It's every musician's worst nightmare—crashing, collapsing and dying in the middle of nowhere in a bus accident.
And this was nearly a reality for Baroness frontman John Baizley.
The alt-metal band was in England, touring in support of their critically-acclaimed Yellow & Green, driving from Bristol to Southampton on August 15, 2012 when the bus they were in started careening down a steep hill due to brake failure. The bus shot through a dead end intersection and over a guardrail, launching into the air like a plane leaving the runway.
Baizley looked out the window and saw treetops in the valley below. Then the bus started to descend and when the front wheels hit the ground he catapulted toward the windshield.
"I hit it so hard that the entire thing cracked and I saw all the little cracks spread out across the glass from the impact," Baizley says from the safety of his home art studio in Philadelphia. "However, because of all the physics, I was also bouncing back from it, so when I landed I was back inside the bus."
With the smell of diesel fuel and twisted metal in his nostrils, Baizley turned his head and saw his left leg was bent and broken. Then he saw his left arm completely broken in half between his shoulder and elbow. "You know when you bend a water hose and you can feel the water?" he asks. "I could feel that in my artery. I grabbed my left fist with my right hand and it felt like I was holding stranger's cold, wet hand. It had no feeling whatsoever, but the rest of my body was in excruciating pain."
Baizley realized there was a distinct possibility he might bleed to death. For a moment, the shattered glass and pooled blood around him blurred and he experienced a vision from beyond. "I saw the nothingness that I'm now convinced exists beyond death," he says with matter-of-fact certainty. "It felt like coming nose-to-nose with some kind of existential mirror that was painted matte black. And in that reflection, which was the next step, it was cold, dark and empty. The excruciating pain of living, and the idea of suffering the rest of my natural born life is infinitely better than passing through into that."
But Baizley wasn't the only one injured in the crash. Band co-founder, drummer Allen Blickle broke his tailbone, bassist Matt Maggioni exacerbated an old back injury and the driver's body was shattered from the torso down. The musicians were rushed to the nearest hospital, where a surgeon inserted two irregularly shaped nine-inch titanium plates and 20-plus screws into Baizley's arm and looped a foot and a half of wire through his forearm and over his elbow. When Baizley was finally able to return to the U.S. two months later he underwent intensive physical rehabilitation and eventually regained enough strength in his left arm to play guitar and paint.
Traumatized by the crash, Blickle and Maggioni quit Baroness. Without pause, the band recruited jazz-trained bassist Nick Jost and post-rock band Trans Am drummer Sebastian Thomson, and in spring of 2013 Baroness, embarked on the first of three legs to support Yellow & Green. In a similar situation, many musicians might bemoan their predicament. They might even feel cursed. Not Baroness.
"It took doctors three days to figure out how not to amputate my left arm, so I actually consider myself really lucky," Baizley says, then elaborates on the procedure that saved his career. "When I got back to the States I got a good orthopedist, who looked at the scans and the notes from surgery and said, 'You were incredibly lucky to have crashed in England,'" "He told me that in America doctors have a certain cosmetic obligation to keep wounds and incision sites as pleasant looking as they can, and if that had been the case I likely would have had to have my arm amputated or I would have very little use of it. The fact that my British surgeon had no problem making a 17-inch incision and then putting all this stuff in my arm gave me the amount of mobility, strength and dexterity I needed."
"Baroness is just a fucking lucky band from top to bottom, left to right," adds guitarist Pete Adams. "Look at this fucking shit: We all survive this accident. Our album is still doing well while we can't tour. We recover from the accident in under 10 months and are back on tour with two new members playing some of the biggest shows we've done. And the new guys kick ass. How is there any way in time and room in space to be fucking depressed about anything?"
And what is neither depressed nor overly dense is Baroness' next installment, Purple. It's energized, direct and full of unexpected twists, abrupt shifts and otherworldly sounds. "The four of us had a new level of energy heading into this record," Baizley says. "So we grabbed it by the coattails and let it propel us forward in a creative way. If we used elements of metal, we wanted to celebrate the music but not necessarily fit the structure in a traditional way. And if we were wrote something poppy we didn't want to present it as typical pop music. When I tried to describe to people outside the band what we were attempting it sounded laughably ambitious and almost terrible, but I'm quite satisfied with the result."
The main goal for Adams, who was unhappy with some of the softer, more improvisational moments of Yellow & Green, was to make a heavier, more aggressive album that was emotional without being melodramatic and simplistic without being lunkheaded.
"I felt it was crucial that we did something more amped up and energetic," Adams says. "It would have been terrible and depressing to write another mellow or overly experimental record. This album needed to have more life."
Secluded in the basement of Baizley's Philadelphia house, Baroness began jamming in early 2014. "We tapped into this incredible energy," Baizley recalls. "We were looking around the room at one another, completely thrilled. So much so that everybody was shouting like we were kids again. The amount of excitement and energy that was there for that moment was so pure and undiluted and it guided the rest of the process. From that point on we had no doubts about what we were doing."
Soon after, Baizley started working on the lyrics. Instead of trying to concoct lines to match the feel of the music he did the opposite, tapping into the desperation, frustration and insecurity he felt after the bus accident and juxtaposing his lyrics with the propulsive melodies. On "Chlorine & Wine," which starts as a folk guitar ballad and builds into a turbulent rocker, he addresses both painkillers and the procedure that necessitated them: "She cuts through my ribcage, pushes the pills leaving my eyes/…and my doctor's unable to cut through the cable that leads to my mind." And on the galactic, jazzy "If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain)" Baizley references a surreal moment shortly after the bus crash.
"There was this sort of hilarious thing that happened," he says. "It started pouring down and because I couldn't move, the water was pooling around me and I was almost in a little lake. There were a bevy of people holding umbrellas above me to try to stop the water from going into my mouth and eyes. It kind of made it worse, so I was choking on the water. There's a little humor there, but, really, I couldn't think of a better way to thank my band, my family, my friends and our crew for helping me through a really tough time. I definitely wouldn't be as well adjusted as I am now without them, and I'm not that well adjusted, so I can only imagine what would have happened otherwise."
The main reason Baizley isn't "that well adjusted" is because of the gnawing, chronic pain he continues to suffer. The incision that runs up the back of his arm and down his forearm constantly aches, and the soft tissue damage forming under the cuts becomes increasingly more painful as it grows. In addition, the plates and wire that allow him to move his arm cause him "electric agony" whenever his arm bumps into anything. Worse, his ulnar nerve, or funny bone, which normally rests between the humerus and the forearm bone, wobbles loosely between the installed hardware.
"You know the feeling you get when you smack your funny bone against something and it jolts your whole system?" Baizley rhetorically asks. "I have that feeling 24 hours a day. It's like living with my arm in a bathtub filled with plugged in toasters."
Between playing, writing, touring, painting, being a loving husband and parenting a six-year-old daughter, Baizley doesn't have much time for self-pity. On the rare occasions he feels vulnerable or broken, he remembers just how lucky he actually is. "I can't unscrew a jar of salsa with my left hand, but I have no problem whatsoever playing guitar," he says laughing. "Being in my situation is… it's awful, but it doesn't prevent me from doing those things which are, in fact, a huge release from the aches and pains of life in general. And I can't even begin to express how fortunate I feel to still have an outlet to deal with that kind of stuff."