Catching Up with Mark Karan

First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2008, Volume 15, #4

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Photo by Mark Davidson

Tue April 8, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT

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Mark Karan at the Green Apple Festival (2007)

Last year, I sat down with Ratdogís Mark Karan when the band visited Vancouver as part of its spring tour. As he waited for the soundcheck at the Commodore Ballroom, we discussed a variety of subjects, which ranged from the musical challenges inherent in finding new ways of playing the Grateful Deadís material to the state of the jamband scene. Throughout our conversation, Karan was witty, alert, and the picture of health for a 53-year-old man.

It was stunning to learn, just a few months later, that Karan had been diagnosed with throat cancer. Communicating through his partner Maile Hatfield, we had tried to arrange to speak on a few different occasions, but each time we planned to get together by phone, Karan was unable to talk. In mid-March, as Ratdog was finishing its final day of rehearsal for its 2008 spring sojourn, we finally were able to connect when Karan called me from his home near San Francisco. I was delighted to find him well on the way to recovery, but more than that, it was a pleasure to discuss the wisdom that his journey of healing had imparted to him.

Douglas Heselgrave: Hi, Mark.

Mark Karan: Hi. How are you doing, man?

DH: Good, but a better question is, "How are you?"

MK: Itís nice to be talking! My voice is far from being back to what it has been at other times of my life, but itís nice to be able to do an interview, other than by email. Talking isnít a problem anymore.

DH: It was about a year ago when we last spoke. Not to pussyfoot around things...itís been quite a year for you since then.

MK: Yeah! [Karan laughed] Who knew when we were talking?

DH: Was what happened to you a total shock? I remember you saying when we last met that you werenít like most 53-year-olds, and you had that confident air of a person whoís never really been sick.

MK: It was a total shock. Iíd had the lump on my neck for a year and a half. Iíd had it checked out twice and screened twice by doctors who told me it was benign. They said you can have it removed surgically, but it would be an aesthetic choice because there was no medical reason to have it taken out. I had no reason to worry, or so I thought.

What happened was that I initially got the lump on my neck, and I even let that go for awhile because I donít like going to the doctor. When I finally went to the doctor, they drained the fluid and what not. They examined the lump and said that it was called a branchial cleft cyst and that it was congenital. [They told me that] it is rare but that it didnít pose a threat. They said, "Donít worry about it. It may blow up from time to time, filling with fluid. If itís bothering you come in, and weíll drain it."

So, two months later, it filled up, after they had drained it. So, I had it drained again. They re-biopsied the fluid, and I was told there was nothing to worry about.

DH: ÖAnd as far as you were concerned, you had no reason to doubt your doctorís competence.

MK: Well, early on, I was looking for somewhere to pin things and that certainly entered our consciousness. But having done some investigating, it would appear that sometimes these things can be pretty hard to locate even if theyíre growing in the body. Unless somebody has decided what theyíre looking for is cancerous, they donít look for the right things to diagnose it as that. So, I went on about my business for about another year.

Maile and I were in Hawaii on vacation, and I started running a low-grade fever. My whole neck swelled up like a balloon. We didnít know what the hell it was, but because we were told the lump was nothing to worry about, I decided not to worry. We went to the doctor, and the doctor ó as is classic in Western medicine ó loaded me up on antibiotics, which did absolutely nothing. I took some real, strong killer ones, so everything else in my body sure got killed.

Maile and I decided that we were confounded enough by all of this that we would get a second opinion when we went home. So, we went to see the head and neck surgical department at the University of California, San Francisco in order to have them look at it to see what they thought it might be. It just so happened that the head [of the department] was also the head of oncology. His assistant came in and took a look at me. He left the room almost immediately. The next thing I knew the doctor came in and took a look for about ten seconds and said, "Thatís nothing benign."

DH: Can those things just turn on a dime or...

MK: Well, you know, the doctor that I saw about the lump on my neck ó I donít know that he ever looked down my throat, which is where the original tumor site was. He was looking at something expressing on the outside of my neck, so he didnít even look on the inside.

