The musicians jittered and swayed, trapped in the shimmering globe of red and yellow light on the stage: hands manipulating horn, guitar, drums, bass; Soul Revue lead singer Madi Simmons shouting out a deep-kneed funky get-down. Beyond the bright stage the inky dark seemed boundless, a continuous night spreading from the invisible black walls of the Red Fox Tavern.
Within that dark, however, faces bloomed -- sparsely bobbing on the dance floor and clustered more thickly along the far-back bar. On one side of the dance floor, near the bar, an old man sat at one of the tables, pint at hand. His 40-something older daughter danced nearby, facing the stage. A younger woman -- granddaughter and niece to this pair by the table -- joined them briefly. Small and compactly curvy, she stood at her grandfather's table sipping a Coke and looking youthfully sophisticated in a short, strapless, figure-hugging dress made of a silky mauve material and black lace. Then she wandered around the bar, greeting and hugging friends and acquaintances, before disappearing into the back.
Soon, the young woman was on stage in that halo of bright warm lights. Mic in hand, she swayed and stepped about lightly in her spiky heels, right hand holding the mic close to her mouth, long, tidy mass of golden-brown ringlets framing her softly serious face, eyes closing now and then as the words and music moved through her.
"Make me wanna holler, the way they do my life," she was singing. Low, soulful, drawing out her own pain from Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues." "Make me wanna holllller."
Something wasn't right, though. Her voice hinted at its usual quality -- resonant, sweet, a little smoky -- only it seemed dialed down, thin, hard to hear.
Inflation no chance
To increase finance
Bills pile up sky high...
Not her usual powerful belting -- the stuff blues fans had heard her deliver many times throughout 2009, when she sang with the most-booked local rock-a-blues band, St. John and the Sinners, led by none other than Saint John Hunt, son of Watergate mastermind E. Howard Hunt. She'd been a rising star. Hunt had even changed the name of his band to "St. John and the Sinners featuring Courtney Weaver."
During the next song, her voice seemed even more lost, all jangled up in the boisterous noise of the band. When it was over, she said something to Simmons; he nodded. The band took a break, and Weaver left by the side door next to the dance floor. The table by the bar, where her aunt and grandfather had been, stood empty.
But a woman, seeing Weaver leave, stomped after her, flinging the door open and shut as she went out.
"Hey, where are you going?!" the woman shouted across the parking lot, Weaver recalled later, over the phone from Seattle where she'd gone for the Christmas holidays.
"That was my guitar player's wife," she said, sounding exasperated. "And my guitar player, a couple days after that, he said to me, 'That was pretty diva, Courtney, walking out of the show like that.'"
She told him she was having trouble with her voice.
"You should have just powered through," he said.
Well, she had replied, that would have been the worst thing to do, to "power through." A singer should never strain her voice that way. And, she added, she had a bullet pushing against her vocal chords, so it was kinda making it hard to sing.
Make me wanna holler!
Healing was just taking a lot longer than she'd thought it would. Oh, the bullet fragment in her jaw that was affecting her voice that night, it wasn't the biggest problem. Physically, actually, Courtney Weaver has recovered amazingly well after being shot point blank with a Glock .45 on Jan. 15 by her then-fiance Kenneth Fiaui. And of course the 24-year-old singer feels blessed that she still has her motor skills, and that she can still sing. Blessed, she says, not lucky, because "lucky" would have been not getting shot at all.
But other things -- emotional recovery, reaching her musical goals, regaining her independence -- seemed to be taking forever.
"I'm supposed to be impatient. I'm young!" Weaver said with a husky ha-ha-ha-ha as she sipped a beer one afternoon in early December in the cavernous gloom of the new Alibi restaurant and bar in Eureka. In a few days, she would be going to Seattle to visit family and undergo more surgeries. She was calling it her Hanukkah-surgery-Christmas trip -- her mom is Episcopalian, and her dad, who remarried when she was very young, is Jewish.
