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Never Mind the Pity

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The album: The cover of Somewhere Else.  

For all the obstacles, the result turns out to be unexpectedly powerful. Killian is unhappy with the rawness of his voice, but Ralph thinks it gives edge to the song.

The next week, keyboardist Scott Healy stops by to record with Killian. Healy, who plays in the house band for The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien, has a house in the area, and was among the many locals who befriended the Mansfields through their store. He adds “woozy, avant-garde” accordion licks to Killian’s version of “Kiss.” Listening to the playback, Scott is bowled over. “From a professional standpoint, you can hear that he just nailed that song,” Scott says. “He’s playing right into the pocket, adding progressions that aren’t in the original, things professionals struggle with for years.” As they listen, Ralph’s wife enters the room, and soon the three of them are in tears.

A few minutes later, Killian stops by to see how things are going. Though his mother makes the bandage on his face look more like a fashionable headband than a medical necessity, it is clear he is in bad shape. Still, he remains his curious self; it appears easy for him to forget about the illness at the heart of the whole project. He asks Scott about the accordion and, within a few minutes, figures out how to play a couple of songs himself. He loves hanging out in the studio, fiddling around, bouncing ideas off one another. When they play “Kiss,” however, Killian’s mood changes. He doesn’t want to hear it. His voice, he has abruptly decided, is an embarrassment, and he now declares that he doesn’t want any of the songs on which he sings lead vocals to be on the record. When Ralph tries to dissuade him, Killian walks out of the studio. As sick as he is, he remains as stubborn as any other teenager.

David Bowie has yet to respond to Killian’s request, and Killian is told they need to move forward without him. Initially, Killian is heartbroken: He has never played what he calls “the cancer card” in his life, has never let the disease “define him,” as he often puts it, and he feels he is owed. But he quickly gets over this setback, coming up with a novel solution on November 22, when the family holds what they deem to be “the ultimate sleepover.” Killian’s aunt comes in from Portland with her fiancé, and Cally, Killian’s younger sister, invites Ralph’s daughter, Lucia, a close friend. The gang gives one another homemade facials made with cucumber, avocado, and honey; they play MarioKart on Wii until their fingers are numb; they dance to a mix Killian made for the event; they make videos of living-room mayhem and upload them onto YouTube. At one point, Killian turns to Lucia, a sprightly 10-year-old, and decides that she should sing the lead vocals on “Starman” in place of Bowie. He asks his sister to do backup, since he has always thought of “Starman” as a “conversation between two close friends.” Recorded a few weeks later, the song turns out to be more than a gimmick: melancholic and joyful at the same time, an incidental reinvention of the classic, and one of the album’s best songs.

Today, November 24, turns out to be the high point of the endeavor. Killian has been feeling surprisingly well over the past few days, most likely because he is now also on morphine. Sometimes working up to four hours at a time, he has finished most of the uke tracks. Whereas the bulk of the recording has to be done in pieces—Killian laying down his sections, then going home to rest while others come in—today he is able to record live with John Sebastian. When Sebastian arrives in the afternoon, he finds Killian listening to earlier recordings, tweaking the sound on the mixing board, scrutinizing every chord and transition. “The fact that he was a kid, the fact that he was sick—I forgot about that in two minutes,” Sebastian says. “He was a pro, someone who knew how to express himself fully with an instrument.” The two of them sit in front of a mike together to record “Fishin’ Blues,” a song Sebastian originally played with the Lovin’ Spoonful. At one point, Sebastian struggles to remember one of his own chord progressions, and Killian says, “Wait, I think what you mean is something like this,” and illustrates the point on his uke. “Yes, exactly,” Sebastian says, clearly surprised by Killian’s audacity.

“Now, that was pretty ballsy,” Killian’s mom says to him on the way home, “telling John Sebastian how to play his own song.”


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