Howard Gladstone wrote most of the songs recorded on his latest album, Hourglass, during the three years he was recovering from spinal cord surgery.
He was suffering from spinal stenosis. It is caused by the narrowing of the spaces in the spine, which puts pressure on the nerves and spinal cord. Before his surgery, Gladstone had a mild case of osteoarthritis in his back that had never bothered him much. In 2014, he took a holiday to the Galapos Islands and Machu Picchu, a fairly strenuous vacation on which he was doing some difficult climbs, he said. The day he got home, he felt his arms becoming paralyzed. In the middle of the night, he was admitted to hospital, and within 24 hours, he was on the operating table.
After the surgery, he was almost completely paralyzed. He was transferred to the Lyndhurst Centre, a spinal cord rehabilitation facility in Toronto. His prognosis for recovery was moderately optimistic. “I was told in six to 18 months, I had a very good chance to make a good recovery, but nobody would guarantee it and nobody knew for sure,” he said. Now, three years later, he’s walking without an assistive device and he says he’s “not 100 per cent, but pretty good.”
Gladstone said that he found that music aided in his recovery. “The first time I heard live music during my rehabilitation, I broke into tears, some combination of emotional release of sorrow and joy,” he said. And making the music for Hourglass, his fifth album, was cathartic, he added.
At a low point during his recovery, Gladstone challenged himself to write a song. “This was a project to prove to myself I could still write music after feeling emotionally numb,” he said.
He was so pleased with result: the song Never Thought You’d Call, in which he moves from despair, when his “river’s turned to ice” and he’s “feeling small, locked out of paradise,” to joy, when he welcomes “love” shining into his life and says that, “It sure feels right.”
Gladstone, a singer-songwriter who was influenced by the 1960s folk music revival, has been playing guitar for most of his life, but after his surgery, his hands were immobile. “Music is so important and integral to my life that it’s almost as depressing (to) not (be) able to play the guitar, as losing the ability to walk,” he said.
Gladstone is modest about his guitar playing – he’s no Bruce Cockburn or Eric Clapton, he says – but the guitar is an essential part of his sound, along with his relaxed vocal style. “The guitar is part of the way for me to express the emotion and feel of the music, to find the right balance of lyric and melody,” he said.
A year after his surgery, still unable to press his fingers down on his guitar strings, he experimented with open tuning, which allowed him to strum his fingers across the strings to produce chords. With help from low-level laser therapy, he’s now at the point where he says he can get by as a guitarist.
But he does more than just get by on Hourglass, a collection of nine exquisite songs about human fragility and strength, as time ticks away.
He wrote the song, When We Fall, in open tuning, “with as few words as possible, to convey all the ideas in the album,” he said. “To me, it’s almost like a haiku – to be as economical with language as possible – to convey the sense of fragility, of mortality, but in spite of that, to get back up when you fall.”
Gladstone is now a volunteer at the Lyndhurst Centre, where he talks to people with injuries similar to his own. He tries to give them a message of hope, he said. “I say, ‘I was paralyzed, I was in a wheelchair, I was immobile and I was told I had a chance to recover and I focused on that goal. That was the only hope I had.’ I’m hopeful that same message will come through in the songs.”
The album, which was produced by Gladstone’s guitarist, Tony Quarrington, will be released by Gladstone and Laura Fernandez’s new label, Sonic Peach. Fernandez, a sweetly powerful vocalist, sings several duets with Gladstone on the album. Hourglass will be available in vinyl, on CD and as a digital download.