Music News

Beat Surrender

Page 2 of 3

How much the band was there for Norwood might be up for debate. Job stability in a rock 'n' roll band is notoriously tenuous, but Norwood's days as a Beat Angel were as good as over with the doctor's diagnosis.

"It was a complete and utter nightmare," Smith says. "We were really worried about him. He wasn't himself. And what made it all worse was that things were going really well for us. But we ended up missing a lot of gigs and had to push back the recording of our album for months because Jon was going for these treatments in San Francisco."

Norwood's trips to the Bay Area were for weeklong sessions at a Buddhist temple in Berkeley. There he meditated three to four times a day and drank a prescribed herbal concoction while adhering to a strict diet. The decision to go with alternative medicine instead of conventional surgery and radiation had something to do with Norwood's interest in Eastern philosophy. It had more to do with his not having medical insurance, another hidden but potent rock 'n' roll hazard. Norwood waited six months after the cancer diagnosis before finally going in for surgery.

"The reason he didn't get the surgery done sooner is because he had to find someone he could afford to do it," says friend George Maestri, a onetime Valley musician and artist who most recently worked as an animation producer on the TV cult hit South Park. Maestri says Norwood had to literally shop around to find an affordable surgeon.

"In the meantime, he went to all these herbalists, and I hate to say it but that may have been a fatal mistake. The tumor may have shrunk from walnut to pea-sized, but it was still there and it was still, apparently, very aggressive."

Dawn Kelly, a former Valley musician who now lives outside Kansas City, was one of Norwood's oldest and closest friends. She considers herself his soulmate, and she was on the phone with him every day in the final months of his life. She understands why Norwood initially opted for alternative medicine's road less traveled. "Let's face it," she says, "the cost of a cup of tea was more in line with his finances." But Kelly also sees other factors that played into Norwood's nebulous fight against the disease.

"He couldn't let go of the musical lifestyle," she says. "I mean, the smoky bars, the alcohol, the late hours--those kinds of things simply aren't beneficial for a body in need of healing. And things were not right at the house, with assorted people living there and him being stuck with the bills. The success he had with the alternative medicine made him take a more pedestrian approach to managing his health and, unfortunately, his energy was going more toward the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. The support system he needed to get healthy just wasn't there."

She adds that Norwood's accepting personality, called Zenlike by some, passive by others, also factored into his recovery. Maestri agrees: "He'd been abandoned by so many people when he was younger that he didn't want to be abandoned again. I think that's why he just couldn't say no."

Norwood finally had his kidney removed in the summer of '96, using money he'd recently acquired through an inheritance. Later, there were lesser operations to remove lesions on his bladder. Kelly says the procedures went so well that one doctor announced Norwood was, quote, "cancer free." With the clean bill of health, Norwood decided to drive to Eugene, Oregon, just before Christmas of '96 to visit his mother and sister. He also wanted to look into Oregon's progressive health-care system, which, in some cases, requires residents to pay fees as low as $10 for advanced medical services.

But somewhere south of Eugene, Norwood experienced a blackout behind the wheel. He pulled himself together, but by the time he got to his mother's house, he was suffering headaches so severe he could barely stand. The cancer was back, this time a brain tumor, which doctors quickly and successfully removed. Norwood stayed in Oregon for radiation treatments and, by the spring of '97, was feeling well enough to return to Phoenix and go back to being a Beat Angel.

This is the part where rock 'n' roll job security takes another hit. It's also where Brian Smith, by his own account, becomes a "complete asshole."

The Beat Angels had recruited drummer Frankie Hanyak from Serene Dominic's band to sit in for a while. It was a way for the otherwise drummerless Angels to fulfill prestigious slots at the legendary South by Southwest gathering in Austin, Texas, and the increasingly influential Poptopia festival in Los Angeles. Norwood, who was still in Oregon at the time, approved of the move, Smith says, adding that Norwood and Hanyak knew each other and got along well.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ted Simons