It was a dream bill for overseas metalheads— the Bay Strikes Back juggernaut that steamrolled through Europe this year from Feb. 6 to March 11. But for the local bands involved — Testament, Exodus and Death Angel — it became the stuff of nightmares when coronavirus reality abruptly intruded, forcing the cancellation of the final date in Belgium and nearly stranding the entire entourage overseas.
Only after the members and crew arrived home did they gradually realize that 10 of them — including Testament vocalist Chuck Billy and Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, — had been infected somewhere along the way. “We were watching this coronavirus thing unfold, right in front of our eyes, watching the news as things unraveled,” says Billy, whose tour-manager wife Tiffany also tested positive for COVID-19. “Three and a half weeks in, we canceled Italy, when there were suddenly recommendations for crowd capacity at events and gatherings. And as we woke up on the morning of March 12 for 6.a.m. flights out of Germany, we were told, ‘Hey — your president just declared a travel ban, starting tomorrow.’”
Everyone survived the ordeal. But their experience battling the deadly virus varied dramatically. Holt recalls feeling fine until he hit the ground at SFO, where he exited the plane with a light cough. As it worsened, he e-mailed his doctor, got a referral to his Sutter Health hotline, and was told to go to the emergency room. But he felt guilty — his symptoms weren’t that bad, and all he wanted was a coronavirus test.
A second call to his physician got him an authorization for one, but then it took 10 anxious days to hear the results. “But I was one of the lucky ones,” he says. “My cough never got into my lungs, I had a low-grade fever, and a low appetite. I was no sicker than I’ve ever been with the flu.” Death Angel drummer Will Carroll, by comparison, was placed on a ventilator for two precarious weeks.
Billy’s bout was somewhere in between. Like Holt, he was instructed by his healthcare provider, Kaiser, to rest, drink lots of fluids, and call 911 if the symptoms worsened. He consumed lots of orange juice; Holt enjoyed oranges whole as part of his regular diet already, neither is sure if it helped.
“My problem was, I just couldn’t breathe,” says Billy, a cancer survivor who only smokes pot off the road, never cigarettes. “I was having problems just going from the bedroom to the bathroom and back again. My chest was tight, my body and bones were aching, and this was something I just could not shake for about two and a half weeks.” He and his wife had both lost their senses of taste and smell — another coronavirus symptom— and he can only now comfortably joke about how tired and olfactory-impaired they were: “Our dog threw up five feet from us, and we were both too exhausted to clean it up. For two days.”
Holt, on the other hand, began tasting dishes in a new, somewhat uncomfortable way. “Everything smelled like really pungent garlic powder — it was really weird,” he says. “Everything tasted and smelled so strange that in two weeks I lost 16 pounds. So with whatever my wife cooked, I’d eat a couple of bites, just to drive the growl in my stomach away.” “Then after about a week and a half, we finally had the energy to get up and just wash the sheets and clean the clothes again,” Billy adds. “We were too sore to get up before then — we were just miserable.”
Can they pinpoint where they might have picked up such a deadly disease? That would be difficult, according to Holt, who is beginning to play guitar again at his Sacramento home and work on new Exodus material . “Every day on tour you’re met with new catering, people coming in to work preparing your food and putting it all out. And then you occasionally run into a fan and you shake their hand. But by the end of the Bay Strikes Back tour, we were already self-isolating, because we were really in the thick of it.”
The Discovery-Bay-based Billy had hoped to keep the momentum going on Testament’s just-released headbanger “Titans of Creation.” But he’s content to catch his — knock wood — healthy breath. “It’s a crazy world that we live in right now, and I write songs about this kind of stuff all the time,” he says. Yes, we’re re-enacting Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” for real. “But maybe we’re on this repetitive cycle that this planet has been on since its beginning. You’d think that after all the wars and everything that’s happened in the last 100 years that we’d be more united, together as one. But we’re just being stupid, doing more stupid stuff to ourselves….”