Sedona World Wisdom Days, held over Martin Luther King weekend last January, were magical. With the stunning red rocks and sacred landscape as a backdrop, attendees gathered to listen to the insights of such inspirational speakers as legendary TV producer Norman Lear, singer-songwriter Indie.Arie, and ABILITY’s own columnist, actress Geri Jewell.
Jewell and frequent ABILITY contributor, David Zimmerman, made the trek to mystical Sedona, AZ, where they connected with popular musician, Chris Hendricks. Later, they met up again in Jewell’s home in Los Angeles. Talking about his career, his life and his mission.
David Zimmerman: When I say the name Sedona, what comes in to mind?
Chris Hendricks: Freedom. Sedona means freedom to me. The essence of it is a relaxing, open atmosphere. I felt at home there.
Geri Jewell: I’ve known Glenn Scarpelli since the ‘80s; that was my connection. How did you connect with (conference co-founders) Glenn and Jerry Gilden?
Hendricks: I became friends with Glenn and Jerry at a Kyle Cease event in Los Angeles. We had dinner together, and they told me about World Wisdom Days, and who was going to be there, including India.Arie. I said, “I grew up listening to India.Arie! She’s one of the first people I studied when I picked up the guitar.” And they said, “Well, then, we have to have you in Sedona.”
Zimmerman: So how old were you when first started on the guitar?
Hendricks: During my junior year of college, I visited my dad in Wisconsin. I hadn’t seen him for years, but we had recently reconnected. Music had always been our bonding agent. He’s a country artist and born entertainer. I told him that I was interested in the guitar, and he took me down into his basement, which was like this ode to music. He had a guitar on this wall, a guitar on that wall, a banjo over there, a little piano over there… posters all over the place. I fell in love with the atmosphere. So he handed me a guitar, and taught me the C chord, D chord, and G chord, and left me there. It was like, “Good luck, Buddy!”
And it’s funny, I locked the door because I became obsessed, strumming those three chords. The biggest issue a guitar player faces is working through the pain in your fingertips, and how fast you can change chords. I was going at it for hours, and still wasn’t getting it. And at 4 in the morning, I’m yelling. My stepmom comes downstairs and says: “What is wrong with you? You’re wakin’ the entire neighborhood!” And I said, “I just don’t understand! My dad’s so good at this, and I suck!” I started blaming my condition, I was like, “Obviously because of cerebral palsy I’m gonna suck as a musician!”
Jewell: You were exhausted, so your body wasn’t cooperating.
Hendricks: I was totally exhausted and in a lot of pain. And my stepmom said, “Go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and see if your body learned something.” And I said: “That’s not how it works!” But that’s totally how it works, because when I woke up later that morning at about 10, I rolled out of bed, ran downstairs, and tried to play the chords again, and sure enough, I was able to switch.
Zimmerman: You kept at it.
Hendricks: I did, and then it clicked. I fell in love with the instrument. The first song my dad taught me on the guitar was “Let Her Cry” by Hootie and the Blowfish. I haven’t put the guitar down since.
Jewell: You didn’t take music in high school?
Hendricks: I was in chorus and band.
Zimmerman: What did you play?
Hendricks: I played—well, another reason why I didn’t jump to guitar until after college was that I wanted to play tenor sax. If I was going to be in band, I saw the tenor sax as the coolest thing on the planet. Plus, Lisa Simpson of The Simpsons played it, and she was always a badass.
Zimmerman: (laughs) Right!
Hendricks: But I was a soft-spoken kid, and to some degree I’m still that way around certain people. So I said once or twice, “I want to play the tenor sax,” and our band director really wanted me to play the baritone sax, because there were no baritone players in the band. As soon as I picked up the instrument and learned it, I realized why there were no baritone players in the band. It was the instrument with the least amount of sex appeal. At least if you played the tuba, you could brag about it being the biggest instrument. The baritone was like the tuba’s little brother. It’s a tuba with self-esteem issues. But our band director desperately wanted a baritone sax player.
Jewell: So there’s always a student who has to play it, regardless?
Hendricks: I’m sure that if I had really put my foot down and been like, “Screw it, too bad, there’s not gonna be any baritones in your band,” it would have worked out. But at that time I didn’t have my own voice. It took me a long time to find it.
