The Short Life and Infinite Legacy of Sean Costello

On his darkest days, he curled up on the couch; window blinds drawn, texts and calls unanswered, but on stage he was described as brilliant, and prodigious. While his departure haunts his family & friends, his legacy is helping others in powerful ways.
photo by Steve Rosenthal
Sean Costello photo by Steve Rosenthal

On his darkest days, he curled up on the couch; window blinds drawn, texts and calls unanswered, with Law & Order episodes counting down the hours. Coming off the stage where he displayed his prodigious talents on guitar and vocals, Sean Costello returned to lonely hotel rooms where he medicated himself through alcohol and drugs – both prescribed and illicit – to bear the pain brought on by the depressive side of Bipolar II Disorder.

The pressure of juxtaposing his burgeoning blues career with his personal struggles caught up with him on April 15, 2008, when Sean died of an accidental overdose the night before his 29th birthday in a shabby motel room in Atlanta. Thus ended the life and career of a brilliant young artist whose untimely departure continues to haunt his family, friends, and colleagues.

However, there is light and promise even in the wake of tragedy. Sean’s family created The Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research to support research into the disease, develop education for early diagnosis and intervention, and provide services for musicians who live with Bipolar Disorder.

Debbie Costello Smith, Sean’s mother, notes that Bipolar Disorder is more prevalent among creative people than in the general population. “The scientists whose research project we funded were able to show that if you are creative, you have a ten times higher incidence of having Bipolar Disorder. It’s not the reverse; if you have Bipolar Disorder you are not necessarily more likely to be creative,” explains Debbie, who has a master’s degree in nursing.

“If you have 100 people in a room, three of them may have Bipolar Disorder. If you have 100 creative people in a room, thirty of them might have Bipolar Disorder. So how you handle that person who is creative, sensitive, shy, thinks differently, deals differently, is something that I was hoping to be able to impact.”

The Fund recently donated money to an organization called Right Turn, a rehabilitation facility in Boston that works specifically with creative people, primarily musicians. Debbie’s intention is to contribute funding sufficient for Right Turn to collect data for evidence-based care, the treatment that she believes works best with the disease.

Debbie speaks from experience when it comes to the difficulty and importance of getting a correct diagnosis and the appropriate treatment for Bipolar Disorder. Sean was 14 when he won the Beale Street Blues Society Best Performer and made his first album Call the Cops when he was 16.

Despite his accomplishments at such a young age, ever since he was a child, he would get frustrated early, was very shy, and he would get sad, especially once he hit middle school. “He was begging me, ‘Mom, why do I feel so sad?’ We started taking him to counselors and psychiatrists; they were like, ‘He’s the cutest thing ever.’ Sean was a very nice young man, very smart, very funny. They looked at me like I had Munchausen’s by Proxy.”

The professionals decided that her son was a normal kid who might be a little depressed and prescribed the anti-depressant Paxil when Sean was 14. The medication caused a drastic change in his behavior. Debbie researched Paxil’s side effects and learned that it could cause a manic response in people with manic depression. When she questioned the psychiatrist as to whether Sean could have Bipolar Disorder, her concerns were dismissed. It was not until the year before he died that Sean was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Type II.

Bipolar II Disorder is a form of mental illness lesser known than its more famous sibling, Bipolar I Disorder, which manifests itself more in depression than manic episodes, though it does include bouts of hypomania.

The diagnosis came after years of Sean’s feeling that he was the only one who felt as he did, with the inability to snap back like other people do, and years of asking, “Why do I feel this way?” – a common question asked by those who suffer with the disease according to Debbie. Yet she does not think he would have traded his musical brilliance with the chance to feel normal. “He would have lost his sense of self if he did not play his music,” she explains. “His soul was there; his heart was there. If that were to go, he wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

Paul Linden was Sean’s musical colleague and songwriting partner for many years. He observes, “I believe that his creative inspiration and the strength of his songwriting came from the highs and lows. The [prescribed] medication chopped those off so he would self-medicate to get through rough patches of depression.”
Although Paul did not consider Sean an addict, he describes his friend as living a highly compartmentalized life so that one set of friends may not have known what he was getting into with another.

Paul points to the opening line of the gorgeous ballad “All I Can Do,” a cut from Sean’s self-titled album released in 2004: “Well it’s all I can do to get up in the morning,” as an expression of Sean’s dark times. However, Paul believes that his friend was much more normal than he has been portrayed since his death. “He had much more on his plate than his young coping skills could handle. In terms of his songwriting, he did it in a pretty straightforward way for the most part. [He] drew heavily from his inspirations of wherever he was musically at the time, then I had the pleasure of co-writing with him; we would bounce ideas off of each other and see what felt right.”

As another blues musician living with Bipolar Disorder, Jason Ricci knows very well the challenges of the illness and the false promises that alcohol and street drugs offer in coping with the mood swings. His impressions of Sean were that he was “shamelessly available on and off stage. He was fragile and beautiful; he was strong and rugged. The best shows I ever saw Sean do were when he was having a bad night. I never saw anyone work so hard to have a good night, to fight to define that middle. He’d break a string two songs into a night.”

