NOLA musical icon Ivan Neville savors life’s every moment, thanks to recovery

Ivan Neville
Courtesy of Jim Mimma

Ivan Neville posted an old picture to Facebook the other day, and he marveled at the young man staring back at him from the other side of addiction recovery.

The Ties That Bind UsIt’s been more than three decades since it was taken, he told The Ties That Bind Us during a recent interview, and while the young multi-instrumentalist in his late 20s was dabbling in all manner of substances at the time, he hadn’t yet reached the depths of despair that were on the horizon.

“Those were more innocent and fun times, even though I was doing a lot drugs. I was doing (cocaine) every day, but I wasn’t smoking it, and when I look at that picture, I can tell I was really messed up, but I could see where my face wasn’t totally sunken in yet,” Neville said. “I look very young, and I look pretty good in this photo, even though I had been getting high for a while at this point. In fact, there was a period where, between 1983 and 1987 or so, where I didn’t smoke.

“I had started smoking freebase in, like, 1978 or 1979, but it wasn’t like I was doing it all the time, because it was a prestige drug back then, before there was crack on every street corner, and I couldn’t really afford it. It wasn’t readily available to everybody, so I did it as regular as I could do within my means at the time.”

In the early 1980s, as he began to step out of the spotlight of his famous last name and find his own footing as a stellar player who could make a Hammond B3 organ get up and strut across a stage, opportunities began to present themselves. Smoking cocaine, Neville decided at the time, was too much interference — so he decided to stick to snorting it, he added with a laugh.

“I played with Bonnie Raitt from ’84 to ’86 or ’87, and I wasn’t smoke during those years, but then in the late ’80s, I got real big into it again, and by this time, crack was on the street,” he said. “If you smoked coke after 1985, you were a crackhead, and I definitely qualify as a crackhead, because I went to the depths with that shit!”

It would be another decade before Neville got clean and sober for good in 1998, but until then, his talent refused to be diminished by his addiction, at least until he reached the end of its road. He released his solo album, “If My Ancestors Could See Me Now,” in 1988, and starting in 1986, he began collaborating with the Rolling Stones. He contributed keyboards to that band’s 1986 record, “Dirty Work,” as well as to 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge,” and guitar legend Keith Richards tapped Neville for a spot in his side project, X-Pensive Winos.

Even Keith Richards, however, saw that Neville was headed for trouble.

“The Stones, those guys were great, and even though there are a lot of stories about Keith, when I was around him, he was not some full-on, drugged-out dude,” Neville said. “He did shit, but he used it as a tool, and he was usually the most sane one in the room. I think maybe he could tell what I was doing, and he didn’t like it — none of those people liked that shit!

“I mean, you could almost justify snorting it, because you could do that and still be in a room, playing music. But when you’re smoking it, you’re not playing music — you’re locked up in a bathroom for Lord knows how long! I got a lot of looks like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ And I’ll tell you this about Keith Richards: If that man can tell you that you’re too fucked up, you are too fucked up, OK?”

Ivan Neville: Recovery strong for 22 years

Ivan Neville

Ivan Neville performs at the 2005 Bourbon Street Fest. (Courtesy of Newber Machado) Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

These days, the daily ritual of getting, using and finding ways and means to get more is almost 22 years in his rearview, and while COVID-19 has sidelined the entire music industry — Neville himself contracted it in March and fought back from a scary couple of weeks — he’s nevertheless an incredibly busy man. Dumpstaphunk, a collection of funky groove gods he co-founded with monster sideman Tony Hall, is in the process of mixing a new record, he said, and the first single will be out this month.

“It’s actually got some words that some of our friends might understand — ‘where do we go from here?’ — that’s also relative to this pandemic, because the world’s in a crazy state right now, and the country’s in a really weird place,” he said. “‘Where do we go from here’ is a chance to look within.”

