Pleasures of the High Rhine: A Texas Singer in Exile book review

Richard Dobson is a Texas singer-songwriter from Tyler and former roughneck who gamboled around Galveston and Houston, then Austin and Nashville, before spending the past 13 years living in Switzerland and playing all over Europe. That’s the shorthand. The long version is this fine piece of contemporary literature, Pleasures of the High Rhine – A Texas Singer in Exile.

I’ve known Richard since the 1970s when he was hanging around Austin and sometimes touring as part of Townes Van Zandt’s band, as told in his previous book Gulf Coast Boys, and have stayed in touch over the years by reading his eloquent observations in his occasional Don Ricardo’s Life and Times newsletter.

He’s enjoyed nominal success, his songs having been covered by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Kelly Willis, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, and the Carter Family, among others. As solid as his tunes are, it’s Dobson’s literary writing that grabs me.

Pleasures of the High Rhine was written at a critical time in Dobson’s life: his friends Townes and the writer Roxy Gordon have died fairly young, leaving him to contemplate their lives and demise. A red-haired Swiss woman has left her family and joined him in Galveston for a year before returning to Switzerland as a couple. A new millennium has begun.

Pleasures of the High Rhine covers songwriting, collaborating, performing and recording with a German band led by Thomm Jutz (now a Nashville cat), the strangeness of playing venues that ostensibly showcase American country music, and observations thereof, a critical skill for any songwriter.

But it’s also about living as an expatriate in a foreign country, redefining what home is, learning to speak German, being welcomed into a new family, living on the Swiss-German border, food, drink, his relationship with Edith, trips back to Houston and Nashville, gardening (including growing his own marijuana in a society that doesn’t much care one way or another) aging, and, water.

The latter is where Dobson really sings. He opens with a passage about fishing in the Gulf off of Galveston, down to describing the second and third sandbars offshore and the joys of “green water” fishing in the fall when the Gulf clarifies briefly into Caribbean-like beauty. Finding beauty in its harsh roughness, he writes the Texas Gulf like no one I’ve read before.

He soon finds himself on the Rhine River and delves into it with similar zeal and a newfound curiosity.

His pursuit of a fishing license – no easy thing in Switzerland, requiring an extensive 140 question test in Deutsch – a steep learning curve how to fish the Rhein, especially for elusive trout, and his summer swims in the river lead to deep history of the river and its inhabitants, including not so pleasant events such as Kristalnacht when synagogues were burned and Jews persecuted, and the historic fouling and restoration of the waterway.

He gets it.

Contemporary global events such as the election of George W. Bush and 9-11 are seen from a distance that lends perspective, written by a kindred spirit.

The finest singer-songwriters possess the gift where their words often transcend the music. In Pleasures of the High Rhine, Richard Dobson’s words simply sing.

Available through mytexasmusic.com

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Texas High School Football: More Than the Game (the book)

The exhibit that I curated for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum – Texas High School Football: More Than The Game comes down after Sunday. It’s been a great experience all the way to the end. This week, I guided the great sportswriter Jim Dent (The Junction Boys, Twelve Mighty Orphans, Courage Beyond the Game), Ken Herrington, an Eight Man player for Woodson, along with his family, and Coach Butch Ford of the Celina Bobcats and his wife, among other. Ken, who lives in Graham,had a stroke not too long ago, and as his wife and daughters explained, his life was saved by quick action from their neighbors, Brad McCoy and his Colt.

For every story told in the exhibit, I learned ten new stories. Everyone has at least one, when it comes to Texas High School Football. As sad as I am to see the exhibit close, I’m thrilled that the exhibit catalog which was put together by my sister, Christina Patoski, in conjunction with Pentagram Design and under the good graces of the Reilly Family Foundation, will remain in print, distributed by University of Texas Press. If you got to experience the exhibit, I hope you enjoyed it. If you missed it, all I can say is, you really missed it.

