Peter Joseph Burtt: A touching story of life and music

Peter Joseph Burtt
Peter Joseph Burtt followed the light back to life. Tahoe Onstage photos by Tim Parsons

“My eyes are burning staring at the sun. Sometimes it looks like two things but it’s really only one.”

-Peter Joseph Burtt

On the other side, Peter Joseph Burtt was pulled back to life by his 10-year-old son, Hazen.

“People say, ‘I heard you were dead for a second. Did you see a bright light?’” said Burtt, 53. “Man, I saw a bright light coming back to this life. This is where the life was for me. This is was what I focused on and I reached for it. I wasn’t trying to escape. I just knew that my son needed me.”

Sixteen months after Burtt’s near-death experience on a surgeon’s table, he looks into bright stage lights. Peter Joseph Burtt and the King Tide played a 75-minute set on Saturday night in the Crystal Bay Casino, opening for the Dead Winter Carpenters. In the spring, Burtt will perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, playing with Eric Lindell’s band and opening solo for Dragon Smoke.

Burtt was accompanied in the Crown Room by guitarist Zebuel Early, drummer Mike Adamo, keyboardist Todd Holway, bassist Sam Ravenna, and, assuming he can make it from Santa Cruz through the snowstorm, Ibou N’gom, a percussionist with SambaDa who formerly performed with the national ballet in his native Senegal.

Tahoe Onstage
Jenni Charles and Peter Joseph Burtt onstage in the Crown Room on Feb. 4.
Photo by Clare Foster

The album Burtt started working on in summer 2015 before the surgery is now complete. Burtt mixed the record with Kelly Finnigan and Ian McDonald of the San Francisco band The Monophonics. “Mermaid’s Curse” has seven original songs and three covers rearranged in Burtt’s world beat roots rock. One of the songs, “Portrait of Marilyn,” already is getting airplay on “Radio Margaritaville” (SiriusXM Channel 24).

The band will play songs from the new album, a handful of older tunes and “probably three” from what would be the next one, which Burtt wants to release this year. Burtt also will join the Dead Winter Carpenters for a couple of songs.

Burtt sings and plays guitar and kora, a 21-string instrument he learned when he lived in West Africa.

“I’m in the process of building a new kora,” he said. “It will be a slightly hybrid instrument I can play a little easier outdoors and something easier to travel with.”

The trip to New Orleans figures to be a celebratory occasion. Burtt had a leaky heart valve.

“We knew for nearly three years that I had a damaged valve and it was leaking but you know they just they want to check it every six months and then they measure how much blood is leaking and until it hits a certain number the insurance won’t pay for it,” Burtt said. “It came down to the wire where I was really on my deathbed.

“They lost me on the table. My surgeon said: ‘I lost you for a minute and then you came back and then you were a step ahead of me the rest of the way. … You really fought for it. I never really saw anything like that.’ ”

Peter Joseph Burtt
Peter Joseph Burtt

Burtt remembers fighting for his life.

“It was pretty dark and I saw a lot of faces,” he said. “I felt like I had gone back into a distant time. I fought a very serious battle to allow myself to be back in this time. It was very clear in my mind as I was in that space lying on a battlefield cut up. I said I have to put myself back together. No one was going to come and help me. I have to do this myself.”

A long, slow rehabilitation has included invaluable assistance from Burtt’s young son.

“I was so proud of him during that whole time he was so brave and so strong and so helpful to me.  I mean you know for months, I couldn’t even lift an instrument he would come and bring me my guitar and lay it down for me and prop it up for me to play it.”

Drummer Adamo brought his snare to the house to help with the rehab. Burtt said he could only play about five minutes before he’d need to lay down and rest.

“I couldn’t play a lick for the longest time, but I tried right from as soon as I got home. That’s what I do every day. … Pushing right to the edge of failure and then backing off and resting and doing it again. That was that was how I got through this.”

Burtt still has numbness in his hands, but he said he’s singing better than ever – the lungs work much better when not absorbing blood. He’s using Lake Tahoe’s biggest winter since 1995 to get cardio workouts, shoveling snow.

“There’s different things I have to deal with but I feel pretty good,” Burtt said. “It’s the damnedest thing, the hardest thing in the world is leaning down to put my boots on. .. I’m pretty good right now I can live with everything the way that it stands and I think it will just get better. It’s just a slow process. I’m just happy to be alive to be able to do what I do.

“I have a song, ‘My eyes are burning staring at the sun. Sometimes it looks like two things but it’s really only one.’ And that’s that was one of the lessons I took from this whole thing was not to be tricked by the illusion that you know we have to confront each other and oppose each other at all times.

“As cliché as it sounds, it is really only one thing in this time.  I had that clear thought that I don’t want to waste the little energy I have fighting battles that aren’t going to achieve anything. So I just want to put it all in my music and let that be my contribution.”

-Tim Parsons

Related stories:

  • Video: Peter Joseph Burtt interviewed to a glorious Lake Tahoe backdrop. LINK
  • Ten bands play benefit for friend Peter Joseph Burtt. LINK
  • Dead Winter Carpenters Jesse Dunn a booking agent and a dad. LINK

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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