Zimmerman: And you did find your voice, even writing your own songs. What was the first song you wrote?
Hendricks: The first song I ever wrote was called “Malpractice.”
Zimmerman: Where did that come from?
Hendricks: It was essentially a metaphor for what my condition had done to my life. My mom was doing the best she could, but she didn’t know how to help me find my wings.
Zimmerman: You found them through music?
Zimmerman: How many songs have you written?
Hendricks: Hundreds. I was passionate about expressing Geri Jewell, family & friends mesmerized by Chris Hendricks and his music during the Sedona World Wisdom Days ABILITY 23 myself and going my own way early on.
Zimmerman: You once mentioned at the Performing Arts Studio West that one of your favorite singers is Stevie Wonder.
Hendricks: He’s a huge influence. I first came across him around the same time that I came across Michael Jackson; they were both signed to Berry Gordy at Motown for a time. I saw Stevie Wonder as this amazing man who was blind, but in a matter of moments after he started to perform, his condition would vanish. It was almost as if it complemented his talent. It was the most beautiful thing to me. Plus, I constantly move my head around, so looking at Stevie, and seeing him do the same thing, I felt like we had that in common. And obviously, I actually learned recently from you, Geri, that I move my head around so much due to cerebral palsy. But I used to tell people that it was just music in my head causing me to dance all the time. Which is absolutely true. I constantly have—
Jewell: —creative compensation.
Hendricks: Yeah, creative compensation. But again, I saw it as this sort of an abnormality.
Zimmerman: When did you realize that you had CP?
Hendricks: I was diagnosed when I was 4 years old. I had a lot of little operations when I was young, but I don’t think I realized that I had a condition that early.
Jewell: So it was never talked about?
Hendricks: My parents would talk about it and try and get me to understand, but I don’t even think my mom knew how to explain what I had. She did the best that she could, and she was really motivating. She would say, “You can do whatever you want, but you have this thing.” I didn’t really understand until somebody in my own age group pointed out that I was different.
Zimmerman: Did you feel different?
Hendricks: Not until somebody said something about it. That was the first time I felt bad about being different.
Jewell: How old were you at that point?
Hendricks: Kindergarten or first grade; I sort of hobbled in there with my walker, and somebody looked at me and pointed. And I felt this shift—eyes leaving whatever they were doing and falling onto me. At first I thought, Well, this is interesting. Maybe it’s a positive thing. Maybe I’m memorable; out of the box. Even though I didn’t really know what that meant. Actually, I didn’t feel bad about being different until middle school and high school.
Zimmerman: Did you ever feel bad about it, Geri?
Jewell: Not until high school.
Hendricks: So you survived middle school?
Jewell: Well, don’t forget, I had a different experience. I was in special ed until high school; I wasn’t mainstreamed like you were.
Hendricks: And that’s an interesting point, because when I was in elementary school, I wasn’t in special ed, but I did ride the special ed bus for a period. So I spent time with kids who had both physical and mental conditions. And I would see how some of the adults would treat some of the kids with mental conditions, and it was appalling. I remember one of the bus drivers had this dust rag that she would carry around, and there was a kid I used to always sit next to on the bus. His name was Scotty. I could tell he was desperately trying to express himself; he was a lovable character who knew the people around him didn’t get what he was trying to say. But as he got more and more frustrated, the bus driver or assistant bus driver would take that dust cloth and snap him in the face with it. I’d be thinking: What the hell is wrong with them? I remember going home to my parents and saying, “These people are idiots. Can we fix this?”
Zimmerman: I remembered riding the bus and being picked on myself. I had a nice upbringing. But I got picked on, too, for some reason. I don’t know what it was. But hearing you say that brought up a wave of emotion.
Hendricks: In middle school and high school, I saw CP 24 ABILITY as a dark shadow, this smudge on my life that I could not get rid of. It drove me crazy. I felt like it held me back. An embarrassment that I couldn’t get rid of or fix.
Zimmerman: What got you through it?
Hendricks: My mom. I get a little emotional thinking about it. ‘Cause even though she protected me so vehemently. And at least once, twice, three times a day, she would say, “You’re the greatest thing, you’re the best thing, you’re the most amazing thing that ever happened to me!”
