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Harold Owens Signs Off As Senior Director Of MusiCares: "As Long As The Music Industry Survives, We'll Be Here"
On what seemed like a usual Tuesday morning, the staff at the Recording Academy received some surprising, bittersweet news: Harold Owens, the senior director at MusiCares, would be moving on from the Academy after 22 years.
"I have decided to retire… in part due to age and medical concerns," he announced in an email with the subject "Never Can Say Goodbye." "It has been an honor to serve the music community and the opportunity to address the issues that affect the health and well-being of both the individual and the industry as a whole."
As one of the most beloved members of the Recording Academy and MusiCares families, Owens has touched innumerable lives as a recovery specialist. He's known for drawing from his experience as a recovering addict—he's been clean and sober since bottoming out in 1988—to reach suffering folks in the music industry without a shred of condescension or moral superiority.
"I'm a recovering addict and alcoholic. I usually just tell them that in the beginning," he tells MusiCares. "I will preface it by saying 'Your folks are worried about ya. I've been there. Would you like to talk?' Sometimes, they immediately hear what I have to say and say 'OK, I'll go.' And sometimes it takes a little time. I leave the door open."
While Owens' colleagues are saddened his time with MusiCares is up, they're left with an ocean of memories of his special touch with clients, down-to-earth demeanor and selfless service to all music creators ready to reclaim their lives, relationships, careers and futures.
In his final interview as part of the Recording Academy, Owens opens up at length bout the arc of his life and recovery, how he feels to be closing this chapter and the challenges that MusiCares faces in the future—namely, reversing a particularly menacing epidemic that has already claimed Tom Petty, Prince and Power Trip's Riley Gale.
Photo courtesy of Harold Owens.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
For people unaware of your legacy with MusiCares, can you encapsulate your duties as senior director over the last few decades?
My basic responsibilities, primarily right now, are mental health and substance abuse.
Our team gets all the calls that are related to mental health and addiction. My duties are to respond to intakes, to assess the need and level of care—particularly with psychiatric emergencies. Should we dial 911? Does this person need to be hospitalized? Is it a family member asking for help in handling a certain situation? So, those are kind of the severe psychiatric cases that we get where the acuity is very high. Although rare, they do come up and we have to be able to find the appropriate resources for that client.
For substance abuse, most of our clients are ready to go. They've hit that dead-end that a lot of addicts reach. They make a call and they say they're ready. They don't need any prompting. There are those calls we get from management about their artists. The fact that they have either been showing up late or have had some incidents with other bandmembers—bandmembers have spoken out about what to do, so we'll get a call from management. In that time, we'll figure out a strategy to address the problem.
Sometimes, managers want to stay out of it, and I sometimes encourage that because it's like their parents. They will object just because they're authority figures in their lives, so you have to go through that. I've got to make a call on that one. Sometimes, I prefer just asking.
What I generally do is I'll have management or family talk to the person and ask if it's OK if I call them. I'm a recovering addict and alcoholic. I usually just tell them that in the beginning. I will preface it by saying "Your folks are worried about ya. I've been there. Would you like to talk?" Sometimes, they immediately hear what I have to say and say "OK, I'll go." And sometimes it takes a little time. I leave the door open. That's a typical intervention that we do with substance abuse.
In the past, I've done everything from soup to nuts at MusiCares in terms of financial assistance. We've broken down the programs into certain modules of assistance. During emergencies like Hurricane Katrina, we would all pitch in to do everything, and now it's more separated.
This is a momentous day for you, and all of us. What's going through your mind?
I have stalled on this. I've tried not to even feel the feelings. Retirement is frightening in every sense of the word, and I don't take it lightly. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. God, I just keep moving on. When I was writing that goodbye, I was starting to tear up. It's a very, very sad moment.
