The Ballad of Davy Jones

Hickoids guitarist battles Stage IV lung cancer

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

We all do it.

A lingering pain or mysterious twinge deep inside comes alive and our mental doors fly open with hell's host of diseases unleashed, shrieking harpies leading a parade of leering grim reapers and maybe a few Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King characters. It's accompanied by a roar of rushing words that goes something like, "ohGodnoI'mdyingpleasejust-givemeanotherchance."

Don't say you haven't done it.

That's why – once you've been harangued enough or gather the guts to go in, get tested, and wait for the inevitable – doctors often joke, "You'll feel so much better when the results are negative."

Except to infamous Hickoids guitarist Davy Jones. Last May, he sought relief from a persistent chest pain and came away with a diagnosis of metastatic Stage IV lung cancer. In April, after a brutal year of searing radiation and body-wasting cancer treatments, he engaged hospice services.

Bagshot Row

"I don't have much air to begin with, so I am not good for too much."

At 60, Jones' voice comes in confident over the phone, but not strong. At least not as strong as his words, coming in measured phrases and labored breaths. He's been called to the front lines of a battle he won't win, given scant weapons to arm himself, and precious little hope of victory.

The notion of Davy Jones as a hero may strike some as incongruous. He took the miscreant pledge and remained loyal to rock & roll. Debauchery was no stranger.

Yet consider this: Here's a man who's dedicated his entire life to playing music without asking anything from it. He never sought the spotlight, never released a solo album, never headlined a gig on his own. He arrived in Austin from his native Philadelphia via Delaware and Arkansas in olive drab and a crew cut, courtesy of Uncle Sam at Fort Hood.

Some have tried, but few have adequately described the local maelstrom that occurred with the introduction of punk rock at Raul's in January 1978. No red carpet rolled out for the self-invented scene, which was universally dissed by a town still waving its cosmic-cowboy freak flag at Willie Nelson picnics and polishing up Thunder­bird blues at Antone's while woodshedding Christopher Cross into national superstardom.

To Davy Jones, stationed in Killeen, the nuclear reaction occurring at the nightclub on Guadalupe proved the siren song he'd been waiting for since plunking Raw Power on a turntable. As early as the eighth grade in Newark, Delaware, he was playing guitar in his first band, Bagshot Row, a Lord of the Rings reference. His parents happily let him spend his money on art and drawing supplies, but not on musical instruments. He played his first gig on a borrowed guitar.

By the time his family moved outside Little Rock, Arkansas, in the late Sixties, Jones had witnessed Jimi Hendrix, the Who performing Tommy, and found himself sharing his name with a teen idol in the Monkees. That suited him just fine. Kids finally stopped teasing him about where Davy Jones' locker lay.

Besides, Dylan name-checked Mr. Jones, and this one knew what was happening. He thrust himself deep into early-Seventies rock, parsing distinctions such as playing "the Grand Funk version of 'Paranoid,' not Black Sabbath's." In 1973, a debut release cannonballed into his pool.

The New York Dolls planted an orchid-colored lipstick kiss smeared on the cheek of hippie rock & roll, dominated then by the country folk of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. Jones liked their audacious New York sound, liked Iggy Pop's Detroit mojo, liked Blue Öyster Cult's Long Island whammy, liked Alice Cooper's brash sneer. He pored over Creem magazine, where the seeds of punk rock were cultivated, and later English rags New Musical Express and Melody Maker.

At this stage, his high profile as a big man around Little Rock paid off – artist, musician, DJ, scenester. Nevertheless, he performed his patriotic duty and enlisted. Texas proved an unexpectedly ripe place for his musically malcontented soul, especially after the Sex Pistols' shoot-out tour of 1978 left the Lone Star State electrified. Austin held copious kindred spirits in the Raul's scene, and the Ideals sprang into a scene fully formed at birth.

Keep Breathing

Behold Davy Jones' uniquely sartorial splendor. Plaid slacks with tie-dye T-shirts. Neon print pants with a striped shirt and a coat of many colors. Hawaiian shirt, tuxedo jacket, cowboy hat.

