By Shane Fontayne
On Sunday, August 7th 2005, Marc Cohn, Jay Bellerose, Jennifer Condos and I performed at the Botanical Gardens in Denver. It was one of those days in the middle of a tour where my energy was sagging and I felt an underlying anxiety that was non-specific. It was as much a feeling of being sequestered in my hotel room as anything else. Unfortunately none of the rooms in the hotel, as nice as it was, had windows that would open. For myself, that can become confining, and confining can become inert and stale.
The upside was that we had been in Denver for several days and nights, performing shows in Colorado and staying at the same hotel, which is always a nice treat when possible during a tour, particularly in this case because we had had a couple of long travel days combined with shows prior to arriving there. So when we got to Denver, everyone was tired and happy to stay put for a while. We also are very fond of the restaurant Panzano. Thank you Elise Wiggins, master chef!
Our tour manager and soundman Tom Dube, (pronounced Doobie), was raving about the venue at the Botanical Gardens, awed by the beauty of the environment. He had told me that the audience would be surrounding us on all four sides of the stage, which sat in the middle and at the bottom of four grassy embankments, and indeed it was akin to performing in a boxing ring in that regard.
When he mentioned that people would also be sitting behind us during the show, I said to him, "Well I guess I won’t wear the assless chaps tonight!" to which he replied, "Jay said the same thing!" Jay Bellerose is the unique and wonderful drummer in Marc’s band. That we would make the same random remark was the first of two such incidences on this day.
Because of my spiritual malaise and also because I didn’t know what else I would accomplish by spending more time in my hotel room, I opted to remain at the venue after soundcheck while everyone else went back to rest. I knew that the plants at the Botanical Gardens would provide the perfect environment for me for a few hours, and indeed this was so. I wandered the Gardens and rested in the shade of a pine tree and sat close to the plants, reading and absorbing their healing energy.
I felt rejuvenated and energized when I got up to return to the dressing room. By this time Suzanne Vega was performing. Suzanne was co-headlining this tour with Marc, performing as a duo with her longstanding bass player, and my longtime acquaintance from New York, Michael Visceglia. They had put on a wonderful show every night, and all of us had become close, as a traveling troupe of troubadours - musicians and crewmembers alike. The crowd was large and they indeed surrounded the stage. It was a beautiful sight. There is nothing better for a band than to see a packed house.
I went over by the soundboard where our friend Phil Sullivan, who has also toured with Marc, was doing sound for Suzanne. It was the first time I had watched Suzanne and Michael from this vantage point. At that moment she introduced a song where she asked the audience to watch Michael as he needed their attention to instruct their participation. He picked up one of my harmonicas sitting on my amplifier right behind him and blew into it. I fell about laughing with Phil as Michael glanced up to the soundboard and saw not only Phil but me too! "Busted", I said.
By the time we took the stage, the sun was going down. The audience was having a great time and many of them had brought their children and chairs and food and wine. It was one of those shows where we, as a band, had a really great night. The low ebb of the earlier part of the day had legitimately been erased by my time spent drinking in the soothing surroundings and the audience was enthusiastic and at times rapturous. There was a curfew and the audience wanted more and implored us to stay, but we had to finish our show on time. Marc noted much later on this night, that but for the curfew, we would have maybe never encountered what was to come.
I commented after the show," What a good way to go into a day off". We not only had the following day off, but there was no travel either, so it was going to be a blissful, relaxing, do-nothing day off. Baseball fan that I am, I knew that the Colorado Rockies were playing a double-header the next day and I was considering spending a couple of hours at the ballpark.
Marc and I signed autographs after the show and while we were waiting for Tom to finish his duties we sat around talking about what to do back at the hotel. Someone said that the bar was going to close so Marc called ahead and asked if they could keep it open and that we would be there in about fifteen minutes. Jen (Jennifer Condos, Marc’s bass player) said that she would ride with Tom’s girlfriend Nicole back to the hotel and let the people at the bar know that we would be following shortly.
So it was that we were driving back to the hotel. I had been aware over the preceding days of a substantial number of down-and-out folks, panhandlers and other people with infirmities living on a pedestrian mall street close to our hotel where the surrounding environment had the staleness of decay.
We were three blocks from our hotel and the street we were on wound through a building. If any of you know Park Avenue in New York and how it winds through and around what used to be the Pan Am building at 42nd Street, that is what it was like, except that where we were was newer and quite brightly lit. On this trip we traveled, as usual, in a fifteen-passenger van. Tom is driving. Jay is next to him up front. Marc is on the bench seat behind Tom and Jay, and I am on the bench seat behind Marc.
