My wife, Helen, and I were living in Erie in the summer of 1994.
Believe it or not, Erie was (still is!) a pretty nice town: friendly people, good restaurants, beautiful sunsets along the lake shore, lots of history, low cost of living.
Back in those days, Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers even got up there two or three times a year to play at a bar called Sullivan’s. It was a good life, and we were happy.
Our first child, Wilson, was just 6 months old that summer when Helen was diagnosed with a severe form of breast cancer. Suddenly, we were faced with the very real possibility that our 6-month-old baby would never know his mother.
It was without a doubt the scariest time of our life together, and we had to draw deeply upon our faith, our friends and our family to successfully weather the immediacy of surgery and chemotherapy, followed by the physical and emotional aftermath of a cancer diagnosis. At the end of the ordeal, the doctors informed us that they were pretty sure they had “got it all” and that Helen could guardedly expect a long and fulfilling life.
The emotional relief that I felt upon leaving the hospital with that news was simply overwhelming. I went home, picked up my baby son, held him tightly in my arms, and played “Don’t Give Up The Ghost” (from Grushecky’s “End of the Century” album) over and over and over and over about 30 times.
It was therapy, it was prayer, it was a testimonial to our victory over breast cancer. The lyrics were like the voice of God speaking directly to me:
You can take your possessions and throw them away
We all stand here naked come judgment day
And your resume won’t mean a damn thing
Because He gives us a gift to see what we’ll do
It’s a burden I know but somehow we’ll get through
If we follow the river right down to the sea
But don’t give it up
Don’t give it up
Don’t give it up
Don’t give up the ghost
I remember calling my dear friend Bill Toms, who was playing guitar for the Houserockers at the time, to tell him the good news. The band was on its way to New York City, and Bill assured me that when they played “Don’t Give Up The Ghost” they’d all be thinking about Helen and me.
A few months later, I was in Pittsburgh for a weekend visit and headed out to see the band at Nick’s Fat City on the South Side. Joe came up to me before the show started. He didn’t say a word. He simply kissed me on the forehead and proceeded to the stage, where he and the band blew the roof off the club with a blistering version of “Don’t Give Up The Ghost.”
Why do I share this personal story? I guess because as I reflect on the past 20 years, Joe’s music has always reminded me that despite the darkness, despite the crap, despite the prophets of doom and gloom ... hope is never in vain.
Hope is a very real, very powerful force that we need to constantly nurture in ourselves and share with the people around us. We need to bolster each other’s hope and encourage each other to never give up the ghost.
For me, Joe’s music is essentially about the power of the human spirit to triumph over the many challenges that life throws at us on a daily basis. I don’t want to be melodramatic — there are plenty of times when I just like to crack open a beer and crank up the volume on Houserocker party songs like “Pumpin’ Iron” or “Turn It Up” or “One Chance is All You Get.”
But the bottom line is that in a world short on hope, a world searching for a voice — a hopeful voice, a critical voice, a fun voice — Joe Grushecky’s voice is, and always has been, a voice to be reckoned with!
Keith Kondrich of Swisshelm Park, a nonprofit administrator, can be reached at email@example.com
The PG Portfolio welcomes “Raves” submissions celebrating something Pittsburgh-related, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.