Road to Recovery

Few stories have rattled the music community like that of David Cunniff. Even people who don't follow local bands know about the Lakewood father beaten bloody last July after an Old 97's show at the Gypsy Tea Room. It was just the kind of cautionary tale Deep Ellum didn't need: Guy walks into a bar with his two teen daughters; guy comes out on a stretcher, paralyzed.

Cunniff's tale became a lightning rod for safety issues in Deep Ellum and, to a larger extent, Dallas; how could something this horrific happen--at an Old 97's show?! (The band members are better known for being beaten up in high school than actually inciting violence.) The answer is still unclear. At the end of March, skinhead Jesse Chaddock goes to trial for aggravated assault and engaging in an organized crime act. Until then, no one can talk on the record about what happened that night.

What we can talk about is David Cunniff. When Cunniff first arrived at the hospital, one grim prognosis was that he would never walk again. But he's out of his wheelchair now and walking with the assistance of arm crutches. "I'm considered a walking quadriplegic," he says. "I'm very, very lucky." Part of that recovery can be attributed to a research program in robotics at the spinal cord injury lab at UT Southwestern Medical Center, where Cunniff went following three months of rehabilitation at Baylor hospital. Though once unable to move even a finger, he proudly reports he can now hold a fork. (He still can't do some things, like turn on a lamp.) When asked how the process of rehabilitation has been, Cunniff laughs good-naturedly. "Grueling's a good word for it," he says. "But it's your only way back."

Miraculous recoveries don't come cheap, however. A father of three, Cunniff had no insurance when he was attacked. Friends in his tight-knit community rallied to his defense, organizing fund-raisers such as the Run Down Violence 5K last August. Lakewood residents are familiar with David Cunniff donation boxes placed near cashiers of haunts like the Gold Rush Cafe. Two thousand dollars was raised in an eBay auction last fall, with items donated by Elvis Costello, Kings of Leon, Damien Rice and the Dixie Chicks.

Now comes the "Dallas Rocks for David" benefit at the Lakewood Theater on Friday, with doors opening at 7 p.m. As this story goes to press, Mark Cuban is negotiating with the Old 97's label, New West Records, to film the concert and show it on HDNet. "We just thought it would be great to help out David," Cuban writes by e-mail, "and recognize the bands for their efforts and great music as well."

Those acts include Salim Nourallah, The Deathray Davies, Spector 45, Max Stalling and--of course--the Old 97's.

"Every little bit helps," says Old 97's guitarist Ken Bethea. He's looking forward to seeing Cunniff, whom he hasn't spoken with since visiting him in the hospital. As for how he views the ordeal six months later, Bethea says with a sigh, "I'm still pretty leery about Deep Ellum, and so is the rest of the band."

When asked if he's listened to the Old 97's since the attack, Cunniff says, "I hate to say I haven't. My daughter hasn't either, and she was the big fan." But this is the kind of event that could help soothe the trauma of that ugly night in July. "I'm glad they're doing this," Cunniff says. "I think it's gonna be therapeutic as well."