DH: Did you follow a course of conventional medicine, or did you go into alternate forms of treatment?

MK: All of the above! I did everything that Western medicine told me to do with the faith that it could work. But, I also have some lack of faith [in Western medicine], and I do have a lot of faith in alternative forms of medicine and alternative forms of reality. So, you know, for me it was just a matter of getting busy and assembling a multi-headed dragon ó a massive beast. I was using acupuncture, meditation, and body energy work. I was trying everything I could from Chinese herbal teas to a guy that did spirit-cleaning. I donít know whether I believe in spirit-cleanings or not, but I donít disbelieve them.

DH: I went through a similar scare while I was in India with parasites that ate part of my stomach. I used everything and came to think that it was the combination ó rather than the discrete parts ó that worked, and it was miraculous.

MK: Exactly! I didnít know which thing was working and which thing wasnít working, but I came to think thereís not a whole lot of harm in trying everything.

DH: Do you feel like a different person?

MK: Some of the time. Most of the time, really. I guess itís more accurate to say that some of the time I feel like my old self rather than a new person. Inside, I think that habits that are the result of 50-some years of a certain way of being arenít going to disappear instantaneously, but I feel like Iím coming from a different place than I used to come from.

DH: Can you describe that at all?

MK: Well, yeah. A lot more acceptance in my life. A lot more willingness to deal with "what is really going on," as opposed to being upset that what is really going on somehow isnít living up to what I feel should be going on, or if someone isnít being what they could be or who they should be. When a situation isnít living up to its potential ó all of these places that give us dissatisfaction.

DH: Theyíre great places to get stuck.

MK: Oh, yeah! You can get good and stuck, and itís easy to stay in a constant state of negativity if you really work at it.

DH: True. We all have enough people to blame to last us a lifetime. It really clears us of any responsibility at all!

MK: Exactly! There are so many things to be dissatisfied with...things Iíd always sort of known and spent time with intellectually. Iíd been reading Ram Dass and Pema Chodron and people like that for years. While I had a great grasp of it intellectually, I had never really internalized it in terms of how I sit in my life. Where I am in my life every moment and my choices and interactions and all of that had never really been challenged.

DH: Lots of things are like that. Ram Dass is very specific about conscious dying, but I would think if your own mortality was threatened, the intellectual perspective wouldnít necessarily be much comfort.

MK: Well, thatís true, but I kinda got nearly instantaneously that this wasnít about that. This was here as a teacher not to take me out. Also, because I went to the acupuncture really quickly, one of the things I learned early on is that in Chinese calligraphy, the character for crisis and opportunity are the same. So, I thought, "This is an opportunity, and itís up to me to get what I can from this experience. Iím going to grow through this. Iím going to do whatever it takes to heal it, and Iím going to look for whatever teaching I can find in it."

DH: Are there any challenges in stepping back into old roles and places?

MK: Hell yes! A lot of the world, as we know it, is much more vested in what should be and whatís "right" and blaming others and placing the problem outside of ourselves and "if only he/they/it would be different, everything would be fine." You can feel all this stuff yourself, but it doesnít mean that the other people you deal with are going to support that belief system. If Iím not careful with myself, itís easy to react to old stimuli in old ways.

DH: Is there an old Mark Karan that goes out on the road with which youíre going to be grappling in a few days?

MK: No, I donít think I was any different on the road than I was at home. I think if anything itís going to be certain work-ethic things in Ratdog. You know, I really love to work. I really dig work. The guys work their asses off, but there also is a strong ethic of, "Iíd just as soon be chilling." Sometimes, it makes me crazy.

DH: For example, Iíd love to hear another Ratdog album.

MK: Yeah, whatís it been ó six or seven years? Weíve got three or four songs. There were a couple of Grateful Dead songs like Corrina and Jack Straw that were never recorded in the studio. There are another three or four songs that have been in the world of Ratdog for quite a while now. With a focused will to make it happen, we could come up with another record, but Iím not going to push that. A new album will come when it comes ó if it comes ó according to whatever Bobby [Weir]ís needs are and whatever happens with Ratdog.

