Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes, Swan Lake) Talks His Battle with Cancer and How He Learned to Respect Death.
An essay about bringing a curse upon myself and my family by naming a record Fuck Death, and my repentance, and what I did in July, and the penalty I personally paid, and my old and new mantras.
A few years ago I made the decision to name a record I made (working under the name Blackout Beach) Fuck Death. I was looking at these Leon Golub paintings: huge, stretched, raw-canvas works that depict political torture and that kind of death: the death that comes as an exercise of power. I came across one of his smaller works, a sloppy slap of purple-painted skull entitled “Fuck Death.” Golub’s images were off limits for album art, as most images are, but the title seemed ripe for the plucking.
So I plucked.
I liked it: I was proud. Fuck Death became a mantra, a thing to whisper. Fuck Death, Fuck Death — I whispered it through my teeth while I was cycling up Vancouver’s hills, while I was walking, while I was cooking: I meant only fuck the bad Deaths: the skull-crack of the police baton, the twist of the torturer’s last screw, the slow Death of starvation, the fiery Death of the car bomb, the shredding Death of flying projectiles, the terror-filled Death at the hands of the mob, the sick Death from unclean water, from destroyed farmland, now the Drone-Death, now the Death called suicide, by rape, by malicious and future-swallowing gossip. Death from abuse. Death from brushing up against the decays. The Deaths that our minds shrink from.
There are little deaths too, but when I whispered Fuck Death I did not mean these little deaths: the death of your uncle, or your mother, or your grandfather: attended to, loved, in good company, a withered hand held one last time: Fuck not that Death, I thought.
A few months after I made this declaration, my brother called me. He barely spoke, but managed to gasp out some bad news: my pops had the cancer, very bad, in all the bad spots. And my dad died three months later.
I remember my mom leaning into me and whispering, “Fuck Death, indeed.”
I wanted to protest. “But mom,” I might have whined, “I meant the big deaths. War. Torture.”
But I didn’t say anything.
It is a very striking experience to be in the same room while someone you love passes away. Whatever one’s convictions are: there is a fundamental transformation that occurs from spirit to shell. The man was there, breathing shallow breaths out of his last night, emaciated and non-responsive, but still with us, and then we came to one horrific, unforgettable minute of transference, or transmogrification, or total final-ness, and then he was gone. He haunts none of us, and appears only in our dreams. He was just outta here.
After this happened, I started to secretly regret this decision to call the record Fuck Death. I felt like I had awoken a curse upon us. Ridiculous, perhaps: my dad smoked close to two packs of cigs a day for at least a decade, and smoked cigs from the age of 12, and then he got lung cancer.
Still: some dread had crept in to my flesh and mind, and once nestled in some stupid chamber of my psyche, it was not coming out.
This was not the kind of scene where I face myself in a mirror and tear at my hair, crying “You’re so stupid for killing your father by naming your record Fuck Death!” It was not that kind of remorse, the remorse of the accidental murderer or Othello-esque jealous ruiner. It was more like a shiver.
And then two months later my sweet grandmother, who had a fuck of a hard life, and certainly did brush up against decay and Big-Death-Abuse, fell and hit her head, and left this world.
And then six months later I noticed a big lump in my neck.
And then the shivers really kicked in.
Funny: I am not superstitious or religious, but in a few moves I was in my own The Seventh Seal, imagining Death the way a medieval peasant might have imagined Death: as some conscious force, a responsive entity that will turn its head if you are foolish enough to cry Death’s name out. Something, but more like a someone. A someone with feet and hands and a cloak to hide its nakedness, whatever its nakedness is: bare-boned ribs shining from the moon, or, more likely, a void.
And if Death has free will, and emotions, and walks among us, then surely a public utterance like Fuck Death is going to have consequence.
I don’t smoke. The cancer that I have is not the result of any irresponsible behaviour on my part, though I have, of course, engaged in some of the actions that bring about decay within the body.
Every professional that spoke to me stressed these words: “This is not your fault, Carey.”
I never told them about the curse that I had surely brought upon myself. I never told them that by uttering FUCK DEATH I had attracted the attention of Death, brought a ruinous gaze down upon my family, like the signal fire on a ship-wrecked island, like shooting a flare into the sky, like hiring a bannered plane that reads, “Death! Come to me! Bring your worst! I invite your ruin!”
So the shiver, or shudder, became more and more pronounced, so much that I decided to try to make amends.
I started whispering “respect death” all the time. “Respect death, respect death, respect death.” Just little whispers when I was alone.
One of the clichés of feeling the heavy shadow of cancer fall upon your shoulder is that it throws into sharp relief what you need to do, what you need to get done. After I emerged from my shock, I thought very clearly about what I had to get done. I felt I had made a peace with Death, or at least received my punishment, or sentence. It is worse waiting for your sentence then beginning it, I think. At least you know what you have before you.
I had all of July to myself, as I started treatments early August. May and June had been very productive months for me: I had finished one record, called Carey’s Cold Spring. This record has nothing to do with death or cancer, not specifically, not intentionally, but it’s odd for me to listen to it and think: when I sang these songs, in January, in my singing room, I did have cancer, and didn’t consciously know it. Does this fact somehow seep into the delivery, the particular creak of my voice?
I don’t think so.
I had also been playing with two of my old friends, working on a different batch of songs, songs that I wrote on my dad’s acoustic guitar, singing-songs, songs that were begging to get sung.
Everything that I have been doing lately gets steeped in the hot liquid of sentiment.