You wouldn't know, looking at her, that she'd been shot. A small scar curled almost imperceptibly up from the right side of her upper lip. Her jaw was swollen, although the unfamiliar eye wouldn't know it wasn't just a natural roundness. Only when she smiled was it obvious: a gap on the right side of her mouth where teeth should be.
She tilted her head up and to the right to expose the long, thin scar swooping from just below her left ear down to wrap under her chin. That's where they had to go in and stabilize her shattered jawbone.
Along the scar, just below her jawline, a small black nodule bulged underneath the skin. The last piece of the hollow point bullet that had exploded inside her face was slowly working its way out. The doctors in Seattle, carefully avoiding the major artery and lymph node it was resting against, would remove the fragment and then begin to reshape her jaw. Another fragment and a tooth that had lodged in her tongue were removed in May, after her tongue had healed from being cut in half by the bullet.
She lifted her drink, and the dim light from the bar illuminated another scar, running nearly the length of her right forearm. When Fiaui had pointed the gun at her, she'd flung up her arm as a shield. The bullet had shattered the bones before entering her face, and now a titanium rod connects wrist to elbow -- it tingles, she said, when you touch the hard knobs where two pins anchor the rod to her wrist.
"The doctors said if I had turned a quarter of an inch to the left, I would have gone to my grave," Weaver said. She moved her head slightly. "If I had turned just a little, like that."
That night, after hours of waiting at Mad River Hospital and enduring multiple X-rays, she had been life-flighted at 3 a.m. to the hospital at U.C. Davis, where they repeated the X-rays. They wired her shattered jaw shut, and her dad, Shawn Weaver, who drove down from Seattle to be with her, recalls how when he walked in the room she motioned, eyes huge, for him to hand her a notebook.
"And she just started writing furiously with her left hand," he said over the phone recently. "And it had only been 24 hours since she was shot. And she just wrote to me, and to my sister, Wilathi, who had flown down with her. And she's right-handed, so she'd get frustrated because people sometimes wouldn't understand her."
In a couple of days, he said, she got up and walked around the halls, stopping to do a big, folded-over yoga stretch and some deep lunges. The medical staff was amazed, he said.
She also began writing new songs, with her dad helping work out the chord changes on his iPhone. Her dad had brought his laptop for her to use until a friend brought his daughter's to her, and she wrote an account of what happened, typing on the laptop with her left hand, and posted it to Facebook. Back home, band-leader Hunt was organizing fundraisers, and soon Weaver posted an online thank you to the scores of people who wrote to wish her well and to say they were praying for her. A couple of days later she posted on her Myspace page some acoustic tracks she'd recorded before the shooting.
It wasn't a cakewalk, though. On Jan. 23, she wrote online, "o the tough well tread road to recuperation (Mood: tested)."
Doctors had said she would be in the hospital until April. But 12 days and 30 hours of surgery later, her dad was driving her home, in a pouring rain, to Arcata. And she plunged back into her life, as if hell nipped at her heels and heaven was but a hand-snatch ahead. In March, with fragile jaw and missing teeth and bullet fragments still in her, she was back at the Jambalaya for the Blues Jam, singing for the first time since she'd been shot. The last time she'd been there was four days before she was shot; her last song had been the blues classic "I'd Rather Go Blind."
She also announced in March that she'd quit St. John and the Sinners and was striking out solo, and had also formed her own band. (She and Hunt had a falling out over the disposition of recovery funds that he'd raised in benefits for her; but both Hunt and Weaver, in recent separate interviews, have admitted they'd been having musical differences even before the shooting, and that the parting of ways had been imminent.) In April, Weaver spoke and sang at a benefit for victims of domestic violence. In May, at the Humboldt Arts Festival in Arcata, she debuted some of her new material, including "Deepest Shade of Blue," a song about being shot by Fiaui.
I thought I had it all figured out,
swore I knew what life was all about
I could have never seen or known
after all the love you had shown
I never would have guessed
after all you've made such a mess
It's a raw, vulnerable, slow-swinging ballad, and vastly different from the classic, belt-it-out, sexy, vivacious blues that had come to define her locally.
Weaver, who seemed quietly confident and almost humble up there on the stage, seemed to be coming into her own.
