MARK KARAN

interview with David Gans 12/19/07
Transcribed by Ruth Allison

DG: So you came out of your forced retirement in a major way last [Saturday] night at the Warfield Theater, making an unexpected and quite extensive appearance with Ratdog...

MK: Yes, considerably more extensive than was originally projected [giggles]. We had talked about me doing one or two songs, and I was in no hurry to leave the stage, and I don't think anybody was in any hurry for me to leave the stage, and Barry and I were gettin' along great so...it was pretty fun.

DG: How did it come about? Maybe we should backtrack to the beginning. You took time off from Ratdog earlier this year because...

MK: ...Because I was diagnosed with throat cancer, and that was pretty shocking. Not that I'm a sprightly young thing at 52, but I'm not what I would define as an 'old guy', and somehow that had always been something that happens to old guys and other people, and all of a suddenthere it was in my lap. And, uh, yeah, so Bonnaroo was the last gig I did with Ratdog.

DG: That was in June?

MK: Yeah. That's correct. So it's been about 6 months. It had been about 6 months since I'd played any electric music really, other than - I had a ball right as my radiation treatments were starting, in that I got to sit in with the New Riders at the Sausalito Arts Festival and also with Lesh and his bunch at the Greek. So that was fun! But that was the only electric music I got to do for 6 months, and I've been antsy! [laughs]

DG: So it felt good to get back at the Warfield...

MK: It was a ball...yeah..yeah...absolutely

DG: So you were diagnosed in June?

MK: I was actually diagnosed in May, right...or June? Okay, June. That's right, the reason I was able to do Bonnaroo was that it was just prior to the biopsy operation. So when I got home I went into the hospital and this cancer showed up in my tonsil so they had to take a bit of my tonsil out and take a peek at it and at that point I was pretty adamantly saying "It's not cancer! I don't know what it is, but it's not cancer! I can say that definitively". Until, as I was coming out of my little operation coma and saw my surgeon standing right there and he was saying "I'm really sorry, Mr. Karan. It's what I said it probably was". And then I had a really strange experience where I'd had a lot of resistance and a lot of fear and all that. And all of that just suddenly went away, and I got very accepting of what was going on. Like 'Okay, this is what's up. This is what's on my plate, and whether I like it or not it's not going anywhere so I need to deal with it and not be in denial about it and it's not gonna do me or anybody else any good to be all angry about it or feel put- upon by the Universe or any of that stuff'. And, uh, I was gifted with some sort of sense that I wasn't being diagnosed with cancer so that I could leave the planet. I was being diagnosed with cancer so that I could grow and learn from the experience. And that's pretty much what I've been doing, y'know, this has been a phenomenal opportunity for me in terms of spiritual growth and emotional growth. Like a lot of us on this planet, I've been holding on to a lot of garbage for a lot of years. And this was a real opportunity for me to let go of a lot of past hurts and angers and feeling put- upons and resentments and stuff- crap that I'd been holding onto since I was a kid or a teenager or something, y'know. So as odd as it is to say, I'm gonna have to say the cancer has been a real blessing.

DG: It does tend to focus you very much on what you need to do...

MK: Yeah..yeah.. So much of our days are spent focused on crap, and we really let the crap own us, and run us, and it's got nothing to do with what's important. (wry laugh) I mean, who cares what's going on in your career? Who cares what's going on in your financial world? Y'know, and what is the advantage of assuming that the entire world on some level is out to get you? ( both laugh) And, frankly, that's where I'd lived most of my life. On some kinda level. Not necessarily all that visible to other people, even. But I knew it. I knew it inside myself. I knew that I had a lot of sense that I somehow wasn't getting mine or my fair share or that kinda dark stuff that a lot of us walk around with. I really feel like a lot of that got released. I'm very blessed by that.

DG: Can you talk a little more about how that works?

MK: Um, well, karmically, it works in really impressive ways. I mean, uh, for one example, my very first love, my high school sweetheart, the one that you first lose yourself to love fully and first experience the earth-shattering pain of the loss of love, y'know, well, we had a pretty-- we were together for over 3 years, which is kinda unusual at that age, and we got pretty deep into each other, and it was pretty painful and pretty ugly for both of us when it ended. And I hadn't heard from her or spoken to her in any way in well over 30 years. And, ah, out of nowhere, she reached out to me to reconnect. And we were able to forgive one another and talk about things that were painful that had never been talked about and re-establish a friendship. And that was only one of at least half a dozen people like that from my past that reached out to me when they found out what was goin' on, uh, unsolicited. I didn't reach out to them. These are people that just came out of the woodwork and offered me these amazingly healing exchanges and so that had a lot to do with emotional healing.

