Recovering from a near-death experience, the songwriting auteur and erstwhile Windbreakers co-founder makes a triumphant return to Pop. Above, he’s pictured onstage in Atlanta this past January with his old pal Tim Lee (with band The Tim Lee 3).
BY JENNIFER KELLY / PHOTO BY JOHN BOYDSTON
“I was unconscious for three days. It was four days before they would tell anybody in my family, including my 21-year-old son, whether I had a chance of living,” says Bobby Sutliff, the Windbreakers veteran, recounting the damage from his near fatal car accident last summer. “I had a huge major brain injury that I still suffer from somewhat. But even down to my neck and below, I think from what I understand, I broke 16 bones, including some stuff that could have caused me permanent paralysis. I was lucky.”
Lucky indeed. When I speak to Sutliff, he has just been cleared to work again at the Wal-Mart distribution center near Columbus, Ohio, where he has held a job for 15 years. He is walking again and playing the guitar. Though he still struggles for certain words, proper nouns mostly, he is functioning remarkably well for a man who almost died.
Moreover, Sutliff is lucky in other ways – in the network of Paisley Pop musical legends who have lent their support to him in the months after the accident. A tribute album called Skrang: Sounds Like Bobby Sutliff compiles 18 cover versions from many different phases of Sutliff’s career, from the first Windbreakers EP to a 2002 solo album. The participating artists are good friends, but also well-known artists from the jangle-pop 1980s – among them, Peter Holsapple of The dB’s, Russ Tolman from True West and the Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci. Not to mention Sutliff’s old Windbreakers partner, Tim Lee.
“I will tell you that I’m mostly pissed off,” Sutliff cracks, when asked about the tribute album. “Because almost everything on there is better than me. Having someone from The dB’s, do one of your songs, that’s just not right. And then for it to be so much better, it’s just not right.” [Go here to read the BLURT review of Skrang.]
A little help from my friends…
Tim Lee organized the CD, as well as a benefit concert for Sutliff in Atlanta on January 19th, where long-time associates from the Rain Parade, the Tim Lee 3 and Sutliff himself played (pictured, above).
Lee, who first met Sutliff as a teenager in Jackson, Mississippi, says he looked up to the slightly older musician for years. “The first time we really talked, I’m pretty sure, was on the front row of an Alice Cooper/Suzi Quatro concert,” says Lee. “He was talking about guitars; I was ogling Suzi Quatro’s black leather jumpsuit.”
The two worked together in Windbreakers, on an off, for most of the 1980s. “Bobby was the first guy I hung out with who was serious about writing songs,” says Lee. “I learned a lot from him in the early days. He’s got a way with a hook, either guitar or vocal, that can sink in on the first listen.”
Sutliff and Lee parted as Windbreakers in the mid-1980s, and Sutliff recorded Only Ghosts Remain, his highly regarded solo album, with Mitch Easter in 1987. “It was a great time to be a power pop guy,” Sutliff remembers. “I got written about in Rolling Stone and stupid places, for me. And everybody liked the record. Then I got a call from Tim, and he said, I know you’re successful and you don’t need anything, but do you want to make another record?”
The two teamed up for the 1989 recording At Home with Bobby and Tim and, two years later, the Russ Tolman-produced Electric Landlady. Windbreakers have been on hiatus since then, but Sutliff says another album is in the works and long-time collaborator Mitch Easter has agreed to produce.
As good as ever…
Sutliff has been playing the guitar since about three months after his accident, when his son brought an instrument to the hospital, and he discovered, to his great joy, that he was as capable as ever.
“You’ve got a left side of your brain and a right side of your brain, and they both control completely different things,” Sutliff explains. “One side is speech and memory, and I have a lot of trouble with it. The other side controls your muscles and guitar playing. So after about three months, my son brought me my acoustic guitar to the hospital and I picked it up and was stunned. My fingers were a little bit tired because they hadn’t been exercised for so long, but I remembered how to play. After a couple of days of playing, it was great. I can tell you right now. I play better than I ever did.”
Sutliff says he can sing, too, though curiously, his range has moved a few notes higher than in the old days. When I track him down by phone, he is sitting in his living room, surrounded by half a dozen guitars, picking out songs while watching TV with the volume off. For a man who faced down death, a coma and the possibility of paralysis not too long ago, he sounds astonishingly happy. “Are you kidding me?” he says, when asked if he was relieved when he found he could still play. “Thank you, God, or whoever’s in charge of these things.”
Last fall, when the Tim Lee 3 came through Columbus, Lee invited Sutliff up on stage. He says that the concert remains one of his very favorite memories of playing with his old partner, after half a life-time of trading licks. “It was the first time he’d been on stage since his accident, and he sounded great,” says Lee. “Just a few months earlier, I’d talked my way into the ICU to see him and didn’t even recognize him for several minutes.”
So when Lee began to put together a benefit concert for Sutliff early this year, it made sense to include the man himself in the billing. “It was like old home week. Seeing Matt Piucci, Steven Roback, and the rest of the Rain Parade crew together was awesome,” says Lee. “Bobby sounded great when he played. It was really pretty magical.”
Sutliff spent the evening borrowing old friends’ guitars – and blowing away anyone who thought his injuries might have affected his music. “A lot of people didn’t think I could play,” he remembers. “I was just as good or better than I ever was.”
“Bobby played like a man on fire,” says Ron Sanchez, Sutliff’s partner in Donovan’s Brain (who released a new record, Turned Up Later, on Career Records in March – see review here).
The benefit concert was a success, raising $2500 for Sutliff. The Skrang CD has also done well, with the initial pressing all but sold out. Asked what it’s like to have a tribute album now, while he’s still around, Sutliff answers, “I’m so glad I’m alive so I get to hear it, but it pisses me off that almost everything on there is better than me.”
[Top photo copyright 2013 by John Boydston]