In memory of my brother from another mother, Jeff James
You might be familiar with Pink Floyd's Album and single of the same title, "Wish You Were Here." It may mean something to you or it might not. Either way is ok. For me, it means something profound. This blog tells that story. The personal meaning of this song transcends the lyrics about missing a loved one, but more on that later. I'm getting ahead of myself.
About 3 and a half years ago, one of my closest friends was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. The short version of this story is that this man fought cancer with enough energy, bravery and heroism to make Superman and Batman give each other embarrassed (we need to step up our game) glances. In the end, it may have been the very battle scars he wore on the inside and out - rather than his damnable disease that actually got him, but the sad, difficult truth is that he did pass away earlier this year as a result of his long battle against cancer.
This story is not about a once strong man withering away and becoming an object of pity however. This is the inspiring tale of a man who once stricken, became bigger than himself and larger than life. He inspired and uplifted thousands in this community in a way a healthy man never could've. The fact is, when I last spoke to Jeff on his birthday - five days before he passed - he was in a great mood, talking to me about the next big show we were going to put together. He never wavered in his belief that he would defeat cancer and return, in full voice to the stage. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me try to explain to you what kind of a man Jeff James was....
First, a quick disclosure about myself. No doubt many of you reading this account know me as a photographer. You may be a friend or a client or just someone who enjoys our work. No doubt, photography is my day job but I also play music and have played many songs on many stages over the last 25 years. I've played in several bands, but the one I'm best "known" for is Tulsa's own Dressed To Kill - a full on KISS tribute band. I play Gene Simmons in this band, and yes... it's a real band. We play. We sing. We dress in authentic costumes. I spit (fake) blood. I breathe fire. It's a really fun show and we've been doing this all over the region since 2005. This is an important detail because it's through music that I met Jeff and it's through music that we built a relationship and friendship over the years to become as close as brothers. "we was like peas n carrots" Jeff might say, quoting Forrest Gump. Jeff and I were not related, but we were both only children who often spoke to each other of the brotherhood we shared. If he had been my own flesh and blood, I could've loved him no more than I did and still do.
Dressed To Kill, A Tribute to KISS
My friend Joe Hillenburg and I founded Dressed To Kill and it's earlier incarnation "The F'n B" (thats for another future blog :) several years ago, going through several lineups until in 2005 we settled in to the lineup that still comprises the band today. Our first big show with this lineup was a series of mini-concerts played 3 per night, every weekend night in the month of October at the Castle in Muskogee's "Haunted Castle" event in 2005. The series of shows was great experience for the new lineup and we quickly found that what we might lack in musical tightness at that time, we more than made up for with chemistry and stage presence. It was LOUD. It was FUN. It was rock n roll.
Through DTK, we've made friends with literally dozens of incredible area musicians, played with some famous musicians, been featured on KISS's website and have played to crowds of thousands at big venues all over the region. It's been an absolutely incredible experience and my bandmates are my closest friends. That first event though in Muskogee, that will always be special for lots of reasons. For the sake of this story, let's narrow it down to one. We met this dude and his kid after one of the shows. Just a guy. Just a big ol country boy KISS fan. His kid thought we were KISS and we posed for a picture with them, just as we did for literally thousands of other dudes, ladies and little kids that month.
As a literary vehicle, this is referred to as foreshadowing...
Yep, it was Jeff and his son Keaton. It wasn't long after that evening that Jeff reached out to me as a fan of DTK and told me how much they enjoyed our show. It was kind of ironic because it turns out he was the front man of a new band himself. A band one of our roadies, Chris had been talking up as a great local rock n roll band that I needed to go check out. Jeff's band, the Horny Toads was just about the funnest band you've ever seen. I went to see one of their shows in the months following Muskogee and was just blown away by the party atmosphere and fun that everyone was having.
There was this incredible aura around Jeff as a front man and lead singer, and it just drew the crowd in. Everyone loved him and I was frankly kind of in awe of how easily he worked the room and owned his stage. It immediately made me feel a little bit like a fraud, hiding behind makeup and aping someone else's fame, shortcutting my way into huge shows without having paid our dues. But Jeff was quick to put an end to that way of thinking. He told me that a tribute band, a GOOD tribute band, is one of the hardest things to pull off convincingly and that we did. I was quickly embraced by the fans of the Horny Toads and more importantly by Jeff and his beautiful wife Shian.