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Joe Nick’s Dallas Cowboys history book coming soon

Well, 2011 turned out to be an exceptionally average year for the Dallas Cowboys football club, wrapping up with an 8-8 average in a season marked by no less than four games that Dallas blew going into the fourth quarter.

(poster from the Dallas Observer)

The lousy performance will not stop publication of my next book, an unauthorized history of the Dallas Cowboys, which is scheduled for fall release by my publisher, Little, Brown.

The whole story is told, going back to 1842 when John Neely Bryan established the town site, pausing in 1952 to assess the unsuccessful season of the NFL’s Dallas Texans, who became the Baltimore Colts the next year, and pausing again in 1960 when the NFL Dallas Cowboys debuted, along with the American Football League’s Dallas Texans, all the way to the here and now.

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Throwing a party for Joe Gracey

Friend Joe Gracey passed in mid November, just after his 61st birthday, so his friends and family are throwing a big ol’ bash for him on Sunday, December 4 @ 2 pm at Austin City Limits Live in downtown Austin. Even if you never heard of Joe, if you dig Austin, Texas music and all that is cool about this part of the world, you’re invited to send off one of the tastemakers who made it so.

I am honored to have been asked by his family to write his obituary. God bless Kimmie, Jolie, Gabe, Jeremie, brother Bill, and all his friends and relatives.

