"I had this spot on my neck. I thought it was a pimple or something," says composer Curtis Heath. It wasn't big -- just 1.2 millimeters across. But it didn't go away for a couple months, and his girlfriend insisted he get it checked out. The dermatologist told him it was a blood blister, but Heath told him he couldn't go back to her without a biopsy, and it's a good thing he did. A few days later he got a call.
"I'm so sorry," said the doctor. "Your girlfriend was right. You have malignant melanoma. You need to start getting prepared."
It's a story you've heard before. Initially, the prognosis wasn't great, and Heath's full-time freelance work composing music (his work most recently appeared in David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints) does not provide him with health insurance. Like so many people in his position, he couldn't justify the burden of paying for personal health insurance, which is expensive and offers only modest benefits. You don't anticipate things like this.
Music fans in North Texas and elsewhere know Heath as a longtime fixture of the scene, most prominently with his band The Theater Fire, which got its start in Denton in the mid-'90s as Vena Cava. Heath remembers one of his first shows, when he was still in high school. They put up fliers, but when they showed up to the venue, there was hardly anyone there. Just a few friends and, in a stroke of luck, Will Johnson, in the early stages of his Centro-matic career but already a Denton legend. "I didn't know him at all," says Heath. "But he went and got his guitar and called all the people he knew and said, 'Hey, I'm gonna go play...He got the whole city of Denton to show up at our show."
Vena Cava eventually changed its name to The Theater Fire and went on release three full-length albums by 2009. The band has semi-threatened new material for a while now and still plays the very occasional show.
Heath, meanwhile, got a job teaching at a middle school. He spent some time there before leaving to pursue composition full time. And now this.
"They told me to put down everything for the next few months," he recalls of that initial conversation with his doctors. They walked him through the costs of surgery and five years of treatment. "It was just staggering. It's more than anything I own or ever have owned or ever will own," says Heath. He couldn't believe there were no options? What if you can't pay? "I know you don't just let people die," he remembers saying to them. And the end of the conversation basically came down to: "You raise the money, and then you have the surgery."
So he and his girlfriend opened some zero interest credit cards and put the operation on them. It could have been worse. The cancer hadn't metastasized, so they just had to remove the tumor and some lymph nodes in Heath's neck. Still, it's more than they can take on alone.
Enter Josh Robertson and Sean French, who have organized a benefit show this Saturday at Club Dada. $10 gets you in, and there will be free food provided by Which Which (they're suggesting a $3 tip for it, which, like all other proceeds, will go to Heath's medical bills).
The lineup is superb: Panther Robe (which features members of The Theater Fire), plus North Texas supergroup Myopic, the long-dormant Pleasant Grove (who Heath cites as one of his favorite bands) and, fittingly, a solo Centro-matic show by Will Johnson.
And there will be a raffle for a collection of music memorabilia that gets more impressive by the hour. Keep checking the Facebook Event Page for details there, but the highlights include:
-A 2014 SXSW Wristband -A $50 gift certificate to Good Records -A drum head autographed by The Polyphonic Spree -Two autographed LP's by The New Year -Gift Certificates to Chicken Scratch and Smoke
And the big prize, which is a signed Neil Michael Hagerty guitar used on Royal Trux recordings. Everything but the guitar will be awarded via raffle drawings. You can buy yourself as many tickets as you like, obviously, and if your friends and family care even mildly about music in this area, you might be well served by just putting your gift budget in that raffle. It's an impressive selection.
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Heath will be there. He's still got a long road to full recovery ahead, but for now the outlook is very good. In January, the Affordable Care Act will allow him to get insurance in spite of his preexisting cancer. "The bills aren't going to go away, but at least I'll have access to insurance," he says.
As for the worst of it, the costs from the surgery, there was a benefit in Fort Worth and this show on Saturday. "That's what I've got," says Heath. "Other than my equipment, and that's my livelihood." Still, he's been selling some of that, as much as he can. But he's got work to do. There are more films in the pipeline that will have Curtis Heath scores. He's still got plenty of songs left to write.