After A Year-Plus Long Journey Back From Cancer, Howard Kelley And The Gorehounds Are Back In Business.
The Gorehounds may not have sold out every single show they’ve ever played, but they’ve come close, especially at Three Links. And there have been other long, many-month gaps between shows, too, but never so long as the one that preceded Saturday night’s comeback show. Deep Ellum, especially the block of Elm Street where Links sits, is a noticeably different place than it was in October 2015, the last time the Gorehounds performed.
They’ve never done a show where Howard Kelley—the lead singer of this Cramps-tribute band and the best living channel-er of Lux Interior’s spirit we know of—has returned from such a scary year-and-a-half-ish journey through health terrain that has cast such long shadows on his future as a performer, a part-time bartender and even as husband and father.
That’s not to say the show was all about Howard’s cancer diagnosis—squamous cell carcinoma in the tonsil and lymph nodes associated with the HPV virus, among the most common sexually-transmitted viruses there are—or his treatment and recovery. It wasn’t mentioned at all from the stage, really, and the references from the audience were heartfelt shouts of “Welcome back, Howard!” and “We love you, Howard.” There was likely a sizable portion of the crowd who were clueless about Howard’s illness; they just wanted to get back to loud, sexually omnivorous concerts that The Gorehounds have institutionalized. And every band on the bill took the opportunity to reaffirm support for notions of inclusiveness, love and peace.
Well, peace for everyone but Nazis. When Sealion’s Hunter Moehring passionately declared it was a civic duty punch a Nazi, nobody disagreed. And I’m sure if there were an anthropomorphic iteration of cancer standing around, s/he wouldn’t be safe from getting punched, either.
Punching Nazis wasn’t a topical concern for many people in November 2015. What was really concerning Howard was that food would occasionally lodge in the back of his throat and there was a growing lump on his neck, so he went to the doctor.
“I felt a swollen node and had it checked out. It was misdiagnosed a couple of times,” Kelley remembers with frustration how his wife Pamela was driven to get to the bottom of it. “It was missed by a dentist, two general practitioners and an ENT, whose job it is the not miss the cancer. UTSW got it right when we went out-of-pocket for the second opinion. It wasn’t caught too late, just really close to it. Thank Pamela. She’s the one who figured it all out.”
After the diagnosis, things started happening very quickly. Friends and family who’d been notified quickly helped manage a variety of tasks that felt like the semi-urban equivalent of a barn-raising. Howard was going to be out of work as a part-time bartender, one major source of cash-flow for the little family, for an indeterminate time, so people looked for ways to help mitigate the impact of that. People didn’t really seem to focused on the money—not many of the Kelleys’ friends had tons of extra money to give anyway. But everyone agreed that Howard and Pamela would and should have their hands and minds fully focused his treatment and recovery, so a lot of effort was spent on projects around their house that they weren’t going to have time for. Rooms were painted, furniture was moved around, some seasonal yard work was done in advance. A friendly roofing company offered to perform some urgently needed work at a great price, and several friends chipped in to cover that cost.
And just like that, Howard had surgery, leaving a big incision on his neck, and radiation and chemo treatments began shortly thereafter in January 2016. But it was a long haul back to the stage. That first burst of energy from Howard’s many friends, work-mates, fellow parents gave way to a few close friends and relatives who helped him through one of the cruel ironies of cancer—the chemo and radiation treatments can feel worse than the cancer itself, and much of the recovery time is really dedicated to recovering from those treatments. Although the chemo and radiation ended in early March, it wasn’t until summer that Howard started to feel a little better, regaining energy and some of his sense of smell and taste.
For a while there it looked like the end of The Gorehounds and Howard’s tenure as a singer. The surgery cut a pretty big chunk out of his palate, and the sum of the treatments left an entire section of his neck below his chin without any feeling at all. Chemo and radiation took a toll on his hearing in one ear, too. Singing (and imitating Lux Interior’s wide range of weird vocables) was an entirely secondary concern when compared to the need to learn how to speak again.
Money was tight, despite a couple of successful fundraisers that had been held over the months and a few other efforts to rekindle interest in helping out. Howard’s first calling is as a visual artist, and he’s become a specialist at doing storyboards. But that work comes and goes, and even when there’s plenty, every client has their own idea of what “timely payment” means. But Three Links let Howard come back and work some half-shifts in July, and Howard was strong enough to work full shifts in August. Working in the bar not only helped get things financially back on track, but also helped Howard realign himself to the possibility of performing again.
“I started thinking I might be able to sing again in October, though I wasn’t confident,” Kelley says. “I booked the show anyway.”
The announcement for the gig at Three Links came in November or December—a badly needed piece of good news in those bleak days. The band—Spyche from France on bass, JT “Ivy” Dayton on guitar and Clint Phillips on drums, began rehearsing in earnest in January. Pre-sale tickets sold fast, and there were only about 10 left the day before the gig. The show was sold out by Saturday afternoon.
So when The Gorehounds hit the stage it felt exactly like people wanted it to feel, like nothing had changed, even though everything has changed.
Howard had learned how to sing with a big hole on the inside of his head. Deep Ellum is “peaking,” for better or worse. The country is on an unknown path. But Howard paced himself heroically and still looks great nearly naked — so do the GoreGirls (including Courtney Crave, who was still recovering from her own surgery for a shoulder injury), so the audience visibly swooned en masse. Science says that more people get laid by their chosen partners after attending a Gorehounds show than after going to any other rock band’s show – an Alternative Fact, perhaps, but it should be true even if it isn’t.
Howard was characteristically humble about the show.
“I’m good. The rehearsals strengthened my voice enough. I started running out of breath during the show, though,” he says.
And of course he’s grateful for the silver lining when asked if he’s been able to find one.
Says Kelley: “Yes! I was oblivious to all the love before.”