While he was always the biggest rock star in any room he was in, he always built me up and he introduced me to people and talked about DTK. I wouldn't say he didn't have an ego (he absolutely did), but he was incredibly sweet and self-depricating about it. He never took himself so seriously that he thought he was any kind of big deal, even though he obviously kind of was. He knew full well that he owned his stage and was always at home in the spotlight he loved so much, but he was incredibly humble about his own skills off stage.
Over the next several years, Jeff became DTK's unofficial 5th member, forming friendships with all the guys in the band and helping us produce shows, market our act and hone our stage presence. He would come to practices, go on the road with us and just thoughtlessly cast aside his own well deserved rock star status to carry amps and be a glorified roadie for DTK because he just loved us and it was always a good time.
It was one summer during this stretch that I had the great fortune to be asked to fill in as the Horny Toads' bass player for a stretch of the schedule when Chuck, their regular bassist was unavailable. I was given about a week to learn 30 songs, but I said yes because I had been to enough of Jeff's shows to know it would be a blast! I also owed him so much gratitude for all the help he had been in promoting and producing my own band. I couldn't say no, and they say a photo is worth a thousand words, so here are a few that I'll let do the speaking for me. You tell me if it looks like Jeff and I had a good time sharing the stage with each other!
It was every bit as much fun as it looks like it must have been, and then some.
Rock and roll debauchery before, after and during each show. The thing that I discovered about Jeff then was that he was riddled with anxiety before a show, and would pace the room worrying that he was going to flop and disappoint people who were coming out to see us. He obviously never disappointed, but those were the expectations he put on himself. You can tell by the images above that Jeff was absolutely POURING himself into entertaining the room. When we would strike an appropriate back to back rock n roll pose on stage together, I could feel his body shaking with the power he was channeling into his lyrics and high energy stage presence. Perched at the front of the stage with one cowboy boot on his battle scarred Peavy monitor looking every bit the viking captain at the bow of his ship, soaked with sweat, Jeff gave 100% every single night and if you shared the stage with him, you knew you had to do the same.
It was one of the best summers of my life. I had so much fun, and it really gave Jeff and I the opportunity to share a stage and form this giant country boy rock star ego balloon so huge we could've floated it to China. But again, Jeff never took it too seriously or thought too highly of himself. In fact, every show contained a very personal homage to our friend Wayne Shomburg who was at the time (and is again now, please keep him in your prayers) on an active duty combat tour in Afghanistan. The band performed Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and dedicated it to Wayne every single show. We didn't yet know how this song would come full circle, but it would.
On New Year's Eve... the last day of 2009, I got a phone call from Shian. She wanted Jennifer and me to hear from she and Jeff personally, he had been diagnosed with cancer. Not just cancer, but lung cancer and it was stage 3. Late stage 3. In the months leading up to that revelation, dating back to the previous summer, Jeff had begun having problems with his voice. Doctors suggested allergies.... acid reflux.... and everything else. But it wasn't until December of 2009 that Jeff finally insisted that he felt something else was wrong, and demanded an xray. The results of that xray would change a lot of lives in the years to come, but at the moment it was Jeff and Shian's personal cross to bear.
They brought me into this knowledge along with several other close friends before the news was out and in the following weeks, I spent a lot of time with Jeff. Talking to him and making my own personal decisions.
You might think, if you've never had to actually DO it, standing by a friend with cancer is an easy decision. I'm ashamed to say it's not. It is easy to say you are... but to actually be there and watch someone deal with that, to understand that you could probably save yourself some future pain by backing off a little, it's sobering. It's gutcheck time. For me, the difficult thing was imagining Jeff's slow descent from a robust viking rock star into a withered shell of a man on his deathbed. I didn't want to see that or experience that path, but I couldn't NOT do it either. If that makes sense. I don't want it to sound like I struggled with the decision to get even closer to Jeff. I didn't. But I knew it had a chance of being incredibly personally taxing and painful.
I felt that way for about a day before Jeff's unfailing enthusiasm converted it's first believer (second actually, as I know Shian was always his biggest fan by far) in the mythos of Jeff, the indomitable cancer warrior. I wouldn't be the last. Over the next three years, thousands of people would learn what this man was truly made of. In the end of course it was (and still is) incredibly painful to lose my friend, but I cannot put into words what an honor it was, what an immaculate blessing it was... to be in Jeff's inner circle as he began what he considered to be a journey.
He never doubted he would kick cancer's ass. He was worried obviously and in he and Shian's private moments, I'm sure there was plenty of personal soul searching and tears, but Jeff never EVER publicly felt sorry for himself or allowed anyone to think of him as a victim. It was shortly after his diagnosis that Jeff came to me with an idea.
