John Baizley heard the brakes fail on his band’s tour bus. Immediately, he realized there was no stopping the vehicle as it gathered speed. Inside the vehicle were Baizley’s Baroness bandmates and their crew. Some were sleeping while the bus made its way from Bristol to Southampton. Some, like Baizley, were wide awake. When the vehicle crashed through the guardrail lining the side of the road and plummeted 30 feet, the Baroness singer and guitarist was at the front of the bus, starring out the windshield and looking death in the eye. Which is why perhaps no one involved in that accident, save the bus driver himself, is better qualified to recount the incidents of that day. Two months after the accident, Baizley wrote about the moment that nearly ended his life and shattered his body. This is an excerpt from the band’s website:
“I remember the sound of the air-brakes failing, and the panicked cursing of our driver as we slowly realized how desperate the situation was. I tried as hard as I could to yell and wake everyone up to prepare for impact. I remember the sounds of confusion from behind me as our collective terror rose. I remember seeing the guardrail split, then a cluster of trees smacking against the front windshield. While we were airborne, my eyes met with our driver’s. I knew then that we each shared the same look on our face, and I won’t soon forget it. We had spent enough time in the air to appreciate, make peace with, and accept a fate we thought inevitable, and we looked at one another with a horribly silent ‘goodbye’ in our eyes.
“When the bus hit the ground, I flew like a missile into the windshield. I can still see the double-paned auto glass turning blue and the spider-webbing cracks spreading outwards from the impact my body made. I hit the glass so hard that the entire windshield flew from the frame to the ground and I bounced back inside the bus. I landed on the ledge of the windshield. This came with an immediate and overwhelming pain throughout my body. I surveyed the damage to see instantly that my left leg was very obviously and badly broken. Then I lifted my arms forward to see if either had been damaged. My right arm was covered in burns, blood, and broken glass, but working well enough. My left arm was crushed beyond belief, broken in the middle of the bone in my upper arm (humerus) and hanging 90 degrees backwards, with many spurs of bone poking through muscles and sinew at the surface of my skin. The bone was shattered into seven free-floating pieces, and my wrist and hand were swinging behind my back, spasming freely. Instinctively, I reached behind my back, grabbed my wrist and re-broke my arm forward, hugging it to my chest, where it remained for the next three hours until it was cast in plaster. Meanwhile, I watched as some of the band was able to get off the bus and help the others, many of whom were broken-up as well, and several of whom were unconscious. There was blood, glass, and diesel fuel everywhere.”
Today, Baizley has healed enough to begin touring again, and he credits his written account of the accident with helping him recover. “Right after the accident, I found it quite helpful on a personal level to recap the story for my friends and my family because it was a very traumatic thing for me and all of us,” he says. “If I recount it enough times, I’ve basically rendered the story mundane, and thus some of the anxiety has been zapped from it.”
He adds, “And I thought similarly, if I put out something publicly that was thorough and written in the words of at least one of us who experienced it, I could keep some of the questions in the future at bay or at least answer them immediately, so if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have to go through the whole lengthy version of the story over and over again.”
Drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni suffered even more crippling injuries, and they are no longer with the group. Guitarist Pete Adams only received minor injuries and is still part of the Baroness crew; two new members have since joined the band. For Baizley and company, the 2012 bus accident will likely remain a pivotal moment in the band’s history, much like the departure of Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd or the death of Brian Jones for the Stones. “I understood immediately that that was going to be stigmatic for a very long time,” Baizley says. “If it ever goes away, I’ll be somewhat surprised.”
This week marks the first time the one-time Savannah-based band is playing on American soil following their critically acclaimed 2012 double album Yellow & Green. Although Baizley knows full well just how precious life is, he can’t help but think about what might have been.
“Once I had some perspective on what was going on, once the immediacy of the actions wore off, some of the injury stuff started to, not to fade, but I got some grips on our injuries and where everyone was at then, and I think maybe — this is only in the past month or two really — I could admit it’s a bit disappointing in retrospect that we didn’t get to do all these things that we planned to do,” he says. “When we do our first show on May 24, it’ll be like the first U.S. show on a new record, only the record has been out for almost a year, so everybody has already made up their mind about how they feel about it. It’s not like we’re going out to promote it. We’re not going out to win over the hearts and minds of people. The media has done as good of a job as we would have driving around.”
Although Baizley has yet to fully recover from his injuries, he’s glad to be hitting the road. “If nothing else, we get the pure validation that we’re musicians again, where that very easily could have been taken,” he says.
At the time that Yellow & Green was released, the album marked a sea change in the sound of the band. In one fell swoop, Baroness cast off nearly all of their death metal trappings and embraced a wider approach, one that was as melodic as it was experimental. Baizley was prepared for the reactions to the LP, good or bad. “I was ready to defend it against the naysayers,” he says. Instead, the album landed on year-end best-of lists, and fans largely embraced the new sound.
But as shocking as the sonic makeover seemed to some, Baizley says that the transition was inevitable. “I can say this with some assurance. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that we weren’t going to remain heavy, heavy, heavy all the time. I don’t think we ever hinted at that. I don’t think we ever articulated that,” he says. “We’ve always been very up front about the fact that our goal is to move forward, and for everybody that expects or requires or demands super-super heavy, there has always been better bands for that than us.”
With Yellow & Green, Baizley and company were able to explore elements of Fleet Foxes-style harmonies, Iron & Wine-esque ballads, and Radiohead-like electronic flourishes, all without ever truly abandoning metal’s innate grit and grind. “We’ve always tried to embrace the softer side of what we do, and it wasn’t until this record that we were comfortable enough to present that in a convincing way. And I think even in that regard, there is still a lot left that we have to learn and a lot we have yet to put out musically,” Baizley says.
Speaking of different sides, in addition to his work with Baroness, Baizley is also a successful visual artist, with numerous album covers under his belt — from Kylesa to Gillian Welch to Flight of the Concords to Baroness itself. His work is largely fanciful in nature, and although he adheres to many of the themes that one might expect of a painter who fronts a heavy metal band — scantily clad women, an inescapable sense of danger, and a love affair with the macabre — Baizley’s works look as if they were painted by Rubens, but only if the Baroque great was obsessed with tribalism and traditional Japanese painting. Most of the guitarist’s pieces resemble paeans to elemental goddess warriors and the spirits and animals they hunt.
“What I’ve tried to do is take some of these typical album cover images or typical figurative images and find something inside them that has a personal side, that hints at a greater narrative,” Baizley says. “It’s fun for me as an artist to stick a wrench in the mechanism that is album art because there is a lot of pig-headed machismo happening there. I’ve chosen to imbue something delicate among all of that testosterone and ugliness.”
As an artist, especially one who is best known for his album covers, the Baroness singer is keenly aware of the struggle between creating intensely personal works and figuring out what will sell. “I’ve been in a weird spot because I take my artwork very seriously, but I’m not so pretentious and highfalutin that I don’t understand the commercial aspect to my work. That being said, I’ve got to meet a number of needs,” Baizley says. “First and most immediately, there has to be a visual appeal to the image I make. I have to figure out a balance between visual pop and personal expression.”
Recently, Baizley celebrated his first exhibition outside of the U.S. Since April, Gust van Dijk in the Netherlands has been exhibiting The Virgin Spring: The Process and Work of John Dyer Baizley, a retrospective of sorts.
But even though Baizley’s star is on the rise in the world of visual art, his focus is on Baroness. And with good reason. Music is a young man’s game, a fact that he knows far better than most.