Sam Baker didn't start writing music until he'd come very close to the other side. In 1986, he was on a train in Peru, en route to Machu Picchu, when a bomb planted by the Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path exploded in the luggage rack above him. The people he was sitting with were killed. His body was torn apart. He had a brain injury and severe hearing loss, and he required more than 15 reconstructive surgeries.
Somehow during his long recovery, songs started coming to him. Several of them are related directly to the attack and his near-death experience, while others are like short stories, written in the voices of characters. Some of his most beautiful songs are like hymns. His latest album is titled Say Grace.
"I think that my job is to reveal as much as I know and hope that it's helpful to somebody," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross in an interview about the bombing and the faith he gained in humanity.
On the Peruvian train bombing that almost killed him
"I had gone to South America with friends, and we were young — I guess I was almost 32 — and we got aboard a train for Cuzco, which is where Machu Picchu, the beautiful ruins, are. And someone put a bomb in a backpack, a red backpack, on the car that I got on. I was sitting by a German boy. His mother was across from him and his father was knee-to-knee with me. Two people sit facing two people, and the bomb was on the luggage rack right above this poor woman's head. So the German boy and I talked for a second, and then I looked back and the bomb went off — and it was probably not that good of a bomb, because so much of the blast went straight up. I think if they had been able to flatten the blast better, I think it would've killed a lot [more people]. I think that day it killed six or seven, different accounts say.
"It did kill the woman, this boy's mother — killed her real fast and really violent, and killed his father real fast and real violent. And then it killed him, but it took a number of hours for him to die. I didn't see that. I had a cut artery and it had blown my ears in, and I was in a bad place. I thought I had a heart attack and then an external voice, English, said, 'You are accompanied by death. Death accompanies those around you.' And at that point, I knew that they were dead or dying and I was dying. I say it's a voice, but it was more like a cellular — something that passed through on a cellular level. At that point, I became, I guess, willing to die, because I said to myself, 'Well, if this is death, let's get about it.'"
On the line 'Everyone is at the mercy of another one's dream' in his song 'Angels'
"The whole first record was so that I could set that line up, so I could say, 'We are all at each other's mercy.' Once again — empathy, empathy, empathy. We are all at each other's mercy, and if you have this dream of destruction, it's not going to come out well for all of us. Because I felt like that was such an important thing to say, we follow that up with an eight-minute really beautiful rondo that says, 'This is like a reflecting pool after that one line.'"
On how the bombing changed him
"I went through so many surgeries, and I was around so many people who were in such terrible pain and in worse shape than I was. Yeah, something changed. One thing that changed was the sense that all suffering is universal. That we suffer, you suffer, that we all do ... me, especially what I learned was empathy, and the faith that I got was the faith in us as a group, as humans."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I was recently introduced to the music of Sam Baker, and I'm very grateful. It sounds like he was called to write these songs, and I think maybe he was. He didn't start writing music until he came very close to the other side. In 1986, when Baker was 31, he was on a train in Peru, traveling to Machu Picchu, when a bomb planted by the Peruvian terrorist group the Shining Path exploded in the luggage rack above him.
The people he was sitting with were killed. His body was torn apart. He had a brain injury, severe hearing loss, and required over 15 reconstructive surgeries. And somehow during his long recovery, songs started coming to him. Several of his songs relate directly to the attack and his near death. Many of his songs are like short stories, written in the voices of characters. Some of his most beautiful songs are like hymns.
NPR music critic Robert Christgau described Baker's music as simultaneously beautiful and broken, like cracked crockery. Baker's latest album, his fourth, is called "Say Grace." Rolling Stone named it one of the 10 best country albums of 2013. Let's start with one of his story songs. It's called "The Tattooed Woman."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TATTOOED WOMAN")
SAM BAKER: (Singing) The tattooed woman, she sleeps in my bed. The ink is dry. The dogs are fed. The moon is safe. Her face is red. The tattooed woman, she sleeps in my bed. Her hair is black. Her skin is white. She's pulled the sheets around her tight. I wish I had the right to comfort her as a husband might. Rain is coming, that's how it feels. Rain is coming, that's how it feels. Rain is coming, that's how it feels. Rain is coming, that's how it feels. Now I lay me down to sleep, the Lord out wandering with his sheep as oh, so many souls to keep. Now I lay me down to sleep...
GROSS: Sam Baker, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really love that song. Is this a story about you or about someone else?
BAKER: It's about someone else, but the - but it was, there was a tattooed woman who was asleep in my bed, and the merge in that is - but there's an old hymn, an old Protestant hymn called "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent." And I don't know the rest of the words. I mean, the rest of the words could be almost anything. But I love the title, and I love the melody, and the melody goes back to the 1600s. It's a French melody that was taken by someone who created that hymn.
