Walter Trout Returns From The Edge Of Oblivion With 'Battle Scars'

Nov 14, 2015
Originally published on November 14, 2015 2:28 pm

Walter Trout has been playing and sometimes living the blues for five decades. The guitarist was with Canned Heat in the early 1980s, shared the stage and recorded with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and sold millions of albums as a solo artist, but drugs and alcohol almost did him in. He was just days away from death last year when he received a liver transplant, an experience he recounts in a song called "Gonna Live Again."

"I'm having a conversation with God on that song," Trout explains. "I list in thie song that I've been a bad person in my life — I've lied, I've cheated, I've done things that I'm not proud of — but I've been given this chance. When I was in the liver ward, there were people dying all around me, but I made it. I survived. So I'm asking, what is my responsibility now?"

Walter Trout has returned from the brink, and played the Royal Albert Hall in London this past June. His new album is called Battle Scars, and he joined NPR's Scott Simon to talk about it; hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Walter Trout is a man whose come back from the brink. He was just days away from death last year when he received a liver transplant. His new album, "Battle Scars" begins with a song that he calls "Almost Gone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALMOST GONE")

WALTER TROUT: (Singing) Now I get the feeling that something's going wrong. Can't help but leaving. I won't last too long.

SIMON: Walter Trout has been playing, and sometimes living, the blues for five decades. The guitarist was with Canned Heat in the early 1980s. He shared the stage and recorded with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and sold millions of albums as a solo artist. But drugs and alcohol almost did him in. But now Walter Trout has endured, and he's played Royal Albert Hall just this past June. Walter Trout is again on tour in Europe. He joins us from the studios of the BBC in Berlin. Thanks so much for being with us.

WALTER TROUT: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You had such a splendid career. Looking back on it, how did you get to the brink?

WALTER TROUT: I grew up in this little town in New Jersey. I moved to Los Angeles in '74 on my own, seeking a musical career. And within a couple of months, I was playing with these incredibly well-known musicians. Suddenly, I was living the fast, rock 'n' roll life on Sunset Strip. And I got into the drugs and the alcohol, and that's when I did the damage to myself. And I got sober in 1987. Carlos Santana had long talks with me about - that you've been given a gift from God to be a musician. And you're on stage, and you're so wasted. You're flipping the bird where you got the gift, and you need to live up to your potential and take the gift seriously. And he got through to me, and I quit everything. But I had, somewhere along the line, contracted hepatitis C. And that continued to just do a job on my liver until 2013, when I started really having problems.

SIMON: Yeah. But let's listen to a song. Maybe you can help us understand what happened and what's happening now - "My Ship Came In."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SHIP CAME IN")

WALTER TROUT: (Singing) I can see it sail away and let me on my own. I stood and watched it fade away, stood there all alone.

SIMON: It's a great song, by the way.

WALTER TROUT: Oh, well, thank you.

SIMON: But hard-won, I gather.

WALTER TROUT: Well, you know, we all know the slang phrase, my ship came in. And for me, it meant I was having a great life. I was clean and sober. I'm married to the love of my life for 25 years. We have three great kids. I had a great career going. And all the sudden, that liver disease kicked in. And within a matter of four months, I lost 120 pounds. I couldn't walk. I developed brain damage. I lost the ability to talk for a while.

SIMON: This is after the transplant or...

WALTER TROUT: This is after the transplant. I got the transplant on the 26 of May. And I got home on the 2 of September. So all those months, I had been in physical therapy and speech therapy, learning how to talk again and walk. And I just had to work really, really hard. And I had lost the ability to play also, so I would spend hours every day teaching myself the guitar again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE TAKE ME HOME")

WALTER TROUT: (Singing) I just want to go home.

So there was a lot of working out with weights, and, you know, it was a long haul. I got home September 2, and the first time I got on stage was June the 15 at Royal Albert Hall. So that had been 13 months since the transplant.

SIMON: Yeah, I know you've been through tough times. But when you talk about a charmed life, you come back from the brink, and your first (laughter) performance is at Royal Albert Hall.

WALTER TROUT: (Laughter) Let me tell you, that was a little nerve-racking. I mean, most guys after, you know, a year off, would probably go down to the corner bar and play a couple numbers. Me, I'm going to get up at Royal Albert Hall. And I kind of - I was, like, I wonder what's going to happen. Am I going to go out and fall over? Are my hands going to cramp? And when I sing, will anything come out, you know? But I walked out on that stage. My wife introduced me. It was very emotional.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIE TROUT: Since he has fought like a warrior and trained like an athlete to prepare for this moment, ladies and gentlemen, please give him a warm welcome back to the stage, where he belongs, Walter Trout.

(APPLAUSE)

WALTER TROUT: She brought me out on stage, and I got a standing ovation, just for walking out there. And my wife and I embraced, and we cried like babies. And I pulled myself together and went over and plugged into the amp and counted to four. And as soon as the band came in, I just thought, I'm at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALTER TROUT: I lost myself for almost two years, but I'm back, you know?

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Let's listen to your song "Gonna Live Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONNA LIVE AGAIN")

WALTER TROUT: (Singing) Lately, I've been wondering why you kept me here for so long, with all my indiscretions, all the people that I have done wrong.

WALTER TROUT: I'm having a conversation with God on that song. And I'm saying - why am I here? Why have you given me this chance? I list in the song I've been a bad person in my life. I've lied. I've cheated. I've done things that, you know, I'm not proud of. But I've been given this chance. When I was in the liver ward, there were people dying all around me, but I made it. I survived. So I'm asking, what is my responsibility now? I say in the song, I have the chance to be a better man. And that means be a better husband, be a better father, be a better musician. But I also believe that now it's up to me to be an advocate to get people to sign up to be an organ donor. There's so many people on the waiting list in the United States. So many people die every year waiting for an organ. And it doesn't have to be that way.

SIMON: Do you have any idea whose liver is inside you as you make music now?

WALTER TROUT: I don't. You know, legally, they can't tell you who the donor is. But they tell you to wait, maybe a year-and-a-half to two years. And you write a letter, and you send it to the hospital. And the hospital forwards it to the family. And then, if they want to get in touch with you, they will. You have to give them time to grieve, but I intend to write that letter.

SIMON: Walter Trout, his new album, "Battle Scars" - he's earned them - joined us from the studios of the BBC in Berlin. Thanks so much.

WALTER TROUT: Well, thank you for having me on your show, man. I appreciate it very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER TROUT SONG)

SIMON: And we'll have more on the attacks in France and the investigation there online and on the air. By the way, you can reach me on Twitter - @nprscottsimon, all one word. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.