Near-death experience sparks unique collaboration

Joe Geraci of New London at his home on Aug. 13. Geraci was befriended by Dan Cavanagh of the band Anathema after Cavanagh used Geraci's voice on multiple musical recordings.
Buy Photo Tim Cook/The Day Joe Geraci of New London at his home on Aug. 13. Geraci was befriended by Dan Cavanagh of the band Anathema after Cavanagh used Geraci's voice on multiple musical recordings.

At 71, Joseph Geraci, a former New Britain police officer, teacher and school administrator now retired in New London, is probably not the person you'd expect to collaborate on an album with one of the most successful British progressive rock stars in the world.

Nonetheless, in June, "The Passage," a CD Geraci recorded with Daniel Cavanagh, songwriter/multi-intrumentalist for England's renowned Anathema, was released from Burning Shed - a boutique label whose roster includes many of the premier artists in the fields of prog, ambient/electronica and post-rock music.

"The Passage" is a continuous, 17-song suite of haunting and textural piano-scapes that Cavanagh composed based on meditative poems written by Geraci and read on the album by the two men along with Heather Leah Huddleston, a Maryland-based spiritual writer and friend of Cavanagh's.

The idea for the album was a follow-up to a spoken-word appearance a year earlier by Geraci on "Internal Landscapes," the dramatic coda piece on Anathema's "Weather Systems," a soaring CD about loss and the transcendence of love and spirit.

If it's fair to suggest an artistic collaboration and subsequent friendship between a Connecticut septuagenarian and a U.K. musician is unlikely, it's also accurate to say that if Geraci hadn't died in 1977, none of this would have happened.

Nothing 'near' about it

At the age of 42, one week after so-called routine surgery, Geraci started bleeding profusely and was rushed to the hospital. He died on the operating table, and was clinically dead for four to five minutes before he was resuscitated. In the moments that his heart was stopped and he displayed no vital signs, Geraci entered another plane of existence.

"They sometimes call it a near-death experience, but there was nothing 'near' about it," says Geraci, sitting on the back patio of the New London home he shares with his second wife, Connie. "I was dead."

Years later, an old video surfaced on YouTube of Geraci describing the experience at a conference on post-death consciousness. In the video, he recalls "a total immersion in light, brightness, warmth, peace, security ... I just immediately went to this beautiful place ... verbally it cannot be described ... it's something that becomes you and you become it. I was peace, I was love, I was the brightness."

Cavanagh, whose own spiritual quests in recent years has significantly changed the sound and direction of Anathema from a doom-metal group to celestial prog, was in the middle of recording what would become the "Weather Systems" album. He was searching for a thematic concept for an instrumental piece and, going to bed one night, played a YouTube channel of near-death experience (NDE) interviews. He was almost asleep when the Geraci testimony came on.

"Suddenly, I jumped out of bed," Cavanagh says. "Every word this guy said rang more and more true and resonated with what I had already learned about alternative spiritual states. 'Oh my God,' I thought. 'This guy has really been there.'"

The next day in the studio, Cavanagh juxtaposed Geraci's NDE account over the instrumental music bed and played it for his brother Vincent, Anathema's singer. Both immediately thought it was the dramatic and obvious choice of motif to close the album. While the rest of the band was at lunch, Cavanagh then wrote and recorded the balance of the lyrics and vocal melody in 45 minutes.

Of course, they then had to find Geraci - if he was still alive - and see if the rights to his spoken-word account were available. Cavanagh reached out to his friend Huddleston at her home in Maryland, and she put him in touch with Kenneth Ring, co-founder of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) at the University of Connecticut. Ring was able to connect Cavanagh with Geraci who, for years, had been associated with the IANDS.

"Joe got back to me with a wonderful response," Cavanagh says. "It coincided with changes in Anathema and he helped me get back into the spiritual life without fear of judgment from the other band members or that I was operating in a different paradigm from the others. He was a huge help."