So what happened was, that was an amalgam of really two songs, and the hymn part, I think, sounds almost like an Algerian chant. I don't know if I can even do it. It's like - (Strumming guitar and singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...
GROSS: I didn't realize that was like an old melody that you borrowed.
BAKER: Yeah, that's probably 4- or 500 years old.
GROSS: You know, that song has such a mood to it, and it takes a really gloomy turn - to me anyways - in "rain is coming, that's how it feels."
GROSS: But as you pointed out to me earlier - because it's pouring here in Philadelphia as we record this...
BAKER: Exactly, right.
GROSS: You pointed out that in Texas, where you live, it's been very dry. Rain is great, where's...
BAKER: Rain is a gift, a great and wonderful gift.
GROSS: So when you sing "rain is coming, that's how it feels," that's a good thing?
BAKER: Right, it's not a foreshadowing. Now, the second verse is foreshadowing: Now I lay me down to sleep, the Lord out wandering with his sheep, oh so many souls to keep. Now I lay me - now, that is, Terry, that's foreshadowing. The rain is coming, it's kind of - actually, in my world, it's positive.
GROSS: So many of your songs are stories about other people, about other characters. Some of your songs are about your story.
GROSS: And they're just incredible songs. So I want to talk a little bit about your story, and play some of those autobiographical songs.
GROSS: So let's talk about the terrorist explosion that blew your body up. Where were you going when you were on that train in Peru? What were you intending to do?
BAKER: I had gone to - I had gone to South America with friends. And we were young; I guess I was almost 32. And we walked around and looked. And we went to Cuzco at a time of a celebration called the Inti Raymi, I think it's what it's called, where a priest cuts the heart out of a llama and holds it up and looks into the sun and is able to tell what is in store, what the future holds.
And then we got - the next day, I got aboard a train for Cuzco, which is where Machu Picchu, the beautiful ruins, are. And someone had put a bomb in a backpack, a red backpack, on the car that I got on. And I was sitting by a German boy. His mother was across from him, and his father was knee-to-knee with me. Two people sit facing two people, and the bomb was on the luggage rack right above this poor woman's head.
So the German boy and I talked for a second, and then I looked back and the bomb went off. And it was probably not that good of a bomb because so much of the blast went straight up. I think if they had been able to flatten the blast better, it would've killed a lot. I think that day it killed six or seven, different accounts say.
But it did kill the woman - this boy's mother, killed her real fast and really violent, and killed his father real fast and real violent. And then it killed him, but it took a number of hours for him to die. I didn't see that. I had been - I had a cut artery, and it had blown my ears in, and I was in a bad place. I thought I had a heart attack.
And then another - an external voice, English, said: You are accompanied by death. Death accompanies those around you. And at that point, I knew that they were dead or dying, and I was dying.
GROSS: But you heard a voice saying that?
BAKER: I say I heard a voice, you know, but - and my lungs had collapsed because I was so close to the blast wave of the bomb. So I panicked initially, when I couldn't breathe, and then this voice was - I say it's a voice, but it was more like a cellular - something that passed through on a cellular level so that it quieted all the - you know, at that point, I became, I guess, willing to die because, you know, because I said to myself, well, if this is death, let's get about it.
GROSS: I want to play the song that you wrote about the explosion. It's called "Steel," as in the passenger train.
GROSS: It's just, I don't know, the song leaves me kind of speechless. But it describes the experience in poetry. So let's hear "Steel." It's from Sam Baker's first album, "Mercy," which was released in 2004.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEEL")
GROSS: That's "Steel," from my guest Sam Baker's first album, which was released in 2004. The album was called "Mercy." And that song describes his experience when he was on a train in Peru, and the terrorist group the Shining Path had placed a bomb in the overhead compartment, and it blew up the train.
BAKER: Yeah, it was just like a luggage rack. It wasn't even a - you know, it was an old, narrow-gauge rail. So it's - and I think the rack itself, you know, that the suitcase sat on, that became the shrapnel. I don't know if they even packed the thing with shrapnel. I mean, they could have killed the whole car full of people.
GROSS: There's a line in the song - smoke rises through a hole in the roof, the dead say fare thee well. Did you see the smoke rising? Were you lying on your back at that time?
BAKER: I didn't. I didn't. You know, what I did do is when I finally got to Houston after a long, complicated rescue, the U.S. Air Force came in, and when I was in Houston, I had an old, old friend come in. And he said that I told him that I saw those things, but by that time I had gangrene and renal failure and...