I think overall, my feeling is that I've been honest and ethical at MusiCares and the Academy. Not just me, but the whole team. I've learned so much about a lot of different things, in a lot of different areas. I've been privileged to work with some amazing talents. I've been privileged to work with folks who I helped back in the '90s. A&R execs from before I went to MusiCares. When I did, they got sober. Major CEOs and presidents of major labels. To watch people whose careers might have crashed and burned but took the steps that got them back into recovery has been indescribable.
I work with guys who play bars, clubs—small venues—up to stadium-level, legacy artists. I don't discriminate. When I get on the phone with someone, I try to give them my best encouragement and support. The best voice that I needed to hear when I was out there. I try to lend that voice to them no matter who they are.
And the fact that we have the resources—if they can't pay for treatment? Come on! It doesn't get much better than that. Especially during the pandemic, folks have no money. We then offer them care. The premier treatment facilities and mental health facilities around the country give them a discounted rate, or they don't have to pay a dime. I love that I can say that: "Listen, they're going to take care of this. If you can get there, we'll pay for your treatment."
When you survey the decades, there are so many souls in various states of need you've communed with and healed. Which people, or stories, immediately come to mind when you think about the arc of your career?
Well, I always use this one. I think they're OK with me using their name, but I'd rather hold back. A manager who is concurrently very involved with MusiCares came to me about one of their artists. It's a big band with a lot of members. She came to me about one of their artists, I made that call, I got through to this artist and we put him in treatment. He stayed in touch and did well.
There were other artists in this band, too, who equally could have gone into treatment at the time. They just weren't ready. So, we made the decision to hold back and see what happened with this one client. That following year, I got calls from two other people who were struggling and having a hard time. We got to put them in treatment. That's a success story because they're active, current—they just put a new record out.
One person's example to the rest is always the best way to talk about recovery, I think, instead of hitting them over the head. You become an example. People listen to that, and that's what happened to this band.
Given all you've absorbed about your clients' various psychologies, can you shed a little light on how the creative impulse blurs with a need for an altered state of consciousness?
Well, I think there's a convergence of things. You can't point to one thing that makes someone who may occasionally or moderately drink cross over into addiction or alcoholism. What happens, I think, to certain people—typically in creatives—is that when they ingest a substance, for a brief moment, they feel that spark of creativity. If they're songwriters, they'll maybe have that spark that gets them through and they can create.
But what happens with addiction is it gives you some things in the beginning, but once you cross that line, it's like a vice. It just takes all of it away past the point of normal behavior in the way they were before.
It's like borrowing money. You borrow some capital and the interest rate is 100 percent past a couple of months when you become physically addicted. The interest rates are very, very high for people.
Again, you can't point to one, certain thing. But certainly, when I ask every client "Is there a history of addiction in your family?" I'll tell you: 80 to 90 percent mention either a dad, mom, uncle, grandma, grandpa. That's part of our intake, so genetics, I believe, is the number one factor in that. But, again, you can't point to just genetics. It could be trauma. It could be pain.
Musicians come from all walks of life and have, to a degree, suffered. The creative outlet for artists is amazing. They draw from life experience.
If you could have a conversation with yourself back in the '80s, in the throes of addiction, what would you say?
I would tell myself… Well, I've had this conversation. [Knowing chuckle.]
Let me tell you. On October 1, 1988, I was sitting in my car and the thought was "Harold, you have come to the end of the road." I was a failure in my career. I had no relationships. I had recently been fired from UCLA. My parents didn't know where I was. I didn't have a girlfriend or significant other. I was very hopeless. What I said was "You know what? It's really time to check out." There was a calmness over me.
At the same time, I had the thought that "You know what? This disease wants me to have nobody in my life. To be alone. To be sitting in this car and be homeless. To not have a job. This disease wants me dead! The final end is this disease wants me dead! I got to that point, and that was the night. I could have committed suicide that night or gotten help.
I got a little angry and, that night—I luckily had some insurance—I went back to my mother and father and made the call. Next thing I knew, I was getting help.
Can I ask what led to the firing from UCLA?