But when Jason and Sean talked, Sean was the stable one. “There were only three conversations that Sean and I had that were about Sean’s problems. The rest of the times we talked, it was all me bitching. He was the one saying, ‘Get some rest, it’s only a band,’ even though he was significantly younger than me.”

Steve Rosenthal, Grammy-winning owner of The Magic Shop recording studio and The Living Room venue in New York, had met Sean in 2002 during production of an album by Ollabelle, a roots band that included Amy Helm (daughter of Levon). Since Amy and Sean were dating at the time, she brought him to the studio. “He was so great that we had to have him play on one of the songs immediately,” recalls Steve.

The two hit it off so well that Steve decided to produce Sean’s next record – the album that became the self-titled Sean Costello, which was released on Artemus Records in 2004. “It started Sean’s evolution of stretching into different areas of blues and not just the hard core riff blues,” says Steve. “He was singing more and writing.”

One thing that impressed the seasoned producer was the depth of Sean’s knowledge of, and respect for, the bluesmen who came before him. “He was such an intense bluesologist. He knew where it came from, who played what, and when they played it.”

Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt has made a similar observation. Richard produced Susan Tedeschi’s Just Won’t Burn, an album made in 1998 while Susan and Sean were romantically involved and on which Sean played all of the guitar solos. “He worshipped Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush, and people like that,” Richard remembers. “You could tell that with all his heart; he was so emotional about this stuff. Hubert told stories after a gig, and Sean sat there weeping. He had a deep love and respect for all the real guys that came before him. He had so much music in him; it’s just who he was.”

Sean and Steve recorded a second album at The Magic Shop in 2005, but Artemus Records had folded by then, and they could find no takers after years of shopping the recording to blues labels. “There was a lot of pushback from blues purists about Sean expanding his palette and doing more than straight blues,” Steve explains. “Sean wanted to explore different parts of music and did not want to be pigeonholed. Meanwhile, he was a touring artist and needed to put out another album.”

We Can Get Together was produced by Randy Chortkoff and released on Delta Groove in February of 2008. Two months later, Sean was dead, and Steve could not bring himself to listen to the unreleased record from three years before. “It was too tough for me emotionally to deal with working on it. He’s very present when he’s recording. I put it away for many years.”

Eventually, Steve started to get hints from others that maybe the time had come. “Paul Linden was great; he would call and ask, ‘Are we ready to deal with this?’ I started talking to Sean’s mom about the Bipolar Fund and thought, ‘Here’s a way we can finish the record.'”

Steve and Rosy, on behalf of the VizzTone Label Group, decided to donate all proceeds and royalties from the sale of Sean Costello: In The Magic Shop to The Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research, and Steve couldn’t be happier with that decision. “I felt like with that as the umbrella to put it out under, I was ready to start dealing with it.”

That didn’t make it any easier for Steve to hear the 2005 recordings, and he gives much credit to Magic Shop engineer Brian Thorn for pushing the project to completion. This album had been one of Brian’s first records at The Magic Shop, and he was intent on seeing it through. Steve says, “When I started working on it, I started weeping. So I would leave and let Brian work on it for hours, and then I’d get my shit together and go back. Brian was an amazing help.”

Steve remembers Sean as an incredibly gifted, sweet, and troubled person. “He had a real difficult time with the ups and downs of the music business. We had many conversations about trying to find another thing that would give him the same feeling and same buzz that he would find from being onstage and playing. There wasn’t anything he could find.”

During Sean’s down times, Steve recalls that he and Sean would have some “pretty damn dark conversations where I would try to get him out of the funk.” Yet even once Sean was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, he didn’t share that information with his friends in New York or that he was getting treatment, another example of the compartmentalized life that Paul Linden described.

Sean Costello: In The Magic Shop was released in October, and Steve is excited for people who may not have known Sean’s music previously to hear it now. “Sean should be remembered, and people should play his music. These are 98 percent live vocals; Sean played and sang at the same time. That’s the way the real great ones did it.”

Sean’s mother is grateful for the support the Fund has received from the blues community. “Kim Wilson came here and played for nothing; Lurrie Bell changed planes three times to get here.” Bob Kieser, publisher of Blues Blast Magazine which hosts an annual awards show, decided on his own to name the Sean Costello Rising Star Award in Sean’s honor. Either Sean’s mother or his stepfather, Glenn Smith, tries to appear at each year’s Blues Blast Awards and make the presentation to the winner. Debbie still struggles with being in the presence of musicians: “I always feel like Sean should be there.”

After Sean’s passing, his friends and musical colleagues came together once again to trade their favorite memories and stories. They crafted a beautifully written eulogy which was delivered at the funeral on April 19, 2008. While it acknowledged the dark times he suffered, it spoke more to the stage as Sean’s sanctuary and salvation:

His best friends will remember most what an honor it was to live with him
and to share a part of those stages with him.
We will remember how special we felt to be a part of his life.
We will remember how we tried to take care of him
and how he tried to take care of us.
In our lives, Sean was a star.
It was his music that allowed him to shine the brightest.
It was his love that allowed us to bask in that light.

To learn more about The Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research, order a copy of Sean Costello: In The Magic Shop, or make a donation, please check out the website below.

The Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research


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