my friend Joe Gracey

from the Austin American-Statesman

By Brenda Bell


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.

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