After a well-spent life defined by a series of reinventions, each more outrageous and ‘way cooler than the previous one, Joe Gracey has left the building – this place we call earth. Born in Fort Worth on November 14, 1950, Joe distinguished himself as a communicator at an early age. He built his own radio studio in the family attic in sixth grade, mowed lawns to get his first guitar, played in teen bands alongside fellow Fort Worth- ers Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and projected gravitas and au- thority as a veteran newsman and familiarity and intimacy as a country music disc jockey for KXOL-AM and FM when the 16 year old wasn’t at- tending classes at Paschal High School. His mother drove him to work at the radio station.
Like many other young Texans of his generation, he gravitated to Aus- tin to attend the University of Texas where he graduated with a degree in American Studies while moonlighting on Austin’s Top 40 radio station, KNOW-AM, and writing the first rock music column for the Austin American-Statesman, immediately over- stepping his assigned category by writing about country and folk music too, focusing on the unique country-rock musical hybrid that was incubating in Austin.
In 1974, he joined KOKE-FM in Austin, the first progressive country radio station in the world. Blessed with a warm, full-bodied voice with enough of a lingering drawl to leave no doubt where he came from, Gracey be- came an intimate friend to strangers who discovered they could learn a few things about music by listening to the radio; unlike his broadcasting peers, Gracey was fixated on what he said as much as how he said it.
Smart and a smartass both, he was a pillar of a burgeoning music community on the verge of being discov- ered nationally and internationally. He welcomed music fans to some of the most exciting and eclectic music be- ing created as one of the voices who did radio commercials for the storied Armadillo World Headquarters. It was Ol’ Blue Eyes, as he called himself, who coolly and casually opened his microphone so Willie Nelson and his friend Kris Kristofferson could perform an impromptu concert for listeners at home.
Gracey not only played Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours, he took the time to explain ET’s signifi- cance and line out Tubb’s hip bona fides for a generation that had previously ignored their parents’ and grandparents’ music. He turned on music lovers to exotic sounds in their own backyard such as Tex-Mex con- junto music as articulated by his friends Doug Sahm, Ry Cooder, and Flaco Jimenez; and western swing, the almost-forgotten Made In Texas country-jazz hybrid popularized in the 1930s, kickstarting its revival by put- ting Asleep at the Wheel and Alvin Crow into heavy rotation. Gracey played a critical role defining Super Roper Radio, as KOKE was known, demonstrating how the Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons were related to George Jones and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. In that respect, he was as influential as Willie Nelson, Austin’s musical godfather, in bringing the hippies and the rednecks together through the common love of music.
With Gracey as program director, Billboard magazine crowned KOKE-FM as “Trendsetter of the Year.”
Gracey’s trendspotting abilities earned him the role as talent coordinator for the new “Austin City Limits,” now the longest-running music series on American television, when the series started in 1976. Through Gracey, the remaining Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Flaco Jimenez y Su Conjunto, and Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Zydeco Band performed for national television audiences for the first time. His byline continued ap- pearing in the Austin Sun and the literary country music journal Picking Up the Tempo.
In the summer of 1977, inspired by his mentor Cowboy Jack Clement, he left KOKE-FM a few weeks before the station’s format switched, and headed downstairs to the basement of the KOKE building where he fash- ioned a four track TEAC recorder and two windowless offices into the funky, duct-taped recording studio known as Electric Graceyland. The studio was the site of some of the first recordings of future blues legends Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miss Lou Ann Barton; The Skunks, Austin’s first punk band; and Tex-Mex rockers Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns. Gracey also recorded the demo that scored the Fabulous Thunderbirds their first record contract and worked the dials for Lubbock songster Butch Hancock and his Dixie’s Bar and Bus Stop cable television music series. He recorded Stevie Vaughan and Barton and the band Double Trouble at Clement’s Nashville studio.
He used Electric Graceyland to collaborate musically with his partner in crime, Bobby Earl Smith, as the Jackalope Brothers. Gracey and Smith also did radio promotion for Alvin Crow & The Pleasant Valley Boys while Gracey often opened shows for Crow with his brother Bill as The Amazing Graceys.
It was during this flurry of recording and promoting that Gracey was dealt the lousy hand of a cancer diagno- sis that eventually robbed him of his gifted voice.
Only 27, Gracey fought the hard fight medically while simultaneously adapting. A Magic Slate kids’ erasable writing tablet tucked under his arm became a Gracey accessory so he could scribble a quick response to any questions and allow him to engage in conversations, followed by the soft, barely-audible rip as he cleared the pad to erase the message once his words were understood.
In 1979, his friend TJ McFarland introduced him to the love of his life, Kimmie Rhodes, a singer-songwriter from Lubbock, as well as a playwright, painter, writer, and all-around creative force.
They married in 1984 and settled in Briarcliff where he helped raise Kimmie’s sons from a previous marriage, Gabe and Jeremie Rhodes, and their daughter, Jolie Morgan Goodnight Gracey. A family band emerged with Gracey playing bass and Gabe, a talented producer in his own right, who absorbed all the nuances of the elec- tronic recording art from Joe, playing guitar.
Kimmie and their neighbor Joe Sears started writing plays together and Gracey joined the fun as an actor, playing the part of the skeleton barkeeper in the play “Windblown,” and the role of the clown in “Small Town Girl,” in addition to other performances.
He also worked the audio console at nearby Pedernales Studios for a number of years and in 1996 was at the controls for Nelson’s groundbreaking album, Spirit, which inspired Nelson to redefine his live sound. Gracey and David Zettner built the small, simple recording studio in the back of Willie’s Luck World Headquarters saloon where Willie liked to hold court and make music at the spur of the moment, which yielded the albums, Picture in a Frame, Willie’s 2003 album of duets with Kimmie, and the Grammy-nominated collaboration be- tween Willie and Ray Price, Run That By Me One More Time.
Rhodes and Gracey’s shared love of food and fine wine (he learned how to keep boudin warm on his Cadillac’s engine returning from a trip to visit Clifton Chenier in Lafayette, Louisiana), along with numerous European tours by Rhodes launched another career for Gracey – food writer – as championed by their friend Colman Andrews, the editor of Saveur magazine, for whom Gracey did several pieces. Joe and Kimmie also taught cooking classes together. Their food adventures and Kimmie’s continued popularity in Europe eventu- ally led to the couple’s renovation of a small 1,000 year old stable-farmhouse in the Languedoc province of France.
Gracey never stopped creating, and he started a blog, Letters from Graceyland (Graceyland.blogspot.com) to share his latest adventures with readers.
Cancer-free for 30 years, the beast reentered his life in 2009. The bad news was accompanied by good news though. Doctors at M.D. Anderson Hospital would embark on experimental surgery that led to a partial resto- ration of his voice. But the new cancer was joined by other cancer, leading to several months of treatments in Houston. Afterwards, Joe and Kimmie were able to spend some weeks together in their French place again with friends and family before returning to Texas one last time.
Sickness never defined Joe’s life. It was an irritant and obstacle to be overcome so he could pursue his many interests. He defined it; it didn’t define him. And although so much of his professional career revolved around music, his life was much more than that too, as his extensive network of family and friends that spanned the globe would attest to.
They all knew that Gracey’s presence could never be ignored. He was not the kind of person to let that hap- pen. Which is why despite his unplanned departure, he wanted his friends, family, and all the strangers he never met to hold close to their hearts the advice he dispensed whenever he signed off from another shift on the radio:
“Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can.”
Joe is survived by his wife Kimmie Rhodes Gracey, daughter Jolie Gracey Musick and husband Jason; sons Jeremie Rhodes, Gabriel Rhodes and wife Carmen; grandchildren Louis and Ruby Rhodes, Isaac and Isabella Bryson; brother Bill Gracey and wife Cathy; nieces Christy and Kate Gracey; and, Louis’ mother, Jamie Rhodes.
The family is grateful for the loving care and attention provided by M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Nobelity Project (www.nobelity.org) or M.D. Anderson Can- cer Center (www.mdanderson.org).
A public celebration of Joe’s life will be held on December 4, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. at the Austin City Limits Moody Theater, 210 W. Willie Nelson Boulevard, in downtown Austin, Texas 78701. Y’all come.

