Los Angeles Times

R.E.M. responds to an SOS

Bob Hawkins was strumming his guitar in front of a live audience at the Cliffs in Laguna Beach, celebrating Cinco de Mayo, when his heart attack hit.

"I was playing the first note of the set and I felt kind of odd," he remembered. "I was becoming increasingly fatigued and I felt like a weight was on my chest."

Despite feeling chest pain and a lack of circulation in his arm, he continued playing, though he had to sit on an amplifier. During a break, the 64-year-old guitarist relayed his symptoms to a friend, who rushed across the street to get aspirin.

"Next thing I know, we're driving to South Coast [Community] Hospital, where doctors tested me, and I'm on a gurney to Mission Hospital," the Aliso Viejo resident said.

Hawkins needed an emergency stent to save his life.

A week later, surgeons would have to perform a quadruple bypass.


John Hall, a fellow musician in their band Hautewerk, had an idea for aiding his friend, who is uninsured. It had to do with an auction, a guitar and his connections to the band R.E.M.

As chief executive of Rickenbacker, the electric and bass guitar manufacturer whose models became permanently intertwined with the sound and look of the Beatles, Hall decided to donate a Model 360 Jetglo electric guitar signed by the original members of R.E.M. Hawkins would receive 100% of the proceeds from the auction, to take place online through eBay from July 17 to 27.

The model of the guitar is identical to the one played by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck.

"I wanted somebody obviously high-profile," Hall said Wednesday when discussing why he selected R.E.M. to sign the guitar. "And we've been good friends of each other."

So much so that Buck, lead guitarist with R.E.M., plays on Hautewerk's current album — he overdubbed his parts from his home in Oregon.

Hall reached out to DeWitt Burton, the equipment manager and producer for R.E.M., and asked for the band members to sign the guitar.

It wouldn't be an easy task.

Singer Michael Stipe is usually in Europe.

Bassist Michael Mills is an in-demand producer.

Drummer Bill Berry retired.

And Buck was in Ireland but had returned to Portland.

"It was the alignment of the sun, moon and stars, because it's so rare to catch three of the four guys at the same time in Athens," Hall said of the band, which formed in the Georgia city.

Burton knew three of the members would be in the band's office the same week. After gathering their signatures, Burton shipped the guitar to Buck's home in Portland, where Buck wrote the final signature and shipped the guitar back.

"Everybody cooperated to turn this around," Hall said. "I'm just hoping that having all four will push this guitar up."

Burton was glad to be of help in the cause.

"It's no secret that R.E.M. has been involved over the years in healthcare initiatives for musicians," Burton wrote in an email. "Mike Mills currently serves on the board of the Music Health Alliance, an organization helping musicians with healthcare finances. John has supported several charitable causes that R.E.M. has been involved in over the years involving auction guitars.

"Though they don't know Bob personally, this being a cause near and dear to John's heart, it just seemed like a no-brainer."


Surgeons informed Hawkins that because they would have to use arteries from his arm, he would lose sensitivity in that hand.

"Bob asked me, 'Do I lose sensitivity in my picking hand or my fretting hand?'" Hall said.

A surgeon proposed to Hawkins an older type of surgery whereby an artery already in the chest and veins from his leg would be repurposed. The surgery was to protect the musician's hands. He agreed.

Hawkins' father's side of the family has a history of heart disease, but he thought his clean living would spare him.

"I thought I was going to dodge that bullet," he said.

"Bob was very careful about his diet," Hall added. "But he had the genetic heritage."

Hawkins said he realized he put himself under stress. Some nights, he worked until 2 a.m., and as a guitar teacher, he would drive to his client's homes. He found himself constantly on the go.

"A lot of the stress comes from racing around," he said. He plans to take fewer gigs with less stress.

Now, Hawkins is on his way to physical recovery. On Tuesday, for the first time in two months, he returned to Hall's studio, where he played for three hours, working on the band's album.

"He's doing really well," Hall said. "He didn't get tired and he's getting his bandmates to carry his equipment."

"It was a beautiful gesture," Hawkins said when asked how he felt when he learned of the auction. "I know John to be a very kind and giving man. Of course, it was icing on the cake to get R.E.M. to sign."

Hawkins' fans have continued to show their support. A crowd of 280 attended a benefit at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

"I was overwhelmed and grateful and slightly stunned," Hawkins said. "If I die tomorrow, you know, what kind of impact did I have on others? And now I know. I guess I've had an impact on some people's lives."

Jason Feddy, a bandmate of Hawkins and Hall, spoke of his admiration for Hawkins.

"Bob has been a hero and mentor to me for nearly 20 years," Feddy said. "We can't all achieve the notoriety we deserve, but frankly, his skill and feel for the guitar put him among the greats.

"He plays like a god — I find it hard to believe, but I guess this heart attack thing proves Bob's mortality. We should help him if we can."

For more information about the auction, visit  http://www.rickenbacker.com/hawkins.

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