I first heard about country music icon Garth Brooks from, of all people, a punk rocker at King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut on the corner of Avenue A and East Seventh Street in the East Village. I tended bar there.
Although this was early 1990, my punk patron would not have been out of place in 1977 CBGB’s: biker jacket, Doc Marten’s, spiky hair, rawboned face, electric eyes. Mid-twenties, like me. Not quite a kid, not yet a man.
It was happy hour, and slow. Punk Chap was a good tipper, so, as per Wah-Wah Hut protocol, his third Rolling Rock was on the house. Sufficiently lubricated, he motioned me over. His body language was like: I want to tell you a secret.
“You heard of Garth Brooks?” he asked in a stage whisper.
I had not.
“Country singer, hat-wearing mofo,” Punk Chap smirked, but caught himself.
“Okay,” I said. “Not really my cup of tea, but –”
“Wait. Lemme tell you something,” Punk Chap said. “Friend of mine runs sound at [intimate NYC music venue of yore] the Lone Star. This Garth guy played there. I went for a laugh.”[Google informs me this was October 21, 1989.]
Punk Chap looked around. Did he sell this Garth person weed or speed or some such thing? No.
“I gotta say,” he shook his head, still amazed. “That hillbilly sings his ass off.”
This was not the only time my bartender position would make me a sort of priest in a confessional. It was also not the only time Garth Brooks would touch my life, if only tangentially.
Sixteen years on, I was living in the Catskills, performing for families, and releasing music as Uncle Rock. “Pete Seeger Meets Shel Silverstein at the Ramones’ house” was my tagline.
I volunteered for Musicians On Call. This organization sends musicians into hospitals to play for children: kids in cancer wards in New York City – Sloan-Kettering, Mt. Sinai – and severely disabled kids at the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center. I regularly traveled to NYC to play, sometimes in kids’ rooms at Sloan-Kettering, sometimes on the Claire Tow Pediatric Pavilion there. I also played the Child Life Zone at the Kravis Children’s Hospital at Mt. Sinai.
The Child Life Zone is a high-tech isolation unit that resembles a spaceship. It was specifically designed for kids with immune systems compromised by chemo. I never saw my audience, just the technician. My soundstage performance was broadcast in kids’ rooms, and we chatted via intercom. It amazed me how lively they sounded. I frequently didn’t know the songs they requested, but it didn’t matter. I mostly played for their parents, whose disembodied voices were heavy with gratitude. Lots of Bob Marley requests (which I could play).
Upon leaving after my first performance in the Child Life Zone, I noticed a black-and-white eight-by-ten of a smiling Garth Brooks and his wife on a wall. I almost missed it.
By that time, Garth Brooks, who’d likely changed the life of Punk Rock Chap a few years before, had become one of the biggest-selling artists of all time, with numbers surpassing the Beatles, Elvis, etc. I’d made trips to Nashville by then, and everybody had at least one Garth story. All were positive.
I pointed to the photo and asked the tech, “Garth Brooks played here?”
The tech smiled and waved his hand at the millions of dollars worth of cutting-edge equipment around us, all of it expertly rendered colorful and life-affirming and benevolent. A citadel of healing.
“Garth Brooks paid for all of this,” he said. “And refused to have his name put on it.”
It was then I realized Punk Rock Chap hadn’t only been moved by the voice of that hillbilly. Just like me at Mt. Sinai, he’d been moved by the man’s soul.