Looking back, there were subtle signs that something wasn't quite right, Seamuis Strain recalled. His penmanship had gotten a little sloppy. His trembling hand would awake him in the dead of night. Most notably, he was having trouble holding his pick when he played guitar.
Strain, 50, is a veteran Houston musician, the leader and lone constant member of the longtime Celtic punk act The Dead Rabbits. He's been playing guitar a long time, so long it's become as natural as inhaling and exhaling. When that routine exercise presented sudden and foreign challenges, Strain realized the shakes he'd chalked up as essential tremor might be something more significant. An Army veteran, Strain went to the Veteran Affairs hospital and got a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
“I had an inkling but it was an actual diagnosis let’s say this last March. The March a year prior I think, I was out in East Texas doing some work and I noticed. I didn’t pay any attention to it because I’ve always had the shakes, I guess you call it familial shakes,” he said. “I had noticed I was having problems writing. I couldn’t write legibly. And then other people noticed. I guess it didn’t dawn on me, but I had other people ask me, strangers, ‘Are you alright?’ and I’d be like, ‘What do you mean?’ And they’d joke about it. ‘Well, how much did you drink last night, you’ve got the shakes pretty bad.’ And that’s when I actually technically realized that I was shaking without noticing.
“I was having some blood pressure issues and just going through all of what it could be at first,” he continued. “When I really started taking notice of it, I was having problems playing guitar, holding my pick. I couldn’t write legibly anymore, I was having problems with my dexterity and all that, so I started leaning more towards, okay, it’s not essential tremors or a high blood pressure thing. I went and had the official test done and they were definitively like yeah, it’s Parkinson’s. Young-Onset Parkinson’s.”
Young-Onset Parkinson’s disease (YOPD) occurs in people ages 50 or younger. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, only about 4 percent of the million people in the U.S. with diagnosed Parkinson’s fall into this grouping. The foundation says people with YOPD face unique challenges since they may be still actively engaged in their careers or raising families. Those challenges both apply to Strain, as does the challenge of continuing an ongoing music career.
Photo by Alberta Schaefer, courtesy of The Dead Rabbits
In Strain’s case, years of being a band leader might prove helpful to his new health concerns. For one, his closeness to his band and other Houston musicians gives him a group he can rely upon for a lot of support and very little pity.
“Oddly enough for that entire year me and (Houston musician) Erik Girth had joked about it. You know, me, I’m a self-deprecator so, ‘Yeah, I’ve probably got goddamn Parkinson’s’ and we kind of joked about it,” Strain said. “We made a bet and now I’ve got to see it through, that if I did have it I was gonna get a tattoo that said ‘Park & Sons Movers – Moving is Our Specialty.’ Son of a bitch called it.”
Though Dead Rabbits has cycled through different lineups since Strain founded the band in 2009, the latest gathering features members Strain is especially close to and comfortable with, most notably Micah “Banjovi” Raught, who is probably the band’s longest-running member after Strain. The group today also includes longtime Houston musicians Jason Allen, Ryan Girth, Andrew Hoskins and Dave Thomas.
“I mean, they’ve been completely 100 percent. You know, Micah’s like a brother. His first reaction was, ‘Okay, whatever you need,’ and then later on, after drunk talk, ‘When you can’t play no more you can start teaching music.’ I was like, ‘Micah, you haven’t listened to me in eight years. What makes you think someone else is going to listen to my drunk ass?’
“I’m not gonna lie, I did kid of use it as a motivator,” Strain added. “I said, ‘Look, now I got a window. We’re working on a time frame here, let’s do what we can while we can and make this happen. When I have to hang up the guitar well move on to different sorts of things.”
That approach has allowed the band to complete a quintet of songs to be released in alignment with their next show, a Halfway to Paddy’s Day celebration slated for Friday, Sept. 22 at 1810 Ojeman with Shame on Me, Guilla and Popperz. Dead Rabbits was also recently announced for Houston Punkfest in November.
“We had some songs off the album that we never finished and that we never released and then we had some other stuff that we were already working on so we decided to go in there and knock those out and finish them as best we could. Some of those songs I actually had Micah finish for me because I hadn’t even started my medication yet and it got to the point where I couldn’t play guitar,” noted Strain. “So yeah, we’re going to release them now that we’ve got everything back in order and I’m kind of back being able to play somewhat. We’ll release those on Halfway to Paddy’s Day and we’re going to get into the studio as soon as I get back from vacation and start working on a new full-length.”
