STATE COLLEGE — At the risk of sounding too cliché, it is hard not to compare Ken Baxter’s life story to that of the metaphorical phoenix rising from the ashes. His journey has taken him through a series of bad decisions and unfathomable loss to the creation of a new life filled with love, hope and redemption.
The one constant throughout Baxter’s journey to hell and back has been music. It’s fitting that he’ll use music as a vehicle to share his incredible story with the public when he comes together with some of State College’s most established musicians to present The Philosophy of Hope at The State Theatre on Sept. 21.
With this unique collaboration and a theatrical approach to presenting Baxter’s story, this will not be your typical benefit concert — but then, Baxter’s life story is anything but typical.
“I played music my whole life,” he says. “It took me a long way, and I met all sorts of people. I opened a recording studio, I had a gold album, I played with Joe Cocker’s band and I was also a full-time professional firefighter in New England. What could be better?”
However, he says, his “rock star” lifestyle eventually led to a divorce when his children were teenagers. His eldest son, Nicholai, went on to study at Berklee College of Music, while his younger son, Alex, took the divorce hard and eventually turned to illicit drug use to cope.
In an effort to help Alex, Baxter hired him to help renovate and flip old houses. Eventually, drug dealers Alex knew set one of the houses on fire, causing enough damage to financially devastate Baxter and his then-girlfriend. Desperate, Baxter decided to finish what the arsonists started, using knowledge gleaned from years of firefighting to blow the house off its foundation.
When he was indicted two and a half years later, his arrest made national news, embarrassing Nicholai and causing Alex to blame himself.
“So I went to court, and Alex jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge at the age of 20,” he said.
Emotionally distraught over his son’s suicide, Baxter turned down a chance to make a plea deal that could keep him out of prison, and ended up being incarcerated in Walpole State Prison.
“I so wanted to be punished,” he said. “I didn’t realize the extent of the punishment that would follow. Except, it turned out amazing. It was probably the best years I’ve ever spent in my life.”
Baxter made the most of his time behind bars, befriending a fellow inmate, a brilliant doctor who was dying of cancer. The doctor passed along a wealth of knowledge to Baxter, but perhaps most importantly, he introduced him to a former colleague — Jenny Hwozdek.
“We started a friendship that evolved into what we termed a ‘Victorian romance’ for three and a half years,” Hwozdek says. “I lived here and he was in Massachusetts, so he wrote me letters and I drove back and forth every month to support him. When all you have is time to talk, you really create a connection with someone. … We fell in love and got married in prison. It was actually quite lovely.”
Encouraged by Hwozdek, Baxter convinced the prison to create a writing program, where he honed the skills he is now putting to use as he writes a book about his life, “The Philosophy of Arson.”
He also found a way to keep music in his life, creating a piano keyboard out of cardboard which he used to teach himself music theory and to write songs, some of which he based on other inmates’ stories.
Baxter was released five years ago and relocated to Bellefonte. Not only will the songs he wrote in prison be performed during the concert, but they are also a part of an upcoming album, he says. The instrumental tracks were recorded in Los Angeles by John Mayer’s studio band, a collaboration arranged by Nicholai, an accomplished Grammy-winning music producer and engineer whose film credits include “La La Land” and “A Star Is Born.”
Nicholai is planning to fly into State College for the show.
“Sitting in a prison cell, one of my dreams became that someday, somehow, I’ll play music with my son again. So on this particular evening, the audience will witness with me my form of redemption, when my son and I sit down together for the first time in 15 years to play ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd,” Baxter said.
Hwozdek, who is producing the event, explains, “It’s about sharing an emotional experience. Our goal is to be a musical journey for the evening that is in line with what (Jana Marie Foundation) stands for. The way the songs are put together for the evening, we’re moving from adversity to hope and resilience.”
Marisa Vicere founded the Jana Marie Foundation in 2011 in memory of her sister, who died by suicide, and who used the arts as a form of healing during her life.
“This concert really harnesses the whole energy behind what we do and why we do it. Ken is using this as an expression of himself and his story, to help educate others about the road of recovery and hope, and finding peace in what happens after adversity. That message is so powerful,” Vicere says. “We are really excited to be a part of it and to bring another form of creative expression and storytelling to State College to really promote mental wellness.”
The Philosophy of Hope tickets are on sale for $28 through The State Theatre. For more information about the Jana Marie Foundation, visit.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the national suicide prevention hotline at (800) 273-8255.
(This article originally appeared in the September issue of Town&Gown.)