up to the world of reality. Each room at the house contained four beds, and Bowe found himself rooming with a black man, a gay man and a Native American. Within two weeks, they were his best friends; within a month, he had formed fast friendships with other residents of the halfway house who were into punk rock as well. And by the time he left the facility, he had turned a corner.

“I was done with (drugs), and I knew I was going to be done with it,” he said. “By the time I got out of that halfway house, the punk rocker dudes in there asked me to play in their band, and that was my first time playing in clubs. I got out, joined their already existing band, and one of my first gigs with them was opening for the Plasmatics. The other guys in the band were sober, so that was kind of our thing.”

It wasn’t always easy, especially those first couple of years. Temptation didn’t bypass him, but in some respects, being a part of a scene that included the Replacements was a good motivator, he said with a laugh.

“If you ever want to figure out why you should be sober, go play with the Replacements,” he said. “It just didn’t look that fun to me. They’re one of my top favorite bands in the world, but right from the beginning, a lot of their fans were into them getting too drunk to play well, until all they did was play Bachman-Turner Overdrive or Deep Purple covers.

“The first time, it was funny, but after that, I was like, ‘Or, you could play those great songs you wrote! It was boring, but it was a defining part of the culture here. I guess I did feel left out sometimes, but whenever I’m feeling left out, I just leave.”

A passion becomes a career

Kevin Bowe

Kevin Bowe (left) with Etta James. The two began collaborating in 2002-2003.

For years — through most of the 1980s — Bowe toiled in relative obscurity, slugging it out in the Twin Cities scene and standing on the periphery of greatness. He played in “OK bands — not great, not shitty, mostly opening for bands way better than me” — and filled out the live music calendars during on week nights for most of his club trajectory. His break came, he said, when his then-girlfriend/now-wife was hired by Prince to run a couple of his nightclubs in town, and she booked Bowe for an opening gig at one of them.

“At that point, I was 30 or 31, and I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing with my life?’” he said. “I was married, I was sober, but I was only making $50 when I play. But I did that show, and David Rivkin, who produced a bunch of stuff for Prince, was in the audience. He took me aside and kind of said, ‘You’re not great, and your band isn’t great — but your songs are really great. If someone more talented than you were singing them, you could make some money!’

“I didn’t even know what publishing was, and I didn’t know anything about the business, but I gave him a cassette of some of my songs, and he took one and put it on Kenny Wayne’s record. So my first cut (“Riverside”) was on a gold record (Shepherd’s 1995 album “Ledbetter Heights”), and I realized, ‘Oh! This is what I’m supposed to be doing!’”

At 32, he quit his day job and threw himself into music full time, and that train has never stopped. In 1994, while playing in Fargo, N.D., he shared the stage with Lang, then a 13-year-old unknown blues phenom. The two struck up a friendship and writing partnership, and when Lang visited him in Minneapolis, Bowe introduced Lang to Rivkin, who produced Lang’s first two major-label efforts. (Bowe got a writing credit on 1997’s “Lie to Me” and three co-writes, along with a solo credit, on Lang’s 1998 Grammy-nominated “Wander This World.”) Leiber and Stoller signed him, and for the rest of that decade, he sharpened his pen.

After the turn of the century, Lang moved to the West Coast, and Bowe realized that the ever-changing nature of the music business demanded that he learn other skills besides just writing and performing. Oh, he still had the songwriting chops to turn heads — made evident by a phone call he got circa 2002 from iconic blues/R&B singer Etta James.

“Her producer played her some of my songs, then he called me and said, ‘Someone wants to talk to you,’” Bowe recalled. “He put her on the phone, and we talked, and we actually got to be friends and hang out a few times. I wrote four songs on an album of hers (2003’s “Let’s Roll”) that won a Grammy (for Best Contemporary Blues Album). I still can’t believe that happened.

“The best part? She was just fixated on the fact that I was completely sober. She kept saying, ‘Really? Twenty-five years and nothing?’ One day, she looked at me and said, ‘So you got one of those 25-year medallions?’ I told her yeah, and she said, ‘Man, I must have gotten that one year 25 motherfucking times.’ She was very funny.’”

Kevin Bowe: 40 years and counting

The past 20 years have been a whirlwind of writing, production and even performance — Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets debuted in the 1990s and played regularly up through the release of the 2018 album “Every Part of the Buffalo,” but about four years ago, he retired from live performance.

“I’m just super, super busy in the studio, and I much prefer the studio,” he said. “I just got so bored playing live and playing the same rooms, over and over. Plus, I’m not really a night person. Plus, there was a part of me — and nothing against the Stones or Aerosmith or older guys still doing it — that decided it’s just not for me. I like the idea of helping younger people do what they do rather than me being on stage saying, ‘Look, man, I’m still relevant! I still rock!’”

Plus, he’ll always have his memories — of touring with and playing guitar for Replacement frontman Paul Westerberg on the latter’s 2005 tour of the United States and Canada; of playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band Double Trouble at the group’s first reunion; of touring as a guitarist in 2011 for Freedy Johnston; of touring in 2013 playing guitar for Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris; of touring Australia and playing songs with the cast members of the hit FX show “Sons of Anarchy.”

He still attends recovery meetings, but the sobriety he first showed up to get has reverberated throughout every aspect of his life. He still gets asked, from time to time, how he did it — how he managed to stay clean and sober for what will be 41 years come April 20 (and no, it’s not lost on him that his sobriety date is 4-20) — but any of Bowe’s advocacy for sobriety is carried out through the ongoing fulfillment of his life’s work.

“I’m never the kind of person who would bring it up with someone, because I’m just not that kind of a person — but I’m also not the kind of person who will shut the door in someone’s face if they ask for help,” he said. “I’m not an anti-drug or anti-alcohol person, because those things were never the problem. The problem was me. I tried running from that for a long time, but I’m a slow runner, and I always got caught.

“It’s funny, because my sobriety date is 4-20, but I like to tell people that back in the ’70s, we didn’t need an ‘everyone get high day.’ We just called it ‘day.’”

And eventually, those days lose their luster. That he saw it at 18 doesn’t change the fact that when his old way of life is put under the microscope, he doesn’t like what he sees — what he was, or what could have been, had he not gotten sober.

“I’ve got nothing to brag about, but I’ve also got nothing to hide,” he said. “I keep coming back to the word ‘boring.’ You know how, at the end of the show, they’ll turn on the lights? And you’ll see everyone standing around looking at each other, and they think they’re all beautiful and interesting, and I’m looking at them thinking, ‘Dude … you’re standing in a pile of your own vomit. It’s not interesting.’ It may seem a little interesting when you’re 20, but it’s really not.”