Hollerin’ Man’s second act
New songs, new liver, new life
By Chris Busby
John Savage Witham, 53, is better known around town as Hollerin’ Man, a solo honky-tonker who played the bars of downtown Portland from the mid-1990s until a few years ago, when his health steeply declined. Before adopting the Hollerin’ Man act—the result of an “epiphany” during a bender in Austin—Witham played in various Portland rock, reggae and country groups for over 15 years.
This Sept. 10 marks Witham’s first anniversary with his new liver. After decades playing covers, he’s written
an album’s worth of original material, some of it reflective of his transplant experience, which he hopes to release later this year and share with fellow transplant patients.
Born and raised in Brewer, and now living in Biddeford, Witham has stopped gigging, but routinely shows up at the Maine Songwriters’ Association open mic (held Thursday nights at North Star Café in Portland) to play a few tunes. Two of his new songs, “Hard Tellin’” and “Austin Talkin’,” can be heard by clicking the titles.
The Bollard: How long have you been playing music?
Witham: I was in my first band in 1969, up in Bangor. We were called The Chain Reactions. We had a bus, a school bus, and we were covering all the classic rock songs of the day.
I was playing bass … We played Bangor State Fair, we played some school functions, we played the Bar-L Ranch in Newport, which was kind of a roadhouse.
What others bands were you in during the ’70s?
Well, the ’70s were kind of a wash-out. When I graduated from high school, I drove my Studebaker out to California and wound up in Berkeley on the streets, playing, busking, with my acoustic. This would have been ’72.
Actually, I spent one summer before that, while I was in high school, down in Camden. And it was pretty hippie-dippy down there at the time. I was crashing
out in that park downtown. It’s all gentrified, yuppified now, but it was wide open. There was plenty of good stuff around to take and do.
But I drove out to California, sold the car, and busked on the streets of Berkeley. I got busted for half a lid of Mexican weed by the Berkeley campus police. I spent three nights in jail and paid a $25 fine.
So I figured, ‘Geez, I better get out of town,’ so I got out of jail and I hitchhiked down 101, down to L.A., hitchhiked around that area, teamed up with somebody and we hitchhiked back across the country. We split up in Florida … I spent some time hitchhiking around Florida, because I discovered very quickly if you get up in the morning, you stick your thumb out, sooner or later somebody’s gonna pick you up and bake ya, or mushrooms or whatever. That’s the way it was.
I wound up comin’ back, makin’ the full circle, comin’ back to Brewer, and I think my reputation was starting to precede me in the old hometown, because I got a job for a short time in the Eastern Fine Paper mill. I worked the swing shift. I had the worst job there.
It was a job from the turn of the century. You’d have to hang around, and when the machine, this huge paper machine, when they would break down, all these bells and whistles would go off, and the paper’d start shootin’ out the side of the machine ’til they got it fixed. You’d have to lug this cart around, this huge turn-of-the-century cart, and literally, two of you would [in strained voice] pick up the paper, throw it in the cart, and then wheel it down to this big vat and hope to hell you didn’t fall in the vat, because that vat was all pulp.
I was there about three months, saved up some money, and then I took off again across Canada. Wound up down at my sister’s house in Vacaville, California. I got a job there for a year working in a restaurant, but I wasn’t really playing in a band. I was such a big pothead. To be honest with ya, I couldn’t get it together. It just wasn’t happenin’.
After I got fired from the job in Vacaville, I figured I better straighten out and I thought a good way would be to join the service, so I joined the service for a duration. That would be ’74 to ’75.
I don’t know how you want to put this down [because] I’m not really proud of it, but I ended up going awol … The Vietnam War was winding down, so they weren’t sending me over there. I was in San Diego. I was trying to straighten up, that’s why I joined the Navy, but it wasn’t working. I was young. I was 22, 23. I got out of the service, honorably, and came back to Maine again, and just bummed around.
This gets depressing, dude. [Laughs.] I bummed around Bangor for a little while, then my folks figured they’d intervene and said, ‘You know, we got an interview for you down at Day One in Portland. It’s a drug rehab program.’ I went down and went in for six months. I met some good musicians there.
So that was my introduction to Portland. When I got out of there I got some more trouble, got on probation, they sent me to Serenity House, I went through the Serenity House program, and then I met the love of my life and we partied the streets of Portland and gave birth to my son. It’s all not really stuff I’m real proud of, but that’s what it was.
I don’t make any excuses. I take full accountability, but it just makes me even so much more grateful, and feeling really blessed to be alive as I am today with as many brain cells as I have today.
I can’t tell ya—I’m livin’ a new life since I’ve gotten this new liver. Not to get on a soapbox, but I’ve experienced a spiritual awakening.
How did you know you needed a new liver?
Well, I was doin’ the Hollerin’ Man thing, playing right regularly here in Portland and what not, and I noticed I started losing energy. Every gig was like, I just couldn’t get it goin’. And I started droppin’ weight in my face, and I lost my appetite. I know somethin’ was up, and I went to Togus, and that’s what married the Hep C virus [to those symptoms].
They said there’d been some damage done to my liver, but I got kind of passed around to a few doctors who were, like, kind of passing through Togus … [They] were giving me, ‘It’s kind of this, kind of that. There’s some damage.’
‘How long do I got with this one?’
‘Maybe five years, maybe ten, maybe fifteen.’
So I’m like, ‘Geez, I could drink a little more then.’ It was terrible! [Laughs.] It was horrible!
So finally, Rhonda Jankovich—she’s my guardian angel. She was looking at my read-outs and my blood work and saying, ‘We got to do this yesterday.’ She kept saying that over and over. I credit her. Wonderful lady—I just cannot say enough about her. Because she followed me down to the lab, got right in my face and said, ‘Do you want a liver transplant?’
