‘It Felt Like a Death Sentence’: Everclear’s Art Alexakis Talks MS Announcement
“I want to tell you something about me that you might not know,” began a post by Everclear’s Art Alexakis earlier this week. In the startling statement, Alexakis, 57, announced he had been diagnosed several years ago with multiple sclerosis, but had decided to finally go public with the news.
The daunting disease disables the central nervous system by attacking the coating around its nerve fibers, leading to fatigue, walking issues, vision problems and more. Yet his condition is clearly not slowing Alexakis down. He’s in the final stages of wrapping up his debut solo album, Sun Songs, due this summer. Next month, he’ll be launching a “Songs and Stories” tour with fellow indie singer-songwriters Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne), Max Collins (Eve 6) and John Wozniak (Marcy Playground). Everclear will then play two dozen or so shows this summer, and Alexakis is already planning a 2020 tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band’s fourth album, Songs from an American Movie Vol. One: Learning How to Smile.
Alexakis called from his Pasadena home to talk about his battle and his plans to forge ahead. “As a writer, you’re gonna hate it,” he tells Rolling Stone with a wry laugh, “but I am really finding the glass half full just about everywhere. If they put me in a home somewhere, I’m gonna piss people off because I’ll be listening to music really loud. I can’t hear that well anyway, so it’s going to be loud.”
You wrote that you’ve known about this condition for about four years. What made you announce it to the world now?
That’s a good question. I’ve never really hid from this. My friends and family knew. And if I met people who have MS, I would talk to them about it and commiserate. But I started hearing from family and friends that people were saying, “You’re drinking again” or “You’re on drugs because you stumbled onstage or forgot lyrics.” Well, to be honest, I’ve always forgotten lyrics my whole time.
Also, a lot of people have these symptoms and aren’t doing anything about it. I don’t know why. Maybe because they’re young, vibrant people in their 20s, 30s or 40s. I’ve had 22 people write to me [since the announcement] and say, “I think I have these symptoms and I’m in my 50s — should I go to a neurologist?” I say, “Of course you should go to your doctor and get an MRI.” It could be another autoimmune disease like Parkinson’s. Go figure it out. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk about it.
Take us through what happened on that afternoon.
It was April 2017, and I was driving to my daughter’s school to pick her up. It was about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I was cruising along, listening to [Elvis Costello’s] This Year’s Model and rocking out. It had rained in L.A. and I got a lot of oil or something on my brakes, because I’m driving and pumping my brake and it just went to the floor. I’m doing 35 to 40 miles an hour. I couldn’t move over because there was traffic. So I pulled the parking brake and went into the back of a big Jeep with a father and son in it. No one was hurt bad. The insurance took care of it and they had massages or something, and they’re okay.
Two weeks later, I noticed a twinge in my right arm. I had that years before from snowboarding. I called my doctor and he said, “I’ll fix you up with an MRI and give you an epidural in the neck.” So I walk into an examination room and there’s like six guys in there, and they all stopped talking. I went, “Oh, shit — what did I do?” One was a neurologist who wanted to do another MRI, so I went right then and there and did another one in my brain to see if there lacerations on my brain as well. And there were. And they told me they were pretty sure I had MS and referred me to a specialist. I went out to the car and called my wife and cried for the first time in a long time. I cry during movies but we’re talking about weeping. Men don’t weep. When I heard “multiple sclerosis,” I’d heard the phrase but didn’t know what it was. It felt like a death sentence. It sounded like cancer.
“I went out to the car and called my wife and cried for the first time in a long time.”
What did they tell you then?
When I went to the specialist, he did the test and a spinal tap, which was extremely painful. He confirmed the diagnosis and prescribed this drug Copaxone. And he gave me a good prognosis. He said, “As you get older, your balance will get worse and you may need a cane, but I don’t think you’ll need a wheelchair or get incapacitated.” I have a good prognosis compared to other people. I’m managing with the medication. My wife is very positive and very strong.
I have to give myself injections three times a week, which I don’t like. It’s not intravenous. It’s into the fat. I don’t have a lot of fat so it’s hard to do. I’ve been clean and sober off drugs. I’m a recovering junkie. So I don’t like needles. But when it comes down to it, the prognosis is “you’re going to be okay for the next 20 or 30 years.” I would love to live another 30 years.
