On January 31, 2014, Scott Thunes found himself in the hospital. At my request he agreed to explain what happened. Photos by Scott, Georgia, and Hazle Thunes, except where noted. Click images to enlarge.
Scott Thunes discusses hearts and basses
Could you please describe how you discovered that you had a serious health issue?
I had some pain in my arms and what I call “a dark cloud” in my chest. I repeatedly—when asked afterwards—said that I never felt any pain, shortness of breath, or “heaviness,” but felt it more like a shadow, a “nothingness.” When I had to sit down, I didn’t think of it as a heart thing, as I thought it was a “complete package” deal: It’s supposed to be about the chest with pain in one arm, not “pain in both arms and nothing in the chest.” My reading on heart problems was woefully inadequate.
Over the course of two weeks, I must have had twenty or so of these episodes. Two of them consisted of arm pain so bad it kept me awake for several hours two nights in a row. The next day my wife made me get an appointment at the doctor. I received an EKG and an chest X-ray, both of which showed nothing. I was sent home.
The next day, I felt the arm pain again twice and my wife sent me back to the doctor to get a referral to a cardiologist (at the express and intense recommendation by a doctor friend of ours). The EKG at the cardiologist’s office showed “Unstable Angina.” which only sporadically shows irregular heart beats. He immediately put me in the hospital.
What was the treatment you received in the hospital?
I got some medicines, hourly—it seemed—blood pressure checks, a couple of EKGs and an angioplasty and a stent.
What’s your long-term outlook?
I have no official “long-term” outlook except perfect health. One of my other arteries is 30 percent clogged and I can’t remember the percent-clogged number of the other one, but it isn’t enough to automatically trigger placement of another stent. I’m good until my next clogged artery, I guess.
My job is to eliminate the introduction of foods into my diet that could add to my hardened arteries and to also add foods that could possibly remove plaque itself.
My doctor told me the other day his job is to make me live til ninety and die of anything OTHER than heart disease.
Have you been put on medications as part of your treatment process?
I am on five medications: two blood thinners, a beta-blocker, a cholesterol-lowerer and something else.
You’ve been told you need to make some major lifestyle changes. Is that hard?
It’s not officially “difficult.” I’m not an addictive personality, but I am fucking lazy as hell, so doing something as drastic as officially and permanently changing my “dynamic” with food is annoying. I feel the urge to eat my old foods but as I see the “urges” I recognize them as being “outside” of “me” and I can reject them as such. Much like I just threw away regular masturbation last year—from some ungodly large number a week to basically nothing, cold turkey—gave me the idea that many things I thought were ME were just THINGS I DID and weren’t WHO I WAS.
So eating differently—eating salads every day, hardly anything but fruit and nuts and veggies—is as hard as having your lovely wife come up to you and say “I love you, please live a long time with me, like, four more decades, minimum.” You do what she says ’cause she’s right. It’s so dumb how I was trying to kill myself with dumb foods before; sure, they taste good, but every bite I took of a burger or drank a Coke® must have made her heart feel crushed, figuratively, like a Christian who is trying to save you from Hell and you laugh in their face, “But there IS NO HELL!” and give a cartoon “villain-laugh” to try and prove how stupid they sound to you.
Has this crisis had an impact on how you view life in general or your life in particular?
Wow, that’s not something I ever would have thought about on my own, but now that you mention it, I still don’t have a clue. I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky sort. One who had pretty much never given a thought to the future. I’m still an in-the-moment kind of a guy and if asked about something future-holding, I ask people the question back, “What can we ever know of the future?” Blah blah blah. I rock the present and hope the future turns out well, but I have very little data that anything I can do, personally, will impact it one way or the other.
Especially now that I’ve heard my heart condition is partially genetic, I feel that there’s only total permanent maintenance and diligence keeping me alive, which means that literally I am my own doctor, holding the treatment in my own hands. Of course, you keep telling me I’m “cured” which means to my teenaged/reptile brain that I should just damn anything “reasonable” and continue eating the rather reasonable—to me—menu I kept up previously. Knowing I can’t do that is my daily affirmation to myself: if I eat that thing I like, I’ll die. More like, though: if I eat that thing I like, my wife will kill me. It’s a nice dynamic between two different forms of self-preservation.
[Editorial rant: During Scott’s crisis and in the immediate aftermath, I sent as much hard medical information as I could to Scott and Georgia. Scott’s main blockage was in his left anterior descending (LAD) artery, known as the “widowmaker” artery because it’s the one that makes makes widows most often.
Scott’s procedure and medication will ensure that whatever happens, the widowmaker will not be a factor. The danger that the widowmaker poses is that problems with it are often not caught in time. In Scott’s case the problem was caught and treated effectively.
