Thought Catalog
November 10, 2014

Overcoming Adversity And Playing The Guitar

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Photo by Sherry Loeser
Photo by Sherry Loeser

My Mom was a Ballerina. She never made it to the big stages of the world.  She studied and danced in New York when she was young and after marrying my Dad she taught ballet in Montana and even had her own School of Ballet.  She was a very gifted dancer and a musician, she played piano.  I loved to sit with her at the piano and listen to her play when I was little.  My Gram, my Mom’s Mom also played very well before arthritis got the best of her.  They both tried in vain to get me playing as well, but alas that instrument just did not speak to me.

When I was a little boy, there was a running joke that some of my parents friends had going with me.  They would tease me and ask if I wanted to be a dancer, just like my Mom, when I grew up.  This of course annoyed me to no end.  It was my little sister not me, that was always running around the house in tights and a tutu after all.  In a loving effort to soften my consternation at the teasing, my Mom would always interject with a reference to the greatness of Baryshnikov, who I had of course seen dance on TV many times.

So, when the teasing and laughter would eventually die down, the inevitable question would arise: “Jeff, what DO you want to be when you grow up?”

Elvis.

I didn’t have very hip or hippie parents for that matter, there were no Zeppelin or Beatles records in the house in the 70s.  My Mom listened mostly to Classical music, and my Dad listened mostly to Jazz.  He was a huge Stan Kenton fan.  When I formed my very first band in High School, the venerable Into The March, he used to say, “Jeff, you boys are not a band OK?  for that you need 40 pieces, what you boys are, is a combo.”

The hippest thing I had available in the house besides tuning into American Top 40 on KYLT Sundays, was Elvis records.  My Mom and Dad both liked Elvis, they had seen him in Vegas at some point.  I myself had seen not only reruns of the ‘68 comeback special but also the big Elvis in Hawaii special too, which was of particular interest to my family if only because my aunt Val lived there and that is where my cousins were born.  When you grow up in a small place you of course grasp for starry connections like this to exotic places like Hawaii and Elvis.  On a U of M Professor’s salary we did not exactly travel much, let alone to a place requiring a ride on an airplane.  Go Griz.

Our built in the 70s suburban style rambler had a sunken living room at the bottom of two very short steps leading down from an entryway next to the front door.  It made a perfect stage for an aspiring performer such as my younger self.  Tennis racket slung over my shoulder held with a few strands of my Mom’s knitting yarn tied to it, Elvis on the Magnavox Hi-Fi, boy howdy, I had the moves, this was it, the only thing I really have ever wanted to do, singing and playing for people just like the King, in my mind was nothing short of magic.  You may have this picture of the 70s Elvis in your head about now.  Fat, high on blow, posing with Nixon, frilly sequined suits and capes, and granted, that all sucked, lets be honest.  But have you ever seen footage of Elvis in the 50s when he was a young strikingly good looking super talented Rockabilly act?  The band, I mean the combo, he had back then really swung.  Look it up, playing State Fairs in the south, the guy was Electric.

When I was 10 my Mom got me an acoustic guitar for my birthday.  I was of course thrilled.  She signed me up for some lessons with a nice Christian Hippie lady.  We would sit in the living room together and play Michael row your boat ashore and other wholesome delights hallelujah and amen.  However, my brother who was 14 at the time started bringing homeCheap Trick, U2 and other rock albums from Musicland in the mall or from the old Eli’s Records and Tapes.  Lessons with the Christian Hippie lady started to look rather lame, so I packed it in for a few years.

If you have never been, in Missoula there is a music shop called ESP Electronic Sound and Percussion.  It is an institution.  Checkers and Dave, yes Checkers is his real name, are two of the coolest dudes I have ever known.  Excellent musicians too.  That store, still in business today has been the epicenter of the Missoula Music Scene for over 30 years.  It was the epicenter of my musical life there for many years.  Most of the drummers I have ever played with were taught by Checkers and most the gear I ever owned till I moved out to Seattle was purchased at that store.  I took guitar lessons there when I was a teenager, and formed my first band with a drummer who also took lessons there.  Into the March had a solid 5 year run from ‘87 to ‘92.  We played for some big crowds, we were on the radio a few times, KUFM in Missoula.  We were not bad at all for our age and for our Punk be different DIY methodology.

