There's a one-armed guitar player strumming away at a dive bar in Pompano Beach.
Ordinarily, this would turn heads, but the few patrons in attendance on a Tuesday night seem more interested in their beer. Also, this is Pompano Beach, where something odd basically happens every second of every day. Perhaps if there were a three-eyed turtle playing the xylophone, folks would take note.
Either way, it's their loss.
The guitarist is Kevin Millard (he calls himself Gimme 5), and he opens his set with a cover of "Creep" by Stone Temple Pilots. The first line of the chorus is "Take time with a wounded hand/'cause it likes to heal." Get it?
This is the first time I've met Kevin in person and watched him play. He's stocky, with the naturally thick build of a former construction worker. His arm and a half stick out through a black tank top, and neon beer signs circle his head like a halo. I introduced myself while he was setting up his equipment, and before I could process how or where to shake his hand, he extended his left fist for a friendly bump. I spoke to him on the phone once before, but Millard is the kind of guy you have to meet face-to-face. An iPhone does him about as much justice as a Polaroid does the Grand Canyon.
I admire the acoustic guitar resting on his lap. It's a 12-string. "Yeah, at least I'll hit something," he says. He's being modest. Normally he lets others do the talking for him. Asked to describe himself over the phone, he said, "If you hear me live... I don't know, bro. I can only tell you what people tell me."
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He plays the guitar with the help of a device he made himself (more about that later). Despite the
His accent is thick and gives him away immediately: New York. To be specific, Long Island. He was born there in 1956 to separated parents with five other kids. His stepfather was the first to introduce him to a guitar at age 11. When Kevin's dad saw his interest and talent, he bought him a Mosrite Ventures for Christmas when he was 15. He was hooked.
Millard spent his 20s bouncing around from band to band in Long Island, playing clubs at night and waking up in the morning to work as a roofer. In the early '80s, he left for South Florida, where his mother was living. He kept up with music as a side gig but earned his money in construction. Eventually, though, the darker side of the Sunshine State took hold of him, and he began to get involved with what he likes to call "a little powder."
Things got worse when "a little powder" turned into freebasing cocaine. One night, on April 28, 1985, he was going on a bender in his dealer's basement. At the time, Millard was embroiled in a very poisonous relationship. His girlfriend was there that day, but his friends were keeping her quarantined upstairs to prevent a fight. They kept Millard downstairs, occupying him with enough cocaine and cognac to knock out a small town. "Over the course of the night, I probably smoked up about $1,500 worth of freebase," he remembers. Soon paranoia took over. Convinced his girlfriend was with another man, he stormed upstairs to confront her. "I thought there was something going on," he says, "because that's what the drugs do."
When friends blocked his path, Kevin went outside to find her. He spotted a telephone pole and decided that if she wouldn't come down, he would go up.
He reached the top in no time, where he stayed for about a half-hour, screaming for his girlfriend to come outside. He was dehydrated, high, and drunk. Then it happened.
"I slipped, and I reached up." To reposition himself, he grabbed a wire he thought was harmless. It wasn't. "Seven, eight hundred volts; fell 30 feet. Kaboom." His hand turned black within a few minutes, and his thigh had a crispy, smoking hole where the electricity had blown out of his body. "It's like, you ever see those firecrackers, like on a cartoon when they explode, like that Road Runner guy holding the dynamite and it's peeled? That's what my pant leg looked like."
He lost half his arm and a sizable chunk of his thigh. After he was released from the hospital, he returned to Long Island to stay with his father. The good news: He was sober.
A few weeks later, he was getting a glass of water from the kitchen when he saw someone using a spatula. The idea hit him instantly. He grabbed some masking tape and attached the spatula to his stump. Looking like a creature from a Martha Stewart acid trip, he picked up his guitar and formed a chord. "I strummed, and I was like, damn! But when I started to play, the tape broke." After some trial and error, he discovered that electrical tape seemed to hold strong without too much pressure, giving him enough freedom and precision to play. He called his mom to let her listen to the good news.
