Look Ma, One Hand
Where Kevin Millard's right hand should be is something that resembles a seal with a guitar pick in its mouth. It is, in fact, the stub of his right forearm covered with four white tube socks and black electrical tape. Attached to the tape is an oversize pick fashioned from a cut-up mayonnaise bucket.
This elaborate rigging allows the 42-year-old singer-guitarist, otherwise known as "Gimme 5," to play cover songs five nights a week at area bars. Watching Millard play guitar with this setup, one can see that he's refused to give in to what many would consider a handicap. On the wall behind him at Tugboat Annie's, a waterfront restaurant-bar in Dania where he plays to a sparse, after-work crowd, a black banner reads: "Gimme 5 Unplugged." The "i" in Gimme is topped not with a dot, but a hand, its five fingers outstretched. But considering Millard's attitude and the sheer contempt he's shown for the misfortune that tried, and failed, to stop him from making music, there may as well be only one outstretched finger.
Millard's guitar work is sharp and clean, whether he's playing the chords of Journey's "Lights" or a sizzling lead in Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." But it's his soaring, high-pitched tenor that truly entices local music fans. Counting Styx and Yes among his primary influences, Millard handles the keening vocals of Dennis DeYoung and Jon Anderson, as well as the thundering wail of Chris Cornell, without flinching.
The Long Island-born Millard has a handlebar mustache and salt-and-pepper hair that reaches almost to his shoulders, giving him a more than passing resemblance to John Entwistle. He spent his twenties working construction on Long Island and playing in bands at night. He opened for local legends Zebra and Twisted Sister and even got to audition for Foreigner in 1984. But music, while being a passion, was just a sideline. It took two catastrophes -- dismemberment and drug addiction -- to turn his life toward the full-time pursuit of his dream. Sitting outside Tugboat Annie's between sets on a muggy June evening, he recalls vividly the exact date that his life began to spiral downward: April 28, 1985.
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After a long night of drinking cognac and freebasing cocaine in a friend's basement, he began obsessing about his estranged girlfriend, who was upstairs, talking with his friend's wife. To prevent confrontation, Millard had been barred from going upstairs.
"I was emotionally attached to her," Millard recalls, "and she was like a drug, only in physical form. I had been dabbling in drugs, but the more we drifted apart, the more I did drugs to deal with it."
Unable to talk to her in the house, Millard climbed 30 feet up an electrical pole outside, waiting for her to emerge. When he got tired of waiting, he screamed, "Come on out, I know you're in there," then began to bang on the pole and lost his balance.
"When you're up 30 feet and you're about to fall, you grab the first thing you see, so instinctively I grabbed the thinnest wire," Millard says. "I figured that's the one that can't hurt you, but that turned out to be the last thing I should have done."
Approximately 7800 volts -- three times the amount sent through an electric chair, according to Millard -- sliced through his right arm, barely missing his heart and one lung, and exited through his right thigh, which, severely scarred, "looks like a gunshot blast just took out a whole chunk of meat," he says. The electricity literally boiled his blood, frying his right hand and turning it black. He fell 30 feet, shattering his left hip.
For four weeks Millard endured physical therapy sessions during which he had to bite down on washcloths to neutralize the pain, because burn victims may be given only a limited amount of pain medication. In repairing what remained of his right arm, doctors wanted to amputate above the elbow, afraid that, otherwise, the formation of excessive scar tissue would prevent Millard from wearing a prosthesis. When the doctors told him their plan, Millard created a scene. "I threw them out of my room and knocked one of them away. They got mad," he recalls, laughing at his ornery behavior.
He insisted they leave the stub below the elbow. "I didn't want them to cut me again because I had an idea -- I don't know where it came from -- that I would figure out a way to play guitar again," he says. "I knew I was gonna do it." The plastic surgeon tested the stub for movement, which was slight. "He said 'I tell you what,'" Millard recalls. "'I'm gonna come back in three days, and if it's any better, we won't cut it.' So I worked that muscle for the next three days."
