Bowen is now winding down Starbooker, as his hearing loss and balance issues have become more acute. He is preparing for the eventual total loss of his hearing. Holly Bowen has taken over the remaining projects on the company’s calendar and will seek no future bookings or clients. Pollstar spoke with Bowen about his life and career, and about Meniere’s disease.
See the very end of this article for an open letter to the industry from Bowen.
Is Meniere’s disease treatable, or is total hearing loss inevitable?
It comes in varying degrees and attacks people in different ways. With me, it started 20-some years ago out of the blue. I was sitting at my desk and suddenly I got extremely dizzy and nauseous and I thought, “What in the hell is going on?” It took two years or so before I could even get a diagnosis.
At that point, I had it for a while and then it went away. But a few years later it came back, and came back like a freight train. I’ve been dealing with it ever since to the point where I am where I am and facing the facts. You’re never really cured, but some get to the point where it’s kind of in remission. Sometimes they say it’s as if the vertigo part of it and the tinnitus part of it get tired of fighting and kind of go away. But the hearing loss is what it is. There’ve been some pretty famous people who’ve had this from back in history to the present time. I did some poking around and there’s some famous people, including current entertainers, who have it that people don’t know about. Hearing loss is inevitable, especially when it goes bilateral, as mine has. I can be deaf one day and the next day my hearing will be back.
But when it comes back, it comes back a little weaker than before I had the attack. Generally, especially with bilateral patients, it’s almost an inevitable situation that you’re going to end up deaf. The bilateral type is much rarer than the single-sided Meniere’s. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s generally more prevalent to have it on one side than both. Usually it’s the left side, rather than the right side, and women tend to have it more than men.
There is associated dizziness and tinnitus. It could be ringing or whooshing or roaring like freight trains. Then there’s the inner ear pressure. It can be driven by the weather, allergies – the doctors don’t know. Some say if you’ve had a brain injury or even a blow to the head at some time, later on it can trigger Meniere’s. And when I was little kid, I did get hit in the head. Could this have been triggered when I was 13 years old? Did that cause it to happen? Everybody has a different reason. But some people have been able to abate it and come back. Alan Shepard, the astronaut, had it and was grounded but was able to control it with monitoring and medication back in the 1960s.
He got to the point where he was able to go back to the space program and take a second space flight as commander on Apollo 14. He had it, but he was able to control it. Ryan Adams has it, Marilyn Monroe had it. Vincent Van Gogh – you’ll laugh at this but one of the reasons people believe he cut off his ear was because he had Meniere’s on that side and was trying to get rid of the noise and the pressure. Peggy Lee, Emily Dickinson, Les Paul and Kristin Chenoweth have it. She was injured not too long ago because she fell, which is another side effect.
How did you go from acting into the concert business?
I went from theatre, to TV and films, and eventually into radio. From radio, I got into doing radio concerts and promoting. From that, got into booking. That’s how I got to where I eventually ended up. I kind of fell into it. I’d been promoting some concerts and marketing for various venues. I was working with shopping centers, promoting radio shows, worked with a production company in Winston-Salem, N.C., and had a partnership with Jim Brammer, who owns Special Event Services, still a very strong production company. I left that company and went on my own marketing things. Bucky Dame, who at that time was the director for the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum complex in Winston-Salem, had an opening for booking director/associate director for the coliseum. He asked Jim Brammer if he knew anyone, and he said, “Talk to Bowen.”
You had a long run in Indianapolis before landing at the Sears Centre.
I was recruited by the Indiana Pacers. I moved to Indianapolis and worked for Pacers Sports and Entertainment for the next 10 years as VP of booking and production for them. We built Conseco Fieldhouse and closed down Market Square Arena. Then I was recruited by Ryan Cos. to go to Chicago and take over the Sears Centre. I stayed there until 2010, when it was taken over by the city and management went to Global Spectrum.
After that, you started Starbooker Presents?
At that time, I was contacted by Mike Crum of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. He asked if I’d be interested in starting my own company and coming back to North Carolina. I could lead booking promotions and be an inhouse talent buyer for the CRVA in Charlotte to help them out in booking Bojangles Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium. The timing was perfect so I said yes. That’s how Starbooker Presents was born. My wife and I moved back to Greensboro where most of the family was. I’ve got two sons and our daughter moved back here. I’ve got five grandkids in Greensboro, too.
We were a very small organization, mainly me and my wife. We’d bring in outside contractors as needed depending on what the projects were. The primary focus was on talent buying but we also did consult. I did a lot of consulting for new business development and did a lot of mentoring for general management for venues and marketing. At the same time, we worked with other companies in bid processes. We helped other companies with requests for bids, everything from talent buying to staffing to general management to production, everything. We helped produce a lot of theater, festivals, and things of that nature so it was pretty all encompassing. We also did some artist management. We had musicians and actors, a couple of producers we worked with. Partnership-wise I have a couple I still work with.
Were you already considering retirement?
I never expected this to happen. I’d always told everybody that I’m never going to retire. They’ll find me passed out behind a road case on a tour somewhere and that will be the end of it. That was my story and I was going to just keep on keeping on and literally figured I’d die on stage or behind a case. But we won’t take on any new clients. I won’t be looking for new contracts or taking on any new spectacular projects.
Why have you decided to go public with your diagnosis?
I thought a lot about this in recent days. I looked at all the people I know or have heard about that have this same thing I’m wrestling with and I think it’s important for people, particularly in our industry, to understand what it is or what it does. I meet on Wednesday night with a group of people. We go to a coffee shop or a Panera Bread and we talk. It’s led by a young girl who is deaf and she teaches those of us who need refreshers on sign language and those of us who don’t know it. She can communicate in American Sign Language and Japanese Sign Language and other international languages. We sit around and talk with our hands.
