Kirk Rundstrom, 37-year-old songwriter, singer and guitarist for the Wichita, Kansas, punk-grass band Split Lip Rayfield, has built a career on clever and graphic country-esque tunes about drinking, death and devastation and has a reputation for blasting through them with a joy as manic as his string-shredding strum. But to quote Merle Haggard, "Things aren't funny anymore." In January, Rundstrom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Despite four months of nonstop chemotherapy, the cancer spread to his aorta and lymph nodes. The doctors gave him two to six months. He called off the radiation and started making plans not for a funeral, but for another tour, a tour he plans to see through to the end.
B-Sides: I've been dreading this [interview] more than Terri Gross would dread a chat with Gene Simmons.
Kirk Rundstrom: Why?
I've never interviewed someone living under a death sentence.
I'm still alive. If you think about it, we're all living under a death sentence.
Do you have a history of cancer in your family?
I was adopted, so I don't really know. My mother died of cancer at 56 years of age. I saw what chemo did for her.
The disease hit you very hard and very fast.
I had symptoms before I was diagnosed. I was rotating in and out of tours. I'd just done 58 shows in a row. I thought it was because I was singing every night, and the pain in my back was from the road. I was healthy. No drugs, no fast food, no alcohol.
Were you a smoker?
I used to do drugs, drink and smoke. But for the last few years, I've been clean and sober. I know all that stuff had an effect. You are what you put into your body. I'm a firm believer of that.
What alternative therapies are you trying?
I get Vitamin C intravenously, acupuncture, very strict diet, no sugar. I am planning on living and not dying. For the majority of cancer patients, you get diagnosed, it's such a scary thing. The doctor says they're going to do chemo, which is a little bit of hope, and you jump at it. I think chemo is America's form of euthanasia, for the most part.
It can be brutal.
They can't find a cure for cancer. It's ridiculous. One woman with breast cancer can walk into a hospital, and she gets chemo, and it clears it. Another woman gets the same treatment and it spreads through her body. The doctors don't change the course. They give her the same chemo. I don't know if that's because drug companies took doctors out on a Caribbean cruise and said, "This is the drug we're pushing this year." But if something doesn't work, you have to try something different.
Do you feel strong enough to tour?
I haven't left home since January. I'm a human pincushion. Every day I am off the chemo, the more I get the drugs out of my body, the better I feel. I'm just now getting the strength to form the chords. But if for some reason I only have a little time left, I don't want to spend it in a bed.
Roy Kasten 9 p.m. Thursday, August 24. Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, 6504 Delmar Boulevard, University City. $15. 314-727-4444.
What's the worst thing you can imagine happening on tour? Stolen gear? Van breakdowns? Drummer busted at the Canadian border with a poorly hidden drug stash? Bad news, all of it. But how about being stranded for two months in a Texas truck stop's parking lot?
Meet nerdy, naughty indie-pop duo Cars Can Be Blue, who last fall spent three months enduring what must be a front-runner for Worst Tour Ever. Upon releasing their fine first CD, All The Stuff We Do, they quit their jobs, hopped in a biodiesel-powered school bus and left their native New Hampshire. The plan was to drive down the east coast, out to California, up the west coast, swing through the Midwest (including a planned show at Frederick's Music Lounge) and finally land in Athens, Georgia, where they planned to live, play and record.
Well, singer-guitarist Becky and drummer Nate did make it to Athens eventually but not before enduring the kind of hell ride that makes Black Flag's legendarily penny-pinching tours seem plush. Using all of the sophisticated reconstruction methods our budget would allow (OK, mostly postings from their MySpace page, www .myspace.com/carscanbeblue), we've retraced when and where it all went wrong.
9/24/05: Tour begins.
10/17/05, somewhere on the east coast: Blown fuse on the fuel-transfer pump and trouble with air in the fuel lines at first because of a loose filter. It was an easy fix. Becky writes, "[T]our is great...I don't want it to ever end." But be careful what you wish for...
11/5/05, Jackson, Mississippi: Becky and Nate have been stranded for almost a week with a clogged injector pump. It took their mechanic three days to diagnose the problem; they have been staying at a rundown motel in a bad part of town in the meantime. They are rescued by a member of a band called The Scurvies.
11/22/05, Hayward, California: Injector pump seemingly fixed, they drive straight up to the northwest to play in Seattle and Olympia. On their way back down to the Bay Area, the fuel injector line breaks once again owing, they believe, to their incompetent mechanic in Jackson. Here they stay with friends in the band Red Pony Clock. Once the van is fixed, they intend to drive straight to St. Louis and entertain us at Frederick's.
11/29/05, Reno, Nevada, and points south: St. Louis doesn't work out. There's inclement weather, and their bus doesn't have chains. Instead they drive through Bakersfield, California, wrangle their way onto a show, and realize the next day that the fuel-transfer pump doesn't work. They make it to Phoenix, stay a few days there, replace their pump and drive through Texas. They require a jump-start in Abilene, and ultimately make it as far as...
12/8/05, Ranger, Texas: Here the starter breaks, and they are still having trouble with the injection pump. They are towed to a garage at a Love's truck stop, where they plan to stay for maybe a day or two. After a series of mishaps (and the fact that they're now broke), they end up having to work at the truck stop long enough to save up money to fix the van. Nate works the cash register, while Becky is stationed at the Subway.
2/12/06, Ranger, Texas (still): Thanksgiving and Christmas pass. 2005 turns into 2006. Frederick's closes. Meanwhile, Becky and Nate's time in purgatory is finally ending. The problem? A blown fuse that would have cost 30 cents to replace, it turns out; the injection pump was fine. They pull out of Love's and stay with friends back in Abilene. Next morning, they assume they're finally Athens-bound. They stop at Love's for their last paychecks, start their engine, and...the motor dies. Stuck in Ranger for two more months? Nah, just some air in the fuel line. They clear it up and leave the next day, surely to their eternal relief.
2/17/06: Arrive in Athens.
Cars Can Be Blue deserve a medal of valor (or at least a commemorative plaque at the Ranger truck stop) for pulling through that trip and actually remaining a band. You'd forgive them for never wanting to tour again, but this month they hit the road one more time. When they pass the bucket to you at CBGB, give generously. Mike Appelstein
9 p.m. Monday, August 28. CBGB, 3163 South Grand Boulevard. No phone.
We were bummed to learn that the riot grrrls of Sleater-Kinney have decided to call it quits. At what seemed to be the peak of their career, the Portland, Oregon, trio played their final show together on August 12. But if you never experienced the group live, you're in luck. Earlier this month, S-K performed in Washington, D.C., for NPR's live music webcast, All Songs Considered. The two-hour set, which is free to download, includes swan song The Woods in its entirety. Or, you can wait for iTunes to post the group's recent, much shorter appearance at Lollapalooza for a nominal fee, of course. Go to www.npr.org (search: Sleater-Kinney). Andy Vihstadt