Your daughter was seven when you were first diagnosed. Did you tell her immediately?
We’ve always been open about it. I told her, “Your daddy has a sickness that isn’t going to kill him.” But as time has gone on, I’ve explained it to her more. She’s really cool about it. She knows daddy has issues walking sometimes. I have an older daughter, who is 26, and she knew about the diagnosis. I just told her I’d be announcing this about a month ago. I didn’t want her to hear something about her dad from other people.
What signs have you noticed lately?
I had an episode about two weeks ago. I’ve been eating healthy but I was on the road and eating sugar, which you’re not supposed to do because it’s inflammatory. And I suddenly had this floater in my left eye. It looked like — and I swear this is the best description — a pulsating origami dragon. It was changing colors. I said, “Man, I’m having a stroke. Something bad is happening.” My wife looked it up online and said it’ll go away in five minutes and lo and behold, it went away. It was MS-related. It’s what they call an “episode,” not a progression. I got back off the sugar and I felt better.
The doctors told you you’ve had this condition for two decades. Why did it emerge now?
That was the first question I asked, and they don’t know. The accident didn’t have anything to do with it. They don’t know why people get it. It’s primarily women and people with lighter skin, which I don’t have. And I’m not a woman, last time I checked. But I got it. The accident was a blessing in that way.
How has it affected your daily life?
I’ve always had a weird gait. But I can’t run anymore because I’ll trip over my feet. One of my main forms of exercise now is swimming. It’s good for people with auto-immune disease. You’re not supposed to get overly cold or heated, so swimming is good for that. It’s not a bad idea to have a better diet. When I found out, I was smoking six to eight cigars a day. I cut that out after a year. I read that nicotine doesn’t help. I’m an addict, man!
It’s odd that you announced your condition to the world on the same day that Trump declared he wants to kill the ACA.
Trust me, it wasn’t planned. [Laughs] I don’t know what the hell they’re thinking. I’m having a hard time believing it’s going to go in front of the Supreme Court again and Roberts is going to change his mind. But you never know.
Do you have insurance?
I do, and this is a condition covered under it. I pay $100 a month [for medication]. But if I was paying for all of it, it would be $2,600 a month, and I don’t know if I can afford that. I guess I’d have to, but it would affect the way we live. That’s more than what most people make in a month. So for other people, [a repeal of the ACA] could be devastating, almost a death sentence for millions of people.
There’s a good chance people might view me differently: “We’d better go see this guy before he dies.”
Has MS affected your guitar playing?
No, I still suck, pretty much. I’ve never been the most coordinated person in the world. This solo record is all on acoustic guitar. I taught myself to fingerpick. I don’t sound like Gordon Lightfoot, but I do okay. I’ve always wanted to make a record where I played everything, so that was the idea of the solo record. It was a challenge. I figure out the drum parts and then I use my hands since I can’t do it with my legs. I knew it would be harder than it normally would be. But this is what I do to make a living. I make music.
Do you address your condition on the record?
Back in the Forties and Fifties, they would diagnose people for MS by giving them a hot bath. You’d sit there and they’d watch you. So I wrote that song about it called “Hot Water Test.” I don’t say I have MS, but the first line is, “My doctors told me that I had a disease.” There are happy songs too. In some ways it’s the happiest record I’ve ever made. There’s also some political stuff on there. There’s a song called “White People Scare Me.” Enough said?
I imagine that you’ll now have different conversations with fans during your upcoming “Songs and Stories” tour.
Yeah, it’s gonna be different. There’s a good chance people might view me differently: “Hey, we’d better go see this guy before he dies.” Or they’ll be there to celebrate.
Given your previous hard-drug problem, did you ever find it ironic that you survived addiction and were now hit with this?
Yeah, I guess it’s ironic, but it’s always something. In my life, nothing comes easy. I’m gonna get my ass kicked. I’ve gotten used to it. And without sounding like a Hallmark card, it really is not about how many times you get knocked down but how you pick yourself up.
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