In November 2017, Scott McCaughey was in San Francisco on tour with his band the Minus 5. The longtime Seattle musician, who now lives in Portland, had a day off and was out for a walk. Then he slowed, grew disoriented. “Eventually I found myself lying in the street,” he says. He ended up in the hospital, and after some misdiagnosis—24 hours without an MRI—he found he’d had a stroke.
The doctor said McCaughey would likely never play music again. He was mostly paralyzed on one side, and “my speech center in my brain was what got fried.” His whole mental musical catalogue had been wiped out, spanning back to his early 1980s work with the Young Fresh Fellows, the Seattle indie rock progenitor who toured with the Replacements. McCaughey was in the ICU and had a notebook with him, so he started writing down whatever words he could. “I had thoughts that I would try to convey, but I couldn't convey them.”
They came out in language like, “Green turn up yellow rib blue attack soft purple ooze white arm eggs running pepper salt.” Others were less inscrutable: “I am short of breath / I am in pain / I am chocking / I am feeling sick / I want to be suctioned.” The words were broken into lines, but they weren’t consciously lyrics. When he got home after a month of recovery in San Francisco, he tried putting them to music, “just to see what they sounded like.” The resulting songs developed quickly into a full album.
As friends came by to visit, they started laying down backing tracks—longtime collaborator Peter Buck of R.E.M., Joe Adragna, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, John Moen of the Decemberists, Dave Depper of Death Cab for Cutie, members of his current touring band like Alia Farah and Jenny Conlee. McCaughey put out the album, Stroke Manor, as a Record Store Day special release in April. In June it went into wide release, and on Saturday, July 27, McCaughey and the Minus 5 play the Tractor Tavern. While the lyrics on Stroke Manor remain near impossible to parse, the music is direct and nostalgic, rooted in the 1960s acid pop of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Both show up in song titles: “Bleach Boys and Beach Girls” and “Beatles Forever (Little Red),” which contains the “Green turn up yellow” lyrics.
McCaughey is still recovering. His old songs are coming back, but the Stroke Manor material is difficult to remember and play, and he’s only including seven or so of the new songs in his live set. They're intensely emotional to play live—bringing him both back to the state that spawned them and through how grateful he is for his recovery, his presence on stage a rejoinder to the idea that he was done.
The Minus 5
July 27, Tractor Tavern, $15