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Faith in God and a Wife's Devotion Help a Jazzman Bring Back the Music After a Bullet Rips His Life Apart

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For Larry Carlton, 1988 looked like a breakthrough year. Last January the jazz-pop guitarist bagged three Grammy Award nominations and was a winner for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. A veteran studio musician whose supple, soul-inflected licks had graced more than 3,000 record sessions (with Barbra Streisand, Steely Dan and the Crusaders, among others), Carlton, 40, also had a following of his own. His tenth solo album was due to be released in June, after which he would launch an 80-city tour of the U.S., Europe and Japan.

But on the afternoon of April 6, 1988, a bullet from a .357 Magnum put those plans on hold. Carlton was standing in the doorway of his Hollywood Hills, Calif., home when two teenagers ran toward him. One pulled out a gun and fired, striking Carlton in the neck.

Six years earlier Carlton had become a born-again Christian. He needed all his faith, along with the support of friends, his children from his first marriage—Katie, 8, and Travis, 6—and his second wife, Michele Pillar, a contemporary Christian singer whom he had married less than five months before, to weather the months of agonizing rehabilitation that followed.

But weather them he did. This week Carlton returns to the stage for the first time since “the event,” as he calls it. Joni Mitchell, Michael McDonald and Christopher Cross will join him at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles for a concert to benefit Helping Innocent People, a new nonprofit organization to aid crime victims. Carlton discussed his ordeal with correspondent Lorenzo Benet.

On the day of the event, Michele and I were living in an apartment in North Hollywood while our house was being renovated. I arrived at the house, where I have a recording studio, around 3 P.M. to work on my new record. It was very hot, and the front door was halfway open so a breeze could come through. I was talking to my secretary, Mimi Zorn, when through the window I saw a German shepherd come up and trot under my carport, which is just outside the door. Two boys around 15 came jogging after the dog. It looked like the dog was going to come into the house, so I went over to shut the door. I figured the kids would say, “Hi, we’re going to get our dog.” Instead my whole life changed.

As I went toward the door, one of the boys pulled a gun from behind his back and aimed at me. He was only 12 to 15 feet away. The gun went POW! That quick. We just stood and looked at each other, and then he ran off. He has never been caught, but the police think he may have been in the area to rob a house, saw the open door, then saw me and panicked.

I never lost consciousness, but I didn’t know where I had been hit. I felt no pain, no impact. My arm was just hanging, all numb, so I thought I had been shot there. I walked to the foyer between the office and the kitchen and lay down. There was blood all over. I said, “Jesus, forgive me of my sins and I’m ready to go with you.” Mimi approached me with towels to mop the blood, and I told her, “Tell Michele I love her. Tell Katie and Travis I love them.” Then I just went back to praying to go to Heaven.

But I guess I wasn’t supposed to die that day. The paramedics station is a half-mile from my house, and they were there within five minutes of Mimi’s call. I found out later that if the bullet had been a quarter of an inch to the right, my vocal box would have been hit, and I would not have been able to speak again. The carotid artery had been severed, and I would have quickly bled to death if the paramedics had not gotten there so fast. Dr. Eric Schlesinger, the surgeon, was already at the hospital when I arrived.

The surgery lasted hours. The doctor had to take a piece of vein from my left thigh and graft it onto the carotid artery. In addition they had to examine the nerves in my shoulder. When it was over, Dr. Schlesinger told Michele that the next 24 hours were crucial. When they graft an artery, any small blockage can cause a stroke, in which case I might die or wake up a vegetable. But when I did wake up, Michele was in the room. The first thing she did was get right down near my face and say, “Sweetheart, everything is fine. You’re going to be normal.” It was a tremendous relief. They had put a tube down my throat so I could breathe, but when I tried to speak, nothing came out and Michele could see the fear in my eyes.