Hendricks: She would drill into my head that I was the best, in the most loving, non-arrogant way a mother could love a son. So “Malpractice” was about how I felt like I was overprotected. But then again, if it hadn’t been for my mom and dad telling me that I could be anything, I don’t know if I would have been able to get through middle school and high school and my own insecurities.
Zimmerman: What brings you joy?
Hendricks: Love. The fact that we are love as people. The fact that we can receive love and give love; it’s always our choice to be that essence, to be love. If we make that decision, it can’t be taken away from us. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we respond.
Zimmerman: That’s gorgeous.
Jewell: One question I have is about what happened with your pants.
Hendricks: Right. You know how people say—in reference to a bad haircut—“I got into a fight with a pair of scissors and lost”? Well I actually got into a fight with a pair of pants and lost. Several months ago, an accident with a pair of Lucky brand jeans put me back in a wheelchair.
Jewell: Sounds like they weren’t very lucky!
Hendricks: That was the weekend of my grandmother’s funeral, so a lot of my cousins and extended family came from New Jersey to North Carolina for the services, and as sad as it was, I was excited to see all my family, and show them how well I was doing with walking and all. So I got out the shower, and as I put on this pair of unlucky jeans, my knee popped out of place. Several weeks later they took an MRI of my knee; it turned out that not only was it dislocated, but there were torn ligaments, bone damage and a couple other things that came out of nowhere. So unfortunately, my jeans won that round.
Zimmerman: How long were you in a chair after that?
Hendricks: Months. I had to have surgery, and the doctor, who is a brilliant physician, said: “We’re gonna do the best we can. We’ll clean out your knee. But as a result of your cerebral palsy, we don’t know whether you’re going to be able to get out of the chair again. You may be back in it permanently, but we’ll do the best we can.”
Zimmerman: Were you in a chair for a lot of your life?
Hendricks: For the first part of my life I was in and out. I would be in the chair, and then I would be in a walker. Sometimes it would be a walker, a chair and crutches. Particularly in my younger days, doctors were unsure whether I would be—
Hendricks: —mobile, ambulatory, unaided. And I love to dance. I’m terrible at it; I look like I’m having a seizure on the dance floor. But I didn’t really understand how depressed I was being in the chair until my cousin Anna’s wedding reception. I remember sitting there with a drink in my hand, looking at the dance floor, and then it hit me. I really wanted to go in the middle of the floor and rock out. But I thought, “You’re in a wheelchair, so you can’t.” That sort of spiraled into how it means for me to be a dad one day, and how I want to be able to run on the beach with my daughter, or pick my son up and put him over my head and teach him to play sports. It became this massive self-destructive moment. At some point I thought: What’s the worst-case scenario here? That idea is from Shawn Stevenson; he said in our darkest moments, we should try to step outside ourselves and ask: “What’s the worst-case scenario?” So I thought, if I roll out onto the dance floor, the worst-case scenario is I’ll accidentally run over the bride. And then she’ll fall over, and grab somebody, and they’ll fall over, and our entire family will trip, and it’ll be a massive domino effect, and the waiters and waitresses we’ve hired for the wedding will fall over.” Jewel: A human pile-up.
Hendricks: Right. But then I thought, My cousin Anna is just one of the most beautiful human beings on this planet, so if I did run her over, she would probably burst out laughing, and the person she ran into would probably burst out laughing, and everybody would burst out laughing, and we would all turn out to be best friends.
After that, I realized that I could love and be loved regardless of the wheelchair, and so I wheeled out into the middle of the dance floor and did the upper body sway, and it worked. A couple of weeks after that, my partner and I put together this stretching machine and I worked out and did physical therapy, and got better. After months of almost no progress, my body responded and I got out of the wheelchair.
Zimmerman: Talk about the power of inspiration.
Hendricks: I used to hate the word “inspiration,” because whenever somebody used to come up to me and say, “You’re such an inspiration,” it felt like they were patronizing me. Maybe it’s because I felt like sometimes when it was said that it didn’t come across as genuine.
