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Loved ones remember Epstein’s skill, humility
By Dave Tianen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — Monday, March 3, 2003
Longtime Heartbreaker mourned without celebrity fanfare
The world knew Howie Epstein as a Heartbreaker, and there was no shortage of anguish in the way he left it.
The longtime bassist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers died Feb. 23 in Santa Fe, N.M. of a suspected heroin overdose. He was only 27.
In a funeral service Sunday afternoon at Temple Menorah, 9363 N. 76th St., Epstein’s family and friends acknowledged the heartbreak but remembered a man of striking talent who carried his musical gifts with unfailing modesty.
Although he won a Grammy and is a 2002 inductee into the Roc and Roll Hall of Fame with Petty and the Heartbreakers, Epstein’s funeral service was largely devoid of show business glamor.
There were two concessions to rock ‘n’ roll: A floral display in the shape of a guitar stood next to the closed casket, and as the pallbearers wheeled the casket from the sanctuary, the sound system played “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the old Byrds hit from the biblical Ecclesiastes. Two of Epstein’s old band mates attended the service: pianist Benmont Tench and drummer Stan Lynch.
A Fox Point native, Epstein graduated from Nicolet High School in 1973 and was a familiar figure on the local music scene in his early years. Before joining Petty, Epstein also played with such stars as John Hiatt, Leslie West and Del Shannon.
When Petty’s band last played in Milwaukee — Summerfest 2002 — Epstein had been dropped from the group.
Boyhood friend Rick Rand remembered a friend who would call at 2:30 in the morning to check on a sick buddy. A man who fussed over his hair, ran chronically late and almost got disqualified from winning a Nicolet battle of the bands because he was only in the eighth grade. A kind man who seasoned his gentleness with a sharp streak of sarcasm.
“He was a keen observer of his own life and loves and his own pain and happiness. We loved Howie for all of his complexity and all of his smiles. We will remember the good times,” Rand said.
Epstein’s uncle Philip Atinsky recalled his feelings when he got the call in the middle of the night informing him of his nephew’s death.
“There was a sadness and anger because his friends and his family weren’t with him,” Atinsky said. “He was alone.”
But as the days passed and he took a steady stream of calls from Epstein’s old friends, Atinsky started to reflect. Epstein’s passing was clearly going to leave a void in many lives.
“He lived his dream, and he became what he wanted to be,” Atinsky said. “Everything he did seemed so natural and intuitive. He realized he was blessed. It was very consoling to the family, and I didn’t feel as bad as I did initially. Howard didn’t die alone.”
Before the funeral, Epstein’s old Heartbreakers band mate Lynch reminisced about their years together.
Epstein, he said, was sharp-witted, well read, physically powerful and a gifted musician who disguised the limitations of his band mates with his own brilliance. Music seemed to come almost effortlessly. When Epstein took up record production, he soon won a Grammy for an album with John Prine.
“He made it a lot of fun for me,” Lynch said. “He was all you could ask for in a good friend. Tom Petty was lucky to have him. He really was.”