Photo by Jim Schnepf. This story appears in the December 2010 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. by Tom Matthews, photo by Jim Schnepf Itwas late June of 2010, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had settled into the Marcus Amphitheater for a two-night Summerfest stand. A week earlier, the band had released Mojo,a new album […]
This story appears in the December 2010 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
by Tom Matthews, photo by Jim Schnepf
Itwas late June of 2010, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had settled into the Marcus Amphitheater for a two-night Summerfest stand. A week earlier, the band had released Mojo,a new album that included a dark rocker called “Running Man’s Bible.” The song is about mortality, close calls and the unexpected death of a friend (“It was not in my vision, it was not in my mind/To return from a mission, a man left behind”).
The dead man in the lyric, Petty had told Rolling Stone a few days before, was Milwaukee’s Howie Epstein, bassist and harmony singer in the Heartbreakers for 20 years before a devastating drug habit got him fired from the band in 2002. He died a bleak junkie death less than a year later.
A sincerely loved man in an industry not known for its kindness, Epstein’s death was a brutal loss not just for his bandmates but for anyone who ever made music with him. Besides Petty, Epstein had recorded or performed with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, The Rolling Stones, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Linda Ronstadt. As a producer, he had revived the career of country singer Carlene Carter and helped create two of John Prine’s most acclaimed albums.
Now Tom Petty had memorialized his fallen comrade in a song. Playing in Epstein’s hometown, Petty could have acknowledged the friend he “left behind.” But the mention didn’t come. Though the Heartbreakers performed “Running Man’s Bible” that night, Petty didn’t explain its significance to the one crowd that would have been most affected by it. And the song was dropped from the next evening’s Summerfest set list. An opportunity to play a poignant coda, to generously celebrate Howie Epstein’s remarkable musical journey, was lost. The Heartbreakers, it seemed, had moved on.
The journey for Howie Epstein began, as it did for many kids of his generation, in front of the television on a Sunday night, watching The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Born in July 1955, Epstein was the oldest of three brothers. Already owning a guitar and demonstrating considerable talent for an 8-year-old, he formed his first band within weeks of falling under the spell of the Fab Four.
“There was a guy named Chris down the block who had a snare drum,” his brother Craig recalls. “The rest is history. Music was it.”
Howie was encouraged by his father, a drummer and music lover who had managed local bands. By the late ’60s, Sam Epstein was driving his son all over town with an amp and a piano player, providing music for restaurants like Beyond the Sea on Brady Street. The young Epstein would play backyard cookouts, bar mitzvahs and skating parties at the Blatz Pavilion. It wasn’t cool, but it began a pattern of dues-paying that would serve Epstein well when he embarked on a music career.
Crisis came first, though. In April 1970, Epstein’s father suffered a massive heart attack at age 37; he died five months later. It was a blow from which Howie’s mother Judy would never recover. Coping with her loss by largely retreating from her responsibilities as a single parent, the Epstein house on Lake Drive became band central as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s and bar mitzvahs lost out to rock ’n’ roll. According to Craig and a family friend, there was little parental restraint as Howie and his two brothers hosted raucous jam sessions that were often shut down by Fox Point police, either because the music was too loud or the brothers were beating the hell out of each other.
Howie’s bedroom became the center of the universe for young boys inflamed by music. “His room was full of these bizarre wrestling posters until Springsteen and Petty came along,” recalls Jason Klagstad, one of Epstein’s earliest and most enduring musical partners. “Then the wrestlers had to share space with the musicians.”
Epstein and Klagstad met at a bar mitzvah party in 1967, and both would graduate from Nicolet High School. Klagstad – who later played guitar in such pivotal Milwaukee bands as Semi-Twang, Plumb Loco and Arroyo – instantly bonded with Epstein over a serious devotion to their craft. To Klagstad, his new friend personified cool.
“He was the guy who would always be wearing topsiders with no socks, faded jeans and an untucked shirt,” says Klagstad. “Always a smile on his face, with a slight stubble. Usually some acne, but he didn’t care. There was just never a tense moment when we got together.”
After graduating high school, short-lived bands with names like Egz, the Winks, Forearm Smash and Lord Nose came and went, with Epstein, Klagstad and a core group of musicians contributing to what was a vibrant local music scene throughout the ’70s.