Everybody gets excited and talks about what they like to do, what their hobbies are. A couple of weeks ago the main topic was “What is your favorite activity?” And when it came around to me the first thing I would normally have said was “listening to music.” And I had to stop myself because that won’t be my favorite thing to do before too long. So I went to my second favorite thing to do and signed it “cooking” because I don’t have to hear to cook. But it really stopped me in my tracks. Soon I’m going to be deaf. I know that it’s coming. It could be next week, next month or next year. I don’t know when. Music has been a part of my life for so long, and it’s been part of our lives for so long, and we don’t think about it until it’s not around sometimes. You play so much of your life into it. You can hear a song on the radio and immediately think of things you’ve done, places you’ve been and people you’ve been with. By almost every song you hear. How do you replace that? Even when I am experiencing those moments when I can’t hear anything, I still can hear those songs in my head. I can remember them. I hopefully can always have that memory.
Do you think industry professionals take the ability to hear for granted?
If there were some way that I can reach out to the industry and make them understand that importance, to get us to stop arguing over a deal or screwing each other over a dollar! Think a little while about the importance of these things. What can I do? Can I start a foundation? Can I start a movement? Can I start an awareness campaign? Can I start something now that I can’t do what I used to, to bring an awareness to people I worked with, in a different way that sheds light on this disease and this hardship, so that we think about the music, the entertainment, differently than we normally do? An actor can go onstage and use sign language and express themselves, because you are emoting with your body.
I don’t know how you do that with music because it’s inside. I have an invisible disease where, if you look at me you don’t know anything is wrong except maybe that I walk a little screwy sometimes. Until you talk to me, you don’t know that I’m any different than I ever was. What can I do to get others like me, the Ryan Adamses or the Kristin Chenoweths, who are in our business that feel the same way, to bring them together; people who have perfectly good hearing but who care?
There’s industry focus on protecting hearing from high decibel levels. Is Meniere’s related?
Meniere’s can happen to anybody and they don’t know that any one thing causes it because there’s so many different things. It can go through remission and exacerbation with so many different effects. It’s very episodic. I don’t know that being in loud music would trigger an attack.
If it can be unrelated, could people be ignoring Meniere’s symptoms mistakenly thinking its “just” ringing in the ears?
I know people in the business who have ringing in the ears all the time, and they say, “Oh, it’s because I never wore earplugs.” But it should be checked. Any time you have ringing in your ears it’s because your ears are in pain. People don’t understand that.
By talking about it publicly, you are certainly helping raise awareness of Meniere’s disease.
I can only do so much. My hearing is fluctuating quicker than it used to. I’m wearing a headset or I wouldn’t be able to hear you right now. I was out walking my dogs this morning and something just clicked and I couldn’t hear anything. In the 10 minutes, by the time I got home, it had gradually come back. I was just out walking the dog. We in this business have tended to rely, and we relied for so many years, on relationships.
That kind of changed over the years, more recently. Relationships don’t mean quite as much as they used to. We aren’t in control of our own destinies like we thought we were at one time. Maybe this was a way to wake up. Wake up to what, I don’t know. I just hope I can maybe make a difference, to get people to understand this disease and what it means.
An Open Letter From Jeffrey Bowen
Jeffrey Bowen emailed Pollstar in the days after the interview and asked us to include a note of thanks to his friends and colleagues. We’re happy to oblige:
These are friends in the “business” who have always been there to listen, guide, mentor, or just keep me straight when I needed to be. There are too many “building guys” to even begin to mention but a few do stand out such as Bob Klaus, Bucky Dame, Rick Fuson and Mike Crum who gave me tremendous opportunities in my career, and Steve Kirsner, John Mazzola, and Jim McCue who always knew the right things to say when times were tough.
I actually had some tremendous relationships with agents, no matter what some people think about them (that’s a joke by the way), guys like Kenny DiCamillo, Rob Light, Scott Pang, Steve Lassiter, Mitch Rose, James Yelich, have put up with my crazy offers and constant, neverending inquiries about their wonderful artists for many years.
I’ve come to love each of them, especially Rob Light’s annual Holiday card! And believe it or not I have a few artist managers that I can call friends too such as Irving Azoff and Howard Rose. They will probably never admit it but I am happy to. And foremost in that area is Harry Sandler. I’ve come to know, love and appreciate Harry’s creative soul over the past few years through his photography. Harry Sandler is a wonderful artist himself! Then there are the promoters.
Those with whom I competed against, partnered with, and sought to sell my soul to. And in doing so became great and steadfast friends: Ben Farrell, Paul Gongaware, John Meglen, Wilson Howard, Don King, Carlos Larraz, Louis Messina, Jerry Mickelson, Arny Granat, Steve Sybesma, and Dave Lucas.
Others such as Alex Hodges, Steve Moore and Mike McGee have been great mentors in my live. Producers/promoters such as Joe Thomas, Robin Mishik-Jett, and Neil Greenberg have been wonderful partners. I won’t start naming the artists that have touched my life; there are too many to name over the years. I’ll just place a bit of optimism here in honor of all of them as given to me by my dear departed friend, Red Skelton: “Never judge a day by its weather.”
Take it to heart my friends. The media has been kind to me all my life. I’ve never received a bad review, which isn’t to say I didn’t deserve my share from time to time, I’ve just been lucky. I haven’t received many honors and awards in my career, but the greatest reward I can walk away with is friendship.
Thank you to my wife, Holly, for putting up with those long hours without me around, and to my daughter, Savvy for having show business forced upon her. To my sons Christopher and Sean, I’m sorry I wasn’t there much when you were growing up. I love you all. I love almost everyone in the business. Thank you to everyone who made me what I was and ever could be. And thank you Pollstar. See you backstage sometime.