Then, in September, she tried to kill herself.
Wilathi Weaver, with whom Courtney has stayed off and on this year, said she had watched Courtney erect a shield around herself with each passing month as the case against Fiaui crept slowly along, its resolution a moving target.
It started with the first hearing in the spring when Fiaui was formally charged. Weaver had to be there to identify him.
"We were all sitting there, and he gets brought in by the bailiff, and you could see his face falling, and it seemed like with remorse," recalled Wilathi, while sitting inside Ramones in Old Town Eureka one recent afternoon. "And I think he even mouthed, 'Sorry.' And I could see Courtney building like this steel wall around her so she wouldn't crumble."
And she kept having to go back into the courtroom, month after month, and see Fiaui again up there. His attorney, Neal Sanders, asked for funds to pay experts to examine Fiaui, and for continuance after continuance of the trial date, which had originally been set for May. Wilathi had already spent enough time with Courtney following the shooting to develop a grim view of police, hospitals, flight nurses and especially X-ray techs -- such brusqueness when they handled her shattered wrist! Why, Wilathi said, at U.C. Davis she felt she had to become her niece's personal advocate to make sure incoming nurses were up to speed on her care. She just didn't know why her niece had to be there for every court appearance.
"Between being shot by someone who loves you, a hospital system thinking it's trying to help you but is hurting you, and a justice system that's victimizing you, how do you come out of that with self-love?" Wilathi asked.
In mid-September, Fiaui's attorney had again asked for the trial to be postponed, and again the request was granted. And it wasn't just the pain of having to sit in the courtroom yet again -- until the case got resolved, Weaver couldn't get the victim's compensation grant she was counting on.
She was at a fellow musician's house not long after learning the trial had been put off again. They were drinking, Wilathi thinks. Courtney had recently quit smoking and, thinking she was all better, had also quit taking the Cymbalta she had been prescribed to help her cope with the nightmares and stress after the shooting.
She went into the bathroom, locked the door and started cutting her wrists. Her friend bashed in the door and stopped her, then took her to Sempervirens where she stayed for a few days.
"I just want to shake her and say, the things you have control of you need to be on top of!" said Wilathi. "But the last time I saw her, recently, she was really making progress."
Courtney, back at the Eureka Alibi earlier this month, said she's really happy to be back on the Cymbalta again. It's helping. She said she had just felt powerless, suddenly, back in September.
"Because I healed so fast physically, I had set all these goals that I had intended to meet by August," she said. "But I hadn't been able to record an album. It was the fourth or fifth [trial] continuance. I was unable to pay all my medical bills. My credit was shot and I'd had to move several times. And I still had more surgery to get. In the hospital, I had such clarity. I'm very into forgiveness; I know that forgiveness [for Faiui], from the get go with this shooting, has allotted me a lot of healing. But I am really, really, really hard on myself."
She said she also was upset, in September, because she was desperate to tell her full story, but had been warned by the attorneys not to because it could hinder the legal process. Newspapers were calling her. The Maury Show had invited her to come on for a special segment and to bring her press kit. These were opportunities. But she had to turn them down.
"I felt like people were trying to shut me up," she said. "And I thought, yeah, getting shot sucked, but the system fucked me even harder. They were the ones who made it hard for me."
But the hellhound nipping at her heels, keeping her from her heaven, wasn't really "the system." She knows that.
The afternoon had waned into early evening, and The Alibi was filling up, getting noisy. Weaver ordered a Coke. She said although it was a huge blow -- one she's still reeling from -- to have the person she loved suddenly freak out and shoot her, she wouldn't stand for anyone's pity. She would not be a victim. She said that since she was shot, she's played for some anti-domestic violence events. And she's met some bitter people, who seem to have donned victimhood like a professional mantle.
"And they won't look inside, at themselves, and say, 'What did I do to cause this?'" she said. "It's not finding fault with yourself. It's saying, 'What did I do to attract this kind of thing?'"
Weaver lifted her Coke to drink, then set it back down. As her scarred right arm lowered and straightened, an unscathed blue-and-white flower tattoo opened in the crook of her elbow.
