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Never Mind the Pity


Among legends: Killian's mom watches as her son records with Levon Helm and Ralph Legnini in West Shokan, November 24, 2008.  

“Seriously?” Killian looks dismayed. “Was I a total asshole?”

“Um, not an asshole. You just have some balls.”

Killian laughs, pleased with himself.

By December, the tumors in his mouth and throat have made eating and breathing nearly impossible. Christmas dinner turns out to be a punishing affair. Killian finds himself sitting at a table covered with beautiful food that he cannot touch.

After some discussion and much advocating from his oncologist, Killian agrees to spend five weeks in the city to undergo radiation at Beth Israel to shrink the tumors. The treatment is referred to as “palliative”—a new, ominous term for the family. While staying at the Ronald McDonald House on the Upper East Side, Killian gets a visit from John Pizzarelli, the accomplished jazz guitarist, with whom he once played at a gala for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, for kids with chronic illnesses. Pizzarelli brings his guitar for a jam session, which he thinks of initially as a favor for a sick child. But as he and Killian start playing together in one of the building’s recreation lounges, Pizzarelli finds the experience to be no different from playing with a fellow professional. “It was just clear immediately that he was light-years ahead of his time in every way possible,” Pizzarelli says. “He wasn’t nervous, the way a lot of kids are around adults. He was like, ‘Hey, man, let’s play.’ He was totally at ease with his whole vibe.” For an hour and a half, they played together, mainly old jazz standards that Pizzarelli was impressed Killian knew. “When I got there, I sort of thought I was on a kind of playdate, right?” Pizzarelli recalls. “Then Killian starts playing his ukulele, and I was like, Oh, really? He knew chord voicings that, for lack of a better way of putting it, I knew. Soon he was showing me things. No joke, the kid was totally schooling me.”

“From a professional standpoint, you can hear that he just nailed that song. He’s playing right into the pocket.”

Killian makes it past New Year’s, through the winter, and into the spring, longer than anyone expected. He even returns to school, attending classes when he can, and insists on hanging out with friends without his parents hovering nearby. In April, he is invited over to Levon Helm’s studio to record “Fire in My Pocket,” a song Ralph has written. This is the last piece of the album. As with Sebastian, it’s another live session, everyone playing together, improvising and sharing ideas. At this point, however, the cancer has spread into Killian’s arms, making strumming the uke intensely painful. He has to be given an extra dose of morphine, and is frustrated by not being able to play as well as he can. But he perseveres. He knows it’s never going to get any better.

A few days later, Ralph sits Killian down to attempt, one last time, to convince him that “Kiss” and “If I Can Dream” need to be on the record. Well-versed in negotiating with artists, Ralph knows to tread carefully. He tells Killian that what began as a kind of lark has turned into something bigger, a genuinely terrific record. Your record. Ralph explains: “Your face is going to be on the cover, your name is going to be on the cover—this thing is yours. Without your voice on it, the project doesn’t jell.”

Jim Friedlich, a founding partner in ZelnickMedia, an investment firm that owns the record label Savoy Records, has a weekend house in Shokan, a few miles from the Mansfield’s. He first met the family when they were running the general store, and stops by the house for brunch in early March. Over French toast, Killian’s mother tells Friedlich about the album they’ve been working on, explaining, casually, that they’ve been going into the studio with “some musicians in the area.” Friedlich asks for details, and is amazed when Barbara runs down the list. Dr. John is even one of Savoy’s artists.

“Do you have a label yet?” Friedlich asks.

“No, not yet.”

“If you want, I could take it to the Savoy guys and see what they think.”

The following Monday, Friedlich receives three unmastered tracks from the album, and passes them along to Josh Sherman, who heads Savoy’s New York operations, as well as Stu Fine, the label’s head of A&R. Veterans of the music business, they are skeptical about the idea—sympathetic, yes, but not sure that something arranged by a teenager deserves their time. Later in the day, however, when Friedlich stops by Fine’s office, he finds him sitting at his cluttered desk, listening to the tracks on oversize Denon speakers.

“Jimmy, this is really beautiful,” Fine says, shaking his head. “This is the real thing.”

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