Last month, he was a guest of Turn Up for Recovery’s “Turn Up From Home” series, and he continues to serve as an unofficial ambassador of New Orleans, the city that’s synonymous with the Neville name. His uncle, Art Neville, was a founding member of the legendary funk band The Meters; his Uncle Cyril joined the band in the mid-1970s; and in the late ’70s, the two joined forces with Charles and Aaron, Ivan’s father — to form the Neville Brothers. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Neville Brothers bottled the culture and flair of Crescent City into a potent musical gumbo, and Ivan was often along for the ride.

Both of his parents sat beside him at a 12 Step meeting in California, where he got sober, in August 1999, when he picked up his one-year medallion. Like a lot of 12 Step groups, this particular enclave feted those celebrating sober birthdays with cake and a sobriety coin, because those milestones are important, especially for individuals who couldn’t go 365 minutes without getting high before finding recovery, much less 365 days.

Mama Neville, however, had heard it all before, and even though she lavished her son with praise, it was measured, Neville recalled.

“She basically said, ‘OK, I’m proud of you,’ but it wasn’t like she was ready to give me the keys to the kingdom!” he said with a laugh. “There had to be more proof in the pudding. It took a minute, and it was an ongoing thing. That’s those living amends we talk about in recovery, where you just kind of say, ‘OK, I’m going to do this and keep at it, one day at a time, and I’m going to do this right.’

“That was one way of making amends to my mom — staying sober, one day at a time, and doing it for myself. And in turn, I was repairing these other relationships, specifically the family relationships. And it was fun to see her, over time, say, ‘OK! Alright! You’re doing good!’ But it took a couple or three years. And that just goes to show how funny our mindset can be.

“We grade ourselves on some low standards, because of the addict and alcoholic way of thinking,” he added with a chuckle. “We feel a major sense of accomplishment for doing shit we’re supposed to be doing anyway.”

Laying a foundation to sustain through pain

Courtesy of Chris Granger

Such is the self-centered nature of addiction, but the role recovery plays in the removal of all things self-serving brought Neville back to some semblance of reality. At no time was that more obvious than in 2007, when at nine years sober, he lost his mother after her long battle with lung cancer. The fact that he never once considered getting high to numb the pain of her passing was proof, then and now, of the power of recovery, he said.

“It didn’t even occur to me to get loaded at all. I felt what I needed to feel, and I hurt, and I cried, and years later it occurred to me — that’s what life is,” Neville said. “Why would you not want to feel what life feels like? Sometimes you will feel pain that’s devastating. You will lose a loved one. But it’s almost, to me, like cheating yourself by not wanting to feel that. Why would I cover that up with drugs and alcohol?

“You will feel pain. It’s devastating, it’s really hard, and I can’t imagine the pain that others feel when they go through these things associated with life. But to me, there was something strangely beautiful about experiencing these emotions associated with the living condition.”

His resilience, he added, was born of a strong spiritual foundation established early on in his recovery program. He went through six drug and alcohol treatment programs in the decade before he finally got sober, but that final one was when the principles of 12 Step recovery stuck.

“During those first few years, I was at two meetings a day, and I did some serious Step work in that first year, which I had never done before,” he said. “Getting that foundation set up has done wonders for keeping me solid and learning the things that I learned and using those tools and staying connected. All of that stuff helps you in times when you need soul strengthening, I would call it. Your spiritual condition needs to be very strong, but it needs to be very nurtured to that point.”

Nowhere was that more evident than when he received news of his mother’s death. Dumpstaphunk, which formed in 2003, was playing as part of Jam Cruise 5 — a festival on a cruise ship that offered plenty of opportunities for chemical escape, should he have sought it.

“But it didn’t even occur to me to do something like that, at all, and I would contribute that to being spiritually fit,” he said.

That he stayed sober is a miracle in and of itself; that he never thought about getting high, though, is a testament to a power greater than himself, to which he finally surrendered after a particularly brutal run in the late summer of 1998. He went to his first rehab in 1989, he added, and the longest he had managed to stay clean afterward was six months. He still remembers the end of his run with vivid clarity, down to the house near the intersection of Pico Boulevard and South Spaulding Avenue where everything came to a head.

