here was no shortage of dangerous driving moments over the next eight years...
...inching through a lodge pole pine forest on a two lane road blocked generously by falling trees during a slick, black-ice storm; crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains in a raging snow storm; feeling our way through mountainous fog so thick the only visible remnants of highway were the lighted dots illuminating the center line; hitting a deer at 65mph; holding our breath in prayer as Cowboy Jazz's grossly overweighted truck lumbered down the steep grades of the Grand Tetons, the acrid smell of our brakes, burning, straining to maintain; in the same truck, sleeping through the Kansas night while five of the six lug nuts holding a wheel to the axel sheared off in a short, machine gun burst; in the same truck, hitting and killing a horse which had jumped over an embankment, across an oncoming car (a story more fully chronicled elsewhere on this website)...
The list goes on and on, and it wasn't just textbook scary stuff. Imagine a 10 year-old van full of equipment, pulling a trailer, being driven by a guy steering with his knees while eating chinese food!
That's crazy, but believe it or not it's all too typical. The final tale of winter however, was anything but typical, a single, extraordinary episode from January 1988.
The Assassins played very few lounge gigs, but there was a Holiday Inn lounge outside of Cleveland Ohio which fancied itself a blues club: "Barney Googles." We liked playing there, what with good quality rooms and free food thrown in. But the five hours to make the gig took us through ugly, depressing Breezewood, Pennsylvania ("Gateway to the West") and across one of the most dangerous stretches of interstate in the country: The Pennsylvania Turnpike headed west through Pittsburgh and into Ohio. This road lingers in memory as particularly unpleasant as we seemed always to be driving it in the middle of a howling snowstorm.
Such were the conditions that January Friday, on our way to Barney Googles.
The Assassins had enough financial horsepower to run an equipment truck complete with road crew. The crew would leave a few hours ahead of the musicians for the obvious reason of having to do actual work when they arrived. (A roadie's job description is 90% time-consuming, breakneck hard, dirty labor; don't let anyone ever tell you differently.)
So imagine our surprise when, a few miles outside of Breezwood we zoomed past our equipment truck parked by the side of the interstate. Not good. We turned around at the next exit, headed back and parked opposite the truck, separated by a wide, sloping, grassy median.
Since it was a howling-snowstorm kind of day, only one of us volunteered to hike the quarter-mile through the snow, across four lanes of highway and the median. That was Wade Matthews, perennial good guy and dirty work sponge.
I was in the back seat of Jimmy and Judy Thackery's black Chevy Blazer, contemplating Wade's good natured acceptance of his crappy assignment, the cramped Blazer, and my own severe, self-absorbed boredom. Then, something quite unexpected happened.
I had a tiny moment to prepare. Directly in front of me, pianist Bruce Harrison, looking out the back window, turned white as a sheet and shouted "SHIT! THEY'RE GONNA HIT "
When you've been in a serious auto accident, you never forget certain sensations. The intense shock of the impact. The explosive, surprisingly non-metallic sound. The sudden, inconsistent, wild motion. The sheer terror during those instants of realization and indeterminate outcome.
It was a woman driving her station wagon, her small dog balanced in her lap. She had lost control on the slick, snowy road, had veered off and rear-ended the Blazer while still moving at highway speed.
Terrified pandemonium broke out as the Blazer catapulted across the highway and onto the sloping median. We bumpily traversed the heavy grass, reaching its sunken middle before coming to rest.
We had no idea what had just happened, but there was instant realization about what had NOT happened. We were in one piece, and only had been hit once. In other words, we had not been flattened by a tractor-trailer while cutting across the crowded highway. For that stroke of luck or what-have-you, we weren't all dead.
A totaled, smoking husk, the Blazer, glass shattered, quickly chilled to thirty degrees. We were pretty banged up, though amazingly, injuries were limited to wrenched backs and various bruises. I noticed an intense throbbing in my calf as I limped the short distance to our truck. My seat had been forced into my calf, causing a deep bruise. I eschewed medical attention, instead huddling in the equipment truck (which, as it turned out, was merely out of gas), denying the pain in my leg.
We arrived at Barney Googles about six hours later, having secured a rental car and the rest of the band members from the local hospital, where they'd been taken for observation. The Friday night performance was canceled of course.
I spent the next day hobbling between the bed and bathtub, resting for what we expected to be a subdued Saturday night gig. At five in the afternoon I had just settled back into a hot bath, and for the first time felt as though I could conceivably make it through a four hour rock and roll show. The phone rang.
It was Wade, with additional bad news. My wife Elizabeth, driving to meet us, hit a patch of ice on the Turnpike. She lost control of my Honda Accord, went off road and lost an argument with a steel guard rail. The Honda was totaled.
Elizabeth was shaken-up and cold, but otherwise OK. She was an hour away at a Turnpike Toll booth. She had been ticketed for the infraction and on the phone sounded dispirited and alone. Three of us limped to the rental car and drove to pick her up.
We returned 2.5 hours later, in time to play the gig. In terms of the band's ability to play, I was expecting the worst, but it didn't happen. Though a few of us could hardly move (the sight of the band limping onstage caused an audible murmer through the crowd), we played well. In fact, we played particularly well, with manic ferocity.
Music is a magical, if temporary healer. Every musician has experienced walking onstage suffering from some misery, be it a flu, sore throat, sprained whatever, only to feel health and vigor restored while playing. When the music ceases however, the ailment returns, its own vigor arrogantly restored.
Our performance that night was largely a reflection of that phenomenon, but not entirely. The intensity was too great to be considered a normal evening's music. It was a cathartic event, a grand release of the strong emotions stirred by the accidents: terror, anger, relief.