As often they do, things eventually fell apart for that band.  Being the rather rational young man that I was, I had already moved in with my High School Sweetheart Amy, who I am still happily married to today.  I focused my attentions on college and a wonderful college town life of low paying jobs, student loans, a little above average grades, hallucinogenic drugs and naked hot springs parties.  I still doodled on the guitar, but I was not actively playing out or writing songs for that matter at that time, I was on band sabbatical.

In the the spring of ‘93, recently married, I was playing basketball with two of my friends at Washington Middle School, go Warriors.  I was never tall at 5’10”, and I could not jam, but I did have a nifty trick I learned from someone.  I could jump up, grab the net with one hand, pull myself up and jam the ball with the other hand.  I had done this a hundred times over the years on rope and metal chain nets alike, often with rings on my fingers.  On this day it was a metal net, and on this day I had on my wedding ring.  I came bounding back down to the ground after my big trick to a full stop.  It all happened very fast.  I looked and saw with utter shock that most of my ring finger on my left hand, my fret hand, was no longer with me.

My friend Matt who I owe an enormous debt of gratitude that perhaps I have never quite conveyed to him, who was seemingly not phased, immediately picked up the remnants of my finger put it back in place on my hand, handed me a shirt to wrap around it, and told me to hang on.  My other friend Scot who I also am more thankful than mere words could ever express, jumped on his bike and went to get a car.  While Matt and I sat dazed trying to make sense of what had just happened, we noticed that my ring was still on the net.  I think I may have muttered something about needing to find that ring or Amy would be pissed, which of course was ridiculous, I was in shock you understand.  In a truly kind and wonderful gesture Matt jumped up on the chain net that had just parted me from my finger, snagged the ring, jumped back down and handed it to me.  That is a true friend right there.

We rushed to St. Pats Hospital where a surgeon was called in to take a look at the damage.  As the surgeon examined my hand he was heard to say “Well, I hope he isn’t a guitar player.”  No shit, the asshole really said that.  If we had been in a bar instead of the ER I think Amy would have torn him to pieces.  I myself was drifting rather lightly on morphine by this time, and if you have ever been there, you know that in that state it is pretty easy to let shit like that slide.

After I was told that reattachment was not in the offering and they stitched up my stub, I was taken up to a room.  All of my friends, The Tribe as we called ourselves then, were there waiting with my Mom.  I remember everything seemed really dark, a combination of the morphine and the mood. The ever present antiseptic Hospital smell lingered in the air along with the obvious tension and uncertainty of everyone present.  It was not a happy scene.  Trauma, as I know now, leads to many many irrational thoughts, and at that moment, I just felt so ashamed.  I felt so foolish and stupid for what I had done. I think most would agree that 21 year old boys think they are invincible, and I certainly did, that is, until that day.  I couldn’t face my friends.  It was March 22nd, it was Scot’s Birthday.  Unstoppable irrational thinking led me to believe that I had ruined the party.  Amy asked if I wanted them all to leave, and I said yes.  I have always regretted that.  I have not spoken with any of them about that day in many many years now, but I hope they all know that it meant the world to me that they were there, waiting in that room, hoping I was going to be OK.

I laid low in our apartment for a few weeks afterward, wondering what I should do about my new hand.  At first it was very shocking to look at.  It made me feel grotesque to be quite honest and it affected me a lot more deeply than perhaps I led on or that my friends perceived.  I put on a brave face, I didn’t want my friends to think I was as damaged as I really felt.  I didn’t want to make people sad, and I did not want anyone feeling sorry for me.  Most of my friends just assumed I would no longer be playing guitar.

For years afterwards I made a conscious effort to hide my hand as best I could in long sleeves.  I no longer liked holding hands with Amy, it just made me feel inadequate and shitty, an undeniable reminder, that I was now forever changed, and not for the better.  To be clear, I have never felt any misplaced resentment toward her, I love my Amy Jo, my feelings and defensive behavior were purely my own self image issue.  I know it was hard for her to understand that, and I know it hurt her.  Thankfully, those feelings and troubles have long since passed.