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John Mueller finally opens Saturday


(image from austin.eater.com) here’s the link to their story:

He’s three months late and instead of a brick-and-mortar East Austin location he’s in a trailer park at South First at Elizabeth St, but he called yesterday to say he’ll be open at 2 pm Saturday and getting serious on a daily basis beginning Tuesday.

May the serious smoking begin.

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Talking Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Book People, Sunday 5 pm

This Book Could Be Your Life Book Club – discussing Willie Nelson

Book Club

Start: 09/18/2011 5:00 pm

Get ready for some rock and roll! Dig into the history of music, its stars and styles, exploring everything from punk to pop. Bosco and Stephanya will satisfy your rock and roll obsession the third Sunday of every month at 5PM. This month’s book is Willie Nelson by Joe Nick Patoski.
[Willie Nelson: An Epic Life]
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (Paperback)
By Joe Nick Patoski
$16.99
ISBN-13: 9780316017794
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Back Bay Books, 4/2009
Location:

603 N Lamar Blvd
Austin,
Texas
78703-5413
United States

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my friend Joe Gracey

from the Austin American-Statesman

By Brenda Bell

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Updated: 7:19 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

Published: 10:20 a.m. Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

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February 2002: In a room full of people in love with the sound of their own voices, Joe Gracey’s silence turned heads.

He had almost backed out of this reunion of the AM radio station where he had briefly worked in the 1970s, when his broadcast star was rising. At the last minute he decided to come anyway, the former boy wonder whose story everyone knew.

His youth was gone, of course, and a graying beard partly concealed where the surgeons had ravaged his neck and jaw. Still it was hard to think of Gracey as a middle-aged man. He was working the crowd with his usual puckish charm, a beer in one hand and a kid’s Magic Slate in the other.

We talked for a while — or rather, I talked and Gracey scribbled, rapidly filling the slate, erasing it and writing more. This is the drill since losing his voice to cancer in 1978: When Gracey “talks,” he’s actually writing.

The son of a Fort Worth trial lawyer, Gracey had always been a talker, fluent with words and fascinated with sound and music. As 13 he had his own “pirate” — i.e., illegal — radio station and by the time he started in commercial radio at 15, he had a baritone voice that “kind of jumped out at you,” recalled Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski.