As we emerged back onto the "normal" stretch of road, we saw a man running in the opposite direction and on the other side of the street, obviously running away from someone or something. His right hand was clutched to his side as though he were holding on tightly to something and running for all he was worth. We all thought, "Wow - I wonder what he’s running from?" Our attention was focused on him as he ran in one direction and we drove in the other.
Now when our attention came back to the street ahead, a man had stepped out in front of the van. My memory doesn’t recall if we stopped to avoid hitting him, but Tom says we kept moving. What I do recall is seeing him stand in front of us, pointing towards us. In what can only have been a couple of seconds, we realized that he was holding a gun and I clearly saw the look in his eyes of an intent that left no doubt in my mind. I knew for certain that he was going to shoot.
Marc yelled, "Duck!" and I got my head down below the level of the seat. Simultaneously I heard the sound of the gun being fired and the crashing of glass around us. "Oh, my God!", someone or all of us exclaimed. Then I heard someone say, "I’ve been hit!" I thought it was Tom. The van seemed to be careening out of control and I was sitting up again and imploring Jay and Marc to grab the wheel or the brake or both. I felt certain that we would crash as we tore down the street away from the shooter.
But it was Marc who had been shot. The van kept moving and blessedly came to rest, safely, a couple of blocks up the road from where the shooting had occurred. There was blood on Marc’s face and we were all in a state of disbelief and panic. I opened the sliding door and got him out of there and sat him down on the curb. Jay and Tom had noticed a police car one block further up the street and Jay ran up there, Tom following him in the van.
Crouching down and holding him, I did my best to comfort Marc who never lost consciousness, talking lucidly through it all, but we both were scared, aware that he had been shot and that he was bleeding. He immediately thought of his wife and children. "Tell me I’m not going to die" he pleaded with me. I kneeled down in front of him and assured him that he was behaving alertly, and while I have never seen a bullet hole up close before, I could see this perfectly round hole in the side of his head, on the left side above the temple. It defied logic to me that this could happen and that he still could be talking to me.
What we did not know at this time is that the reason the police were just one block away was because this incident had filtered its way down the street, and that the shooter was running from earlier attempts to carjack other vehicles before involving us. Not only were the police on hand, but within moments, the fire department and an ambulance also.
The medics gave Marc oxygen and put him on a gurney and hoisted him into the ambulance. "Can’t my friend come too?" he asked of them, but they wouldn’t let me go. Meanwhile, Tom also was being taken to the hospital with slivers of glass and shrapnel from the bullet in his eyes.
Marc had called out the phone number of one of his brother’s - a doctor in Connecticut, in case they needed to operate. I called him and gave him the news and also left a message for Marc’s wife, Elizabeth, trying to say enough without totally throwing her into abject panic. Elizabeth works for ABC television and coincidentally, Peter Jennings had passed away, maybe a couple of hours prior to all of this.
By now there were police everywhere and Jay and I were standing on the street in the aftermath looking at each other in dismay. We stayed there for the next hour and a half, as per the police request, giving statements and waiting around for whatever would happen next. We were waiting for a detective to arrive who was going to ask us more. Could we describe the shooter? Both Jay and I had said we thought he was Hispanic. I was hesitant about saying anything that would "profile" someone. In an instance such as this, you experience an event with such brevity, that you don’t know what the "truth" is necessarily. But I scanned myself to see if I believed myself before saying anything.
The crime lab was now investigating the van, which was now a crime scene. For a while we did not know if they would release the vehicle with all our instruments and other equipment to us. The detective was going to be another forty-five minutes and I asked if we could go back to the hotel, just around the corner, and return in half an hour. They said that we could.
Soon after returning to the hotel Phil Sullivan called. He, Suzanne, Michael and Tim Mitchell, the other member of Suzanne’s crew, had arrived back at the hotel from the hospital where they had spent the last couple of hours.
When we had not shown up at the bar, Jen had gotten worried. They had ordered drinks for everyone but we had taken too long. Nicole had called Tom, I believe, and Jen could hear the one-sided conversation on her end. "Everyone’s okay - there’s been an accident - hospital" and the like. Immediately they had all rushed over to Denver General where Marc and Tom had been taken.
So Jay and I, having returned to the hotel, met Phil and the others in the lobby. Jen had stayed with Marc, Nicole with Tom, at the hospital. We went back to where the van was and met with the detective who eventually gave me the keys. We now saw that there was a bullet hole in the windshield at the edge of the driver’s side, where the windshield meets the metal frame about a third of the way up, and the window of the sliding door on the passenger side was completely shot out. I drove the van back to the hotel where Jay, Phil, Michael, Tim and I unloaded it. I tried to explain to the valet to go ahead and park it anyway!
