"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. I did it a different way.' "
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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."
Besides, Wood thought his run as a musician was over. The antibiotics that finally stamped out his infection also destroyed his inner ear. Though his hearing was intact, Wood lost his sense of balance, and he had to spend much of the rest of the year relearning to walk. To this day, he can't jump into water or walk into a dark room without tumbling into vertigo.
"At that point I just quit," he says. "I thought I was never gonna be on stage again." Wood worked at home in laptop publishing, until Charlie Sanders (Jesse Dayton's bass player) coaxed him out of retirement. "The next thing I know I'm in a studio and Jesse Dayton's producing my new record. That was it. I was back in the game."
Wood genuinely enjoyed working with Dayton on Ash Wednesday, even though it entailed a certain loss of creative control. He says that with Horseshoe, the goal had been to capture the "neighborly" feel of the sloppy-tonk on the Rolling Stones classics Let It Bleed and Beggar's Banquet. "There was a short period of time there where the Stones captured a lifestyle," Wood says. "You hear those records and you thought, 'Wow. I am part of the Stones world. I may not be a junkie or banging black models, but the point is I sure feel that through their records.' Admittedly, on this new album, I didn't try to do that as much."
Dayton and the crack band on the album (which includes Dayton, Daniels, Sanders, bassist Ben Collis, keyboardist Pete Gordon, drummer Chris King, guitarist Rob Mahan and string whiz Brian Thomas) smoothed out Wood's rougher edges. "Jesse did a great job on the record," Wood says. "All of his ideas were good. There's not a song on there recorded the way I would have recorded them, and I'm still happy with it."
After wrangling over packaging, sequencing and editing for six months, the CD is now pressed and tentatively set for release in September locally and October nationally. Wood is working on getting together a road band, but he confesses that he doesn't like to gig. "Performance is my least favorite part of music," he says. "That surprises some people, who think I'm a natural performer. I'm uneasy; I'm not comfortable. I want to stand up there and tell people how I feel and not even dress it as music, so I probably should have been a comic. But I wasn't very good at that. I found that I was better putting stuff to melody first."
Wood's between-songs banter is often as entertaining as his music. While the days when he would read Rimbaud and Bukowski between songs are long past, his Bill Hicksian rants on the headlines of the day remain. They can be so funny, and at times powerful, that they throw music fans for a loop. "When people come expecting music and I give 'em comedy, they're shocked," Wood says. "People want to be in this pasteurized world, and when I give them my take on the daily news, they get upset. Personally, I think if people could learn to expect that from me, then they could learn to accept it. It's hard for me as an obscure artist to get away with that. It would be one thing if I was Michael Stipe -- he can talk about Greenpeace all he wants. It's another to be this totally out-of-the-loop character talking about R. Kelly and all his travails."
In a day when what was recently mainstream country is now deemed "alt," where does a stone gonzo character like Wood fit in? "I guess I'm the next step," he says, his words building into an evangelical frenzy. "I think people are looking these days for musical forms they're comfortable with. But they're looking for lyrics that speak to them, unlike the stuff that's coming out of Nashville now. It doesn't speak to anybody. It speaks to a mythical demographic. They make up these groups of people like the sad, lonely women who want to hear a brokenhearted country song. They don't want to hear that! Or maybe they do. The point is they're like any other group of people. They're diverse. They want to hear Billy Ray Cyrus, or they want to hear John Lennon. They want to hear a different approach to the same feelings. Somebody's gotta give it to them. Somebody's gotta say, 'Okay, here's something that sounds like country, but listen to the words. I'm gonna take you someplace you haven't been with country.' And hey, country can take you a lot of places."
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