DH: Is he pretty much happy to relax when heís off the road, after all the work heís done over the years?

MK: I donít like to speak for Bobby, but thatís what it can seem like. He likes to write, he wants to write, but heís not necessarily driven to write.

DH: Did you do much writing during your time off?

MK: Not much, but I did get kind of blessed with a song while I was in the hospital for my first week of chemotherapy. I brought a little guitar because I was going to be there for five days. One afternoon, I was sitting there, and suddenly I got zapped. I turned to Maile and asked for a piece of paper and a pencil, and it took me 20 minutes to spit out a whole song. In fact, I just did the basic tracking for it this weekend. It sort of remains to be seen how this music will be titled and presented. Originally, all of the tracks I had were being combined for a Jemimah Puddleduck record, but a good three or four years went by with no progress. Then, cancer happened. Frankly, at the other end of cancer, Iím a lot less willing to believe thereís always maŮana. I donít believe in maŮana anymore.

DH: So, what does a record from Mark Karanís universe sound like? How is it different from what Puddleduck or Ratdog brings out in you?

MK: Well, I know that youíve heard Puddleduck, and I would say that my own thing is where they were at. Puddleduck was pretty much my views and directives as far as what music weíd play. Where we were as a band followed a similar approach to Bobbyís. Iíd bring a song in with a very loosely defined skeleton of what I thought it might want to be, and the four of us would get together and play it. Whatever it became is what it became. So, when itís Mark Karan playing with those four guys, itís still essentially Puddleduck. But, even a different drummer on a different track changes the musical ideas and interaction in the song. Ultimately, itís me looking for a way to somehow marry my pop sensibilities with my blues and R&B sensibilities as well as my desire to improvise and jam. I want to make all those ideas meet in a way that is fun to play and fun to listen to.

DH: Far out!

MK: Weíre going to do another series of sessions in L.A. with the Puddleduck line-up again. Iíd like to try and do a few things with Wally Ingram, who used to drum for David Lindley and is out now with Sheryl Crow. He also plays with Stockholm Syndrome and Jerry Joseph. Weíre pretty good friends. He and I both had throat cancer. When I finish it, Iíll shop it around, but itís more of a labor of love than anything. Iíve been threatening to do this for well over 20 years, if I get honest. I donít know how many maŮanas Iíve got. Iím not in a hurry to get out of here! But, Iím not into waiting around anymore.

DH: Life is short, though it seems so damned long sometimes.

MK: Youíve really got that right.

DH: Years fly by, but days and nights can seem to last forever.

MK: Yeah, and thereís no lying in the observation that everyone says that as you get older, the years just compress and fly by. A year goes by in what a summer used to feel like.

DH: I hate to say this, but the year in between our conversations seemed to compress into a week. Didnít I just talk to you yesterday?

MK: Normally, Iíd agree, but not to me, brother. Speaking of this last year, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since last time!

DH: Thanks, Mark.

MK: A pleasure. Hopefully weíll be traveling up the West Coast soon, and we can do it again. Right now, me and Ratdog have to get reacquainted. Weíve hung out a bit, jammed, scratched the surface of a new tune or two. Iíve got a few songs in mind. Hopefully, I can beat Bobby up, and get him to play Cryptical Envelopment. Iíd really like a shot at playing it, but itís not one of his favorite tunes. Donít tell anyone, though. You know how fertile the ground is for rumor on our scene. [He laughs].

DH: Donít worry. Your secret is safe with me.

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Of Further Interest...

Only Ratdogs and Puddleducks: Out in the Midday Sun with Mark Karan (2007 Interview)

Mark Karan's Inferno (2009 Interview)

Score One for the Grateful Dead: An Interview with Lee Johnson (2007 Interview)

Sketches of Miles with Henry Kaiser (2004 Interview)

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