David Corley: “The Bionic Man Returns”
It was certainly not the grand finale David Corley envisioned when he embarked on his first European tour to support his highly acclaimed debut album, Available Light.
Before his final song at the TakeRoot festival in Groningen, the Netherlands, on Sept. 12, Corley said to the 2,000 people in the audience: “This is incredible. My heart goes out to all of you.” Then he suffered a heart attack. His heart stopped, and he collapsed.
A woman in the audience jumped on stage and performed CPR, and he was rushed to a hospital. The first night at the hospital “was totally touch and go,” Hugh Christopher Brown, Corley’s producer and keyboard player, told Corley’s hometown newspaper, the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, Indiana. An operation, though, was successful, and doctors, thankfully, expect a full recovery.
The day before leaving the hospital, Corley posted on Facebook: “Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. The bionic man returns. Had the doctors tune my ICD to 440 Hertz, so now my heart is in perfect tune with any instrument. Also, I was down for the count for over eight minutes this time, so I am declaring my own new world record … with no brain damage, except for the brain damaged man I am every day. Heh heh. I feel great, albeit sore.”
Corley initially planned to finish the tour with a few more October shows, but, after follow-up visits with doctors, decided it would be better to rest. He first went to New York City and then to Lafayette to recuperate.
Two weeks ago, Corley headed north of the border to Wolfe Island, Ontario, to start work with Brown on his new album. “I’d like this next one to be more of a rocker or an epic,” Corley told me before he departed on his European tour.
Corley’s first release, Available Light, opened the eyes of many critics last year with its originality. The 10 songs on the rough, raw, smoky, and melodic album sound like they were cut about 45 years ago.
What messages he was attempting to convey on Available Light?
“I’ve been writing songs since I was pretty young and always have felt this undercurrent — this drive to express myself with words and music,” he said. “So I feel like a have a connection or a muse, maybe, you might call it. Beyond that, I think what the message is is up to you, the listener, to decide. My songs work on different levels and mean different things to different people. I wrote ’em, the rest is up to you.”
A performance by R.E.M. more than 30 years ago stoked that muse. R.E.M. formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1980, and Corley saw them a few years later unveil their groundbreaking Chronic Town album at the college town’s Mad Hatter club. He says it was the most influential live show he has attended.
“They usually played at the 40 Watt Club — an Athens classic — but they had just grown out of the 40 Watt with their expanding popularity, and Hatter was a bigger venue,” recalls Corley, who attended the University of Georgia. “We were so proud of our hometown band.
“Back in those days, Athens was on fire with a bunch of great bands, with R.E.M. kind of spear-heading that movement. I was a big fan of Chronic Town, their debut release. My friends and I had worn the turntable out with that record for a year or two, but were waiting to see what they would come up with next. They came out with Murmur, and it was so different from Chronic Town and anything else (that had been released). They basically played the whole record that night to a packed house.
“It was a game-changer and so original. They and that record in particular helped change the landscape of independent radio. They proved if you were original and sincere, you could forgo the big record companies and climb into the national music conversation — just by gaining a loyal fan base and playing great music. It was an eye-opener to me and reinforced my belief that originality and belief outweighs trying to be an act.”
Another show, though, in Georgia — at Atlanta’s 4,678-seat Fox Theatre in the early 1980s — was the best concert he has attended. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took the stage that night.
“It’s this beautiful old theater, and he had just come out with Damn the Torpedoes. I think the only song of his I really knew at that time was ‘Breakdown’ (on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut album). Then he came out with Damn the Torpedoes, and it was such a great record. Nobody knew back then he was gonna be the icon he is today, but the concert was electric. I remember just looking at my friend and shaking our heads. Tom Petty was just on fire. We were in the 11th row, and you could see he was going to be a huge star. It was beautiful and in a very intimate theater.”
Unlike Petty, who rose to stardom in his 20s, Corley released his debut album at age 53. He spent decades working at other professions before releasing it.
After leaving the University of Georgia at age 20, he traveled across the country delivering trucks. He started to read and write obsessively and develop his voice as a songwriter. He returned to the University of Georgia to study computer science but often snuck into the fine arts building to play “his wild, original music on a grand piano in the middle of the night,” Corley says on his website.
He moved to Westport, Connecticut, “to perfect his bar tending and roofing skills,” he says. He also lived in New York City and Venice Beach, California, “for further forays in mixology and bar napkin poetry among other jack-of-all trade jobs.” He the lived “off the land for a few years” in a remote cabin on a mountain in Georgia.
“If his heart hadn’t exploded at the age of 40, David reckons he would still be there,” Corley’s website says. He decided to move to Lafayette to recover from his surgery. That’s where he “endured a not-so-idyllic childhood on a horse farm … despite loving, close-knit family relations with his grandma Annabelle, mother Sarah, sister Annie and their two dogs, Moose and Ox.
“One of the banes of his early existence came in the form of piano lessons. David says, ‘The repetitive scales and endless rotation of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ drove me insane and forced me to run away many days. I would walk the four miles home from my piano teacher’s house down gravel roads and through cornfields ’til my mom finally agreed to not make me go back.’”
Corley started began practicing the piano alone, teaching himself songs from the radio and stacks of eclectic sheet music lying around the house, and writing his own tunes.
And now, I guess, the rest is history — with one acclaimed album finally behind him, another album on the way, a spring tour of Europe scheduled and a second heart problem overcome.
If you would like to help Corley with some of his recent hospital bills, friends established a fund for him.