His idea was to do a serial photo essay of his battle against cancer. He knew he would physically change as a result of it and he trusted me to chronicle his journey in an unflinching, honest series of photo shoots. He wanted someday to be able to use it as his story. His triumphant tale of victory over cancer. He of course expected to survive and tell the tale himself, but he knew he might not. What I want to convey here is that he did in fact score a resounding victory over cancer. It took his life and his voice, but it also gave him a power and a platform to evolve into this transcendent character - offering selfless support to others suffering from cancer and drawing support and donations toward what became his favorite charity - Turn Tulsa Pink. More on this later...
For the first installment of his photo essay, Jeff met me at my downtown Tulsa studio. We shot this series mainly in black and white and the images were all candids I shot randomly as I had Jeff just begin talking (something never hard to entice him to do) and telling me his story. As he talked... I just snapped shots. Honest portrayals of his conversation. He knew he was at a crossroads and this was the starting line of a tough fight. The following images are from before he received a single chemo or radiation treatment.
The pics may have been candids, but he knew the camera was on.
Possibly my favorite picture I ever shot of Jeff.
Of course there were dick jokes... because of course there were!
Jeff also understood when to have an appropriate flair for the dramatic...
...but, as I said, he understood the battle before him and had many introspective thoughts on what was to come. This is the first time I've published these images, but to me they illustrate what this handsome and intelligent man was truly thinking that day.
This shoot was fun and light at times, heavy and thoughtful at others. But it cemented what I believed was a solemn obligation I had to my friend. I was looking forward to the day he could proudly show everyone how he beat cancer, and from that day forward I never doubted that he would.
We only did two more formal sessions. In the next one, his trademark blonde viking hair had begun to thin after a few months of radiation and chemo treatments. Jeff decided to get ahead of things and shave his head.
Looking the part of an action movie hero.
At this time, I was turning 40 and we threw a big party with several bands playing. Jeff's current post-Horny Toad project was a band called Monster Joe, and they played a full set at my party before yielding the stage to Dressed To Kill (unmasked!) and finally my new band Blackwood - featuring my beautiful wife Jennifer Shipman on lead vocals. It was such a beautiful evening and Jeff sounded great.
Jeff and Shi, Jen and me. Jeff got me a Gene Simmons action figure for my birthday, because of course he did!
The next session we did, Jeff really wanted to illustrate two things. First, that he had earned battle scars from cancer. He wanted people to see that he had been scarred and affected by the disease. Second, he wanted to look cool. He felt good and wanted that to come across too. The point was, yeah he was taking some punches, but he was returning with as good as he got. Again we shot these in black and white and chose stark, post-apocolyptic locations.
The bump on his chest is where the doctors would inject the poison that fought his cancer. He wanted this to be seen in these images.
Things went on like this for quite awhile. And the interesting thing was, Jeff never really publicly seemed to get sicker at this point. In fact, most of the news was pretty good. Treatments were adjusted and different things were tried. And over the next couple of years, there were a lot of great moments. Jen and I spent a lot of time with Jeff and Shi, as did many others in our group of friends.
We like costumes... a lot
Jeff and Joe took me to a gay bar for my bachelor party....
And they were my my co-best men at my wedding
Jeff escorting my daughter at my wedding. He was so sick that day, and felt terrible. But you wouldn't have known it.
MORE Halloween parties!
And more great times with Jeff and Shi & Me and Jen
Things seemed to be going well for Jeff, the cancer had spread somewhat - never good news, but it so far had been arrested in his lungs and seemed more or less taking one step forward for any step back and Jeff was holding his own, fighting stage 3 lung cancer to a stalemate.
In late 2010, almost two years after his diagnosis, a project came up. Another friend of ours had cancer and had been fighting it for a few years. Amy Wiley, who had been a friend for years and was a huge fan of DTK, had been fighting bone cancer and had recently lost a leg to it. I was told privately by her sister that things were beginning to look grim for her. An idea struck me....
About a year before, DTK's frontman (aka Paul Stanley) Michael Truitt had been transferred in his company to Chicago. We hadn't played a show in a long time and were strongly considering calling it a day and hanging up the platform boots. With Amy's news, I hatched this idea to do a fundraiser private party kind of thing and fly MIke back in to perform. This idea really began to gain momentum over the next week and I realized it would be a more effective fund-raiser if I got a cancer charity involved. I contacted several who wanted me to jump through all kinds of hoops in order to get their interest and support. It was incredibly discouraging, seeing the business side of charities in this light... and then I called Judi Grove with Turn Tulsa Pink.
