Greek Fire's Johnny Venus has Leukemia and No Health Insurance

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Johnny Venus
  • Johnny Venus

About a month ago, Greek Fire drummer Johnny Venus noticed that the exhaustion he attributed to his band's recently completed Japanese tour had not faded. He was reluctant to see a doctor because he does not have health insurance, but his friends and bandmates eventually convinced him to get his blood tested. Hours after the test, Venus was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of leukemia.

Fortunately, Venus received medical attention before more serious damage occurred. He has responded well enough to treatment to leave the hospital last week after a taxing 33-day stay, and his blood count continues to improve. But Venus still faces outpatient treatment and a mountain of bills for medication that counts as an out-of-pocket expense (you can help cover this cost by donating here). RFT Music caught up with Venus' Greek Fire bandmate, singer Philip "Moon" Sneed" to discuss the situation, how he and his band plan to raise money for Venus and the state of healthcare.

Bob McMahon: Your tumblr statement notes that Johnny attributed his fatigue to jet lag from the flight home from Japan. Did you notice anything off about him before the flight?

Phil Moon: No, not really. We had a couple shows in the US... I'm a musician so I'm not very good with time. But just before we went to Japan, we had a few shows in the US, one being Chicago, I'm thinking a couple of other things, but I saw him almost every day. He was out having a good time while rehearsing or playing shows here and there. Everything seemed normal. We went to Japan and the first day or two you always experience a little jet lag. So he wasn't necessarily out. He said he wasn't in the mood to booze and do all the food stuff that we were doing. But that's not necessarily out of the ordinary. No red flags were hitting anybody.

He drummed spectacularly and acted like after those first few days he was fine in Japan. Just a little bit sluggish, but jet lag hits you different every time and it's really really weird and when we all got home, everybody was on a bassackwards sort of schedule.

So I didn't really think much of it. He got really fatigued and had a couple other kind of strange signs that hit. And it's just an absolute blessing and luck that he decided to get a blood test the day that he did, which is very unlike him just because we're musicians and for the majority of my professional career, I have not been insured. If you've ever been uninsured, you're usually not very quick on the draw on going to doctors.

I wanted to ask about that. The blog post mentioned that Venus was reluctant to get a test. Did getting the test done sooner rather than later affect on his outlook?

Absolutely. The terrifying thing about this whole thing and one of the biggest blessings that we were leaning on from the beginning is that the doctors flat out said had he waited the weekend to do the test, he would have faced organ failure.

How have the hospital visits gone?

I personally never had this kind of direct contact with cancer. I've lost a few family members and friends sort of indirectly, but I had never experienced something where I was learning every little bit about it like this and all of us being thrust into this situation, trying to help, and feeling so helpless. It's definitely changed [our] perspective in every single way.

Johnny's a fighter, he's done really amazing with this. When it's hard for us, he's built us back up and when it's hard for him hopefully we've been there to build him back up.

In the tumblr post, you wrote "For the time being, we will continue to write, to plan, and to work relentlessly on Greek Fire. Nothing has changed as far as the future of Greek Fire is concerned." What work have you been doing while Venus has been in treatment/recovering?

When everything hit, I didn't think about anything except for John and neither did Ryan or Mark. Everybody was just on team Johnny Venus trying to figure out what we could do because the insurance thing is a massive, massive issue. Obviously his health and survival and everything was our first priority, so we would have to learn as much about this and every facet of this disease and how it works.

Then when it came to the insurance issue, the last thing we wanted John to deal with was thinking about money or worrying about money and how he was going to take care of things. So that became our focus in Greek Fire. The plans in our head and our day-to-day answering emails between management and all that immediately stopped, and all the energy went into fixing John and making sure that he was okay and that we were handling everything for him. But with the band, probably a solid week went by and I didn't sing a single melody or even consider things. I know Ryan didn't touch his guitar, which is probably the first time a week has gone by without him touching his guitar in fifteen or twenty years. So it really hit us intensely.

And then it was kind of a therapeutic measure for us is we started doing things. I started writing a lot, a lot of lyrics about what I was experiencing and what I thought John might be experiencing and just kind of this whole thing, just taking it all in and writing it down. Whether that was to become a song or not, I wasn't sure. That wasn't my intention. I was just trying to put it into words. Ryan, when he picked up his guitar did the same thing. He wrote a couple things that just kind of spoke to his emotions at the time. When we started talking about things and figured you know what, the business machine of Greek Fire and everything was still going. Tours were still being talked about without us and all the stuff was going on. People were very understanding and hopeful that John was going to make a full recovery and that we'd be right back out there.

