Zipperneck's Mel Hell: A Punk Rock Recovery Project

Mel Hell (right) and Zipperneck today
Mel Hell (right) and Zipperneck today
Photos by David Ensminger

Rock and roll history is mired in the trials and tribulations of self-abuse, including tales of potent, intelligent and savvy musicians taking the highway to hell, literally. Yet too often the other side of the equation goes unnoticed. For some, rock and roll offers a recurring salvation, recovery and coping mechanism, a way to face down and even triumph over adversities and ailments. For bands like Houston's MyDolls, whose members have struggled with alcoholism and cancer, to Alejandro Escovedo coping with Hepatitis C, music provides a sense of community, healing and empowerment. Hence, it becomes a powerful way to navigate life’s travails.

Melissa Waters is known affectionately by local tattooed tribes as Mel Hell, the high priestess of Joan Jett-style music. For ten years now, she and loyal sidekick Jerry McDaniel have consistently unleashed dizzying rock’n’punk in their well-honed band Zipperneck. For Waters, music has become one of the only forms of solace and mental-health maintenance in an otherwise tumultuous recovery from a routine dentist office visit gone terribly awry, one that devastated her health and personal life.

In April 2011, with a tooth hurting because of a cavity, Hell headed to her local dentist. She administered a lower jaw block – a Novocaine shot on the right side — to prep the filling. Yet in the air-conditioned placidity of the office, a Pandora’s box was unleashed.

“I felt several electric shocks travel throughout the injection site and out my tongue,” recalls Waters. “She said, ‘Oops, sorry. I must have hit a nerve.’ A week later I still felt no feeling in the right side of my face and had frequent shocks in my jaw, lips and tongue.”

This was not just a sore swollen gum: The discomfort indicated something much more deleterious. “I was drooling and spitting while trying to talk during meetings at work all week,” Waters says. “I even played a show in severe pain and spit all over the audience.”

An early Zipperneck flyerEXPAND
An early Zipperneck flyer

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When Waters returned to the same office, the dentist proceeded to diagnose a root canal on the same tooth. Instead of being concerned by the intensity and frequency of pain, the dental assistant chimed in, “Sometimes this happens…everything should return to normal in about eight to 12 weeks…try Sensodyne toothpaste.” The office offered no prescription, no sage advice, no hallowed medical formulas. They just suggested a tube from a drug store usually meant for people with dentin sensitivity and receding gums.

Her condition quickly worsened. Upon seeing an endodontist, Waters hoped for a final solution. His own nonchalant response, though, varied very little from previous assessments.

“I asked if it was a good idea to inject the same area while it was still all wonky, and he said, ‘Yes,'” she says. “I trusted him because he’s a doctor. I asked for laughing gas because I’m scared to death. Then he asked what genre of music I wanted in order to drown out the drilling sounds.”

Waters chose the bombastic comfort of classic rock, a blast from the past to alleviate her anxiety.

“The chair went back, Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ started playing, the gas mask went over my nose and mouth, and I was a happy girl,” she recalls. So, he slipped in the shot…[and] I screamed and grabbed his leg. He said, ‘Oh my God. I’m so sorry. Did I hit it again?’”

“‘Uh-huh’…is all I could say since my mouth is propped open like something out of a Marilyn Manson video,” continues Waters. “Tears streamed down my cheeks. The only thing that kept me calm and still was hearing ‘Jukebox Hero’ and ‘Crazy Train.’ I flashed back to [being] a four-year-old tow-headed little squirt, riding around Oak Forest with my mom in her red Chevette.”

That dream and the sense of peace were cruelly short-lived. A simple Google search unveils the diagnosis — trigeminal neuralgia, known as trigeminal nerve pain. The Mayo Clinic, well-respected purveyors of medical insight and usually clinically cautious in its descriptions, defines this disorder as “one of the most painful sensations in human experience…excruciating.” As they note, it damages sleep patterns, overall health and well-being, and employment prospects. Most worrisome, the condition can commonly lead to suicide.

“The worst part of this disorder is the aftermath of an attack,” Waters admits. “I wake up drenched in sweat, groggy, sore and alone. It's a terrible feeling to realize you just lost another entire day of your life. A day that could've been spent with your friends and family, or helping others, or playing a gig.”

