Interview: Bentz Kirby
Local Songwriter and Concert Organizer Plays Saturday’s Keep It Beating Benefit at Art Bar
Bentz Kirby didn’t have a heart attack. He had a sudden cardiac arrest. The difference, he explains, is all the difference.
Kirby went into cardiac arrest while driving to Easley with his wife, May, on Oct. 27, 2012, the same day former Gamecock Marcus Lattimore suffered his second catastrophic knee injury. If it weren’t for an off-duty EMS technician who was carrying an automatic external defibrillator (or AED), Kirby likely would have died.
What: Keep It Beating Benefit
Where: Art Bar, 1211 Park St.
When: Saturday, June 28, 7 p.m.
With: American Gun, Devils in Disguise, Mustache Brothers, Daddy Lion
More Info: artbarsc.com
But he didn’t. Physically, Kirby looks healthy — warm and gregarious. He suffered some neurological damage. He has a hard time writing, and occasionally has trouble speaking. He no longer practices law. But slowly, Kirby, a songwriter and concert organizer, has returned to the music scene.
He’s restarted his Right Bank Rails open mic series at Utopia, one of his favorite Rosewood haunts. Saturday, he returns to Art Bar with his loosey-goosey jam-rock band Alien Carnival. He does so as part of the Keep It Beating Benefit
, which he helped organize. The concert, which also features performances by American Gun (whose frontman, Todd Mathis, wrote a song about Kirby’s heart attack called “12 Staples”), Devils in Disguise, Mustache Brothers and Daddy Lion, aims to to raise money to purchase an automatic external defibrillator for Art Bar — a cause, to make a terrible pun, near and dear to Kirby’s heart.
Free Times: What do you remember from your sudden cardiac arrest?
I remember being glad I didn’t die in front of a Wal-Mart. It’s as bad as it sounds. It was no situation where, like, you see light at the end of a long tunnel or anything. I guess I was having some sort of aphasia, because I pulled the car off the road and I thought I was telling May that she needed to take me to the doctor. What she says I said was “There’s something wrong with my eyeballs.” The last thing I really remember is the guy from Tennessee wrecking Marcus Lattimore’s knee. I remember yelling at the radio, and then all of a sudden I felt really woozy. I remember feeling the sensation of, you know when you’re in a dream, like, stuck underwater and can’t breathe? It felt like I was drowning, which I was because I couldn’t breathe, just not underwater.
I don’t know if it’s hallucinations or created memories or whatever, but I remember being in a room with four doors, and I understood that I was supposed to make a choice which door I wanted to go through. And I said, “Well, I’m not going through any of these doors. I’m going back to be with my wife.” It reminded me of that old Moody Blues song “House of Four Doors.” So, I guess there’s precedence there. Coming from the psychedelic era, I’m always looking for those weird connections.
I always said that Carolina would kill me one day. [laughs] It’s funny, if you look at my Twitter feed, it says, like, “Gamecock fan who was abused by the Gamecocks for 20 years.” [laughs]
[Note: Kirby’s Twitter bio actually says he “loves the USC Gamecocks despite their abusive behavior towards me until the Spring of 2010-11.”]
Well, social media’s where Todd got the inspiration for “12 Staples.” Is it weird having a song written about that?
Right when I’d gotten out of the hospital, I could barely walk and barely get to the bathroom and back, [posting on social media] was about the only thing I could do. And one day when I got up, there was this full-length mirror, and I didn’t have a shirt on, and I saw the staples. And I just started counting them. I always thought it was sutures, you know, not staples. So it kind of freaked me out. So I just stared at them and thought, “That’s freaky and ugly, but on the other hand, that’s where they put my pacemaker in, and that ensures me some stability with my heart.” And I wanted to write a song about it right then, and I sat down and wrote what essentially is the first verse. Todd changed it a little bit, but it’s basically [the same].
When they give you a pacemaker, they give you a phone that you’re supposed to put next to your bed or whatever, and it has these three levels of [warning] lights. And they tell you not to get too close to microwaves and magnets. And so I just started playing with the images of the microwave and the phone, because that downloads my data to the doctor’s office. So that’s basically where that first verse came from. I wanted to finish it, but once I got through that first verse I was exhausted. I posted it [to Facebook], and Todd saw it. He took it and ran with the whole thing.
It’s interesting, really. It’s sort of gratifying when you have an idea and a friend can take it and run with it. It’s an honor, I think. For me, anyway.
So why does Art Bar — or any bar, really — need an AED?
Well, an AED essentially is what saved my life. Basically the things that I’ve learned — and I didn’t know these things before — is that a heart attack is different from a sudden cardiac arrest. And I started learning this in the hospital in Greenville. The doctor told me, “Well, I’m an electrician, but I’m going to refer you to a plumber.” His point was that a cardiac arrest is like an electrical interference. You may have a heart attack, and it may lead to it, but it’s not the same thing. But when you hear of a guy dropping dead on the playing field, that’s what it is nine times out of ten. It’s not something that’s readily seen. I’d been checked out before; I’d been on a treadmill, I’d done the stress test. And they didn’t find anything. But with a heart attack, you don’t really need the AED, and you’re not really even supposed to do CPR. But only about two percent of people who have a cardiac arrest outside of the hospital survive, and how they survive is that they have to have immediate CPR and, if possible, the application of a defibrillator.
So I’d said something to Todd about wanting to do a benefit, and we were trying to think of a place to start, and we thought Art Bar would be a good place to start, because we knew that … I think his name was Benji?
Oh, B.J. B.J. Boatwright. [Boatwright had a heart attack while tending bar at Art Bar in 2008.] I was there that night. I remember seeing that.
But I don’t remember if that was a heart attack or a cardiac arrest, but we thought that, you know, any public place really needs to have one available and someone trained how to use it. We thought, well, we play a lot in different bars, even though I haven’t played much lately, but what place could be more in need of something like [an AED] than Art Bar? Especially on Friday nights [laughs], with all that discotheque.
But we’re trying to take this event and turn it into a charity where we can put AEDs wherever possible in public. We’re talking to some attorneys about forming a nonprofit, so that we can solicit money. But right now we’re just bringing people’s attention to it and try to make Art Bar a safe place.
**You have been playing a little more, recently, and you’ll be playing with Alien Carnival on Saturday. How does that feel? Does playing help your healing process?
Oh, yes. I don’t think I would have survived a lot of things in my life if it hadn’t been for music. The fortunate thing was I didn’t have much physical damage. It’s mostly neurological. I do have some issues with my left side, but only when I get really tired. The language part is where most of the damage really was, and they told me that the brain doesn’t regrow brain cells, but the brain can sort of reprogram itself. And I’ve been improving, and the main thing I’ve been doing is writing and reading, but the other thing is relearning lyrics and trying to write songs [has helped]. Music is something that’s important to me, and it enables me to work on these things. So even though I still screw up lyrics and I have to have a book for my own personal [lyrics], the mere process of getting up and doing it [is helping]. The main problem I have is stamina. [Alien Carnival] used to do three-hour gigs. I just liked doing that. I don’t know if I saw myself as The Grateful Dead or what, or The Who or whatever, but I can’t do that any more. I’ve tried a couple times. But my brain is healing itself, and one of the ways is through the music.