"'Blue Gardenia,' by Nat King Cole," she said. "It's the first song I remember singing with my mom. I used to wear gardenias in my hair, silk ones, from the time I was 16. I lost the flowers when I came down here to Humboldt, in 2006, so I got this tattoo."
Her parents were students at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle when they met. Candace McCutcheon was studying vocal jazz performance, Shawn Weaver was studying instrumental jazz performance. They dated awhile, and broke up -- then discovered they were pregnant. So they married, and six months later had Courtney.
"My parents were really active in the music scene in Seattle," recalled Weaver. "My dad played horn and had a reggae and world beat band called Boom Talle Posse. And then he started playing klezmer in a band called The Mazeltones when I was about 3 years old. The Mazeltones were about the biggest klezmer band in Seattle for awhile. And I went on the road with him a lot, to hundreds of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs."
Her mom did a lot of coffeehouse gigs, and played at a nightclub (the same one where Weaver first sang "Blue Gardenia"). Weaver said her mom sang on the radio, too.
She remembers being lulled to sleep by Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail." And there are videos of her, at age 1 and a half, holding up to her ear a little Casio keyboard that her dad gave her, and listening to the demo tune, Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are." Then she'd stare at the buttons. "I would just play it over and over again, trying to sound it out," she said, laughing. "I learned to play it on the keyboard by the time I was 3."
Weaver's parents began to split up when she was 4. Her dad was on the road a lot; her mom had her gigs. Weaver had just started Kindergarten -- a year ahead of most kids -- where they discovered she was practically blind and also had a lazy eye.
"And I went from everyone liking me to having to wear an eye patch on my good eye," she said, laughing. "And then I had glasses that were like this thick" -- she held her thumb and forefinger a half inch apart.
The patch worked; her lazy eye grew stronger. Her voice, meanwhile, had always been strong -- which gave her some grief on the homefront. Her dad had moved out when she was 7 and soon remarried -- to the bandleader of The Mazeltones -- and Courtney started taking classical piano lessons. She'd seen the movie Amadeus, and she wanted to be a composer.
Her dad's new wife was Jewish. He converted, and Weaver and her little brother, Cary, went to synagogue with them and their step- and half-siblings on Fridays and Saturdays, then went to church with their mom on Sundays. On weekends, the kids, who all got along, joined The Mazeltones on excursions to gorgeous places like Orcas Island, says Weaver, to play for weddings and bar mitzvahs and other celebrations. Often the kids got up and sang.
But Weaver, who by 11 knew she wanted to be a singer, hadn't learned to control her big voice. She says her stepmom banned her from singing at the table because she overpowered everyone else, and tried to stop her from singing on stage. Her stepmom also didn't put up with Weaver's sass.
"I was really vocal, and my mom let me be that way and let me just say what I felt," she said. "I would disagree, I would argue everything that I was not happy with. And I'm still kind of that way, but not as much as when I was a kid. And my stepmother -- she was old school, Old World. Her mom escaped from Germany during the Holocaust. So that was not OK!"
Things had really started going to shit, though, when she was 9. Her dad and mom were in a protracted custody battling for her and her brother (a fight that lasted until she was 14). And that May, her mother's brother, Jim McCutcheon III, shot himself to death with a Glock .45. Uncle Jim was the one who always gave Weaver her favorite Christmas gift. When she was 6, it was a gigantic, table-sized book about the Earth -- treasure to a tomboy who loved playing outdoors in her Seattle suburb.
He was drunk when he did it. Forty-four and still living with his parents. He and his sister, Weaver's mom, had just had a big fight. Her mom felt really guilty. Then four months later, her mom's dad -- a judge prone to rages who had beat his kids when they were little -- died. Weaver says her mom became depressed and preoccupied with trying to deal with her dad's estate, and soon stopped performing.
"It was like everything was being taken away from her," said Weaver.
She felt protective of her mom, but also annoyed at times.