Yeah! I was totally stoned. I was working with students and coming to work [like that] and not showing up. It was purely about addiction. I was the manager of a bookstore in Westwood and then I got a really great job at UCLA. I'd only been there six months, really, but I was still using and trying to hide it. Eventually, I'd go on one of those binges and not show up and not do anything.
I came to work one day totally intoxicated. They could smell alcohol. I had a call from HR and that was it. I was done. Two weeks later, I was sitting in my car with those thoughts I just told you about. Thoughts of suicide.
And you didn't have a place to stay at that time?
No, I was too ashamed to go back to my parents one more time to bail me out. I didn't have a relationship. Despite having many, I didn't.
Listen: I had great opportunities in my life to succeed. I went to a good school. But this thing, this addiction—it's very cunning. It gives you a little. I would get so far and try to maintain my use, go into programs and try to do a little better, but then always, I would sabotage it and start drinking again, start using pills.
I knew I'd be out of a job or relationship, and finally, when I was 36, this is what happened. I exhausted all thoughts. I didn't have any good answers or reasons to continue living the life I was living. I was in that pain.
It's interesting that it finally took after aborted efforts at recovery. That's what I hear from a lot of addicts: "You have to be done. It helps to be done."
Sometimes. I think there's a great acronym for alcoholism, and it's the "-ism" part. Incredibly Short Memory. The brain wants to forget about the times you hit bottom and blah, blah, blah. It wants to forget. After a period of sobriety, when you ingest something, the brain short-circuits. It tells you "You can do it again." It tells you "This time, you're going to be successful." It tells you "This time, you can be creative," or whatever.
That's the baffling feature of alcoholism: It's a mental health issue. You may be the greatest scientist in the world and have all the answers and brilliance in your chosen field, but when it comes to your drinking or using? I've worked with these people. I've worked with some of the most creative people you can think of. But when it comes to alcoholism, that's a different story, you know? It's a different story.
You can't think your way out of it.
No, you can't. You have to act your way out of it.
Let me tell you something, Morgan, and you can hear me out on this: Right now, there is an epidemic of fentanyl in this community. I've heard of three people I knew who have died in the last three weeks. I was working with one client three weeks ago. He overdosed. He was pronounced dead for three minutes and they brought him back. It's out of this same little pocket in West L.A. that they're getting this fentanyl that's laced with who-knows-what. It's laced, sometimes, with meth. Sometimes, they call it coke. Blah, blah, blah.
Listen: You had Tom Petty. You had Prince. You had all these artists. Michael [K. Williams], the guy from "The Wire"? All those guys died of fentanyl. And I'll tell you something: I tried it once, years ago, when it wasn't even out and it was pharmaceutical. And I went out; I passed out. We're in the horrible grip of an epidemic, and it's fentanyl. They're just making it and shipping it out. I'm very fearful of what's going to happen in the next year.
Prince and Petty were middle-aged, but Riley Gale from Power Trip was only 34.
People think they're taking Vicodin because they're pushing it out! But listen: It's not!
I tell you: I'm scared for a lot of these people. The new folks who may have just gotten addicted and crossed that line. I'm very fearful of some of the deaths people are seeing. MusiCares came about because of Shannon Hoon's death. I worked with Shannon and he was a sweetheart, man. I had him in my care for about two months and he wasn't ready to go back out. Eventually, he did, and I got a call. I think it was in Mississippi that he had overdosed and died.
This was around the time I left that treatment center I used to work for to go to MusiCares. When he died, I think that was the spark that lit not only MusiCares but MAP, with [addiction recovery activist] Buddy Arnold. The Musician's Assistance Program.
I had no idea that MusiCares began in part because of Shannon. I'm a huge Blind Melon fan.
Oh, man! I light up when I think about our conversations. He was a sweetheart, man. He had a tattoo of his grandmother on his arm. He would tell me what she meant to him. This disease really takes the sweetest people and the most creative.
Who was the last person you helped under the MusiCares umbrella?