I was in the hospital for 10 days. The doctors told Michele that the nerves would regenerate in six to 12 months and the arm would be normal, but when physical therapy started three days after I got out of the hospital, I realized there was a long way to go. The muscles had atrophied, and at first my arm was so weak I couldn’t lift a glass. I went to therapy five days a week for 20-minute sessions. That’s all the body can take. The therapist would move my arm through a range of motions that felt like lightning bolts shooting from my shoulder to my fingers. Then they would ice the arm to numb it, but afterward the pain would once again shoot down my arm as the nerves continued to regenerate. They call this regeneration “firing,” and it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. There were nights where my whole body would convulse and literally hurl me off the couch. The pain was so bad I’d break into tears. Sometimes it lasted all night.

For almost seven weeks, first in the hospital and later at home, I was taking 30 milligrams of Valium and 100 milligrams of Elavil, an antidepressant, plus 12 milligrams of the pain-killer Dilaudid several times a day. And still I was in a lot of pain. Eventually I became addicted to all these medications until I went to a psychologist who made me realize that I needed to start weaning myself from them. At first I just discontinued taking the pills. I threw up, had the shakes, paced the floor—all symptoms of withdrawal. So I set up a program and started to lengthen the intervals between doses. It took 10 days to get off them completely.

Through all of this, my voice was very weak. The bullet had ripped through my left vocal cord, and four weeks after I got home I could only whisper. I started voice therapy, and I’ve been going five days a week. We’re trying to build up the muscles in my right vocal cord, and it’s working, but I can’t participate in conversations at restaurants because it’s too loud. At this point I don’t expect to sing again. That’s a shame. Backup harmonizing was always a little bonus I had.

The doctors assured us of a 100 percent recovery, so I never wondered if I would play the guitar again. But I did wonder if I would ever play as well. One afternoon, about a month after the shooting, I put on a tape of mine. It was the first time I’d listened to my music since the event. As soon as it came on, I wept. At that point when I would try to pick up the acoustic guitar, my arm would shake and the instrument would fall. I couldn’t push the strings down hard enough to get a tone. The first time I picked up an electric guitar and bent a string, oh, Lord, did it hurt. But now I can play. I’m 80 percent, and the 20 percent that’s missing is mostly muscle in the upper arms.

After the shooting I didn’t see my children, who live with my first wife, for a month. I didn’t want them to see me weak and incoherent from the medicine. I missed them a lot, but when they did finally see me, they were fine because they saw their dad standing up and hugging them. One time Travis asked, “Daddy, why did they have to shoot you?” Without any forethought I said, “Travis, I’m your daddy, but I’m just another person in this world. This could have happened to anybody.”

I do know that God had his whole hand on the thing or I would not be here today. I got thousands of fan letters from around the world. I never realized I had touched so many lives. [Video evangelists] Richard Roberts, Oral’s son, and Robert Schuller had their congregations praying for me. The first flowers I received were from Lionel Richie. Quincy Jones got through on the phone. But 90 percent of my support came from Michele. She shuttled me around, she held me when I couldn’t stand. To walk through an event like this with your wife stamps your marriage.

Two weeks after I got home, I remember going to bed and hearing Michele crying in the living room. She was exhausted and was so busy taking care of me, she had not had a moment to grieve for herself. I was always sick and in need of help. That wears on you. Sometimes I would get very depressed. She’d say something positive and I would say, “We’ll see if I ever play as good.” She finally got tired of it, and she said, “Larry, I can’t hear this anymore.” A lot of my attitude was influenced by the drugs. She helped me through the weaning. After that was done I became Larry Carlton again.

The anger I feel over the shooting is sporadic. When I go to therapy, work my tail off, when I’m in pain, that is when I get mad. But I honestly feel sorry for that poor kid. He was either high or not normal. I’m not a vengeful person. I don’t know anything about violence. I’m thankful it was a random shooting rather than someone out to get Larry Carlton. I can live with that. I’m free and clean and my life goes on.