The incident happened at about 11:30p.m. and now it was about 2a.m. Phil drove us all back to the hospital and soon I saw Marc. Miraculously, he was okay. He was lying down with an intravenous drip and in front of him was an X-ray of his head, where you clearly could see the bullet, about half an inch long imbedded in his head. It had not entered the skull. The bullet had been extracted without the need for surgery.
I looked at him and said, "There’s your next album cover!" He was able to laugh and he asked if we could stay with him. They let Jay in. He looked at the X-ray and said, "Album cover!"
Tom meanwhile was going through a lengthy and gruesome procedure of having glass and shrapnel fragments extracted from his eyes. I had been able to duck at the moment of impact. Tom, driving, had not had that luxury.
Marc was eventually taken to a room away from the emergency room and Jay, Jen and I stayed with him through the night. He managed to reach Elizabeth early in the morning and soon afterwards, I returned to the hotel. I got some coffee and picked up some clothes for him from his room. What he had been wearing had been impounded as evidence. I took his things back to the hospital, returning again to the hotel and sleeping for a couple of hours.
I arrived back at the hotel at around 6:30a.m.at the same time as Tom and Nicole, Tom having been released from the hospital. Marc also was released and able to walk out of the hospital soon after noon, with Jay and Jen who had spent the night there with him. I stayed with him now in his room as they went to rest.
"Do you believe that everything happens for a reason?" Marc asked.
"Yes", I replied.
We talked about trying to discern the unfathomable. We spoke of the idea of somehow always being exactly where one is supposed to be, however unlikely that may appear to be. He was hungry and ate well, after which he finally was able to sleep and I left him to rest.
All of us in Marc’s band - Jay, Jen, Marc and myself are unusually close. You don’t see bonds like this very often. This includes Tom and other crewmembers who have worked with us in the past also. One realizes how a shared experience, particularly a traumatic one, brings people closer together.
Our time together is filled with laughter and silliness and great music. On this trip we had a DVD player in the van to pass the time and grooved to the English television series "The Office". Every band has its "riffs", its in-jokes and humor. Marc fosters an environment that is filled with fun and laughs and relaxation, while taking care of us on a physical level with his generosity by staying in the best hotels etc. and we in turn take care of him and each other also.
Obviously it was necessary to immediately end the tour, though the intent is to reschedule as many as possible of the cities we missed. We still needed to get our gear and the van back to Los Angeles, and I opted to drive back from Denver. I like the solitude and once I commit to the "journey", I’m hell on wheels! And more than that, I felt it would provide me with time to think things over and assimilate some of what had just transpired. The windshield and window were replaced and I took off on Tuesday morning, arriving in Las Vegas that night, returning home to Los Angeles on Wednesday morning, August 10th.
I am truly touched and profoundly appreciative of the messages I have received, by phone and email, which are overwhelming in their number and content. The words and thoughts and love and care everyone has conveyed is a testament to the highest manifestation of the human spirit. It has been a great pleasure getting to hear Suzanne Vega perform and getting to know her and everyone with her. We are all sorry to part ways so abruptly.
The man who perpetrated this action was caught. He had apparently been holed up in a nearby hotel with his girlfriend for three days doing crystal meth. He had commandeered a vehicle after shooting Marc, and the police had found him about twenty-four hours later, storming the house where he had been involved in a stand-off. He was probably shocked to see himself plastered all over the television for shooting a celebrity. Notably, I had seen a television report that he had opened the driver’s door, told us to get out, and that we had sped away at which time he fired the gun. I wonder how much of what is reported on television is accurate.
As I said, I want to mention Jesse Winchester, who also performed with us in San Diego. Marc and I are longtime fans of Jesse, who was one of the original artists on the Bearsville record label, owned and run by the late Albert Grossman, manager of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Actually, Jesse is more of a hero. I had the pleasure of recording with him briefly when I lived in Woodstock, which is when I first heard him. If you are not familiar with him, please try and see a show. He is a legendary songwriter with the pen of Mark Twain and the voice of an angel. Sometimes his recorded works have been too produced, but hearing him solo was the most moving performance I have heard of any live music in a long time. He is special and encapsulates everything about American music that drew me to come and make my life here. Totally authentic, with brilliantly crafted songs, from a Southern gentleman who can rock you and lullaby you simultaneously. Marc says that a solo live CD exists. I know I will try and find it, and hope that you will feel inspired to check him out also.
Until next time, maybe the hippies got this part of it right, at least.
Peace and love,
© August 15th 2005, Shane Fontayne