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I don’t know how long I was out, but the first thing I heard was a paramedic saying, ‘Sir, we’re cutting your clothes off.’
I opened my eyes and realized what had happened. I remember saying, “Oh, no.” I tried moving my legs to see if they worked and they did. I looked up and saw Mimi (Emilio Castillo), our band leader. Everything happened so fast — there was no time to be scared. I knew I was pretty messed up, so I did my best to accept it as it was.
January 12, 2017. We had been doing a series of shows at Yoshi’s, in Oakland. This was our annual hometown residency, and this time we were there for six nights, two shows per night. We had already played ten, and this was the end of a wildly successful week. Sold out shows every night.
Marc, our bass player (he was subbing for Rocco), and I had finished a pre-show dinner and were walking over to the venue. There was a westbound train passing by, so we went to the corner to wait to cross the street (which would take us directly to the backstage door). At the crosswalk, people were gathering behind us.
We watched the westbound train pass and heard the ding ding ding of the crossing signal indicating it was safe to use the pedestrian crosswalk. Then everyone started moving. Marc and I were at the front of the group and continued our conversation as we began to cross the street.
As we stepped onto the eastbound track, someone behind us yelled “train!” and everyone started to scatter. We looked to our left, and there it was coming out of the shadows, the sound masked by the westbound train.
We looked at each other and I moved backward. Marc moved forward. As my wife says, we weren’t fast enough. That was it. Everything went black.
There’s a cool book called The Talent Code that talks about a ‘moment of ignition’ when you get excited about something. The whole trajectory of your life changes when you’ve found something that’s you. You’ve discovered your destiny.
I’m always interested in growing and learning, but there were at least two times in my life where I felt an intense desire to improve as a drummer and musician. Once was shortly after I joined Tower of Power, and then after the accident.
Steve Bowman was a drummer who worked at Don Wehr’s Music City in North Beach, San Francisco. We played opposite each other with our bands and became really good friends. Steve had begun studying with a teacher named Chuck Brown. He used to tell me, “Man, you should check this guy out,” but I didn’t think I needed to. I had the attitude that I was okay where I was. I’m playing in this cool band, touring and recording. I don’t need to study. I’m there.
How wrong I was.
Over time, Steve started to play much better, and I got nervous about it. One morning, I woke up and felt ashamed because I’d been telling everybody that drumming was my life’s work, but I hadn’t been doing anything to prove it. I wasn’t working at it.
And there I was, lying in bed thinking how stupid it was to be embarrassed by these thoughts when the only person in the room was me.
I called Steve that morning to get Chuck’s number.
You might call it a ‘moment of ignition.’
Studying with Chuck changed everything about music for me. He taught me the value of work and what happens when you apply yourself. It all paid off. TOP was really making waves at that time. I felt like I was built for it, like I’d found my place — my family — in the band.
But sometimes, even when everything is going right, we still find ourselves facing unique obstacles that we didn’t fully prepare for — and it wasn’t long until I was faced with a choice when the band was starting to get into heroin. Was I going to go down this road with my brothers or not? Truth be told, I did it twice and then had a thought, which I later realized had saved my life:
What would my father think if he saw me like this?
Let’s just say that when I was growing up, I sort of did my own thing. I disliked everything about school, except for music. I’m sure that many of my decisions disappointed my parents. They were especially great people — very conservative, but supportive, encouraging and loving.
At 17, when I was in my first rock band, my dad rented us a small hall here in Livermore and we played for the local kids. He did security and sold tickets. The town was very small, and in those days you could host an event like that with no problems. My memories of my dad are of a man who worked hard, was honest, and always let me know how much he supported me and loved me.
So when I started falling into drugs with TOP, I felt shame at what I had allowed myself to do and I knew it wasn’t going to end well. At a critical time in my life, my dad’s example was there leading me down the right path. I wasn’t going to disappoint my dad again.
In the late ‘70s, TOP had an opportunity to re-sign with Warner Brothers. At that time the band was in a lot of debt, so the money was tempting. I said if we’re going to do this, let’s structure the business to protect our personal assets. But my ideas were ignored.
