THE FIRST THING Sam Baker remembers about the terrorist bomb that exploded above his head was the force of the blast causing his lungs to collapse. The then 31-year-old was traveling around Peru with friends in 1986 when they boarded the carriage of a train bound for Machu Pichu — a train on which the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path Maoist group, had, just minutes before, planted a red rucksack full of explosives.
“Sitting facing me was a German couple and, next to me, their young son who spoke pretty good English, so we talked a bit,” says Baker, now 65. “Next thing I know, they were all dead. In one hundredth of a second,” he says, “everything changed.”
Suffering a cranial bleed, a badly mangled hand and brain damage, Baker adds that the Peruvian doctors performed a series of “minor miracles” to help keep him alive. And, once back in Austin, Baker began embarking on the long, slow journey of physical rehabilitation, but the mental scarring would take longer to heal.
“I could remember things in the past, but I couldn’t recall certain words, and it’s the same now,” says Baker, who freely admits he continues to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress. “For example, I’d see a chair, but the name wouldn’t come. I’d end up having to say, ‘I need that thing for sitting on.’ Also, if I walked by a shop window or car or trashcan, I’d always make sure there was some sort of buttress between me and it in case it suddenly blew up and showered razor-sharp glass everywhere, cutting me to ribbons. That’s a way to be insane in the world.”
Perhaps even more extraordinary than Baker’s survival story, though, is that he also managed to pull something positive from the twisted railway wreckage — a set of songs that helped him come to terms with what he’d gone through. “Up until then, I’d always written lyrics,” he says. “But they were pretty bad. Afterwards, I started trying to write more narratively and attempting to explain what had happened and why. It was a real blurting out of a lot of things I’d buried deep.”
The end result was Baker’s self-released 2004 debut album, Mercy, which ended up being championed by critics, who fell in love with the singer’s drawled, half-spoken vocals and affecting tales of everyday love, loss and redemption.
Four equally haunting albums have followed, including his latest, 2017’s Land of Doubt, establishing Baker as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of his time.
“A lot of people went all out to keep me going after that bomb blew up,” Baker says, “but that little German kid never got the same chance. So while I can bitch and moan all day about how awful things can be, that boy is a constant tangible reminder in my head about how lucky I really am.”
Amazingly, Baker says he’s even forgiven those who planted the explosives on that packed train. “I had to, because for the longest time I carried that grudge around with me like a poison in my blood — it was toxic, and it was slowly killing me. So I forgive them for what they did to me, but it’s not for me to forgive what they did to that child … that’s someone higher’s concern. I’ve just got to figure out a way to live with that fact.”
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