My first inclination about further guitar playing was to switch and play left handed with my intact right hand doing the fret work.  I spent a few weeks trying to work it out that way, but my left arm just could not keep the solid rhythm that my right arm could.  One day I walked down to ESP for some advice on the matter.  ESP was somewhat of a sanctuary for me, I just loved being around other musicians and all the gear, it was a comforting place.  As I was chatting with Dave and Checks, Raleigh whose last name I cannot remember came in.  Raleigh was the Tom’s Candy delivery man.  He had a 50s flare about him, a bit of a pompadour hairstyle, he was a tough guy, no doubt about that.  He is also one of the best jazz guitar players I have ever heard, I sat in ESP for years listening to him noodle away, he could have been very famous I think.

In a matter of fact tone that I will never forget Raleigh said to me: ‘Jeff you don’t need to switch hands.  Don’t you know who Django Reinhardt is?’

Django Reinhardt mainly active in the 1930s is widely known as the King of gypsy guitar.  Django lost use of TWO of the fingers on his fret hand in a fire, but if you listened to the old recordings, in no way could you tell.  Django was neither phased nor diminished, it did not matter how many fingers he had, he made great music.

That is the way I sincerely hope to be remembered someday too.

If the only thing you find intriguing about my music or my ability to play guitar is my missing finger, then by all means don’t bother.  It should not matter how many fingers I have either, what matters is the music.  My only intention writing this piece is simply to inspire people to believe you can overcome much adversity in life if you try.

Most people do not notice I am a little different, but still, nearly every time we play out, someone in the crowd will saunter toward the stage after noticing, get up real close, cell phone camera out so they can take a picture of my hand on the fretboard of my guitar before fading back into the crowd.  What do these people do with those pictures of my hand?  BTW, um, did you like the music?  Would you like to buy a t-shirt? I never know because the folks who take the camera phone pictures of my hand don’t stick around to chat me up after the show.  Apparently their shallow curiosity had already been documented to their satisfaction.

There has been great debate amongst my close friends for many years.  Do I promote the facts of what happened to me in an effort to possibly further my “music career?”  It is about 50/50 for and against.  This is the first I have ever said anything publicly about it.  You will not find any info about what happened to me in any music bio or interview I have ever done.   I have never wanted to put myself out there in the context of being some sort of carnival side show freak(not that there is anything wrong with that).  I also fully recognize it is just one finger I lost and lots of folks have lost way more than I have and still overcome.  At the same time, what happened to me is a big deal if for no other reason than the fact that I was a guitar player before the accident, had to retrain to some degree and still play today.  It is a tragic story yes, but its a good story with a very happy ending I think too.

If you are wondering, essentially my pinky finger does everything it used to do AND all the work that my ring finger used to do as well.  I practiced scales for hours a day for years to retrain myself. As a consequence, and this is a common question I get, no, I have never felt any phantom pain or feeling there.  The finger is gone and I have retrained my brain to be fully aware of that fact.  Yes, there are some open minor 7th chords I cannot fret, but who cares.  Its the old adage, ‘Its not what you have, its what you DO with what you have that really matters.’ Right?  I think I have done a lot with what I have and I am proud of myself.  It just took a long time to get to there.

Over the years lots of people, some with missing digits themselves, have approached me on the street or at work to ask what my story was.  The most common stories I hear from other people with missing fingers revolve around carpentry work and working on ships.  I don’t mind talking with people about what happened.  I will say though, when I am asked about the particulars and I do tell the story, it does make some people very uncomfortable when they hear all the gory details.  Sorry, but there just isn’t a PG version of events.  In response, these folks will often make a jokey quip accompanied by some nervous laughter.  I have never really understood that.  Although I most certainly have accepted my circumstances, I don’t find anything funny at all about what happened to me.  I would also like to say that if you are not prepared to hear the graphic truth about things like this that happen to people, don’t ask.  Life can be cruel sometimes so have a little compassion and don’t try to make light of someone else’s trauma.

Early in 2015 I will be releasing my 10th full length album of original Rock n Roll sounds, this will be the 4th album from my band The Bitter Roots.  The show will go on, new songs will be written and played, the dream endures and life is good.

About 10 years ago a friend was over and we were headed out into a cold winter night.  My friend asked me if he could borrow a pair of gloves.  I said, “Sorry, but no.”  Both my friend and Amy asked, “What? Why not?”  “Well…” I said, “I don’t think they will fit you.”  Perplexed looks were directed at me for a second and then the realization hit, “Oh right, sorry Jeff.” TC mark

Photo by Jeff Stetson
Photo by Jeff Stetson