“There was no talk of stardom; it was all about writing and playing music,” says Klagstad. “But it was unspoken. Everybody believed they were going to be the next big thing.”
Maybe it was to run away from a tumultuous family life. Maybe he was more driven than the others. But despite being surrounded by equally talented musicians, it would be Howie Epstein who made it big. In 1976, he and his brother Craig saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Milwaukee’s Uptown Theater. Six years later, Howie would be in the band.
His big break came in 1978. Danny Schmitt, a Milwaukee drummer who had played in the fondly remembered band Short Stuff, had migrated to Los Angeles and was playing with John Hiatt. Hiatt was then a hard-living, hard-drinking newcomer still scrapping to build a career. When the bass player spot in his band opened up, Schmitt put the call into Epstein back in Milwaukee, and the 23-year-old musician was on a plane west about as fast as he could pack his gear.
Craig Epstein’s eyes still water as he recalls their farewell. “My mother and I drove Howie to the airport with his guitar and his suitcase,” he says softly. “I remember my mom crying. She knew he wasn’t coming back.”
John Hiatt is asked his first impressions of his new bass player. “I was a terrible drunk at the time, so my memories are vague,” he says with a rueful laugh. “All I remember is a sweet little straight-laced Jewish kid from Milwaukee with an afro.
“He was severely afflicted with the Midwest honk,” laughs Hiatt, referring to Epstein’s Midwestern twang. Hiatt hails from Indiana. “I had it pretty bad, but he had that added M’waukee.
“He was just a sweetheart, and he loved to rock ’n’ roll.”
Epstein recorded the 1980 Hiatt album Two Bit Monsters and toured the states. One can only imagine the debauchery that young men playing seedy nightclubs at the dawn of the hopped-up ’80s were able to indulge in, but Hiatt distinctly recalls Epstein as the soberest of the bunch.
“Howie was the sane one. He was the least likely to have wound up the way he wound up,” says Hiatt, who got sober in 1984. “I remember feeling no matter how crazy everybody else got, I could always look to Howie and think, ‘Well, Howie’s got his shit together.’ ”
When the Hiatt gig ended, Epstein remained in L.A. and embarked on a run of gigs that can only be chalked up to a Midwestern work ethic. Exploiting every connection he had made with Hiatt and taking advantage of his slowly growing reputation in the industry, Epstein worked relentlessly as a musician for hire, performing with anyone who would have him. He played on gospel records and even contributed to a Village People album. (“He never put that one on his résumé,” Craig Epstein smiles.)
Another such gig might have seemed like scraping the bottom of the barrel. Del Shannon was a pre-Beatles rocker who had had a No. 1 hit in 1961 with the song “Runaway,” but by the early ’80s, Shannon was barely eking out a living. Howie Epstein was his bass player.
But this is the gloriously intangible stuff Big Breaks are made of: Del Shannon had a fan in freshly minted rock star Tom Petty, who was determined to get his hero back in the game by producing a new album for him, backed by the Heartbreakers.
And Ron Blair, the Heartbreakers’ original bassist, had abruptly quit the band.
A quick replacement was needed. Shannon recommended his bass player, Petty fell in love with Epstein’s musical talent and – most significantly – his singing voice, and just like that, Howard Norman Epstein from M’waukee was a member of one of the biggest bands in the world.
In a display of the career cold-bloodedness that has allowed Petty to stay at the top of his game for almost 40 years, he hired Epstein away, though Shannon begged him not to. Shannon insisted any career revival was dependent on the talented kid who ran his band. And perhaps it was. Shannon’s comeback album flopped, and his fortunes never returned. He killed himself in 1990.
On Sept. 4, 1982, Epstein played one of his first live shows with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: They headlined at the huge US Festival in San Bernardino, Calif. According to Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and then-drummer Stan Lynch, Epstein may as well have been playing to a couple hundred at Teddy’s on Farwell.
“This was like his second gig with the band,” marvels Tench. “We’re playing in front of 250,000 people. And right in the middle of the set, Howie casually strolls over to Stan, shouts over the music, ‘You call that drumming?’ then walks away.” He had just joined the band, and already Epstein was good-naturedly razzing his drummer.
“And we’re thinking, ‘What are we going to do with this guy?’ ” says Tench. “He was bloody terrific.”
