It took nine hours to leave something of myself behind. A digital something. A lip-synced digital something, a rock-star moment that was indubitably mine.
Three years ago when I was 65, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. To date, I’ve undergone eight operations and three courses of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, this form of cancer is particularly tenacious. In 2005, it killed my older sister, and I’m still battling it today.
Last year I met Jim Ebert, himself a cancer survivor and the founder of Cancer Can Rock. CCR — whose Web address is www.cancercanrock.org — is a foundation that allows musicians with cancer to record a song for posterity, with the help of professional musicians, producers and engineers. I did just that recently, spending nine hours at Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church to record one of my tunes.
Ebert, a music producer who lives in Herndon, got the idea after he was diagnosed with brain cancer 15 years ago and was told that he had a year to live. Obviously, he outlasted the prediction. He’s now cancer-free, but one of the things he considered while undergoing treatment was how impermanent life is. He wanted to leave something behind for his family and friends.
It struck him that a CD would have permanence. If worst came to worst, the CD would outlive the performer and be something for the family to hold on to.
That’s what brings me to Cue Studios, where CCR does its recording. I was here years ago when Idylwood, the band I played with, was finalizing a CD of original rock and pop songs. I was one of the band’s singers and played a variety of instruments including Dobro and pedal steel guitar.
This time I’m recording something I wrote when I was diagnosed with cancer. It is not a happy air; it’s an equal-opportunity, offend-all-deities tune, maybe a little angry because cancer is supposed to happen to other people, not to me. I’m told that later on I’ll have to lip-sync it for the video guys who will show me “singing.” I’m not exactly sure why, but I suppose it has to do with making things look live.
Ebert and I talked before the session and found we shared at least one belief: We’re not afraid of dying. There’s an acceptance there that’s not to be confused with resignation. Still, there isn’t a day cancer doesn’t come up, either in conversation or simply in my mind. The disease makes me feel lonely, unattractive and soiled somehow. I sometimes rely on humor to disarm the threat, telling people my next band will be called the Bad Bladders.
Truth to tell, I’ve been lucky. The chemo’s effects on me were relatively mild, and my doctor feels “we’re gaining on it.” But the disease is stubborn. I’ve been cancer-free twice now, only to be told three months later that it has returned. I start getting anxious and depressed weeks before the every-three-months tests. I lose sleep; I have panic attacks, and there’s a lot of anger there. I try to deal with it in constructive ways. Making music is one of them.
In the booth I take a few deep breaths and sing the song a couple of times. The session musicians do an arrangement that is right out of spaghetti Westerns. In other words, it’s perfect. I sing some more. The hours speed by and the song comes together nicely. The clunker notes I hit, the sharps and flats, are fixed. A woman with a gorgeous voice does some really beautiful backup. My own voice is doubled so I sound . . . well, rock-starrish. The guitarist does a cool intro and a musical break in the middle. This guy is good! By the time the drummer packs up his gear, we have the beginning of something different and entertaining.
A two-person video crew is taping the recording session, along with an interview. Ebert asks questions about my situation; we talk about the impact cancer has on one’s life. We relate well because he’s been through the same thing as me. Truth is, it’s almost impossible to discuss how much cancer can affect everyday existence unless it’s with someone who’s in the same boat. I’ve found many close friends are uncomfortable when I bring the subject up, so most of the time I simply don’t, even when I’d like to.
Now it’s lip-sync time and this makes me a lot more nervous than actually singing. I’ve played and sung with bands for decades, but whenever I did, words actually came out of my mouth. Not so here. I mouth the opening line of the song, “Jesus my friend, you weren’t here in the end . . . .” I do it several times while the camera guy finds the angle that will make me look like an international sensation. I am instructed to look poetically to the right. Then I am told to put on a Clint Eastwood stare-at-the-darkening-horizon squint. I’m pretty sure I look like Peter Sellers trying to look like Clint Eastwood.
Once more. This synching stuff is hard! I lip-sync, “Buddha you would’ve, if only you could’ve . . . .” I’m convinced my mouth looks as if it’s saying something about butter and maybe Gouda cheese. I lip-sync so much my lips get sore. I get a new appreciation for Mariah Carey, who lip-synced “Touch My Body” on “Good Morning America.”
Finally, the video producer says, “We’re done.”
With the acting through, we get back to real singing because unbeknown to me, all the prior vocals were just practice. I am starting to get a little hoarse. Sean, who’s working the mixing board, keeps saying, “That was great! Awesome! You’re a natural! Now do it just one more time!” He says that seven times. My delivery is getting better. When we reach the song’s final line, I growl, “God bless me!” And then Sean says, “Okay, take a break.”
And that’s that. We listen to what we have. I’m thrilled! My friend Rich Forsen, a former bandmate whose Network Depot company is a CCR sponsor, knows my music. We’ve played a very different version of this song together. Now he’s noncommittal: “That didn’t come out the way I thought it would.” He’s right, but that’s what makes playing music with others so enjoyable. You can’t tell what you’ll end up with. I didn’t know I had a spaghetti Western tune in my repertoire.
Ebert will use his skills to finalize the tune, blending bits and pieces of track to make a complete song. The video guys will edit their footage and, I pray, not make me look too foolish. It will all come together within two or three weeks.
In the meantime, I’ve been told I’ll need to have a ninth surgery. Whatever forces are altering my body are tenacious. I remain confident that I’ll survive this somehow, but I’ve also done the things I need to do. My will is finalized. So are various do-not-resuscitate orders. And I have a very fine production of one of my songs, put together by very fine professionals.
Folks, I have arrived!
Sagnier is a writer and musician. This article was adapted from his blog at www.epiphanettes.blogspot.com.