I explained to her what I was doing, and by the end of the call she had booked the show into the Cain's Ballroom and had assured me several TV and radio interviews. The net result was a huge party at the Cains with Amy as the guest of honor. Jeff was the emcee for the evening and fronted the opening band (Alien Blues Alliance). He also sang backing vocals for DTK off stage. It was, simply put, Jeff's finest hour and it was for a packed house.
Not sure it was sold out, but let's just say it was a pretty dang FULL house that night...
Nothing beats the feeling of playing in a rock concert at a full Cain's Ballroom.
Again, as at my wedding, he was sick. He had nearly lost his voice and was very weak and shaky due to treatments and side effects from treatments. But as he had years before when we shared the stage as Horny Toads, he poured himself into his many rolls that night and just absolutely dominated. As a good Oklahoma boy growing up in Baptist churches, I've been to a few tent revivals. Let me tell you, I've never seen such purity of spirit, such a feeling of spiritual healing as I did that evening. Amy was lifted from her dark place and had the time of her life. But my enduring image from that evening occurred off stage. In the shadows, where nobody could see the rock star. In such a sweet and thoughtful moment as you would ever hope to see, Jeff shared a private moment with Amy. One cancer warrior to another. In these images, you can see the fear and pain in Amy's face but at the same time you can literally feel the comfort and love Jeff gave her as he hugged her and kissed her forehead.
Jeff and Amy
What a guy...
It was Amy's night, and Jeff made sure she knew he knew that.
But, of course, we had a great time too. Jeff got to do what he loved more than anything, sing and perform. And we got to hang out backstage at one of America's finest and most storied music venues.
Amy and I doing a live interview on Channel 2
Me having my mind blown at the energy this "sick" man had. He ran circles around the rest of us that night.
Raquel Belch - Jeff built a fire breathing dragon for DTK's stage show because OF COURSE HE DID.
Jeff James, aka Rocket Man, aka Triple J fronting Alien Blues Alliance at the Cain's.
Amy passed away a few months later. It hit me hard and it hit Jeff hard. It was difficult for him to face the mortality of her funeral, so he stayed home from it and felt very guilty for missing it. It was really difficult for all of us, but Amy's family assured me many times over, that night, the "KISS for Amy" concert was an oasis in her nightmare of cancer. It put Turn Tulsa Pink on the map and it established the legend of Jeff James for all the right reasons.
Our other band Blackwood continued to play some pretty cool shows. We opened for REO Speedwagon and of course Jeff was the head of our production crew and got to meet one of his heros, Kevin Cronin. The REO guys were so awesome, they signed this album cover for us to give to Jeff.
Jeff with his REO Speedwagon trophies
During these days, Jeff became a standard guest singer for Blackwood. We had a mini-set that was all songs Jeff would sing. He didn't always have the lung power to do more than 4 or 5 songs, but he would do those 4 or 5 at maximum firepower. One of the songs that became a standard for him to guest sing with us was borrowed from the old Horny Toad days - Wish You Were Here.
It had taken on a new meaning, as one night Blackwood was playing a St Patrick's Day show at the Blue Rose when we got a call - Amy had passed away. Now, the song was dedicated to our friend Amy, a young mother who was taken far too early and whose signature event had changed us all. I've never played that song with a dry eye since.
One More Show...
In what proved to be Jeff's grand finale', we had another charity event come up. This time it was produced by close friends of Jeff's, Chris and Angela Glidden and instead of cancer, this time it was for the Make a Wish Foundation. Rock a Wish was a new project for Jeff and he poured himself into it. He was feeling good and was ready to hit the stage again. Not content to simply front a band and sing a whole show for the first time in years, he decided in typical Jeff James fashion that he had to create a monster of a stage show and assemble an incredible lineup of talent. Jeff decided to start an Alice Cooper tribute band called the Billion Dollar Koopers.
He build a dozen or more elaborate stage props, designed and constructed his own costume and even involved a live 6' boa constrictor. Backup singers, the works and he practiced until he had a finely honed show that frankly, was a bit of an intimidating act to follow!
From a promotional photoshoot we did for his band, The Billion Dollar Koopers
Well our fears were well founded because if I'm being honest, the Koopers smoked us that night. There were some sound system issues and simply put, they rose up and put on a killer show and in my opinion, we struggled a bit. Jeff was, as he was after the KISS for Amy show, absolutely wrung out and exhausted, but he was on Cloud 9 at the same time. It was things like this, I firmly believe, that fueled his battle against cancer. He told me several times that it was the support of his close friends and the desire to be on stage again that gave him so much strength, but all I know is that everything he touched in those years turned to gold, if the worth of human spirit has a dollar value.