Re-emergence through 'The Passage'

Geraci is indeed comfortable and dryly witty when discussing his death experience. For several years after it happened, though, his acceptance of what happened and his eventual willingness to address and discuss it in public forum was an ongoing emotional struggle.

"It went greatly beyond my traditional religious upbringing to a profound spiritual level, and it would take me months before I could share it," Geraci says.

For one thing, at the time, Geraci had never heard of the "near-death experience" phenomenon. For months, as he tried to process what had happened, Geraci became withdrawn and started behaving differently. He hadn't told anyone what had happened - even his then-wife, Joan, whom he'd started dating when they were both 15 years old.

But Joan, a registered nurse, knew something was wrong. Geraci couldn't, for example, abide any signs of violence on television. In a more general sense, he showed little or no interest in many things that had previously seemed important. After six months, feeling, he said, "like I was going to explode if he didn't tell someone," he described his experience with his wife.

"I was frightened to tell her," he says. "I was afraid she'd think I'd lost my mind. But Joan was very supportive and made it a point to research and understand what I'd been through. We learned that, even though millions of people had been through something like this, there was a real stigma to admitting to it. Family members have been disowned over this."

By now, Geraci is well acquainted with the various possible scientific explanations for the "near-death experience" syndrome: sudden loss of oxygen to the brain; a surge of cerebral neuron activity; endorphin overdose in the body's instinctual anticipation of death; the effect of drugs being used in life-saving medical procedures - to name a few.

"The stigma of this has definitely lessened over the years, but there's still a lot of contention and debate between science and religion over this," Geraci says.

With regard to his own conviction, he smiles and offers a shrug. "That this happens is incontrovertible. I'm completely comfortable with my certainty of what happened and that life existence is a continuum rather than a circle," he says. Equally important, he learned to relish the true joy of daily life, of humor, love, and friends and family.

During that time, Geraci reached out to the IAFNDS and, eventually, began to share his experiences with support groups and in public forum. Founder and then-IAFNDS president Ring had published a book on NDE called "Life and Death" and, at presentations, would often bring Geraci along.

Geraci's calm delivery, self-effacement and evocative descriptions were powerful; he eventually appeared on "20/20," "PM Magazine," "Phil Donahue" and "The Today Show."

Geraci's new peace was shattered, though, when Joan was diagnosed with cancer and, after a short and painful battle, succumbed. Helpless in her fight, Geraci says of the lessons he learned, "I don't fear death, but I fear the process of dying."

In grief, and through the prism of his own experience, Geraci earned a PhD in psychology and taught courses on death and dying. He conducted studies on children who had been through near-death experiences, and he wrote a book called "The Four Moments After Death: When Moments Pass and Fade Forever."

He also started to write therapeutic and meditative poems - which came to Cavanagh's attention when the two developed a friendship after "Weather Systems."

"The idea of 'The Passage' came very quickly when Joe told me about his poetry," Cavanagh says. "It seemed obvious to me that we could make a record because of the tone of his voice and because of the quality of the poems themselves. The offer was made, and Joe was happy to go along and I think he felt gratified and proud and even vindicated that, in the later years of his life, he and I and Heather could do this project."

Geraci and Huddleston recorded the poems over two days in Manchester's Silk City Studios studios and sent the files to Cavanagh at Liverpool's Parr Street Studios. Working with engineer Tony Draper, Cavanagh improvised the music in two days.

"It was a very natural progress, very organic," Cavanagh says. "I allowed it to happen intuitively and didn't over-analyze the poems or the track order. It was a beautiful, very enjoyable process."

While Geraci is delighted with "The Passage," he says he's still a bit critical of his own performance.

He says, "I do listen to it, and I think Heather and Dan did lovely work. I have to tell people, though, 'Well, it's not prog rock or party music. It's something you want to experience in a dark room and think about.'"

As for his own family, Geraci says he's definitely getting some kidding about his British songwriter pal and the idea of musical fame.

"I think they're most worried that I'll start walking around in tight, rock star pants," he says.

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