That might have seemed like wishful thinking for the musician. In 2017, Paul was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. A severe reaction to the chemotherapy drugs is what had stopped his heart while he was being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. But as Paul recovered from that setback — as he and his family spent months and months in the dark valley that is chronic illness — he noticed that the songs kept coming.
I met Paul about 10 years ago, when I took drum lessons from him. My Lovely Wife and I were among the army of friends who prepared meals for Paul, his wife, Julie, and their sons, Stewart, now 18, and Pierce, now 14. Because Paul’s immune system was severely compromised, we’d leave them in a cooler at the back of their house in Silver Spring, Md.
Last month, Paul sent me a link to download a thank-you present: an album he’d recorded in his basement studio. It’s called “Gratitude.”
Paul didn’t set out to produce a concept album about the doctors and nurses working selflessly to get us through the coronavirus pandemic. “Gratitude” is about his own personal pandemic and the people who helped him survive it. But as I listened to his 11 songs, I was struck by how universal the themes are and how applicable they are to these viral times.
An Elvis Costello-esque song called “Helping Hands” includes the line: “Helping hands all through the night, they lift you up to hold you tight. They let you down, though with a plan, to heal again, these helping hands.”
“Ultimate Heroes” is about his sons. Stewart was just 14 when he donated lifesaving bone marrow for Paul. The sentiment could apply to the masked and gowned medical personnel we see on the evening news: “Plain heroes, no cape, you give so we can take. You bend so we don’t break.”
On the title track, Paul sings, “I want to write a song for you and call it ‘Gratitude,’ ’cause there’s nothing in this world, yeah, you know I wouldn’t do for you, just to pay it back and forward, though I know you’d never ask me to.”
Said Paul: “As I was experiencing this utterly hellish, frightening crap, I was also experiencing great, great support and love. I was just very emotionally open, I guess, and these tunes started to come out. This was the theme that evolved. It was literally like fuel to keep on going.”
When his throat had recovered from being intubated, Paul hummed ideas into a recording app on his phone. Later, he asked his doctor if it was safe to bring a small acoustic guitar into his room.
When Paul returned home after his successful treatment, he wrote out the lyrics and recorded acoustic backing tracks in his studio. Then he put them aside.
In early 2019, Paul was back to feeling like his old self. He started overdubbing instruments: bass, drums, keyboards, numerous vocals. When the world locked down this spring, he devoted more time to the project.
“In 2020, with all this global, horrible [stuff] going on, I was even more energized to do these songs about gratitude for all the folks who work to keep people alive,” he said.
Paul is doing fine now health-wise. He’s back working — from home — as a counselor in the House of Representatives’ employee assistance office. He uploaded the album to various streaming services under his performing moniker: Taxbeagy. It’s a corruption of his often-misspelled last name. (You can listen to “Gratitude” at paultewksburymusic.com.)
The clarity that Paul’s sickness gave him also took some of the pressure off. When he was a younger man — playing in bands around D.C. and putting out CDs — he obsessed over how his music would be received. At 50 and having stared death in the face, he doesn’t care.
“I’m not self-conscious about it,” he said. “Back in the day I’d worry: ‘What do people think? Will it sell?’ This time, it’s more about: I want to express gratitude and love in a musical way to the people who literally helped me and my family survive.
“This sounds corny as hell, but this is me saying I wanted to put maximum love vibes in each track. That was sort of the goal. I want to show that old guys can rock, too.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.