Those three days saved his life. "Had I let them cut it on their first recommendation, I wouldn't be sitting here," Millard says. "It would have been the end of my life, because music is probably what kept me from taking myself out. Honestly. There's no way I would have wanted to keep going."
Released from the hospital four weeks after the accident, Millard went to his father's house on Long Island to recuperate. A few weeks after that, he had a brainstorm. He taped a Tupperware spatula to his stub with masking tape. He hit a chord, but after a few strums the tape broke. He then tried duct tape, which was too stiff, then electrical tape, which worked perfectly. "I played 'I've Seen All Good People' by Yes -- that was the first song," Millard says. "I called my mother and grandmother in Florida and started playing, and they both broke down crying."
Music gave Millard temporary hope. Toward the end of 1985, he flew to Florida to compete in a state-level Star Search competition (winners went on to the national level) and came in second with "Child's Love," a song he wrote about a nephew. But old habits and new misfortunes proved too daunting, and he soon returned to freebasing cocaine. That led to smoking crack, and Millard spent the next seven years drifting aimlessly, homeless much of the time. He alternated between Florida and New York, starting construction businesses only to abandon them soon after. At one point he actually wore a prosthetic hand, but he left it in the apartment of a female drug buddy. Returning for the hand a few days later, he discovered that the woman had deserted the apartment, leaving the hand locked inside.
"Drugs can do amazing things," Millard says, laughing at the memory. "I might be the only guy in history to lose two right hands."
In 1991 came his first arrest for possession of crack, and he spent four and a half months in Broward jails because no one would post the $1500 bail. A second possession arrest in 1992 led to his joining Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Newly clean he performed for an open-mic night at the now-defunct Rock Candy in Fort Lauderdale. Because of the positive response, he turned the event into a weekly gig. Paying gigs followed, and Millard has made a living out of performing ever since. He's also remained clean since 1992 with the exception of a one-week relapse in 1996, which was cut short by yet another possession arrest. He was sentenced to three years' probation.
At the moment Millard plays only cover songs, a mix of straight-ahead '70s and '90s rock songs by acts like Live, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, and other radio-friendly artists. But he's also been writing originals, which he plans to add to his act within the next six months, as he gets used to performing with a new partner, guitarist Chris Caron.
"Kevin's a real natural," Caron says. "He doesn't have a big head. Everything's real easy with him. He just plays."
Rossella Lamendola, singer-guitarist for the band China Doll, has known Millard for more than five years and feels his no-nonsense attitude works to his advantage. "He's this rough guy, but he has a soft inside. He's also a great guitarist; he does some really nice harmonic work with the guitar."
While he won't perform originals live on stage, Millard agrees to play two of them while sitting on the dock of Tugboat Annie's between sets -- "Through the Trees" and "Too Much Sorrow." Both are influenced by the '70s artists Millard emulates and the rough times he's endured. "Trees," in particular, is an appeal to God to explain loneliness and sorrow. It was inspired by a real-life event that took place when Millard was in very bad shape.
"When I was living on the street in New York, I saw a street ministry," he recalls, "and a guy was doing a pitch for salvation. Fifteen feet away from him, another guy got hit in the head with a bottle. He laid in front of me with his head cracked open, and he died. This is the kind of yin-yang stuff I write about. In the midst of beauty, a guy gets killed in the street."
After what he's been through, though, one can hardly blame him for writing songs with a pessimistic tone. "With my experiences on the street and the shit I've seen," he notes, "songs just flow."
Yet Millard, who claims he's been in a "perfect" relationship for six years with a woman he met in NA, is optimistic enough to believe that the worst is over. "I walk into clubs to get gigs and people have already heard of me," he says. "Everything I build on nowadays, I keep, so things can only get better. You're looking at a guy who, even when he had two hands, couldn't do what he's doing today."
Gimme 5 plays every Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m. at Tugboat Annie's, 815 NE 3rd St., Dania (954-925-3399); every Friday and Saturday from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at Jaybird's Place, 909 Breaker's Ave., Fort Lauderdale (954-630-0051); and every Sunday from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at Smith Brothers' Lounge, 2651 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale (954-566-1992).
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