My father Edward Wictor had a quintuple bypass in 1999 and then lived on a diet of cheese, bacon, roasts, ham, salami, butter, mayonnaise, and full-fat ice cream and cake until he died in 2013. Heart trouble played no major part in Dad’s death. He began to show signs of unstable angina in the last year of his life, but this was the result of Dad doing exactly the opposite of what his cardiologists asked. If Scott follows his doctors’ orders, he will likely outlive most people reading this.
Don’t ever let anybody tell you that American health care is substandard. That’s a ridiculous, agenda-driven lie. I spent all of 2013 immersed in a health-care system that did its best to save my parents. And my parents would have been saved if they’d cooperated. End of rant.]
You and your wife Georgia have described you as being really a hippie deep down. Do you have any hippie-ish beliefs about such issues as souls, an afterlife, and so on? Or do you prefer to not share your beliefs?
No, it’s fine. I believe in very little I can’t see, but I’m an empiricist. I’ve personally, over many years, seen and felt things I can’t explain using the most basic science I gleaned from my eighth grade education and my sporadic reading. There are things I like to believe—such as my brother needing to go through many lives to learn lessons to make him a better person over millennia, and as his life here was short and full of emotional and mental miseries for him, I like to think of him having learned something here to make him more evolved next time around—but I wouldn’t stake my life on it or bargain with somebody over it.
It’s fun to contemplate, but I have no proof it’s true at all. He’s a bunch of carbon flakes floating in the San Francisco Bay (along with my mom and pop, and as I and my wife and children will end up) being eaten by fishies and clinging to sea-foam scum. There is really no poetry in death, and I don’t see how lying in a hospital bed having your chest fill with phlegm until you literally can’t breathe any longer has any connection to one’s post-death existence.
But I’ve seen things, physically, that PROVE to me that time is an almost totally-useless concept, and things are all happening all the time, a lot, and we only see glimpses of this effect in passing and it’s virtually impossible to impart this data to another person—especially one who hasn’t experienced these effects themselves.
I’ve read too many descriptions of the “many world’s theory” to be fazed by anything anymore. I wouldn’t doubt it if we were really just a computer simulation or an alien experiment. Life is just plain too weird. A Shitload of humans ended up suburban morons after all that evolution? What a waste.
Georgia wrote on Facebook that this experience was quite frightening and painful for her. Do you have any advice for people whose loved ones face the sort of danger you were in? Or advice for people who are in that danger themselves?
Nope. I don’t even have the slightest understanding of what happened to her. I am sorry she felt pain from me but at the time, I didn’t know I was building up to hurt her this way. I thought I was just living a pretty normal life. Her strength is in covering up that stuff from me. I can help her with her pain, but when that pain is caused by me, I’d rather just go about my business. I can apologize to her best by making the most of the diet plan the nutritionist gave me and not trying to undo the work that’s been done to save my life.
My advice, if I had any for anybody ever about anything, was always just be happy and be yourself. Unless you’re an asshole, of course, then it would be stop being an asshole. In this case, my advice would be to stop being an asshole by eating poorly, but who would listen to anybody about that kind of stuff? I never listened and they were totally right. It’s fucked up.
What were the best and worst aspects of going through what you’ve just experienced?
The best aspect was how easy it was to go from being just some dude/dad/bass player/beer drinker/burger eater/buttered-toast lover to nutritionists wet-dream, cardiologist’s fuck-toy (“Anything you say, Big Boy!”) and having hot chicks show up in my hospital room and moon over me for hours. The worst aspect was almost how badly the pain in my arms was and how my wife’s face contorted with worry that I would somehow not be in her life. Knowing what I did made that happen to her causes me a new-found feeling of guilt I thought I’d redacted from my life years ago.
As a present for being brave, you were given a twelve-string bass. Have you ever played this instrument before? If not, what’s it like?
I’ve never held an instrument like that. It’s quite weird. I am not used to it nor can I envision a time when I’d be used to it. It’s unlike anything bass-like I’ve ever held in my hands and I don’t see it as a bass at all. It’s—obviously—a hybrid instrument and I don’t think it should be considered a member of the electric bass family, even though that’s it’s roots. It’s more and less than that. I don’t know what I mean. I’m still freaked out by it.
Soon you will be asked to make a short recording using the twelve-string bass. Is that something you’d be up for?
I will do it even if I feel I can’t do it—or maybe because of that limitation, I don’t know—because that kind of a challenge has always turned out to be way super-easy so I don’t get intimidated by that shit any more. You want a short recording? I’ll see what I can do, buddy!
In both 1996 and 1997, you said in interviews that you didn’t intentionally try to express emotion through your music. You said that if a listener reacted emotionally to your playing, it was simply due to the note choice, not an attempt on your part to elicit a specific reaction. Is this still your position?
Your children are musically gifted. However, you’ve said that it’s awkward for you to get involved beyond a certain point. Is it possible for you to expound on this a little without violating your and your family’s privacy?
