“Life can swing hard, but we will swing harder”: Remembering The Ghost Inside’s emotional 2019 comeback show
This feature was originally published in a July 2019 issue of Kerrang! magazine.
When Larry Tkaczyk arrived at the hospital in El Paso, Texas alongside his wife, Juli, he had very little idea what the future – if there was to be one – would hold for his son. Nor did he know the pivotal role he would go on to play in shaping it.
Andrew Tkaczyk had been airlifted to intensive care from Highway 180, where the wreckage of The Ghost Inside’s tour bus lay. Early that morning – November 19, 2015 – while making the 430-mile journey west to Phoenix, Arizona, the bus had collided head on with a semi truck going in the opposite direction.
The then 28-year-old was in a coma, from which he would not emerge for 10 days. His parents had flown south from their home state of Michigan to be by his side. On awaking, Andrew was told by the doctors that they’d been required to amputate his right leg, above the knee.
Two months later, Andrew flew home to Michigan in order to continue his rehabilitation at the esteemed Mary Free Bed hospital. There, as well as rebuilding his strength, coaching him in the use of a prosthetic leg and helping him relearn how to walk, medical professionals sought a solution to a question with seemingly no affirmative answer: how can a man who’s lost his leg continue his career as a drummer?
The solution did not come easily, or quickly. “They were going with the approach of making a prosthesis that connected to the kick drum to play that way,” Andrew reveals on a muggy Friday night, sat in the lounge of a downtown Los Angeles hotel bar that is at least 200 years newer than its wood-panelled décor is hoping you would believe. “It worked, but I couldn’t get enough power. I kind of had no control. This thing” – he slaps his prosthetic leg – “weighs 16lbs. So I have this much limb” – another slap, this time on what remains of his right thigh – “lifting it up.”
Larry, however, had already stumbled upon the answer many months prior.
“My dad is not a musician, but he is very creative,” Andrew says. “He’s been a woodworker all his life, as a hobby. He likes to create things. He likes to make things. I had gotten into a dark place as I tried various ways of drumming again, when he gave me this thing he’d made and said, ‘Try this.’ It’s a pedal that goes under my limb that has a bar attached to it that’s in turn attached to the actual kick pedal. So it’s as if my foot was up here” – another slap of the limb. “He said that he thought the key to me playing again was going to be having no weight restriction, having free movement, and free weight on what’s left of my limb. And it works. He told me that he dreamt it up while I was still in hospital in El Paso. My mom even gave the pedal its name – ‘The Hammer.’”
The creation of The Hammer is but one of many stories – many minor miracles, really – that have combined to defy the stacked odds and to bring The Ghost Inside to where they are today. Three years and eight months have passed since the traffic accident that cost both vehicles’ drivers – Greg Hoke and Steven Cunningham – their lives and left 10 others, comprising the quintet in the band and five of their crew, clinging to life. Tomorrow,
1,334 days since they were last onstage together, The Ghost Inside will gather in their spiritual hometown for a one-night-only reunion show in front of 8,000 people that includes family, friends and fans, in the car park of LA’s The Shrine (the indoor venue itself, with its 5,000 capacity, simply wasn’t large enough to meet a demand that saw tickets sell out in mere minutes).
Publicly, the members of The Ghost Inside – Andrew, vocalist Jonathan Vigil, bassist Jim Riley, and guitarists Chris Davis and Zach Johnson – had each vowed they would do whatever it took to see this day. In their heart of hearts, though, few of them believed it. Andrew – true to form for a man with such bottomless depths of positivity that when he was informed of his amputation, he simply cracked on with researching prosthetic legs (“It wasn’t exactly going to grow back,” he smiles) – is the only member of the band who today claims that he truly did believe it, and even he is unsure whether he simply tricked himself into thinking it possible in order to stave off a dark depression.
“We shouldn’t have lived,” Jim says. “People were clinging to life, and I didn’t even know if my friends would be there come the morning, let alone if they’d ever be back onstage.”
That they are might be one of the bravest and most inspiring examples of resolve you will ever hear.
Jim Riley is used to wearing many hats in The Ghost Inside: bassist, self-proclaimed “band dad”, sometime touring manager. For this weekend’s comeback show, he has taken on the dual role of creative-director-cum-production-manager, not only shouldering responsibility for conjuring up the stage show, but seeing it through to delivery, too. If his constantly ringing phone doesn’t illustrate the demands of the job, the stress etched on his face certainly does. “Not that I’m a control freak,” he smiles, “but if I had trusted it to someone else, it would have been their vision for it. It may have been quicker, easier, cheaper, or whatever. But all the stuff that’s ever come out of this band is a reflection of our friendship and our relationship with each other.”
It’s a far cry from what was required of him in the hours following the events of November 19, 2015.
