My mom used to suffer debilitating migraines when I was a kid. When they came around everything we were doing came to an immediate halt, and if my dad wasn’t around to take us where we needed to be, all we really could do was wait. She’d lay down in a dark room in apparent agony and we’d wait, often in frustration, because we were asshole kids that were lucky enough to never suffer through one before… and because we were just asshole kids.
They would probably occur every few weeks or so, but to us it always seemed like they came at the worst possible times. If a migraine hit before a baseball game, doctors appointment, or a friend’s pool party, I’d scramble to find another ride with a friend or I’d miss out entirely. “It’s a headache… how bad could it be,” my brother and I used to groan when our trip to the beach was delayed for a couple of hours, or if we had to make our own ham and cheese sandwiches for dinner instead of the Deluxe Beef Stroganoff Hamburger Helper that we were promised. That’s right, “deluxe”. It was the word that made us feel like we were trading in butter poached lobster for a fucking mustard packet. As we grew up we’d obviously come to understand the severity of her migraines, but we really couldn’t relate.
Shortly after college I started to take songwriting more seriously, made a record, and started to gig quite a bit around the northeast. Back then I worked full time in the music industry and it was important to me to have a little bit of separation between church and state. I thought I needed a stage name. Growing up I always went by BJ. I wasn’t Bernard, that was my dad. With about a day of thought I decided to take my middle name, John, and my mom’s maiden name, Colvert. Thus John Colvert was off and running.
Fast forwarding a few years to October of 2013. I was a co-founder of the New England Americana Festival in Cambridge, MA, I was in and out of the studio working on a new record with my band, and we were gigging all around New England. Later that month I went on tour with my good friend Patrick Coman. We were out for about 3 weeks hitting a bunch of cities and towns from Portland, Maine down to Nashville and back. At the time I was also running my own marketing business where the work was plentiful, but rent money at the 1st of the month was not. Once we got to the town we were playing in each night I’d find a bar or coffee shop and play catchup on the work I had promised for my clients. I’d essentially be working endlessly for other musicians careers right up until I got on stage for my own. During the tour I wore myself down pretty good both physically and mentally. I was broke, doubting myself, and exhausted, but the shows went well and it kept me motivated.
One night about a week after the tour I shot up from a dead sleep with the most violent headache I had ever had. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t think. I remember being doubled over on the bathroom floor emptying my stomach from the pain without knowing how I got there. In that moment I was so scared and startled that I was certain I was having an aneurysm or something, but the pain was so intense and debilitating that I couldn’t even call for help. I was going to die on the bathroom floor and in a weird, confused way I had almost come to terms with it. It sounds dramatic looking back at it now, but in that moment there was only blinding pain and confusion.
Eventually the pain dulled just enough that I could get myself back to bed and I passed out. The next morning I woke up and felt fine. I remember laying in bed that morning saying to myself, “So that’s what that feels like.” When I called my mom to talk about the symptoms I was almost waiting for her to maniacally laugh and scream, “I TOLD YOU SO” into her phone and then hang up. And I wouldn’t have blamed her in the least.
What came next were months of frustration. The migraines didn’t stop and I was triggered by everything. I couldn’t perform as just about any sound set me off, look at a computer screen for long due to my new sensitivity to light, or really leave the house. I basically lived in sunglasses and ear muffs. At my worst I was averaging 3-4 migraines a day. I was seeing neurologists, pain management doctors, and getting frequent MRIs. We were looking for tumors, chemical imbalances, spinal issues – all the scary shit. I was on all sorts of heavy duty migraine pills that couldn’t prevent the bouts, but could help the pain subside quicker when they came. The side effect was that they would knock me out for a couple hours every time I had to take one, so with 3-4 per day I was pretty much bed ridden by pain or exhaustion. I remember trying to take a meeting across town and I had a full blown migraine hit me while driving on the way back. I had to pull over and lay down in my car on the side of the road for over an hour waiting for it to pass.
Frustrated, exhausted, and depressed, I got desperate. I had long hair at the time and I basically shaved my head just to see if it helped. I went for second and third consults with different doctors all around Massachusetts with no luck.
Back in those days I lived above a dentist originally from China named Dr. Wang. It was a split-level house in Arlington, Massachusetts and she was our landlord. In her ceiling (our floor) she had speakers installed throughout her dental office. We’d be woken up daily to the soothing sounds of Chicago, ABBA, UB40 and other soft rock favorites rattling our floors, or the occasional scream from one of her patience that was always followed by her patented, “YOU’RE FINE! YOU’RE FINE!”.
