The power of stillness
Musician Angie Aparo learns life-altering
lessons from near-death experience.
A pounding headache woke Angie Aparo early one April morning last year. A bout of nausea followed, sending him to the toilet. The pain was so severe; he was frightened. But he’d had his annual physical just two months earlier that showed he was in fine health as he approached his 55th birthday. He hoped an adjustment by his chiropractor might alleviate his discomfort.
Driving the same silver 2003 Honda Pilot that had taken him hundreds of thousands of miles up and down the East Coast playing his folksy rock songs on stages in bars, concert halls and festivals everywhere, the musician was listening to the radio as he pulled into the chiropractor’s parking lot. Suddenly the car radio went silent and the pain stopped.
Everything felt fuzzy. He couldn’t remember what to do next. Turn off the engine? Put the key in his pocket? He felt confused and disoriented. The journey across the parking lot looked like a mile.
Somehow, he managed to make it inside. 911 was called. Within minutes paramedics loaded Angie into an ambulance and took him to Hilton Head Hospital.
Angie had suffered a spontaneous carotid artery dissection — a tear in one of the main conduits for blood flow through the neck to the brain. A blood clot had formed and pieces of it had entered his brain, shutting off the world around him.
The Atlanta singer/songwriter whose songs had been recorded by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw had lost his ability to communicate. Aphasia had robbed his ability to recall the names of everyday objects. All the lyrics he’d written over the decades vanished from his memory.
Born in Boston in 1961 to a chemist father and a freethinking mom, Angie grew up in the central Florida area, the only boy among four siblings. The family moved to Atlanta when he was a teenager.
Angie knew he wanted to sing from the time he was in second grade. As a child, he and his mother would often sing along to her favorite artists: Carole King, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens.
One day he brought his mother’s record of Christmas songs by John Gary, a popular entertainer in the ‘50s and ‘60s, to class. The bold boy handed his teacher the album and proceeded to make his singing debut. By age 10, Angie was dressed in purple robe and crown, playing the role of Good King Wenceslas in the Christmas play.
It was around that time that Angie started tinkering on the piano, but he never quite connected to an instrument he couldn’t carry with him. He focused on the guitar, taking lessons from the guitarist for The Sunshine Bluegrass Boys, and playing with garage bands.
Soon after arriving in Atlanta, Angie got his driver’s license and he drove straight to Metro Music in Buckhead where he found an ad on a bulletin board from a band seeking a singer. He joined Sabre, a cover band made up of guys in their 20s and 30s. Angie was only 16. The first song he wrote with them, “Pretty to Me,” helped them win a local battle of the bands held in the parking lot of a bowling alley near Piedmont Avenue in Atlanta.
The prize was studio time and Angie recorded “Pretty to Me” at Atlanta’s Sound Pit Studio. He still has the two-track on reel-to-reel.
It all came so easy, Angie knew he was destined for a musical career.
“I felt like I had something special,” he said.
A series of $50 gigs at Underground Atlanta followed, and shortly after graduating from Walton High School in Marietta, Angie married his high school sweetheart from Florida. He enrolled at Georgia State University, where he pursued a business degree, and two children soon followed. But the marriage didn’t last.
Inspired by his mother, Angie admired musical genres across the spectrum. He considers Judy Garland the greatest performer of all time. So in the mid-‘80s, he cut his hair short and started singing jazz standards at a club in Buckhead run by comedian Jerry Farber. The experience helped Angie hone his chops as a serious singer, but he eventually returned to rock music.
By the mid ‘90s, Angie realized that as much as he loved playing in bands, something always came up to derail the momentum. Members would get married, have kids and wind up trading late-night music gigs for stable jobs. So he went solo. He became a man with a guitar and a soulful croon with a penchant for folk-rock storytelling songs punctuated by a stirring falsetto.
Along the way, Angie remarried and had another child. The experience of trying to unite his three children — Maria, Sal and Anthony — across two marriages and put his family back together inspired Angie to write his first album, “Out of the Everywhere.” It opens with the song, “Seed,” its swelling crescendos echoing his pride in his children.
There is a time for every seed / Once there were two now there are three / Wrestle your heart pinned to the ground / Is there enough love to go ‘round? / I wrote this song for the bounty of life / Don’t second guess what nature has in mind
The music industry took notice. In 1998, Angie found himself playing his ballad, “Cry,” in the office of Clive Davis at Arista Records. Davis asked to hear more, then he read the lyrics for Angie’s songs “Spaceship,” “Swell” and “Cry.” He offered Angie a deal on the spot, and the label released his debut album, “The American,” in 1999.