"I could hear them crying in the background. That is what started my journey on the music trail again."
Back at the bar in Pompano Beach, Millard runs through one of his favorites, "Going to California." His strumming device looks slightly different now than it did 20 years ago. It's no longer made out of a spatula (Tupperware stopped making them) but rather a chunk of
His guitar playing is impressive, especially considering he's operating with 50 percent fewer hands than the average player, but it's his voice that really gets you. When he hits those high runs in "Going to California," the Long Island accent disappears and suddenly it's pure '80s rock 'n' roll glory. Someone
After Millard rediscovered his ability to play in the '80s, he began booking gigs around South Florida, sometimes as many as eight a week. But addiction is an insatiable animal, and three relapses earned him three possession arrests in '91, '92, and '96. He eventually cleaned up with the help of a 12-step program, and by the end of the '90s, he was sober and back on the South Florida music scene. We even did a profile on him in 1998.
"Things went well for a long period of time, and then basically Wilma showed up," he says. "That's when everything hit the fan."
At the time, he was running an auto-detailing business out of a van, making ends meet between that and his music gigs. But the unusually active hurricane season had slowed business, and when Wilma hit, it stopped altogether. Millard's finances collapsed. He fell behind and couldn't catch up. Everything toppled like dominoes. He lost his cars, his apartment in Pompano, his guitar equipment — almost everything.
"Eventually, I just reached a point where I got so overwhelmed I got a case of the fuck-its." He and his wife, who married in October 1999, got back into drugs and bounced from motel to motel, couch to couch.
This went on until 2009. Millard and his wife were crashing in a motel, and she was in particularly bad shape. He sold one of his last possessions, an aluminum stepladder, for $10, and instead of buying drugs, he got $10 worth of food so his wife, who had been with him for the past 17 years, could eat. "That was basically just about the bottom," he remembers. "I said that was it."
He and his wife sobered up once again through a 12-step program. She got an entry-level sales job, and they found a more permanent residence in Pompano.
Things weren't easy, and the money was slow, but after his wife hit a couple of big sales at work, Millard was able to afford a guitar and an amp. In 2012, he booked his first solo gig in more than four years, at Poorhouse in Fort Lauderdale, for $100.
These days, things are more stable for Millard than they've been in years. He's still with his wife, whom he loves more than anything. "There ain't a woman that's been born who's gonna fill her shoes."
He even auditioned for America's Got Talent in 2013 and The Voice this past August. He didn't make it onto either show, but the producers of The Voice kept him onstage longer than anyone else who'd auditioned. "I believe they want me to try again next year," he says. And if Adam Levine's bony ass knows what's good for him, he'll turn that fucking chair around.
The crowd hasn't thickened any at the bar in Pompano, but Millard plays like he's onstage at Madison Square Garden. The tough part now, he says, is getting consistent bookings again after years out of the scene. He wants you to know he's available, and you can reach him at 954-822-4463.
Hanging from his microphone stand is a red tips bucket with some bills spread out at the bottom. A few years ago, he remembers, someone dropped a napkin into that bucket.
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"One of the patrons at one of the bars I was playing came up, and in my tip bucket at the end of the night, there was a note from him on a napkin. And it said, 'After seeing you, you gave me so much hope.' I get choked up thinking about it. It says, 'I have beginning stages of Parkinson's. I'm a guitar player, and after seeing you play, I want to try it again.'
"That was the best tip I've ever gotten."
Gimme 5. 6 to 10 p.m. every Thursday at Ocean Pub 101, 101 N. Ocean Dr., Hollywood; facebook.com/oceanpub101. Admission is free.
Gimme 5. 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, October 9 and Friday, October 30 at O'Malleys Sports Bar, 1388 N State Road 7, Margate; 954-979-8540; omalleyssportsbar.com. Admission is free.