The market for music-industry memoirs is a cluttered, albeit typically enjoyable one. There’s a bit of a standard flow to what makes most of these works successful: one-part entertainment, one-part shock value, one-part precautionary tale, one-part paean to the music that helped guide them through. Special attention is typically paid to those times when an individual crashed and burned due to their own behavior, only to have mustered up some redemption on the other side. As long as the names are somewhat familiar and the stories are lurid and riddled with enough sex and drugs and rock and roll to go around, it generally makes for a compelling and fulfilling (though not entirely ground-breaking) couple of days to dissect cover-to-cover.
If we’re using that, then, as the sort of loose framework from which many a good (or at least widely-read) rock and roll story was generated, it makes little-to-no sense for a guy like Rob Rufus to throw his trademark fiddler hat in the proverbial ring. If you’re even a casual peruser of Dying Scene and you’re not familiar with Rufus by name…well…that’s exactly the point; over the last half-dozen years, we’ve written four- or five-dozen stories about the band for which Rufus is not only the drummer but one-half of the twin-brother duo that makes up the band’s core (hint: they’re called Blacklist Royals).
Rufus’ memoir, Die Young With Me, is due out September 20th (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) and it is, by no stretch of the imagination, a standard fare rock and roll tome; the bulk of the story takes place largely between Rufus’ 12th and 19th birthdays, and a quick run through the “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” litmus test reveals intimate encounters that rarely escalate above teenage backseat-of-mom’s car heavy petting, drugs that include names like “bleomycin” and “cisplatin” and “something called VP16,” and a rock and roll band that’s effectively unknown to the masses. Put ‘em together and what have you got? Probably the most compelling page-turner of the genre (or any true-life genre) in recent memory.
You see, the Rufus twins grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, a middle-of-nowhere town if ever there were a middle-of-nowhere town; a rest stop on the way from..well…from Louisville to Pittsburgh, I guess? Punk rock culture, or most any culture really, was virtually nonexistent. Were it not for one fateful trip the brothers took to a family reunion in Richmond, Virginia, that might still be the case. The duo spent the better part of a long weekend poring through the music collection of their cousin Anthony, who despite being only a few years older than Rob and his brother Nat, was already steeped in Richmond’s mid-1990s punk scene.
With a newfound love for punk music in tow, the brothers headed back to rural West Virginia with a new outlook on life and music…and a healthy dose of inspiration. “The best thing about punk rock to me (was) that nobody was really that good!” says Rufus with a laugh. In many ways that trip spawned a period of what has now been close to twenty years of writing and making music. “In a lot of ways,” explains Rufus, “(Die Young With Me) is a kind of love letter to punk rock music and how awesome it was for a kid from the middle of nowhere to hear anything like that.”
At first glance, the phrases “love letter to punk rock” and “most compelling page-turner of the genre in recent memory” may not realistically overlap. But then again, there’s a huge part of the story that’s been left out so far unless you’re familiar with the drugs listed above. At the age of seventeen, just as his band (then called Defiance of Authority which frontman Nat would later refer to in an interview as “pretty much the worst band name of all time”) had gotten an offer to play a week’s worth of shows on the Warped Tour (a huuuuge deal for a band of high school kids from West Virginia, or anywhere for that matter) Rufus got diagnosed with cancer; a rare, and fairly progressed cancer. “It’s called a germ cell tumor, which is basically the same makeup of testicular cancer except that it starts somewhere else in your body,” says Rufus rather matter-of-factly, at this point probably well-rehearsed in telling the details. “It was basically like a big fucking tumor in the middle of my chest.”
Coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis is an unfathomable thing for most people to comprehend at any age, let alone being a 17-year-old punk rocker from Nowheresville, USA. In fact, the latter confluence of facts led to an initial inability to even get a diagnosis. The signs and symptoms were there but, as Rufus tells it, “I’d been getting progressively more sick for months, and my normal doctor was on sabbatical, and then every time I went to the doctor at a local hospital, I would see whoever was available. It was very fucking clear that something was wrong with me. But a lot of times I would go the local hospital and they would look at me, and I was in my super punk phase with big spiked bleached hair and a Black Flag shirt with a middle finger on it or whatever it may be, and they would just dismiss me.”
Once the diagnosis came, treatment came quickly and aggressively, and just in the nick of time: “It was so bad that if I would have waited another week before getting diagnosed, I would have died. My lungs were on the verge of collapse because this tumor was so big and wrapped around my organs.” Treatment also meant shipping out of West Virginia altogether, by way of a speedy ambulance ride to Columbus, Ohio. The treatment was aggressive, about as aggressive as you’ll find for chemotherapy in a “child.” And it seemingly worked, at least for a while. Fast-forward the tape to age nineteen and the cancer would make an unfortunate, and very grave, return.
“I was first cancer-free for not even a year, or six months,” says Rufus, before explaining in detail that “the cancer came back in my hip and went in my legs and mutated. That was the only time that I really realized that they thought I was gonna fucking die. They were basically like, “well, we have this treatment that they’ve used a couple times in Japan and we can try that and we can try to make you comfortable.” And I’m like “what the fuck does that mean? I don’t want to be ‘made comfortable’!” That was a really surreal moment in my life. It was the only time through all of that that I really was like “I’m so fucked,” and that it really sunk in like that.”
Treatment for the second round of cancer involved another bout with chemotherapy, intense radiation therapy, removal of his right lung and half his diaphragm, and a series of other lengthy complications. But it also worked successfully. Now in his early thirties, Rufus has a good, if somewhat uncharted, prognosis. Before Rufus’s generation, kids with most childhood cancers didn’t really…survive. They didn’t really get better, at least not in any great numbers. “Doctors and oncologists and everybody are very aware that they don’t know what issues will come from those treatments and what issues will develop as you get older and older,” he explains insightfully. “I’m aware of all that, but I also know that there’s nothing I can do to change it other than what I’m already doing. At this point, I’m trying to enjoy my life as much as I can. I want to create as much as I can create and do my thing and have a good fucking time!”
Read this book. Seriously. It’s funny and moving and disturbing and very, very real. And the idea was helped along by a somewhat unlikely source; Blacklist Royals’ former label boss (and Less Than Jake drummer) Vinnie Fiorello. “Vinnie…was actually the first and really the only person to say “what the fuck are you doing writing these stupid fucking rock and roll songs? Your life is so much more interesting than that, and you have so much more to say than that!”
So what do you do when you have an interesting story and you finally figure out how to tell it and what to say, but you’re a punk rock drummer with no ties to the book publishing industry? You go back to your roots. “I just kind of did it like I did when I was a teenager sending out demo tapes,” explains Rufus. “I’d get books I liked and look up the author’s agent and the publisher, and I just started sending out manuscripts.”
The result is, well, it’s due out September 20th. Pre-orders are available a bunch of different places, like here. And check out our full Q&A with Rob below; it’s one of our favorites, if we can be so self-indulgent.