“I was kind of at a point where I had just gotten miserable: the paranoia, the whole song-and-dance I would go through when I would smoke, everything,” he said. “I was just so messed up, and I just didn’t like who I had become. It was like, ‘This is your life? What the fuck?’”

Ivan Neville: The end of the road, and a new beginning

Ivan NevilleThe house was a waystation for various and sundry unsavory types, he said — the perfect place for a veteran addict to score, hole up, use and repeat. After two or three days, reality started screaming in his ear, and he took stock of his situation.

The money he’d withdrawn from the nearest ATM until his card was cut off. The excuses he was going to have to come up with to explain his disappearance. In that moment, he made a decision and called a friend he knew from the rooms of recovery, with which he had an occasional relationship at the time. He didn’t work Steps, and he didn’t take it seriously, but he remembered the phone number of Marty, the man he claimed as his sponsor, and Neville called him up.

“I called him, and I said, ‘I’m in a crack house, and I think I want to go to a treatment place or something,’ and he came and picked me up from the dope spot and brought me to the musicians union in Hollywood,” he said.

There, Neville found himself sitting across from jazz saxophonist Buddy Arnold, a man whose talents were rivalled by his own proclivity for drugs and alcohol. Arnold, however, had gotten clean and sober and founded the Musicians Assistance Program — MAP — which paid for artists like Neville to get treatment. (In 2004, MAP was absorbed by the organization MusiCares.)

“Buddy was a character!” Neville said with a laugh. “We were sitting there, and he said, ‘OK, Ivan, I’ve got a place for you to go to,’ and this was like on a Thursday. And I said, ‘How about I come back on Monday and go in? Because I’ve got some things to straighten out first.’ And Buddy just looked at me, shaking his head, and he called me a jive-ass motherfucker. Then he said, ‘Tell you what: Don’t get busted, don’t OD, and call me when you’re ready.’”

It would be another couple of months until August rolled around, and Neville found himself once again at the house on Pico and Spaulding. His father and uncles were on their way to Los Angeles for a performance with Dr. John and B.B. King, and while Neville didn’t realize it at the time, they had talked with his sponsor and Arnold and planned an intervention to force Neville’s hand. Addiction took care of it for them, and on the night of Aug. 13, he made another call.

“I told my sponsor, ‘You’ve gotta call Buddy Arnold right now, because I want to go straight to rehab. I’ve got to go right in, because I know how I think, and if I have time to scheme and connive, I’m going to find a reason not to go,’” Neville said. “So he woke up Buddy in the middle of the night, Buddy made some calls, and then he called back — on the dope house landline! — and said, ‘I’m coming to get you.”

They stopped at a 7-11 on the way so Neville could quaff a couple of tall boys on the way to Pasadena. That was the last time he consumed any sort of mind- or mood-altering chemical, even though when he walked through the door of that final treatment center, he wasn’t focused on staying clean and sober for good: He just wanted the pain to stop.

“I just knew that what I was doing was painful, that it wasn’t working any  more, that I was scared and looking out of windows, that I was stinking so bad the funk was just jumping off of me and that my loyal companions in the crack house were looking down on me!” he said. “I thought I was somebody — this musician dude from the Neville family who played with the Stones! — but this was what my life had become.”

The construction of a strong foundation

Dumpstaphunk is completing mix on a new record, the first sounds of which should be released in August, according to Ivan Neville.

Something had shifted, however, and Ivan Neville found his willingness. He was familiar with all of the recovery slogans — “easy does it,” “one day at a time,” “first things first” — but this time around, he took them to heart. More importantly, he took suggestions, surrendering to the fact that while he knew a great deal about music and crack, he knew relatively nothing about how to truly live.

That willingness was something he managed to cling to after he was discharged, and he started attending 12 Step meetings not far from where he was living at the time. From Serenity Manor in Santa Monica to other meetings across Los Angeles, he discovered that sobriety looked and felt … well, cool.

