I am living proof of the regenerative power of muscle memory and artistic practice. Music and lyricism saved my life, and to these, I owe everything I have. Ten years on from a major stroke, composer Liam O’Connell shares his thoughts on life and returning from the brink.
Listen to the album while reading the text.
Throw the dice
In 2001 Liam O’Connell embarked on a journey from the stifling backwater of post-Nineties Canberra life to reinvent himself in Melbourne, with the vague idea of attaining an Arts degree and ‘playing music.’
With nothing but a 91 Mitsubishi Station wagon, a 12 string guitar and his innocence, he took to the Hume Highway, one of his longest-lasting friends, to throw the dice and find out what life in his Twenties would look like. Who would have known that 14 years later, he would return with none of these things? In their place: a heart full of life experience, many books worth of songs and a pantheon of musical achievement.
There was also that incident with the stroke, two months in the hospital, a double-craniotomy: call it a late 30th birthday present. That event caused more damage than you could imagine, but the tenacious bastard was adamant about keeping at it, playing his first gig just weeks after release from St Vincent’s Hospital, still with staples spanning from both ears to widow’s peak, like a frowning steel crown or over the top Goth-tattoo.
“Everybody I know is having babies and my brain’s exploding what the hell?”
At the peak
But before all that, Liam was playing regularly with multiple bands in Northcote, Fitzroy, Brunswick and St Kilda; touring interstate to Byron Bay, Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, Wagga Wagga, Wollongong, Newcastle, Bendigo, Lismore, Nimbin, Geelong, Mittagong, Noosa, Merimbula the list goes on.
In 2008 at the peak of his musical life he was asked to tour the USA with the Sydney-based New Wolverines Jazz Orchestra. In 2009, Liam performed solo in Germany and with Dub band Sine at the Sydney Opera House, supporting his hero Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at the personal request of Brian Eno.
That could have been the end of the road, as it was ominously close to the fateful day at Ostara Festival outside of Geelong 2009 when spring sunshine gave way to a spiteful squall which dumped hell on his head as darkness set in. The downpour left him a quivering mess, still to give one last impassioned performance with Agency Dub Collective before a medieval sickness overtook his whole body for months.
The fever that followed bore a seething blood infection which spread to the frontal lobe, culminating in a major stroke at home and eight weeks in hospital on a drip feed of antibiotics. The rehabilitation was brutal, frustrating and lonely.
He was a different person, full of angst, high expectations of himself and others, and desperate not to lose work or face. He lost both, and as opportunities evaporated over the following year, so did confidence.
The few close friends who kept the faith and kept throwing gigs his way would cement their status as legends forever: cats who had seen comrades drop dead or fly spectacularly off the rails at the hands of the musical lifestyle.
Crawling out of a fire
Is that what hit him? The sheer decade of hard living, heavy feeling, and underpayment? If it was, then that same lifestyle is what has sustained him too. Despite himself, he still feels and speaks and won’t settle down to that comfortable, safety of capitalist mediocrity.
There are recordings from those early years of recovery, they sound like crawling out of a fire, a pathetic mess of arrhythmic steam escaping, or a trapped spider eating its last limb. No one will hear those tapes. And the one person who did had the guts to tell him:
“Yeah, you’re just not hitting it mate, sorry… and I’m not sure you ever will again.”
Well if that didn’t put the fire under him. But his old friend went on:
“It’s just fucked up man – you were at the top of your game! Killing it, no one could touch you on the mic, and then bang!”
That was the spark, that honest nudge that would inspire the biggest comeback in music history.
End of part 1