My musical interactions with my children run the gamut from boredom to tears. Too many times I’ve sat down with them at the piano only to have it end with one of them crying. I stopped for years because I felt it wasn’t productive to leave my children with a bad taste about music—or pianos—in their mouths. Everybody who felt anger at their parents for forcing them to do piano lessons can have an idea what I’m talking about.
But this situation was different in my eyes by dint of knowledge that they were battling me more than they were battling music. I knew that if they had a professional to rail against it would be a different animal. But now that they’re older, they both are much more accepting of my information.
Hazle recently had to learn more theory and ear-training with me because of a music-school audition she wanted to pass. I had a nice warm-and-fuzzy moment at the audition as one of the things I made her work on was ‘on the menu’ when we got there. I’d asked her pick triad notes out of a chord and the teacher made her do the same thing. She looked over at me with a smile as if to give me my props. I accepted them gratefully but pridefully. She learned I wasn’t just a harsh task-master with something to prove, but I had actually worked her hard because she NEEDED it, and she recognized that.
Virgil, my twelve-year-old boy, has learned the piano on his own several years ago, but has no ‘follow-up’ skills. He doesn’t sit down to plunk out a tune he’s heard, or pick up some sheet music, or play stuff he played in the past ‘just to keep up’. It’s an ‘old toy’ to him. But several weeks ago, I decided to sit him down with some of the Mikrokosmos of Bartók, Volumes 2 and 3. I made him go through ten to fifteen pieces and every single one was attractive to his ear and he “got” what was happening to the fingers and—more importantly—compositionally. He understood what the function of each study was and what the composer was telling the young pianist under his tutelage. I got the smiles and recognition of a musician thankful to another musician for turning him on to another musical way of thinking.
Our “crying on the piano bench” time has been almost completely eradicated, and the smile-time has increased. But they’re either going to WANT me to tell them more about music, or they’re both going to find out so much on their own they won’t totally NEED me to. I don’t know which is worse/better.
Does music have the power to heal?
On your Facebook page, you asked for people to please return to treating you the way they treated you before. Are you the same person that you were before, or have you changed in any fundamental ways? Or is it too soon to tell?
I’m exactly the same person. I just don’t wanna be “the heart attack/healthy eater” guy. If I became a Christian, I don’t think I’d want people treating me differently.
Recently you spoke of a famous musician who owns 450 guitars. You’ve expanded your own collection in the past year, after sticking with your old Fender Precision for decades. Can new or different instruments improve a player?
I don’t know. All I know is that I really wanted a couple of these instruments ’cause of long-standing desires. I still want a huge steel string acoustic like a Gibson J-400 or a Hummingbird, and I’d love a 30s or 40s Gibson L-5 or D’Addario or Epiphone big old Jazz guitar, plus a Les Paul of some ilk.
As a musician, I still see many instruments as dreams to be fulfilled rather than “I need this instrument so I can complete a long-standing project” or make a specific sound on a specific recording. I don’t write songs or pieces or do pretty much anything with music. I just like the possibilities. It’s almost enough of an art form for me.
On a radio interview, you said that you need to be doing seventeen different things at once. Is there a danger of being a jack of all trades but master of none, or do you eventually master all of your projects?
Exactly. Nailed it. Nothing gets done in my world. Far too distracted. Maybe it’s my diet.
More and more people are pushing you to write your memoirs. So far you’ve resisted. Are you and your fans still at a stalemate, or…
I can’t know what will happen from all the pressure I’m feeling from people about this—especially the wife—but I can say that they’re right. I should be doing something about my writing skills. They are going to waste, I agree. But I will repeat what I said years ago and I keep saying it now and nobody will listen to me: I have no good stories to tell. I’m bored by them when I write them out. I can’t picture anybody else enjoying them.
I think what people are responding to when they enjoy what they see that I’ve written is how I make them feel. I have written stuff that shows how I feel about something strong enough to project it outwards from myself.
But when I sit down to write, I don’t feel that when I’m just “writing about stuff that happened to me.” It’s a completely different set of mechanics that is engaged. When I write about my wife, people react to the fact that “harsh, obnoxious, brutally-honest Scott is showing his innermost self, his shell-like exoskeleton cracking to show the mushy and delicious center.”
My writing skills, honed through decades of letter writing and journal entries along with a sprinkling of judicious choices (but absolutely no academic training of any sort), are pretty much useless when it comes to the naked act of composition and form. I’m a flailer, flailing about on the page until something comes to me. It’s only then that I know something is worthwhile and it almost always has to do with sex or my wife or both.
If I get the urge to write about something that I think other people will be interested in, it takes me 5 minutes and a text box on my Facebook to put it to the world. The ‘chapters’ about music or my rock and roll past – lame as it is – sit on the virtual pages they live on in mocking boringness. I shudder to think what kind of person I’d be if I let that stuff leave my computer to be “printed” on dead trees.
I don’t believe I have enough stories told plainly OR with “art,” NOR do I have enough word-play to satisfy the fans I’d want. No offense.