There we were, March 1980, sitting around a big conference table at a lawyer’s office in San Francisco. The contract went around the table, and when it got to me I said, “I’m not signing this, and here’s why.” I restated my position. Everyone was very upset, but I knew in my heart this was the right thing to do. I left the room thinking I’d never come back again.
We didn’t speak much for years, and I never really accepted it. I felt betrayed, and the other guys felt like I had stood in the way of their success. The truth was, these opportunities were being thrown away because the drugs and alcohol had clouded everybody’s vision. But I knew that the connection was still there.
So when I came back to the band in ’98, the dope and alcohol was out of the picture, and it felt like I was coming home again. Mimi, Doc and Rocco are my brothers, forever. When I joined in 1970, I was becoming part of a band, and then we became friends. Over time we became a family, and now we’re like an organism. We have the same music DNA.
Between deciding to kick my chops into high gear and realizing the drug life wasn’t for me, I needed to make these changes for myself. Unless you redirect your thinking, you’ll always remain in the same place. I learned to make good choices. Instead of getting loaded, I started studying.
Sometimes it takes a major obstacle to light a fire under you.
The night of the accident, a friend of mine and former student named Dr. Russell Hands had come to see the show. Russ is an accomplished surgeon and drummer, and at the time he was Chief of Surgery at two major Bay Area hospitals. He heard a commotion outside and ran out of the venue to find out what happened. When he saw who it was, he offered his help.
At the hospital, Russ came to give me his support and he was really great in telling me, from a doctor’s perspective, what to expect. He even came to my pre-surgery meeting to make sure I was going to get taken care of properly. I’ll never forget his kindness.
During one conversation, he said, “You don’t have any neurological damage. You’ll be back to work in October.”
Remember, this was January.
I’m saying to myself, “You’re out of your fucking mind. I’m not going back to work.” How could I possibly be thinking about October? I had a severe concussion, broken ribs, broken face and jaw and could barely walk. At that point, I didn’t know what was coming.
When I got home from surgery, I could do very little for myself. My wife had to help me with everything. I didn’t have time to think about drumming — my first goal was to make it down the hallway. I came to the realization that I was on God’s timetable, so I needed to be patient and take things as they came.
But after about a month, one morning I put my pants on by myself. This was a huge moment. That’s when I realized I was going to be okay. When you’re going through recovery from this level of trauma, you may not be able to do everything the way you did it before, but the information is still there. You find new ways to get things going.
I got into my practice room as soon as I felt ready. I couldn’t play very much at all. I knew it was going to be a gradual process; I just needed to see if my hands and feet still worked. I went in every day to play a little bit, even if I couldn’t stay seated for very long.
Before I knew it, September came around and I was ready to get back to work — a month sooner than Russ had predicted. He was right. And while I was a little nervous to get back behind the kit, I decided I wasn’t going to worry about being embarrassed. I’m here with my friends. The people I love. My musical family.
Tower of Power has been around for 50 years. How many bands can say that? We’ve had our fair share of members (I call it an alumni association), but we listen to each other. We care about each other. We had a gig in Atlanta on our band anniversary, which was August 13, so that’s where we celebrated.
You know how people say that everything can change in the blink of an eye? After the accident, I realized how true that is. It can all go away in a second. And when you’re this close to losing everything, it makes you appreciate what you have — whatever that is. Be thankful. Be thankful that you get to play music. Be thankful that you have family, your kids, friends and loved ones. Be thankful that there are people praying for you.
One important thing I’ve learned in all of this is if you have an optimistic attitude, your body heals faster. I didn’t accept what happened to me as a sentence. It was another moment of ignition, a chance for me to step up my game. I’m still healing, but feeling better and better as time passes. I love what I do. If you believe you can do something, you can do it.
No matter what happens, face it. With all your strength, work at elevating the quality of your life. I believe that God makes a way where there is no way, and I continually thank Him for giving me more days to enjoy.
Life is good.