GROSS: So did the image come from your friend telling you that you told your friend?
BAKER: It came from my image telling me that I had told him. That's where that image came from.
GROSS: That's really interesting.
BAKER: Well, and he said that the dead - see, I went into whatever the tunnel of light is. I actually went into that, which was an interesting - it really was a light of shades of gray, and the light at the end was a tiny light; really, not very big, but it was a light that was - it was like a returning, like I was returning and becoming some sort of liquid light. It was more like an ecstatic return, but ecstasy is not the right word. It was like a cellular becoming of something more powerful and beautiful than anything I've ever experienced.
I don't think we have a word for it. We don't have a word for the - and, you know, I grew up in a small prairie town, you know, going to church every Sunday up until I was 17 or so. Part of that was the heaven, hell, heaven, hell, and this was only when I came out of it, I started thinking about, you know, it was a non-denominational dying.
BAKER: It's not like someone shows up to say, have you...?
GROSS: That's a great phrase - a non-denominational dying - which leads me to wonder, did your sense of faith or no faith - or of a spiritual life or not having a spiritual life - change after that experience?
BAKER: Yeah. I mean, I think the - you know, when I went into it, I was young. You know, I was a whitewater boatman, and we were climbing. It was a young person's life, full of adventure and curiosity. And after that, you know, I went through so many surgeries, and I was around so many people that were in such terrible pain and in worse shape than I was. Yeah, something changed.
One thing that changed was the sense that all suffering is universal; that we suffer, you suffer, that we all do. This separation we sometimes do about - whatever we do it for, about religion or whatever, I think if we can all - me, especially, what I learned, I think, was empathy; and the faith that I got was the faith in us as a group, as humans.
GROSS: There's another song I want to play. This is a song about suffering, about things that don't heal.
BAKER: Right, right.
GROSS: The song is called "Broken Fingers." And, I mean, your fingers were broken in the explosion.
BAKER: Right. Well, what happened was shrapnel came in. You know, my hand was vertical, and so shrapnel came down and cut a channel down across the top of my hand. But, you know, for the most part, they just wrapped it up because, you know, I had so many other things that were life-threatening, and this was not life-threatening. So it was bandaged up for weeks and weeks. And when they finally unwrapped it, it was a mess. It was awful.
GROSS: So let's hear the song "Broken Fingers." Do you want to say anything to introduce it, about writing it?
BAKER: I was at a - I was stumped. I didn't know how to describe. How do you describe instant death? You know, you and I are in this beautiful, quiet room, and then the world comes in; and really, even now, Terry, I think I write around it. I don't know that I've ever been able to write directly into the core of it. And that's where that song - you know, I was trying to - trying to - I've never been able to get at peace with the boy that was killed. You know, the...
GROSS: The boy sitting next to you.
BAKER: The boy sitting next to me. I mean, that's when I was - and it was years after the thing happened, and then I got that. How long? How long ago was 16 years? Every day, of course I know - and then that goes in to some things don't heal. I mean, some things we - I've had to learn to live with.
GROSS: And I love the way when you sing it, especially the second time, the emphasis is on the don't, some things don't heal.
BAKER: Don't heal, they don't, they don't, and this - and they don't close. There's no closure. There's no healing, there's no closure. It's - it stays open for forever. And I think, you know, once, you know, like somebody killing that kid, or, you know, those are things that stay open. I don't know that the universe heals those things.
GROSS: So let's hear the song. It's called "Broken Fingers," and it's on one of Sam Baker's previous albums, which is called "Pretty World."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN FINGERS")
GROSS: That's Sam Baker, songwriter and singer, from his album "Pretty World." His latest album is called "Say Grace." A couple of lines in the song we just heard - I can't wake up from a dream when the dream is real - after the explosion, the Shining Path bomb was planted in the train that you were traveling on in Peru, did you think it was a dream?
BAKER: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah, it was awful. It was surreal. It was - the moment it went off, from that moment forward, it was as if there was a different, alternative universe because I went from a living, connected thing - just like you and I have today - to something that was so completely inward, you know, where I couldn't breathe, and then the voice came, and then I went in and was moving down the tunnel.
And then that went black, and then I woke up and saw the - they were sewing me up, and the guy showed me the thread. It had some sort of silver-like lubricant. And at that moment, I thought, this is awful. I'm going to go back to being unconscious. And then the next morning when I woke up, it was a pretty gauzy world, one - I wore contacts, and they had had my contacts out, so I couldn't see anything, and I was deaf. So, you know, my ears were blown in, and I really couldn't see.
