Rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu |

Rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu

Tim Parsons
"My new guitarist just came over a couple days ago to pick up CDs, and I heard him cough and I just shut the door in his face." - Mia Borders, singer-songwriter

Anyone who has traveled knows how easy it is to catch someone’s cold. Imagine how difficult it is to avoid illness for musicians who must travel and meet people to earn a living.

“It’s a strange existence,” said Pete Bernhard of the Devil Makes Three. “You have to travel and you’ve got to play and you’ve got to stay up late and you’ve got to be on a lot of planes. You’re in vans and you’re in hotel rooms and it’s hard to stay healthy. It really is. It’s a tough lifestyle.”

Tricks of the trade

How do they stay healthy enough to perform?

Tommy Castro drinks a special tonic exported from Asia. Mia Borders flushes her sinuses with a neti pot. Mike Chappell of Head for the Hills runs two miles every morning. G. Love takes vitamins, eats at least one healthy meal a day and gets as much sleep as possible.

Castro conducted a recent interview while working out on a mountain bike trail along San Francisco Bay.

“I try to stay in shape, and it’s not easy to do,” he said. “Out on the road, it’s nearly impossible. You always return from road trips pretty beat-up. I try real hard to keep myself fit and do whatever I can do to keep from getting ill, because that’s the only thing that will screw up my voice. I had to cancel a show or two last year because of that.”

Castro used to party as hard as he performs on the stage, but several years ago rededicated himself and even quit drinking. He said he’s learned a “few tricks along the way,” but staying healthy all of the time is not possible.

“I rarely cancel a show,” he said. “It’s got to be impossible. If it’s impossible, I’ll cancel. And there were a couple of times when my voice just wouldn’t work. It happened once in the middle of a tour, and if you’re in the middle of a show and it’s not working, it’s pretty hard to deal with.

“You choose different songs, you play longer instrumental portions, you lean on the band as much as possible and you get through that show. Canceling it causes too much trouble. People bought tickets, you have a band on the road, you have expenses. So most of the time, you just play anyway.”

John Nemeth, who performs Friday at the Crystal Bay Casino, missed work last winter when chronic acid reflux led to a case of pneumonia. Before that, he said, he did everything wrong: poor diet, excessive drinking and smoking cigarettes.

“After a gig, I’d go get a hot dog or something like that,” Nemeth said. “Before I’d do a gig, I’d eat a rack of ribs or do that type of thing. I just set myself up for disaster. It’s pretty funny. I’m relegated to being an old man now. I have to watch what I eat.”

The pneumonia changed his career.

“My doctor looked down my throat and was really mystified how I could go out and do gigs with acid reflux that out-of-control,” he said. “I’ve had it so long I didn’t even know what it was. I probably had it forever, 15 years, I just didn’t know.”

Elliot Martin, the lead singer for John Brown’s Body, had surgery to repair his vocal chords. Now he is almost obsessive about his health.

“If anybody in the van has a cold, I’ll end up with it and then it’s misery for about a week,” Martin said.

“If you’re doing a whole string of shows, I’ll be knocked out and it will be a struggle for the rest of the tour to get back to normal. I’ve only recently had success, maybe the last year.”

Martin said his diet is “close to vegan.” He does daily cardio workouts, gets lots of sleep and has become more resistant to colds.

G. Love, who also had vocal chord surgery, has a similar approach.

“Drink a lot of water because you’re going to be out there,” he said. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll. You’re going to be partying, hanging out late night because that’s when you work.”

Bernhard was under the weather a few days before a recent show at Tahoe.

“Man, I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said. “I’m kind of sick right now. It’s really tough. It’s the only business where you can’t get sick. You get sick, it messes everything up. You have to take care of yourself in a way that’s almost paranoid. When we get sick and we can’t perform, we are screwed. It’s almost like you get fired that day.”

“Two guys in our band are sick about 80 percent of the year,” said Ryan Stasik of Umphrey’s McGee. “One of them happens to be the singer, which I find quite hilarious. I think it comes down to genetics, it comes down to mental attitude.”

Borders learned about the neti pot, sometimes referred to as a personal waterboarding kit, from classical singers.

“They take their throat and sinus area very seriously,” she said. “The neti pot is disgusting but awesome.”

She also is proactive about the company she keeps.

“My new guitarist just came over a couple days ago to pick up CDs, and I heard him cough and I just shut the door in his face,” she said.

Tahoe music promoter “Late-Nite” Billy Drewitz knows the show must go on. He was working as a tour manager when he needed surgery. The bus dropped him off at a Cincinnati hospital and rolled out of town.

“If you’re on a tour bus, it’s mandatory that you drink a bottle of Emergen-C every day,” he said. “The tour manager’s supposed to keep on top of that. You have cans of Lysol everywhere. If one person on the tour bus gets sick, the whole tour bus gets sick instantly. The worst thing is when the tour bus driver gets sick. I’ve had that happen, too.”

A Tahoe physician, Dr. Greg Bergner, has a simple recommendation to prevent catching an illness.

A physician’s advice

“Clearly the most important thing is to wash your hands frequently,” he said. “Viruses are most of the causes of respiratory illnesses and they can live on inanimate objects at least four to six hours.

“Everything from a door handle to a pen you sign in to a hotel can be contaminated with viruses. It’s not going to penetrate the thick skin on your hand but if you scratch your eye or your nose or any of the mucus membranes in your body, the virus can get through those and infect you, so washing your hands is most important.”

Of course, there are extra measures.

“I’ve been taking this tonic called Mazu Gold to increase circulation,” Castro said, still huffing into the phone as he pedaled his mountain bike. “It’s from Sea of Japan, really cold waters of Korea. Sea kelp. What the hell? What have I got to lose? This is just not a healthy lifestyle. Maybe if you are Eric Clapton you could totally control your environment. But guys like us, we are just on the road and it’s a hazardous profession.”

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