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"For the first time in my life, I've written some love songs," says Greg Wood. He and Racket are at McElroy's Pub on a Tuesday night, talking about his upcoming solo debut, Ash Wednesday, and other things, and the beer and stories are flowing mightily. Wood's newfound softer side came after 1999, the worst year of his life, one in which he almost died, spent two months in Ben Taub, lost an eye permanently and the ability to walk temporarily, and his long-running, critically acclaimed band and decade-plus marriage both broke up.
You'd think that after such tribulations Wood's songs would be darker than ever. You'd be wrong. "For the first time I was able to write about my personal feelings other than negatively," he says, pausing to tuck a pinch of cherry- flavored long-cut Skoal in his gums. "It was always, 'I hate this, I hate that, I wish you people would die.' These days I think the human race isn't so bad, and I want some part of it to survive."
"Specifically, this part of it," he says, pointing to himself.
Wood has discovered that penning love songs is even harder than writing bitter rants. The competition is stiffer, for one thing. "The hard part about writing a love song is writing one that other people can identify with, because we all fall in love differently," he says. "It's almost impossible to express yourself by saying, 'Well, I fell in love with somebody, but not the same ol' way. Idid it a different way.' "
Wood has been doing things differently for a long time. Take, for instance, a true story from many years ago that's as weird as anything fellow Kentucky native Hunter S. Thompson's pharmaceutically amped brain has come up with. In the house he shared with his wife and Tab Jones bandmates Devon Fletcher, Eddie Hawkins and Scott Daniels, Wood downed a fifth of Old Grand-Dad and blacked out. At some point thereafter, he took several hits of LSD, which restored his memory. Only he wasn't himself anymore. He was Russian dissident/author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and his Montrose home was a Siberian gulag. Wood knocked the knob off every door in his house, and then went outside and paced the perimeter of the chain-link fence, looking for a means of escape. There was only one way out, and that was to burrow.
He was just getting started when the police arrived to check up on what neighbors thought were gunshots. They couldn't come in through the door because he had removed the knob, so Wood was horrified to see a policeman crawling through his window.
Wood's roommates told the cop that Wood was merely drunk and that things were under control. And after deducing that no shots had been fired, the policeman was ready to go. As he was walking out, he turned to Wood, who was clad in only a bedspread and bleeding from having rolled nude in the glass from a bottle he had broken.
"Are you sure you're all right, son?" the officer asked.
"Yes," replied Wood. "But as soon as you leave," he added, pointing to his roommates, "these people are going to kill me."
Too many nights like that will have consequences sooner or later. Wood's bill came due early in 1999.
After collapsing at home, Wood checked into Ben Taub. "It took a day for them to figure out what was wrong with me," Wood says. "At first they told me I had AIDS. I spent 24 hours thinking I had AIDS." Finally, doctors discovered the correct diagnosis: Wood was suffering from endocarditis, an infection that was gnawing away at one of the valves in his heart. He was hours away from death by internal bleeding when he underwent open-heart surgery.
Wood says that both heredity and the environment he created are to blame. He does have a congenital heart defect, but much of his trouble stemmed from, as he puts it, "not taking care of myself and living like a wolverine."
"I had gotten really sick," he says. "Some people can jump back five or six days after heart surgery. It took me a month. I was in Ben Taub for 28 days after the operation, the infection had gotten so bad."
Wood's ordeal was just beginning. "I came out of the hospital thinking the worst was over. I had heart surgery; I was 35 years old. What worse can happen now? It turns out I was home for two weeks, and I noticed I had something wrong with my right eye."
Wood went back to the Tub. This time he was in for 30 days. Facilitated by his diabetes, the infection had spread from his heart to his eye. "The end result was I lost my right eye," he says. "I spent two months in Ben Taub in the winter of '99. I did get a couple of songs out of it." (Wood can laugh about it still; he recently joked that he and Billy Joe Shaver are proud members of the Missing Body Part Club.)
Meanwhile, his band Horseshoe melted away. "Everybody needed something to do," he says. "My main partner in the band was Scott Daniels, and Carolyn Wonderland wanted him to be her guitar player. While I was in the hospital, I gave him my blessings to go and join with her. He went out on the road, making money and playing some good gigs, and I felt guilty about calling him back to Horseshoe. I thought it was just time to end Horseshoe."
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