Last September, Dan Melchior, a fabled British-born garage and art-rock musician living in Durham for the last six years, gathered his live band on the cramped, low stage of the Raleigh nightclub White Collar Crime. Melchior und Das Menace, as they are called, were playing the first night of the second Hopscotch Music Festival. The gig was at quarter capacity.
Melchior's work with the band generally reveals itself in caustic and colorful tumbles of strident fuzz and saturating noise, those tones bleeding through rather traditional rock 'n' roll arrangements until the music becomes very powerful and maybe a little scary. Und Das Menace typically relays Melchior's one-man-band missives with great verve.
But onstage in Raleigh last year, something seemed wrong. The group appeared diminished, muddling through competently but without fully committing to the material. Und Das Menace never clicked.
But last September, no one—not in the band and certainly not in the crowd—really knew why.
Letha Rodman Melchior, Dan's wife and the band's bassist, felt at least one of the problems. Less than a year before, doctors diagnosed her with melanoma and, soon thereafter, breast cancer, diseases that have spread and endured despite the nearly two years she's spent battling back. Last summer, though, unusual headaches—frequent and sudden bursts of pain right at the front of her cranium—caused her the most pain. She couldn't make them stop. Those headaches, her doctors assured her, stemmed from a sinus infection and had nothing to do with her cancer. Soon enough, however, tests discovered a benign tumor putting pressure on her brain.
"I had this incredible headache that would just come on and then just go away," Letha recalls. Her first treatment had been a chemotherapy called Urivoid, a particularly vicious drug that interfered with the function of her pituitary gland. It caused the growth to form in her head. "It was swelling. They thought it was an actual cancerous tumor."
During surgery to remove the tumor, the doctors accidentally dislocated one of her retinas. It has since been reconnected. Letha says she can now see and think clearly, aside from occasional bursts of light.
Such situations are symptomatic of the Melchiors' lives these past two years. Both Dan and Letha have been very artistically productive since she became sick, with a litany of releases and a few shows around the world. Dan has been especially prolific with his music, releasing four LPs, a Record Store Day EP and an assortment of singles and cassettes. Letha has kept up her painting and recently released an experimental tape entitled Moon Mountain.
But it's been a constant struggle: Three weeks after Letha's second round of chemotherapy, they played the 2010 Primavera Music Festival, a trip she's thankful to have made but that she admits she barely endured. Letha has had tumors and lymph nodes removed from her leg, stomach, head and chest. And, for her, the cost of these procedures has often been more frightening than the possible outcomes.
Recalling her initial diagnosis, Letha remembers her immediate panic about money: "They had to sedate me because I was like, 'Oh my gosh, how much is this going to cost me?' They were telling me I had either clear-cell sarcoma or melanoma. If clear-cell sarcoma, they were going to have to possibly amputate. I was like, 'Just take my leg. Take it. But how much is this going to cost me? Is this going to cost a house? Is it going to be more than a house?'"
Letha relates the tales of her various diagnoses and treatments from a couch in the Durham house she shares with Dan. The room is comfortably cluttered, with mismatched furniture and an array of knickknacks betraying the Melchiors' eccentric tastes. The room is ringed with his paintings, impressionistic color collages that often incorporate birds.
Dan and Letha sit on opposite sides of a couch, both looking tired but resilient. Whenever she begins to tear up, he reaches out and grabs her hand and breaks the tension with his trademark sarcasm. When Letha talks of crying on the phone with an insurance representative until the company agreed to authorize a necessary test, Dan quips, "Not to put a guilt trip on her or anything."
As they chat, their cherished yellow-and-green parakeet, Glen, flits back and forth between them. Like Dan, he seems to sense when Letha is feeling down and leaps over to her shoulder. It always makes her smile.
After Letha first found out she had cancer, an outpouring of support from friends and fans helped pay the bills. Benefit concerts at home and in rock clubs around the country, as well as donations to the Letha Melchior Rodman Cancer Fund, were generous and frequent. Dan had recently left his restaurant job, making money by selling his own albums as well as rare, collectible records on the Internet. The support was needed.