“There were all of these actors and actresses and musicians and people in the entertainment industry, and it looked like a cool hang,” he said. “I’ll be honest — that helped, initially. I don’t know if I would have been that enthused to go if I had been home in New Orleans or someplace else. The meetings there looked very attractive, and it was a cool scene, man.”

As he got into the work of the Steps and the Traditions and the spiritual principles that have helped thousands, if not millions, of addicts and alcoholics find a new way to live, he began to shed the value he put on external trappings. Instead, Neville said, he found that the reward was internal — exemplified by the humility and gratitude he experienced when he started picking up anniversary chips not just for his abstinence, but for the work he had put in to stay that way.

“It was just small, short-term goals — the one-day-at-a-time stuff,” he said. “I had gigs that I was maybe going to play at some point, and I wondered how I would be able to handle going to play music. But I did the research. I talked to people who had done it before, and I got lists of meetings, and then I went to Europe with maybe a few months sober. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody else in early sobriety, but for me, it was what I had to do.”

As a member of the Spin Doctors, he added a whole lot of funk and even took over lead vocals for a while when singer Chris Barron’s voice gave out. And he stayed sober, 12 Stepping his way across the continent and sitting in meetings where even though he may not have understood the language, he knew exactly what his peers were saying.

“I remember sitting in a meeting in Munich, and the meeting was in German,” he said with a laugh. “I was sitting there, listening to them speak, and I couldn’t understand a damn thing they were saying, but I’m nodding my head because I could feel it, and I could feel I was in the right place.”

Over time, getting to 12 Step meeting in whatever city he and his projects happened to be in became part of his routine. In the past, he’d hop in a cab and tell the driver to take him to parts of town where liquor stores and pawn shops were plentiful, because those were the neighborhoods where he knew he could score.

Ivan Neville: Memories are the reward

Ivan NevilleIn normal, non-COVID times, he’s Ubering to church basements and meeting halls, because he’s after a different kind of high. And he still gets it in Zoom meetings during the ongoing pandemic.

“That’s where I go to get my spiritual fix,” he said. “Eventually, I got more comfortable, day by day, with playing music. It was weird at first, because I always used to have a drink to take the edge off. Now, that nervousness? Those butterflies? I want to feel that, because that’s life. Why would I want to blog that out and not feel that shit — the good, the bad and the in between?

“I get to feel comfortable in my own skin, and sometimes, I feel uncomfortable — but I’m OK with that discomfort, because that’s the human condition. That’s life on life’s terms, and when you look at how short life can be, you have to ask: What kind of life do I want to live? I want to know the shit I’ve done. I want to have memories. That’s the reward, and for me, that’s worth the price of admission right there.”

More importantly, those are spiritual riches beyond any earthly measure. The relationships he has today? He’s learned how to be in them thanks to recovery. A son, a father, a friend, a sponsor, a bandmate: He’s all of those things. He’s present, for the smile on his girlfriend’s face when he comes home from tour … the laughter of his son … the talks with his daughter … the high-fives of his fellow musicians when they lock in on a particularly tasty groove in the studio or on stage … the “hugs” at 12 Step meetings and on 12 Step calls.

He’s no longer a spectator in this thing called life: He’s a participant, and a welcomed one at that.

“Gradually, over a period of time, I became the guy who was going to show up to the gig on time, who you could actually understand what I’m saying because I’m coherent and I’m not mumbling,” he said. “You start seeing a different level of respect that people who knew you back then have for you now, and you see the relief on their faces. They’re so relieved you’re like this and not like that crazy guy you used to be.

“And I can play! It wasn’t like the drugs made me play better, even though I told myself that back in the day. I can play so much better in the moment, because I’m here, and I’m present vs. getting high and not being able to wait to take a break to do another bump. My peers all showed me a level of respect, because I showed respect to myself that I had not previously done.

“The amount of respect I feel coming from my peers is invaluable, so much so that I can’t really put a price tag on that,” he added. “We’re all on equal footing, and we’re all showing up, and they’re not having to overcompensate for the guy who’s too messed up to do what we all need to do.”