At the age of 29 in 1982, Rob Guttenberg suffered a massive brain hemorrhage that left him without the ability to walk, speak or write.
Guttenberg’s musicianship was taken away from him by the brain hemorrhage, and it was musicianship that would help him through the earliest, most difficult stages of rehabilitation.
He’d been a performing musician since his college years at Brown University, and as he underwent rehabilitation from the hemorrhage, he turned once again to songwriting as a means of coping.
Three years after his brain hemorrhage, Guttenberg began working with the YMCA, where he continues to work to this day. However, some effects were permanent. He regained the ability to walk, but still wears a leg brace, and he has a continuing cognitive disability that results in frequent memory loss. Guttenberg’s disability is an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one, for his musicianship. “The memory thing that I have is so random. [When performing], if I notice someone in the audience smiling … then I will very often forget the next chord I’m playing, or the next word or verse,”
Guttenberg, now a Bethesda resident, remains passionate about the artistic and therapeutic value of music and lyricism. By profession, Guttenberg is a family counselor and director of parenting education for the YMCA Youth and Family Services Branch of the YMCA of Metropolitan D.C. Music remains integral in his life, and he advocates songwriting as a means of overcoming adversity, part of a presentation he gave as a speaker at Walt Whitman High School’s Youth Summit two years ago.
In 1996, Guttenberg penned “FDR in a Wheelchair” and performed it at a demonstration at the U.S. Capital concerning the FDR Memorial. Roosevelt was struck by polio in 1920, and was unable to walk or stand unassisted during his presidency, which lasted from 1933 until his death in 1945. When the FDR Memorial was dedicated 1997, it concealed Roosevelt’s use of a wheelchair, just as Roosevelt went to great lengths to conceal his disability during his life.
Guttenberg and many advocacy groups for those with disabilities believed that today’s visitors should see Roosevelt’s disability. “FDR led from the chair, so let the statue show him there,” Guttenberg sang. An additional statue at the FDR Memorial was completed in 2001, portraying the president in a wheelchair.
A decade after Guttenberg penned the song, “FDR In a Wheelchair” is the title track of a newly released CD that he recorded through a grant from the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology (NASAP). The song is also the centerpiece of a program Guttenberg runs for local schools, which asks students to consider what FDR’s presidency would be like today, whether he would go to such great lengths to conceal his disability, and if not, whether public perception has changed enough that voters would support FDR.
Q: Music played a huge role in your life, and you advocate lyric-writing as a means of coping with difficult times. Who were some of the musicians who made a strong impact on you?
A: Harry Chapin is a major influence. Guttenberg opened for him once when Chapin performed at Brown University, where Guttenberg was an undergraduate. Some people tell Guttenberg that his singing voice is similar to Chapin’s.
Bill Danoff is another favorite. Danoff used to be part of Fat City, Bill and Taffy, and the Starland Vocal Band (“Afternoon Delight”), and he wrote “Country Road, Take Me Home,” which John Denver made popular. Danoff now owns the Starland Café on MacArthur Boulevard in D.C., just up from Georgetown. “As a songwriter, he’s just incredible,” Guttenberg said. “He’s musically inspiring.”
Q: Can you talk about “Living Every Day” and what it means to you?
A: As Guttenberg recovered from his brain hemorrhage, he couldn’t write at first, and later, he couldn’t remember what he intended to write about once he’d begun. Tasks that were once routine could take more than an hour. Some lyrics from the song: “I won’t be famous, I won’t be rich, I won’t be on TV / I’m just doing the best I can, and that’s all right with me.”
“Every day I’d go through the same stuff. … From one perspective, ‘Oh, how heroic.’ From my wife’s perspective, it’s not heroic — it’s life,” Guttenberg said. “I think there’s something about people who give up and those who don’t that’s worth noting. … Sometimes it’s just a question of how much support you’re getting.”
“It’s a centering song that says, ‘Wait a second. You can be satisfied with where you’re at,’” Guttenberg said.
Q: How about the CD’s last musical track, “I Spent Three Years Looking for My Watch Today”?
A: Guttenberg has “left-side neglect,” a disability that impairs his memory. “If I lose something, I can’t imagine where I put it,” Guttenberg said. “It’s too hard to explain that to everyone.”
From the title to the lyrics to the howling-dog vocals, this song employs the trait that helps Guttenberg cope with his disability — humor. It ends with Guttenberg saying, “Hey, has anybody seen the ending to this song?”
“It’s perspective in humor,” Guttenberg said. “I walk around my house carrying my leg brace while I’m looking for my leg brace. … If you can’t find humor in that, you’re going to crack up pretty quickly.”
Q: How do these songs tie into an educational curriculum?
A: Guttenberg wants to raise awareness among students about acceptance for those with disabilities. A special grant from Clonick Fund of the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology (NASAP) funded the recording of the album. Arlington County recently funded Guttenberg to go to nine different middle-school classrooms last month. “We talked a lot about FDR,” Guttenberg said. “Students just really have a great response, and a lot of thoughtful ideas. … People think middle-school and high-school students are just really into rap, and they are … but they’re really into thoughtful music as well.”
Q: One major issue was lost in the debate about whether or not to portray FDR in a wheelchair — Franklin D. Roosevelt himself didn’t want a memorial even remotely resembling the one at the Tidal Basin, wheelchair or no wheelchair. His request was that any memorial to him be a stone block the size of his desk to be placed in front of the National Archives. FDR already had the tribute he’d requested — why the push for the new memorial to portray his disability?
A: “The problem I have with that is that you’re putting [the memorial] on a national showcase,” Guttenberg said. “I ask people, ‘Is a memorial for a person who’s being memorialized, is it for their family, or is it for the nation?”
“Personally, I think [his request] would be different if he were alive today. … He was an advocate of all kinds of people’s rights,” Guttenberg said. “He would still have a mind toward the political arena [and] I’m sure he would have been contacted by the National Organization on Disability.
Q: You performed several of these songs in Eastern Europe in the mid-'90s. What was that experience like?
A: When Guttenberg spoke to students in Belarus and Russia, he found their knowledge on U.S. history was often better than that of American students. Where the countries lagged behind, Guttenberg said, was in their attitudes toward those with disabilities. “In Russia and other Eastern European countries, they’re still not as advanced about that. They’re still into the shame aspect,” Guttenberg said.
Guttenberg performed at a Belarusian hospital for children affected by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, an experience in cross-cultural communication. “They were able to grasp some parts of the meaning of the song without understanding the words,” Guttenberg said.