Radio men called such voices “ballsy” and admired Gracey’s insouciance, his smart grasp of the disparate styles — Western swing, blues, alt-rock — forming an eclectic music scene that would become Austin’s signature. The sound of “progressive country” was born at KOKE-FM, where Gracey spun the records.

“He played a compelling mix of Texas musicians, the Allman Brothers, Hank Williams Jr.,” Jan Reid wrote in “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.” “His playlist was brash, seamless and almost all Southern: Listen up, here, this was the direction country music was going, and Nashville had better hop to and pay attention.”

“Joe was the real deal,” said Patoski. “If he liked something, you knew it was pretty cool. He was evidence of something that was happening here that was unlike anywhere else.”

Now, tonight, Gracey was bursting with all that he could not say. “This must be hard for you,” I said.

His hand wrote furiously on the slate: “I’ll never get used to it.”

Not who he is

July 2011: Kimmie Rhodes, Gracey’s wife, is lounging by the pool of the Hotel ZaZa in Houston while Gracey naps upstairs in one of the rooms reserved for outpatients at nearby MD Anderson Hospital. He has been living here since his latest cancer — esophageal this time — was diagnosed in February.

“I don’t think this should be about Gracey’s cancer,” Rhodes says. She often calls her husband by his last name, as does everyone of a certain age in the music business in Austin. “One of the hardest things about it is, people define who you are by it. That’s not who he is.”

Rhodes and Gracey were both married to other people when they met in 1979. Gracey had teamed up with Bobby Earl Smith, a newly minted lawyer who had blown off the law to play music. In a makeshift studio in the basement of KOKE dubbed Electric Graceyland, they recorded a pantheon of local musicians, including Jesse Sublett’s seminal rock band, the Skunks; Stevie Ray Vaughan, Alejandro Escovedo, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alvin Crow, the LeRoi Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel.

Rhodes was a born artist who painted, sang, wrote poetry, plays — and, as it turned out, music. With Smith’s and Gracey’s encouragement, she became a successful singer/songwriter, crafting songs in such profusion she has trouble remembering them all.

Gracey had a roguish reputation, but his marriage to Rhodes in 1984 thrived. “One of the reasons we’ve stayed together so long is we had a really great friendship before we got married,” Rhodes says.

It is Rhodes — energetic, wired to be positive — who roused Gracey this morning and readied him for a photo shoot in the white linen jacket he wears “just to thumb my nose at fate.” It’s Rhodes who slogs with him through the slough of chemotherapy; Rhodes who strategizes how to get him home to Austin for the weekend, leaving this all-cancer, all-the-time world behind.

And it’s Rhodes who interprets his rapid-fire sign language when he doesn’t bother with the slate. Her voice, Gracey’s words — after 27 years together, it’s all one thing now.

As the shadows lengthen over the ZaZa’s pool I ask the voluble singer if she ever wondered about casting her lot with a man who could not speak. She doesn’t hesitate.

“I never gave it a second thought,” she says, her blue eyes steady beneath a silvering mane of hair. “I always found him mysterious — more interesting than people who could talk . . . . and he was just so damn much fun.”

The hot-shot

August 1977: Gracey is riding high.

The hot-shot program director at the hottest radio station in town, he is pushing the envelope on the progressive country format, slipping in wild cards like Clifton Chenier and exhorting listeners to “Drink lots of water, stay off your feet and come when you can.” He seems to know every singer/songwriter who blows through Austin, and many of them turn up on his radio show.

“It was a heady time to be here,” Gracey would write much later, “and I was riding the groove as hard as I could.”

At the age of 23, Gracey had put KOKE-FM — the call letters were a kind of running joke when cocaine seemed to be everywhere — on the map when it won Billboard magazine’s trendsetter of the year award . He lined up talent for “Austin City Limits,” a new PBS show being broadcast from the University of Texas campus. He wrote about rock music for the American-Statesman and others.