The last call I got—the last case I wrote up, the last case that I had to do an intervention that I had to do on one of a client's friends—was a guy who was ducking and dodging her. She really did try to help this guy. We spent two weeks wrangling him in, and finally, last Friday, he agreed to go to treatment.
This is a reggae artist, and he also suffers from, probably, bipolar disorder. He was in the pre-contemplation phase about going to treatment. Any time an addict is faced with going into treatment, sometimes, the fear of getting sober is greater than the hell they're living in because they're so wrapped up in the addiction that they think their life is over. If it's an artist, they think their career is over.
I said, "Listen, there's a couple of places I'd love to send you. One of them is Eric Clapton's place in Antigua, the Crossroads Centre." He said "Oh! My father's from Antigua!" And Antigua's a small, little island in the Caribbean. By talking to him, I got a little bit of information that I was able to capitalize on and get this guy to go because he was really headed for suicide as well, I think. According to the mom, he had some severe depression.
Anyway, I say that to say this: That was, ironically, the last case I wrote for MusiCares.
There are so many cool resources still in motion at MusiCares. What can you tell me about the Safe Harbor Rooms you guys produce at festivals?
They essentially started a couple of years before I got there. The first one was at the CMAs, then the next one was at the GRAMMYs. When I came on board, I kind of expanded it to a number of telecasts—the CMAs, the ACMs and the GRAMMYs in particular—and then to big music festivals and events. Coachella, Bonnaroo, a lot of different ones. We have about 10 of them up and running. There's one going on this weekend.
It's for people who are in recovery. At the CMAs, we have a room in the artists' dressing-room area. They always give us room to have meetings and talk. It's kind of like a safe room for people who are struggling or just to reconnect. We serve food. It's a hospitality area, essentially, for people in recovery. That has very much expanded over the years. It's for crew; it's for anybody associated with the show. We've had everybody up there, really. I post signs throughout the venue stating where the room is. We're usually given prime space in most of the venues.
We do Narcan training at festivals now in the artist compound. We provide custom-made hearing plugs for anybody in the backstage area. They're custom-molded and then they go to a lab and it comes back. If you do a drummer, it's a higher level than, say, a background vocalist. You choose the level that you want, since drummers are exposed to a higher dB level than, say, someone else in the band. We've been doing that for quite a while. They cost money, but it's free to the artists.
Beyond the goodbye email, what would you like to tell your friends and colleagues at MusiCares about how you feel to be closing this chapter in your career?
That's a hard question. I want to encourage them that we have moved from just being a grassroots organization to an organization. If I'm not wrong, I think we're working toward being an institution, meaning we'll be here. As long as the music industry survives, we'll be here. That's a really encouraging feeling, and I'm happy to have seen it in its infancy to where we are now. I'm very proud of that.
The talent that is here, again, is amazing. [Vice President, Health and Human Services] Debbie Carroll, [Executive Director] Laura [Segura] coming on board and changing things up and making it more relevant. And getting us the bandwidth that we'd never had before! She has really gotten us the bandwidth to create these different departments. We're a totally different organization!
That means we're able to withstand all the things that are happening. All the disaster relief initiatives that are coming at us twice a year. Earthquakes. Fires. Hurricanes. All that. Twice a year. Guaranteed. It wasn't like that [before]; it is now. The opioid epidemic is with us, full boat. Mental health, full boat.
The fact that the industry is not even back and running yet—we're in a crisis! All hands on deck! And I want to congratulate them. There's not much turnover at MusiCares. There really isn't. Most of my coworkers have been here for 10-plus years, and that says a lot about this organization. It takes care of its people.
Is the future of MusiCares bright, in your estimation?
Oh, yeah. Without a doubt. I think the best way to get the word out about MusiCares is on a personal level, so we wear that coat wherever we are, or at least I do—at festivals, letting people know on a personal level that we're there to help. And they can feel it. That we are on the level and we can help.
I think we're going to be fine. [Pauses to take it all in.] I think we're going to be fine.