NEW YORK—It was 1998, and Gene Bowen had maintained six years of sobriety. He had enjoyed being a tour manager for some of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest legends like Gregg Allman and Soundgarden, but after his last tour managing Jeff Buckley, he was ready to pack it in. Buckley had tragically drowned in the Mississippi River, and that was the final blow for Bowen.
He needed a change of direction. The music industry that he loved had also been a source of pain, but maybe it could also be a force for good.
For the last 20 years, Bowen and his good friend Jack Bookbinder have been bringing together music industry professionals and kids recovering from addiction or facing other adversity to talk and create music: a therapy that seems to work.
“At the end of the day, this is not rocket science. They just want to be loved. They want to know that they have value, and they want someone to believe in them,” Bowen said about the countless young people they have helped.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Life
Live music has been Bowen’s passion ever since he was a kid. He saw his first live concert when he was 9 with his older brother, and the spectacle of live music immediately captivated him. As he grew slightly older, he would bike around the city to see more and more live music.
It wasn’t just the show that drew him into the world of rock ‘n’ roll; there was the intrigue of the backstage.
While he didn’t have any musical ability, he found he had logistical talent. At first, he was just a young punk getting in the way (he was known as “the kid”). However, the young Bowen eventually made friends and built relationships with some of the roadies, turning his music obsession into a successful career.
On the Road
After Bowen graduated high school in 1982, he went on his first tour working for one of his idols, the blues musician Papa John Creach who played with notable bands such as Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. With 225 shows a year booked, Bowen was on the road full time.
At an early age, he was exposed to an environment where drugs and alcohol were prevalent, and they helped him cope with the stress of the job for the next 10 years.
“There was always a lot of fear,” Bowen told The Epoch Times, describing being a roadie as “an enigma of a career.”
“It was extremely unpredictable. You’re at the whim of a band, you’re at the whim of a label, you’re at the whim of so many variables that could always change at any moment,” Bowen said. “So drugs and alcohol were my constant companion.”
Bowen rose through the ranks and went from working as a roadie to becoming a tour manager for a variety of different artists. He slipped into using cocaine and amphetamines to keep up with the fast-paced nature of the job.
After suffering a back injury during a tour, he started to become familiar with the world of opioids, which eventually led into a full blown heroin addiction.
Bowen, ever conscious of the unpredictability of the music entertainment industry, decided to get a college degree just in case everything fell apart. He enrolled in New York University’s music business management program where he met Jack Bookbinder, who would become a close friend—and a future business partner.
In 1989, Bookbinder had been working with Sony Music/Epic Records in an effort to get the Allman Brothers Band back together for a world tour. Bowen ended up working as the tour manager for Gregg Allman to make sure the logistics ran smoothly. He was also responsible for keeping Allman on his medication and away from cocaine.
“As you can imagine, I was in my mid twenties and here’s this guy that’s been partying much longer than I’ve been on the planet … meanwhile I had a heroin habit while this was all going on,” Bowen explained.
Sobriety and Temptation
In 1992, Bowen had reached his limit. “Addiction had completely crushed and destroyed my life,” he recalled.
He was 28 years old; it was time to seek treatment and get sober. Advised to step away from the music business, he went through rehab, got a job at the post office delivering mail, and got his life back together.
In late 1993, Bookbinder was working with Columbia Records, which had been bought by Sony, and they reached out to Bowen who was now sober. They wanted him to manage an up-and-coming artist named Jeff Buckley for a two-year world tour. Bowen reluctantly agreed.
“I’m going to put myself back into people, places, and things which I didn’t want to, and I was scared,” Bowen said.
“Gene made it very clear that he would not participate in any parties with drugs, alcohol, that this was something that the Sony people had to respect, and we had to respect,” Bookbinder told The Epoch Times. Bowen found support all along the way.
Tragically, in 1997, Buckley drowned while swimming in the Mississippi River in Memphis. Bowen handled the affairs and returned to New York. He was done touring. Now, he needed to figure out what was next.
Connecting Kids and Music
Bowen went to Bookbinder with his idea for a nonprofit. It would make use of their music industry contacts to help kids going through adversity—whether that was addiction to drugs or alcohol, abuse, trauma, depression and anxiety, or all of them—and they launched Road Recovery in 1998.
They didn’t want it to be purely an arts program or a medical treatment program.
“We’re kind of walking a line,” Bowen said. Road Recovery connects kids with the professional medical help they need while also providing vital mentorship and real-world skills to transition them back into society.
“You can sit on the couch and talk about your problems only so long, you have to engage, you have to take that knowledge and the application of it in your life,” Bowen said.
Peer-to-peer support groups help the young participants open up about their problems, and see that what they are going through is not insurmountable.
Bookbinder himself has type II diabetes, which he was diagnosed with a few years after starting Road Recovery. He was determined to stay healthy, making strict changes to his diet and exercise routine, as well as taking daily medication.
“I didn’t want to leave Gene alone servicing all these kids in Road Recovery, but more importantly I really felt like we were on the cusp of doing something very important as a nonprofit in New York City, and it’s something I wanted to be around for,” Bookbinder explained.
Talking about his own day-to-day struggles with diabetes has helped the young people he meets through the program.
“[When I] share my personal experiences, the kid next to me who thought they had a problem dealing with their drug abuse, overcoming that, in a state of recovery, feels like ‘Wow, maybe I don’t have it so bad,'” Bookbinder said.
“It’s really been an amazing exchange of adversities between myself and the young people in Road Recovery.”
Music is something universal that all people can connect with, Bookbinder says. Making music can also teach crucial life skills, like perseverance, co-operation, performing, commitment, responsibility, and self-confidence.
“The majority of kids that come to us have been so shut down, and don’t even think of themselves as having any creativity,” said Bowen. He helps them find that innate creativity.
Road Recovery invites entertainment industry professionals who have contended with similar addictions and adversity to engage with the young people and produce records and live concerts. In 2008, the organization and its participants started producing records exclusively at Threshold Recording Studios NYC.
“Having these experienced artists, writers, and producers come in and write a song with you, and getting to see their process … that was really amazing,” Mike, a Road Recovery program alumnus, told The Epoch Times.
“Being able to put down what you’re going through into words and in music, it really helps. It really helps the recovery process,” Mike said. He’s been sober for the last three years.
Bookbinder agrees. “It works!” he said with enthusiasm. “It gives [program participants] a sense of purpose. It gives them a sense of a project that they need to take on and bring to the rest of the world.”
For young people in recovery from addiction, it’s a way to re-harness their drive in a positive way.
“They put all this energy into acquiring drugs on a daily basis,” said Bookbinder. “Well, take away the drugs and alcohol, [and] they still have that spirit and that energy to take on something else, so we’re just redirecting that into the creative process.”
They have had many successes over the years. Participants have gone on to further education, have professional careers, marry, and start families of their own.
On the Road Again
In 2017, Road Recovery received a grant from the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services in partnership with Friends of Recovery New York and HFM Prevention Council. With these funds, Bowen and Bookbinder have established a youth recovery movement across the entire state, branded Youth Voices Matter-NY.
The program started as an offshoot from Road Recovery called Rock ‘N’ Ride where Bowen has been riding his bike a thousand miles across New York State to different recovery clubhouses to celebrate the nonprofit’s 20th anniversary.
The duo hopes to implement the Road Recovery program in each of these recovery clubhouses and help even more young people.
There’s no doubt Road Recovery has helped the now 54-year-old Bowen too: “I’m not lost anymore. … I’ve found my place,” he said.