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Tuesday

 

Paralyzed musician Anthony Weller still working as a novelist

Anthony Weller wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal this spring in which he described what it is like to be paralyzed from the neck down. Weller, an acclaimed writer and musician, has a severe form of Multiple Sclerosis that has left him unable to walk or play his music since 2010. What surprises him is that no one ever asks him what it feels like to be paralyzed. It’s the “elephant in the room.”

Anthony Weller wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal this spring in which he described what it is like to be paralyzed from the neck down.

Weller, an acclaimed writer and musician, has a severe form of Multiple Sclerosis that has left him unable to walk or play his music since 2010. What surprises him is that no one ever asks him what it feels like to be paralyzed. It’s the “elephant in the room.”

“The first thing you have to get used to is total helplessness,” he wrote in “Paralyzed from the Neck Down,” published in April.

“You’re dependent on somebody else for everything. If you want your ear scratched, you have to ask. You soon learn that you can’t just ask every time the problem arises, or you’d be asking the whole day. And you remember all too vividly the itch that assailed you in the middle of the night before last, that wasn’t worth waking somebody up to relieve.”

During an interview in their charming Annisquam home, decorated with artwork from around the world, Weller and his wife Kylee Smith spoke in a wistful duet about the steady progression of his disease.

“I was diagnosed in 2006 and I walked until 2010. It seems like another lifetime ago,” Weller said.

“When he stopped being able to walk, that changed our lives,” explained Smith, who left teaching yoga at the Boston Ballet to oversee his care. “It’s a progressive disease that has slowly taken him down, moving from his feet and legs to his arms and hands. There are stages; you are always dealing with a new corner to turn.”

“First you are walking with a cane and then you’re not,” Weller said.

“Then, the memory of when you played your last gig,” Smith added as Weller paused.

“You says goodbye to bits and pieces. The last time you went for a walk with your wife … the last time you stood at the sink and did the dishes … the last time you stood up in the shower ... the last time you turned the pages of a book,” Weller said. It was a reverie in the language of the novelist and poet that he is, mixed with the hard-hitting facts of a journalist.

Weller continues to write for at least two hours every day. He is dictating his eighth book, a novel set in the time and place of Mozart – a suitable topic for someone who played classical and jazz guitar for more than two decades.

Weller’s seven other books are a mix of genres, both fiction and nonfiction – travelogues, memoir and a compilation of articles by his father, Pulitzer Prize winning overseas war correspondent George Weller of the Chicago Daily News.

Weller’s career path followed that of his famous father’s. Both started out as novelists and then turned to journalism when the money ran out, “which for me was immediately,” Weller joked wryly.

Weller spoke admiringly of his father, who was often off covering global conflicts when the younger Weller was a child, while he and his siblings were home in Macon, Georgia with their mother Gladys Lasky, a British ballet teacher.

“Back then, the Chicago Daily News had the best foreign service desk of any newspaper in the USA, better than the New York Times. He got a Pulitzer from them in World War II. He was always the first man in and the last man out,” Weller said.

Weller traveled the world as a journalist like his father, writing pieces for National Geographic, Geo and the New York Times magazine, among others. He worked with the top photographers in the business, some of whom are selling photographs on Weller’s website to help defray the high out of pocket cost for his care ($400 per day beyond what Mass Health pays, totaling almost $150,000 per year).

Weller also traveled the world as a classical and jazz musician. His career ended close to home with regular performances at the Franklin Café in Gloucester and venues in Boston. He played until he could play no longer, improvising with only two fingers, instead of four, on the fret board.

“The last couple of years I was playing with two fingers on the fret board hand,” Weller said. “Where you usually use four fingers, I could only use two. But these musicians covered for me and made me sound good -- or made me sound adequate.”

“I experienced Anthony as so musical, that playing with two fingers was extraordinary. I experienced it as a Haiku,” Smith said.

“In jazz you improvise – you work around your limitations. I didn’t leave something out, I just wasn’t putting something in, which was different,” he explained.

Weller recorded 15 classical and jazz CDs, which can be found on his website anthonyweller.com, along with “quite a liberal sampling from many of my records,” he said. He described his music as being from “the Great American Songbook, the same standards that every jazz musician plays.”

Weller’s good friend clarinetist and saxophonist Billy Novick, who played with him for many years including at the Franklin Café, described Weller’s style.

“Anthony is an introspective, exploratory kind of performer. It became a group esthetic at the Franklin to play subtly,” said Novick who has organized a series of three jazz concerts to help out the Wellers. The first concert takes place this Saturday evening at the Annisquam Village Church.

“That’s what this whole concert is about – that approach to playing. It will be music people will be familiar with, and some original music for event,” Novick said.

“I was very fortunate to work for many years with Herb Pomeroy who was one of the most illustrious jazz musicians that New England has produced,” Weller said of his music career. “Pomeroy was with Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, among others. He taught at Berklee and the New England Conservatory for many years. I was a member of his trio for about 15 years and he was a kind of private university for me. We made three discs together and through him I met many other great musicians, including Billy (Novick).

“I’m heartbroken that my life as a musician is over, but I’m trying to maintain my life as a writer to the extent I can,” Weller said. “I can’t travel anywhere, but I can travel as a novelist and that is what I am still doing. I have published four novels and hopefully I’ll keep publishing.”

“Anthony is a creative force. What is brilliant is that he is able to work and that is all that matters at the end of the day,” said Smith.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by WICKEDLOCALNORTHOFBOSTON
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length

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