“The deafening silence and isolation of the empty apartment is more terrifying than anything I know,” she continues. “I wonder if this is why my Great Granny Haynes flipped the switch on her stereo the minute she woke up and then kept it on until she fell asleep at night. Music makes you laugh, dance and sing. It helps you to forget all your troubles and remember you are not alone.”

Zipperneck at Rudz last weekend.
Zipperneck at Rudz last weekend.

For many casual listeners, music is simply innocuous aural wallpaper, a leisurely diversion. For Waters, music is a lifeline, a way for her to keep afloat as the world bears down, heavy burdens and all. Her own family legacy is buried knee-deep in East Texas rock and roll legend.

“My kinfolk were from Port Arthur,” Waters says. “My Great Aunt Mary Ann was in choir with Janis Joplin. She has some great stories.”

Meanwhile, her dad’s band was rivals with the Moving Sidewalks: That’s why my mom didn't go to her own prom,” she says. “Because Dad was pissed that ZZ Top got the gig to play at the Waltrip High School prom and not his band.”

That feisty constitution is inbuilt in his daughter as well. She tenaciously pursued a B.A. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis from University of Houston-Clear Lake while keeping one foot in the music scene. Even while pregnant, she played bass and sang backup for the Mandy Smith Group until ready to deliver, and even then she chose music as her drug of first choice.

“My pal Veronica Llanos-Butler, founder of Music Therapy Houston, actually wrote her thesis on using music as a tool to cope with the pain of childbirth,” Waters says. “I read it right before I had Avery. So, when I showed up to Park Plaza hospital to deliver, I was armed with my radio and a wide range of CDs: Led Zeppelin, Jane’s Addiction, Mazzy Star.”

Some served better than others.

“Mazzy only lasted for a minute,” she admits. “I needed POWER. ‘Immigrant Song’ and ‘Trip Away’ helped dump enough serotonin and dopamine in my brain to get me through the first seven hours. Then I cried uncle and got Demerol and TWO epidurals. Don’t remember much after that.”

Still, the lesson was apparent and fully realized: Music had a physical impact on her body and could mitigate pain. With McDaniel steady at her side, Melissa Waters has kept Zipperneck afloat for a decade, even as she has became a consultant specializing in the assessment and treatment of severe behavioral disorders. Meanwhile, the music scene she helped foster continues to roil due to changes in popular styles, venues and personal politics. Yet those people have become a surrogate family: The misfits, rockers and underdogs help ground her world, even as the debilitating pain seems to careen her into chaos at times.

“Little did I know that this stinky, moody and brilliantly talented group of boys that I had been meeting at Francisco’s every Thursday night for the past nine years would literally save my life,” says Waters. “Between Jerry’s practice Nazi, type-A personality, [former drummer] Josh’s deadpan humor and ability to crack wordless jokes through a series of silly transitional fills and an occasional Stewart Copeland-esque flame…I got all the therapy I needed at band practice.”

“Really what strikes me about Mel is her perseverance,” intones McDaniel. “The condition from which she suffers is extremely debilitating. A friend of mine was chief of maxillofacial surgery for the Air Force in Hawaii, and he told me she was basically fucked for life. She has been through a lot with this condition, but has soldiered on. I have always known that Mel was absolutely – unquestionably — the best female rock singer Houston has ever seen; however, lately she has upped her game.

“I am not sure if she is rocking harder because of the pain or to spite it,” he continues. “Either way, most of us would be bedridden. Mel chooses to play music. I wouldn’t wish her condition on anyone! It seems to me that she has been able to use the band, her talent and her tenacity to control what most would consider uncontrollable. Mel Hell is a badass period. She hides a condition that would cripple most, but turns the pain into the fuel.”

But such vital resilience wasn’t delivered on a scented pillow. It came wrapped in a howl from hell, or in this case, Hell.

“When I showed up to my first post-injury practice, I knew what I had to do,” Waters stresses. “Scream as loud as I could, move the pain out of my head, down my arms and straight the fuck out through my fingers and into my guitar (I broke a string that night). It actually worked, at least while I was in the practice room. Those two hours every Thursday night were sometimes the ONLY pain-free moments I had.”

Vintage ZipperneckEXPAND
Vintage Zipperneck
Photo courtesy of Zipperneck

Bandmates like Josh Barry, Zipperneck’s former longtime drummer who was behind the kit at the time, expected Waters to endure some post-procedure pain.

