To heaven and back, Walter Trout lives to tell about it

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Editor’s note: This story was first posted in September 2015. Since then, Walter Trout was the recipient of two 2016 Blues Music Awards: Song of the Year: “Gonna Live Again” and Blues Rock Album: “Battle Scars.” He has since released the albums “Alive in Amsterdam,” “We’re All In This Together” and earlier this year, “Survivor Blues.” An evening with Walter Trout will be be presented for a seated audience at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 29, at the Crystal Bay Casino.

Was it just a terrible dream?

Walter Trout feels great. The in-demand blues guitar virtuoso gets plenty of work performing for adoring fans. He spends quality time with his wife and three sons. The psoriasis on his hands has disappeared. He is no longer overweight. And new hair even is sprouting from his scalp.

To make sure it really happened, he looks at photos of himself taken when he was at death’s door.

Doctors said Trout needed a liver transplant within days or he would die. When Trout’s wife, Marie, posted an image of her gaunt, frail husband, everyone thought he soon would be gone.

“I did too, to be honest,” Trout said. “The doctors did, everybody did. I am amazed and overwhelmed and joyous and thankful and almost speechless at still being here and doing well.”

As he waited for weeks in a hospital bed for a donor, Trout fell into a coma so deep he says he floated into an after-life.

“My wife likes to tell this story, and she tells it with humor now,” Trout said. “It’s funny now, but it wasn’t at the time. Dr. Dan Shafer, just the greatest doctor I’ve ever known, was standing over me and was hitting me on the head and yelling my name. According to my wife, he was rapping on my head with his knuckles, yelling “Walter! Walter!” They were moving my head back and forth, and I wasn’t aware of it at all and I don’t have any memory of it. That lasted about four days.”

On Oct. 23, 2015, Trout released of his album “Battle Scars.” Then he had a five-week tour in Europe, where he has a devout fan base.

Walter Trout battle scars“(‘Battle Scars’) is a concept album about what I went through and every song on there has a story,” Trout said, after sharing his experience that is revealed in the song “We’ll Fly Away.”

Trout said he had only told the story to those close to him. He said he wanted to explain what happened to Tahoe Onstage in order for listeners to understand when he sings, “I can see you there floating up above. I can hear you calling me with eternal love. I can see the truth when you laugh and call my name. Can you hear me when I pray? We’re gonna fly away.”

“I had an experience,” Trout said. “There are certain people I have told this to who are dear friends of mine who looked at me like I’m nuts. I was not high. I was not on fucking morphine or anything. I was visited by spirits.

“These balls of white light were flying around and suddenly I was out of my body. I was looking down at myself in the bed. I had no pain. I had no physical body. I had no weight. I had no carnal desires. I had nothing physical. I was pure consciousness. I was pure. I was spirit. And I got to experience it.

“I flew and I communicated with them. I said, ‘This is beautiful,’ and we were laughing. And they said, ‘Do you want to come with us now? You can come with us right now,’ and I knew that it meant I’m gonna die. I said, ‘No, I don’t. I want to watch my children grow up. I really want to try to hold on.’ And they said, ‘OK, we’ll see you soon.’ And this is as real as anything I’ve ever been through. This was real. They said, ‘We’ll see you soon,’ and suddenly I was back in my body, in pain.

“I believe I saw the other side. I got to experience it and it was incredible. When they said, ‘We’ll see you soon,’ I thought, ‘Am I gonna die next week?’ And I realized when I was with them there was no space and there was no time. So ‘I’ll see you soon’ could be 100 years. To them, there’s no time. It doesn’t exist. …

“People are going to hear that song and say, ‘What in the hell is this guy talking about?’ and think he must have been on some good drugs or something, but I know what I experienced and nobody’s going to tell me it wasn’t real. … The next day my entire outlook on things had changed. I was a different person. It really was also a help in hanging in there.”

When Trout awoke, his body was overdosing on ammonia and he suffered with encephalopathy. He said he couldn’t speak and did not recognize his wife. He has nearly fully recovered, but sometimes cannot remember certain words.

Trout’s indefatigable desire to live was already proven when he quit heroin, and later all mind-altering substances. Cognizant of his addictive personality, he refused to take pain killers in the hospital.

“I was a street junkie for two years,” he said. “I ran around Los Angeles shooting heroin back in the early ‘70s. It’s not something in my life I am proud of but I don’t mind talking about it at all.

