Life kicked me in the teeth. Hard. Pushed me down, held me to the ground, and kicked in my teeth. But that wasn’t the tough part of it. It was when I went numb that it all really stalled.
It started the end of December, when part two of the tour I had done in 2017 had gone from promises and expectations of a set salary working with my friend and mentor to “you need to renegotiate directly with the band’s management.” No problem. These things happen.
This, over the course of the next two months, would crumble into learning that the decision had been made by the artist themselves to go a different direction in regards to my position. No fault of mine would be said- these things just happen. However my friend and the artist management had stalled- hoping the artist would forget or simply change their mind. They didn’t. With the decision to tell me this streching over November, December, and most of January, it put me into a difficult spot and a bad break. Most tours had filled their core creative teams by this point for 2018. This, compounded with the reassurance told to me in January of “you’re doing it” and “don’t worry I have your back” made it even more painful. I reminded myself that this was the nature of the music business. That these things happen.
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
― Hunter S. Thompson
I kept pressing on reassuring myself with “I’ll stay home, work on the three lighting design contracts I’m doing in 2018. Hone my skills. Hang out with Na’cho. Get off the grind of touring and focus more on just designing. Forget them. I can strike out completely on my own” This was not to be as well. Through back channels I had learned all of these artists had gone a different direction simply due to circumstances beyond my control. A random encounter with someone else here. A favor for a friend there. These things happen. The meetings, the time spent letting your mind wander, and the research to make someone look great and show the world something special, was a good exercise but it was not to be.
Soon, none of this mattered. I didn’t have time to care. My English Bulldog was sick, getting worse, and every day was becoming more of a struggle for all three of us.
Na’cho was a very special dog. Not only to me and my wife Angela, but to a great many people. Very sweet, handsome, and wonderful personality. Cute Overload.com, BarkBox, FatMumSlim, and WoofGang Bakery had all featured him at one point or another. His sixth birthday was celebrated on three continents by different concert tours. The backstage lounge on the Drake tour was named after him. He was greeted at the United Center in Chicago when he would visit tours with a “Hi Na’cho let me get the door for you” by security. We joked that we were simply his handlers, and he was the star of the family. But in truth by not having children we had thrust all of our paternal instincts into loving and caring for him. We loved doing it. Whatever love and affection and care we would give him he would return to us ten fold. Driving 12 hours to Monroe, Louisiana from Orlando- back and forth 10 times a year- to have him stay with our amazing friends “at camp” while we were on tour was not even a question. It’s whats best for him so that’s what gets done. (Plus its a house full of amazing people and five amazing bulldogs- which is a really nice place to spend a few days decompressing after a tour grind.) We bought a car specifically for his comfort. We put him as the name and logo of the business. He was the center of our world. He was the reason to get the early flight home last day of a run, and the reason we worked so hard in the first place. “Were so close! In only one more year, if we keep this up, we can pay the house off. After that, its minimal touring and maximum Na’cho.” We said. However, this was not to be.
It had started in middle December. Stumbling and occasional falling. 24/7 care, never leaving his side, and lots of trips and specialists and medication. A little into January he bounced back and it was like having our puppy again. After taking him off the steroids and other medication because of huge concerns about Cushing’s disease, his limp and occasional slip was back. Only now it growing worse and worse every day. Now trips to University Veterinary Hospitals and other therapies. A thousand miles of travel in one week. Didn’t matter. His motor functions were slipping, but he was still in there. Harnesses, more specialists, four-hour drives to specialists every other day, moving the bed into the living room again and not leaving his side. EVER. By Monday of the middle of February we brought him back to UCF Hospital for reevaluation. “We will give you all our money, if you can just save our dog.”
PLEASE JUST TELL US WHAT TO DO.
We got five and a half years with Na’cho Smalls Cromwell. I was expecting ten. Praying for thirteen. Neurological issues. It had spread to his brain. Nothing you could do. Your making the right decision.
We brought his ashes home on Valentines Day.
“But nothing lasts forever
Your best efforts don’t always pay
Sometimes you get sick
And don’t get better
That’s when life is short
Even in its longest days.”
― John Mellencamp
It was very dark. At least a week. Trying to stay out of the house where we watched him flicker and fade. When we were home there was nothing to say. Little to do. Just open the door, accept the flowers or the card, and start crying all over again. Nothing could be said. There was only silence and grief. The numbness of the career teeth kicking had been replaced with a loss of breath. The fulcrum of our life was gone. We were still together, had each other, but were now adrift.
Angela was amazing and found some strength and courage to keep working on the pre-production of the Arcade Fire tour she had. New tour- which meant overcoming the inertia of being a new cog in an already running touring machine. New spreadsheets to create, new information to gather, and new personalities to learn. All of this while the reason you do it in the first place is gone. I tried to help where I could. But its the grind of emails and spreadsheets and places and dates and routes and flights and hotels and cities and time zones and travel agents and managers and caterers and production vendors and now lets change it all again that she has to do. Check your email one last time while in bed just in case, pause, get up, turn the screen back on, and grind some more. The soul of Rock and Roll isn’t on stage. It’s created, nurtured, and mended long before that night someone watched it ever happens. Its lived by massively talented people like her that you will never see and never meet who stare at screens and drawings long into the night. Booking flights, changing riders, programming lighting cues, drawing networking patch diagrams, and seeking out the next sliver of wonder. The razor blade road dogs of old have been replaced with the hired specialist geeks of the digital generation.
She charged on with quiet dignity at her job, and was amazing at doing so. But I didn’t have a gig- no lighting design to dream up, songs to learn, autocad models to create, or manuals to scour over for the first time in a very long time. It was weighing on me..
Angela had said to me while we were in full on panic mode at the hospital while making the most difficult decision “If this happens you can’t stay home while I’m in Europe all of April. You won’t survive. You need to go somewhere. Do something.” She was right. Our square box next to the happiest place on earth in Celebration, Florida would become an emotional casket for me. Relapse would come easy surrounded by those memories and catalyzed by the career teeth kicking and destruction of trust. Soon after, the darkness I had packed so neatly away all those years ago would creep back in like a low-lying fog.
In defiance to that I begun to plan a trip. One I had actually been planning in my head for over a year. The gravel roadwork had already been done through casually reading through travel books. I could incorporate this with the trip I had planned for Angela and myself we never got to take because of the Paris attacks and because of how many times the word “Yes” was said to tour and festival offers. There were things I needed to learn and questions I needed answered. I knew it would not be easy. There was a significant lack of motivation in the first few planning days.
One of the last lessons Na’cho taught me was that some days, just standing up and walking out the door is an accomplishment. He never gave up. He never said I can’t do it. He was born into the worst of situations and made an amazing life out of it. He made the most of every day. With the way life had knocked me down and kicked me in I think getting up, walking out the door, and making the most of my days would be a good way to honor him and start my journey towards peace.