Scott McCaughey
Scott McCaughey
Courtesy of Yep Roc Records

The Minus 5's Scott McCaughey on His Harrowing Stroke & the Friends Who Saved Him From Getting 'Wiped Out' By Hospital Bills

by Craig Rosen
September 10, 2018, 6:03pm EDT

It was supposed to be a good day for Scott McCaughey. The veteran indie rock musician was enjoying his time on the road, doing double duty by playing bass in Alejandro Escovedo's Burn Something Beautiful Band (a combo that also included his long-time collaborator, former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and drummer Linda Pitmon) and fronting his own band, The Minus Five, as the opening act.

The bands had just played a show in Novato, Calif., and then pulled into San Francisco for a day off. McCaughey, hoping to make the most of free time, threw his bag on his hotel bed and headed to one of his favorite places, Caffe Trieste – the famed coffee house where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for The Godfather. He was on foot, wearing his beloved San Francisco Giants hat and carrying a writing pad, when he began to feel numb while walking next to some scaffolding.

"I kept thinking if I could make it to the end of the scaffolding I would be OK," he recalls of last Nov. 15. Instead, McCaughey collapsed and was left lying half on the sidewalk, half in the street. He was conscious, but unable to call out for help. "People kept walking by," he recalls. "They probably thought I was a North Beach burnout or something." Eventually, two good Samaritans stopped and offered help. "They thought I had a seizure."

Though he's not quite 100 percent, McCaughey, who turned 64 in August, has recovered enough to resume recording and touring. He's capping off a busy summer by playing in the Arthur Buck band alongside longtime collaborator Buck during the band's first tour, which kicked off Sept. 7 in Seattle. It runs through Sept. 24 at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, and includes a stop Sept. 15 at Atlanta's Midtown Festival.

McCaughey's bandmates are impressed by his progress. "Scott works five or six hours every day on music," says Buck. "He doesn't want to be 80 percent or three-quarters of the way back. He wants to be 100 percent and he's really close. He's working really hard."

"He's almost 100 percent. He's doing really good," adds Joseph Arthur. "He sounds great, too. He's back now."

Just prior to hitting the road, McCaughey, Buck, Pitmon, Bloch and singer Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney held sessions for the second album by Filthy Friends.

McCaughey, who started attracting attention in the '80s fronting the Young Fresh Fellows, is also known as an auxiliary member of R.E.M., recording and touring with the band from 1994 through the band's breakup in 2011. He's also a member of a number of other bands, including Tired Pony, the Baseball Project and The No Ones.

In a strange coincidence, during McCaughey's first tour with R.E.M., drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm onstage in 1995 and had to have emergency surgery Switzerland. "That was a real flashback for Peter especially," McCaughey says of his stroke. "I think in a way it made him want to be really cautious in pushing me into playing. It couldn't help bring back memories of the Bill thing." Berry came back from surgery and R.E.M. resumed the tour in a mere six weeks. However, that health scare played a part in his decision to retire from the band in 1997.

For McCaughey, it's somewhat of a miracle that he's back in the studio and out on the road again after suffering the stroke and the series of events that followed.

From that street in San Francisco, he remembers trying to tell those two good Samaritans to call an ambulance. "I don't think I could get any words out," he says, "but I was totally lucid and could see everything." They did call 911 and an ambulance came to take McCaughey to the hospital. He remembers the ride and eventually, somewhere along the way he lost consciousness. "I was kind of in-and-out of it over the next 24-to-48 hours," he says.

Once at the hospital, doctors had trouble diagnosing McCaughey. "There was a doctor who insisted I had a seizure or I think he thought I was on drugs or drunk, which I wasn't at all," he says. To make matters worse, McCaughey didn't tell any of his bandmates where he was headed. Luckily, his phone was unlocked so someone at the hospital called the last number McCaughey had dialed. It belonged to Pitmon, but McCaughey had her listed by a joke name in his phone so when the hospital called, Pitmon thought McCaughey was pulling a prank. Only with some convincing did Pitmon realize the urgency of the call and soon she and Buck rushed to the hospital to be by his side. Though McCaughey tried to convince his friends to go on with the show, with guitarist Kurt Bloch switching from guitar to bass, the remaining dates of the Escovedo tour were scrapped.

McCaughey's wife, Mary Winzig, was back home in Portland attending a Trailblazers game with Buck's wife, Chloe Johnson, when she got the news and was soon on a plane to San Francisco.

When he initially regained consciousness the next day, he had two major concerns – his songwriting notebook and his San Francisco Giants cap. "I wanted to make sure they picked those off the sidewalk," he laughs. "And they did."

From there, his concerns became more serious. He was moved to another hospital and spent 10 days in intensive care at the stroke center there for a total of three weeks. "They pumped all this blood into my brain to keep the area that was dying in my brain as small as possible, and that made my blood pressure go through the roof," he recalls. "It was really intense. They had to monitor me closely to make sure they didn't kill me, and minimize the damage."

Fortunately, McCaughey had renewed his insurance through the Affordable Care Act in Oregon, though that wouldn't cover all the costs. He had an advocate in the hospital in Buck, who, according to McCaughey told hospital officials, "'Don't worry. He's got insurance and we'll take care of it.' He just kind of made sure they took good care of me," he says. Buck continued his support out of the hospital working with Winzig to make sure the cost of McCaughey's care was covered. "I don't really even know exactly what the [financial] damages are because Mary and Peter have just taken it out of my hands so I don't worry about it," he says.

"One of the first things I said to Mary about four or five days after the stroke was, 'I don't want any benefit concerts and I don't want a GoFundMe,' and she was like, 'Sorry, too late.'"