And in that last moment before I really woke up to the new world, that was when the voice came back and said: You are here to do something. And...
GROSS: Tell us about that voice.
BAKER: Well, it was the same voice that told me that, you are accompanied by death, that death accompanies those around you. And even then, as beat up as I was - and leaking blood everywhere. You know, there was like - they had tried to stop all the blood. They had stitched everything up and stitched it up dirty, which is why I ended up with gangrene. And even then I thought, like what?
GROSS: This was in Peru still?
BAKER: Yeah, still in Peru. That was in Cuzco. The military evaced us down to Lima, where we stayed. And the people in Lima were really lovely, the doctors were great, but, you know, there was not much they could do. I had - gangrene had set in, and I had renal failure. So it was, you know, a matter of time before - and gangrene is a really distasteful sort of thing. I mean, it smells bad. It's...
You know, I had gone from climbing and healthy to really, to being on the verge of death; and death in a smelly, bloody way, and surrounded by people that were beat up, too, and just having left the dead behind. We evaced out, and left the dead in Cuzco.
GROSS: In one of your songs, you have the line: Everyone is at the mercy of another one's dream.
GROSS: And I don't know if you intended that to be about yourself, but that's how I hear it.
BAKER: Yeah. Right.
GROSS: Like you were at the mercy, all the dead people from this bomb blast were at the mercy of this group's dream of what they were trying to accomplish.
BAKER: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, the whole first record was so I could set that line up so I could say: We are all at each other's mercy. Once again, empathy, empathy, empathy. We are all at each other's mercy. And if you have this dream of destruction, it's not going to come out well for all of us. And then but see, at first when I did that - and then did that because I felt like that was such an important thing to say - we followed that up with an eight-minute, really beautiful rondo that says, you know, this is like a reflecting pool after that one line.
GROSS: Well, the line is in your song "Angels," which is from your album "Mercy."
GROSS: Why don't we hear that song? And do you want to demonstrate anything on your guitar about that song?
BAKER: Yeah. I can - you know, there were so many people that rushed in to help, you know...
BAKER: They saved me, and they saved a lot of other people; and it was at risk to themselves. And then the, you know, the Peruvians in Lima were so unbelievable and, you know, I got blood transfusion after blood transfusion. I was - like, I had holes everywhere. The back of my arm was gone; you know, my leg was open for like a foot, foot and a half. I was just - they were pouring blood in as fast as it poured out. People were so - had so little regard for their own safety or for their own well-being. And that - I found all the way through on the - just all the way through. The life flight - I mean, the military evac guys, the docs. I mean, it was just...
BAKER: And, you know, the only way I could think of to describe how - those beautiful impulses was that song. Angels flutter around her heart. Love can heal, they softly call. And when trouble comes to the ones she loves, where angels come. And I'm not sure what, you know, the pains of angels with links - you know, I see this more as all those incredible people that their - whatever this well of goodness that's in people, it just poured out.
GROSS: So let's hear your song "Angels," from your album "Mercy." And this is the song that has the line, everyone is at the mercy of another one's dream.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ANGELS")
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO IN PEACE)
GROSS: That's Sam Baker from his latest album, "Say Grace." And Sam, so that line - safely to arrive at home - that's...
GROSS: That's borrowed from the old hymn.
BAKER: That's borrowed from the old hymn. Yeah.
BAKER: Well, the whole - I think the vibe, the feel of it, is borrowed from it. I mean, I love the feel of the hymn even if I don't know it.
GROSS: You know, but this is reminding me when you were nearly killed in the bomb blast in Peru on the passenger train, and you were in that like, tunnel of death you saw the light.
GROSS: And you described what you were experiencing as an ecumenical death. It wasn't, like...
BAKER: Right. Right.
GROSS: ...a god or an individual religion...
BAKER: In fact, it was - right, right.
GROSS: ...at the other end of the tunnel.
BAKER: It was like howdy, everybody.
GROSS: But that reminds me of the kind of hymns that you write - like, what we just heard. There's no particular god. There's no particular religion...
BAKER: Yeah. I don't...
GROSS: ...that it's singing about.
BAKER: That doesn't feel right to me. It feels right that there's a great welcome. You know, when I was in that place, that's what it seemed to me - a great welcome. And it was not just restricted to me. I thought it was a great welcoming that would quite likely be provided everybody.
GROSS: Did you feel that way before the bomb?
BAKER: Oh, Terry, before the bombing, I don't know that I took the time to think through much. You know, it was a very physical life. And I think that my world was so engrossing just on a physical level, I don't know that I thought about religion or faith really that much. I mean, it was fun. It was fun to run rivers and climb mountains.
