Soundman Versus Flesh-Eating Bacteria

Local labels, musicians, and clubs are rallying to the aid of Gary “Elvis” Schepers, who’s been at Swedish Covenant Hospital since December 11, fighting an infection in his left foot that at one point threatened to cost him his leg. Schepers, the part-time tuba player for Devil in a Woodpile, has made a living as a soundman since 1987. He’s worked steady gigs at Lounge Ax, the Cubby Bear, and the Empty Bottle, among other venues, and toured with local and regional favorites like Uncle Tupelo, Material Issue, and Eleventh Dream Day. But like so many people in the music business, he has no health insurance–and his medical bills, which have already topped six figures, will likely double before he’s able to work again.

Led by singer Kelly Hogan and Bloodshot Records owners Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller, Schepers’s friends and colleagues are planning a series of benefit concerts to help him defray his expenses. “It seemed obvious to try and do something,” says Warshaw. “So we got the word out to bands around town. And I knew Gary had lots of friends, but I had no idea quite how many.”

It took just days for organizers to confirm a week of shows, starting with a FitzGerald’s date on January 20. “The ease with which it all came together speaks to what and how much the community thinks about Gary,” says Miller. “It’s just happened so fast and so organically without anyone pushing. I think people recognize that it’s not just the musicians but guys like Gary that really make a scene like ours possible.”

Born in Oklahoma in 1958 and raised in Sycamore, Illinois, Schepers studied music (and played tuba in the marching band) at the University of Iowa and later Northern Illinois University. He moved to Chicago in the early 80s and began his career as a soundman working for Stan Doty, owner of Pravda Sound, which rented PAs to clubs like Dreamerz and Medusa’s. He was at the board for Bloodshot’s first showcases at Lounge Ax and the Bottle a decade ago, and most recently he’s been freelancing at the Abbey Pub, Schubas, and FitzGerald’s. He’s also the chief engineer at Humboldt Park’s Strobe recording studio and a member of the Prohibition Orchestra, which plays dance tunes published between 1923 and 1934.

Early last month Schepers developed pain and swelling in his foot, and in the wee hours of Sunday, December 11, after working a show at the Abbey, he was worried enough to check himself into the emergency room. “Once they got my shoe off and looked at it, they said, ‘Well, you’ll be staying here awhile,'” he says.

Schepers was diagnosed with a particularly nasty Group A streptococcus–one of the bugs that began making headlines in the 90s as “flesh-eating bacteria.” During the course of his treatment doctors also informed him that he had type 2 diabetes. “The fact that I have diabetes, which I did not know, probably contributed to the infection growing faster,” he says. “But anyone can get it. It’s a variation of the same bacteria that gives you strep throat. It lives on the ground.”

Doctors surgically removed dead and gangrenous tissue from Schepers’s foot on December 12. While he recovered, his friends spread the word about his predicament and began planning the benefits. Ordinarily it’d be difficult, if not impossible, to book a week of shows on a month’s notice, but so far five venues have reshuffled their schedules to make room. “That was really impressive, the way all the clubs came to the table,” says Warshaw. “All the clubs are donating 100 percent of the door, some are even giving a percentage of the bar, and no one is charging overhead expenses, so everything is going right to Gary.”

Seven shows have been confirmed: Jay Farrar headlines January 20 at FitzGerald’s, on a bill that also includes Robbie Fulks and the Prohibition Orchestra, and the New Duncan Imperials play the Abbey Pub the same day. The Hideout hosts a pair of shows January 22, the first featuring Sally Timms and Jon Langford’s kiddie band the Wee Hairy Beasties and the second headlined by Califone. On January 25 Jeff Tweedy plays the Abbey with Devil in a Woodpile, and the next night Martyrs’ hosts Kelly Hogan and a few other acts. The week wraps up at Schubas on January 27 with the Bottle Rockets and Tijuana Hercules.

In addition, Freakwater will anchor an afternoon benefit at the Hideout on February 4, and organizers expect bands to keep volunteering throughout the winter as word gets around. Even people unable to perform are pitching in. “Steve Albini got in touch, but his schedule is really crazy,” says Warshaw. “So he’s going to contribute some items for us to auction off.”

Schepers, who’s all but bedridden and needs a wheelchair to get around, doesn’t expect to attend the concerts. His doctors decline to speculate about when he’ll be released. “They’re still watching some of the areas of infection that may be eating at the bone,” says Schepers. “There is still a question about a couple of toes and if they’re going to survive. Every day they don’t cut them off I feel more like I’m going to be keeping them.”

He’s receiving a cocktail of antibiotics through an IV and undergoing regular hyperbaric oxygen treatments to speed healing; a device called a wound vacuum is draining infectious material from the injury. Even after he gets out of the hospital, he’ll be unable to walk and will need help caring for his foot, so he’ll be spending a month–perhaps several–in an assisted living center. “I’m trying to be philosophical about it,” Schepers says. “My job right now is to fill up on antibiotics to kill all the bacteria in my body. Hopefully, I’ll get back–on both my feet–as soon as possible.”

Kevin Tihista Leaves the Woodshed

Kevin Tihista isn’t much for self-promotion–he prefers to hole up at home and write songs. But these days he’s maintaining an uncharacteristically high profile: he took a ten-day solo tour of the UK in November and played the Double Door on December 22, and after he headlines the first night of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival at Schubas on Thursday he has plans for a handful of LA shows in February and a three-week full-band UK tour in April.

Tihista spent much of the past year writing and demoing his fourth full-length, a follow-up to the acclaimed Wake Up Captain. It’s due in the fall, and he’s currently recruiting musicians and hashing out the album’s aesthetic with longtime producer Ellis Clark. Tihista’s also finalizing the track selection and artwork for a sequel to 2005’s Home Demons Volume 1, an odds-and-sods collection culled from his hundreds of unreleased songs. Like the first disc, Home Demons Volume 2 will receive a UK release on Broken Horse and come out domestically on Champaign’s Parasol label–the stateside release is tentatively scheduled for mid-2006. And Tihista’s cover of the Kinks’ “Situation Vacant,” which isn’t on either comp, will appear on a tribute CD to the group accompanying the March issue of Mojo.

Kevin Tihista, Andrew Morgan, Tenki

WHEN: Thu 1/12, 9 PM

WHERE: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport

PRICE: $10

INFO: 773-525-2508

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nolan Wells.