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HOLMBERG: Rockin’ out with no hands, no regrets

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Posted at 10:39 PM, Sep 12, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-13 00:21:03-04

Sixteen years ago Michael Rose, just 23, had both his hands  sliced off by an industrial shear machine made for cutting flat steel bars. One second he was learning how to run the tricky machine in an Alabama conveyor factory, the next second he was taking two steps back – a couple of pounds lighter -  into a brand-new world.

“I put my arms between my legs and started yelling.”  He was quickly mobbed by co-workers, some of them shouting about his hands being cut off as blood gushed from his empty wrists.

“Tell them to hush,” he recalled gasping to those who were trying to save his life. “I don’t need to be thinking about that right now.”

It was February 18, 1998. He would lose 5 pints of blood. Surgeons reattached his hands, but they wouldn’t take, Michael explained to me as he smoothly drove away from his Chesterfield County home Thursday, his right hook snicked comfortably into a swivel on the steering wheel.

He was on the way to do his favorite- hands down -  activity:  playing guitar and singing for a crowd.

“I can honestly say I have never, in 16 years, asked ‘Why did this happen to me? Why did I lose my hands?’ I don’t pity myself. It was a bad thing that happened. But this is what it is, and how it is now. “

He’s 40 years old now, with a wife and kids. He has two nice guitars, a bass and a computer studio for writing the songs in his heart. Among them, “Souls in the Headlight,” which talks about his near-death walk to the light.

I got to hang out with Michael and his family as he prepped for Thursday night’s show at the Wing Command on Hull Street Road, a cool open-mic place that rocks it up. (Playing right before Michael were two sisters, 14 and 15, just ripping up some Van Halen songs.)

Michael had just started learning guitar when he lost his hands. He said the instrument was something that came naturally to him. He was already playing with other musicians when it happened.

And he didn’t stop. He strums with his right hook and frets with his calloused left stump. He has his entire forearm, and therefore a lot of control over his radius and ulna bones. Tuning down to drop-D helps him make barre chords.

He writes and records his own songs in the “man cave” in their home. (Check him out at www.Hook 74.com)

I heard about him through a fellow musician, Gary Wright, whose daughter, Becky Wright, runs the open-mic night at Wing Command and sings some backup with Michael.

“I love this guy’s spirit,” Gary told me while inviting me to do the story.

Becky Wright says “It will inspire you. No matter who you are.”

It was cool hanging out with Michael and watching and filming him playing. We share some of the same tastes in music.

(Here’s a dizzy little coincidence:  A week or two before Gary contacted me about this unusual guitarist, I was fishing around on Youtube, trying to find someone who had put up of video of themselves covering a Steve Jones (of the Sex Pistols) song so I could learn the chords and accent notes. The one video I found - which could have been put up by anyone anywhere in the world - was a guy with no hands playing the song with his hook and stump. When I went to meet Michael for this story . . .  it  was the  guy from the video! Wild.)

It’s this love of music and playing that has really kept Michael on a glass-is-half-full track, both he and his wife told me.

“There’s nothing like playing in front of a bunch of people,” he said as he loaded his gear into his pickup. “I doesn’t matter whether it’s two people there, or 200, or 2,000. Of course, I’ve never played in front of 200 or 2,000 people.”

Wouldn’t that be great?

“Oh God,” he laughed. “What are you talking about? That would be the ultimate!”

You can see how he plays by watching the video with his story.

Rock on brother.