From Skid Row To The San Francisco Conservatory Of Music

Dec 23, 2017

Ben Shirley's story is one of redemption. He'd been playing bass in bars, clubs and arenas in the Los Angeles area since he was 15 when he fell down a path of drugs and alcohol. Four bottles of vodka and $360 worth of heroin a day brought him down hard on Skid Row.

It was at the non-profit The Midnight Mission where Shirley turned his life around in 2011. Now, at 53, he's an undergrad in The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's program of Technology and Applied Composition. He debuted an original piece, "We Need Darkness to See the Stars," earlier this month.

Shirley spoke to NPR's Scott Simon about how music helped him heal, and why the holidays can be an especially hard time for those recovering from addiction.

"The best that I have is that, 'I've been there,'" Shirley says. "If you let it, life will absolutely explode for you in ways you could never imagine. Chances are you're already on a path to something brand new and that other door's opened."

Listen to the entire interview at the audio link.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now a story of redemption Benjamin Shirley played bass in clubs and arenas with bands in the Los Angeles area, living a rock 'n' roll life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: But four bottles of vodka and $360 worth of heroin each and every day brought him down hard on Skid Row. He landed at The Midnight Mission, where they helped him beat his addiction and rediscover his love of music. Now, at the age of 53, he's an undergrad in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's program of Technology and Applied Composition. Earlier this month, he debuted an original composition.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF BENJAMIN SHIRLEY'S "WE NEED DARKNESS TO SEE THE STARS")

URBAN VOICES PROJECT: (Singing) We need the darkness.

SIMON: Ben Shirley joins us from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

BENJAMIN SHIRLEY: Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What a sound. Who's playing?

SHIRLEY: Well, we have members of the Los Angeles Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale, along with UVP, which is Urban Voices Project, comprised of Skid Row residents.

SIMON: And the composition, I'm told, is called "We Need Darkness To See The Stars."

SHIRLEY: Yes, sir.

SIMON: You kind of know the real meaning of those words, don't you?

SHIRLEY: Yeah. I - for me, I needed to go completely black in order to pull out and see the beauty in life, period. You know, I just was not a positive guy.

SIMON: What happened? Can you tell us?

SHIRLEY: Fifteen years old - I was playing the bars, and I just drank my whole life because that's what we did. And I continued drinking. And drug use came in, and it was just - got to a point to where I was unhireable. And at the end, I just - I burned everything to the ground. I was hoping to die, you know?

SIMON: And what happened? How did you change?

SHIRLEY: After multiple treatment centers and psych wards and waking up in jail or waking up tied down in a psych ward, I had to give this thing - recovery - a shot. And I'm sitting here talking to you today because I have a lot of really good people in my life that are helping me and guiding me. And, you know, with that turnaround, I have a network of just super people.

SIMON: How long did it take?

SHIRLEY: To get sober when I went to the Mission?

SIMON: Yeah.

SHIRLEY: Well, I came in 23 or 22 of March 2011. I was hallucinating six months after the fact. When I was - started school - Los Angeles City College - I was still talking to the people that were next to me. But the only saving grace was I knew they weren't there.

SIMON: So it's been five or six years.

SHIRLEY: Yes, six years June 2.

SIMON: Let me ask about school. There you are, a middle-aged man with - how do I put it this way? - a picturesque life story...

SHIRLEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Sitting among, I guess, a bunch of undergrads, right?

SHIRLEY: Oh, yeah. I just - at The Midnight Mission at six months, you were - the opportunity was you start working, or you go to school. And for some reason, I said school. And what recovery taught me was to sit in the front and raise your hand and show up every single day and work your buns off. And I did that. And I started getting good grades, which I never got in school. I was - I always thought I was too dumb. And it just escalated.

SIMON: I'm just going to guess, did any 18-year-old ever say, gee, Ben, what's your story?

SHIRLEY: I was an open book. And there's many times that I was approached, you know, coming out of the bathroom or in a quiet spot in the halls, to where a kid would come up to me and just - like, man. I'm having troubles. OK. Let's - I get it. Believe me. And they knew. You know, they knew my story. I'm not a savior or anything. I just listened to them and shared my experience, strength and hope.

SIMON: So LA City College - then you went to the San Francisco Conservatory.

SHIRLEY: Yes.

SIMON: What did music do for you?

SHIRLEY: I got to see the kids in LA City College be so excited. And I got this feeling of - I was 14 years old again in my bedroom and playing bass. And it's, like, oh, my God. I got the - and I was - you know, classical music was just beaten into my head and finally explained in a way to where - oh, my God. I get it. And it just was brand-new again.

SIMON: Let's listen to another section from "We Need Darkness To See The Stars."

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF BENJAMIN SHIRLEY'S "WE NEED DARKNESS TO SEE THE STARS")

URBAN VOICES PROJECT: (Vocalizing).

SIMON: What was it like to hear your music from those voices, each of whom, it sounds like, had a story to tell and were telling yours?

SHIRLEY: We came out with the text together. That's Urban Voices project Starting that out. And I know from Urban Voices - we lived almost a similar life. It was thrilling for me to listen to them and watch them smile. And they - it seemed to me they were really enjoying themselves. It's great to see the power of music. It connects people to their core, I believe. You know, and we get to share that common bond of international language, universal language of music, rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF BENJAMIN SHIRLEY'S "WE NEED DARKNESS TO SEE THE STARS")

URBAN VOICES PROJECT: (Singing unintelligibly).

SIMON: This is a tough time of year for a lot of people you probably know and have met. But for a lot of people who might even be listening at home who are struggling with some of the problems you know, anything you can tell them?

SHIRLEY: Man, you know what's the - I guess the best that I have is, you know, I've been there. And I couldn't hear it when the old-timers would come to me. It's like, I know exactly what you're going through. Life gets better. And how can I believe that? It's like, you don't know me. I'm different. Well, we're not different. If you let it, life will absolutely explode for you in ways you can never imagine. Chances are that you're already on a path to something brand-new and that the other door's opened. And, you know, I still don't know what the hell I'm doing today. I just show up, and things happen. And I'm astounded every day.

SIMON: Musician, composer, student - I'll say - Ben Shirley. Thanks so much.

SHIRLEY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE OF BENJAMIN SHIRLEY'S "WE NEED DARKNESS TO SEE THE STARS")

URBAN VOICES PROJECT: (Singing) We need the dark.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.