The 17th century English poet John Donne famously wrote: "Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes."
It's easy to embrace death philosophically, and perhaps easier to accept when friends and loved ones die of "natural causes." But when deaths are public, premature and of quite unnatural causes, the loss seems unfair. In life there was nothing equal about the otherworldly talent of artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Layne Staley, and Whitney Houston. In each case, these premature departures left a hole encased in sadness, anger and frustration. Adding insult to injury, drug and alcohol addictions were the obvious culprits that shortened the life spans of these artists whose music moved millions.
In the face of such music-related tragedies, friends, family members and business associates are faced with many questions, among them: "What could I have done to help?"
While there is no easy answer to such a question, it's important for people to understand that help comes in the form of organizations such as MusiCares, The Recording Academy's affiliated health and human services nonprofit organization. Established in 1989, MusiCares provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need regardless of their financial situation, with services that directly impact the health and welfare of the music community.
Echoing Donne's equality theory, MusiCares Senior Director Harold Owens points out that addiction is an equal-opportunity offender. "It's the same disease for everyone, even if the circumstances are different," says Owens.
With music-related careers, drug addiction and alcoholism are "occupational hazards" to a certain extent, according to Owens. A musician who is constantly on the road and putting in late nights in the recording studio is susceptible to the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol. Owens emphasizes that organizations such as MusiCares provides support and hope.
The MusiCares MAP Fund has emerged as a leading force in helping to address the problems of addiction in the music industry. Helping to raise funds for its addiction recovery resources, the MusiCares MAP Fund will host its annual benefit concert tonight in Los Angeles. The event will honor Alice In Chains co-founder Jerry Cantrell and certified interventionist and Sony/ATV Music Publishing Senior Consultant Neil Lasher for their dedication to the mission and goals of the MusiCares MAP Fund.
A longtime supporter of the organization, Lasher will receive MusiCares' From the Heart Award in recognition of his profound work in helping musicians in recovery. At the 39th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 1997, he and several colleagues helped initiate the Safe Harbor Room, MusiCares' support system at major industry events for artists and crew members facing addiction issues.
"Not everyone realizes that the GRAMMY Awards is a production that begins with rehearsals on a Thursday and lasts until the broadcast on Sunday," says Lasher. "Musicians, managers and executives needed a convenient place to reinforce their sobriety. The irony is that the first Safe Harbor Room was a bar at Madison Square Garden. The booze was locked up."
Today, Safe Harbor Rooms promote recovery and a sense of community for artists and crew members nationwide at major events such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the Vans Warped Tour.
While a sense of community can be helpful to the addiction recovery process, challenges emerge for friends and loved ones of musicians who are battling addiction. According to Al-Anon Family Groups, an organization dedicated to helping friends and families of alcoholics, "Family members and friends do not cause the alcoholism, and cannot control or cure it." The organization invites people to offer encouragement and compassion while understanding that addiction is a disease. At the same time, Al-Anon teaches people to work on themselves and not focus on the addict. This loving detachment can be difficult to practice, particularly in music circles.
Lasher recalls a story about a prominent rock band in which a concerned drummer confronted the lead singer and suggested he go to rehab. The singer insisted he was "replaceable." When asked about this type of real-world scenario, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer states, "If you care about human beings, you have an ethical duty to try to help them. Losing a job is a small price to pay to save a life."
Kramer was arrested in 1976 and spent more than two years in prison due to his drug addiction. Now clean, Kramer is a music composer for film and television and the founder of a nonprofit organization, Jail Guitar Doors, which raises money to buy new guitars for prison inmates as a means of therapy.
While some may believe that concerned loved ones cannot help an addict who does not want help, Willingway Hospital Medical Director Dr. Robert Mooney disagrees. Mooney provides addiction medicine and psychiatric services to alcohol- and drug-addicted patients at the privately owned specialty hospital located in Statesboro, Ga.
"We've had patients arrive in the backseat of a sheriff's car, resisting, handcuffed and shackled," says Mooney. "These patients can be just as successful as someone who comes to Willingway freely."
While addiction remains a complicated issue, MusiCares Executive Director Debbie Carroll is proud to point out that education about addiction in the music industry has come a long way. For example, MusiCares has developed a program that assists band managers with their efforts to keep a band and crew sober while on the road.
"We've developed a Sober Touring Network, designed to provide support regardless of where an act travels," says Carroll. "Once a tour is planned, the manager can rely on this source to find 12-step meetings nearby the hotel or venue at each stop. In the rare case that a meeting is not convenient, we can help access a support person to meet the person in need or bring a 12-step meeting to them."
With the resources provided by organizations such as Al-Anon Family Groups, Willingway Hospital and MusiCares, addicts — along with their friends and colleagues — have more access to help and support today than ever before.
"Sometimes, I'll get a phone call from someone who is calling simply because their manager or a friend told them to call me," says Owens. "I can often convince them to allow me to help them get sober. When I can't, I plant the seed that I'm here when they're ready."
(Michael T. Mena is a partner in the Redondo Beach, Calif.-based PR and marketing firm Ileana International Inc. He is a former record industry executive who enjoys championing music and music-related causes.)