As longtime guitarist for the kings of hard­corn cowpunk, the Hickoids, Jones boot-trod the boards with complete fashion abandon and, along the way, created his own hodgepodge look and style. Although the Hickoids rank as his longest gig, Jones' name pops up as alumnus in local institutions macro (the Dicks) and micro (the Next, the Gay Sportscasters, and the Dia­mond Smug­glers). Even so, his dynamic with the Hickoids developed instantaneously.

"Davy actually named the Hickoids before he was in the band," says founder Jeff Smith. "[Late Hickoids guitarist and co-founder] Jukebox and I were procuring some combustibles early one afternoon at Davy's second-floor apartment, watching a guy in a tattered cowboy hat digging through the Dumpster below. Davy said, 'That's a real hickoid looking sumbitch!'

"Up to that point, Jukebox had wanted to call the band the Wang Dang Wiener Dog Gang, which I wasn't sold on. But when we heard that, we instantly knew that we would be called the Hickoids."

Few bands matched the Hickoids' brazen, firewater-fueled, drug-powered fusion of country and punk. All of it ringed with cigarette smoke. Billowing gray clouds choked clubs above the mohawks and buzz cuts and bleached spikes, exhaled like smokestack lightning. Cigarettes dangled from lips, lodged between guitar strings, waved carelessly in hands. Smoke was an occupational hazard, reeking, elusive, permeating clothes, hair, equipment, furniture. You stunk of it for days.

"In the first half-dozen or 10 editions of the band, from 1984 through 1991, I don't think anyone was sober," admits Smith, now an indie label magnate whose Saustex Records operates out of San Antonio. "We probably had departures because people just couldn't hang with us. We were pretty awful, driving around blacked out in towns we'd never been to, one member or another vomiting or passing out onstage with regularity.

"Until we started reforming around 2006, it wasn't an issue. Davy had been sober 12 or 13 years, and I had three or four under my belt.

"Obviously, as a unit, we really upped our game. Davy and I became a lot closer friends again when he saw that I was serious about staying sober. He hadn't disowned me in the previous decade, but kept what I would call a healthy distance. I think a lot of our old fans were disappointed by our sobriety, so it became fairly challenging trying to write material that maintained the sense of humor while being true to ourselves.

"Davy and I, we just did what we had to do to keep breathing."

Hardcorn Hickoids: (l-r) Richard "Dick" Hays (d. 2001), Davy Jones, Jeff Smith, Johnny "Jukebox" Jackson (d. 2013), and Arthur Hays, 1985. (Photo by Bill Leissner / Courtesy of Saustex Records)

Feel a Whole Lot Better

They're short. Less than 15 minutes, these phone conversations, but talking with Davy Jones feels good. Though his voice bespeaks the ravages of cancer and pain medication, he's sharp and focused in conversation, laughing and reminiscing. The topic this time, cancer.

"They switched my chemo around, over and over, trying to figure out which one could do the right thing," he says. "I don't think they found it. The positive thing is I haven't really had a bad reaction to the chemo, but then none of it has been effective. Maybe it should be hurting me more. I've had nearly a year's worth of these drugs that have not worked.

"Mine is Stage IV lung cancer, metastatic. Right in the middle of my sternum. The cancer came through my chest, grew from the surface of the lung and through the bone. That tells me it's never going to be cured. Now, we're worried about the bones in my legs. It's mostly in the right side of my body, but they're saying, 'Hallelujah, it's in the muscle, not the bone!' That's a positive.

"I can't put any weight on my right leg, so I can't really walk. It's not like things are getting better. But I'm still here. It's pretty fucking painful, [but] my pain med doctor is good and I'm doing all right.

"A couple weeks ago, my girlfriend Becky [Beal] hooked me up with the hospice people. The oxygen in my brain was way down and there were other problems. I went off the deep end in my thinking for a while because the oxygen was way down. I didn't realize what was happening in my skull. I got some relief when they put me on oxygen. It's really helping with my thinking. It was scary to know I could turn around and not realize what was going on with myself.

"It's hard for me to play guitar and do different physical things, so when we have these big benefits, I don't know if I'll be able to play at all, or sing a song. I've done a couple of recording sessions with the Hickoids, so I'll be on this next record, but when the last session came up, I was in such bad shape I couldn't play. I had to admit defeat on going to do overdubs. I just couldn't do it physically, get the guitar and do it right.