Twenty years of recording and touring had commenced, and the highlights would include some cornerstone moments in modern rock history. In July 1985, Epstein and the band played before an estimated global audience of 2 billion at Live Aid. Out of that event came the first Farm Aid concert two months later and an invitation from Bob Dylan for the Heartbreakers to serve as his backing band for a one-off performance. The chemistry was perfect, and eventually a Bob Dylan/Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tour would circumnavigate the globe for a year and a half. It was on this tour that Tench and Lynch had their greatest adventures with Epstein.
“We played Tokyo with Dylan [in ’86],” recalls Tench. “Howie calls me and says, ‘Let’s hit the streets in Tokyo. Let’s go find a cup of tea.’ He said he found the name of a great place and that we’d be dropped off.
“I asked how we’d get back, and he said, ‘Oh, we’ll figure it out.’ So we’re dropped off somewhere in Tokyo. I have no idea where we are, he doesn’t either, all of the street signs are in Japanese – and it was terrific,” Tench marvels. We just walked around and saw the sights in our bubble of ignorance of culture and language.”
“Wherever we landed, there was always a posse waiting for Howie,” says Lynch admiringly. “We got to the Middle East and he says, ‘Hey, man, I have some friends that are in the military and they want to take me on a tour of the old city.’ Next thing I know, there we are at the Wailing Wall with a military escort, thanks to Howie. Or we’re sitting on the Mediterranean talking to chicks, and all because of Howie.
“I’d walk out of a hotel in Cincinnati, and there he’d be in the town square, sitting around playing music with somebody by a fountain. He was beautiful.”
The gimmick of the Dylan tour was that in the middle of a show, the famously unpredictable legend might announce a song from his voluminous trunk of material, and the Heartbreakers would do their best to play along – often in a different key or time signature.
One night, with a crowd of thousands watching and waiting, Dylan called for a song Epstein didn’t know. Dylan got prickly, going so far as to wonder if a more knowledgeable bassist wasn’t needed. Tom Petty sided against his Heartbreaker: “The song is on a record, Howie,” he scolded. “You really should know it.”
To which Epstein drawled: “Yeah, well, Debussy’s Fourth Symphony is on a record, and I don’t know that either.” He then turned his back on the two rock icons and probably went looking for a cigarette.
Immediately after the Dylan tour ended in October 1987, Petty effectively shut down the Heartbreakers for a couple years as he embarked on his first solo album and his work with the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup that included Dylan and George Harrison. Suddenly idled, Epstein embarked on what may have been the most creatively satisfying period of his career. In the same way he made opportunities for himself after the John Hiatt job ended, Epstein wasn’t going to sit around waiting for Tom Petty.
He sensed he might have a talent for record production, and he had an artist with whom he wanted to find out: Carlene Carter, the daughter of country legend June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. A punk-influenced country starlet whose reputation for wild living was better known than her music, Carter had lived in London in the late ’70s, where she married (and divorced) punk/pop pioneer Nick Lowe. Her early albums generated some attention, but a string of weak efforts – and serious alcohol and cocaine dependency – brought her career to a halt by the time she met Epstein.
According to Perry Lamek, another Nicolet grad who was Epstein’s primary songwriting partner from high school through the mid-’90s, Epstein saw himself as Carter’s Svengali. “He was going to re-create her,” says Lamek, a longtime contributor to Milwaukee Magazine. “He threw himself into her career.”
The resulting album, I Fell In Love, was recorded in Epstein’s home studio in L.A.’s Coldwater Canyon. When it came out in November 1990 it was a hit, thanks largely to the title track, which Epstein and Lamek co-wrote. As they did going back to their teenage days, Lamek wrote the words, Epstein the music, and they refined it over the phone, Lamek in Milwaukee and Epstein in L.A. The single went to No. 3 on the country charts, the album became Carter’s biggest seller, and Epstein and Carter embarked on a 13-year romantic relationship that would come to define the meaning of ill-fated.
Out of I Fell In Love came another recording project that may stand as Howie Epstein’s masterwork. John Prine, a revered Chicago singer/songwriter, had enjoyed critical praise and middling record sales since his first album in 1971. By 1990, he was recording for his own small label and releasing his records by mail-order. He hadn’t put out new material for nearly five years.
“Then in 1991,” TheNew York Times wrote, “Mr. Prine caught a break: He hooked up with Howie Epstein from Tom Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers.”
