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Feature: Testament and Exodus – Coping with COVID

| April 23, 2020


On paper, it looked like a brilliant idea — the recent comprehensive “Bay Strikes Back” month-long tour of Europe, featuring Bay Area thrash-metal stalwarts Testament, Exodus, and Death Angel. It was just the timing — Feb. 6 to March 11 — that proved a bit unfortunate. It happened to coincide with the appearance of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, just as it escalated its attack overseas. “So we were on tour there just watching this whole thing unfold in front of our eyes,” shudders Testament vocalist Chuck Billy, 57. “Three and a half weeks into our five-week tour, we canceled Italy and watched the news as things unraveled, and there were suddenly new recommendations for crowd capacity at events and gatherings. And the first thing that crossed my mind was, ‘Are we gonna be able to get home?’”

He was right to worry. The entourage barely made it back on March 12. By the time it touched down in San Francisco, ten members had been infected with COVID-19, including Billy, his tour-manager, his wife Tiffany, and Exodus guitarist Gary Holt. Everyone survived, however, and they’re happy to share their stories with IE readers below.

IE: What happened after Italy?

CHUCK BILLY: The last show was in Hanover, Germany, and the night before, right before doors, the promoter had told us that the next night in Germany had been canceled because of the virus. They had also recommended that they shut the tour down that very night. But the promoter said, “Everybody’s here, the doors are open, just go ahead with it.” So we got to play the last show of the tour in Belgium. And as we were waking up on the morning of March 12 — because we all had flights out at 6 a.m. — we woke up to, “Hey — your president has just declared a travel ban, starting tomorrow!” And we were like, “Oh, great. Get us out of here! We’ve gotta get HOME!” And once we got on that plane, we were all feeling tired. I mean, it was a five-week tour, you’re burned out, you’re naturally tired. So we just thought, “Oh, we’re just tired.” And my wife was tired. But we got home, and by the next morning, she woke up and she was sick. And I was fine that day, Friday the 13th. But by the morning of the 14th, I woke up and I was a mess. So I called our personal doctor at Kaiser to see what we needed to do, and they said, “Well if you don’t have symptoms, we really can’t test you.” So we thought, “Great.” But two days later, we called back and said, “Well, now we ARE sick, and this is the same situation that’s going around with the ten of us that are sick from a traveling party across Europe. And we all have the same symptoms. And that’s when we sat and waited. They didn’t even medicate us — they just tested us and said, “If you have a problem breathing, go ahead and call 911 and we’ll bring you back in. Besides that, go home, isolate yourself.” And that was about it. And I’m not a cigarette smoker, either. I only smoke weed when I’m at home, but never when we go on tour.

IE: And you’re a cancer survivor, too. Not an easy condition to find yourself in.

CB: No. And when we heard that Will (Carroll, drummer) from Death Angel went to the hospital and got a ventilator, this all got even more serious. Because we were all short of breath, too, that was my problem — I just couldn’t breathe. I’d have problems just going from the bed to the bathroom and back — I’d be really out of breath. Then it got scary once we heard about Will — we all had this mental image of the shutdown of our bodies, like “I can’t breathe, either!” And a kind of panic set in. So then we all just took it a day at a time. Will was on a ventilator for two weeks, and now he’s okay, thank God. But we were all very worried because people who go on a ventilator don’t always make it through. Then we heard, “He’s awake!” And we thought, “Thank God.” He came out of it, and that was awesome.

IE: How did your lungs feel?

CB: My chest hurt ‘cause it was so sore. My body and bones were aching so much and my chest was tight. Everything was aching. And I usually don’t get sick that much, and when I’d get sick it would just be for a day. But this one, I just could not shake for about two and a half weeks. One day I’d feel good and be up and about and moving, and the next day I’d be wiped out again. I’d get up and feel dizzy. But we were fortunate that we didn’t have fevers. But we had everything else — no sense of smell, no taste. I was watching my wife add salt to her food. And she never adds salt. I was like, “Wow. Our taste buds are shot!”

IE: What were the worst moments of the experience?

CB: Those first two days, when you feel like you’re getting better. I just could not keep my eyes open. I had no energy. My wife and I were joking that our dog threw up five feet from us, and we were both too exhausted to clean it up. For two days. And those first few days? I have never slept so much. And if I’d had the fever and the sweating, I imagine that it would have been much worse. I could not sleep at night, either — I’d get in bed at 3:00 a.m. and then just be too sore to get back up. We were just miserable.

IE: How did you self-medicate?

CB: By drinking a lot of water every day. They didn’t give us any specific medication, so it was just a lot of water. And orange juice seemed to help. And a lot of sleeping. And after a week and a half, we finally had the energy to get up and just wash the sheets and clean the clothes and just move again.

