Drummer, teacher and cancer survivor keeps the beat
Eric Hellberg is a drummer, teacher and cancer survivor. The 48-year-old plays for the Steve Walker Band on the Tahoe Queen and has lived in Tahoe 15 years. He teaches private drum and piano lessons in his home as well as an ensemble workshop geared toward teenagers at Lake Tahoe Community College. His eyes sparkled when he spoke with us about teaching kids how to rock ‘n’ roll.
When did you get into rock ‘n’ roll?
Since I was 8 years old, arguing who was better, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. The Stones were the bad boys, the Beatles were the good guys. People like the bad boys sometimes. I think they should hang it up now, they had a great run.
What do you want to do here in Tahoe with rock music?
My real goal is to start a rock ‘n’ roll high school or school of rock, for kids, like the movie. Kids, that’s my focus, middle school and high school. There’s a real lack of kids being able to get together and jam.
Why can’t they do it?
They don’t understand that if you want something, you gotta work for it. I’d like to create a structured area to put together rock ‘n’ roll bands. I’ve been teaching kids how to work together in a group and write songs.
Do your students think you are cool?
Yeah, I think so. We work on everything from classic rock to the latest. We all work on things to learn. I just prefer no cussing. The parents like that.
Have any of your students gone on to achieve musical success?
I’ve got three that just graduated from the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles. I’ve got two more headed down there. I’ve got one in Juliard, New York. Two in Boston at Berklee College of Music.
And Jason Paul – his aunt is a big blues guitar player and singer – he’s doing great in Los Angeles. You did an article on him.
What is your son doing?
My son is a concert pianist in Denver. He’s 20 years old. He’s way beyond where I was. I thought he was going to be an artist. All of a sudden he picked up piano. He tells me he sees it like math.
What have you done here for the past 15 years?
The way I got started here was a comedian, Danny Marona, a brilliant comedian and musician. I did drums for him. I was his stage manager. I produced all his videos. You name it, I did it.
I’ve played all the big gigs, Harrah’s, Caesars, Hilton Showroom, all of them. The big reviews, Red Hot Country, mainly big dance type shows that had big bands.
In the past 15 years, what has been the biggest change in South Lake Tahoe to you, good or bad?
Live music took a big turn for the worse, especially at the casinos, and now it’s coming back, a lot of it has been Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo.
What makes you think Sammy could make a difference? He’s just got that attitude. He’s an optimist, and I am too.
How has drumming at the Tahoe Queen affected your life?
They’ve stood by me with the cancer really strong. Steve Walker has been an inspiration.
In what way? Mental support, and I always knew I had a job, no matter how sick I got.
What kind of cancer is it?
Lung cancer. It’s a rare form with an 8 percent survival rate.
How long have you fought it?
Nine years now.
What has made the difference in your fight against cancer?
Good mental attitude, a good support group. And sometimes taking things into your own hands.
I used to go and hang out with the kids at the cancer ward, and even the ones that were pretty sick – I knew and they knew themselves they wouldn’t be around for more than a few more days – were pretty upbeat in their attitudes.
I’m into kids, I’m a big kid myself.
Do you share your experience with cancer often?
I do, but I’m getting away from that.
Have you had any surgery?
I had the lower lobe of my left lung removed.
I had three rounds, one experimental, two standard. I had a pretty hard bout with it.
When I was told I couldn’t do anything else, I went and tried nutritional healing. I believe if you give the body what it needs, it will heal itself.
How did you make the transition from thinking you are going to die to knowing you are going live?
I only had a brief period that I thought I was going to die. I was more worried about not being able to accomplish some of my goals. I’m not afraid of dying, I believe in the afterlife. I was more worried about not accomplishing what I was put here to do.
How about your wife?
Oh yeah, she’s a rock. She’s real black and white. She tells me to get my head out of my butt.
What are you looking forward to in the future?
We have a dream to go around the world with an organization like the Peace Corps helping people. Do some sort of volunteer work around the world, or even around the United States. It’s gotta do with kids.
I firmly believe Americans give a lot. Whether it’s money or time, this country does give back.
What’s your philosophy in life?
Treat people like you want to be treated. Always be optimistic and honest. And I believe in the good in people.