One day after endless online research into the saga of “What’s Wrong With Me”, I eventually remembered that a friend’s mother growing up had to get her wisdom teeth removed as an adult because she was getting headaches, so I headed down to catch Dr. Wang before she left for the day. After taking x-rays and looking at my wisdom teeth she felt that they looked ok and didn’t need to be extracted, confirming what every dentist had told me my whole life.
That was it. I was out of options after 6 months and ready to just start lobbing off body parts just to see if helped. So, against my doctor’s recommendation, I scheduled an appointment with an oral surgeon to have my wisdom teeth removed just for the sheer fuck of it. That’s when I met Dr. Malouf, a wily vet who loved to crack jokes – which is exactly what you want when you have a blinding migraine.
“Yeah, well I don’t think you need to take them out either,” he said starting to laugh with all of the charm and creepiness of Norman Bates, “but if you’re paying I’ll take all of your teeth out if you want.”
Not exactly what I wanted, but this was definitely my guy.
It had now been over 6 months between my return from tour and the date of my appointment. I was in a tough place mentally and needed to start making changes. That’s when word got to me that Narragansett Beer, longtime supporter of the New England Americana Festival was looking for a new member for their marketing team. After talking with them by phone we scheduled an in-person interview… 2 days after my procedure.
Nervous, I get to Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge early on the morning of my extraction. I had already gotten the spiel – the extraction would take about 45 minutes, and the doctor had elected to put me under entirely for the procedure, so I’d be pretty groggy coming out of it. You know, the standard stuff. Just as the anesthesia hit me at 11am the last thing I heard before drifting off was Dr. Malouf turning to his team and laughing out, “alright, let’s shave his face”. He always had to have the last laugh and he had the drugs to do so. When I wake up I’m told that it’s 5pm, which I didn’t find as funny. Not quite understanding and still half out of it, I knew that something clearly must have gone wrong, but as I was high as shit and had a fistful of gauze in my face, I wasn’t going to be asking any questions any time soon. This is what I found out the next day:
- The procedure, turned full on surgery, took 4.5hrs… not 45 minutes.
- One of my wisdom teeth was fused to my molar, so the molar needed to be removed as well.
- The molar/wisdom tooth abomination was actually lodged into my sinus cavity, which apparently is incredibly dangerous.
- My migraines were gone.
Yup. Gone. All the doctors, meds, MRIs, and bedridden months came down to a routine procedure for most teens. I was elated and kinda pissed that it was so simple.
The day after that I had my interview with Narragansett (during which I had blood dripping from my face and spoke like I was being force fed peanut butter), and they still hired me. Apparently that made for a good impression. A few days later, I accepted the job and planned my move to RI.
In the near 5 years since coming back from tour I have been on a road of non-stop change. I’ve moved 5 times, went through the split of a long time relationship, and have come out an entirely different person. Time will tell if I’m a better person for it, but I’m definitely different.
Over the last 5 years I’ve realized a few things:
- Reflection is important. For years I kept myself too busy to digest, reflect, and change course. It became impossible for me to enjoy anything or even know what parts of life were actually fulfilling. Sometimes you’re fighting wars that you don’t even know you’re fighting, and without stepping back to reflect and process, the war is just going to rage on. You don’t need to win every battle – that’s impossible. But it doesn’t hurt to at least know that you’re fighting one.
- There is such thing as too much music. I was working in the industry, running a large scale festival, and being a musician myself. It was impossible to actually enjoy music because it was always just a different form of work. I’m realizing now that taking a break was a healthy, positive thing for me even when it often felt like the opposite.
- It’s time to make music again. I am making a promise to myself that I am returning to music for the love of songwriting, making art both independently and with people I love, and to fulfill an inherent need for creativity that I have been missing for too long. Nothing more. Once music no longer checks these boxes, I am doing it for the wrong reasons. My goal is to make music that I love… as long as that’s true, whatever comes with it is all gravy.
- There is always a reason. It may sound cliche, but everyone has a story like mine that changes their course of life – many have far worse obstacles and many don’t have peaceful endings. I am lucky in that. As you live your life, please keep in mind that you could be meeting someone while they’re in the middle of their own crazy, frantic life change. Please be as kind and supportive as my friends and family were for me.
- I am Bernard John. John Colvert did a lot for me. I have close friends that still call me John and I will forever be grateful for who I was back then. Without John I would have never been able to grow and discover myself. But I am Bernard John, and for the first time in my life my given name feels right. I’m grateful to be able to start fresh, renewed, and with a completely different perspective. It’s time that I am honest with myself and focus on writing songs and making music that move me, and hopefully they move you too.
A weird and completely unexpected path has created who I am today. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. What happens next? Who the fuck knows.