For the tour that followed, Angie transformed his appearance by shaving his head and face, all but a patch of beard below his lip, which he shaped into a distinctive point that offset his startling blue eyes. He toured around the country, opening for Faith Hill, Matchbox 20 and Edwin McCain.
The following year, Hill recorded “Cry,” on her studio album of the same name and the song became a huge crossover hit for the artist. “Cry” spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and earned Hill a Grammy in 2002 for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Success ≠ happiness
Despite all the success Angie was having on stage and in the studio, not everything was rosy. The truth was, he’d been plagued by bouts of anxiety and depression throughout his life, and those out-of-control feelings grabbed hold of him with a vengeance. Depression felt like a heavy weight, like the physical sensation of being crushed. Getting out of bed became a struggle. Fearful of what he might do to himself, he hid all the knives in his house. A loner by nature, he was spending long stretches of time away from his family and taking comfort in excessive amounts of whiskey. Once again, Angie got divorced.
He returned to therapy and embarked on a spiritual journey. Raised by a Catholic mother, he considered himself a Christian, but he explored the tenets of ancient Eastern philosophies, too. It helped pull him out of his funk. So did Donielle Morris, a yoga and meditation instructor living in Nashville, with whom he began a long-distance relationship. He started going to Nashville once a month, spending time with Donielle and working with musicians, co-writing songs the Nashville way.
Meanwhile, Angie’s career continued to soar. Hill’s husband Tim McGraw included two of Angie’s songs on his “Emotional Traffic” album, and Angie sang on the Zac Brown album “Pass the Jar.”
Eventually Angie grew disenchanted with Nashville’s co-writing formula. He let his soul patch grow into a full beard and recommitted himself to crafting songs on his own, hoping to strike upon another organic hit like “Cry." He and Donielle moved to Hilton Head, S.C., in 2012 and three years later they married.
Angie remained busy. In between gigs he was working on a music reality TV show called “American B Sides” and a comic book-inspired animated rock opera project he called “The Legend of Crunch,” for which he’d raised nearly $10,000 on Kickstarter. He’d started writing songs for a new album.
Then everything came to a sudden halt.
Photo: With his dog Gus in tow, Angie takes a break in his hotel room before his gig at Eddie’s Attic.
The tear in Angie’s carotid artery was so fragile, surgery was deemed too risky. The doctors didn’t know what caused the tear; genetics might have been a factor, but the prognosis was simply that time would heal the wound.
Angie was stabilized and sent home where he was told he would have to sit very still until the artery could heal. He was warned that a quick turn of the head could cause serious damage; that coughing, laughing or vomiting could kill him.
Four days later, Angie bent down to pick something up and was overcome with a pain far worse than when he had the stroke. In the ambulance on the way to Savannah Memorial Hospital, an hour away, he thought he might die.
Again, Angie was stabilized. Again he was sent home with orders to sit still.
For three months, Angie sat in a chair staring at a palm tree.
Be quiet, he thought.
Over the years, when he had struggled off and on with depression, Angie’s mother had sent him books on tape featuring the teachings of spiritual leaders and philosophers such as Ram Dass, whose seminal work is a book called “Be Here Now,” which focuses on the importance of living in the moment.
During his convalescence, Angie finally found the time to listen to the tapes, and what they had to say spoke to the musician. He feasted on related YouTube videos and discovered Eckhart Tolle, whose teachings about living in the present echoed those of Dass. Tolle’s observation that, “When you look at something without naming it, you look through the stillness,” resonated with Angie.
Unable to work, Angie couldn’t think about the rock opera or the reality TV music show. He couldn’t finish the lyrics for the next album he was going to record. Those things represented the future. He learned through his injury how to stay purposefully grounded in the present: the here and the now.
But once Angie was healed, he began to look toward the future again. He was ready to return to his music career, and that meant learning how to perform again. He started with “Cry,” his greatest success to date. But while his muscle memory remembered how to form the chords, his mind couldn’t attach meaning to “C chord,” and he couldn’t remember the lyrics.
He was determined to play that song again.
Angie’s neurologist told him he needed to reconnect the parts of the brain that controlled melody and lyrics. He suggested that Angie practice naming items in his environment with a melody. Angie threw himself into the task.
