― George R.R. Martin
It's a very hard day today for those of us who were touched by the story of John Grabski III, a man who stared Death in the face and held it at bay while doing the living he needed to do, laughing the entire way.
I feel a lot different from many of my fellow musicians at shows, as well as the lot of you here. I didn't go to school for music. I didn't attend assloads of shows, or get hooked up with a scene. I was however an always-evolving music fan and for many years I was only an occasional musician, usually in small towns. I had kids early in adulthood and resigned to become a worker ant; feeling almost sure that if anything my love for playing music was going to be relegated to a hobby. In the back of my head I kept my skill growth and mental approach, I knew somehow that I would need to call upon rock & roll musicianship someday. My family separated in '05 though and my role as a father became really limited in a way that I never had much control over, depressingly so. But I used my newfound extra time to do things like convert my bedroom into a recording studio and record an album's worth of material. I did it for me; I didn't expect to be signed, I wasn't looking to start a band, no, I just wanted to make some rock music.
Then I got sick. Turns out it was testicular cancer. But the biopsy showed weird stuff and I had a 9 lb tumor in my abdomen. The surgery just about killed me, and I had tons of chemotherapy which was all hail-marys as not even the best minds in cancer knew how to treat what was some undocumented presentations of several types of cancer that had evolved from the original testicular cancer I had. Then more cancer was found in my chest. This was cancer type number 5, and was even rarer and harder to treat. More surgeries, more chemo, and some radiation. I almost died many times. But in November of 2008 I was in remission, and we all thought I was in the clear.
So I started working again (Creative Director at a software company and then landscaping... I needed to leave the office and get outside!), I spent a lot of time with my family, and I converted my attic into another low-fi recording studio. I never got myself to 100% physically speaking, not quite; but I tried my arse off. I never psychologically recovered from all of that stuff either, and I was thrown for a hell of a loop in spring '10 when I was told that I had a mass on my lung. The resulting major surgery ended up being unnecessary, all it was was scar tissue. But by then I had helped form Cheebahawk, and I recovered quickly and we started gigging in December of last year. We worked hard, scored some fun gigs including a great show @ Fontana's in NYC, and we kept developing newer and more complex material. So life without cancer was getting better. I even got some help from a shrink to help me better deal with all that had happened to me and my family due to my disease(s).
Then I had a scan this summer and we found out it was back. Biopsy showed that the 5th type of cancer had returned, and I had some scans that were supposed to show the surgeon an easy route to removing two small tumors, one on the front side and one on the backside of my lung. But that's not what happened. They found several other tumors and took them out, but could not totally remove the one on my heart... and the backside of my lung tumor had grown to the size of a nerf football, and has started to kinda merge with my lung which is a bad, bad thing. They can't take it out.
My body can't take any more chemo. Only certain areas of my body can stand radiation as I did get blasted in a few different areas over the years, and as I said earlier that big tumor can't be removed as it's too involved with other tissue and it's in a bad spot. Also it's clear to me and my longtime surgeon that it's likely that if I have another surgery, i'll likely shut down and pass away on the table. I have sooo much scar tissue, and I'm in a lot of pain a lot of the time. So what I'm doing now is radiation. Basically "comfort care" radiation, to try and shrink stuff so that I can be comfortable for as long as possible, especially that big tumor... when it grows back, or just continues to grow, nothing can be done about it, and it will likely be what claims me.
So after years of fighting it finally has a grip on me. I've had the best doctors in the country as well as some major cancer panels (consortiums of the best minds in the biz) looking over me, and honestly I wasn't supposed to last this long. I'm facing reality head-on, with realism, with a sense of humor, and with love for life, love for those I love, and love for rock & roll.
So I'm kinda in bucket list mode. And one thing I wanted to get done was an album, regardless of my skill as a musician. So Steve telling me on the phone that he'd like me to come down for a few days and get this done - it's a dream come true. It'll only be a five or six track album, and it won't light the world on fire, but I'm going to distribute it and promote it somehow, and will make sure a large percentage of revenues go toward cancer research.
Steve Albini donated his time and studio to this project for free, as did Chicago Mastering's Bob Weston. Melvins and Big Business drummer Coady Willis sent him a snare drum to use during the session. John and his brother Benjamin made the drive from New York state to Electrical Audio in Chicago, IL and emerged with this:
The Strain is a harrowing, exhilarating document of defiance in the face of Death and its hooded axeman, Cancer. It's classic, visceral grunge in the grandest tradition of Bleach-era Nirvana, Sabbath, Melvins, Mudhoney, with all their sardonic winks and scoffs scratched across a bed of true grit. "I'm as serious as cancer," John groans in the opening "Platinum," betraying the genuine humor and lust for life that ignited him through this entire project. It'd be worth a listen even without the "dude bucket listing in his final months" context, yet it's impossible to separate Teeth's only album from its origin story now.
John Grabski III died last night at far too young an age, after a heroic fight against our common foe. By "our" i mean "all of humanity," but anyone following my life for the last year knows that i've had my own issues with Cancer recently. Joss Whedon wrote these powerful words for Angel to speak in the final hours of his story: "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do." We're only on this planet once, and who the hell knows what happens afterward. Maybe John's on another plane of existence, being greeted with open arms by the Cobains and Hendrixes; maybe there is nothing left of him but The Strain and the inspiration his story has implanted in the hearts of all those who have heard his tale. Either way, what matters is that John stared down the Reaper, said "hold your goddamn horses," and did more living in his final six months than many people do in 80+ years. If the measure of a person's life is how many people you touch in your limited time, then John has set a goddamn high bar for the rest of us to match.
So as John so often said/typed/hashtagged, "Rock vs. death--rock wins." Death may have gained an upper hand last night, but surely its victory is hollow, as it was preceded by blinding, thrilling, blistering LIFE. Sorry, Death, but the judges hand this one to rock. Not today, Death. Not today.