The way these events brought people together and united so many people was just incredible to witness, and the thing that really made it work is that Jef was so genuinely and sweetly ignorant of how powerful a figure he had become that he never changed. He was always the same optimistic, fiercely loyal, creative genius that he was before he got sick. He just became... bigger than all that, and sucked hundreds of people into his orbit. These new platforms introduced a lot of new people to Jeff and they found, as we all had, that even briefly meeting Jeff was a profound experience for people.
He was a blur of motion and energy all night, climbing ladders and singing lead for 90 minutes - basically on one lung.
Love this pic of Jeff and Shian, back stage at "Rock a Wish."
Unfortunately, it wasn't long after this show that cancer played it's cruelest card yet for my friend Jeff. It took his voice. Jeff had this rich baritone voice that was just perfectly suited for rock n roll, but few people saw the fine control he could command over it when he sang some sweet acapela love song to Shian. I've heard him flawlessly cover songs from both the Brian Johnson and Bon Scott years in AC/DC. And I've heard him sing Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On," and everything in between, but his favorite singer was actually Elton John. Hearing him sing Elton's love songs to Shian was the kind of thing that always made you know true love exists.
As a result of his treatments, or the size of the scar tissue from the now dead tumor in his lung, or really... who knows exactly why? One of his vocal cords became paralyzed and he was stricken with what amounted to permanent laryngitis. He couldn't sing anymore, and that really became depressing for him at times.
Not all the time... But he confided in me how frustrating it was during cookouts at Jeff and Shian's. The evenings spent philosophizing in the hot tub and on the back patio. Those countless nights spent in the man-cave garage with the only other true love of his life (a distant second to Shian) - his "Blue Meanie" 1970 Olds 442. It was THESE nights that he occasionally let his guard down and you could see how after enduring all these treatments, it was the loss of his voice more than the cancer itself that weighed heavily on him.
Still, he never doubted that the voice would come back. He never stopped talking about the next show and he never became a pitiable cancer victim, wasting away.
What has two thumbs and is tougher than cancer? This guy.
Jeff, Chris Glidden and me. Jeff was never weak or frail. This was maybe a month before he passed away.
In the end, Jeff developed some complications - probably from the scar tissue in his lung, and after fighting cancer to a stand-still for 3 years, he passed away. Just like that. We were there for his birthday and 5 days later, I found myself preparing a statement for he eulogy. I'm proud to say that I was a friend of Jeff's. He told me unashamedly on many occasions that he loved me and that he considered me to be his brother. So many times, something is left unsaid or undone, but in Jeff's case, the one thing that I feel really good about is that the last time I saw him, I hugged him and told him I loved him. Not always the easiest thing for men to do or say to each other, but we are talking about this guy....
Herschel the cat: "man, Jeff... you really look gay here."
Jeff was the funniest guy I've ever met. I've always said you could sell tickets to a dinner at Jeff's house because between he and Shian and their three boys, the one liners and good natured jabs were constant and hilarious. Your face hurt when you left Jeff's house because you were smiling and laughing the whole time.
Speaking at Jeff's funeral was the most difficult thing I think I've ever done. I got through it somehow but had dozens of breakdowns that day. I still have them sometimes. The thing is, when I turn on a classic rock station now, every other song seems to be one I played with the Horny Toads, or one he sang with Blackwood, or at least a song from a band he's talked to me about. All these songs elicit different emotions and depending on how they hit me, they either make me laugh or they choke me up a bit. But there's that one song...
Wish You Were Here.
This song now has a new meaning. It still is dedicated to Amy. And Wayne is now on another combat tour, so it has regained Jeff's original intent for it's use in the set list, but now it obviously is also dedicated to Jeff James.
Jeff and me, hanging out backstage, pre-show at the Cains.
So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
Yeah, cookouts at this guy's house were fun.
Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
I can't tell you how much I miss things like this.
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
There are a lot more stories that could be told. I could tell you about the time Jeff produced a DTK show in Oklahoma City after being bitten earlier in the day by a venomous snake (Cottonmouth). He shrugged it off and said it was nothing. I could tell you about the time he got his truck stuck up to the doors in mud and we had to figure out a way to get it out. I could tell you about how he helped me install custom wall murals because I was too much of a chicken to go to the top of the ladder.
But instead, I'll take Jeff's advice and not play every song they want to hear. Leave em wanting a little more, he would say. And so with that, I leave you with this image.
Miss you, Rocket Man