LOS ANGELES — Whitney Houston’s death last month on the eve of the Grammy awards still has fans and the music industry reeling, but it holds an extra measure of resonance to those whose primary mission is helping struggling musicians put their lives back on track.
The singer’s death at age 48 came just a few hours after the closing notes of the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Person of the Year tribute in Los Angeles, the major fundraiser for the organization’s foundation created more than two decades ago to help musicians in need — many of them like Houston wrestling with substance or alcohol abuse issues.
Though the cause of Houston’s death is still under investigation, one of the many questions prompted by it and the passing of pop stars as varied as Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley is this: If celebrities who have access to every resource available can’t get help, what hope is there for the majority of people who haven’t experienced the smallest fraction of their success?
“You can’t reach an addict when he’s not ready,” said Harold Owens, senior vice president of MusiCares / Musicians Assistance Program (MAP) Fund, who has been counseling others in substance abuse since he became sober about 23 years ago. “I’ve been through the struggle,” he said. “To an alcoholic, I like to think it’s a self-diagnosed disease: Nobody can tell you you’re an alcoholic until you tell yourself.”
Music industry veterans who’ve dealt closely with issues stemming from substance abuse say that though stars may be able to afford the highest quality treatment options out there, their fame and fortune can also can leave them more isolated from the tools they need to overcome their addictions. As a result, celebrities may frequently find themselves in the position of choosing, or being pressured, to continue self-destructive habits just to keep career momentum.
Many longtime associates of Jackson and Presley complained about being unable, in the stars’ final years, to penetrate the circle of handlers they’d surrounded themselves with. “The bigger you are, it really does make a difference because there are so many people involved in your career,” Owens said. “You’re paying people’s salaries and when you cancel tours, it hurts.”
Recording Academy President Neil Portnow has worked in the music industry since the 1970s as a record producer, music supervisor and record company executive. “If an artist needs to come off the road or come out of the studio to be in a rehab program, to be in an environment that isn’t high pressure, in many cases the economics are such that there isn’t revenue being generated.
“In the best-case scenario, the artists themselves will have a sense that perhaps they need, in addition to the team, someone that isn’t part of the business as usual ... someone on the team who is sensitive about it, who has a heart at the core and is basically a decent human being to recognize the suffering, recognize the pain, to recognize the value and critical need for that intervention,” Portnow said. “Not necessarily intervention in the literal sense, but in having a voice there that’s objective and is only there from a medical, clinical, psychological and emotional support point of view.”
MusiCares provides “safe harbor” rooms at various special events where musicians in recovery can go to avoid relapsing. Owens also noted a growing contingent of “sober companions,” whose job is to look out for their clients’ sobriety in the face of the many temptations surrounding them.
“There are some good people and some bad people out there,” Owens said. “The idea is to have someone responsible around during the down time, taking them to 12-step meetings, going with them to the gym or being there at night and helping them process the events of the day.”
Portnow said part of MusiCares’ mission involves not just directly working with musicians, but also with those around them. “Unfortunately, there are many managers or executives at record labels or publishing companies who A) really don’t know what to do or B) they frankly don’t recognize the signs, because these things are rather hard to identify and not necessarily obviously to someone who isn’t familiar with them. The third part, sadly, is that the personal interests of those surrounding an artist on a business level may conflict with what’s the right thing and the best thing to do for that artist.”
Consequently, Portnow said, “We do education seminars for managers and label executives and publishers to familiarize themselves with the signs and give them a road map to really helping these folks. Really in the long run, there may be a short-term suspension of (career) activity, but if you’re looking to have a long-term artist and a long-term career with someone, they’ve got to be healthy and well.”
There are successes, but those stories usually don’t generate nearly as much attention as the high-profile failures. During the Grammy Awards telecast the night after Houston died, Portnow presided over a segment that included video clips from many well-known musicians who have overcome career-derailing and potentially life-threatening personal struggles — including addiction.
“MusiCares works on an anonymous, confidential basis,” Portnow said, “so sometimes it’s tricky for us to wave the flag on the success stories. But in certain cases the artists themselves have a willingness and a desire to be public about it. There need to be examples and voices out there that provide hope and a sense that if he or she can do it, I can do it.”
“There’s a lot of that going on,” he said. “What’s important is for those voices to be there as counterpoint, as a counterbalance to those who unfortunately couldn’t make it themselves.”
Or as Owens put it: “There’s a harsh saying, ‘Some may die so that others can live.’ I think the impact the deaths of Freddie Mercury and Rock Hudson had on the public perception of AIDS is a good analogy to the situation we have now.”
If Houston’s death contributes to a broader understanding of addiction and substance abuse, her legacy might include more than the million-selling recordings she left behind.
“In turning the tide as far as perception, I think that’s true here too,” Portnow said. “We need to have a clear-cut understanding of this as a disease, the things that lie behind it and the things that are necessary to treat it. Given the breadth and scope of who this affects in our culture, a more healthy perspective would be very welcome.”