Veteran Rock Guitarist Larry Campbell on Battling Coronavirus: ‘This Thing Has Been a Beast’
When the coughing jags began on March 16th, Larry Campbell first attributed it to the early onset of pollen. The guitarist, Grammy-winning producer of three Levon Helm albums and respected backup player for Helm and Bob Dylan was back home in Woodstock, New York after a few days in New York City. Then came a fever that spiked over 100 degrees, and three days later, the 65-year-old musician was tested for the coronavirus. The results came back positive a few days later.
COVID-19 is impacting everywhere, including the music community. It has already claimed the lives of Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, country star Joe Diffie, world music pioneer Manu Dibango, jazz trumpeter Wallace Roney, and “I Love Rock & Roll” songwriter Alan Merrill. John Prine remains hospitalized with the virus. Others, including Jackson Browne, folk legend Tom Rush, Testament singer Chuck Billy and Asleep at the Wheel founder Ray Benson, have announced they’ve tested positive.
Coincidence or not, Campbell is one of at least four participants of the Love Rocks benefit concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre on March 12th who have tested positive for the virus (alongside Browne, singer Tanya Blount-Trotter of the War and Treaty, and an unnamed “member of the Love Rocks NYC production crew”).
While it’s hard to say if Campbell’s is one of the first cases of a musician battling COVID-19, his is the story of a member of the music world who contracted the virus and survived. After nearly two weeks, his fever broke last Saturday, and he is currently recovering at home. “This thing has been a beast,” he says. “It’s going to be a while before I begin to have equilibrium here. But I’m on the mend.”
Campbell spoke with RS about his ordeal and what he learned from it.
Take us through what happened after March 16th when you were coughing and felt a fever coming on.
Tuesday it got worse and then Wednesday was a really bad night. [My wife and musical partner] Teresa [Williams] called my doctor and he had me come to the parking lot of his office on that Thursday afternoon, and a woman in a Hazmat suit came out and gave me the test. Then I continued to deteriorate over the weekend. They weren’t able to give me the results until the next Monday.
And you tested positive.
Yeah, but by that time I knew. I had every symptom, including a lack of taste and smell. It’s the oddest thing. Normally, even with a flu and if your taste of smell is deteriorating, you can put an orange in your mouth and you can tell you’re eating an orange. But other than looking at it, I had no idea what I was eating now. There was no response at all from my taste buds. I sautéed a bunch of garlic with broccoli, and I couldn’t even smell it. And if you can’t smell garlic, you can’t smell anything [Laughs].
I’ve had the flu plenty of times but it’s never gotten this debilitating. My temperature fluctuated between 100 and just over 101. It went to 102 at one point. There were days when the effort just to get up and walk to the couch I’d been laying on all day – just to get into the kitchen to force myself to eat something — was monumental. Then trying to walk up the stairs to the bedroom at night and not being able to sleep because of headaches and fever.
I took Tylenol to keep the fever down at night, but then the headaches would come and then you’re so dry you keep waking up to drink water. Then you try to sleep but you wake up because you have to pee. It was just a nightmare. I lost a good 10 pounds at least.
What happened the week after you tested positive?
That last Friday [March 27th], it hit a critical point and I was starting to worry that it was taking a turn for the worse and it could turn into pneumonia. Teresa was looking into getting an ambulance up here and getting me down to the city. I was on the phone with her and my cousin, who is a nurse, and the fever started to break as I was on the phone. I had taken my temperature before the conversation and it was 101. By the end of the conversation it was down to 99. And we decided to just get through the night and see what happened over the next 12 hours. The next morning, Saturday [March 28th], I woke up and the fever was down to 97.6.
I’ve been monitoring and the fever’s never gone up again. I’ve slowly begun to feel an appetite every now and then, which I had none of that whole week. I actually got dressed and went out and walked around in the backyard for a while. Which felt great while I was doing it, but [coughs] I was afraid after I came back that I may have set myself back a little with the pulmonary issue.
So Teresa was in the city at your Manhattan apartment, to play it safe, and you were in your house all by yourself? That sounds doubly awful.
Just me alone in the house. It’s been miserable. People offered to bring stuff and I would say, “You just can’t.” They would bring food and soup and just leave it on the porch outside. I’d wave through the window and wait for them to get away and then go out and pick it up.
Did you hear from musician friends?
Elvis Costello has been in touch by email. Rosanne Cash sent me a beautiful email. Jerry Douglas sent me something that put me in tears – an MP3 of him playing “Home Sweet Home” on the dobro. It lifted my spirits like I can’t even tell you. Bob Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen reached out.
Were you able to play any guitar the entire time?
I spent an hour playing the mandolin this morning for the first time [since the illness], and it did me a world of good. I called up some YouTube videos of fiddle tunes and played along with my mandolin. I started to feel like I’m going to be me again. I’m not there yet, but it’s amazing what the absence of making music does to musicians, just psychologically. You just feel you’re not who you are if you can’t get up and play guitar.
Do you have a theory about where you contracted it?
I don’t. It could have been at that [Love Rocks] benefit concert. It could have been before that. I had been in Seattle the week before. It could have been the weekend I came up here after the show.
So far, four participants of that benefit have tested positive. Does that make you wonder?
You’re gonna wonder, but it’s really difficult to pin it down. Jackson had flown in from L.A. (“I’m presuming I got this flying back and forth to New York to do [the] Love Rocks show at the Beacon,” Browne told RS. “And now it turns out that several people who were at that show have tested positive.”) Everybody was trying to do the fist-pumping and elbow-bumping and as much social distancing as possible in that situation. But it hadn’t become reflexive behavior yet. I’m guilty of hugging people I hadn’t seen, because you’re so glad to see these people. We’re all aware of how we should do this, but your reflexes kick in and you put your arm around someone. In retrospect, I should have been more careful about that behavior, but it was just reflexive.
What was going through your mind during the Love Rocks finale, when everyone congregated onstage?
I wasn’t even thinking about it. It’s an emotional event and I was just wrapped up in it and glad to be part of it. The seriousness of the possibility of consequences hadn’t sunk in for me. In retrospect, I don’t think I would have done anything different. The organizers were as diligent as could be with the information they were given.
So what happens now with your recovery?
It’s been incremental improvement in the past 72 hours. But there’s no standard protocol for this yet. I may be past contagiousness, but I need to wait a bit longer and talk to my doctor to see if need to get retested. When is it smart to go out and walk around and get my lungs working? Is there any medicine I should be taking? I haven’t heard any of that yet other than Tylenol to keep the fever down.
What have you learned from this whole ordeal?
I’m still trying to assess all this. For the past two weeks, I’ve been struggling to stay alive. It really is that serious. That makes you reassess what you’re doing here. I haven’t been able to touch or hold Teresa, or even look at her, this whole time. We’ve been on the phone constantly. It makes me see how valuable our relationship is.
My concern now is about John Prine. He’s the one in my thoughts right now. I just heard about Tom Rush too. Musicians [of that age] could all be susceptible to this. If this goes as bad as it could go, there could be a really tangible loss in that age group. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that.
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