At first, the melodies were slow. Angie would go to the grocery story and stare at an item, recognizing its contents but unable to name it. In time, as the words started to return, he picked up the pace until it became a bouncing, joyful melody.
He spent hours at the grocery store singing in a quiet voice, There’s the ketchup and the mustard/ I’m walking past the pickle jar….
Three months after the stroke, Angie returned to the stage in Decatur to fulfill an obligation he’d made before he got sick to record a live album at Eddie’s Attic over two nights. He was terrified he would forget the lyrics in the middle of a song. He warned the audience he wasn’t back to 100 percent yet. He needn’t have worried. He didn’t forget a lyric, but nearly a year later, he still can’t bring himself to listen to that show.
He appeared onstage again that fall for a benefit the Atlanta-based trio Francisco Vidal hosted to raise money for Angie’s medical expenses. Tin Roof Cantina in Atlanta welcomed a few hundred people and raised more than $8,000. The experience inspired Angie to keep pressing forward in his recovery.
Unfortunately, during the course of his recovery, his third marriage came to an end.
Follow the good
Two months ago, Angie once again took the stage at Eddie’s Attic. This time nothing about him suggested he’d been through a traumatic, life-threatening event. He was dressed in a long white skirt, a black-and-white T-shirt with the word “Polaroid” printed across his chest, a straw hat and thick, white-rimmed sunglasses that complemented his bald head and long, brown beard. Cellist Bryan Gibson was already onstage playing a mournful melody when Angie joined him. He opened with “Seed.”
After the song’s solemnity lifted, Angie lightened the mood by engaging the audience and fielding jokes about his short stature. He told a story about meeting Bruce Springsteen in a CD store where he worked in Atlanta. The Boss had come in covered in grease from fixing his bike, and he purchased a Creedence Clearwater Revival album. Angie riffed on the “Jersey redneck’s” coarse laugh, and the crowd erupted. Then he broke into a playful cover of “Born to Run,” hitting the high notes with a vibrato that raised goose bumps. The rapport between artist and audience was so casual and intimate, it felt as though he were playing in a friend’s living room.
After the show, fan Michelle Dunlap approached the songwriter with tears in her eyes and told him what his song, “Cry,” had meant to her. Angie listened to her story intently, and when she told him she couldn’t afford to return for his next show the following night, he added her to the guest list.
As a performer, Angie wants to merge his stage persona with his real self. His goal is to destroy the stage that separates him from the audience. The loner now craves more connection. He wants to create opportunities for that by bringing up the house lights at the end of his shows and interacting with audiences, even in large venues.
Today he considers the stroke a blessing. The forced isolation and stillness it imposed upon him gave Angie time to not only heal physically but spiritually, as well. It gave him time to reflect on his life and art.
Before his stroke, Angie had begun writing his forthcoming album, “Life is a Flower; Life is a Gun.” After he recovered, he listened to what he’d recorded and realized that the songs represented all the unconscious struggles in his life – struggles with depression, with relationships.
“I looked at the record and realized I’d been fighting a spiritual war of the ego,” he said.
If he’d learned anything from Dass and Tolle, it was that he had to let his ego die.
That revelation, along with the concept of dualism — a philosophy based on the division between body and mind — are apparent on the new record, scheduled for release on Sept. 22.
In the song “Church Bells Versus the Television,” Angie examines the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual one. Sonically that concept plays out in the layering of saxophone and guitar with the computerized voice of Siri.
He realizes now that those ideas of duality and a war of the ego existed on earlier songs, too, like “Child, You’re the Revolution,” which he wrote in 2002.
“It’s all the same song,” Angie said.
Angie says he is happier and more energized than he’s ever been. He has come to believe that his music saved him and it can save others, too. His role is to take his gift and share it. He’s learned to accept the forces outside his control and focus more intently on what he can control — primarily his art. In the years he has left, he plans to record and release as many songs as he can, continue following the good and leave everything else behind.
ABOUT THE STORY
For patrons of the Atlanta music scene in the late ’90s, Angie Aparo was a ubiquitous performer playing around town. Then he seemed to vanish for a while. He hadn’t stopped making music, though. In reality, he was playing in the big leagues up in Nashville, selling his songs to crossover country artists. But last year, he nearly vanished from this earth when he suffered a medical emergency that almost ended his life. The story of his return is nothing short of miraculous.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Ellen Eldridge joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after a decade of freelance and community news reporting. She covers breaking news and occasionally writes features. She is married and has two children.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.