Epstein took Prine into his home studio, solicited the help of various Heartbreakers and such luminaries as John Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen, and over nine months recorded The Missing Years. Not unlike the way the teenaged Epstein used two tape recorders in his bedroom to layer track upon track of his rudimentary home recordings, the album was painstakingly built one instrument and voice at a time. Yet it has the organic purity of a full band of musicians recorded at their creative peak. Perfectly capturing Prine’s endearing charm and playful, existential befuddlement, the album is a stunner. The Missing Years won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Epstein and Prine reunited for 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, which is only slightly less engaging. Unfortunately, the album marks the pinnacle of Epstein’s creative output. Professionally and personally, things were beginning to decline.
In November 1994, Tom Petty released his second solo album, the career-best Wildflowers. While Tench and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell play on it extensively, Howie Epstein makes only token appearances.
“I think Howie was beginning to fade on us a little bit,” Tom Petty told a writer about the Wildflower sessions. “He had his big problems beginning then.”
Epstein would still be on board for the Wildflowers tour, but things had changed dramatically. Stan Lynch, the Heartbreakers’ voluble drummer, had just been fired, costing Epstein a steadying influence in the band. He began isolating himself, requesting a separate tour bus, supposedly to accommodate the new love in his life: Dingo, a massive German shepherd that for years would accompany Epstein everywhere. Including, occasionally, on stage.
“It was the best look in the world,” recalls Tench. “There’s Howie, playing his bass and singing better harmonies than you ever heard in your life, and there’s this giant dog at his feet, looking up at him with all the love in the world. I think Howie and Dingo were literally best friends.”
But Tench suspected there was something darker going on in Epstein’s bus. “If you have any proclivity to misbehave, it’s bad when you start isolating yourself – and I’m speaking entirely from personal experience,” says Tench, who acknowledges his own drug and alcohol abuse before getting sober in the late ’80s. “Isolation is not good for the addict. It’s just more time by yourself to do drugs.”
Epstein’s local friends and family downplay the seriousness of his usage, insisting he was practically drug-free while living here and remained largely so until meeting Carlene Carter around 1990. Lamek, who stayed with Epstein regularly in L.A. from 1980 to 1991, is adamant that Epstein did not use drugs of any kind in his presence and that the nature of their friendship made it impossible to disguise this.
But others claim that by the time he joined the Heartbreakers in 1982, Epstein was more than a casual user. Lynch recalls that during the recording of Long After Dark, Epstein’s debut with the Heartbreakers, Epstein was smoking opium. Discussing the recording of their 1985 album Southern Accents, Petty is quoted in the book Conversations with Tom Petty as saying, “I remember seeing heroin in the studio. … I think we all probably tried some one night when Howie offered it to us.” (Petty declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Of course, the ’70s and ’80s were rotten with corrosive drug-taking, and Epstein hadn’t exactly signed up for the Rotary Club. Finding himself in the major leagues of rock ’n’ roll, it would’ve been noteworthy if Epstein wasn’t getting high.
But as Epstein’s drug use increased, he eventually became ripe for a fall. As Hiatt sagely observes from his own experience, “Once addiction gets hold of you, there are only three things that can happen: You’re gonna get locked up, sobered up or covered up.”
And the middle option – the only good one – becomes nearly impossible when you’ve fallen in with someone who encourages your worst inclinations.
By 1995, the relationship between Epstein and Carlene Carter had taken on a dark, toxic edge. While they managed to release another successful album in 1993, the basis of their bond appeared to be rooted in drugs. Lamek blames her – not Howie’s dog – for the isolation that was beginning to distance Epstein from his friends.
“Her personality was the complete opposite of Howie’s. She was domineering and controlling,” Lamek says. “I had my conversations with him about her, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to say it really wasn’t the right situation for him.
“It was the first time in all the years I knew Howie that I saw his personality changing. He would pretty much do everything she wanted.” (Attempts to interview Carter were unsuccessful.)
When the Heartbreakers played Alpine Valley in September 1995, Jason Klagstad worked with Howie to arrange a backstage gathering of many of the musicians Epstein grew up with. But Epstein stayed away. Moments before showtime, he emerged from his tour bus, staggering and white-faced and not even acknowledging his old friends just a few feet away. Neither Klagstad nor Lamek would ever see or talk to Epstein again.
