On a May afternoon earlier this year, Janette Park, a program director at Duke University's WXDU during the late '90s, climbed in her car and headed north into Washington, D.C. One of her favorite college rock bands, Polvo, was reuniting to play its first show in nine years. Though she already had tickets for the band's concert the next day in Carrboro, just 5 miles from her Durham county home, Park couldn't miss this debut.
"I was like, 'This is so ridiculous. I'm going to see them tomorrow night. I'm the biggest idiot,'" she says. "And then we show up, and I'm like, 'Oh my god, Cy's here.' I asked, 'Are you going tomorrow night?' He said, 'Oh yeah, totally.'"
Park knew Cy Rawls because, as she puts it, they often traveled in Venn diagrams. While she was at WXDU, he worked at UNC-Chapel Hill's radio station, WXYC. They both interned at Merge Records, and they both went to a lot of rock concerts in the Triangle. Rawls went to a lot of rock concerts everywhere, actually. Park reels off stories about the Raleigh native's one-night trips to New York to see some band or how, at a random show in Virginia, his was the one face Raleigh's Double Negative recognized in the crowd.
"There were bands he really liked, but Cy seemed to be a fan of music," says Martin Hall, who befriended Rawls while working as a publicist at Merge Records. "It could be Danzig or The Rosebuds, or it could be something totally the opposite. He was just a fan."
In July, doctors at Duke discovered a large tumor in Rawls' brain. During a biopsy, Rawls had a seizure and nearly died on the operating table. He recovered, though, and due to chemotherapy, the tumor started shrinking through the late summer months. Triangle musicians, to whom Rawls had given so much of his time and attention, rallied behind Rawls.
The morning after Rawls' surgery, one Durham musician started a blog for updates on Rawls' health (cyrawls.blogspot.com). To date, it's had 40,000 hits. A three-band bill led by Superchunk and The Rosebuds raised $15,000 for Rawls, while a series of smaller benefits raised about $1,000 each. Local 506 canceled a show to boost attendance at a Rawls benefit, and at least two new bands formed just to play shows for Rawls. And with Durham Web designer and music producer Chris Rossi and a team of volunteers, Park has led an ambitious project: CyTunes, a unique digital music download service that raises money for cancer research in memory of Rawls, who died in early October.
"I remember when I first moved here, one of the things that first struck me about this area, and especially the music scene, is how much of a community it was," says Rossi, who moved here in 1997 after graduating from Vanderbilt University. "What a lot of people probably recognize is that something like what we have here is something you invest in. We have a community here because we contribute and we all look beyond ourselves and reach out. People are willing to contribute to whatever it is because they see it as strengthening the community."
Even this year, during a sobering economic downtown, local musicians banded together to support countless organizations and individuals—from Rawls and Barack Obama to The Coalition to Unchain Dogs and rights for India's transsexual population. Rossi floated his idea for CyTunes to the community that had gathered around Rawls online. People responded, pledging support and their own music. Indeed, the affirmation was so overwhelming that Rossi couldn't begin building the Web site for several days because he was answering e-mails from those hoping to help. That's when Park, a lawyer, stepped in, taking over the project's communication responsibilities and becoming CyTunes' manager. She helped recruit a team of graphic designers and local music aficionados who gathered contributions from bands for the site. After Rawls died, the team took a short break. Park encouraged everyone to change their outlook and continue.
"I felt like, by that time, we had a really good group of people who had put time and effort and creativity into something. It seemed like a shame to put it by the curb," says Park. "I received e-mails from a few people who had been keeping up with Cy through the blog, and they hoped we would continue the project because it would be a very fitting way to memorialize him."
So Rossi kept building CyTunes, a Web site he designed mostly from scratch because, in several senses, no one's ever tried anything like this. All of the money goes to one recipient—Tisch Brain Tumor Center, the interdisciplinary, award-winning Duke Medical Center program that treated Rawls—and not to the bands or the site's development team.
Digital music distribution services generally stockpile music and offer it to customers, much like any traditional retail store, in only one direction. But CyTunes is a two-way street, meaning Rossi designed the site so that bands can upload their own material and immediately make it available for purchase. So far, the inventory includes complete live sets by Polvo and Superchunk that Rossi recorded himself, as well as unreleased material by the Dirty Little Heaters, Hammer No More the Fingers and two dozen others. Bands have donated material that's been out of print for a decade. There's no aesthetic, commercial or geographic judgment, which reflects Rawls' adoration of pretty much any band he ever heard.
"I never saw Cy be negatively judgmental about anything, even when I was being negatively judgmental, and it would have been easy for him to be like, 'Yeah, this band does suck,'" says Hall, as Park and Rossi laugh loudly at the idea. "He would never do that. I got to a place where I would try to coax it out of him: 'C'mon, Cy, you've got to hate this.'"
Rossi and Park hope this open approach to the music the site offers will create a self-sustaining outlet for those bands who knew Cy or for those who simply appreciate the value of places like the Tisch center, which cared for Rawls. He held jobs as a bank teller and booking agent and with a temp service and catering company over the years, but his health insurance had recently lapsed.
"Music performance is a relationship experience. It's an interaction between the performers and the audience," says Rossi. "In a sense, Cy was the best fan in the world. That relationship is where all the magic happens."
CyTunes (www.cytunes.org) launches Friday, Dec. 12, at midnight. The site hosts a 9 p.m. launch party that night at Local 506 with The Flute Flies (Zeno Gill, Ivan Howard, Reid Johnson), Magic Babies, DJ Viva Cohen and Rockin' Ammonia Karaoke. The show is free.