The Chronic: 10 Musicians With Ongoing Illnesses
Art by Marissa Paternoster
When they hit the stage and do what they do, it's easy to forget that our musical heroes are basically just talented, driven and very lucky human beings. They're flesh, blood, bone and the right type of grey matter, all formed into a singular unit designed to delight us all with their extraordinary gifts.
Because they're sculpted from basically the same Play-Doh as you and me, they too are prone to illness. Like chronic disease sufferers everywhere, these people beat back their ailments daily to continue pursuing their passions.
It's not a new phenomenon. Since Beethoven began noticing his own hearing loss (and even before that), musicians have set aside their own maladies to continue entertaining us. The list is long and includes superstars like Elvis Presley (back pain/migraines), Pete Townshend (tinnitus) and Patti LaBelle (type 2 diabetes).
Following are ten artists who are presently active and actively battling chronic diseases. Some are just beginning their careers and must endure symptoms as they tour and try to win new fans. Others are better known and are using their celebrity to bring attention and advocacy to their illnesses.
10. Seal (lupus) The international soul singer doesn't suffer from systemic lupus, but the facial scars he bears are related to discoid lupus, a chronic form of the disease that manifests as skin disorders and hair loss. He's brought awareness to the autoimmune illness simply by way of curious fans Googling "how did Seal get those scars?" He's currently working on his ninth studio album.
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9. Marissa Paternoster (chronic joint pain) Paternoster is the front woman and guitar-shredder for the burgeoning indie rock trio, Screaming Females. Her band has had to cancel tour dates since she acquired debilitating joint pain following a bout with mononucleosis. Paternoster was so frustrated with her pain she took to chronicling her troubles in a series of cartoon sketches, which she shared with fans on the band's blog.
She's learning to deal with her condition. She recently thanked Slinger Straps, which manufactures custom guitar straps to alleviate back and neck pain, on the band's Facebook page. The group is resuming tour activity, too, including a June 2 date at Austin's Chaos in Tejas.
8. Willie Nelson (carpal tunnel syndrome) Carpal tunnel syndrome's associated hand and wrist pains can occur from repeated motions. How many motions are repeated in a songwriting and guitar-playing career that's lasted 73 years? The Red Headed Stranger has been writing songs since he was seven, started playing in bands at age ten, built a legendary career and had finally had surgery for his nagging wrist pains just within the last decade.
7. Will.i.am (tinnitus) The Black Eyed Peas mastermind declared some years ago the reason he's so productive is he's using music to drown out the ever-present ringing in his ears. He's joined the ranks of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and others who've acquired the condition over the years. One misconception is tinnitus is caused solely from prolonged periods of exposure to loud sounds. It can also develop from ear infections, nasal allergies and neurological disorders.
6. Jeff Tweedy (chronic migraine disorder) Tweedy hasn't let migraines deter Wilco's festival and road schedule. Whether he's in pain or not, expect him to be front and center of his band on a few dozen dates supporting Bob Dylan this summer. A few years ago, Tweedy wrote about being one of 30 million Americans with chronic migraine headaches for a New York Times piece.
"There are a lot of different ways migraines have affected my music, and vice versa: being a musician has allowed me -- for lack of a better phrase -- to rise above the pain from time to time," wrote Tweedy. "I've never missed a show because of a migraine. But I've played some really horrible shows and cut them short because there was very little I could do to keep going."
5. Watsky (epilepsy) "You ever had a Gran Mal seizure in gym class?/ Had whiplash back when life was dishing out pimp slaps/ Fed up and we've all been better but I'm set to step up/ Never let up 'cause the fall is just the setup now to get up."
This rapid-fire San Francisco rapper was diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy as a teen. He's said medication has kept him seizure free for many years now, but this cut from the excellent 2010 album, Watsky, suggests he's never forgotten what it's like to deal with the illness. The result is an inspirational shout-out/pep talk to all "sick kids" with chronic conditions.
4. Nick Jonas (diabetes) Jonas was 13 when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, about the same time the Jonas Brothers began to boom in the music industry. Siblings Joe and Kevin support different causes in their joint Change for the Children Foundation, but Nick focuses on diabetes.
"I've heard stories about kids who were in depression because after they got diagnosed they were just so upset about what was going on," he's written on the foundation's Web site. "That just touched my heart, and I wanted to be able to do something about it. I hope that I can be that positive light."
3. Clay Walker (multiple sclerosis) The Beaumont cowboy was diagnosed with the relapsing-remitting form of MS in 1996, after experiencing right-sided numbness and facial spasms.
"I kept wondering, 'Why me? Why now?' My career was progressing, and there were many positive things going on in my life," he's written. "I had just recorded my fourth album and was celebrating the birth of my first child."
Like others in his position, Walker turned a negative into something hopeful by establishing Band Against MS, a non-profit MS education foundation.
2. Mike McCready (Crohn's disease) The Pearl Jam guitarist was diagnosed with the inflammatory bowel disease when he was 21, and has said the diagnosis sent him into a depression that nearly caused him to quit music.
"It took me six months before I could pick up a guitar again, but I did (thanks to a particularly killer Stevie Ray Vaughn concert)," he wrote for the Huffington Post last year. "Two years later, Pearl Jam was formed and our career took off."
McCready annually performs a benefit concert for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America and works with Advocacy for Patients, a nonprofit devoted to helping people living with chronic illness.
1. Pink (asthma) Yeah, Pink has asthma, she has since childhood. So What? It hasn't stopped her from selling millions of records, constant touring and trapezing around like she wishes she'd chosen a circus career instead.
She once told Women's Health magazine she uses a stringent cardio workout to fight asthmatic tendencies and keep her lungs strong for belting out her ongoing string of hits.
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