Cancer survivors often look at their illness and treatment as a “journey.” For veteran New York art-pop singer-songwriter George Usher, it’s been a musical one, culminating Oct. 13 at the Mercury Lounge with his first band performance of songs inspired by his journey.
Usher will join Lisa Burns, with whom he composed and recorded a duets album,The Last Day of Winter. He calls the 12 songs “snapshots from an ongoing struggle to find meaning in a life that might be ending.”
A member of the 1980s cowpunk band Beat Rodeo, Usher later fronted his own band House of Usher, and collaborated with such New York music luminaries as Richard Barone, Kate Jacobs and James Mastro before forming the George Usher Group. He also composed the titletrack for Laura Cantrell’s acclaimed 2000 alt-country album Not the Tremblin’ Kind and co-wrote Edward Rogers’ first two solo albums prior to releasing his last solo album, Yours and Not Yours, in 2009.
But Usher was unable to use his hands or play any instruments for over two years due to neuropathy from chemotherapy treatments following his cancer diagnosis. So he wrote lyrics expressing “reflection and reverie,” which Burns put to music. They recorded them when Usher recovered enough to return to performing.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in August, 2010,” says Usher. “I began chemo and radiation programs in September, and almost immediately developed neuropathy in my hands, which became useless to play an instrument.”
After major surgery in November, Usher spent two months at home recovering.
“During this time, a handful of friends stepped up, making regular visits and giving me their time and attention. Lisa Burns was one of them.”
Singer-songwriter Burns has been a New York music scene mainstay since her 1960s girl group-influenced 1978 self-titled album debut.
“I’d been a fan of hers back in the ‘70s and ‘80s and over time we’d come to know one another and our families,” continues Usher. “Initially, she was just another old friend, stopping by once a week to check in on me.”
Then in January, 2011, Usher began an intensive six-month chemotherapy program designed, he says, to “’nuke’ the cancer once and for all.”
“My neuropathy became worse and I spent long periods of days stumbling around in a kind of haze,” he recalls. “During this time, I began composing lyrics about what was going through my mind. I couldn’t hold a pen or pencil, so I typed them all on a computer. Lisa was still coming by once a week, and I casually mentioned that I had some lyrics I was working on and she asked if she could try putting them to music. I was glad, just for the idea that I was doing some kind of musical work again.”
When Burns stopped by again the following week, “she picked up an errant acoustic guitar that was still around and played me the song with the lyrics I’d given her,” says Usher. “I thought it was terrific, and over the next few months, I gave her two or three more lyrics full of ‘reflection and reverie’–and she kept coming back with great songs.”
But Usher suffered a bad reaction following completion of the six-month chemo program.
“It was like a severe drug withdrawal,” he says. “My neuropathy exploded and I couldn’t use my hands for anything. They had no sense of touch and their motor skills were gone, so I entered serious acupuncture treatment, took vitamin treatments, drug treatments. I tried anything to bring my hands back.”
Angry, depressed, and still battling cancer, Usher’s lyrics became darker.
“Lisa still kept coming back with terrific songs, and helped keep me active and sane through it all,” he says. “It took another year before I was declared ‘cancer-free,’ although I’m still tested every few months.”
Finally, after two years of inactivity, Usher was able to begin working on guitar again.
“Lisa taught me the songs we’d written and I added my own touches to them,” he says. “We did some woodshedding acoustic shows in 2013, then we spent a year recording an album of the songs we’d written–The Last Day Of Winter–as a ‘family project,’ with help from Lisa’s husband, bassist Sal Maida, their son Dylan on keyboards and my old friend Wylie Wirth on drums.”
All the players brought noteworthy pedigrees to the project, with Sal Maida’s credits including Cracker, Roxy Music and Sparks; Dylan Maida’s Pink Ride and other New York bands; and Wirth’s Dead Ex’s. Guest musicians included Captain Kirk Douglas (The Roots), Dave Schramm (The Schramms), Mark Sidgwick (Holly & The Italians) and Jonathan Gregg (Crusty Gentlemen), with album mixing by Eric Ambel (Del-Lords, Roscoe’s Gang).
At the Mercury Lounge, Usher and Burns will perform the entire Last Day of Winter song cycle. Although the album is as yet unreleased, a website to shop it is already up and premieres a video for the track “More Than That I Cannot Say,” which showcases Douglas’s lead guitar work.
“We’re very proud of The Last Day Of Winter, particularly because it developed so organically,” says Usher. “On our website, we call it a ‘document of hope, friendship and defiance in the face of crippling illness and potentially, the loss of a life.’”
Fortunately for fans of Usher, in this regard this particular document does not live up to its potential.
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