"My mom never filtered anything from me," she said. "She was always letting me make decisions, letting me know everything that was going on. She often asked me for advice, even when I was little. And sometimes I would get frustrated and say, 'I don't know what the fuck you should do!'" She laughed, affectionately. "I love my mom and I would protect her forever. I kind of wish she had sheltered me from some things. But at the same time I like who I am now, a lot. And I feel like she really listened to me. "
She did like the freedom her mom gave her. Her mom would give her money to buy food, and Weaver would go hang out with her friends. Because, amidst all this and although she was only 9, she'd started puberty.
"And it was weird, because I was younger than all my classmates," she said. "But I was one of the first ones to get boobs and have guys say, 'look at her nipples!' Or, 'oh, she smells bad!' So I started shaving, and I got really, really self-conscious -- really, like too self-conscious. I had my glasses, too, so I was this nerdy chick that was already kind of out of place, and then I got really out of place. It was like: frizzy hair!" She giggled, a throaty heh heh heh heh. "Stinky armpits! And my nipples were always showing. By the time I was 11, I wore a D cup."
It's a wonder she survived the next 10 years of her young, precocious, sped-up life. When she was 11, she tried killing herself for the first time. Just took every pill in the house -- she knew where her mom hid them.
"I never went to the hospital though," she said. "I didn't tell anyone. I would write a suicide note and then pass out. I probably OD'd on Xanax or something!"
She did it again, and four more times when she was 12. Usually on Saturday afternoons, maybe after a night of listening to Nirvana. Her parents were still fighting in court over her and her brother. She didn't want to be with her dad, who expected order in his house. She liked being with her mom, except she was sick a lot and in her own world.
Her mom, on the phone recently, said she felt bad about the pills her daughter took, and the drugs. "I was so dense!" she said. "I wish I could have been stronger for her. I probably should have doted on Courtney more. We were really close when she was little. We went to the Grand Canyon together, we'd go snorkeling together and we'd sing together." Then, breaking into song and sounding a lot like her daughter, she continued, "And we'd go: 'Our love is here to stay.' No, it goes, 'It's very clear, our love is here to stay...'" She sang a bit more of the tune, then said, "I love to see people blossom. I'm so proud of my daughter."
While still 12, Weaver quit trying suicide and switched to drugs: pot, ecstasy. Though she had braces, she got a fake ID and got into drum and bass clubs with her friends. She started dating. In high school she started doing acid. And then she started to draw the bad characters:
At 14, she was date-raped by an older guy. Then she was beat up by two older girls for being a freshman on "smoker's corner" at her high school. (She dropped out of public school after that and finished up at a private arts academy, and she also did a dental assisting program). At 16, a DJ she was dating, whom she'd met at a rave, beat her up, broke her finger, tried to strangle her and then M80'd her dog; he was arrested, his mom found a plot to kill Weaver, and he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and locked up. Another boyfriend put her head through a wall and later was arrested after he punched her in the face while she was driving him to work.
The next boyfriend was nice -- her first true love. But they got pregnant and she had an abortion. He rejected her. Depressed and angry, she started shooting heroin with his best friend. Six months later she got in a car wreck, and started using heroin every day. At the same time she was working 40 hours a day, studying music at Cornish and playing weekend gigs with her dad. One day she told him she had a heroin problem. He sent her off to Humboldt to live with her aunts.
That was in 2006. She entered a detox program and has been clean for five years.
Her dad, meanwhile, had her old boyfriend's place searched, and the police found drug paraphernalia and arrested him.
"Every boyfriend I have ends up in jail, dammit," Weaver said, with a self-deprecating laugh.
Weaver had her first singing gig in Humboldt at Mosgo's the same year she moved here. By 2008, she was working at The Alibi in Arcata. That's where she met Fiaui, who was visiting from Utah. He told her he had just lost a great tech job to the recession, was about a half million in debt and was about to lose his nice big house in Utah. "He was losing everything and he was trying to figure it out," she said.
He was in Humboldt to pick up some weed to bring back to Utah to sell. He wasn't in the best place in his life, she admits, but she fell for him anyway. He was mellow and sweet -- a "secret stoner," yes, but barely a drinker. He wasn't abusive or jealous of her music, like other boyfriends had been. "He was a protector," she said. "I mean, he was really supportive of me musically. Last gig I had, the Tuesday before the Friday he shot me, he was all about me furthering myself and my music and doing whatever I could to do well."
