SINS AND NEEDLES

Bob Hornbuckle takes another drag on his cigarette and looks up from under the brim of his cap. His face looks worn and tired in the afternoon light that sneaks into the bar. A recovering junkie and, some say, the best blues guitar player in Denver, Hornbuckle has hepatitis C.

Hard-living, hard-loving Bob Hornbuckle. It was all part of the local legend that might kill him yet.

The day before, he had warned, "If you want to talk to me, you better get me before my liver falls out of my body." Today it took a reminder for him to recall the conversation at all. He contributes his failing memory to going straight--"the chemicals are all messed up in my head"--rather than the disease.

Yesterday he claimed to have had "every kind of hepatitis you can think of." Today, swigging from a bottle of Bud, he says he's feeling fine now that the cocaine and the heroin are behind him. Again.

But they've left the hep C virus as a souvenir.
Hornbuckle has a gig tomorrow night with his two boys, ages 15 and 22. "If you can't keep a good rhythm section, raise 'em," he advises. "Now I just need a grandchild so we have someone on keyboards."

There's some consolation that his boys have at least learned from his example. They, too, love music, and "yeah, they're pretty anti-drug," Hornbuckle says. "They didn't go for that...myth...that you have to be an alcoholic or a drug addict to play music."

Hornbuckle has been hanging out in bars since he was three. His father, a country/western guitar player, would bring him around to sing for his old man's free drinks. But it wasn't until Bob was a teenager that he first heard the blues. He was shooting smack with a doctor's kid from Beverly Hills who'd gotten in trouble and had been shipped off to school in Colorado. His friend put the record on the turntable--it might have been B.B. King, or maybe Mississippi John Hurt, he thinks--and changed Hornbuckle's life.

From then on, all he wanted was to learn to play the blues. It wasn't that different from country/western, Hornbuckle thought: Three chords and it told a story. The lifestyle was just as easy. Booze, heroin, and the groupies who wouldn't have given him a second glance any other time.

Hornbuckle takes another drag on the cigarette, another pull at the Bud. He doesn't want to dwell on his disease, one that afflicts at least a dozen local musicians that Hornbuckle could name, even a concert promoter. Hep C is nothing compared to the two cocaine overdoses he tried last year, he says. And if those didn't do the trick, why worry about a little virus?

He was a kid, only ten, the first time he got hepatitis. He was sick as a dog for a month, so weak he couldn't get out of bed. But it was the kind that went away, the kind you get from eating food prepared by people who don't wash their hands. He recovered and forgot about it.

The next time he got hepatitis was in the early Seventies, when he and his first wife were heavy into the Chinese heroin that his buddies were sending over from Vietnam. It was hepatitis B, the doctor said. But there wasn't much Bob could do about it except give up the alcohol and drugs--and he couldn't do that for long.

Over the next twenty years Hornbuckle was exposed to hepatitis countless times. Doctors told him he had something called hepatitis non-A, non-B and warned him that it could be ruining his liver. He shrugged off their warnings; it wasn't like the rest of his habits were any healthier than what he was doing to his liver.

Then it all seemed to fall apart. His first wife was gone, and his two sons were suddenly grown. The hepatitis flared up again a couple years ago; now the doctors said it was hepatitis C. His skin turned yellow, and his friends were shocked at his weight loss. They thought it was the drugs, Hornbuckle says.

He hadn't lost just his health to drugs. Hornbuckle figures he's lost everything he's owned to the coke dealers three times over--including refrigerators, washers and dryers "and enough guitars to stock a music store."

"In fact, I'm going to have to borrow my guitar from a coke dealer so I can play tomorrow," he says.

That gig is something of a comeback. Hornbuckle says he's been clean for a couple of months and is attending meetings of Cocaine Anonymous. His doctors say his liver enzymes are down--a sign that although his body can't shake the hepatitis, at least it isn't actively attacking his liver.

When the big night arrives, Hornbuckle moves through the crowd, glad-handing everyone. He's in his element; he owns the place. His thin body jumps up on the stage, he picks up the borrowed guitar and summons his boys. They launch into one of his songs. The notes are crisp, the solos tight. Hornbuckle remembers all the words.

"I think it's going to be a good year," he says. "I can feel it.

 
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