And also, frankly, a book I was reading called You Can't Afford The Luxury Of A Negative Thought. And it's all about, not positive thinking - because positive thinking winds up resembling denial a lot of the time, y'know, where you can be sick with something like cancer and you can say "I don't have cancer and if I say that loud enough and hard enough it'll really happen". Good luck with that. But what they talk about is positive focus. Because a lot of us go through life with a negative focus. We're always looking for what's wrong with something so it can be fixed. We're always looking for what's missing from this picture, what's bad about this experience, y'know, and it's just a matter of shifting focus. To be able to look at any situation that you would have found some problem with and be able to find what's good about it. Instead of where are you different from another person, where are you connected, where are you similar? Instead of what's wrong with this picture, or what's ugly about this music, what works for me about it? Y'know, it's where do you want to focus your attention? And it's been workin' for me. I mean, whenever I can remember to I try to find something positive to think about somebody or think about some experience. And it's a very different way of going through life. I think a lot of people do it naturally and bless them for having that but I think an awful lot of us go through life from a pretty dark perspective. I think that's probably got a lot to do with why there's so much violence and war and people that don't care about each other because there much too worried about how much money can they earn or that sorta thing. I don't know that I took any active steps. I don't know that there's anything I can describe that would be an action that I took that led to what I've been talking about. It's really just sort of the way events took me, and maybe the fact that I was willing to go where I was being taken.

DG: How did your boss and your bandmates and your community respond?

MK: WOW! That was huge. My bandmates were all, needless to say, pretty bummed, as was I, y'know, and pretty scared for me and I think it also wakes up a lot of fear in ourselves when something like this happens to somebody we care about because it brings to the forefront our own mortality. So they had to deal with all of that. Um, but they were nothing but 100% supportive and loving. They were able to keep me financially afloat and that was a big help. And they were able to offer a lot of emotional support, y'know, they came and visited me here at the house several times between tours. The truth is we don't normally hang out together a lot unless we're in the rehearsal space or on tour on the bus together. So just having them in the space, in our home space, was really lovely.

And everybody reached out a lot from tour. Charucki, our monitor guy and stage manager, made it a habit to call almost every single night from tour. We'd get a call at about 11 o' clock at night which was generally about 2 a.m. for them and, y'know, usually everybody was a little buzzed or somethin' on the other end of the line. And we'd get a call from the back lounge of the crew bus or the lounge, one of the lounges on the band bus, and everybody'd just be hollerin' into the phone or they'd pass the phone around to everybody and everybody would get a chance to say hi and, and connect and do the well-wishes thing and that was pretty special. So that's the band thing.

The community...the family...um...that's a whole 'nother thing, um...

My wife and my mom put together a thing online at this place called CarePages.com. And it was an opportunity for us to talk a little bit about what was going on for us and for people to respond. For people to sign up with this webpage and see what was going on and see what other people had to say and say a little something themselves. And one of the posts that I put on there I had expressed that I had a lifelong history of maybe feeling on some level undeserving or not enough as a person, maybe not a good enough musician, maybe just not a good enough human being. And the way that the community responded to this - speaking of all the healing and stuff that we were a little while ago- the way that the community responded to this uh, was really a mindblower. I didn't expect nearly the hugeness of response and the warmth and the love from just so many people. I mean, I got like TONS and TONS of really warmly lovingly felt greeting cards and stuff like that. You know, get well cards and things. And people sent me ideas for healing, y'know, herbal things and various cures and links to places online for medical websites and things like this. People sent me chants and things to do, Tibetan chants,or yogic chants, things of that nature. Just..ah...well, people were amazing. The posts on this CarePages page were just so heartfelt and really gave me an opportunity to, for the first time in my life, have some sense of, um, how what I do and who I am and what I bring to the party affects other people. My perception, my thoughts about how all that worked previously had been that I was really a lucky guy that ... led a pretty selfish life on a lot of levels. That I got to go through my life playing music and having fun and good on me! And that's all true. There's nothing wrong with that, and that's a wonderful thing. But I had no idea how what I did really affected other people. So when people would write, that when they were going through cancer or something along those lines, that they'd be listening to my music and that's part of what helped them get through the cancer or through a major breakup of a lover or spouse or something like that, or the loss of a loved one, or any of that kinda stuff.. y'know.. um... a lot of people expressed that my music helped them with that and I never had any idea about that. And...uh.. it affected me pretty deeply. And...um...and it allowed me to..uh.. maybe get a sense of my own value in a way that had I never had before.

