JASON CRIGLER IS FEATURED IN THE SEPT. ’09 issue of Guitar Player as one half of the guitar duo in Lackawanna (with GP’s own Adam Levy). How Crigler got there, however, is an amazing tale that is chronicled in this riveting documentary, Life. Support. Music., that airs on PBS on Tuesday July 7.
The story goes like this: Crigler, an in-demand guitarist/sideman/songwriter in New York, suffered a debilitating brain hemorrhage while onstage in 2004 that nearly killed him, and that’s where Life. Support. Music. begins. “I remember being put in an ambulance and that’s the last thing I remember for a year and a half,” says Crigler. The doctors said that if he survived, he would probably never walk or talk again, and as for playing guitar? Forget about it. You get to hear how the news affected his wife (who was pregnant with their first kid), sister, and parents. It’s all gripping footage, and you quickly get a sense of how serious this kind of brain injury is. But the seriousness doesn’t truly hit home until you see Crigler, who is completely incapacitated by the hemorrhage, the technical term for which is arterial venous malformation or AVM.
Looking at him onscreen in the early days and weeks, it’s hard to believe he was ever a vibrant performer and songwriter. He looks and acts like the victim of a massive stroke and he requires constant care. The AVM also caused his hands to seize up into contorted claws that couldn’t hold a fork, much less ever play a guitar. Rather than give in to the incredibly bleak and discouraging reality, however, Crigler’s family kept the faith and stimulated his senses with everything they could, most importantly with music. With help from the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Boston, Crigler slowly starts to show improvement.
As he progresses, director Eric Metzgar gradually introduces the musicians with whom Crigler has worked, including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson, and Norah Jones. Crigler continues to improve, defying all common wisdom, and slowly begins to learn how to talk and even walk again. He eventually picks up a guitar, but the pain in his hands makes it almost impossible to play, although he still possessed all his theoretical knowledge. “It was incredibly frustrating,” he says. “My long-term memory wasn’t affected. I could remember songs on the guitar and remember how to play them. My wife and I have a band together called Goats in Trees. I couldn’t remember what I did yesterday but I could remember all the songs we played in that band. It was really painful, though. I couldn’t play for more than ten minutes because of the pain.”
Undaunted, he stays at it, a little bit at a time. This leads to a pivotal scene where Thompson invites him onstage for one song, a Herculean task that Crigler somehow pulls off. Despite that success, rehab was no picnic for Crigler, and the film shows the struggles and the accompanying depression that he had to go through. It ultimately pays off, however, and the results are totally inspiring. “There was one night, and this gig is in the film,” says Crigler, “where everything clicked at this gig in New York. Ever since then, playing and the experience of playing music has been better than it ever was in the past. My connection to music feels stronger and the link between my head and my hands feels vastly improved. I can’t explain why that is, but it’s one of the fringe benefits of this whole experience.”
This documentary is a great testament to the power of music and its effect on the brain and the soul. In addition, it’s just good movie making, with Metzgar employing great cinematography, editing, and music to take the viewer on this wild ride. Life. Support. Music. airs on PBS Tuesday July 7th. For more information, or to purchase the DVD, go to lifesupportmusic.org. To get Lackawanna’s latest release, Whenever the Blues Becomes My Only Song, go to adamlevy.com/downloads/lackawanna.htm.