Howie Epstein: 1955 to 2003
For several years, hardly anyone in Santa Fe knew that Howie Epstein, longtime bass player for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, lived in the area. That changed in the summer of 2001 when Epstein and his longtime girlfriend Carlene Carter were arrested in Albuquerque for heroin possession.
Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash and granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, took the rap in that case. Epstein, who was on the way to the airport to catch a plane to make a Petty gig, wasn’t charged.
But anyone who saw the jail mugshot that appeared on the front page of newspapers in New Mexico the day after the arrest knew that something was terribly wrong with Epstein. It showed a ghostly, weather-beaten face with eyes that had obviously stared into the abyss.
Epstein died February 23 at age 47 in a Santa Fe hospital. Although toxicology reports were not complete more than a month later, authorities said it looked like a heroin overdose.
The disturbing mugshot provided a grim contrast with another photo of Epstein that ran with the local news story on his death. Taken in the early 1980s, it showed a fresh-faced, curly-haired Epstein.
“He was one of the most talented, most generous, most wise people I ever met,” said Alex Magocsi, a Santa Fe drummer who had recently started a band with Epstein jokingly called the Bottom Feeders. “But he was also a very sick person.”
Epstein, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, played with some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll. He appears on albums by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, John Hiatt and Warren Zevon. Before hooking up with Petty in the early ’80s, he had backed up the late Del Shannon.
Although best known for his work with the Heartbreakers, Epstein also had talent as a producer. He produced two albums for Carter and one for Rosie Flores; most notably, in 1991 he produced John Prine’s Grammy-winning comeback album The Missing Years.
Epstein had lived with Carter in a house in Tesuque, a semi-rural village north of Santa Fe that also was the home of the late Roger Miller. “I loved him very much,” said Carter in a telephone interview from her home near Nashville the day after Epstein died. “My kids thought of Howie as their father. We had a good life together for 15 years.”
The Albuquerque heroin bust was the beginning of the end for the couple, whose lifestyle was taking a toll on virtually every aspect of their life. Their mortgage company was suing to foreclose on the Tesuque house. That case was dropped in late 2001, but a new foreclosure action was filed a month before Epstein died. And shortly after the bust, Epstein was fired by Petty.
Carter eventually pleaded no contest to a charge of heroin possession in Albuquerque and was sentenced to 18 months probation. She was released to the custody of her family to attend a rehabilitation program in Tennessee.
Magocsi said Epstein sometimes spoke of getting back into rehab, specifically a program in California that had helped him before. He also had told friends he would be soon be playing bass on the Rolling Stones tour, though this couldn’t be verified.
Epstein apparently had been ill in the days before his death. Friends said he was taking antibiotics and had recently suffered from flu, stomach problems and an abscess on his leg. The day before he died, his 16-year-old shepherd dog Dingo passed away.