August 18th, 2010 5:33 pm | by JEFF ROSENBERG Music | Posted In: Columns

New Health Rock: Q&A w/Jeremy Wilson (First in a Multi-Part Series)

Jeremy WilsonI originally intended to sprinkle some quotes from my interview with legendary local musician and Dharma Bums leader Jeremy Wilson throughout an article about his new, eponymous Foundation and the issue of health care for musicians. But from the moment he answered the phone Tuesday morning, he started talking—even before I could hit "Record" or pose a question!—and, despite having lately been on the closest thing a Portland player might have to a "media blitz," he clearly had a lot on his mind.

So I decided, for the inaugural entry in this series on the topic, I should just mostly get out of the way and let the man who inspired it jam. The conversation steers from the specifics of the Jeremy Wilson Foundation (with its kickoff concert Friday night at the Wonder Ballroom, featuring Dr. Theopolis, Casey Neill and the Norway Rats, and anticipated "surprise guests") and Wilson's own health care crisis of recent years, to more general thoughts about artists' place in society and his personal experience of having to fight for the right to be one, both in his childhood in Silverton, and more recently, in the comments section of an article on the website of a certain daily newspaper.

Wilson: [Starts by talking about the health care problem in general, and then more specifically, how it's good to...] be able to be in a place where you can draw a little bit of attention to the musician's version of it, the artist's version of it. I just love, love, love it when people tap me to come and do benefits, you know, whenever there's a health crisis for someone, or even a hurricane or something—the very first thing everybody does is turn to musicians to raise money, to have events and all this stuff. And it's just kind of wild that musicians are twice as likely to be uninsured than other people. I just know from my own struggles, I felt so completely humbled and a little embarrassed by how vulnerable I was when I got sick. It was just a weird, intense place to be. And I was just so incredibly touched by our community coming forward and saying, "You're valuable to our community," but then, it's intense to realize, yeah, but we're not very valuable to the structure of our society! And neither is anybody without enough money to get health care.

WW: So, tell me your goals for the Jeremy Wilson Foundation.

Well, I don't want [people to have] the idea that we think we're going to reinvent the wheel, especially when other people have tried to do group policy stuff and things like that. I mean, that's been in the back of my mind that, wouldn't that be an incredible outcome, but what we really are trying to do, first and foremost, is have a crisis fund available. And then, secondly, a ready-to-go bank account for when musicians throw benefits for their fellow musicians, that there's a place we can earmark the money to who it's being made for, but have a tax shelter for it to be in, so we don't need to keep doing that. 'Cause a lot of times, people need it, like, yesterday. When I first got sick four years ago, and people started saying "benefit", this and that, and had a couple benefits for me, the only place the money could go into was my studio's business account, where it then, of course, got taxed.

And I guess one thing, for the record, I really kinda wanna let everybody know that, really through my own devices and through my mother and I paying into this stuff, I've only, over the course of two operations, only about $6,000 of the donations have been used toward my health care. I have personally gone through the financial aid processes, and the negotiations with the hospitals and the doctors, in order to deal with it. I think the impression might be that I'm spending tens of thousands of dollars that people are raising for me, and that's just not what's going on, or has been going on. Really, what's been going on is -- I have to say, I felt so loved and special, if you will, when I got sick the first time and not only did people like Barbara Mitchell and Alex Steininger and people came together to get some benefits going, but I even had lobbyists for state health issues and stuff like that, who had my records and liked my music, calling and saying, "Hey, can I help you through the maze that is health care in Oregon and the United States?" And I'm like, "Well, please do! Because I'm totally lost." And then they really helped me, and they said, here, this is a resource, and this is one way to go, here's what we did.

I eventually got insurance for that first operation I had through the state, and my mother and I paid about $500 a month for, I think it was 14 months, before I even qualified to have that operation. Which means that the state is saying I have to be on a medication that makes me fat, that makes me depressed, that slows my metabolism down, that slows my heart down, which completely transforms my life, because I have to wait for 14 months while we pay $8,000 into a fund before I qualify to have an operation. That seems pretty intense, you know? And then I started to realize, wait a minute -- I'm a mentally healthy person, I, even though I might be cash broke because of some of my career choices, or whatever, but the fact is that I'm incredibly wealthy because of the support of our community. So yeah, maybe that's because I touched people and they look at me as a legitimate artist or something, but you know, what about all the people that don't have this? What if you're, you know, an old lady, and you don't have this? You're dead!

So, that is what truly made me go, wait a minute. At the beginning, I at least want to be able to publish these resources, and these ideas, and these phone numbers, which I have handed off to several people. Many people -- you know, even if it's getting involved in the [Grammys-sponsored health care fund] MusiCares program with the dental stuff, with [Portland dentist] Dr. [Patrick] Sherrard. I have given his number to, you know, fifteen different people.

