In late May, guitarist Tom Carter had nearly finished a European tour with Charalambides, the astral psychedelic band that he'd led with his ex-wife, Christina, for more than two decades. They'd finished a residency at London's Café Oto and were in Berlin before a final, short string of shows in Scotland and England.
Those shows never happened. In retrospect, Carter says nearly three months later, he'd been exhausted for most of the tour, fighting an infection that had caused heart palpitations. The symptoms finally forced him into an emergency room in Germany.
"I checked in, hoping to get antibiotics and be sent to Glasgow," recollects Carter, 45. "Very quickly, I found out that I was going to be in the hospital a couple of days. I went into cardiac sepsis and blacked out very soon after that. That's the last thing I remember until I woke up two weeks later in ICU."
Carter suffered from an extreme case of pneumonia, forcing doctors not only to keep him in intensive care for several weeks but also to transfer him to a rehabilitation center near the Baltic Sea in mid-July. He was recovering, just slowly; the medical bills continued to mount.
"It's unclear what exactly insurance is willing to pay," says Carter, explaining that insurers might refuse all of the bills because he was out of the country and, well, out of the network. "In any case, my family and I are still looking at thousands of dollars in lost work, travel expenses, co-pays and more that will come straight out of pocket."
Long before Carter woke up in his Berlin quarters, and nearly two months before his return to New York on Aug. 1, experimental musicians and fans were already at work to help cover his expenses and lost revenues from canceled gigs. In early June, Three Lobed Records—an exuberantly adventurous label based just outside of Greensboro that's released several records by various Carter projects for eight years—scrounged together a few Carter records it hadn't sold and mailed him the money. Similar efforts began to snowball, from a signed, limited-edition portrait of Carter to a donation box at a venue in Columbia, S.C. On the website helptomcarter.org, the Robert Thomas Carter Irrevocable Trust began collecting contributions, while benefit concerts in Portugal and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and California began to subsidize those donations. In the next two weeks, at least a dozen such shows will raise funds in Carter's name, including one in Chapel Hill on Saturday night.
Cory Rayborn runs Three Lobed, the nearby label that first issued Carter's work on a 2004 collaboration with Philadelphia band Bardo Pond. To him, the immediate and widespread reaction to Carter's sickness—essentially, what can I do to help, and how?—stems from Carter's approach to both music and the people who make it.
"Tom is, simply put, one of the good guys. He is an open, caring guy who has made a lot of friends along the way," he explains. "That essential nature of Tom led to folks wanting to give back to him the way that he would certainly give to them if he had the chance."
Indeed, for the last two decades, Carter has epitomized the idea of a giving musician within the fringes of experimental American music. Any attempt to catalog all of his sprawling output seems bound for failure; he's released records on a dozen or so labels—solo, with Charalambides and with elite improvisational ensembles with names like Mudsuckers, Badgerlore and Sarin Smoke. As Regina Greene, who works as Carter's booking agent from her home in Western North Carolina, puts it, his approach is "super unique but can fit just about anywhere."
Christian Kiefer is a Sacramento guitarist and novelist who has released two records with Carter: the very fluid A Rather Solemn Promise and a beautiful, brazen exploration of heartland standards called From the Great American Songbook. Kiefer actually first heard Carter on that Bardo Pond record; serendipitously, a San Francisco club soon asked Kiefer to open for a solo Carter set. He was entranced.
"He turned everything up and sat back in his chair with his hair hanging down in his face, looked at the instrument on his lap and then just banged the slide down the body," he remembers. "The guitar let out a huge blast of sound. Talk about establishing the moment."
They emailed one another until Carter drove to Sacramento; they'd only met briefly and never played together, but within minutes, they'd started capturing what became their first album as a pair. The willingness of the more successful Carter to go out of his way to work with the relatively unknown Kiefer proved that Carter just wanted to play and to fit his signature style of impressionistic guitar playing into revitalized contexts.
"Like all of us musicians, Tom does what he does. I mean, his contribution is usually pretty recognizable in that he has established his style and his approach," explains Kiefer. "It's his willingness to place that style and approach in new contexts that makes all the difference, and which the rest of us can learn from."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Experimental medicine."