My miracle-free rock ‘n roll resurrection
by Hank Trout
Leon Russell, not Jesus, brought me back from…well, from not-quite-dead-but-damn-close.
I started to use a wheelchair a year ago, around the first of April 2018. I tried to make the best of it—see my July column, “The View from Down Here”— but truth be told, I hated every minute I sat in that damned chair.
Then, for months after my pelvis-spraining fall in October, I couldn’t leave the apartment unless my fiancé Rick helped me—got me out of the wheelchair, got me showered, got me dressed, and got me seated in the wheelchair again. And since I couldn’t get up the stairs from our living room to the kitchen and the bedroom, I couldn’t cook any more, I couldn’t wash the dishes or put them away, I couldn’t make the bed…I was basically a useless lump of unattractive flesh.
There were two things about confinement that drove me absolutely bat-shit crazy. For one, I hate having to depend on anyone for anything. Like nearly all of the long-term AIDS survivors I know, I spent the 1980s and ’90s helping other people—doing for them essentially the same things that Rick was forced into doing for me: feeding, cleaning, shopping, bathing, etc. The role reversal was unexpected and embarrassing and very scary (what if Rick gets tired of this crap and…).
The other thing I hated was the excruciating blood-draining brain-cell-devouring BOREDOM. I love our apartment here in San Francisco, but not twenty-four hours a day, day after day after boring day. Being unable to do anything or go anywhere made me extremely unpleasant to be around. I know.
In that period of wheelchair confinement, I cried for myself more than in all the sixty-five years before then. I mean, I’ve cried at least once a day since the early 1980s, for friends and lovers lost to AIDS, every day, but only rarely for myself.
And I hated every damned self-indulgent self-pitying tear I shed.
Then, some time near the middle of January, I was sitting in the wheelchair in our living room, listening to Leon Russell’s Retrospective album. Understand, I’ve practically worshipped Leon Russell ever since I first heard Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen album in the 1970s, with Russell on piano. That rolling, rollicking piano and that gravelly almost-unmusical voice can take me to church and send me into ecstatic reveries. One of my few genuine regrets in life is that I never got to see Russell in concert.
But I certainly never expected him to save my life.
As I sat there in the wheelchair on that cold rainy January day, “Roll Away the Stone” began to play. If that song doesn’t get your feet tapping and your head bobbing, check your pulse. It certainly makes me feel like dancing! As it played, I heard
Won’t you roll away the stone
Why be cold and so alone?
Won’t you roll away the stone
Don’t you let it die
Come on roll away the stone
“Don’t you let it die!” I realized that if I didn’t get out of that chair, right then, that very moment, I might never get out of it. And I refuse to die sitting down.
I knew I had to roll away the stone and live.
I’m so f*#king bored with this shit! I muttered to myself as I looked around the room. I locked the wheels on the chair, braced myself on the chair’s arms, and in an act of sheer angry willpower, I pushed myself up to my feet. Unsteady, a little shaky, I stood there for a few moments, scared but determined that this ends right now! With my cane clutched in my right hand, I took a few short tentative steps and…I didn’t fall down! A few more steps and I could reach the stereo. I restarted “Roll Away the Stone” and cranked up the volume and suddenly I was, well, not dancing exactly, but I was moving.
When Rick got home from work, we put away the wheelchair.
I still struggle. Due to my asthma and COPD (exacerbated, like all things, by the HIV), I cannot walk more than half a block without getting winded, and my back still hurts like hell if I stand for more than just five minutes. But I’m mobile. Which means I’m alive again.
Look, I am the least spiritual, most religion-averse man on the planet, and I certainly don’t believe in miracles. But Leon Russell made me believe in resurrection. I’m no Lazarus and he’s no Jesus, and I waited a helluva lot longer than four days for him to rock ‘n roll away the stone so I can live. Let’s just call me “Lazarus Lite.”
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.