It's just really interesting. That's when I kinda got up in arms, thinking, man, I have a mother and father that care, I have a community that cares, I have lobbyists calling me, I have newspapers calling me, and it's still difficult for me, and I'm still trying to figure it out. And through all those resources I was able to get by. It still cost, my mom and I have spent at least $25,000, and the whole bill, if we had paid for everything, at this point would be about seventy-one grand, but I negotiated most of that down, and over two operations I've used about six grand worth of donations from people. Unfortunately, the second operation was not successful, and I'm going to have to negotiate again, and I'm hoping I'll be able to do the same kind of negotiating and get the help I need.

But I guess the point I'm trying to make is, even though we used my name as the name of the foundation, to hopefully draw attention to it, it's a little bit hard for me, because I try to be humble... and it's a little bit scary to have my face in the paper, and then you start to see wacko Republicans, or -- well, I don't want to call them that -- whatever, people who disagree with the fact that we should take care of each other. It's kind of an intense place to be, but I don't mind, because I think that we need activism in our lives, and we need to take care of one another. And I'm really most encouraged by the way my fellow musicians have been, like, "Gosh, man, cool!" And I'm starting to get phone calls -- I mean, like, James Low, dude, he's having a birthday party next door at the Secret Society Ballroom on Friday as well, he got ahold of me two days ago and he's like, "Hey, yeah, for my birthday party, we're gonna kinda make a block party out of the Wonder Ballroom and the Secret Society if you don't mind, and we're gonna give our proceeds to the Foundation, to kinda tie in," and stuff like that. And that's just amazing, you know -- all the musicians are really like, "Man, dude, thank you."

I know that [well-known local roots singer-songwriter] Little Sue started getting the ball rolling on some sort of similar project earlier this year, and I guess, kind of dovetailed into yours?

Yeah, she's wonderful. She put on a tribute to [another celebrated local rocker] Fernando, and -- only in Portland do musicians get together to throw a tribute to somebody, and then donate the money to another musician! It was just so cool. All night long we're playing Fernando tunes, and then getting the money to me and the Foundation!

Yeah, I think she started getting emails, when she announced a tribute to Fernando, from people asking, "Is Fernando OK?" And she had to put out that, "Yes! Fernando's fine! We just love him!"

Yeah -- "It's Jeremy that's fucked up!" [Laughs]

I don't know if you remember, but you and I were actually on the same bill at a benefit one time, the first "Dylan for Dylan" concert [to pay emergency vet bills for musician Matt Cadenelli's pet dog, Dylan].

Yeah, to save Dylan's leg! I gotta say, that was one of my favorite benefits that ever happened. I thought it was a great conceptual idea, and I thought it was amazing that we raised, like, three grand that night.

Yeah, I was like, "Where did that come from?"

I know! Isn't it incredible what we can do when we all get together? Which I think is really the fundamental driving force behind what we're trying to do. You know, people can have a revolution. People can change things. I don't want -- especially for my 501(c)3 status! -- to get too political about this; that's why I took back that "Republicans" comment. I don't wanna use divisive language, to be quite honest -- and it's not going to be like you have to be a Democrat to get help, or whatever! It's just help for people that are working hard.

And the other thing is, it was so interesting, after the Oregonian's article came out, I know it's kinda crazy, the comments section on OregonLive, it's probably the same on Willamette Week['s website], you get people who are really aggravated. And it's so interesting that people do not consider music a legitimate thing to do for your life. I mean, I understand that it's important to keep joy and fun, and yes, we do music for fun, but you know, I just gotta say to some of those critics: I was five years old when I first started taking piano and music lessons and by the time I was five and a half years old every adult in my life was encouraging me to follow an artistic path. By eight years old, I was doing ballet. By the age of 13 years old, I was accepted into the Royal Academy of Dance as a ballet dancer, and turned it down because I was being abused so much by people [for being a young male ballet dancer]. And then immediately formed the Watchmen, which was the earliest version of the Dharma Bums, all the way back in 1982. So, by the time I was 22, and had already put out three or four records, had travelled the world, had travelled the nation, had made my living since I was 14 as a musician -- what am I supposed to do?

I get somebody saying [in the comments on the Oregonian article], [Imitates snide voice] "I used to play with the Dharma Bums at Satyricon, and then I realized I needed a real job, so, it's too bad Jeremy doesn't have health insurance, well, he should have picked a better job." I've also, to that critic, I've raised well over a million dollars for different causes in my lifetime. I've helped form the Coalition for Human Dignity, which has been fighting racist propganda for 15 years, and I -- I just wanna stand up to some of those critics and, you know, call bullshit on that. I just think it's bullshit that some people -- you know, some people are artists! And that doesn't make them bad people, just because they're not straight-up capitalists! And artists do such good work for the world! That's the thing I can't get over. There's not a cause in the world that doesn't turn to its artists in the world, to bring attention and raise money for those causes.

