Just look at that mugshot of me accompanying this column. Does that look like a guy that a punk rock star would write a song about? A nice one, I mean?
If you’ve read my recent columns you know two important things about me. First, despite a lack of talent, I love music. Second, what I do seem to have a talent for is getting cancer — beat it once 16 years ago, got a different kind now, and while it's inoperable, it’s not going to kill me anytime soon.
One of the fortunate side effects of cancer for me has been an overactive sense of gratitude. When something makes me happy, I have an almost unnatural compulsion to say so. If I get a great letter to the editor, eat a great burger or hear a great new song, I’ve got to thank someone.
That’s how I became pen pals a decade ago with my first real rock musician. His name is Harvey Barham, and I stumbled across his debut solo album on a best-of list in 2008 or 2009. The album, City of Champions, had big guitars, harmonies and great, quirky lyrics. I found his email address and told him so.
We’ve talked on the phone a few times and regularly exchanged emails. We’ve swapped music tips. He’s a man of faith, so he’s prayed for me and my family. And he shared with me demos — years in the making — before the release about a year ago of his second album, "The Lonely Dads Club", which is about waking up one day, finding you’re responsible for keeping people alive and doing grownup things and not being sure you’re up to it.
If you can track down the CD, you’ll find me mentioned in the liner notes. Harvey says I "encouraged" him. The truth is I just hassled him every few months about when he was going to finish his album.
Most of my interactions with musicians are short back-and-forths. I tell them thanks for the music, why it touched me and why I was compelled to reach out. Since most of the artists I listen to aren’t mega-stars, they’re often happy (or seem so) to hear that people are finding their music and enjoying it.
It was another email exchange that resulted in me being immortalized in song.
One morning I was rummaging through websites looking for new music when I found Duncan Reid and the Big Heads. Duncan, I learned later, had been a member of The Boys, a British punk band, in the late 1970s and early ’80s. They were far more influential than they were commercially successful. After interesting careers in and out of music, Duncan was back at it with his own band.
I found three great albums by them on a website called bandcamp.com, a kind of combination of Facebook and iTunes, that makes it easy for fans to connect with other fans and artists. Moments after my purchase, I got a thank-you note from Duncan. "Ba-da-boom! £21.00," he wrote. And I replied to say thanks for the tunes.
Music, I told him, had been my constant friend, always there to strengthen me as I dealt with cancer, kids and and other scary things. It accompanies me on every trip to the Mayo Clinic for scans and surgery. It came with me for every chemo treatment. And it was my soundtrack for hospital stays short and long.
That was the first of many email exchanges with Duncan about music, journalism, politics, soccer, gardening, parenting, zucchinis (the British call them courgettes) and now quarantines.
Duncan is a great storyteller, and he does it frequently in songs. One day, a demo showed up as a digital file in my email inbox. Duncan had called it “Dave,” and it was the story of a guy with cancer who found strength and joy in music. Sound familiar?
Duncan said he and the band were working on an album, and they’d likely come up with a couple of dozen songs before picking the best for the album. "Dave" sounded pretty good to me, but all it would take would be 10 or so better tunes to relegate me to bonus-track status or, worse, the digital trash can.
Fast forward to today — literally today, May 15 — and the release of "Don’t Blame Yourself," the new album from Duncan Reid and the Big Heads. Track 13 is "Dave." I made the cut.
For most of my favorite artists, music isn’t quite a career, but it’s far more than an expensive hobby. Maybe “calling” is the right word.
Harvey has recorded music for years and runs a home health care business in Texas.
Duncan lives in London, and he and his Big Heads tour the world, or they did until the coronavirus.
Among my other rock 'n' roll pen pals are an architect, an actor, a music teacher, an IT manager, a guy in the hospitality industry, a retired Chicago detective and a fellow journalist.
Most of them aren’t expecting sellout stadium crowds or huge royalty checks — though I’m sure they wouldn’t mind either. Instead, they quietly — or loudly — craft catchy 3-minute songs, arrange their own shows, haul their own equipment to small venues and count record sales in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands. They find joy simply in making music — and the friends that go along with it.
And I find joy in being one of those friends, a lucky guy with a backstage pass to the lives of some great people who make great music.