Apr 23, 2024, 06:24AM

The Beautiful Memory of My Cancer Music

Sade and other sounds for the final journey.

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Every once in a while I’ll think of my cancer music. It’s the music that accompanied me in 2008 when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

What a strange, harrowing and beautiful time. I don’t like the cliches of cancer writing: I focus on the thrill of that near-death experience. In 2008 I knew my time might be coming to a close, and I wanted to fit in as much living as I could. I also didn’t feel like the art and love and sex and culture I was immersing myself in was a goodbye to those things. I have faith that they exist on the other side, with God. My 2008 soundtrack isn’t exit music for a film. It’s entrance music to heaven.

So I immersed myself in it. The artists from that time still bring me back there—Sade, Kurt Elling, the Twilight Sad, and Jon Hassell’s dreamy, holy Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street. Hassell had started with Miles Davis but moved into electronica, ambient sound collages and quirky space echoes. Pitchfork nailed it: ”It's electric-blanket music, isolation-tank music, lucid-dreaming music that moves as assuredly as if by the power of your own suggestion.” Perfect for the trip to the afterlife.

At the time I was diagnosed I was dating a woman from India. We were in love. She’d just escaped an arranged marriage and was divorced. I was a happy journalist who loved swing dancing, which is where we met. However, my energy, that of someone who had always been an athlete, was way off, One morning I woke up with a terrible pain in my abdomen. It was bad enough that I drove myself to the hospital. The news wasn’t good.

Or was it? The cancer diagnosis provided an exhilarating liberation. I could live with abandon. My girlfriend had been in a bad marriage, her husband taking away her cell phone and not letting her go too far outside the crappy Maryland suburb where he managed a liquor store. If I was a short-timer I could spend the days and nights showing her D.C., my native town. We hit the Kennedy Center, the 9:30 Club, Blues Alley, the National Shrine, the Uptown Theater and the jazz clubs on U Street. She was brilliant and ferociously witty. One evening after we made love the sun was going down outside my bedroom window. “I think you’re funny,” I said. “I think,” she replied, “that you are my bliss.”

I will take the memory of seeing the lovely curve of the back of her neck as she said that to my last heartbeat.

I also loved Kurt Elling, the jazz singer and former divinity student. In  2007 and 2009 Elling had released a fantastic one-two punch: the albums Nightmoves and Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman. We saw Elling perform at the Kennedy Center, Blues Alley and the Strathmore Center. I adored his version of Coltrane’s “Dedicated to You.”

If I should write a book for you 
That brought me fame and fortune too
That book would be, like my heart and soul and me
Dedicated to you 

There was also the Twilight Sad, the “Scottish miserabilists” who combine punk, noise, Scottish folk and Cure-inspired synth waves to leveling effect. The band’s anguish and beauty were a perfect reflection of the trauma, confusion and weird elation that comes from looking into the abyss. Forget the Night Ahead is a towering work of art that belongs next to the best rock and punk albums of all time. In 2009 the band played the Black Cat in D.C., a show The Washington Post called “a muddy bliss of sound” with a “furnace-blast intensity.” The band live made me feel defiant, awash in feedback, anger and euphoria. Their mind-altering song “The Neighbors Can’t Breathe” has one of the greatest opening lines ever: “They’re no thoughts of mine this time.”

My girlfriend loved Sade. Sade’s music is otherworldly. We went to see her on the Soldier of Love tour. It was 2010, and I was getting better, but was also getting intimations that the relationship wasn’t going to last. There was the culture clash between me and her Indian family, but more important was the inescapable fact that cancer treatment is hard on relationships. Sade, so regal and resplendent live, foreshadowed the end:

You'll always know the reason why
The song you heard
Will stay on your mind
It ain't gonna let you go, no
'Cos you were the moon
And I the endless sky

I survived and my girlfriend moved on, marrying someone from India. My time hadn’t come yet. God had more planned for me. I hope to see her and everyone I love. As Sade sings, it will be “in another time, in another place.”


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