IE: And you’re part Native American. Were there any medical solutions you sought through that culture?

CB: Not on this. I had no energy to do a thing. So everything just stopped. No time to think about anything; or work on the business details. We just put that aside. We really couldn’t do a thing.

IE: Chuck’s in Discovery Bay, Gary’s up in Sacramento. How are you doing, Gary?

GARY HOLT: I’m dealing with some elbow issues. I had an appointment with my orthopedic specialist right when I got home, and of course, all of that shit’s canceled. So I’m dealing with fun stuff, like doing my taxes. But I’m gonna pick up the guitar next week and start doing some writing for Exodus. Exodus is the only band I’ve got now, now that Slayer’s done, we’re completely retired.

IE: But your coronavirus experience was different from Chuck’s, right?

GH: I didn’t get this until I got home from the tour. We flew back on March 12, and on the evening of March 11 they started closing down airports, and I was fine then. But as soon as I landed at SFO, I had a cough. And it got worse and worse until I was sick for a couple of weeks. But I’m one of the lucky ones — my version of ‘sick’ was equal to a pretty nasty case of the flu. I’m 55, but I wasn’t in any danger. But I had to push to get tested. I e-mailed my doctor at Blue Cross, and he put me through to this Sutter Health hotline, and I called them and went over some of my symptoms. And the lady I spoke to was telling me that I should go to the emergency room, but I was like, “I’m not THAT sick. I’m not gonna go there.” That’s not what I wanted — I just wanted a test. And I didn’t want to sit in an emergency room until they finally did it. So I contacted my doctor again, and they actually set up a test for me and my wife. Chuck’s wife Tiffany was on tour with us, but my wife wasn’t, and she tested negative.

IE: How did you medicate?

GH: I did everything I had already been doing — taking over the counter cold remedies, getting lots of water and rest. I already eat a lot of oranges, so I didn’t bother with orange juice.

IE: How did your lungs feel? Some people report that they feel brittle, like glass.

GH: I had a little cough. But I was one of the lucky ones — my cough never got into my chest, and I had a low-grade fever and a low appetite. And a lot of people have described a loss of sense of smell and taste. But I had something completely different going on — everything smelled like really pungent garlic powder. It was really weird. My wife would make me something, and it smelled like she just drowned it in garlic powder. I already had no appetite, but then everything tasted and smelled so weird that in two weeks, I lost 16 pounds. I just couldn’t eat. I’d eat a couple of bites just to drive the growl in my stomach away. So I just stayed in bed until I was in the clear. So I feel normal again now. Uhh, as normal as normal can be. But it did take ten days to get my test results—a LONG ten days. But on Day Ten they finally called me, late in the day. And now I sure would like to know if I’m immune. I’d like an answer to that. When I first got diagnosed, I posted it on Instagram, but my wife said to take it down. And I did. Because nowadays people are much more concerned with just paying their rent. And when the people are distracted, those in power will seize more power.

IE: Where are we headed?

GH: I dunno. I don’t think life will ever be normal. Not for a long time. Even when we’re able to go out and it’s clear, there’s gonna be a long period of suspicion, where nobody wants to get close to anybody anymore. So who knows what it’s going to do to live music. But I have faith in governor Newsom that he’s not going to lift the shelter in place order until it’s safe to do so.
But like the riots [protests] happening in Michigan. People say, “I’m putting my faith in the Lord that I won’t die.” Really? I don’t care whether you put your faith in the Lord for yourself — go ahead. It’s like trying to pet that rattlesnake, and you have faith in the Lord, but it bites you in the neck, and you die. You’re the only one who dies. But now you also have to put faith in the fact that you’re not going to infect 21 more people. They forget all about the word ‘contagious.’ Hey — you can go swinging from high power lines for all I care — as long as no children are playing beneath you who you can fall on and hurt.

IE: Chuck — your take?

CB: Well, it’s a crazy world that we live in right now. I write songs about this kind of stuff. So maybe we’re on this repetitive cycle that this planet has been enduring since its beginning. Maybe we’re doing it again. Humanity’s doing it to itself, destroying the planet. So maybe we’ll be starting things all over again because the world has been here for a long time, but a lot has happened because of us in the last hundred years. And I thought after all the wars going on and everything else that’s happened, that we’d be more united and together as one. But we’re still just being stupid, doing stupid stuff to ourselves.

IE: Do you have a bugout bag like a lot of doomsday preppers?

CB: Well, instead of a bag, I went and bought a motor home. If shit hits the fan, let’s get outta here. We. Are. Gone. We can go live on the reservation somewhere.

Tom Lanham

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