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Difference between here and then – a comeback story
TAKING THE PLUNGE – Brad Hooper sings the blues, and, after living them, is ready to start a new life and a new adventure. Hooper can be seen on April 14 from 8 to 9 p.m. at the 302 Smokehouse in Fryeburg.
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ALBANY – Who doesn’t love a comeback story? They make us realize how short life is – they can be inspiring – and who can resist rooting for the underdog?
Comeback stories move all of us, especially when it is well deserved. And not many are more deserving of a new beginning than Brad Hooper.
Living in Bryant Pond, Brad loved his guitar, harmonica and writing the blues. With all of his heart and depth of his soul, he sang of loss and laughter at the Hilltop Hotel.
“The Hilltop was a place where a bunch of us would gather to make music,” he said. “It was really an attitude and a feeling more than a specific place. We would party and jam; sometimes for days in the kitchen.”
“All of us carry a little of the Hilltop in our hearts somewhere,” he added.
And for Hooper, there would be no songwriting without a struggle.
“That is really what the “kitchen” came to represent,” said Hooper. “Life is tough for each of us and all mankind tries to find ‘the little things’ that make life worth living; kids laughing, music around the fire or wiping a tear.”
In 2009, Hooper released a CD, named The Hilltop Hotel, which was full of songs that reference the small town, working man’s stories in an edgy, often brutally honest venue.
With the reviews comparing his story-telling blues style to such greats as John Prine and Neil Young, the talented picker was gaining celebrity; 20 years of hard work was beginning to pay off.
But was it worth the price? He admits he was running hard and down the wrong path.
“I was very functional; I went to work everyday, wrote and performed songs and worked on the old farm. I just did not see my hard-drinking ways as a real problem. Bad things only happened to other people, right?”
According to the songwriter, whiskey was the grease on the tracks.
“Once the train left the station it rolled hard and there was no slowing down. It brought out the raw element of the songs. It also enabled me to drop my inhibitions and explore the emotions of the crowd. Interaction and incitement were at their best. Unfortunately there are consequences involved with any addiction.”
“The best explanation is from a song I was writing just before everything came crashing down,” he added. “The whiskey that now chains him down, used to set him free.”
Last May, early one morning, Brad became one of “the others” that bad things happened to. A mistake that almost took his life; a mistake that would change his future forever.
“I was exhausted and still running hard,” explained Hooper. “I had been working long days, playing as many gigs as I could handle and hitting Open Mics when I could. It was a Tuesday night and I was playing Open Mic in Portland. No other players were there so I played all night. I was on fire; the music just rolled out and I was drenched in sweat.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I am not and will never make excuses. I was lit and still drinking when I left Portland, headed for Albany.”
While driving on Route 26 in Welchville, Hooper fell asleep at the wheel and woke up in the Androscoggin River.
“I do not remember hitting the water,” Hooper shook his head. “I was sound asleep when I careened down the bank and toward the river.”
When Hooper woke, water was halfway up his calves and rising.
“I couldn’t find the door handle or even why I was wet! Realization turned to fear real fast.”
As the water topped the front seat, he finally got his hand around the airbag, rolled the window down and got out.
“I swam to shore and the car sank. All I could think of was my equipment, including my guitar ... sinking. I almost went on a ‘drunken rescue mission’ but I was too cold and scared.”
Most of the night was a blur; going to the police station, being booked and having to call loved ones to explain. But one memory will be forever be haunting to the singer.
“There was a witness; a woman. And I can remember hearing her tell someone at the scene that she saw the car go off into the river. Thinking about her haunts me still; I could have killed or hurt her. I do not know her name or how close I came to hurting an innocent person. If we were to meet I would beg her forgiveness and tell her I am truly sorry for disrespecting her right to life.”
“Not much to offer for my actions, but sometimes forgiveness is all there is.”
The near-death realization didn’t totally hit him until the next morning.
“I guess I thought it was like Otis on the Andy Griffith show. You sober up, they dust you off and you go home. Not. It really hit home when I went back to the scene to get my guitar the next morning. My head was hung awful low by then.”
That morning, feeling ashamed and humiliated, Hooper didn’t think it could get any worse.
But it did.
“It was a comment made by the flagger while I was walking off, head low, with my soaking-wet guitar,” he frowned. “He was laughing; somehow he found a kind of joy reveling in my self-imposed suffering and said “I guess you’ll never play that thing again, huh?”
Once the entire ordeal sunk in, 50-year-old Hooper didn’t really think it mattered much if he lived or died.
“It was my wife, my family and friends that made it certainly clear they did not feel that way. They all touched my heart and I am grateful for all of them.”