It was Gracey’s voice — Old Blue Eyes, he called himself, a wink at Frank Sinatra — who advertised upcoming acts for the Armadillo World Headquarters, where cosmic cowboys were drinking Shiner beer in a haze of pot smoke.

“What we now take for granted as the alternative culture in Austin, what led to South by Southwest and Austin City Limits — it’s all feeding off that period in time,” said Patoski.

In the age of iTunes and satellite radio, it’s easy to forget the hold that radio once had on youthful music sensibilities. At night after the local stations signed off, kids in small Texas towns tuned to powerful stations far away — WLAC in Nashville, Tenn., KOMA in Oklahoma City, WLS in Chicago. They went to sleep with the gravely voice of a Shreveport, La., disc jockey in their ears, one the world would later know as Wolfman Jack.

“I was totally influenced by that music,” Rhodes once told an interviewer. “It kind of set the tone for the rest of my life.”

But by 1977, Gracey had been in the radio business for more than a decade and was getting restless. He was singing with Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys, a western swing band that Smith was managing. In August, he broadcast his last show on KOKE, and he and Smith hit the road to promote the band’s album, a task made easier by Gracey’s reputation.

“Every 50,000-watt station had an all-night disc jockey who played country. We would call them up and they would know about Joe already — he was a big deal,” said Smith, who’s now a criminal lawyer in Austin.

Driving from one radio tower to the next across the South, Smith noticed that Gracey kept touching a bump on his tongue that had been bothering him for months. More months would go by before he saw a doctor and learned the sore was malignant.

Tongue cancer is notoriously lethal, but its victims invariably try to bargain with the disease, begging surgeons to salvage as much of the organ as they can. Gracey was no different. In a series of painful operations he lost his tongue bit by bit, until there was nothing left to take.

Finally, the cancer was gone. His larynyx was gone, too. Radiation destroyed his taste buds, saliva glands and some jaw tissue. The medical assault on his mouth would cost him most of his teeth, and the act of eating became a slow ordeal.

Gracey’s beautiful voice, so deep that his mother said her mouth fell open when her baby boy spoke his first words, was silenced for good. He was 28 years old.

Ahead, the rest of his life beckoned. He swore to fully enjoy every pleasure it offered, and keep going.

Talking again?

March 2009: “I figure it’s time to talk to my friends and readers who may be interested in what I’ve been up to lately,” Gracey wrote in his Letters from Graceyland blog, where he chronicles his adventures in food, wine, travel and life. “The quick answer is I learned that I have cancer. Again. After 30 joyous years of being a proud ‘survivor,’ I’m back to being a ‘patient’ again.”

The news shocked Gracey’s many friends, who had figured he owed no more debt to the karma store. “I couldn’t go anywhere without people asking me, how’s Joe?” said Smith.

However, his “brilliant lady surgeon” at MD Anderson said the small cancer inside his mouth was treatable and the prognosis was good. Not only that, but the doctors proposed new surgical procedures to partially repair the damage of his first surgeries, and to implant a valve in his throat — drum roll! — to let him to speak again. Gracey was giddy with the possibility.

“Yikes,” he wrote. “Me talking again? The crazed wonder of it is carrying me away on a river of impossible happiness.”

For the past three decades, Gracey had busied himself with more attainable sources of happiness: raising a family (their daughter, Jole, and Rhodes sons, Gabe and Jeremie), making music (he plays bass guitar with Rhodes’ band and produces albums at their recording studio at their home near Driftwood), touring with the band in Europe, where Rhodes has loyal fans.

“He coped,” said Patoski. “He dealt with it and did very well for himself. He transitioned to become a great sound engineer and producer. He’s had a pretty rich life.”

In the studio, Gracey has mellowed from his cocksure, younger self. “He’s really, really patient,” said Smith. “Artists get temperamental if they feel like it’s not working. They have a sound in their head, but it’s a whole world between the head and the record. And Joe knows that world.”