Here are the things that I did manage to get done in that oddly pleasant, liminal time between my diagnosis and radiation blasts:
1. I booked two days in a really nice studio, and my two friends and I — one my editor, and one my wife — tracked five songs together. The idea is that, once I am better, we will go back and track the other five. And that’s how a record gets made. It’s a good strategy. I am hesitant to speak too much about how fundamentally important the writing and production of music is to my general state of being — I find that when people speak of their “calling,” they doth protest too much. But I think it’s a good plan, as in: I have to get better in order to sew up this record.
I am framing this as my future triumphant return; a story that runs deep in us, that we find pleasure in: overcoming adversity, the triumph at the end of the long road. But the thing I love about music is that, though it is true that a good story or frame is initially attractive, it’s still all about the work, about the actual sonic experience that you have when the voice and the drums and the bass hit you — if it’s not persuasive, or it’s lackluster, no amount of backstories or promotional aids will redeem the music. And the sheer trickery of race-to-the-bottom promotion or excessive gimmick/concept engenders a resentment in the listener. So, as always, we only triumph when the music triumphs.
2. I made a book of some essays and stories that I have written in the past decade. More on that later, somewhere else.
3. I enlisted my wife to cycle with me to the beach where the werewolves surf in a film that I believe is called Twilight Two. The entire Olympic peninsula of Washington state is, economically speaking, Twilight-crazy, even though each and every thrift store in the world currently groans under the weight of the massive wave of Twilight-discards, the predictable outcome for most publishing sensations. I am not an economist, but I think that this tactic is doomed, but so is every tactic, perhaps. The ride was beautiful, a real emerald of a journey. It ended with clam chowder and watching an outcast-crow peck at the guts of a rotten salmon while the wild tides swished in.
4. I played my last show of 2013 in a studio that I used to share with some friends. Hello Blue Roses played, and I was floored at how well Dan and Sydney are singing together. Lightning Dust played, and I was floored at how well Amber Webber’s voice floats atop that shimmering wall of synth and thud.
I think that’s it. Music, writing, and biking: in spite of everything, a very nice month. I’m bragging a bit here, the boasts of an inherently lazy person rattling off his got-done list.
And then, in August and into September, I had 25 doses of radiation. The radiologists put a mask on my face and chest. They strapped me onto a slab; the fit was very tight on my shoulders and eyes and cheeks, so they could always zap the same spot on my neck. After they strapped me down, they closed the door and left the room. The door was lead-heavy: I sometimes thought of a boulder being rolled into the doorway of a cave: nothing gets in, nothing gets out. Just me, the murderous monster in my neck, and a radioactive beam. “Kokomo” falling down from the ceiling.
Sometimes I had disturbing thoughts under the mask. I thought about being tortured. It’s not likely that I will be tortured, not likely, but still possible, but I do know that somewhere, right now, someone is being tortured, and the torturer is just as likely to be decked out in the uniform of his state than in some other garb. Sometimes I think I panicked a bit. So I started whispering the little mantra once the radiologists walked out of the room. Respect Death, Respect Death. Don’t invite it, don’t challenge it. It helped a little bit. Mostly, I thought about riding my bike, with my wife on her bike, riding through forests and beside lakes and down to a Pacific beach where outcast crows peck at salmon guts and depressed ex-loggers remodel their workshop into a cabin suite called “the Werewolves’ Den” and our next Kurt Cobain eats a Bella Burger and Edward Fries and imagines something more for herself.
My throat got really bad, so bad that I could hardly drink water. They put me on morphine. Music became my distraction. I was reduced to two things: a raw, radiated, insufferably blistered throat, and a set of ears, ears especially responsive to the trickling of guitars and the rumble of bass and the slap of snares. And then, often, when I came out of my reverie, I yelled for my wife Melanie, asking her if she had ever really listened to “how cool that floor tom sounds right there.” My finger pointed to some nexus between the living room’s speakers, as if the floor tom was materializing.
I stopped talking for about a week. Melanie was amazed at the silence. No pontifications, no embryonic thoughts birthed out at her. No singing. Just listening.
Still: in the midst of all this pain, I felt that I had thrown off the paranoia of the curse.
And then my friend gave me a present. It was a Fuck Death coffee mug. I started to feel its unholy presence in the cupboard. I never let my son drink from it. Two weeks ago, in the middle of the night, I got up out of bed and threw it in the trash.
I’m reading this back to myself and I am thinking that I have become a bit unhinged, but I also am glad that I am publishing this writing as a kind of warning: don’t name your record Fuck Death.
Yesterday, I walked for four kilometers with 70,000 people to honour the survivors of the State-Death visited upon Canadian First Nations’ peoples, in the form of hideous residential schools that took kids out of their homes and rained abuse, torture, and sexual and physical violence upon them, and then left them to die or struggle to survive in a country that, officially, wanted them dead.
The crowd crackled with red armbands. These armbands identified survivors of this systemic, state-sponsored abuse system. Many young people wore armbands for their departed mother or father or aunt or uncle or grandparent.
And out of my lips popped a new mantra: Fuck Abuse. Fuck any action that creates a life-in-death, that blots out life, that creates a waking horror of such depth that one’s life becomes a series of tortured days to just get through. “Fuck Abuse, Fuck Abuse, Fuck Abuse.”
So Fuck not Death, but merrily say I: Fuck Abuse. Fuck torture: physical, mental, sexual torture. Fuck violence. Fuck war. Fuck the violence that finance visits upon us all everyday. Fuck the toxification of the soil, the trees, the sky, and the ocean. There are some mixed-up, hateful, inherently awful people out there, and fuck them. But please remember to respect death.