04-26-08, Austin American-Statesman, “One Last Listen“

Posted by on Jul 25, 2013 in Articles | 0 comments

04-26-08, Austin American-Statesman, “One Last Listen“

By Wes Eichenwald
Saturday, April 26, 2008

It’s not a bad crowd at the Hole in the Wall, considering it’s a warm, sunny Friday afternoon in February, but it’s not a typical gathering. The patrons have obviously come straight from the office, but they skew older, and some of them, sitting a bit stiffly in their chairs, don’t seem like the sort who frequent the Drag to hear old-school Texas blues-rock delivered by the likes of local veteran Van Wilks. A few bemused regulars take a break from shooting pool in the back room to take in the event.

Crowd aside, Wilks and his band are here to play a concert for just one man: Joel Porter, who since 2004 has been living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Porter’s steadily declining health has forced him to retire from his job as a computer programmer at the University of Texas’ Office of Student Financial Affairs; the guests are his co-workers and friends. A wiry, bearded 58-year-old in a burnt-orange T-shirt, Porter is animated, but his voice is all but gone, a feeding tube his constant companion.

The concert for Porter has come about thanks to Swan Songs, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Austin singer-songwriter Christine Albert. Swan Songs’ raison d’être is “fulfilling musical wishes at the end of life.” The concerts are reserved for those “in a noncurative phase of treatment,” or, put plainly, terminal illness. Under Swan Songs’ wing, musicians have performed in hospital rooms, nursing homes, hospices and the patients’ own homes (the Wilks concert was unusual in that it was held in a public place and electric guitars and amps were used, though the gig wasn’t publicized and the club’s marquee bore only the cryptic slogan “ROCK ON JOEL”).

All the musicians who answer Swan Songs’ call are based in Austin and play for Austinites. The patients choose the musician or style of music they’d like to hear; Swan Songs does its best to accommodate them and compensates the performers. (Funding, to date, has come mainly from private donations, with some corporate contributions; Swan Songs has also received help from a hospice and a fundraiser held by a school music program.)

According to Albert, no musician has turned them down yet; on the contrary, she said, they feel honored to have been selected. Past concerts have ranged from Elvis songs to traditional bagpipes to Christmas carols.

“We usually play when the vampires are out,” says Wilks from the stage, but he seems to be enjoying himself. Porter works the room, hugging one friend after another. His co-workers and friends congregate by the bar.

The concert isn’t a lengthy affair — at some 40 minutes, it’s about as long as Swan Songs’ gigs get. The atmosphere is more charged than you’d find at a typical gig by Wilks or nearly anyone else, but it’s not anything remotely like a wake or memorial service — as far as most guests are concerned, it’s just part of Porter’s retirement festivities (after the concert, the party will move to a pizza parlor a few blocks away).

Porter, a fan of classic rock, loved the show, although he wasn’t familiar with Wilks until plans were coming together for the concert (a co-worker of Porter’s also works with Albert and knew Wilks would fit the bill). Like many in Austin, he was once in a band himself, a long time ago. Back in 1966 — before spending 22 years in the Air Force, including a stint in Vietnam, and the next 17 years working at UT — Porter was a high school student in Mount Airy, N.C., where he played saxophone and guitar and sang in a top-40 cover band called the Ragmen. The year after that, he was in a larger, more R&B-oriented group called the Royal Charmers.

“I think many, if not most of us, at one time will wonder just what they would do if confronted with a serious, ultimately fatal, illness,” Porter wrote in an e-mail after the concert. “I’m now that person. After I really came to my senses and faced up to what’s going on and going to happen, my entire perception of what’s really important in my life changed almost immediately.

“I learned from ALS victims who have long passed that it’s all about family and friends,” he added. “You may remember trips you’ve taken, places you’ve been. But you’ll never forget the people you shared those times with. I could easily choose touring Europe at this moment.

Instead, just give me time with a friend who I can hold hands with and allow us to just share our moments with each other. … I chose to work much longer than I should have. That decision was because of the friends I’d share time (with) at UT. It just doesn’t get better.”

Albert said Swan Songs works on a request basis.

“Our job is to spread the word to the community so that people in a support situation know it’s available,” she said. “The people we’ve gone to do concerts for, we know they’re at the place where they’re cherishing and embracing every moment they have. So by the time we go, they’re receptive and they know what their situation is, and they’ve accepted it to a large degree.”

Albert, who moved to Austin from Santa Fe, N.M., in 1982, is a familiar presence around area clubs, whether playing solo or as a duo, Albert and Gage, with her husband, Chris. In 1992, she was asked to perform on two separate occasions for people with terminal illnesses. Albert was moved by both the way they responded and the way she felt as a performer to be helping people.

With her friend Gaea Logan, a psychotherapist and teacher involved in hospice care, she started a project called Music Aid to bring concerts to patients in hospices — Albert providing contacts to friends in Austin’s music community, and Logan to a network of professional caretakers.

After organizing about a dozen concerts, Music Aid went onto the back burner while Albert turned her attention to other projects. In 2005, she and Logan rebranded the project as Swan Songs (the name inspired in part by John Swann, who was the first patient Albert sang for in 1992). Since 2006, there have been 13 Swan Song concerts, and Albert and her team look forward to arranging more as word gets out.

“I try not to represent it (as) being a healing program or therapeutic — I just let it be that,” she said. Since such a large number of both musicians and ardent music fans live here, Albert sees Austin as a particularly good fit for the organization.

Most of “these fans can no longer go out; we bring the music to them one more time,” she said. “It’s set up so that it’s very life-affirming. This is request-driven, one-on-one. We don’t seek out the patients; they have to find out about us. It’s inspiring to me that people are being courageous and letting musicians into their home and into their heart and opening up, and their families want to help them do that.

“Eliza Gilkyson did a concert for a gentleman in his early 40s with a brain tumor, and everybody in there was just cherishing every moment and every note.”

Logan speaks in measured cadences that bespeak a profound inner calm that’s most likely a product of her profession, the Buddhism she follows or maybe even surviving breast cancer less than two years ago. Logan is heartened by our society’s increasing maturity in dealing with death — which, obviously, begins with acknowledging it exists.

“Typically, we think of healing as getting physically cured,” she said. “There’s a deeper level of healing when it’s not possible to cure the body, but there might be a way to engage in a process that’s deeply meaningful.”

Albert and Logan agree that it’s not just about the music, though; of equal importance is the gathering itself.

Logan typically briefs participating musicians on what a bedside or hospice concert might be like. “Sometimes,” she says, “we brought together family members who hadn’t seen each other in quite a while.”

She mentioned a young Hispanic man dying of AIDS who hadn’t spoken to his parents in a long time; they had been alienated by his sexual orientation. “I was able to call his father and invite him to come to the hospice setting,” Logan said. “The father came and we played frontera music, and the father and the son had this incredibly beautiful reconnecting. The son died two days later. Without that powerful container of the music, I think (that) would not have happened.”

Local cabaret singer Mady Kaye, who also performs as part of the Beat Divas, would agree. Over the phone, Kaye is overcome with emotion when she recalls her Swan Songs experience — singing Christmas carols with her seasonal combo, the Austin Carolers, a bit out of season last January — for an elderly woman in a Cedar Park nursing home.

“Apparently it was the woman herself who requested it, and she was aware that she was not going to have any more Christmases,” Kaye recalled. Although the recipient, who Kaye estimated was in her eighties, wasn’t extremely responsive, she said, her family members “assured us that she was loving it, and they gathered around and took pictures.”

She added: “Generally, it’s hard to sing for a group of people who are sitting around crying. At the same time, what a joyful setting in which to celebrate life and say goodbye.”