Features, Print July 2, 2021

Yawper Goes West: Nate Cook Defies Death; Cycles Nation-Wide for Musicians’ Sweet Relief

by Gabe Allen

Cycling almost killed The Yawpers‘ frontman Nate Cook, but it also saved his life.

“I think I would have drank myself to death during the pandemic had I not had something else to focus my energy on,” he tells BandWagon.

So instead, Cook set a lofty goal for which he would have to train. Starting on September 20 of last year, Cook pedaled his road bike to a gig in Tulsa, Oklahoma from Denver. Cook raised over $17,000 with a corresponding fundraising campaign dubbed “Go East Aging Man.” All of the money went to Sweet Relief, a nonprofit that provides financial aid to musicians who have fallen on hard times. 

But, he almost didn’t make it. Without realising it, Cook had planned for his route to go along a section of interstate in rural Kansas. When he got there, he re-routed onto an unpaved country road and quickly regretted it.

“I wound up without cell service (then my phone died), without water, on a road bike in soft sand. I walked about 25 miles [bare foot – without his cycling shoes] until I got back to a road and was able to flag down a car.” Cook said. “I was absolutely certain I was going to die.”

Of course, if you’ve listened to the Yawpers’ music, you know that Cook has an affinity for grandiose stories with life or death consequences. So it is fitting that he will once again tempt fate on the open road this summer — this time on a westward bearing.

Starting on July 4 (after a gig at Littlefield in Brooklyn on the 3rd) Cook will depart from Greeley Square Park in New York City in a ride dubbed “Go West Aging Man.” Barring any major collisions, he will arrive in Los Angeles to play a celebratory set with the Yawpers on September 3. Along the way, he will also play solo shows in Chicago, Tulsa, Fort Worth and Austin. 

“I’m terrified. The scope of this is insane and it’s going to be heavily publicized,” Cook said. And then with characteristic dark wit: “I’m concerned about failing, although, I feel like if I get hit by a car or something it will drive donations even more.”

The money raised through the charity ride will once again go towards Sweet Relief — an organization that once funded a liver transplant for one of Cook’s friends. Last year, the nonprofit created a fund dedicated to music industry workers who have been medically affected by the pandemic. Cook knows many musicians who have struggled to make ends meet over the past year, and he is thankful to be in a position to bolster support.

“My understanding is that Sweet Relief is getting more requests than during the height of the pandemic,” Cook said. “The idea is to give people a rallying point to donate to artists in a meaningful way. That’s what this is really all about.”

Of course, it’s never quite that simple for Cook. The man wrote an entire concept album about a boy who was abandoned in a well in France during World War I. His motivations stem from a nebulous mix of altruism, restlessness, penitence and a search for revelation.

“A man creates his problems — each dilemma the misbegotten product of some preceding ill-conceived remedy,” a narrator ruminates floridly over the promo video for “Go West Aging Man.” “As our nation reaches the midpoint of its third century, as cleaved as the days of Greeley, one wonders, what cardinal should we follow.”

The philosophical forefather of Cook’s ride is Horace Greeley — the namesake of both the town in which this magazine is published and the park in New York City where Cook will begin his ride. Greeley (1811-1872) was a writer, publisher of the New York Tribune and, for the time, an extremely progressive politician. He was a fierce abolitionist, first-wave feminist and staunch socialist. He is also the author of the manifest destiny-era slogan “Go west young man, and grow up with the country.”

“Maybe one of his more problematic causes was that he was an outspoken proponent of pushing westward,” Cook said. “But the idea of travel as healing is something that we share, and that’s why I chose him as the kind of spiritual father of the ride.”

While the money he raises will go towards healing ailing musicians, the journey itself may heal Cook. He still struggles with alcohol abuse, but training has kept him from taking it too far.

“I don’t want to be all sanctimonious about it, because if I had read this during my darker days I would have thought it pretty pretentious to suggest that riding a bicycle could save somebody’s life,” he said. “But musicians – a lot of us – lead an unhealthy lifestyle, between touring and drugs and alcohol and lack of sleep and constant travel. Having found a way to do my art and still be healthy is a revelation.”

This, perhaps, is the emotional heart of Cook’s journey. The desire to bring health and happiness to artists — a group that’s modern narrative is wrapped up in depression and destitution.

“Most major artists that now inform what we think of as ‘good art’ were not able to support themselves during their lifetimes,” Cook said. “If we can somehow subsidize the art community in a way that allows you to make art independent of financial responsibility, I think it improves cultural life, life in general and makes us better as a society.”

Follow Nate Cook’s nationwide bike and live music tour and support musicians in need by donating to Sweet Relief at www.GXAXride.com or simply text GXAX to 202-858-1233