“I was needed to go and identify all the other guys in the hospital,” he reveals. “We were in the middle of nowhere when we had the accident. We were asleep in our pyjamas. No-one had any ID on them. Most of them were in medically induced comas. So I sat there with the overnight manager and I was like, ‘Okay, Jonathan is the guy with the reddish hair and the three Xs tattooed on his left arm. Andrew is the tall blond guy with ‘hopeless’ on his leg. Zach is the guy with the tattoo on his neck.’”
The injuries sustained in the crash that day are still scarcely comprehensible, no matter how many times you try to digest the words or wrap your head around the photos of the bus wreckage that leave you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut.
On top of the injuries expected of a motor vehicle accident, Jim himself had escaped with one badly broken ankle; Chris had broken two, as well as “shattering” his foot. Jonathan suffered a fractured neck and back, knee ligament damage, a pair of broken ankles and much more besides, including an elbow injury that required a skin graft. Andrew could add fractures of the ribs, spine and hip, plus extensive shoulder and neck ligament and nerve damage, to his amputated leg. (“He should have been dead at the scene, if not by the time he got to the hospital,” was the assessment of one doctor.) There was little of the lower half of Zach’s body that wouldn’t require rebuilding with metal screws, plates and rods. A large portion of his left foot, including multiple toes, couldn’t be saved.
Their recoveries would range from the slow to the outright tortuous. Zach himself counts “13 major surgeries, and maybe double that in smaller procedures”, which only came to an end last August and left him feeling at his lowest “like a rag doll that was just getting beaten up and sliced open”. Reconstructing his pelvis alone required back-to-back surgeries totalling 18 hours, bookending many more hours of excruciating pain in-between. “The second day, that is probably one of the worst days of my life,” he sighs. “They had to put me under so deep that I was almost dead, and then I awoke to such pain. I wasn’t able to eat, drink, I couldn’t sleep – and I knew I was going to be doing it again the next day.”
The physical torment, however, is only half the story. The guitarist described the physical and mental recovery as “like two separate roller coasters, both going different ways yet intertwined with each other”. He admits there were days when, laying in a hospital bed on his own, his spirit and resolve all but broken, he wondered whether life was really all that worth it.
Jonathan’s initial reaction was to tell his mum he would never return to being in a band; even the slightest chance that the accident could be repeated was a nightmare from which he would rather flee forever. His voice is soft yet heavy as he describes how his mental recovery was harder than any of the gruelling physiotherapy sessions or surgeries he went through in his exhausting, near-two-year-long bid to walk unaided again.
“I spent so much time consumed by anger,” he sighs. “Like, ‘Why me? I didn’t do anything bad. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why did this happen to me?’” Unlike his bandmates, two years after the accident he was offered a choice of life-changing surgery, when doctors said the only way to rid him of his longstanding right ankle troubles was to fuse the joint solid. “The doctor basically told me, ‘How you feel right now, the pain you’re in every day, you’re going to be in that pain every day for the rest of your life if you don’t get this done.’ Zach and Andrew didn’t really have a choice in the matter with their injuries [and the amputations of their toes and leg respectively]. I did. And that choice was so difficult, to know that I had to make the choice to live with a disability.” The fusion means he will never be able to run, or jump, or move the way he once did. Even something previously so simple as walking downstairs has to be done by moving sideways or even backwards.
Both Chris and Jim, meanwhile, echo each other’s haunting words: ‘I know the accident wasn’t my fault, but….’ Chris terms this “survivor’s guilt”. In the aftermath of the accident, ‘what if…’ scenarios filled his thoughts. He is “thankful, of course” that his injuries were comparatively minor, despite them still keeping him from walking for four months. (With his wedding booked for the following May, he would tell doctors his sole aim for recovery was to be able to walk down the aisle with his wife, which he did.) “But I would trade that scenario to take any of the pain and injuries away from anybody else,” he says, looking into the distance. “I would do anything to be able to give Andrew his leg back, or to be able to take any of the pain from anybody that they’ve had to endure. The hardest part of my recovery from the accident was in trying not to beat myself up over it.”
Jim carries in his pocket most days a stone, inscribed on which is the Serenity Prayer. ‘God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,’ it reads. ‘Courage to change the things which should be changed. And the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.’
“I was tour managing the band on the tour, so from day one I have felt, like, a sense of responsibility… Not for what happened, but to make sure that everybody gets better,” he begins. “But I know now that you can’t change history. You can wish that you had done something differently, but to live actively with a regret because you wanted things to have a different outcome? It doesn’t matter. You have to accept that things are the way they are. Gaining that wisdom of knowing these are the things that I can change about myself, and to know that I cannot unmake the accident… Finding that peace with what had happened was a big part of the journey for me.”
“It sometimes takes a taste of tragedy to realise how tough the human body and spirit can be,” Zach says. “I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘There’s no way I could have got through what you all did.’ And I always tell them, ‘Absolutely, you could.’ You find that out when you need to. It’s in everyone, that inner strength.
“My body may be riddled with scars, but I’m stronger than ever before.”
Saturday night begins with a ‘thank you’.
As the sun sets on a scorching hot California day, the five members of The Ghost Inside wait in the wings of The Shrine’s stage as a pre-recorded voiceover booms from the stage PA: “We may have been defeated if it wasn’t for all of you here tonight.”
