Recovery Unplugged's Richie Supa on the 60s, Drug Culture, and Getting Clean

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 17, 2019

(l to r) Steven Tyler and Richie Supa.
(l to r) Steven Tyler and Richie Supa.  (Source:Photo courtesy of Richie Supa)

There was no place like Greenwich Village in the late 1960s, according to Richie Supa, the legendary singer-songwriter who wrote hits like Aerosmith's "Amazing" and a driving force behind Recovery Unplugged, music-based treatments centers that are redefining the model for addiction recovery.

There was music filling the air, love in the back rooms and bathhouses — and rebellion on the streets. The Stonewall Uprising rocked Christopher Street in 1969, while everywhere youth were burning draft cards and bras. But there was a dark side to the glory days, too.

Supa was at the epicenter. When he wasn't performing he'd catch Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Andy Warhol's proteges, The Velvet Underground, play live. "There was a very colorful scene back then in Lower Manhattan with clubs like CBGB, where Patti Smith and the Ramones exploded from," Supa says, "and Max's Kansas City. Debbie Harry was a waitress there. Lou Reed played there. The New York Dolls, too. I believe it was the first time the youth started to have a voice, and that voice spoke through music. It was just a beautiful era."

(l to r) Steven Tyler and Richie Supa.
(l to r) Steven Tyler and Richie Supa.  (Source: Photo courtesy of Richie Supa)

Alongside the glamour and glitter represented by Warhol's trans performers Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, amid the hope that permeated so much of the music of that time, came the horrors of overdose and addiction. Everything from heroin to LSD permeated the youth counterculture of the day and eventually, as they always do, drugs started to take their toll. This was undoubtedly true in the LGBTQ community, which today averages rates of addiction 10 to 20 percent higher than the general population.

"Everybody was going full speed ahead because no one knew the downside," Supa says. It was socially accepted. But people started to get heavily into it and started losing friends — it was 'Oh, my God, did you hear who died?' By the time reality hit, tens of thousands of people were already strung out. I got caught up in it big time, too."

Supa continued using heroin and cocaine for two decades, avoiding death because, he believes, he was meant to help other addicts. The idea of how he should go about that came after he wrote "Amazing," an ode to addiction and recovery. He began to hear firsthand stories about how the song provided comfort and inspiration to those struggling to get and stay clean. Out of this experience, and in partnership with Recovery Unplugged's chief strategy officer Paul Pellinger, Supa helped launch Recovery Unplugged, which uses the curative power of music to help addicts and alcoholics achieve sobriety.

"Music is a catalyst for change," Supa, RU's director of creative recovery, explains. "It's therapy. It creates dopamine, lowers your blood pressure — it's very, very cathartic. A song about addiction can take you back into your disease and make you live it, without ever having to pick up that drug. Music is also very non-threatening, so when you have an addict who listens to the music, it breaks down their defenses. And that's the beginning of the healing process."

(Source: Getty Images)

Along with opening up Recovery Unplugged's clients emotionally and encouraging them to share the traumas that led to their substance abuse, music also lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain that drugs do. It's such a powerful tool in the battle against addiction that just seven to nine percent of heroin addicts leave RU against medical advice. (The national average is 42 percent.)

The company's success has enabled it to stretch its wings from the Fort Lauderdale flagship location to centers in Austin, Texas; Northern Virginia; and Lake Worth, Florida, with Nashville, Tennessee to open soon. Each site offers programs specifically developed for LGBTQ clients.

Supa wishes Recovery Unplugged had been around back in the good old, bad old days.

"There was no such thing as recovery back then," he says. "The term 'disease of addiction' wasn't even invented yet. No one knew what it was about. The bottom line is that kids who get addicted to drugs are wired differently. They have a compulsive disorder. Why does the child of an alcoholic become addicted to drugs? Because it's passed down to them genetically. Today we recognize addiction as a disease. So, we're saving lives."

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Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.