Like Tony Bennett, Portland native and longtime Minus 5 bandleader Scott McCaughey has always loved San Francisco — just not enough to leave his heart here. Which nearly happened, quite literally, when he suffered a debilitating stroke on the city streets two years ago, while walking from his hotel to his favorite coffeehouse, Caffe Trieste in North Beach. Worse, as he slowly sank to the sidewalk, trying to hold onto some scaffolding, pedestrians kept stepping over him, mistaking his condition for random drunkenness. And he couldn’t argue otherwise. He suddenly lost the ability to speak.
The day, Nov. 16, 2017, started innocently enough. The Minus 5 — who play The City this week, unveiling the record “Stroke Manor,” with a song called “MRI” and and lab printout of McCaughey’s ominous MRI as cover art — were touring with Alejandro Escovedo as his backing band and opening act.
McCaughey arrived in San Francisco with a full day off. “It was beautiful outside, so I just threw my stuff in my room and went out to get a cappuccino,” says the singer, 54. “And even after I was driven away in an ambulance, I was totally conscious and thinking, ‘I don’t know where this is headed, but I’m not scared on such a gorgeous day.’”
That quickly changed in the ER.
McCaughey — one of rockdom’s busiest musicians who also anchors Tuatara, Tired Pony, The No Ones, The Baseball Project, The Venus Three and The Young Fresh Fellows (most with his guitarist friend Peter Buck, whom he’s occasionally joined in R.E.M.) — was informed that he would probably never strum a chord again, the neurological damage was that severe.
His musical memory, including his own catalog, was now a tabula rasa, leading to retro-chiming tributes “Beatles Forever (Little Red)” and “Beach Boys & Beach Girls”) on “Stroke Manor.”
The condition made him even more determined to remember. After 10 days in the ICU, and three weeks in town, McCaughey went home, where he struggled through therapy to relearn to play and sing three simple tunes. They eluded him.
“I spent months just trying to recite those lyrics. Months,” he says. “It was so frustrating. But it eventually got better, and lyrics started coming back to me. Then I wrote a record.”
For more therapy, The Minus 5 took up Wednesday-night residency at a local bar, with every show a sellout.
Two all-star 2018 benefits raised over $116,000 towards McCaughey’s mounting medical costs. And he’s grateful he survived. “But the scary thing is, they say that once you have a stroke, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have another one,” he says. “That’s one of the little gifts it leaves you with.”
IF YOU GO
The Minus 5
Where: Chapel, 777 Valencia St., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $20 to $22
Contact: (415) 551-5157, http://www.thechapelsf.com