"I'm not saying anything I mind anyone knowing. I was a smoker for so many years. I did everything bad a person can possibly do, with drugging and drinking. No needles, though. I missed out on hep C.

"When we first started treatment, they gave me a bunch of radiation. When it first came to stay in my chest, I was unable to even ride in the car. Any little bump in the road was a bolt of pain throughout my body. I was crippled head-to-toe at the beginning of last spring. They put radiation right in the middle of my chest and it was like a miracle. After a few weeks of radiation, I really turned around and was able to walk and ride in the car.

"For a while there, I felt a whole lot better. Then as time went on, it wore off. It was disappointing. We tried another course of radiation therapy and it didn't work at all. That was one of the last things we didn't get good results on. We've started a new chemo; I can't even remember."

Don't Be Cruel

This story doesn't have a happy ending, but neither is it joyless.

Being told you have a finite amount of time to live because a disease like cancer has gotten the better of your body is the cruelest of luxuries. Whatever control you had of your body and life is removed and you become an instrument of its debilitation. Endless visits to doctors, never-ending rounds of tests, sweaty anxiety of waiting for results, scans where your lymph nodes shine like Christmas lights, the introduction of new words like "malignant" and "tumor" into daily language, the stomach-tightening fear the doctor's first words will be, "Your test results were disappointing."

Yet, the knowledge that your years, months, or weeks may be counted can also be remarkably liberating in a gallows-humor kind of way. Sometimes, it's a way to gain control. Get a suntan – what's the worst that could happen? Unless you have skin cancer, of course, in which case, have a drink! Oh, sorry – liver cancer? Have a cigar!

When death begins reflecting in the mirror, life simplifies.

And the underlying truth remains cliche: Those you love get you through it. That holds true even when it's the wrong-headed approach, like the friend who sympathetically proclaims, "We're all dying! We're all marching to the end." That's a common response by well people to bad cancer news.

Many friends bear it, some cannot. Love them all. Even the friends who withdraw from your life – it's self-defense. Self-defense against the specter of watching a loved one leave the Earth by degrees. Self-defense against the knowledge it could be them. The guilty relief when it's not.

This Kind of Wealth

"I still kick myself over this," wrote Jeff Smith in an email.

"Davy had begun complaining of some pain in his upper torso in late February of last year. He thought it was a torn muscle from moving his amplifier, which, as a 60-year-old rock musician who's never been real athletic, didn't seem like an unreasonable self-diagnosis. Over the next two-and-a-half months, following multiple doctors' appointments and MRIs etc., it came to light that he had some sort of lesion.

"Then I called him and got the bad news the day he actually got the results of the biopsy.

"I feel like I should have noticed, but I live in San Antonio and was only seeing him at rehearsals and shows. He had complained of pain and some trouble breathing in March, and myself and the other band members had taken to moving his amp during SXSW and in April. But his energy and enthusiasm never seemed to flag. I was pretty blindsided up until about three weeks before the actual diagnosis, when it was obvious there was something more serious going on."

Regret can be worse than cancer, but Smith did what he does best: went into action on behalf of his beloved friend. He produced benefits and gigs in Austin and San Antonio that Jones played when he could, which wasn't often. The Hickoids even embarked on new recording sessions. Friends and fans started the Davy Jones Fan Club page on Facebook. The love culminates at Hole in the Wall's Plaidstock weekend.

"Four or five years ago, we were playing a show in Lafayette during Mardi Gras," recalls Smith. "We used to play New Orleans every year during Mardi Gras in the Eighties and would hit the parades and maybe get a string or two of beads. But this time, the parade route ran right by the front of the bar. We both get like 50 or 60 strings of nice, heavy beads and are wearing them onstage later in the evening.

"Totally ridiculous, we can barely hold our heads up straight. Davy says on the microphone, 'I never dreamed I would have this kind of wealth.'

"I was laughing so hard it took me about 30 seconds to regain my composure. Through all of our highs and lows, that's how I feel about him."

Plaidstock takes over the Hole in the Wall this Saturday, May 23, stacked with: Alejandro Escovedo, Big Foot Chester, the Beaumonts, Just Honey & the Wingmen, Robert Hill, Loco Gringos, Big Drag, Grannies, Cunto!, Glenn Jones & the Ideals, the Next, Offenders, T. Tex Edwards, the Hickoids, and more.

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