The new record by Jason Myles Goss, Radio Dial, has been one of my favorite listens this year. He’s a great songwriter and talented guitarist/singer. You’ll have to wait until June to hear the whole album, so I asked if he would be interested in writing about my favorite song “Hospital Shirt.” To my surprise, I received this beautiful piece back in around 24 hours. This essay almost matches the beauty of the song itself. Read about where the song came from and then hear it for yourself at the end.
This is a song that I never wanted to write, and it’s a song that I
knew, from the start, would require everything I had. I spent many
late nights trying to get the words exactly right, trying to capture
the spirit of someone near and dear to me who was just beginning a
brave battle with cancer.
At the time, I remember being angry at myself for feeling afraid and
helpless, when I was not the one who had to face what he was facing.
Just before entering treatment, my cousin told me he shaved his head
into a mohawk like Travis Bickle from his favorite move, Taxi Driver—I
could picture him standing in front of his mirror repeating “You
talkin’ to me?” in his best Travis Bickle voice, as he prepared for
the fight of his life.
He was all I thought about.
My cousin wrote screenplays in Hollywood. He was extraordinarily
talented, and he was just signed to a very prominent agency for his
latest script before finding out that he had leukemia. I was
devastated. The only way that I knew how to cope, think about, or make
sense of this, was through writing.
I knew it would be dishonest to piece together some bullshit song that
tugged on peoples’ heartstrings with one tearful platitude after
another. That wasn’t him and that wouldn’t be his story. He would want
something sincere, something real, and I knew I owed him that. I owed
him big time.
The very beginnings of a song are always a mystery—you pick up your
guitar and play the same chords you’ve played one hundred thousand
times before, but, for some reason, this time, a lyric flashes into
your head, something vivid and confusing, and in that instant, you
feel hope or find a connection, a glimpse of something that you need
to unearth. That line for me was “I know you think I look handsome in
my hospital shirt.” That line hit me like a hammer and I would just
play it over and over again until it lead me to the next…and the next.
Slowly, it came together word by word. I was writing a song about a
young man talking to his mother, trying his best at a light-hearted
remark, maybe to lift her spirit or to try to make her smile. He was
trying to let her know that things were going to be okay, even if he
knew that they weren’t. It was a love song.
As scared as I was, I realized I needed this. My cousin and I were on
opposite sides of the country, and I realized that this was a way that
I could be with him, I could close my eyes and imagine what he would
say, how he would say it. I could be the screenwriter for him, for his
story, for those moments when all the visitors have gone home and it
was just him, staring at the ceiling tiles in his hospital room,
scared, breathing, eyes blinking, amid the sounds of the late-night
I realized that I wasn’t writing about death or sickness, I was
writing about life and perseverance, I was writing about the fight
itself and all its vicissitudes. It was the furthest thing from a
chicken-soup-for-the-soul song about acceptance and letting go. This
had teeth, this was full of piss-and-vinegar and was about refusing to
relinquish the best parts of oneself to disease. That was my cousin.
Despite the soul-crushing tedium of hospital treatments and pill
regiments, the long, uncertain hours, and the toughest blows, I wanted
to write about the courage it takes to face each day with a full heart—
to have the guts to stare cancer straight in the face, eyes wide, with
a freshly shaven mohawk, and ask “Are you talking to me?”
Beginning in August ,“Hospital Shirt” will be included on a
compilation album with all proceeds going to benefit Relay for Life
and the American Cancer Society.