DG: At a time when it would do you some good!

MK: Ah, yer damn tootin'! [laughs] Absolutely! y'know...

DG: Can we talk a little bit about how the chemo and surgery and stuff went? I don't wanna dwell on it...

MK: No, no, it's fine, it's fine. I mean, let's face it - much as I'd like to talk about music, and I'm sure we'll get to some of that, this was, needless to say, the biggest event in my year, if not my life, y'know, certainly one of them in my life. I didn't really have to go through any surgery. Um, the only surgery I actually encountered was when they had to take a piece of my tonsil for the biopsy. And being only a piece, and being a tonsil, y'know, 5-year-olds go through that regularly, ah, it wasn't that big a deal.

The way that they decided to treat my cancer was with a pretty heavy course of chemotherapy and then a pretty heavy course of radiation, with the thought in mind that hopefully I wouldn't have to encounter any surgery. Cause the surgery that would've dealt with what I had was pretty hairy. They were talking about, if they went the surgical route, they were talking about taking a piece of my leg to make me some more neck. And I wasn't really down with that. So what they did instead was, as I say, this heavy chemo run and this heavy radiation run. And the chemo run basically was 3 courses where I would do an entire week of being connected to a chemotherapy drip, and then I would have two weeks to recover from that. The first week I did in the hospital so they could keep an eye on how I responded to it, and the amazing and wonderful thing about that week was that in that very first week of chemo , the lump on my neck that was the mestastazation of the original tonsil tumor and had created a dual lymph node lump on my neck that was close to seven centimeters - and by the end of the first week of chemo it was down to less than two centimeters. And all of the doctors were blown away. They were just really pleased that I was so responsive to the chemo. And after the next two courses of chemo - which I was able to do at home with this fabulous new development where they actually strap, like a fanny pack with a little mini-pump in the fanny pack. They hook you up to a little port device that they deposit under your skin. See, I have a little port in my chest, and this tube coming out of the port in my chest into this fanny pack, and I was able to stay home. And walk around the house and be with my wife and the dogs and my guitars and look at our trees and that was a pretty healing enviornment to be in. So I did the two more weeks of the chemo and had a good response to the chemo, and then went through six and a half weeks of radiation.

And the first little-over-a-month was pretty uneventful, not much in the way of side effects or anything. Last couple of weeks got a little hairier, ah, sore throats and things of that nature. And then the two weeks AFTER the radiation treatment the proverbial poop hit the fan and my neck exploded into a giant scab and, uh, the mythical mouth sores that I'd heard about for weeks and weeks suddenly occurred. And I had about two or three weeks of pretty hellacious experiences. But I'm on the downside of all that now and I'm, ah, pretty well healed. And everything is pointing in the direction of clear scans.


I'm scheduled for a couple of scans in the next couple of months. The first one, they say, will likely still show some residual cancer. But they'll get a good, solid sense of whether it's on the way out or whether it's something that still needs to be contended with. Pretty strong sentiment seems to be that it will be on it's way out. And then the following month I'll get a pep scan and that will show us whether I get the all-clear, and then they just basically, they're gonna keep an eye on me for the next three to five years at always longer intervals of time between checks. But they want to make sure they keep an eye on me for awhile to make sure nothing NARSTY comes back for a follow up visit. But given my age, given the response to the treatment, given the type of cancer that it is and where it actually originated, everything is pointing in the direction of it being handled. So...

DG: It's interesting when they start using the word 'cure'.

