There’s a good chance you’ve partied with John Mann. Or, if not with the man himself, certainly to his music. As lead singer for Spirit of the West, he co-wrote the ultimate Canadian frosh-week/wedding-reception anthem, Home for a Rest. Nearly 20 years after writing the hit song, Mann, who is also an actor, was in the middle of a run playing Thénardier in Les Misérables in Vancouver when he began experiencing severe stomach pains. He underwent testing, and soon got the news. He was sick. Rectal cancer.
Over the next two years, Mann spent a lot of time in hospitals, doctors’ offices and waiting rooms. He was not at his best, but he never lost his hunger for human connection. He heard all kinds of stories from other patients, while also connecting with hospital staff – and his own family.
These stories and at times unlikely bonds became the basis for songs Mann began writing in the hospital, and form his new album, The Waiting Room, out Tuesday. He is also working with Canadian playwright Morris Panych on adapting the songs for a stage play.
There are no raucous ballads celebrating/lamenting binge drinking; this is an extremely personal, contemplative, angry – and appreciative – musical journey through Mann’s cancer experience.
The rage is sometimes up-tempo, the lyrics straightforward: “Take my blood and an ECG, chest X-ray and a cup of pee, as I join the ranks of the living dead, I’m a tickin’ time bomb in this hospital bed,” he bellows on The Angry Sore.
On These Are the Instructions, he lists two songs he wants played at his wake: the Waterboys’ The Whole of the Moon and Ben Heppner singing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma. “And when he hits the high C raise a cheer.”
“I was just thinking, ‘Oh God, well here I am in this hospital bed, and I think I’ve got to do something,’ … and I started writing down the things that I saw around me, the ridiculous stuff that happened and really stupid things and some of the wacky things,” says Mann, 51, during an interview at his Vancouver home. His wife, Jill Daum, sits next to him at the kitchen table, helping with dates and details.
On the wacky and ridiculous, Mann recounts an endorectal ultrasound experience that went from highly uncomfortable to positively surreal. “They insert this kind of garden hose up my ass and they just start filling me up with water,” he recalls. “And I’m lying there on my side … and I’m just bloating up and the nurses are talking and one of them looks over at me and says, ‘Oh my God; you’re John Mann from Spirit of the West!’”
Mann and Daum (who is also an actor, best known for the Mom’s the Word franchise) laugh at this memory. Throughout the interview, they deadpan some great gallows humour – maybe call it bedpan humour. Daum explains the weird coincidence that Spirit of the West bandmate Geoffrey Kelly has also been through this. “So we call them the Colon Brothers.”
But they have slogged through a lot of pain. After surgery to have part of his bowel removed, Mann did not require chemotherapy or radiation, but needed a colostomy bag for three months, which he found unbearable. Other than walking the dog, he did not want to leave the house. He found writing music therapeutic.
“It was great,” he says. “It was something to do and it felt like it was productive.”
He also had a big part to learn for a new play: He was about to star in Beyond Eden, which was having its world premiere during Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad. It was an enormous challenge.
A new script, it kept changing – at a time when Mann’s memory was suffering. It was a very physical role and Mann had dropped over 20 pounds, and weighed less than 140. Most concerning was Mann’s fear that irreversible damage had been done to his vocal cords during his first surgery, as a result of the intubation.
“He was petrified he’d never sing again,” says Daum. “It was so stressful, and he kept thinking, should I tell them I can’t do the show? ’Cause they’ve already printed the posters.”
He did the show. He got on the plane to Calgary for rehearsals the day he took the bandage off his wound, after having the colostomy bag removed. And he tackled the difficult role with grace and bravery, says the play’s director, Dennis Garnhum.
“He was so dedicated and determined, because the project meant so much to him that he was going to make it happen. And he was an incredible trouper throughout the whole thing,” says Garnhum. “Whatever pain he had through the recovery he certainly didn’t show it to us.”
Until after the final performance, when the director found Mann in the dark backstage, in tears and inconsolable. “It was the first time I’d seen him let down his guard,” says Garnhum, who realized just how much pain Mann had been holding in throughout the show’s run. “And I thought, this is a real hero.”
John Mann will perform at his CD release party Jan. 30 at Vancouver FanClub, and at the Kay Meek Centre Jan. 31 in West Vancouver.