On a cold day in early March, guitar hero Walter Trout was checked into a hospital at UCLA with no guarantee and a dwindling hope of leaving alive. One of the hardest working men in the business, Trout’s liver was failing him and he could hardly support his own weight. It was the beginning of the biggest, darkest fight in a life that has been fraught with an unequal share of big, dark fights.
Trout, however, is a fighter and a consummate winner. The blues man fought and won his places among John Mayall, Canned Heat, and decades of solo touring when solo touring was a losing fight. He battled to overcome what he describes as a “pretty fuckin’ raunchy childhood” and an addiction that almost killed him. This fight was different; this fight took his body, muscles, his blood, liver, and even his ability to play guitar. A number of times it tried it’s best to take his life.
But the fiery guitar genius is emerging from this brawl much like a newborn in a new body; relearning to walk, talk, play guitar, and rediscovering the most important things in his life in a new light.
“Something like the sound of a bird singing outside the window would reduce me to tears with it’s beauty,” says Walter from the Omaha, Nebraska hospital bed he’s had to call home for months. “I didn’t appreciate stuff like that before. But when you’re looking at your mortality… and it’s just right there… you start appreciating a lot of things about this life that you kind of took for granted.”
It was those months in and out of a coma, in and out of emergency surgery, and the endless hours-turned-months desperately hoping for a new liver that Walter truly came to appreciate what was important to him. “My family and my band. They’re the two things that sustain me, you know? And I wanna get back to both of ’em.
“I’ve been in these little hospital cubicles now for months, but it’s ok man! I’m not complaining, I’m not whining because we came here, we got a liver, the liver is kickin’ ass it’s working great. I just need to rebuild my strength, you know?”
Trout’s wife Marie agreed, “It’s about Walter restrengthening, and I have to tell ya, he’s very encouraged and very enthused, and he sees now it’s gonna be possible for him.”
The other thing the fighter holds close is his guitar, which rested near his bed, untouched. as he rebuilds his body, he can only hold the guitar close in spirit — his weakened condition has made playing a goal for the future, not the present. The beloved instrument that gave Walter a powerful place in the world has never been so close and yet so distant at the same time. “It’s been months,” he quietly admits, a forlorn sadness in his voice. “Months and months.”
“When I tried it last week, my fingers hurt so bad. It’s gonna be like starting completely over again, is what it really is. I’ve got to rebuild the callouses and I have to go through the phase where, you know, the tips of your fingers are bleeding and you go through all that stuff. Which I had when I was ten, and I didn’t think I’d have to go through that again…”
Ever the winner, however, he thinks nothing of the long, hard road back — accepting his new battle with serenity. “But it’s just going to be like being ten years old again and picking up a guitar. As far as the bending of the strings, I know that takes muscles, and I’m not sure, yet, that I have enough muscles left to even bend a string. So to play like I used to play is going to take months and months of rebuilding muscle mass.”
Walter’s passion and dedication to his family is well-known by Trout fans, and now more than ever, the guitarist holds that close, and cherishes his love in a way perhaps only a man who’s stared at death could.
“My wife saved my life,” he says with conviction. The worldwide network of fans who’ve been following Walter’s health know exactly what he’s talking about. Marie has been posting near-daily updates on Walter’s condition. Because of his incapacitation, she’s made most of the difficult decisions, including the one to move Walter from UCLA to Omaha, where the chances and success rate for liver transplant were much higher. As a result, Walter is alive today with a new liver.
“So it’s been quite a journey here. My beautiful, beloved wife has been right here beside me through the whole thing.” The intense love for his wife radiates from Trout, defying his weakened physical stature. “She’s an angel.”
Marie has lived up to her husband’s celestial nickname, tirelessly overcoming the many ominous mountains in Walter’s ordeal with grace and poise. “This has obviously been a completely life changing experience for me,” she laments with a mixture of awe and exhaustion. “Everything I normally could count on, I couldn’t count on any more. You know, there was just contingency plan after contingency plan because we’ve had to deal with so much uncertainty.” Her hardest experience, she said thoughtfully, was seeing all of the uncertainty in the doctor’s faces.
Yet it’s the silver linings that the Trouts continue to see, perpetually discovering the good hidden inside of the bad. “And with all that said, I have to say it’s been one of the more beautiful times in my life as well, because of the outpouring of love and support that we’ve received from other people. Learning to just let other people hold us and encourage us and be ok with that has been a great learning experience…”
For Walter, it wasn’t just the disease, it was the personal heartbreaks of being tied down by it, like having to put his loyal and trusted band members out of work while he struggled with his illness. “I had to call my band and say I just cancelled all the shows I had through the end of the year… There is no work for 2014.”
“And I just started feeling so shitty because they depend on that pay! We tour constantly and now all of the sudden it stops and now they have to go out and hustle to make some money. So we come up with this idea, let’s just have the band tour and have somebody front the band and at least let the guys make some money. And it’s going to be interesting to see how they do.”
As fate would have it, a shining gem was hidden inside of the rough. The band didn’t have to look far to find the perfect front man that they knew would get Walter’s seal of approval: his oldest son, Jon.
“My son Jon is gonna come out and front the band, and he’s a pretty smokin’ young guitar player and singer. And that’s all he wants to do now is be a bandleader and go out and do gigs. That’s all he wants to do is play guitar. So, you know, they’re gonna do that and they have almost a month booked all over the states and Canada.”
“But I wish it was me doing those gigs,” he adds with a joyful laugh. Walter talks often about his family as he recovers and comes to terms with how close they all came to losing one another. His parenting style has always been to allow his children to pursue their own passions — as long as they do it to the best of their abilities. But music runs in the Trout’s blood.
“My son Mike, is with the Performing Arts Academy of Huntington Beach, and they just got back from Europe, where they went to Liverpool and sang Beatles songs at the Cavern Club in London.”
“So the boys are um, yeah they’re following!”
Walter’s always owned the words he sang, but the message of the fighter with a big heart and a wild guitar have never rung more true than today. “I may stumble and fall, and be tired as hell,” Walter sang on his landmark 2001 album, Go The Distance, “But I’m determined to be standing, when they ring the final bell.”
“I don’t feel triumphant yet,” Trout acknowledges with a calm confidence. “I have a hard time walking, for instance…” It’s the confidence in his voice that inadvertently gives away a glimpse into his impending achievement. He says the word “yet” truly believing it — a far cry from the months, hours, and seconds spent not knowing if he would win this fight.
Walter is a man with a dangerous combination of goals and determination, and he knows the very second when his journey will tip from being a fighter to being a champion. And as tears well into his kind eyes and he takes a long, deep pause to collect his thoughts and emotions, he looks forward through the future to the realization of his victory. “When I walk out on stage for the first time… When I go out on stage for the very first time again… I’ll feel triumphant then. I wanna play again, man. I really wanna play again.”
“I’m on the road, back man.”