MK: They don't say 'cure' with cancer. Ah, they say 'remission'. So the Western philosophy, the doctors' philosophy, anyway, is that once you have cancer, "you have cancer. And you are surviving with cancer and it's in remission but it's not gone." I don't know that I necessarily choose to live with that thought process in my head. Because, for me, whether it's a form of denial or not, I really don't care. [laughs] For me, I just feel like putting that kind of thought into my head opens the door to a return trip...

DG: Mmmm hmmm...

MK: And whether it's realistic or not, for me it's just gonna be a much more comfortable ride for me to say "No, it's not coming back!" and I'm saying that with adamance and surety. And if it wants to prove me wrong like they did at my biopsy, well then, so be it. Y'know, but for now I think I'll choose to believe that it's NOT coming back.
I also gotta say that there were, um, some people that really showed up in this whole process of cancer and dealing with the diagnosis and the prognosis and all of that stuff. I had had a couple of friends who had gone through it and paved the way before me with the actual same kind of cancer, with the throat cancer. My dear friend Billy Lee Lewis, a drummer that I played on and off with for many, many years had contracted the same cancer and had come through it and he offered me a lot of support and answered a lot of questions that I had. And Wally Ingram, David Lindley's drummer and Sheryl Crow's drummer, is an acquaintance that I had had and we shored up our acquaintance a little bit because he also paved the way. And a gentleman named Stephen Bruton, a wonderful guitar player/singer/songwriter out of the Austin scene, who's played with Bonnie Raitt and a bunch of really cool and interesting people...

DG: Isn't he Kristofferson's guitar player?

MK: I think that's very possible, yeah, yeah... And he does his own records that are wonderful. He's producing LuAnn Barton's record right now, and in fact just got back from New Orleans where he added Dr. John to several tracks on LuAnn's record. And he was just wonderful. I mean, he called and spent literally hours with me on the telephone, calming me down, reassuring me, telling me some of what I could expect - both going through it and on the other end. Just really encouraging me. And through having known all ofthese wonderful musicians and having been actually contacted by Levon Helm, who also went through something similar, uh, we've all been talking about putting together a band, actually, out of this, called The Survivors.

DG: (chuckles)

MK: That would be all cancer survivors to be able to do money-raising and education - spreading benefits and the like, um, to get the word out about cancer, maybe in particular throat cancer, maybe not in particular throat cancer, maybe just about cancer in general and what's going on with it and what needs to be going on with it and things of that nature. Ah, also my pet, ah, my pet thing right now is people without medical insurance and in particular, because of what I am and what I do, musicians without medical insurance and I'm wanting to really figure out what I can do to contribute to raising awareness about that and maybe also raising money around that, helping some of my fellow musicians. Right now Bill Laymon is going through a situation, the bass player from David Nelson's band, is going through a situation where he has had a rather serious cancer and has no money to pay for it. There's no insurance at all. And another gentleman that we met, Don Kirkpatrick from Rod Stewart's band, same situation. And these guys...we looked at my bill, at the total on my bill coming through UCSF, and it's nearly a million dollars. If we hadn't had medical insurance, we would be bankrupt, we probably wouldn't have a home, I certainly wouldn't have my guitars or recording studio, and we STILL might not be up to what we owed. Y'know, so, this is huge. I'm angry with this country that, ah, that we don't have something that's country-backed. The evils of socialism escape me somehow. Um, and I highly recommend that everybody out there see 'Sicko' if at all possible. We need to do something about this. It's ridiculous, that people can't get good, proper medical care in their own country supported by their own government.

DG: True enough.

MK: So enough rant from me. (giggles)

DG: NOW let's talk about music! What are your plans?