A year later, Epstein and Carter moved to Tesuque, N.M., 10 miles from Santa Fe. As they eventually fell in with a hardened bunch of addicts, bikers and hangers-on (which some media accounts would later describe), Epstein’s friends in Milwaukee and Los Angeles began to experience an almost complete lack of contact. Cell phones went dead, messages went unreturned, and suspicious-sounding characters picked up the phone but were never able to get Howie on the line.
When Epstein traveled back to Los Angeles in 1998 to work on Echo,the next Heartbreakers’ album, Tom Petty found him unable to perform. Reeking of heroin smoke, Epstein would disappear for long periods of time. “He wasn’t all there in the studio,” Petty said. “He started to make mistakes.”
The time came to take the band photo for Echo’scover, but Epstein never showed. Petty, his patience pushed to the limit, ordered the photo shoot to go ahead without his bass player. When the new album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was released in the spring of 1999, Howie Epstein was literally out of the picture.
As another tour beckoned, Epstein was still a Heartbreaker despite his plummeting health. Craig Epstein eagerly looked forward to an April ’99 performance on Saturday Night Live, but Howie’s appearance that night told his younger brother something was very wrong. The short but strapping kid who had swaggered out of Milwaukee 20 years earlier was now frail and gaunt, his face misshapen by a broken nose that would never be explained.
“I was starting to get concerned,” says Craig Epstein, who for the 20 years Howie was in the Heartbreakers would usually only see his brother on TV or briefly when the band passed through town. “I’d ask him, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’d just say, ‘It’s cool. Everything’s fine.’
“Howie was a stubborn guy,” Craig continues. “Whether it was our mother trying to get him to cut his hair or me trying to find out what he was doing with drugs, he wasn’t going to listen.”
The Echo tour was a grueling slog across the country. Stan Lynch hadn’t spoken to Epstein since being fired from the band in ’94, but he’d been hearing the same dark rumors as everyone else. He’s still furious the band carried on as if nothing were wrong.
“I’m really pissed that Howie was allowed to die while in the employ of a multimillion-dollar corporation,” Lynch says, referring to the Tom Petty empire. “There were only four or five principals in that corporation, only four or five people who mattered, and Howie was at the top of that list. So why were they on the road at all when Howie was so sick? What was more important? Apparently, not Howie.”
“I confronted Howie once or twice,” counters Benmont Tench, “but from my own experience, I knew if you come on too strong, they’ll just tell you to get lost. But I told him I would kill him if he died. I said it somewhat in jest, but it was deadly earnest.”
Craig Epstein declines to assign blame, saying his brother was a grown man who was responsible for his own actions. His one regret is that no one with the Heartbreakers contacted him sooner. It wasn’t until Epstein hit rock bottom – and perhaps was beyond saving – that Craig and B.J. Epstein were encouraged to join their brother on the road for a kind of intervention.
“I said to Petty’s manager, ‘You’re calling me now?’ ” Craig Epstein recalls. “ ‘He’s sicker than heck, why did you wait three years?’ ”
The Echo tour ran until the fall of 1999, then everyone went their separate ways before they were to reunite in June 2001 for some East Coast shows. A few days before the first gig, Epstein and Carter were arrested in New Mexico with black tar heroin and a large amount of drug paraphernalia. They were driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee that had been stolen from a car dealer months earlier. The theory was that Epstein was stocking up on dope for the upcoming tour.
Heartbreakers lawyers scrambled to New Mexico to spring him in time to make the first concert in Pennsylvania, and a broken and disgraced Epstein made it to the arena just minutes before showtime. The remaining concerts – including a final Fourth of July Summerfest appearance – were heart-rending for bandmates who genuinely loved their once-amiable bass player. By the end of the tour, Tom Petty strenuously coaxed Epstein into rehab in Miami, which seemed to provide a brief recovery.
But when the band next reconvened – this time to be enshrined into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March of 2002 – the sight they met was grim. Lynch, who was invited to perform with the band as a founding member of the Heartbreakers, was horrified.
“A little bag of dust walked in,” he says, referring to Epstein. “The Howie I remembered would beat my ass at arm wrestling. He was a tough kid. But when I saw him at the rehearsals, he was almost emaciated. He didn’t look 100 pounds soaking wet.”
