John Grabski III
photo by jim newberry

John Grabski III

Until I met John Grabski III, who died in March, I had no idea how to die properly. I do not want to die, but I had always presumed I wouldn't have any options available to me when the time came. John had been diagnosed with cancer and beaten it back a couple of times already, so he had put a good amount of thought into the subject, and in the way he lived the last year of his life, he proved that it is possible not just to have options, but to be daring and heroic on the way out.

John's relationship with cancer started a half-decade earlier when he underwent treatment the first time. He rebounded and regained his strength, rejoined the musical community in upstate New York and resumed a creative, active life with his friends, his children and his family. When cancer reasserted itself last year in a terminal diagnosis, he made a choice between two options, undergoing a regimen of treatment that might extend his life at the cost of its quality, or a less invasive course that would allow him to continue living more-or-less normally by suppressing some of his symptoms and alleviating his pain, without increasing his longevity. He chose that second course.

John contacted me after making that decision and said he wanted to make an album to help deal with, document and express his relationship with cancer, and I was happy to help. I mentioned the session to Bob Weston and he instantly volunteered to take care of the mastering. John enlisted his brother Ben, and the two of them drove to Chicago to record the album "the Strain." Initially they chose the modest group name New York Farmers for the project, but over the course of the session, a band identity began to take shape and John ultimately chose the name Teeth.

John and Ben worked diligently and efficiently, John playing drums in a fluid, powerful style, the cancer having little apparent effect on his stamina. He and Ben shared guitar and bass duties. The primary guitar used on the album was a Harmony Les Paul-style guitar that was customized for John by his uncle, and John contacted one of his favorite drummers, Coady Willis from the Melvins and Big Business, who lent him a snare drum to use for the sessions. For overdubs John used a Veleno guitar that had once been re-strung lefty and used by Kurt Cobain on the Nirvana album In Utero. John marveled openly that he was finally getting to make the album he wanted to make, and he was connecting both his favorite bands and his entire family in the process.

In the run-up to making the album, John joined the online forum associated with our studio, told his story and was immediately embraced by that community. The forum isn't really part of the studio business, but has a distinct personality of its own, an irreverent and comprehensive international discussion group for music, culture, politics, art and life in general. The forum has created its own society, with members forming a record label, organizing shows and outings, and raising money for charities and creative projects. Forum members jokingly adopted the nickname PRF, short for "Premier Rock Forum," and PRF has become a prefix for any undertaking the forum members undertake.

The PRF community rallied around John, voicing support and assisting in making the record a tangible reality. For the album and his progression through cancer, John adopted the tag line "Rock vs cancer. Rock wins," adding it to Facebook and Bandcamp pages about the record and using it to sign off his correspondence and forum posts.

John made his album, got it up on the web and began attracting attention, garnering praise from journalists and other musicians not just for his perseverance but for the music itself. The album "The Strain" is gripping. The music is hard-edged and bracing, with John's inventive, powerful drumming and heavy guitar framing each song with a sound matched to its theme. It's a genuinely great, powerful album, made more intense by the context that it was intended to be a missive from inside the disease of cancer, like a dispatch from the front, to the outside world.

While in Chicago, John and Ben were invited to play on a bill of PRF bands at a local venue. He and Ben were received like heroes and got to hang out in person with the dozens of enthusiasts John had met online, widening and strengthening the network of supporters for the project.

When the album wrapped, John almost instantly floated the idea of making another one, since the first one came together so quickly. Again I said I'd be honored to put the resources of the studio behind it. John came alone this time, and he was much worse for wear. Tumors had multiplied and grown in his body, including a raft of them in his brain, and the medicine that suppressed the symptoms and pain from the tumors weakened him and left his acuity slightly dulled. Nevertheless, he committed to making the record, and day after day he made progress toward an album intended to compliment "the Strain." When this session ended, he had recorded all the drums and guitar for the album, and preliminary plans were laid to complete it later in the year, his health permitting.

John's health didn't improve, and he passed away March 9, 2012.

While working on the albums, John lived here at the studio and I got to know him pretty well. He and I shared a passion for good food, and John frequently relived favorite meals, describing dishes in detail, whether he made them himself or had them in restaurants. He had a particular passion for seafood, and experimented with different raw and cooked preparations with the same enthusiasm he applied to music. It was apparent from the way he relished his endeavors that John intended, as much as his body would permit, to live his life as though he was not dying. There was nothing resigned about him. As I wrote on the forum when the second session concluded, John had no quit in him. The heart of a lion.