The two "Help the Hoople" benefit concerts (the name inspired by McCaughey's favorite band Mott the Hoople and the 2014 Minus 5 boxed set Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror) were held in Portland in January along with an online auction, raffle tickets and cash donations that pulled in more than $116,000. Artists who performed at the two shows included Escovedo, Filthy Friends, James Mercer of The Shins, M. Ward, the Drive By Truckers' Patterson Hood, the Decemberists and former R.E.M. members Buck, Mike Mills and Berry. The still-active GoFundMe account for McCaughey has surpassed its initial goal of $75,000 to raise more than $125,000 to date.‚Äč

McCaughey, who lives modestly with Winzig in Portland, says that even with his insurance, he likely wouldn't be able to survive financially without the help defraying those enormous medical expenses. "It's safe to say I would have been wiped out," he says.

Miraculously, McCaughey was able to get on stage and play bass briefly with Filthy Friends at the benefit shows.

When he initially returned home to Portland in December following his hospitalization, McCaughey was pleasantly surprised that he hadn't lost all of his musical abilities. "I lost all the speech stuff, the lyrics -- that was all wiped out," he says. "But I could still play guitar, which was really weird." He notes that he'd heard of others, including the Kinks' Dave Davies and jazz musician Pat Martino, who had to completely re-learn how to play guitar following strokes.

He actually started thinking about making music again while he was still in the hospital. "Peter brought a guitar into the hospital when I was still pretty out of it and he handed it to me. I put my fingers down and they made a chord and I was like, 'Oh, OK. I remember chords.' That was a huge relief," he says. "Right off the bat I knew I hadn't lost that. As I went along I got a little better. A couple of weeks before the benefits, I could remember the songs, I could remember how they go. I can remember the bass parts. I couldn't play them very well, but I could remember them."

To perform the three songs live wasn't easy, though. "I might have picked five or six, but I realized that was too hard physically," he says. "But I managed to get up and do three and it was really taxing. It was really hard -- for my brain and for my fingers. I was just happy I could do it." With his self-effacing sense of humor still intact, he jokes, "I could have gone up there and sucked ass and everybody would have said it was great anyway."

Though he was able to play again, McCaughey found singing, remembering lyrics and songwriting more of a challenge.

Again, while he was still in the hospital, McCaughey worked hard to try to regain his abilities. "About a week after the stroke I thought, 'I'm going to take my little notebook out and try to write songs.' And I wrote lyrics. I was trying to write songs, but it came out like goulash, because my brain wasn't working. My speech center was burned out, but I was determined to keep writing anyway to get my brain working."

In mid-May, McCaughey posted the song "Goodbye Braver Man" on the Minus 5's SoundCloud account, writing on Facebook that it was "a musical postcard from 'Stroke Manor' – a place no one needs to visit!'" The thumbnail photo featured McCaughey in the hospital, wired up to monitors with oxygen tubes in his nose, wearing sunglasses and his trusty Giants cap. The song has a psychedelic tinge and McCaughey's familiar voice, but is slightly disconcerting, with numerous sound effects seemingly replicating the confusion and uncomfortable feelings McCaughey suffered through following the stroke and on the road to recovery.

He's also recorded other songs he wrote in the hospital, but he's not quite sure if he'll release them as a solo album, a Minus 5 project or put them up for free on the internet. "They're pretty unintelligible, but as songs, they sound good," he says. "It's really weird, because it's like looking at my brain at that time and it's really fucked up, but if you make it into a pop song then maybe it won't be too scary."

Recalling that songwriting process, McCaughey says it was a struggle. "It was really weird because when I was trying to write, I'd have an idea but I just couldn't get the words to explain what I was trying to say, so I would just put down the words I could find," he says. "It was really frustrating in a way, but I just had to carry through just to do it."

To help lift his friend's spirits while he was still in the hospital, Buck brought McCaughey an iPod filled with music by The Beatles and other artists. "That was great," McCaughey says. "Because I was trying to get stuff I was familiar with. I know all those songs inside out, but I realized I couldn't sing along with them. There just wasn't anything there. It was all gone. I would do things like try to make a list of Beatles songs I could think of. I thought I was writing down the right titles, but I wasn't. For 'Strawberry Fields Forever' I wrote down 'Strawberry Reunion.'" He later jokes, "I really have to write 'Strawberry Reunion.' It's a great title."

Though he's still feeling some lasting effects after he was temporarily paralyzed on his right side, including slowness with his right leg, arm and hand, McCaughey is doing well enough to resume performing again.

He did a series of what he called "Therapy Sessions" Wednesdays a small club in Portland in April, for which he assembled a revolving cast of fellow musicians to play Neil Young and Beatles covers, as well as songs by the Minus 5. "I figured those would be the songs easiest to remember for me," he says. Though he kept partial lyric sheets on a music stand, he found the words were coming back to him. "That made me realize they weren't completely scrubbed clean," he says. "That somehow they were coming back. Somehow my brain was finding a pathway to these memories."

In June, M. Ward invited McCaughey to open for him in Vancouver. "It was a bit scary because I hadn't played solo since the stroke," he says. "It was really hard.  But I managed, and it went all right." McCaughey was accompanied by an old '70s Univox drum machine to make "his creaky hands feel less lonely," he says. By coincidence, former R.E.M. bassist Mills was in town and played bass on the last two songs of his set.

A Midwest mini-tour followed by the Baseball Project, the indie band featuring McCaughey, Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate, Pitmon and a platooning Mills and Buck. For this tour, both of the former R.E.M. members were on board. "It was a mind-blower for me, trying to get those word-dense songs back into my memory," McCaughey says. But it became easier as the tour progressed. Having "Peter playing perfect 12-string made my guitar duties so much easier," he adds.

For now, McCaughey is in high spirits, but knows he's still got some work to do, "It's a question as to how close will I get to pre-stroke status," he says, before joking, "And how good was I then, really?"