We just let that go to the powers that be and just worked on putting all of our emotions behind John's well-being and putting some music together just with us three, which we did actually. We're actually recording a song in a few days that is for John and the plan is to do a video and maybe put it on iTunes here in the next couple of weeks and try to get the proceeds from the song to go to helping John's medical bill. This is who we are. We're artists that like to put our experiences into music, so what better way than to be honest and to talk about what we're feeling right now, and that just so happens to be Johnny.

But he's on board with us... keeping the machine going. I hate to say that. It's so hard to put into words, because the whole thing is focused on fixing Johnny and getting everything back (to normal). All of our fans instantly instead of going "Oh! There's not going to be any music for a while" or touring or whatever... it's almost like our web traffic has picked up because people that are fans of the band but not the type that are going to go to our facebook page and write things are now coming and saying "I am a big fan of the band. I love this guy and I love his drumming. I met him at a show. He is a wonderful human being and I want to help." Our fans have been so inspirational throughout the thing that you can't neglect that. So we've tried to keep constant communication with our fans, which is what our band's always been about. That's what we've been doing. Like I said, we've been working on some music and we have a lot of people that have been willing to help put some acoustic shows together and some different fundraiser things. Our minds are always working as to how we can play and make our music do good. So when you were talking to Johnny about "keeping the machine going" did you show him any of the songs or ask him for input?

No, we just told him what we were doing and he was really, really stoked and really supportive. I know that he knows, he's been my best friend for seventeen years so he knows that there's only a few things that are therapeutic for me and that's writing and hashing that kind of thing out and putting it to music and putting it to songs. So I know that he knows that I'm dealing and that's a very positive thing. I'm sure when he gets out, he's going to be even more affected by the outpouring of support and love that our fans are giving.

The whole city of St. Louis and everybody from the Cardinals to the RFT to Vintage Vinyl to the Point, CD Warehouse and all these other people have been on such a good mission to help out that we're just overwhelmed. It's really, really cool to see. I know I'm speaking very scattered, just because my mind has been all over the place the last month. But yeah, it's been pretty amazing. The little bit he's been able to see, I've seen it in his face, it's shockingly good to him. So I can't wait to see the expression on his face when he's healthy enough to look and see everything that's going on and hear about everything, all the people that are here to help him.

You mentioned throwing some acoustic show fundraisers. Are there any shows far enough in the planning stage that you can mention?

We've gone through about a billion different ideas. Right now we're working on something really, really big with the Cardinals and with The Point that's going to be awesome for later in the summer. I don't know if I can really disclose some of the details right now, but that's all going to be brought up really, really soon. On top of that, after we get that going, we actually have an online auction where we have everything from a Cardinals jersey signed by David Freese to World Series balls from Tony La Russa to a BMX bike from Rock Star Energy Drink. We've got Warped Tour packages and Mayhem Festival packages, so many awesome things that were donated for this online auction for John. That goes live March 27. I think, if I have time and can figure it out, I might actually do a couple acoustic shows just random places around town and try to raise money.

I know there's a lot of bands that have offered their support and help in any way, from Hurt to Cavo to different people. So we're really trying to line this up. It's great because it's the season for concerts and all that, but it's also difficult because a lot of the friends in bands that want to help are all in the middle of festival season. Everybody's heading out on tour. So it's hard to piece all this together and like I said we have about a million ideas to go from. But we're trying and a lot of this stuff is going to come to life in the next couple months. We're going to be doing a couple dates throughout the country, nothing in St. Louis right now just to keep things going with a fill-in drummer. It's only like four or five dates. We're going to be doing that. We're going to have some donation things at the merch table and try to raise money in different cities with people showing their support for John. We're just trying to stay busy and make these ideas really count for John.

You mentioned earlier that you had not been insured for most of your professional life. Has this ordeal changed your perspective on health insurance?

It's always been a big issue with health insurance for musicians because it is very difficult to get good insurance without making a lot of money. Usually when you're making a lot of money, you're getting good insurance anyway. Especially for a musician that isn't at some grand success level, you really are working harder than anybody and definitely putting yourself in some situations that are going to cause much more health risks than others. It's a riskier lifestyle, if you will. And I'm strictly speaking just from the excessive travel and the wear and tear on your body. And it's really difficult to stay healthy when you are reluctant to go to doctors.

We're learning a lot more about how the symptoms are working and how the current administration is dealing with health insurance and what is available and what isn't available out there for John. We're really learning the inner workings of the system, trying to figure out exactly what's best for John. It's an extremely important issue. I don't know all the ins and outs enough to go soapboxing or platforming for any particular thing but something has to change. You can bet that I will be all for or against certain things in the upcoming year when it comes to health insurance and that will continue to be, now even more so, a very key issue with me as an individual and I'm sure the rest of the band guys and all of us because it's really hitting close to home. Nobody wants to struggle with the ins and outs of political money games when it comes to being sick.

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