To see the deathly pictures of Epstein from the Hall of Fame ceremony was to know what was coming next. Two months later, with a new tour looming, it was announced that Howie Epstein had been fired from the Heartbreakers. Later admitting to the media that he was too “chicken” to do it himself, Petty had his manager give Epstein the news. After sharing a relationship that lasted two decades, Petty never spoke to Howie again, Craig Epstein contends.
Epstein retreated to New Mexico, and friends and family were left to assume the worst. Craig made reservations to fly west to confront his brother, but in trying to get a sense of what he’d be walking into, he heard too many stories about tough characters in Howie’s house with knives and guns and parasitic lives they might fight to protect. As the father of three children, he decided he couldn’t risk his own life trying to save his brother’s.
The heroin bust finally drove Epstein and Carter apart, and by November 2002, she was living in Nashville, Tenn. It was then that a new boyfriend – 26 years her junior – was struck and killed along the side of a road when a drunken Carter abandoned him after a fight. A month later, she was arrested for identity theft, accused of having used the dead boyfriend’s prescription to get Zoloft.
Epstein and his seedy entourage remained in the New Mexico house, and over the weekend of Feb. 22, 2003, things spun out of control. It began with the mysterious death of Epstein’s beloved dog Dingo. Epstein died the next day, at age 47. Despite suspicious circumstances that nag him to this day, Craig Epstein accepted the coroner’s ruling that surprised no one: heroin overdose.
The funeral was held at Temple Menorah in Brown Deer. Lynch and Tench – Florida boys who found fame and fortune in sunny California – braved Wisconsin in March to attend services for their friend. While he would put together a tribute to Epstein in Los Angeles, Tom Petty did not come to Milwaukee, nor did he extend personal sympathies to the Epstein family. In a recent documentary about his career, Petty said of Epstein’s death: “It’s the great tragedy of the Heartbreakers, losing this beautiful, wonderful man.”
Having come to Milwaukee to pay his respects, Lynch also had a specific task in mind. “The rabbi asked if there was anyone who wanted to speak,” Lynch recalls, “and I said, ‘I know this is really bizarre, but I brought these drumsticks that I’d like to put with Howie, in case he ever wants to play with me again.’
“The rabbi said really sternly, ‘Who are you? What did you represent to Howard Norman Epstein?’ I said, ‘I played drums with Howie. I was his mate. We went around the world together.’
“And he basically said to me, ‘Then how did you let this happen?’ And I couldn’t defend myself. How did I let this happen to my friend?”
The rabbi relented, and with the family’s blessing, Lynch was allowed to bury his friend with a token of the musical adventure they had shared. “I wanted to be part of Howie,” Lynch says of the gesture. “I didn’t want him to be lonely or scared. He was a vulnerable, beautiful guy.”
It’s Saturday night, between sound check and showtime. The Bill Camplin Band is enjoying a meal at Nessun Dorma before a performance at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. Camplin and everyone else in his band – which includes Jason Klagstad – had performed with Howie Epstein back in the day. Now they are marketing executives and club owners and engineers. But they never stopped making music.
Brought together to reminisce about the bandmate who had traveled the farthest away from them geographically and musically, rich if hazily remembered tales from decades ago are told. Laughs are shared about the night Howie got into an onstage fistfight with his own guitar player. The other members of his band at the time, the name of the Water Street bar where the brawl took place, and what in the world could have set off the supernaturally calm bass player are all lost to history, but these men who are now pushing 60 revel in telling the story one more time.
An empty place seems to be at the table, where every man present would treasure the chance for Howie Epstein to pull up a chair, tell them the real story, and probably bum a cigarette. These men achieved things Epstein never did – they prospered at “real” jobs and raised families; they survived– but with the guitars tuned and waiting for them on the stage down the street, maybe they could squeeze in just one more story about music and women and life on the road. Howie had to have a million of them.
All the stories. Benmont Tench has one to tell, too.
“I’m known in the band for my moods,” admits Tench, who remains an indispensable member of the Heartbreakers after almost four decades. “I was at rehearsal a couple years ago, and something set me off. I was starting to simmer inside, and out of the corner of my eye, I swear I could see Howie sitting on a road case. He had his hand over his mouth, and he was laughing and pointing at me, as if to say, ‘It’s happening again. You’re letting them get to you!’
“And then he was gone.
“That was Howie.”
Tom Matthews, who has previously profiled the BoDeans and Badfinger for Milwaukee Magazine, is a Wauwatosa-based freelancer. Write to him at email@example.com.