So it's just interesting. And I think that finally launching this, seeing some of the national -- we're getting calls from New York, and different places, other organizations that are coming forward. And just in the past week, we've had an acupuncturist coming forward who's going to offer some treatment, and Dr. Sherrard, the dentist's office is probably going to tap us for some grant money, so we can continue on his participation along with what MusiCares, the Grammy organization, is doing for the dentistry. Because that's a whole issue unto itself. Health care, health policies don't even include dentistry, and the Obama plan certainly does not, and it's pretty much proven that if you have rotting teeth in your face, you're gonna die a lot earlier than somebody that doesn't!

Can you talk a bit more about that abuse you said you suffered as a result of your early interest in dance?

I'll put it lightly. I was beaten, the shit out of me, by boys, from the age of 8 to 18. I was left unconscious, I was left with fractured ribs, I was left with my pants down around my ankles, I had a very intense abuse situation with all that. And you know, me and those people in that community where that happened have all come to peace. We've actually, through art, through music, through my persistence of being myself and not ever kinda caving in, gained the respect of a lot of those people. And now, some of those very same people who did that are people that I stay in regular contact with now. I just want that message to go out there in regards to that.

At the same time, it's taken me -- it defined my life, and even defined some of my failures, definitely, but I've done a lot to overcome and to be 42 years old at this point with a really wonderful and healthy outlook on the future. It took a lot of therapy, though, and a lot of tears. [Laughs.]

On So You Think You Can Dance, it seems, they often have male dancers from inner-city neighborhoods, or various cultural backgrounds, who at some point in the season are interviewed and also get choked up talking about what they had to go through in in order to just do what comes naturally to them.

I know, it's just incredible. When I was a young man, the original Flashdance was just coming out, and showing all those dancers in the inner city, and I actually watch So You Think You Can Dance and those kinds of shows now, because I'm just so amazed that, almost 30 years since I was accepted into the R.A.D -- and back then, I mean, I was one of two boys in the whole state of Oregon that even danced. And when I was accepted, I was the only boy in the whole United States that was accepted into England's great program. So it just shows you how far we've come in 30 years, that young men now can freely dance. On that show the other night, there was a duet between two men!

I think I know the one you mean, and it was beautiful.

I know! And I got a tear in my eye watching it, not so much that I was -- you know why, because I was so moved that, on TV, there was that level of acceptance.

And hopefully we can tie that [level of dedication] into what we're trying to do with the Foundation, because that's the essence of what we're talking about, fighting the perception that musicians are just these drug-addled, sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll -- that's bullshit, you know? [Incredulously] That's just bullshit! Some of the healthiest people I know...are musicians! So kind of that old-school, '70s concept of what musicians are about, I think, is just passé. We need to fight that thought, you know?

Let me just ask you to clarify one thing real quick before you have to go. You talked about the money that came in and how only $6,000 of that has gone out. So, are you sort of sitting on the rest of that for your own future or expenses, or is some of that being fed into the new fund?

Everything is in the JW Foundation fund, and obviously, I am the litmus test for the beginning of the crisis fund. At the same time, we're sitting on about $3,500 right now, we don't know how much we're going to make with these options that are happening, and different things that are happening right now, but we're hoping that the fund will swell to the $15-$20,000 realm fairly soon. I'm hoping to tap into little to none of that money, but I'm not going to say that I'm not going to, because if I can't renegotiate with the hospital, and they say, well.... My doctor's already said that he would do the operation again for free, but I need to see if the hospital -- you know, I'm gonna bring up what we're doing, too, and see if we maybe can't tie in with Good Sam and stuff. But they've been wonderful.

I will say this: it's not the people in the industry that are the problem. It's the insurance situation, and the bureaucracy that's created by these hospitals, it really is. Their costs are real, but I have to say that whenever I've gone and been really open and transparent with the financial people that I've talked to, they've all truly cared, you know? They're not bad people. They're really there and they're just as frustrated. My doctor feels as frustrated by the insurance companies as I do.


UPDATE/CORRECTION: I received an email from Jeremy Wilson this morning, pointing out two errors in my WW preview of Friday's Foundation kickoff concert. It reads, in part:

"I look forward to seeing your series on musicians and healthcare. I think it could be a very powerful series. I feel like a dick bringing this up though. You referred to my heart condition as heart disease. I don't have heart disease at all, I have a congenital heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome - very very different from heart disease. Also. The rock and Portland communities have raised about $10,000.00 for me which I have used about $6500.00 for personal assistance - they did not raise me $45,000.00. My Mother and I have however spent $25,000.00 of our own money to deal with all of this. The $6500.00 I have used from donations since 2006 has been very helpful and is why I am paying all this forward. Thanks so much."

WW and this writer regret the errors.

Image grabbed via Flickr. If you took it, let us know (we really liked it).
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