And I knew the answer was yes. The way she looked at me and asked me, I know it wasn’t a trick question, it wasn’t an A/B question. It was either yes or no: Do I want to live?
What was your reaction to the news?
To be honest with ya, I really don’t remember my immediate reaction. I really don’t. I knew somethin’ was comin’. I knew somethin’ was up. And at that point when she brought that up, I’d started feeling the mental effects of the end-stage liver disease and cirrhosis.
What happens there, basically, is your stomach, as you digest food, it creates a lot of ammonia gas, which is toxic, and if the liver and the rest of your system is functioning properly, the ammonia gets passed through your system and it’s gone. When the liver is failing, it’s not able to process the ammonia, so the ammonia builds up in your belly and it’ll cause your ankles to swell. They call it ascites. And if the ammonia levels start getting too high, that means it’s going to your head and you’re becoming toxic—your brain is becoming toxic. So I was sicker than I thought I was.
Day to day, you know, you get the dropsies, and you kind of stagger a bit, but I hadn’t drank in like a year and a half. I’d made a commitment. I hadn’t had a touch … and I was gettin’ it together. But all of a sudden the reality of my situation really came front and center.
What was it like to be on the list and have to wait?
At the time, they told me I had about six months, maybe more, terminally—more or less. When I got put on the list—here’s where, for lack of a better term, it gets spiritual. I had just come to accept so much about my situation. You know, here I am. All I can do is the best I can do and the ultimate fate is up to the creator, whoever that may be, as I personally see him or her or whatever.
Everyday I’d wake up and go, ‘Whoa, I opened my eyes again.’ Some days I wouldn’t make it too far as far as walkin’ around or really doin’ anything, but every day I’d wake up and I’d be like, ‘Wow, I got another day.’
When they put me on the list, of course there was hope there, and fate or whatever had something in my favor, because my blood type is B positive, and it’s not a common blood type. They put me at the head of the list for B positive … and let me use my cell phone. They said, ‘Keep your cell phone charged. That’s gonna to be your beeper. That’s when we’ll let you know.’
And I got a call.
How long had you waited?
Not long. I got put on the list in July, I got a call September 10th. Can you imagine that? You know how many people die every day waitin’ for a liver? I mean, hundreds, if not thousands. In this country alone, hundreds anyway …
What happened when you got the call?
It’s funny, because I’d been so prepared for it on a daily basis. They told ya, ‘Keep your bags packed and ready to go at any moment.’ So if I drove somewhere, it would have to be only so far from the Portland Jetport, I figured. When you get the call, when the liver becomes available, you have four hours, or maybe five, to get down there [to Pittsburgh] to take the liver.
So I got the call about 4:30 on a Sunday morning … I drove to the Jetport, they showed up with a mini-Lear jet, and off I went into the Sunday morning sun.
They said you usually get the call on the weekends, at night. That’s when 95 percent of the livers make themselves available. I don’t know why.
Whose is it?
I don’t know. Through a party, an organization, this is what they do: they let the recipient of the organ make the effort—write a letter of thanks or whatnot—and pass it on to the donor family.
I’m not surprised they didn’t get in touch with me, because it’d been so soon after they’d lost somebody. So maybe I’ll hear from them someday. I’m just grateful I got to write a nice verse to them.
How do you feel now?
I feel great … I’m living a life beyond my wildest dreams. I’m living a life I couldn’t have imagined I would have lived in a million years. I mean, I would think I’d still be the Hollerin’ Man, hollerin’ around town, you know. [Makes sound of two beer cans being opened.] Yeah! You know, like Cash and all them folks, just keep doin’ that as long as I could. But this pulled that rug right out in so many ways.
It’s all different. For one thing, I haven’t drank or taken any illegal substances in three years, so my mind is probably clearer than it’s ever been in my adult life. You get the brain farts when you go to think about somethin’ and you can’t remember it. Some of that’s age and some of that’s just some of that.
I mean, I wrote a song the other night. I just sat down with a simple idea, and I had an inspiration. I got done in about an hour, hour-and-a-half. I had four verses, a simple but nice little chord change, a little turnaround for it. That brings me a lot of joy.
What’s your advice to others?
I’ve gotta say it, I would strongly advise anybody who’s enjoyed the nightlife for any duration to at least get checked for the Hep C. It’s blood-to-blood, it’s a blood-born pathogen, so it can be real tricky. It’s not like HIV, you don’t get it through secretions.
But the blood-to-blood thing—I mean, even passin’ a coke straw or a dollar bill, think of it: somebody’s got a little blood in their mucus or up in their nose and you’re next in line, it could put you at risk.
Do you expect you’ll get your energy back?
Oh, this is the drama. The drama is, I’m going to be on the interferon treatment, which is the only treatment available for the Hep C. The Hep C has already done damage to my new liver. Out of four stages of liver disease, I’m already smack dab in the middle of stage two.
We seem to have a good cocktail going that’s holding it at bay, but it’s very tenuous, very tenuous. I mean, I’m walkin’ a tightrope. Any infection, I could fall off if it’s not treated quick. My platelets are way down, because of the interferon. White blood cell count, way down …
And it looks like I’m gonna be on the interferon ’til they come up with the better cure, which the they are working on, which I was last told might be a few years. So there’s drama, trust me, but you know, I made it so far. I’ve been given this year. I’ve been given today. I didn’t have that a year ago. I had no guarantee. I was treadin’ water, baby, and I was sinkin’.
So, on one side, I have to marshal my strength and my activity, but on the other side, I’m motivated, because I’ve got these songs and there’s some stuff I want to do to be part of the solution while my window of health, as long as it may, be open.