Walk through the fear – Musician/Skid Row Marathon star Benjamin Shirley (The VH Interview)

Last month I reviewed the wonderful Skid Row Marathon, telling the story of the running club started by Judge Craig Mitchell at the Midnight Homeless Mission in LA. This week I was lucky enough to catch up with one of its stars, musician Benjamin Shirley.

Benjamin became a touring musician at the age of 16, and spent the next 25+ years on the road, touring internationally with numerous bands as a bassist, and recording albums and sessions with renowned producers Steve Albini, Jimbo Barton, J.J. Blair, Sylvia Massy, and Rick Parashar. In 1999, he was signed to Epic Records, as bassist for the rock band U.P.O. which released rock radio singles charting in the Top 5.

By 2011, alcohol and drug addiction had driven Benjamin into homelessness. He took refuge in the Midnight Mission on L.A.’s Skid Row and would live in the shelter for the next 26 months.

Yours is a very common example of the vast majority of excessive rock n roll stories which don’t end in success, yet we don’t hear about. Do you think your story could act as a warning lesson for any up and coming musicians?

I suppose it could serve as warning, but in general, I don’t know that it would do much good. If you’re an alcoholic like I am, there could have been warnings every minute of every day, and it wouldn’t have done a thing to deter me from drinking and using drugs. For years I loved the rock-n-roll lifestyle, the touring, the fans, the virtual absence of any responsibility.  I loved getting loaded, and if I said otherwise I’d be a liar.  But there came a time when I wasn’t drinking or getting high because I loved it anymore; I was drinking and getting loaded because the success, parties, fame, etc. still wasn’t enough to fill that ‘perpetually lost’ feeling I’d had as long as I could remember.

I also didn’t know what else I was supposed to do with all of the downtime on the road.  I spent decades on tour buses, crossing the country, and travelling internationally. It was like I went to a party when I was a teenager that lasted until I was in my 40s.   Eventually, I was drinking and using to just be able to function. I got so sick from withdrawal that I had to drink or use, just to feel somewhat human.  At the end, no matter how much I drank or how much heroin I smoked, it wasn’t enough to drown out the lack of purpose I’d essentially felt my whole life.

One thing that hits you when you watch the film is how homelessness can affect people from totally disparate walks of life. Yours, Rafael, David and Rebecca’s back stories are very different yet you ended up in the same situation. Is this a fair reflection of the people you met at the mission?

I met poets, musicians, artists, writers, and filmmakers at the Midnight Mission. I met construction workers, teachers, hustlers, executives, you name it. Addiction and alcoholism are great equalisers. They affect every gender, race, socioeconomic class, etc. Yet there’s still this myth that alcoholics and drug addicts are just lazy losers who are lacking will power, and if we had any at all we’d just stop drinking or using.  Obviously, this isn’t the case as anyone who knows an alcoholic or drug addict knows just how much willpower we have. Where there is a will to get loaded, we will ALWAYS find a way.

Throughout the film, you seemed solidly and unflinchingly resolute to your goal of sobriety and musical progression. How did you get through those times?

I got through the hard times by immersing myself in the recovery process. If I don’t have recovery, I have nothing. I was and still am active in a 12-step program. I go to meetings, I have a sponsor, and I sponsor other guys.  I have to stay connected and committed to it.   If I don’t stay grounded in the recovery process, I’ll be drunk in no time.

Conducting an orchestra playing your own piece looked both wonderful and terrifying at the same time. How did that feel? You looked quite emotional at the end.

That was Kim Planert’s music. He wrote the score for the movie-it actually won best Score at the Milan International Film Festival just a few weeks ago- and this was the final piece of the session. I was assisting him in the control room with the scores. My job was to make sure every note was there, and no mistakes were on the horizon. Just before the last piece was recorded, I was called onto the recording stage. I went in with Kim. The conductor, the uber bad ass Tim Williams announced to the performers that I was to conduct the final piece. I was horrified and walked off the recording stage. I stood on the other side of the door and in my mind, I heard what I’d heard in 12-step recovery meetings for years, “Walk through the fear. Walk through the fear.”  So, I walked back in and said yes.

