Adam Haworth Stephens awoke to shouts. His drummer, Omar Cuellar, was at the helm of their tour van, yelling that the vehicle carrying Stephens' band and its gear was sliding out of control on ice and snow somewhere on Interstate 80 in Wyoming.
Stephens, best known as half of the primitive S.F. folk-blues duo Two Gallants, sat up and looked out the window as the van careened toward a slope on the center divider. This thing is going to flip, he thought.
And it did. The van slid down the embankment and tumbled, side over side, several times, nearly crushing the front of the cabin. Luckily, Stephens — who had been lying across a bench seat in the back — was wearing his seat belt. As the vehicle tumbled, his thin frame was thrown toward the side window, which shattered as the van rolled.
The white Chevy came to rest on its wheels, leaving the three men inside stunned: Stephens found that his shoulder had been dislocated in such a way that he couldn't lower his arm below his head. In fact, he could barely move. Cuellar was dazed from the crush of the cabin roof, bleeding from his face, and suffering from several broken bones. Matt Montgomery, the keyboard player, miraculously had suffered only a cut to his finger.
The van sat off to the side of the interstate. On that cold morning in late November, with all the windows broken, there was no protection from the elements, and Stephens was wearing only a T-shirt. With the nearest town miles away, it would be half an hour before an ambulance arrived.
Among all the risks of pursuing a career in music — commercial failure, creative drought, exploitation, and drug addiction — there are the ever-present dangers that stalk anyone who must constantly be on the move.
The list of greats whose careers were cut short by tour accidents would make for a long and sad chapter in the history of pop music. (Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Metallica bassist Cliff Burton come immediately to mind.) But even sadder, I'd say, are the artists who punched their ticket on the road before most of the world got wind of their talents.
One tragedy is the terrible fate of a Portland powerpop band called the Exploding Hearts, whose positively addictive songs sound like a blend of the Replacements and the Clash. In July 2003, the Exploding Hearts were on their way to making it pretty big — at least, big for a snotty, sarcastic, ridiculously talented punk band. But, returning home from two nights of playing at Bottom of the Hill in S.F., the Exploding Hearts' van crashed along Interstate 5. Three of the four members were killed, leaving as the sum total of the band's legacy one album, Guitar Romantic; a few singles; and a compilation record (appropriately titled Shattered) that consists of outtakes and B-sides. And, of course, a lingering sense of deep sadness and unfulfilled potential.
Stephens' group, returning from a tour in support of his first solo album, We Live on Cliffs, was much luckier than the Exploding Hearts. Cuellar, the driver, fared the worst: a broken vertebra in his neck, and a broken finger that tore through the skin while the band waited on that freezing freeway for an ambulance.
Stephens didn't fare much better: Nothing but time will heal his broken rib. Doctors reset his dislocated shoulder, but his nerves and muscles suffered considerable damage; he's not sure yet whether he'll need surgery. If he doesn't, it will be at least six months before he can move his arms enough to play guitar or piano. If surgery is needed, it could be much longer before he gets back to his career. Stephens has found other ways to make music, though: "The one thing I'm able to do is sing Christmas songs on the ukulele," he says. "It's small enough that I don't have to move my arm out."
Less important, but still worth noting, is the property damage: The touring van is totaled, and the $20,000 in musical instruments it carried are waiting to be brought back to California, their condition yet unassessed.
Following a long and painful wait in the E.R., Stephens and Cuellar spent two days in a hospital in Rawlins, Wyo. (population: 8,500). There, in a truly cruel twist of fate, a highway patrolman issued them a $50 ticket for driving off the road.
But despite the more than $20,000 in medical bills, Stephens' lack of health insurance, and that goddamn traffic ticket — and unlike many tour accidents — this story has a happy ending. The three musicians flew home the day before Thanksgiving, allowing them to spend the holiday with their families in the Bay Area.
Stephens stops short of calling the accident a revelation, but says it certainly helped the holiday "live up to its name." I ran into him late on a recent fall night, walking around wide-eyed with his arm in a sling near Cafe Du Nord, taking in the city he almost did not live to see again. "It could have been so much worse," he says. "I honestly feel like I haven't felt this good and this positive about life since it happened. I just came so close — to be able to come back with nothing more than a broken rib and a dislocated shoulder and some debt, I'm really lucky."
Help Stephens and Cuellar with their medical bills, and read more about their accident, at giveabandaid.blogspot.com.