Hooper consulted a lawyer, but dealt with the judge on his own.
“I was guilty and I knew it. To plead otherwise would not have been right with God. I would have been lying only to myself. I saw the DA after my plea and told him I just wanted to know what I had to do to get my life back.”
Hooper lost his license for 90 days; the minimum for a first-time offense.
“That was the least of my worries,” he said. “The impact on my wife’s life was more than she deserved from me for sure. Because I worked in Portland with no car, I had to impose on a friend for a place to stay and ride to work for those three months.”
"A dear friend allowed me to use his treasured Gibson guitar while my guitar was 'drying out',” he added. “It was more of an honor than I knew and I am forever in his debt.”
Not only did Hooper stop drinking after the accident, but his writing stopped as well.
“I didn’t even care about playing anymore; all the shiny edges were dull. After going through counseling and DEEP I learned this is a common reaction and part of the healing process. I had performed my songs while drinking for so long that it was like auto pilot. I had written and performed them while intoxicated and doing them while sober had to be learned.”
“I had to relearn my own material!” he added. “How sad is that?”
It took a long time for this talented musician to find his rhythm again.
“I don’t recall an exact moment when I began to write again; it just happened. I began to pick up interesting bits of conversation, comments, met people I never would have met and the triggers just started going off; big time. I have so much material now I don’t have the music for it all. I have to think of my counselor's comment at one of the last sessions: ‘I wonder what you are going to write about now.’ We shall see soon!”
Brad Hooper, singer and songwriter feels he is truly blessed and his life has made an upward climb.
“There was a reason I was spared that day and it is now my job to find out why, and earn my blessing.”
Now, sober since the accident and with the major parts of his life back on track, Hooper began thinking differently about his life, his family and his music.
“I lost nine months of hard work and felt ashamed, but I had a clean slate before me. I am now relentlessly pursuing my music career. I have a lot to do if I am going to take my talent to the next level.”
And he is well on his way. Hooper was recently chosen as one of six performers to play in the MSA (Maine Songwriters Association) Summer Concert Series in Portland this year. These performances are in one of the squares downtown at lunch time on Fridays starting July 8 through August 12.
“This is a truly great opportunity,” he smiled. “The exposure is to die for and I am humbled to have been chosen by the MSA. I will be performing all original material on July 29, in Post Office Square from noon until 1 p.m.”
The MSA also asked Hooper to play the 302 Smokehouse in Fryeburg on Thursday, April 14.
Another exciting thing that has happened is that Michael Rizzo of EpicSoul.com, who produces songs for film, TV and recording publishers, contacted Hooper and proposed producing some songs together.
“We have reached an agreement and are working together now. He is a true visionary and I am proud to be part of that vision. The only guarantee I get is that I end up with some great songs good enough to present to professionals. That is more than I had hoped for at this point in my life.”
On the local level, Hooper has been playing exclusively at Tucker’s Music Pub in Norway.
“This is more than just a place to play, it is a “happening”- and I thank Anne and Al for giving me the opportunity to be part of it. They are helping me to find my stage presence again and it just feels right. Tucker’s is a great to place to experience an intimate relationship between musician and audience. I will be back there on April 16 at 8 p.m. and again sometime in June.”
“I am also seeking opportunities to do some benefit performances,” he added. “To give back for the blessings I have received. I am scheduled for the Dancing Trees concert in Bridgton in August.”
The musician is currently in the process of completing press kits and will actively begin booking gigs soon. Anybody interested in booking a performance or purchasing his CD, Hilltop Hotel, can check out his website: bradhooper.net.
And as for his guitar – after hours of hand rubbing and TLC, it has dried out and is once again strong.
“When my guitar began to deteriorate I thought of the laughing flagger. I was not ready to give up on my ‘good friend’ just yet,” he explained. “With the neck adjustment rod broken, I slowly worked down the frets with a flat file, a little at a time, until the guitar could be played well enough to perform with. I am proud to say the guitar now holds a tuning quite well and I will continue to perform with it for a while longer, Mr. Flagger!”
Hooper feels that many others have seen far-harder times than he ever has and the best thing to do is to do the right thing and not lose track of what is important.
“We all find stones in our pathways from time to time. The devil puts them there when he sees he is losing his grip on you,” he stated. “The next time you turn one of those stones out of your way, be sure to look underneath and see if there is a song waiting there. If you don’t find one, be sure to see if it’s stuck to the bottom of the stone.”
ALL THAT’S LEFT – Brad Hooper’s 2005 Honda Civic gets pulled from the Androscoggin River in Welchville.