It still is: Letha has health care through the job she held at Twig, an eco-friendly boutique in Chapel Hill. It doesn't cover many of the treatments she has needed, however. In this way, the news cycle has become their enemy. As time has passed, donations and support have dwindled, in spite of her continued struggle against the cancer's spread.
"Obviously, Letha's not the only person who's ill in the world. Someone else comes along and gets ill afterward, and everyone's attention shifts to that person, naturally. Unfortunately, we have to keep on," explains Dan. "We still need help. It's kind of difficult to be asking people for things all the time, but it's just a position that you're put in when you don't really have any health care."
On this particular day in late August, the Melchiors are especially sensitive about their finances. Next week, they will head to New York to find out if Letha will qualify for a drug trial that could help extend her life. She now takes Zelboraf, a medicine that, when administered in its typical fashion, is only effective for about seven months. The trial is for a drug that helps extend Zelboraf's potency for up to two years. The benefits would be great, but the costs are proportionately daunting since it is unclear if Letha's insurance will cover such an experimental treatment.
The timing of The Backward Path, Dan's latest album, couldn't be better. Written and recorded in between treatments and hospital visits, the album is Melchior's impressionistic take on the couple's struggle, condensed into seven wholly unorthodox acoustic odes and a matching set of noisy instrumentals. Earlier this month, the New York label Northern Spy, a frequent outlet for Dan in recent years, released the disc, pledging all proceeds from the record's first pressing to Letha's care. For an independent label of admittedly modest monetary means, it's a substantial gesture.
Explains Northern Spy co-owner Tom Abbs: "It's a special record. It's dedicated to her. It's really a personal record. It's kind of all ballads, and Dan's really lamenting on it. We want to support them through all this stuff."
The Backward Path is indeed an emotional record, but it never sacrifices the wry humor and sonic weirdness that have marked Melchior's recent work. "The Old Future" emerges from an instrumental intro of percolating sound effects and eerie frequency modulation. Melchior mocks sci-fi visions of the future with a dry, pessimistic mumble.
More powerful still are the songs that tackle the Melchiors' situation head on. "I Have Known the Emptiness" ambles with a ragged acoustic strum, punctuated by jarring noise and caterwauling saxophone. Showcasing a manic glee that borders on despair, Dan personifies the void of death, making macabre wisecracks at its expense: "I have known the emptiness. It wasn't my kind of thing. It made me nervous with its lack of jokes."
"I think once the sense of humor disappears, it's really hard to listen to," he says, speaking to his tone on The Backward Path. "It's actually about the terror of looking into a sort of void. But we all know that that's not good. We've probably all had one or two experiences of looking at that and saying, 'Well, I wouldn't like to live my whole life living this way.' If you're not religious, and you don't believe there's an afterlife, it can be a little bit frightening to sort of think, 'Christ, is this the end of it?'"
As it happens, proceeds from The Backward Path actually won't go to any experimental treatment. Upon arriving in New York earlier this month, the drug company administering the trial called to tell Letha's doctors that they would cover the costs for all the tests she needed beforehand. It was a financial coup.
But she felt incredibly weak. Tests showed that her hemoglobin was low, and that—along with other factors—precluded her from the trial. She has since returned to Durham and is on the standard regimen of Zelboraf.
"I was incredibly disappointed at that moment," Letha admits by phone a few days after her return to Durham. "I fought so hard to be part of that trial because I know that that trial will make me live two years longer than just taking this drug that I'm taking now. Now, I know that I did everything I could to get into that trial, and I still couldn't do it. I'll never wonder about my treatment here at home."
She's glad she made the trip, not only for its medical possibilities but also because she got to see New York again. She took some photos, met some friends and ate a lot of Thai food.
She laughs for a moment and continues, her voice hardening with determination: "Now, I'm here, and I have a definite plan as far as treatments and surgeries that I have to get done. We're all about business from now on."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pressing needs."