MK: Ah, my plans! (laughs) Well, you know what they say about plans and God and all that...My plans for about 20 plus years now have been to make some sort of a Mark Karan record. Whether it came under the heading of Mark Karan, or whether it came under the heading of Jemimah Puddleduck or whatever, something that was informed by something that I was originating as opposed to supporting someone else's vision. And, um, as much as I love supporting Bob Weir's musical vision, I have my own thoughts and my own ideas. And so I have a recording studio. And I haven't really made the effort, made the connection to go down into my studio and make music happen. Well, my dear friend Robin Sylvester from Ratdog is a genius in the studio. He's a wonderful engineer and a great arranger as well as being a wonderful bass player and a wonderful guitar player and a wonderful piano player. So I hit him up at these rehearsals leading up to the Warfield thing. I hit him up as to whether or not he'd be interested in helping out and co-producing this record with me and being an impetus, an inspiration, someone that could help kick me in the ass to actually do something. And he was not only interested, he was thrilled. And said that he was needing a project himself, that he was starting to pace the floor in circles and almost decided to rebuild his studio just to have something to do. Uh, so I think, for the next couple of months, until Ratdog moves into its next tour phase, Robin and I will finally be working on a record. And we have a bunch of tracks that were recorded in Los Angeles at JT's studio with Molo and JT and Bob Gross, the Puddleduck fellas, ah, so it may wind up being a Puddleduck record, it may be a Mark Karan record that has some tracks on it featuring Jemimah Puddleduck. Um, I've got some tunes- in fact, I managed to eek out a tune in the hospital, ah, during my first week of chemo that's a very, ah, healing-through-cancer-inspired song, a very sort of spiritual in its orientation...Ah, it's not clever. I have a tendency to try to be clever when I write songs and I've been trying to police myself on that anyway. And this is the first,I think, of the next batch of things that are gonna be a little less clever and a little bit more connected to life and what I am and who I am and what's really going on. And, um, I'm pretty thrilled to be able to take that on! And, frankly, I'm excited about working with Robin because he's got this whole British orientation in his approach to music, in his approach to sound, in how he engineers and arranges things and I don't have that. So I think between the two of us it's gonna be a really fun, unique thing to work on.

DG: And Ratdog goes back out in March?

MK: That's the rumour, yeah. Um, we were actually originally thinking about doing something in late January or early February and that got put on the back burner temporarily while Bobby took care of a problem, a medical problem he was having with his shoulder that's apparently been handled already. In fact, he had it done just a couple of days before the Warfield show, which is a real statement on the state of medicine these days -- that he could have a cyst in his shoulder taken care of just a couple of days before he goes and plays not only a couple hours' show with Ratdog, but sat in with Little Feat and the Waybacks as well. So, apparently his shoulder's not a problem for the guitar (laughs)...So, yeah, in answer your question more concisely, now that it's too late, March looks like it.

DG: It's great to see you with your hair growin' back and sounding good...

MK: It's an interesting look. It's a little curlier than it was when it left [laughs].

DG: It'll change.

MK: That's what I hear. Yeah, I talked to a bunch of people who said when they first got it back it was curly, and it was coarse, or it was dark, or it was light, or it was this, or it was...nothing consistent. Just difference.

DG: Well, as Bob Dylan says, "you can always come back, but you can't come back all the way." So maybe that's true with the hair. It will come back again different but not be exactly what it was before.

MK: Well, that's probably true on a lot of levels, frankly. I mean, I'm hoping that - in fact I'm fairly confident - that it will come back more. but right now one of the things I am dealing with is that my voice, when I go to sing, there's a quaver to it that wasn't there before. It's not dissimiliar to the kinda stuff I heard in Ray Charles' later years... and some of those guys as they got a little older, they still had their voice, but there was a little bit of a waver and a quaver to it in the back that wasn't there when they were younger and more vibrant men.

DG: You just gotta get your strength back.

MK: Well, absolutely, that's the one thing...

DG: Throat calesthenics...

MK: Yeah. Cause that's the one thing I am noticing, that's probably the biggest thing that I notice in, in coming out the back end of all this, is that I don't have a lot of stamina right now. It's gonna take awhile to build that back up.

DG: It'll come. Your speaking voice sounds good.

MK: Oh yeah, it's all gettin' there! And I'm back into the acupuncture and whatnot so we're workin' on the chi. That's the big deal right now, is gettin' MK's chi back up!

DG: Well, all right then!

MK: (laughs) And, y'know, maybe we can close with, ah, just asking for prayers and support for our brothers and sisters that are out there still experiencing cancer and going through the process of whippin' its butt- among them my former Other Ones partner and Bobby Weir's former Other One and Midnites partner Alphonso Johnson was recently diagnosed with yet another case of throat cancer. And as I mentioned our friend Don Kirkpatrick from Rod Stewart's band is still going through this and, and sadly there are many others. So, y'know, we need to all reach out and keep those people in our prayers.

DG: You bet. Thank you.

MK: Thank you.