Zimmerman: That people said it just because—
Hendricks: —they felt like they had to, like I was sort of their own personal Forrest Gump. But I didn’t want to be Forrest Gump, I wanted to be Chris Hendricks.
Jewell: I get that.
Hendricks: Cool. I feel like you and I are sort of on the same wavelength.
Jewell: We are. When I hear you speak, I can see myself in you.
Zimmerman: And that’s not just because he has CP.
Jewell: No, but there is a bonding among people with CP; it’s like, you’re my brother, you’re my sister. But with some people, like Chris, it’s beyond that. It’s like, we could easily be sister and brother.
Hendricks: Oh, I’m so honored by that, and I feel it, too. I remember the time I saw your first appearance on The Facts of Life, I was in a cast after one of my multiple operations. It was a long recovery. It was super late at night, I couldn’t sleep and they were running The Facts of Life. I was totally blown away because, even being as young as I was at that time. and not quite understanding CP, I could look at you on the show, and think. You know, in the episode don’t they actually sort of explain CP?
Jewell: I walked in and it took ‘em a while; they were all staring at me, all the girls.
Hendricks: Right. And then you let ‘em know what you had, right?
Jewell: I had that t-shirt on that said, “I don’t have cerebral palsy, I’m drunk.”
Hendricks: Right. I didn’t even see the shirt. When you first walked in, I just knew that you and I had the same condition. It was a vibe.
Jewell: I understand.
Hendricks: And I was blown away because obviously you were on TV, you were a part of this community. 26 ABILITY And I thought, if she can be a part of this community!
Jewell: Yes! Now I’m gonna ask you a tricky question.
Hendricks: About the inspiration thing, right?
Hendricks: It’s something that I’ve had to grow into, to learn to receive the word. Just because somebody says, “You’re an inspiration,” doesn’t mean that they’re saying something as degrading as, “You are less than me.” It just means they see you as having triumphed over adversity, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that as long as it’s genuine and real.
Hendricks: And I think people don’t give children enough credit for their ability to see their own truth. There is something to be said about intuition and gut feelings, and I think young people have a strong sense of those things.
Zimmerman: As an artist, you bring truth to society through your music.
Hendricks: I think I bring my own brand of truth.
Jewell: I like that.
Hendricks: I can only hope that people see the good in it, and can absorb it into their lives in their own way. When you write a song, it’ll always be yours. But every time you perform it, people can receive it as something completely different. Music is something you keep and give away at the same time.
Jewell: Another amazing thing about music is that it requires that the left and right brain work together.
Hendricks: Music fires every region of the brain, so why on earth would you pull arts from schools?
Jewell: Music is therapeutic.
Zimmerman: And meditative; it gives you energy.
Hendricks: You can incorporate the arts into every subject and help the learner absorb the subject better.
Jewell: How do you think we all learned the alphabet— through song! Of all the songs you’ve written, so far, which is your favorite?
Hendricks: “Affliction.” It tells my life story and reminds me of my purpose in three minutes and 30 seconds.
Zimmerman: When did you write it?
Hendricks: I was 22. The essence of that song is that everyone has an affliction. It took me so long to realize this. It’s really a strength to have this condition, and everybody has a thing. I’m so blessed to have my stuff on the outside, where it’s immediately obvious. It makes those of us with CP a little memorable. It gives the world a little bit of a twinkle because we stand out amongst the billions of people on this planet. What about all the people who have stuff goin’ on on the inside, trying to figure out a way to express themselves—
Jewell: —and can’t.
Hendricks: And there’s this block. But we constantly have people coming up to us, questioning us, entering into our lives via curious conversation, and all of a sudden we’ve created a connection, a ripple effect.
Zimmerman: What do you want the most at this moment in your life?
Hendricks: I want people to wake up. A lot of people are asleep. There’s nothing wrong with sleeping, and there’s nothing wrong with staring, but there are beautiful people who understand what it means to love. Love is not complicated. Life is complicated. Taxes are complicated, sometimes people are complicated. But love is simple, and there are pockets of people who get it, but that’s not enough. More people need to wake up.
Chris Hendricks’ music : itunes.apple.com/us/artist/chris-hendricks/id377590716
Chris Hendricks’ clothing line: perfectlyafflicted.com