“What it gradually turned into,” he says, “was this unbelievably painful disease, and after reading about what she was going through, the fact that she didn't let on at first how much pain she was going through is a testament to Mel's toughness. I watched this women move furniture, herd children, play bass and sing with intensity, all while dealing with this crazy pain that most of us just can't understand.

“There's only one Mel Hell,” he declares.

When she leaves the band space, gigs or the practice room, the music throbs by her side, like a guiding force.

“There is a song for every struggle,” she says. “When I’m hurting, I listen to ‘Stepping Razor’ by Pete Tosh. When I’m broke, I listen to AC/DC’s ‘Down Payment Blues.’ And when I’m just flat-out pissed, it’s Sabbath’s ‘Supernaut,’ turned all the way up to 11.”

“Just two nights ago when I woke up at 2 a.m. in opiate-withdrawal hell, I watched clips from Dave Grohl’s movie Sound City to keep from punching a hole through the wall,” she says. “Another time when I was so drugged with pain meds that I was afraid to fall asleep by myself, I set my Pandora to Hank Williams Radio and propped up a picture of Granny and Paw Paw on my bedside table.”

The situation would seem to present a lawyer’s dream — a malpractice suit readily aimed at success. The truth is very different.

“I went through 12 attorneys in Houston and Dallas,” Waters says. “They wouldn't take the case because they didn't consider it to be medical malpractice. Something about it being a blind injection, that this is a risk inherent in getting a shot in your jaw.”

“I still have mixed feelings,” she continues. “It would be nice to be compensated, at least so the girls would be taken care of. I'm afraid of what might happen to us sometimes.”

Options do not merely seem inherently limited, they seem downright risk-centric or out of reach.

“One doctor in New York claimed he could do microvascular decompression [a type of brain surgery] and that there was a 50 percent success rate,” says Waters. “But then he said the pain relief would likely be temporary. I asked him, then what? He said come back to New York and get it done again. I went for a second opinion at medical centers in both Houston and Dallas. Both neurosurgeons said absolutely not…it could make things worse because it’s not a compressed nerve. It’s a burned nerve.”

Disability can’t kick in either.

“I was denied disability benefits on the premise that there is no diagnostic test to prove I have trigeminal neuralgia. You can’t see it on an MRI. So I work to pay for rent and medicines. But if I work too much, I need more medicine, which costs more and slowly kills me, so then I have to work more to be able to afford it.”

As the Houston Press once reported, The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has offered many local musicians like Waters and their families some workable options that allow for at least minimum treatment. She recognized this opportunity.

“Before Obamacare, I was solely working to pay for my monthly medicines [$1,000 per month],” she says. “Now, I pay a $150 per month premium and all my meds are covered; $30 per month total. Plus, I know if I need to go to the ER again — was going weekly last summer during a huge flare-up — I can.”

“It has been such a relief to have insurance,” adds Waters. “I used to get pain attacks from the anxiety of not knowing whether or not I could afford my meds. It's dangerous for me to run out of them for even one day.”

Currently, Waters has been navigating new medical possibilities and making sure to defend her right to fair treatment for the on-and-off-again revolving door of pain.

Zipperneck's Mel Hell: A Punk Rock Recovery Project

"The symptoms often will go into remission but then inevitably come back, so I have hired a patient advocate, Bonnie Campbell Sheeren, to help me dissect the research and patrol for clinical trials,” she says. “She also assists with communication with my pharmacy to make sure my medications remain in stock. She's a badass.

"Bonnie and I are currently watching the research on the use of stem cell therapy to regenerate the myelin sheath that I am missing,” she continues. “This could be a huge breakthrough for people with spinal-cord injuries and MS as well."

Waters carries on true to form, prepping for a series of summer gigs to celebrate Zipperneck’s tenth anniversary, working the consultant circuit and helping clients in dire need. She also continues making buzzing, indelible music that is now deeply rooted in pain, redemption, recovery and gritty glory.

Zipperneck performs with The Guillotines and Hells Engine Saturday, July 11 at EastDown Warehouse, 850 McKee. Doors open at 8 p.m. The band also plays Super Happy Fun Land, 3801 Polk, on July 31.

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