“So when I’m in the hospital and I’m hurting and they say, ‘We’ll give you a shot of morphine …’ OK, that works with the pain, but I have a very addictive personality and I know it. I don’t want to get strung out. When I was a junkie, I had to look around for it. Now here it is. It’s pharmaceutical, it’s pure, and I can have as much as I want. Well, no, I better just lay here and hurt.”

Trout said he became sober for good on July 9, 1987.

“It was a fight,” he said. “I relapsed once. I was sober for about three or four months and then I relapsed and was on a bender for about 10 days. It started in April but then July 4th happened and, ‘Hey, I’ve been sober for four months, I can have a glass of champagne.’ So a glass of champagne turned into a bottle, and that turned into, ‘I better get some coke because now I’m really drunk,’ and it turned in to five days and on the ninth day, I stopped.”

Trout said the battle to survive the liver transplant was more difficult.

“It took a lot of help from my wife,” he said. “It took a lot of help from the blues community who supported us financially because I canceled an entire year of work. I didn’t have any income for a year and a half. I have a house and three kids.

“My wife would come in every day and say, ‘You gotta hang in, you gotta fight, you gotta hold on.’ She would give me the messages from the blues community from the people who were sending me these beautiful messages telling me that my music meant something to them and they really wanted to see me survive.”

Trout has always been the most prolific of songwriters. He has 42 albums, including those with Canned Heat and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Songs poured from him during the hospital say.

“ ‘Omaha’ is about laying in the bed in the liver ward: ‘Looking out my window at the rain, I need something for my pain, I don’t want to get strung out again.’

“ ‘Haunted by the Night’ is about laying in the hospital bed for six months. I couldn’t sleep because they come in every hour, stick needles in my arm and take blood. There would be people dying and I could hear doctors running through the halls.

Walter Trout gaunt cropped“There’s a song called ‘Tomorrow Seems So Far Away,’ and that’s about, when you’re awaiting a transplant they have to offer you the liver and they will call you on the phone. They won’t come to your room. You’ve got to get the phone call. So every time your phone rings, you are wondering, ‘Is this it?’ And you are there for months, and every time the phone rings, is this it? The uncertainty is excruciating.”

“There’s a song called ‘I Ain’t Ready for the Cold, Cold Ground.’ ‘I can hear the angels calling but I can’t stand the sound I need them to leave me.’ I start out with ‘Almost Gone’ when I’m looking at my wife’s eyes and between our eyes is the unspoken statement, ‘I’m not gonna make it. I’m done.’ And it ends with ‘Gonna Live Again,’ which is me having a conversation with God asking him why has he kept me here and what is my responsibility now that he’s given me that chance? Why am I here and what does it mean I have to do? ‘I’ve lied. I’ve been a bad person. I’ve let people down. I’ve hurt people. I think I see the answer. I think I know the plan. I have a chance to be a better man.’

“Battle Scars” includes Marie Trout’s photos and liner notes.

“She’s told the whole story in the liners and she’s got a picture of me from the day before the transplant and it’s not pretty,” Walter Trout said. “When they took my old liver out, the surgeon threw it on a plate and took a picture of it. My old liver is covered in this yellow goop. It’s dark brown and the new liver is bright red, like a piece of steak or something. So my old liver was done, man.”

Trout’s medical bills exceeded $2 million. Money was raised through the website YouCaring.com.

“I go on there, periodically, especially though the tour, because I feel now that those people who helped give me the strength that I owe it to them to come back and play my best for them,” Trout said. “That’s my way of giving back. So I would read those messages periodically though that tour and it would make me more determined than ever to go out there every night and play with 150 percent of my ability.”

Trout’s willingness to fight through the disease was matched by his courage to return to the stage for the first time in nearly two years.

“Most guys would go, “Well, I don’t know what’s gonna happen,’” Trout said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play. I don’t know if anything will come out of my voice. I don’t know if I am going to have a dizzy spell and fall over. I don’t know if my hand’s are gonna cramp. So I ought to go down to the local bar and play. I was laughing at myself. Instead of the local bar, I’m at Royal Albert Hall.

“When I was back stage, I was really apprehensive. I was nervous. My wife had prepared me by saying, ‘Look Walter, if you can just go on stage and just play a couple of notes, they are going to be happy. They’re not expecting much.’ But as soon as I walked out on that stage, I felt completely at home. I just felt at ease. I had a ball and I had a blast playing and I kept going for those people.”