GROSS: Because the bomb blast radically altered all your senses...
GROSS: ...but probably, most especially, your hearing. But also your ability to think - I mean, you said you couldn't think of the names...
GROSS: You couldn't think of nouns. So this had to affect, like, your ability to write.
GROSS: And I think one of the things that's very outstanding about your songs is that - you know, as a singer you have a limited range. You don't have like, two octaves that you can do.
BAKER: Right. Right.
GROSS: Or three octaves.
BAKER: Three notes is a bit closer.
GROSS: You know, you have a relatively small range but like Leonard Cohen, who has a relatively small range - like, every note that you write, you get something - you get meaning from, or emotion from. And so you use each of those notes to great effect. The language is spare, too.
GROSS: It's not like, overly wordy and descriptive. It's not dense in the way, say, a Bob Dylan lyric is very dense. And I'm wondering if you think any of that relates to the way your thought processes work since the blast, that everything maybe needs to be...
GROSS: ...pared down and simplified.
BAKER: Right. It does.
GROSS: Take out the noise.
BAKER: It does.
GROSS: Take out what's extraneous.
BAKER: It does. It has to be - I have to do things as simple as I can do them. And I have to find, you know, like chair; I have to look for words, and I have to spin through a ton of words. And I go through, sometimes still, through a descriptive process. And that exercise takes a lot of time - to really winnow all the words out till I can find a word that I think works.
GROSS: If it's that difficult, why do you want to do it?
BAKER: I have to. I don't have a choice.
GROSS: Why don't you have a choice?
BAKER: I don't. I mean, I think once the voice came back and said, do something, I think I feel compelled to do something. Even if I don't know to what end, I think that my job is to reveal as much as I know, and hope that it's helpful to somebody.
GROSS: Did you feel like you had any sense of purpose like that before the blast?
BAKER: No, not at all.
GROSS: A lot of veterans have gone through versions of what you went through.
BAKER: Right. Right.
GROSS: Veterans who were victims of, you know, land mines or IEDs. Yours was a bombing on a passenger train. But, you know, post-traumatic stress disorder is a big problem for veterans. Have you had that yourself?
BAKER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I've had treatment for post-traumatic stress. When I first came back, I didn't understand post-traumatic. And I moved a lot. I mean, it wasn't a conscious decision. It was a subconscious thing that said if I keep moving, it will be harder for them to set a bomb off that, you know, blows the windows in and kills me. So I moved a lot, and I was always watchful.
GROSS: You mean moved...
BAKER: Physically moved. I physically moved houses, physically moved apartments. And then when I'd move through any public space, I would look for any car that looked out of place. And I would also know where, you know, where blast shields are. I would wonder about, like, looking out the window right now, is that a facade steel or is that real steel? I mean, who can hide behind - you know, where is a blast shield? Where is the safe place?
GROSS: What's your life like now, your daily life?
BAKER: Simple. I live a pretty simple life. I try to live as regimented as I can live. You know, there are certain rituals I do. I get up and meditate at first. I try to eat as simple as I can eat, whether I'm on the road or not. I try to live a pretty simple, structured life where I can help people; where I can help them and maybe be of service at times, not all the time, and hope for the best.
GROSS: Is your income from music?
GROSS: And you make enough at music to get by?
BAKER: It's enough. I mean, I don't live - you know, I don't live an extravagant life.
GROSS: We should play another song. And this is another one that I think is just kind of like a poem that's a hymn - or a hymn that's a poem.
GROSS: Totally non-denominational, but just about being in the moment and seeing the beauty of the moment. It's called "Pretty World."
BAKER: Oh, right. Yeah.
GROSS: It's a great song.
BAKER: It's a lovely song.
GROSS: Did you want to say anything about writing it?
BAKER: In those days of, you know, once I was kind of getting through the worst parts of the surgeries and stuff, there were moments that were exquisitely beautiful. One of the things about seeing so much sorrow and so much suffering is that when there is an absence of suffering - you know, sunlight off a rose is incredible.
GROSS: Sam Baker, I just am so happy I know your music now.
GROSS: You know, I found out about it pretty recently, and I'm so glad that it's part of what I know. It's so good. Thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR.
BAKER: Terry, thank you. This has been - it's been a pleasure.
GROSS: So let's hear your song "Pretty World."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY WORLD")
GROSS: The song we're listening to is the title track of Sam Baker's album "Pretty World," which has been reissued along with his albums "Mercy" and "Cotton." His latest album is called "Say Grace." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.