I got on the conductor’s stand and saw the score. I looked over and the 1st chair violinist, Mark Robertson gave me the nod. I knew then I would be ok. Looking back at the film, I see my form stinks and I was very stiff. I was conducting some of THE best players in the recording world and they were absolutely so kind and loving. They guided me through the piece. Tim Williams was so generous in offering me his baton and giving me the opportunity to conduct. I will cherish that experience for the rest of my life.

How important was the running to your recovery?

Running is meditation for me. It’s beneficial that recovery emphasises the need for meditation. I had been a runner when I was younger but had never run with a club before. From a physical and spiritual well-being perspective, running was absolutely crucial.  The friendships we forged through running together also helped me learn to trust people—particularly people I didn’t trust in the past, like judges, lawyers, and cops.

Craig Mitchell comes across a very selfless but driven man. How did you first hook up with him? Are you still in contact?

Judge Mitchell is a confidante, a friend, and a mentor.  I was living at the Mission when he first started the club, and I’m one of the original members.  There were only a few of us in the beginning who showed up consistently, so I got to know him really well.  Saying he is selfless is a massive understatement.  He is honestly one of the kindest humans I’ve ever met. He cares deeply about people. I count myself super lucky to know him and to remain in constant contact with him.  I see him 2-3 times a week on our runs.  Thus far, we have also been around the globe together 4 times and we are planning our next trip right now.

Are you still running?

Absolutely.  I run with the club on Mondays and Thursdays.  I also run the hills/trails on my own in Hollywood where I live. I’ve done two marathons so far this year and will do another half marathon in October.

Do you think there is more that people can do to help those with homelessness issues, or advice to people on their perceptions of homeless people?

Throwing money at the homeless problem in Los Angeles has been a complete failure.  The epidemic we’re facing is not an easy problem to solve.  There are people who are seriously mentally ill, there are people who are addicted and don’t want to get sober, and there are a ton of people who are homeless because they had a bad month, and their rent went up, and they wound up on the streets.  I can’t even imagine how many more are just one bad month, or a couple of paychecks away from being homeless.  As for advice?  Show up. Show up.  Show up.   Don’t drop off a bag of clothes, or boxes of food once a year to feel good about yourself.  Get involved in organisations that are actively trying to make a difference, like the Skid Row Running Club.

Likewise, I’m the first composer fellow for Street Symphony and this organisation is one of many organisations in my hometown of Los Angeles, which shows up for the homeless community over and over and over again.

Finally, from your twitter feed you seem to be very busy. What are you currently working on?

I do my best to stay busy, because I’m working really hard to build a career as a composer and orchestrator. As I mentioned, I am the first Composer Fellow for Street Symphony-which was founded by Los Angeles Philharmonic 1st Violinist, Vijay Gupta. I currently receive composition lessons from Street Symphony’s Composer in Residence, Reena Esmail.  Reena is an internationally acclaimed composer, and I could not ask for a better mentor or friend. Under her tutelage, I most recently finished a 3- song cycle based on texts by Rumi. I’ve also been commissioned for various projects here and there, and I assisted and co-orchestrated Kim Planert’s upcoming album which will be out later this year.

I’m also making revisions to “We Need Darkness To See The Stars”  (orchestra/double choir) that was performed at Street Symphony’s 2017 Messiah Project.  The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts streamed the event live, and we got great reviews from Alex Ross at the New Yorker here, and Mark Swed, at the Los Angeles Times, here.  This summer, we will take it into the studio to record it.

I have another piece being revised for performance this summer (Hindustani-Western Music) This will also be recorded this summer and placed on a record, which is all I am allowed to say at the moment, and I am currently composing a brass quintet for performance at the end of the summer. That being said, I am always looking for more work, and hope to continue to secure commissions.


More information about Ben and his work can be found here: