It is often said that, “One moment can change the course of our entire lives, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.” In the blink of an eye, our world can turn on its head due to one event and our path in life is forever altered.
Going about our daily lives, we strive to keep things simple and easy, but sometimes fate has a different plan for us. We get smacked upside the head by a twist of fate and find ourselves in turmoil and darkness. When that darkness hits, there are many ways we can deal with the new reality which we have been dealt. How we deal with it, positively or negatively, affects the outcome of that twist immensely.
One such fateful night last August, Marin County musicians Danny Uzilevsky (Chrome Johnson, Honeydust) and Erik Smyth (Mo’Fessionals, Kelly Peterson Band) were driving home late after a gig in Sonoma County with their band Elephant Listening Project. The gig went well, probably one of their best and more than likely both men were content and probably rehashing the night’s festivities when fate dealt her ugly blow. Another driver, sadly driving under the influence of alcohol and unable to understand that he was driving in the wrong direction of the freeway, hit Danny and Erik head on, splintering their reality in a way that forever changed things for them both.
Erik does not remember much of the accident, “My last memories were driving up a grade and rounding a corner on 101 south and seeing very bright lights in front of me. Impact is still very dreamlike. I do have a memory of being stuck in the car and blood streaming down my face. I turned and asked Danny “Are you Okay?" and Danny, still conscious, said, "No, I am not fucking OK!" His breathing was weak and weary. We both passed out. Apparently were trapped in the car for sometime.”
Both men were hurt very badly. Danny had 12 broken ribs and both lungs were punctured. His right femur was broken in 2 places and his left leg was (and still is) badly sprained after having been shoved under the seat of the car upon impact. His right arm sustained nerve damage and his right shoulder still has limited mobility.
Erik was in better shape comparably, suffering 5 broken ribs and four fractured lower vertebrae. Erik had face and head lacerations, a bad concussion, a tweaked right wrist, a banged up left knee, and basically bruising everywhere. He was released from the hospital after 4 days.
With over two weeks in Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital ICU, it was not a pretty picture for Danny.
“I was pretty shaken up emotionally after I woke up from my coma. I was on some serious drugs, Dilaudid I believe (a stronger version of morphine). I really hated that stuff! It gave me hallucinations and made me extremely paranoid. I thought the entire staff was trying to kill me! At one point, I thought the ICU was being robbed at gunpoint,” recalls Danny of his hospital recovery time. “Even as I was about to be discharged, I thought the Hospital staff were dressed in Halloween costumes. Thank god for the wonderful people at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital! They were fantastic and put up with my shenanigans, which I now know is referred to as "ICU Psychosis."
Friend and fellow Honeydust bandmate Darren Nelson remembers his first sight of Danny. “The morning of the accident I went to see Danny and I had no idea what I would be in for. I kept going up to check on him and his mother. After a few visits he opened his eyes and gave me the thumbs up and these words came to me. ‘When you woke from the smoke/ Twisted metal and broken bones/ In your room with no view of the outside world all praying for you/ Your blood soaked pillow and you in the middle of this side and that side, living and dying /and you cried when you looked up into your momma's eyes.’” Darren’s words reflect the devastating imagery of Danny’s new reality.
Along with bodily damage and the loss of Erik’s car, both men lost musical equipment but are happy they were able to keep their lives. States Danny, “The one thing I really miss was an irreplaceable Spector guitar that I bought new in '92. It was the Ferrari of guitars. The neck is splintered and broken in 2 places, kind of like my right leg. “
“I was just happy to be alive so equipment didn't bother me so much. Everything gear wise for me was replaceable,” adds Erik. “Although, I think I am the only guitar player ever that broke a Marshall head with his own head!”
With both men facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses, not to mention the loss of the ability to work and make a living, the local musical community came out in full force to support both Danny and Erik in their recovery process. Online donation sites were set up in less than a day after the accident, raising thousands of dollars to help cover the skyrocketing costs of an incident neither man wanted.
“I am still trying to get MediCal coverage to help with the half a million dollars worth of hospital bills”, says Danny. “They're being difficult and denying my claims over an un-dotted “i” or uncrossed "t". It can be frustrating at times, but I am confident that it will all work out.”
Within a few weeks, a benefit was booked at various venues within Fairfax, Ca. for a day of fund raising for the two men. Local bands like This Old Earthquake, 35R, Mo’fessionals, US Randy, AZ/DZ and Sage came out to play and rock it hard for the cause.
“For me it was very special. I was lucky enough to get to play only a few weeks after the accident. Talk about healing!” says Erik of his first performance at the benefit for himself and Danny, “The community came out so strong in support. It was truly amazing, something I will never forget. I played with Kelly Peterson on the Patio at Peri's and then reunited with my old band The Mo'fessionals later that evening. What a night!!!”
Soon after Danny’s release from the hospital, he had his first chance to perform. A forgotten gig at Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa that was never rescheduled after the accident gave Danny a chance to do what is in his blood, play music.
“I guess the boys in Honeydust forgot to cancel the gig. Since I was the one who booked it and I had been trying to book a show there for over a year, I decided to just go ahead and play the gig. It was a pretty good gig but it was pretty surreal,” remembers Danny. “About a week after I was discharged from the hospital, here I was, playing a gig in a wheelchair in front of a bunch of great friends, family and regulars at the Russian River Brewing Company, though it was physically taxing. It was good to know that I was still able to play and that I still had something to live for. I wasn't too sure up to that point.”
Moving on and healing are usually the next steps after a major life event, especially one of such magnitude as Danny and Erik’s. The long road to recovery, both physically and emotionally, will be difficult and ongoing.
States Danny of his healing body, “My ribs are still healing. Although I put down the cane a few weeks ago, I still walk with a limp and have a hard time with stairs. My feet are still sprained and sensitive. My right shoulder and arm still haven't fully recovered, so Pete Townsend “windmills” are out for now.”
On the other hand, there is always the music, and for Danny, that is all that matters. “Music has always transported me to another realm. It definitely helps to take my mind off the pain. When I forget what I've been through and do some "jump in the air" move and land all funky, it reminds me that I'm still a gimp. That's what the blues has always been about. Boy, I sure do got the blues.”
Both Danny and Erik have taken this experience and made something positive with the outcome. With a moment’s glimpse at the possibility of death, Danny and Erik decided to embrace life and take their talents to another level.
“I did have that “oh shit!’ moment for a bit and it made me question what I had to live for. I've been playing music my entire life and I'm not sure I'd know what to do without it. When I first got out of the hospital, I invested in a bunch of recording gear because I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to perform on stage,” says Danny. “I did know that I could still be a part of making music in the studio, however. I also made that investment because I realized how short life can be and I wanted to make albums, lots of albums! My New Years resolution was to make and release 5 albums this year.”
“I am definitely more motivated musically as I am really understanding how fleeting this time we have here is,” says Erik. “I have had the chance, for a little while at least, to fully focus on music having had this hiatus from the "day gig". I think after surviving something like this it made me less self conscious and more confident as a musician and also less jaded.”
With extra time on their hands during their healing process, Danny and Erik have been focusing on their band Elephant Listening Project, that also includes drummer Loring Jones and bassist Steve Winter, who are all recording songs and working on an album.
The band’s first gig after that fateful night last August will be March 1st at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA. The “come back” event will also hold a silent auction that will help support the ongoing expenses accrued from the accident. Items such as signed rock & roll memorabilia donated by the likes of Carlos Santana, Metallica, Lynrnd Skynard, Stanley Mouse, Cindy Blackman and Bill Kirtchen will be available for bidding.
Erik is ecstatic about the future for Elephant Listening Project. “As a band, we have amazing focus and attention to detail. Everyone in the band is a pro and has considerable experience in the studio, so it's not exactly pulling teeth. We've got some pretty amazing musicians in this group. Essentially, we're a "power pop" band with our ears tuned and our fingers on the pulse of what's happening now in popular music.”
Often accompanying tragedy is an affirmation of life; a need to go on living and a need to become better people than who they were before things went crazy. Enduring an event such as the one that Danny and Erik have experienced and producing something amazing from the pain of it is one way that we can become better humans. Both men are thrilled to be alive and have the harnessed the stress of this major life-altering event as a way to channel it towards becoming the extraordinary people they are meant to be.
Through community, creativity and the love of being alive, these men have pulled through the darkness and have come back fully into the light of their lives.
Says Danny of the love and support they have received during their recovery, “The outpouring of support from the local community, as well as across the country, has been incredible and truly awe-inspiring! It really warms my heart to know that so many people care for us and wish us well. It's a very emotional thing that I can't completely put into words. "THANK YOU" comes to mind.”
“Although memories are vague, I still have dreams of the being stuck in the car. I guess that's just the way my mind is still trying to process what happened.” Says Erik of the accident. “The first few months I dealt with a lot of guilt being the driver; was there anything different I could have done to avoid what happened? Having such a great friend and musical partner so badly injured, I wanted me to be the one more injured and Danny less harmed. Luckily our friendship has actually strengthened and that really helps me with any feelings of guilt and I am so grateful we are both alive. This could have been a much sadder story.“
I agree with Erik’s statement, it could have been a much sadder story. But we, the loving and supportive musical community that surrounds both Danny and Erik, are grateful this story has a happy ending.