Jonathan has become accustomed to hearing such a “humbling” sentiment from fans who have long found hope in his lyrics. “You hear those things or read those messages – and we see them all – and you realise how powerful this band has been and how much bigger than the five of us it really is,” adds Jim.
Gathered in the crowd tonight are fans who have travelled from Europe, Australia and Japan. The air crackles with a communal sense of emotion that, language barriers be damned, bonds perfect strangers.
Each of the band nods and smiles in agreement when it is put to them that their return to the stage tonight means as much to those in the audience as it does to those on the stage. When The Shrine opened its doors this afternoon, a number of fans made a beeline not for a spot on the stage barrier, but for a giant TGI banner, laid out to be inscribed with their personal messages. Many scrawl well-wishes for the show; many more thank the band for instilling them with the strength and courage to face their own personal hardships and difficulties.
It is something the quintet are acutely aware of. Andrew himself says that his number one motivation for getting behind the kit once again was to repay the outpouring of fan support that got him through the darkest days of his recovery. “I honestly don’t know where I’d be without them,” is Zach’s honest assessment.
“I finally know what those people mean when they tell me our lyrics saved their life,” Jonathan begins. “I know where they’re coming from now. I can feel what they mean. Throughout the whole recovery process, I’ve had constant reminders from people: ‘You said these empowering things and helped me in my life.’ The weird thing is, they almost feel like a premonition. It’s like I wrote these words, these lines, these songs for myself without even knowing it. And years later, when I’m confronted with this horrific event, I look at those words and think, ‘I’m telling myself that I could do this.’ A lot of people have drawn strength from this band’s words, but now I have to be the one to do that. It’s like I somehow knew I would need these words, so I wrote these songs for myself to find later on in life.”
‘Gratitude’ is the word each member, individually, to a man, uses first and foremost to describe how the accident has changed their outlook on the world. No longer do they find themselves sleepwalking through days, taking for granted the life and opportunities they have been afforded. “You’re young, you’re in a band, you’re living your dream,” Andrew says. “You think you’re invincible. It was such a wake-up call.”
“You suddenly realise you could go at any moment,” Jim says, “and that you need to live for today, because tomorrow isn’t promised.”
It is a mantra by which the band are living when considering their future. All speak of their hope for what is to come, even if they each tread the party line in reaffirming their publicly voiced position that no firm decisions will be taken until the show at The Shrine has had the chance to sink in during the weeks that follow. Still, Jim speaks of his consideration for how the band could operate in a future where conventional touring and travel will forever remain out of reach, given their physical limitations. Andrew winks a knowing wink when he speaks of his “confidence” for what’s possible. “It would be unacceptable to me to let this beat us,” he asserts. “We want to end our band on our own terms, not because of some tragedy.” And although they might not be as close as they once were geographically, each of the five pays tribute to the love and admiration for each other that will unite them for life, one way or another, come what may.
Jonathan, meanwhile, describes his sense of “revitalisation, a feeling of rebirth” that two weeks of rehearsal and simply being around the buzz of a live show again has brought him. It is surreal, he says, to go back to a routine that was so regular for him four years ago – soundchecks, riders, interviews and photoshoots – but which has since been frozen in time. “It’s so familiar and yet so alien. So much has changed, and then you come to a show and you realise so little has changed, too. But it just feels so… right.” A smile breaks out across his face.
“This show feels like one door closing, and another opening,” Zach adds. “Because after tonight, it’s not ‘the comeback’ anymore. It’s just ‘The Ghost Inside’ again.”
Jim offers a knowing grin when we ask if it is important to him that the accident doesn’t define The Ghost Inside’s story.
“It’s funny that you use that word,” he says. “I want the accident to be a defining moment, but I don’t want it to be the thing that defines us. I would like for the life of the band to be as long after the accident as it was before the accident. And if we can convince people that they can overcome whatever’s going on with them, we are obligated by the universe to do that. That is our greater purpose. That’s why we live.
“This band has always been about something,” the bassist adds. “The message has always been positive; it’s a journey from hope to despair. ‘Life’s swinging hard, but I’m swinging harder’ [from Mercy], ‘Only the strong will survive’ [from The Great Unknown]… When those lines were written, we genuinely believed those words, but we were in a different place in the world. We didn’t know how powerful they really could be. But now we’re living them.”
He confirms that the band, alongside their rehearsals for The Shrine, have been writing new material, which may end up comprising a new album to be released next year.
“We have one song that’s pretty explicitly about that feeling of living up to who you have said you are,” he explains. “If we want to be the house on the hill for those fans that we’ve sold ourselves as for years as The Ghost Inside – as this band that preach positivity and a message that you can get up and fight on from your lowest moment – are we going to live up to it? Or were we just full of shit?
“Life can swing hard, but we will swing harder. And so can anyone.”
Rise From The Ashes: Live At The Shrine is out now via Epitaph.
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