‘Full circle’ moment: Composer Ben Shirley returns to LA’s Skid Row

Ben Shirley called the premiere of his “High Sierra Sonata” for staff and residents at the Midnight Mission last month his “full-circle moment.” It was the Skid Row mission that helped him turn his life around, from addiction and homelessness in 2011, to rekindling his love for music and allowing him to get back to school and become a composer. (Photo courtesy the Midnight Mission)

LOS ANGELES – Even when life got rough, music never left Ben Shirley’s side.

After playing in small-town bars in Texas, the concert and film composer moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in rock and roll. But alcohol addiction took its toll and Shirley found himself homeless on Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row, where the city’s most desperate down-and-out have slept on the sidewalks for decades.

He credits the Midnight Mission, one of the charities caring for the unhoused on Skid Row, for turning his life around.

“Gladly, my drunk a– stumbled upon those steps, and my life truly changed,” Shirley said in making a triumphant return to the mission last week, now sober with his career back on track.

Shirley says he orchestrated music for a major motion picture and the animation short “Umbrella” and composed pieces for the independent short film “Dr. West’s Fervor.”

A tall bearded man with stars tattooed on his forehead and neck, Shirley lived an itinerant life from an early age. He lists his hometown as Newark, Ohio, but says in his bio he was “born and raised” all over: Berlin, San Francisco and Texas.

After playing in small-town bars in Texas, Shirley came to Los Angeles, playing whenever and wherever just to be noticed. In 1999, Shirley signed with Epic Records as a bassist. He was an original member of the LA rock band U.P.O, which released its first studio album, “No Pleasantries,” in 2000.

Shirley blames years of enduring the heavy metal music culture for his downward spiral. His addiction drove him to homelessness, forcing him to try to survive on the mean streets of Skid Row in 2011.

From those depths, he remembers the day that life changed for the better: May 26, 2011. It was then that he sought help at the mission.

The Midnight Mission is a homeless service center on Skid Row that provides families with food, shelter and guidance. The mission creates a tranquil home for those looking to escape the desperate, chaotic sea of sidewalk tents, boom boxes, squeaking grocery store carts and dangerous behaviors outside.

The mission offers a 12-step recovery program to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

With the help of the Midnight Mission, Shirley rekindled his love for music. After 26 hard months on the road to sobriety, he completed a certificate in electronic music at Los Angeles City College. He said he then attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a student in the inaugural class of the technology and applied composition program.

Composer Ben Shirley, wearing glasses, poses with clarinet player Anthony McGill, second from left, and members of the Pacifica Quartet who came to perform one of his new works at The Midnight Mission on Los Angeles' Skid Row on Feb. 28. Shirley credits the mission for turning his life around. (Photo courtesy of The Midnight Mission)

Composer Ben Shirley, wearing glasses, poses with clarinet player Anthony McGill, second from left, and members of the Pacifica Quartet who came to perform one of his new works at The Midnight Mission on Los Angeles’ Skid Row on Feb. 28. Shirley credits the mission for turning his life around. (Photo courtesy the Midnight Mission)

Shirley is part of the “Composing Earth” program at Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, which is aimed at informing musicians about the severity of climate change.

Shirley was one of those profiled in the documentary “Skid Row Marathon,” which chronicled his musical journey from the Midnight Mission to the San Francisco conservatory over four years.

Shirley expresses gratitude for his time at the mission. He stressed the importance of having your “full-circle moment” by giving back to the community that gave you so much.

That moment just came for him.

On Feb. 23, Shirley stood before a couple dozen staff and inhabitants of the mission to share the music he had so worked to cultivate. He invited Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, and the Grammy Award-winning Pacifica Quartet to preview a new piece, High Sierra Sonata.

McGill and the quartet traveled to Los Angeles to give the piece its world premiere that evening at the The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

“I was volunteering for an ultra marathon in the high Sierras one day, and I was watching the sunrise as a clarinet melody popped into my mind,” Shirley said at the Midnight Mission event. ”Well, not like a genius or anything, but I tried to soak it all in.”

He credits the mission for making it possible.

“The point I’m trying to make is if it were not for this place (Midnight Mission), I would have never been in the high Sierras that day, and I would have never done all this stuff,” Shirley said.

Warm hugs and goodbye high-fives from residents of the Midnight Mission closed the performance. Familiar faces engulfed Shirley to thank him for stopping by, just as Shirley thanked them for his full-circle moment.

The mission had already discovered the power of music as an element of recovery.

“Music is a survival tactic for many people in dealing with life’s difficulties and our Music With a Mission program is aimed at bringing our community together through music.” according to Georgia Berkovich, director of public affairs at the Midnight Mission.

For the mission, his visit was proof that even those with the most painful experiences can regain a bright future.

“Ben’s dark past has become his greatest asset. By sharing his lived experiences with the people we serve, he shows them by his extraordinary example that there is hope for them, too, and anything is possible,” Berkovich said.

Karina Romero kah-REE-nah roh-MAI-roh (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Los Angeles

Karina Romero expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and a minor in fashion. Romero, a digital reporter in the Los Angeles bureau, recently worked as a social media intern for a nonprofit in Arizona and built a personal consumer fashion blog.