“I was not able to not cry. My wife introduced me. She said I fought like a warrior and trained like an athlete for this moment. Welcome him back to the stage, and I walked out and this place gave me a five-minute standing ovation. And I still can’t talk about it. … I hugged my wife and we both stood there balling like babies. It was quite a moment. And after that I could have said, “Thank you very much, good night.” I think they were applauding just because I was able to stumble out on the stage. But you can see the video. I just went, man, and I felt great.”

Several months later, Trout, 64, was at full strength, but his emotions remain raw.

“I was sitting down eating and I just broke down and said, ‘I didn’t think I’d ever get to do this again,” he said. “The five of us were sitting down having a home-cooked meal and talking about our day. One son has just started high school. I am the luckiest guy on the face of the earth.”

Walter-Trout healthy

Messages to YouCareWalterTrout.com

“Our family has been loved unconditionally – and we have survived emotionally and physically with Walter still among us like Lazarus rising from his deathbed thanks to medical science and the ultimate gift from an organ donor and his or her family.”
– Marie Trout

Below are a few of the messages on Walter and Marie Trout’s YouCaring.com fundraiser page:

“My heart is crying for you. Please, God, save him.”
– Ingbritt Karlsson, March 20

“About 1980 I saw John Mayhall playing solo in a small club in Boston. He had one guitar player that totally changed my life and got me to pick up the guitar. Ten years later I figured out who he was: the master of blues rock, Walter Trout. I will never forget that night!
– Frank Maffa, March 20

“I was heartbroken to hear the news of your declining health. You and your music have touched me dearly. I saw you three times and have all your CDs. You autographed them at the House of Blues in Dallas, Texas. You were one of the nicest people I have ever met.”
– Andy Bowers, March 24

“Time to assess the needs and change the goal if necessary…you are communicating “All Done!” Setting a goal for what one thinks you can get is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Size up what Walt really needs and get it on the air.”
– Dan Martin, March 28

“I’m heartbroken to find out Walter is ill. I lost my husband, Spike, to liver disease May 18, 2013. Four days after our 25th anniversary. … It was a hard fought battle waiting for a liver but my man’s time ran out before they even put him on the list. Walter, you have shared such a huge part of you in your music and gave words so much meaning. Thank you.”
– Tina Nuzum, April 4

“May you find the unspeakable joy of which you speak very soon, Marie. There is so much love and support flowing out for you both. Walter has touched the hearts of us all and now you are showing us the love that he had at home. Whenever I met him, he spoke of family. It’s obvious why when I see what a wonderful family he has.”
– Haydn Hart, April 14

“As I read Marie’s update … my tears are flowing again also. I wish being a donor was mandatory so people like Walter would be assured of getting one to live. Walter and Marie need good news!!! Please, somehow this HAS to happen. Please pray and make sure you are a donor!!!!”
– Rhonda M. Rivas, May 8

“I have already had cancer on my liver, and my wife is currently fighting her own battle. We both have gone through hell and back, but we are still here. My guitar was, pardon the pun, instrumental in my recovery. I pray to God that you make it through this my friend. You have no idea what a fan I am of you and your music. I am literally tearing up as I write this. I will pray for your recovery every day, brother.”
– Keith Shepherd, May 10

“We never stop thinking about you both, and thinking about your boys too – you are going through such a tough time. We are not a religious couple, but we believe that sending love and strength can help anyone – so we are sending you all love and strength.”
– Helen Spedding-Lowe, May 18

“I have seen you play in Edinburgh Scotland and you really are a wonderful guitarist, the best ever. I just read the update and am so happy to hear you have received your liver. I now have hope that I will see you once again pluck those strings because it was my heart strings being pulled at hearing and seeing you as a shell of your former self. What a lucky man to have such a loving wife. Your greatest fan.”
– Steve Goligher, May 26, 2014

“The belly laugh is back! Yesterday as we were stumbling out of our little Honda Fit EV – all four of us to go to dinner, we had this shared belly laugh. I don’t remember what prompted it; we just laughed and laughed. Right there, I realized that that kind of communal laughing with total abandon is something we haven’t done as a family for at least a year, maybe more. And as we wobbled into the little local storefront to have dinner, still half bent over from laughter, we were warm and glowing from the feeling.”
Marie Trout, Oct. 23, 2014

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