Nate Cook (The Yawpers)
SPB: What’s the worst or harshest thing that’s happened to you in the middle of a tour?
Cook: We were in Bern, Switzerland. I’d spent the last 6 months unable to move due to a collapsed disc in my neck. It had finally stopped crippling my movement about 2 weeks prior. We were playing a show at a circus tent, and were nearing the end of a tour. I had been looking forward to this show for weeks. The promoter was dope, our last show there had been cool af, and there was a girl there I had met the time before that I was excited to see again.
On this tour, we had a Bavarian tour manager, Andy. He looked like a caricature of a WW1 regular army chef, with striking blue eyes set into a soft red face. He was built like a barrel, with strips or muscle lacerating his body. He took no guff and feared nothing.
Bern has a very progressive attitude towards drug use. Usually, for someone of my ilk, that’s a boon. But after walking past the third needle exchange I’d seen in a block, when jumping over countless orange plugged syringes, the policies had lost their zeal.
Plus it was hot. Remarkably hot. And we were towards the end of 6 weeks of plugging away on the road. After setting up our gear underneath the tent, while a tawdry bartender openly complained about our presence, our promoter mentioned a river we could take a dip.
She mentioned it casually, like we were going to jump into the normal bandaid ridden cesspools we had frequented in a lifetime of Ramada Inns.
“Let’s take a dip in the river. It’s perfect this time of year.”
The walk to the river itself was harrowing. Bern is built inside old castle walls, and the water was at the bottom of them. Steep steps littered with state sponsored smack addicts, also had wisps of blood, either from a mixed needle, or a hemorrhaging median cubital. So much blood. As we approached the river, it became clear that the junkies and their flotsam were going to be the least of our concern.
It wasn’t a river. It was a torrent of ice melt from the alps. A moat of quickened death making a horseshoe around the city. Frothy azure water stretched about 50 yards across, was littered with scores of bodies, flailing wildly against the current that pulled them past our line of sight. The entrance point was a bridge at least a half mile up stream. We walked slowly, as if to a dirge.
As we approached the bridge, we hid our clothes and shoes in a bush. The Swiss, for all of the myriad stereotypes applied to them, are apparently fearless. Toddlers, drunks, grandmothers: all of them approached the water with a veneer of fatalistic nihilism you don’t really see outside of Europe. Andy began to voice concern.
“We have a show to do. I’m not sure if this a good idea.”
I could feel the pulse of his fear; it was in tandem with mine.
As we walked past the disinterested throngs of attractive and well-dressed Europeans, sprawled on trendy blankets or standing on the bridge’s hand rails, the moment’s gravity set in.
Our promoter was taking lead, and seemed unfazed, so we attempted to follow in kind. On the far side of the bridge, she walked us to a bight with a small muddy beach. I dipped my foot in the water.
It felt like a traction beam made of Freon. Instant neuropathy. And my god, the current. Surely this was a bad idea. I turned to tell everyone we should probably just walk back and eat some fondue before the show.
Our promoter, immune to a sense of mortality, leapt in before I could find a voice. It was too late now. Death is a distant fear to being a coward.
The band leapt.
The cold is undesirable. It felt like fever sweat. My body contracted. I was aware of my breath. I felt my head start to slip under the water. My body started to warm. I felt like I was home.
Then, the current. I was wrestled from instant hypothermic dreams of unconditional love. Of peace. Right into the ravenous maw of nature. My arms somehow began pulling me across the river to the only safe exit point on the other side.
I had purpose. To survive. I had jumped out of the dregs, and into the froth. I competed with death.
I saw our promoter reach the other side. She grabbed the steel railing of a submerged staircase that led out of the water.
I did the same moments later. The current nearly pulled my arm out of its socket. I felt the nerve in my neck slide back between my discs. The pain was excruciating, but I managed to pull my shapeless, frail body onto the cold bank.
The band was close behind.
Andy was nowhere to be seen.
I scanned the river. We had floated a half-mile downstream in the span of a minute, and the river was full of people. Side effects of a less litigious society. Eventually, I spotted him.
He was frantically bear hugging a sapling that was too weak to stand up straight, and had fallen with his passing grasp. 200 pounds of Germanic heritage, separately clinging on to the young that sprouted from these Swiss banks.
He was a quarter-mile up stream, so we could do nothing but watch as he, arm over arm, climbed from certain death to an even more certain crag of river edge, replete with goatheads and used needles.
We sprinted to him, and as we approached, breathless, he informed us in perfect English,
“I can’t really swim.”
The girl I had wanted to see that night showed up with her boyfriend, and I spent the next three months in the fetal position, as my neck had collapsed on the nerve again.
And the water was cold.