Soul survivor: Bluesman Curtis Salgado lives to tell tale
August 1, 2008
Clean and sober for nearly 20 years, Curtis Salgado had a good reason to use a drug.
A gallstone attack put the singer in an emergency room.
“They gave me painkillers, and I said ‘Lord have mercy, I remember this,’ ” Salgado said. “I said ‘I’m going home now.’ They said ‘no.’ “
Knowing that Salgado suffered from hepatitis C for years, a doctor wanted to examine his liver.
“Hepatitis C eats away at your liver,” Salgado said. “When I got clean, I probably had half my liver that was fine. After 20 years, hepatitis had eaten my liver to the point of level 4 cirrhosis. There’s only five stages. After that, it’s end-stage liver.”
Worse yet, doctors found a a tumor the size of a lemon in the liver. Salgado had to get a new liver.
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“It was cancer, and I had eight months to live,” Salgado said. “And was it scary? When they give you eight months, yeah. It’s either get this out, or you’re dead.”
Salgado’s lack of health insurance further complicated his dire situation. It might have led to the gallstone attack. He was trying to get on a payment program to pay for interferon.
Salgado had insurance, but it became so costly, he switched companies. An administration error, however, left Salgado uninsured when he was diagnosed with cancer.
It’s common for musicians to not have insurance: “It’s prevalent more often than not,” said slide guitarist Roy Rogers, who performed with Salgado early this summer at Coloma Blues Live! “It’s a struggle just to make a living.”
Another slide guitarist, Johnny “V” Vernazza, agreed: “I think it’s a rough spot now for anyone who is self-employed,” he said. “Self-employed and or a musician, if you have to take off a couple of months for any illness, it’s pretty hard. I mean we find it hard to take two weeks off for vacation.”
Six benefit concerts, including ones in Salgado’s hometown of Portland, Ore., and Eugene, the town where he grew up, raised money to help with some of his medical bills. Performers included Steve Miller, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Kim Wilson, Jimmy Vaughan, Everclear, and Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band. The onstage reunion of Robert Cray, Richard Cousins and Salgado, whose “Triple Threat, Double Trouble” shows in the 1980s inspired John Belushi to create the Blues Brothers, highlighted the Eugene show.
“It was embarrassing and humbling and good,” Salgado said. “I felt a whole mix of emotions. It was overwhelming more than anything.”
There also benefits shows in Santa Cruz, Omaha, Seattle and the Bay Area.
“The money has been loaned to him throughout all of this, and he certainly does owe a great deal of debt,” said Salgado’s tour manager, Scott Cramer.
Blue guitarist Debbie Davies performed at an East Coast fundraising concert for Candye Kane, another musician who has cancer.
“If you’re self-employed or an artist or whatever, it’s just so expensive to buy health insurance,” Davies said. “A lot of people don’t because they would rather keep their touring van in working condition. They’d rather pay their players a little more money because their so grateful for how hard their working. … For people like Candye and Curtis, not only do they have the medical payments, they haven’t been able to work.”
Davies said the government should get involved.
“A lot of other countries would see a Curtis Salgado and (realize) this is an artistic treasure of our country ” let’s fund these people,” she said.
Bass player Tracy Arrington has been in Salgado’s band since 1997. He also had a life-threatening situation, suffering a stroke when he was just 33.
“Curtis was the first person to call me in the hospital,” Arrington said. “He said ‘I was just calling you for a New Year’s gig. You can’t die. I have to go before you.’ Be careful what you say. It all came (around) horribly wrong for us.”
Salgado needed a liver transplant. He remembers doctors telling him, “The tumor’s going to explode and spread cancer everywhere,” Salgado said. “I had eight months. I got the liver out in seven, in a miracle.”
A biopsy of the old liver revealed that the cancer had just started to spread.
“They said ‘You’ve got a 50-50 chance it will come back,” Salgado said. “It did ” into my lung. So now my left lung is smaller than my right lung.”
Salgado gets checked for cancer every three months.
“So far I’ve had two clean checkups in a row, and I’m hoping for three, four, five and six,” he said. “When that starts to happen then they start saying we think we missed it. But right now I’m high risk.”
Salgado has remained strong during the ordeal.
“On the road, more than any of us, he makes wisecracks,” said Salgado’s drummer Andy Worley.
Guitarist Tommy Castro was happy to see a healthy Salgado at Coloma.
“I visited him in the hospital in Omaha when he was waiting for a liver,” Castro said. “He just kicked death’s ass and said ‘No way, man, I’m not ready.’ Whenever I get whiny I think about Curtis and a couple of other friends and what they’ve been through, and I shut the f— up.”
Cramer said his hiring just after Salgado’s diagnosis was awkward.
“He handled it well for someone who was told they only have so many months to live,” Cramer said. “All he wanted to do was play his music and hopefully survive. There’s a couple of weeks every three months where he keeps quite. You know he’s thinking about it.”
“I don’t want to go,” Salgado said. “None of us want to go. … It drifts across your consciousness. Then you don’t think about it. Then one moment you think about it. The doctor said it would screw with your head. I’m very, very lucky. So far I have been blessed. I’ve dodged the bullet twice.”
Salgado thinks he might have gotten hepatitis when he experimented with intravenous drugs in junior high school.
“I drank my share, and I used drugs my share,” he said. “Twenty years of being clean and sober, and alcohol and drugs still took me. People don’t realize that what they do young is going to catch up to their body later on. Your body remembers.”