Toby Forrest with the band Cityzen
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Toby Forrest with the band Cityzen

Tobias Forrest still remembers the day he died.

“I was twenty-two, and I was diving off of a waterfall in the Grand Canyon,” Forrest said. “The water was too shallow where I had jumped, so I shattered my fifth vertebrae—and I realized I was going under. I thanked God for my life, and then I died.”

For some, Forrest’s death and resuscitation might qualify as a miracle, but he’d rather chalk the whole thing up to chance. “I just got extremely lucky, in all respects. A lot of strangers came together and got involved in saving my life that day. And I wasn’t quite ready to give up.”

Forrest, known to his friends and family as Toby, is now in his twelfth year of life as a quadriplegic. He shares a house with friends, seeks out work as a Hollywood actor (his credits include Weeds and Six Feet Under), paints, writes poetry, hosts an online radio show, and navigates the usual uncertainties of a creative life with infectious optimism and with a natural, breezy charm.

But it’s as the hard-driving vocalist for Cityzen—a funk rock fusion band that sounds a bit like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a bit like Andrew Bird, a bit like Pink Floyd and a lot like something all its own—that Forrest seems truly to have come alive again. After all, rock and roll frontman is a role he’d assumed, in the wake of his accident and arduous recovery, he would never be able to play.

“I didn’t see anybody in a wheelchair out there making music,” Forrest said. “So after what had happened to me, I figured that kind of lifestyle was totally out of the picture. I mean, Christopher Reeve was the only quadriplegic I knew of who was doing much of anything at all, but he was already working from a platform of fame. So what was somebody like me going to do?”

Finding the answer to that question became something of a personal mission for Forrest. Totally dissatisfied with “sitting around and feeling sorry”, the former skier and rock-climber opted to take charge of his new life as a young man with quadriplegia. He underwent rehabilitation at the University of Miami and completed a master’s degree in psychology with every intention of becoming a therapist.

“I had been doing a lot of web design and painting, and those are such solitary things,” Forrest said. “Ultimately, I knew I wanted to be around people. I’m a social person. I wanted to help people who were similar to me. I wanted to be involved.”

After relocating to Los Angeles to undergo locomotor training at UCLA, Forrest dipped his toe into stand-up comedy, linked up with an improvisational troupe, and won a $5,000 scholarship from the Christopher Reeve Foundation for a monologue in which he played an old man with Alzheimer’s. The goal of becoming a psychologist had melted away—Toby Forrest was born to perform.

“I think at some level Toby always knew he wanted to pursue entertainment, and for him it really was that broad,” said Jeff Line, who graduated from Northern Arizona University with Forrest. “He was always willing to try all different avenues, comedy, music, his artwork. He was always driven, always the first guy to take a chance. And today he’s still very much the same guy I knew.”

During their undergraduate years in college, Line and Forrest had frequently jammed as part of Mos Eisley, a band that featured Forrest on vocals and Line on guitar. But Line remembers that Forrest’s life-changing injury and subsequent move to Miami forced something of an intermission into the duo’s close friendship.

“We weren’t in contact for three or maybe four years after he moved,” Line said. “I can’t say that I was intentionally out of contact with Toby, or that he was intentionally out of contact with me, but it obviously gets harder when someone lives far away. And he was going through a lot during that time.”

Once Forrest had relocated to Los Angeles, however, fate reconnected the old friends and consequently rekindled their musical past. Line began a course of study at the Musicians’ Institute in Los Angeles, where he quickly sparked a friendship with drummer Nick Woods. And Forrest, even without full use of his diaphragm, decided to reignite his role as a vocal powerhouse.

“I never for a second doubted Toby’s abilities,” Line said. “I knew it was possible his voice wouldn’t be as strong as it had been before the accident, but to sit and listen to this guy, you’d never know he’s a quadriplegic. He still has an amazing range.”

And so what tentatively began as three friends riffing with each other on the weekends gradually transformed into Cityzen, a group that today features six members and draws upon keyboard, saxophone and electric violin to create melodies that defy easy categorization. The band’s members wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We make it a point not to put some kind of a box around our sound,” said Woods, whose brother Chris joined Cityzen in 2008. “We all write together, we jam together, and we keep the process open and collaborative. Some people will see one show, come back for a second, and find a different sort of slant or personality. We just like coming up with new takes on our music.”

For now, the band is entirely self-managed, with Forrest printing out stacks of promotional fliers as Cityzen increases its visibility with gigs at bars and clubs across California. “I’m not the sort of guy to outsource stuff,” Forrest said. “And I’m definitely more interested in making a difference than in making a dollar. I want this band to show people what’s really possible. We’re getting out there and we’re keeping our own ship afloat.”

With the recent release of the band’s debut album, Invisible Mental Tentacles, it would seem that ship is gaining speed. As the group talks of taking its bold, colorful sounds well outside of the band’s home state, it continues to appear at events for Easter Seals, the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and a host of other fundraisers and non-profits. Throughout it all, Cityzen, with its eclectic tunes and its unconventional frontman, is modestly reframing the definition of rock and roll.

“You’ve got to wonder if blind people have an edge,” Forrest said. “They have Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Those are blind role models built right into the fabric of music. No one questions them. No one is made uncomfortable by them. These guys are musicians first and are blind second or third. Whatever the disability, I think putting an example out on the stage definitely helps open people’s minds.”

Joe Spangler, a classically trained musician who single-handedly provides the band’s unique implementation of saxophone and violin, agrees that increased visibility for the group is not just good for Cityzen, it’s good for anyone who might subconsciously place limitations on what is possible with or without a disability.

“I know for a fact Toby has days when he’d probably rather just stay in bed,” Spangler said. “I’m sure there are times when he feels isolated or lonely or upset about his past. But he’s got an amazing way of coping, an amazing grace about it, and that alone is empowering to people. Because what happened to Toby could happen to any of us at any time. What he’s doing is demonstrating that there is still hope when life takes a bad turn.”

Whatever its impact on audiences, the development of Cityzen has provided Forrest with a brand of therapy he could never have expected. “I still compare myself to other people in a room,” he said. “But when I’m on the stage, I suddenly don’t care if I have a quad belly or if I’m hunched over or if I’ve got dishrag hands. I’m singing. That’s the beauty of art, isn’t it? It takes you out of yourself and puts you somewhere else.” by David Radcliff

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Articles in the Greg Louganis Issue; Ashley’s Column — Bringing Home the Gold; Sen. Tom Harkin — Where Are the Jobs?; Renne Gardner — Running With My Son; The Pearls — Stories That Demand to Be Heard; Amy Edwards — A Living Special Effect; Adaptive Sports — Getting Back in the Game; X Games Uncovered — Taking the Inside Track; Cityzen — A Whole New Voice in Rock and Roll; Adaptive Sailing — Finding Your Sea Legs; Greg Louganis — Still Diving Into Life; HIV and AIDS — Battling a Fatal Disease; Bad Boys — Cracking Down on Discrimination; Healthy Hoops — Take Your Best Shot ; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Excerpts from the Greg Louganis Oct/Nov 2010 Issue:

ABILITY Jobs

Greg Louganis — Interview

The Pearls — Stories That Demand to Be Heard

Adaptive Action Sports — Getting Back in the Game

X Games Uncovered — Taking the Inside Track

Toby Forrest with the Band Cityzen

Renne Gardner — Running With My Son

Healthy Hoops — Take Your Best Shot

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