Feature Stories

Metal Bassist Rustin Luther Stricken With Inoperable Brain Tumor

Rustin Luther is dying. He’s only 30. But he didn’t want another “woe is me” kind of story. He’s not that kind of guy. When the bassist for Fort Worth metal band Urizen told his friend Boyd Konkle that he had an inoperable, incurable brain tumor, Luther, who was sitting on the toilet at the time, called Konkle a “pussy” for crying. They were both crying. They've known each other since Luther was 13. But no matter the prognosis, Luther is determined to follow his rock star dream.

“I'm a stubborn asshole, man,” Luther says. Sitting in his middle-class home, dressed in black, he doesn’t resemble the rock star he plays on stage with Urizen, wielding a bass as if he were slinging an electric guitar. With his short black hair and thick black beard, he looks like a concerned father of five facing his own mortality. “I've got many years. I've got the kids that I've got to see grow old. I've always wanted to see myself with gray hair.” 

“Nothing is Epic,” a hauntingly slow song by Urizen and one of Luther's favorites, plays from his cell phone as he looks at his girlfriend, Jennifer Jones, who sits across from him at the kitchen table. “It's only two weeks ago when we were talking long-term plans,” she says, trying to hold back tears. Luther remains hellbent on following through on their ambitions of adopting Jones' two daughter and building a dream home. “Suddenly, it's like, wow, our youngest is a year and a half," she adds. "Is he going to be around to see him get to middle school?”

When Luther's oldest son found out, he told his father, “Don't worry, Dad, I'm not scared. Science will stop it.” 

About three or four months ago, Luther's left eye began to turn in as though he were cross-eyed. Jones took him to a friend who worked as an eye doctor. “'Brother, it's not your eye,'” Luther recalls his friend saying. “'Your vision is perfect.'” He recommended seeking out a neurologist, scheduling a MRI. Luther, who was on tour with metal bands Psychostick and Nekrogoblikon, decided to wait until after the tour was over. 

But the situation became much more serious when the tour stopped in New Orleans. His friends and bandmates, Thomas Drinnen and Daniel Drinnen, stayed by his bedside, canceling two shows, one in New Orleans and the other in Tampa. They had just reached the fourth leg of the tour and the band had taken the day off, but Luther stayed in bed. The next morning he felt well enough to play, he thought. Then the panic attack set in, and his heart began to race.

Luther was talking to Jones when it happened. She told him he needed to calm down. “You're going 90 to nothing,” she said. He couldn't calm down, and his symptoms grew worse. The band took him to the ER. “Brother, everything was a blur from that point,” he recalls. “It scared the hell out of me.”

At the ER in New Orleans, he told hospital staff about his past medical issues. A couple of tests later, including a spinal tap, no one seemed to know what was ailing him. So he was sent back home to Texas. That night he was back in the hospital. The spinal tap hadn't healed properly because every time Luther stood up, he says spinal fluid would leak out, making him feel disoriented. “But that was a blessing in disguise,” he points out, “because we went back to the ER.”

UT Southwestern medical staff repeated the tests, but a team of doctors couldn't figure out what was ailing him either. They initially thought his brain was swelling, but the tests weren't matching their theory. They juggled a few more, including Multiple Sclerosis, before they determined that a large tumor was growing inside his brain stem. They're not sure why it appeared since it usually affects younger and older people, not a metal head who'd finally reached 30 years of age fairly unscathed.

The tumor won't spread, he says, only grow larger, taking over his brain stem eventually. Doctors, though, couldn't agree on whether the tumor belonged in stage 2 or stage 3 of the 4 cancer stages, nor could they determine how fast it was growing. But stage 2, he says, could mean 10 more years, while stage 3 could equal about 5 more years. Doctors hope to make that determination this week, as well as develop a plan to stop its growth and buy him some more time to spend with his family.

Luther later asked the doctors why he'd been suffering panic attacks, and they said, “Sometimes your body lets you know that there is something wrong.” 
“We’re going to get through this grieving process, let people know,” he says, looking at Jones, who sits across from him in more of a daze. “I don’t want to hit people last minute and say, ‘I’m out.’ That’s not fair to people." 

But he's not the only one fighting this battle. His friends and fellow musicians stand strong beside him, offering support as only an extended family can: with love and respect and a shoulder to help with his burden. 

When his band mate, Thomas Drinnen, realized what was wrong with Luther, he created a GoFundMe account to help raise money for Luther's mounting medical bills. Like many other musicians, he doesn't have health insurance.
“If you're reading this, it means that you are one of the countless people in the world who call Rustin Luther a friend, a brother, a family member, a community leader, or just a really good dang ol' dude!” Drinnen wrote on the fundraising website. “I've never seen anyone spend more than a minute with Rustin without falling in love with his loud (VERY loud) personality and huge Texas charm. He's just a one-in-a-billion guy who brings smiles anywhere he goes.”

Luther, who also owns and operates Tomcats West in Fort Worth, has touched many people's hearts in the local music scene. More than 200 friends, family and business associates donated $15,000 of the $20,000 goal on GoFundMe in less than two days, with some of them donating as much as $2,000 and others as little as $5 – all echoing the same thought: sending prayers and love for a “good ol' dang dude.”

They've also organized several benefits on Luther's behalf: Reno's Chop Shop in Dallas will be hosting a benefit at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 7. TomCats West in Fort Worth will be hosting the official benefit show at 1 p.m. on Sunday, June 5. The Rail Club in Fort Worth will be hosting another one at 5 p.m. on Friday, June 17.

“That's a powerful thing, man,” Luther says. “That's the power of friendship, how everybody reacted and jumped on [to help out]. I'm being optimistic and strong for everybody, not just my family, but also my friends. I plan on doing that the whole time."
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.