He knows almost as much about food — his pieces have been published in Saveur magazine, and he and Rhodes have taught cooking classes — though exactly how he experiences taste is something of a mystery. Gracey believes he does it with his nose and “a few taste buds left in the odd corner of my mouth.”

“It’s amazing he has a sense of smell at all,” said Dr. Amy Hessel , one of his surgeons. “Joe has the memory of taste in his brain, and uses his sense of smell to tell his brain what something tastes like.”

For many reasons, Gracey is a case for the textbooks, Hessel said. The radical “salvage” surgery he underwent in 1978 was a last-ditch attempt to salvage life, not normal function, and the survival rate is only 10 percent to 20 percent. His second cancer in 2009 was not a recurrence but new, another anomaly: “He’s outplayed the odds in every way.”

Hessel said she had never had a patient undergo a tracheoesophageal puncture (a TEP) to regain speech so long after the original surgery. “We would never have done this for Joe — we would not have done it for most patients — but for his motivation. Joe motivates you to want to do it.”

Smith knows that better than most. “He’s an incredibly determined individual, very willful,” he said. “When we were on the road with the band and we took a wrong turn someplace, he never wanted to turn back. He would always say, ‘Let’s just go on. Make a new road.'”

A new ball game

By the end of 2010, Gracey had mostly recovered from the surgical reparations, which involved skin grafts, dental implants and a diabolical device to stretch his mouth so he could eat solid food again. He was speaking a little, though he hated his “swamp monster” voice. He and Rhodes had visited their little house in France, which Rhodes bought and renovated as an antidote to the gloom cast by cancer.

“I got tired of just being pathetic,” she said. “And it worked! Pretty soon people were talking to us about the house instead.”

Then in January a suspicious spot showed up in Gracey’s chest, which led to the discovery of a new cancer in his esophagus. It’s Stage 4, which means it has metastasized. That’s a new ball game, physically and psychologically.

“None of the other cancers was considered fatal, or incurable. This baby had spread from esophagus to nearby lymph nodes and even to the tip of a vertebrae,” Gracey said. “Chemo is a different bird. They won’t promise you a ‘cure,’ just a remission, unless you are one of the very lucky few.”

The months of chemotherapy that followed made Gracey deathly ill, forcing the insertion of a dreaded stomach tube. The TEP device had to be removed from his throat. His last best hope for speaking again is with a computerized voice like the one movie critic Roger Ebert uses, created from voice samples from his old radio tapes.

The verbal spontaneity that was as much a part of Gracey as his sly smile “will never return, I think,” he says. Putting everything in writing — on the ever-present slate, on his computer — long ago changed the way he expresses himself.

“Having to condense everything I have said for the past 30 years into eight-word statements has made me learn to edit myself. One reason I’m good at Twittering,” he said.

But when he’s socializing in a large group, with conversation flying back and forth, the slate often can’t keep up — the moment is gone before Gracey can get a word in.

It’s in his blog that Gracey’s real voice still comes through — quick and funny. He talks about everything: health care, the best boudin, his mother’s funeral. The fear that can blindside him, as well as the joy.

“I think some people are wired to be positive and to go to the higher place every time. I seem to be wired to go to the place I am in and then whine about it,” he once wrote. “I have tried all my life to change this, and get better about it, but it is a little bit like trying to stop being Woody Allen.”

Yet even now, whining takes a back seat to exultation in the extraordinary good luck of being alive.

“Hello from Chemoland!” Gracey wrote in his blog last week. “Four more weeks of radiation and I’m catchin’ the first thing smokin’- first to Paris, then to our newly renovated little home in the Languedoc for some actual Life Its Own Self and not just jabber about living longer.”

Rhodes, the wife he loves “with a love like an ache,” has already reserved the rental car. It’s a convertible.

bbell@statesman.com

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