It has taken weeks for my thoughts about John and his endeavor to coalesce into something I can fathom, and I have finally gotten a handle on it. What John did in his final months was prove that death is truly a part of life. For him, death was not a terror, just a thing he had to deal with. We all have to deal with it, but he had to deal with it immediately. That said, he refused to let his terminal condition define him or dictate the terms of his life. He would adapt to his condition the way he might put on an extra layer when the weather changed.

I know that how John lived and died isn't about me, but I saw him in the middle of it and it made an indelible impression on me. The way he defined himself in relation to his circumstances and his art reminded me of a moment of epiphany I experienced earlier in my life, so at the risk of sounding foolish I'll share it here. When I was a kid approaching adulthood I felt like a weirdo. I felt alien and isolated from my peers and the rest of the straight world around me. I and my small cadre of friends were misfits and didn't identify with the roles and expectations set out for us. We felt broken and wrong. Then I discovered the Ramones. The Ramones were a punk band, and their existence seemed to validate everything about the way I looked at the world. They had the same crude sense of humor, they were unflinching in their depiction of the everyday depravity we were aware of but never heard mentioned in polite company, and they were unselfconsciously weird. More than anything else they weren't untouchable rock stars, they were like me, and that made me feel like my own crudely-rendered ideas were worth taking seriously. They gave me license to think my own way and see the world as it appeared to me, not as it was supposed to be. If not for the Ramones, I don't know if I ever would have developed the self-confidence to set out on a life course that ultimately made a career for me and put me in a position to help John Grabski make a record. I owe that to the Ramones.

When I think about the scores of people who are diagnosed with cancer every day, I can only imagine how disorienting, how alienating that must be. And just as each cancer case is different, inevitably the images of cancer patients in the media and public consciousness will fail to resonate with some of them. Not everybody can be Lance Armstrong. Trying to imagine a kid with cancer feeling alone and distant, I can also imagine that kid coming across the Strain, and seeing an example of how a cancer patient can confront the disease head-on, and unflinchingly stare it down. I think John Grabski, Teeth and the Strain could be like the Ramones of cancer. John's music could inspire a cancer patient to continue his life rather than put it on hold. To take a shot at fulfilling an ambition, to carry on eating with gusto, laughing, making plans and engaging 100 percent with the world around him.

When John died he left an album half-completed. It's tempting to think of that as a kind of disappointment, that he couldn't finish what he started, but I think that's misreading it. John wasn't trying to wrap things up, he was just carrying on. He was living his life as a continuum, and that involved working on music. It would be a disappointment if John had not bitten off more than he could chew, because that would imply that John was wrapping things up in a tidy way, concluding an implicit surrender to the disease. John would have none of that. Sure, he knew he wouldn't be able to carry on forever, but he wasn't going to cut himself off, to do the disease's dirty work. If cancer was going to kill him it would have to interrupt him to do it.

John died in the company of his family, and his namesake father shared this story with me:

On Friday afternoon I sat talking with John in his apartment just hours before cancer took his life. He sat in a very small chair in the middle of the room, elbows on his thighs with his hair hanging down over his knees as if to refuse to allow cancer to steal away even a fraction of his day. He was struggling with a single minded focus that I have seen only in the grimacing faces of extraordinary athletes with the mental wherewithal and capacity to push their body beyond the point of exhaustion and far beyond their physical limitations. I asked him carefully, "What are you thinking John?" He very slowly and deliberately fixed his eyes to mine and I had a fleeting thought that I had never witnessed such a deep almost piercing look of utter concentration as he said, "Tomorrow, I am thinking about tomorrow."

This was yet another example of Rock vs. Cancer, Rock Wins. To the last second of this beautiful man's life, John never allowed cancer to steal his character, his spirit, his mind or his dignity. He acknowledged that in the end it would take his physical life away but maintained that cancer would never define him nor would it dictate the terms of engagement. The powerful and profound music of Teeth sends a clear message to cancer and serves as a beacon that shines the way forward for those caught within its deadly grasp. Cancer claimed his body. It was unsuccessful claiming the MAN and as hard as it tried, cancer could not claim his music. On Friday March 9th, 2012 cancer was humiliated, defeated and destroyed. Rock vs. Cancer, Rock Won.

The way John faced his mortality was inspirational. When my time comes, I hope I can follow his example. I hope when I die I go like John, embroiled in the middle of things, surrounded by people I love, doing the things that matter most. I hope I leave a mountain of shit unfinished, that I have a pan on the stove, a phone call waiting and a pencil in my hand. I hope I'm man enough to be thinking about tomorrow.

For all of us, the living, the dying and the someday dying, John Grabski III, you are a hero.

-steve albini

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