Buy a drum kit. Buy a guitar. Get cancer. It’s not the usual rock ’n’ roll trajectory.
Natives of the Appalachian coal country, Rufus and his identical twin brother, Nat, came to punk rock honestly—by skateboarding, that is—and with all the rebelliousness that a kid in a small town with a skateboard and different hair is likely to develop. Couple that with big-city kin who know their way to the record shop, and you have the necessary ingredients for a band that will become known as Defiance of Authority (D.O.A., of course). Add to all that righteous tattoos and cool leather jackets, and the future seemed set, save that illness intervened just at the time that the boys were ready to break out of Huntington and conquer the world. “I felt blank,” writes Rufus on receiving his first diagnosis. “I thought of all those machines outside, the white noise of their engines—blank and empty—calling to me. I sat there expressionless. I slipped into the hum.” The blend of rhythms in those sentences is typical of his musicianly prose as he recounts the course from illness to recovery, with dreams dashed and dashed again and then rebuilt. The narrative runs a touch long, but it seldom drags, and Rufus writes affectingly of the awfulness of chemotherapy, hospital food, and diminished energy without ever feeling too sorry for himself. At its best, the book is a resounding affirmation of how music can lift one’s spirits beyond gray skies and bad news; as the author writes, “hopelessness is a birthright in West Virginia, as easy to slip into as a warm bath.”
By refusing to abandon hope, easy though it would have been to do so, Rufus’ memoir makes a valuable contribution to the literature of healing and recovery. It’s a good piece of rock writing, too, with “one hell of a soundtrack.”