The first things many newly-diagnosed Parkinson’s patients would consider are their health outlook, their family’s response, how it might affect their careers. That’s been the case for Strain whose first concerns were for his wife and daughter. But it didn’t take long for him to consider the impact his new diagnosis was going to have on his life as a musician.
“I’ve been doing this music thing for a long time now. It’s one of the few things that does bring me joy, you know, besides my family. In Houston, it’s what I’m known as, what I’m known for, it’s one thing — the guy from the Dead Rabbits.”
He was worried about how long he could be that guy. Early on, his medications “weren’t working and hindering me even more from being able to play and I was slowly being robbed of what I love to do and that was extremely frustrating.
“They started me on some stuff that we tried for a few months and it was terrible,” he said but noted that he’s improved since they’ve prescribed “the big guns, the pills that I’ll be taking for the remainder of my life, until they come up with something new hopefully.
Playing guitar daily has helped Strain's mobility and dexterity
Photo by Seamuis Strain
“It’s forced me to play my guitar every day to be able to keep what little I have left,” he added, saying mobility exercises have been key. “It’s been going all right. I haven’t been doing as much as I should because my arm won’t respond to what my brain knows it can do, so our rhythm has been lost. I have a hard time holding my pick and just the technical side of stuff, that’s all where I really need to start putting in the hours, which really I haven’t been doing, to be honest.
“My neurologist is a pretty stand up fella. He was kind of already on the same page where he was like you need to keep doing (music) as much as you possibly can in order to be able to keep that muscle memory. It’s going to be hard and you’re going to be frustrated. It’s not going to be there the way you want it to be there. You can still maintain for quite some time but you have to work at it.”
Fifty might be young for a Parkinson’s diagnosis, but it’s old enough to have gained some wisdom. Strain already sees his road ahead as a blessing and a curse. Blessings-wise, he plans to assist others by working as an official fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. He envisions a "Punks Against Parkinson’s" group he’ll helm. And, his downtime meant his bandmate Micah Raught could focus on his own music with his band, Party Mouth (formerly known as Pajama Party). Strain doesn’t care for the new band name but he loves the music and he’s proud of Raught’s output.
And, he feels the Dead Rabbits will benefit in the same way. Not to downplay his diagnosis but he’s taking a positive approach to the foreseeable challenges of life with Parkinson’s. As a bandleader, he’s seen his group undergo many changes. Some members left amicably, others not so much. There’ve been highs and lows. Band leadership is not for the faint-hearted. Maybe that's steeled him in some ways for this new chapter of life.
“It’s one thing to make people aware of Parkinson’s – I mean, I had never even gave it two fucking thoughts,” he admitted. “I canceled my 50th birthday because I did not want to take the stage and have somebody say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t the Seamuis we’re used to seeing on stage.’ I don’t want to have that. When I do get back on stage, I’m not going to miss a beat. I’m going to be better than ever until I can’t be.”
And, he’ll lean on his bandmates to see him through, he said.
“They assured me that they’re making a commitment not only to me but to themselves and to the other guys in the band that this is the last time that I have to look for anybody else,” he said. “Now, it was 10 years since we released the first album and we were never able to make any progress. It seemed like every two years we’d be ready to release an album and it never happened. Within a year of these guys being on board the new album’s released, great reviews. That coupled with me telling them we’re on a time frame now I think there’s going to be some good stuff out of it before it’s all said and done.”
Strain kidded about having a new “vibrato” in his voice from the shaking and said tongue-in-cheek that that’s been a plus.
“As they used to tell me in the military, you can get happy or you can get sad. Which one do you wanna do?”
In the end, he wants to be happy. He believes he can be, even with his daunting diagnosis, by making music, onstage with “The Warren” and for those he considers friends and family in the audience.
“I don’t want you to come to the show because we’re trying to make a name for ourselves or we’re trying to get big or we’re trying to make money. I want you to come to the show because it brings me joy to entertain you and this is why I do this,” he said. “Your friends, you never know what’s going to come around the corner, so while they’re here and they’re doing what you know they love to do – yeah, maybe you’ve seen ‘em 10 fucking times in a row - but come out and support your friends while they’re here.”
The Dead Rabbits headline Halfway to Paddy’s Day, Friday September 22 at 1810 Ojeman. With Shame on Me, Guilla and Popperz.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.