They got engaged that same week. And that Friday night, he shot her.
To this day, she doesn't know exactly what happened to him that night he shot her. They were getting ready to go out to see the band Moo-Got-2. She was in the bathroom, she said, putting on her makeup, and she heard her cat screaming. And he came in, freaking out, his arm bloody, saying he'd just tried to kill her cat. His eyes were big and he was breathing heavily. He said he needed to go to the hospital, and she tried to calm him down and said, no, they were just cat scratches. She went to get him a glass of water. And he went to a box and got his gun out and put it in his pocket. He said again he had to leave.
"And then he told me he tried to kill my cat on purpose," Weaver said. That's a detail she says she's only recently remembered. "And I said, 'I can't be with someone like that.' I said, 'I'm sorry, I can't marry you.' That was right before he went for the door."
She ran to the door and tried to block him from leaving -- wild like that, gun in his pocket. And then he looked at her, pulled the gun out and pointed it at her. She just remembers hearing a window break.
This fall, the attorneys reached a tentative plea deal. But at the last minute Fiaui backed out. His attorney had written in an October document that new medical tests had "produced results consistent with a condition that may have made defendant unconscious at the time of the events in question. ..."
Weaver wondered if he'd blacked out, like he had in an incident in Las Vegas that November when he'd crashed through a wall, hitting two pedestrians and killing their dog. "He had never been abusive to anyone before," she said. "But still, what he did ... he still shot me. And that is not OK. And I did hear from the DA that he did have coke and PCP in his system when they arrested him. Which would be news to me... ."
The trial was set for January. Then Fiaui decided to take the plea deal. On Nov. 22, at his sentencing to 11 years in prison, Weaver read her victim's statement and then he read his statement. She said she hoped he would find peace. He apologized to her whole family and told her she was beautiful.
"And he was crying as he read his statement and, oh, by the time he finished there was snot just hanging down -- because he was handcuffed, you know," she said. "But it was really great to hear him talk. Because he was a really good boyfriend. He was a really good boyfriend."
Weaver said she now knows what she's been doing wrong.
"I go for the wounded animal that is beautiful and intelligent and doesn't quite fit in, can't quite get it together, and needs my help," she said. "That's what I go for. If I'm needed in a relationship, I'm on top of the world."
She's still fighting that pattern, and the losses that can come with it. Recently, she lost the notebook full of songs -- 100 in verse and 50 with chord changes -- she wrote after she was shot. She let a guy she briefly dated borrow her car. He wrecked it. At some point during this, her notebook, which she kept in the car so she could write ideas down, disappeared.
Weaver said she plans to get more involved with helping victims of domestic violence. And she wants to focus on her own music now, performing and touring with her band, Courtney Weaver and the Persuaders.
Her music will be raw and vulnerable, she said, and rooted by her first loves: jazz, blues, soul. Maybe a post-grunge R&B thing.
She'll always sing the classics, though. "Aretha Franklin," she said. "Etta James' 'At Last' And of course 'Blue Gardenia,' which is going to be my standard-standard for the rest of my life.
"But my all-time favorite song to perform is 'Lush Life' by Billy Strayhorn. My mother recorded it, and I loved it before I knew what the lyrics meant. I love the chord progressions, the melody. The key is in B flat, and all of that brings the story to a height of a beautiful, tragic, irresistible soul. Something you can relate to, but you want to feel sorry for it."
She said she'll always love songs containing a tritone resolution -- a tritone is a "restless interval," called "the Devil in music," that creates dissonance.
"Basically it's where you have either an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth suspended until you tie that back to a dominant chord and you resolve it," Weaver said. "You're taking it way out of the realm of everything, completely destabilizing it, threatening that tone, and then you resolve it back. And I love that moment. You can hear it in movies; I can hear it in my head right now. They do it with strings a lot: You're waiting, you're waiting, you're waiting -- and then they resolve it."