March 1, 2016 11:57 AM

Life, Death and David Egan

Photo by Robin May. To purchase this photo, contact Robin May at robinm@theind.com.

[Editor's Note: David Egan died on Friday, March 18.]

Our great Southern songwriter lays in a recliner, feet propped up into a blanket that covers legs made thin by a cancer whose patience has worn out. Those legs used to amble around one hell of a man — a tall, ruggedly handsome man’s man and raconteur gifted in music and conversation.

“I’m not afraid to be dead,” our songwriter says in a halting voice that masks a sharp mind. “I believe in an afterlife. I believe without a doubt that I will have great clarity at the point of crossing over — crossing the veil as they say — and I’m really in for a great adventure.”

This is David Egan’s last stand.

Afternoon sun crashes onto closed blinds in the cozy rear den of the home near Four Corners David shares with wife Rhonda and their 15-year-old son, Reuben. Stardust explodes in its waft across slanting shingles of light. It’s quiet save for the gentle, intermittent hum of an oxygen machine. Other than his bed and a now out-of-reach porch, David has reclined the balance of the last 18 months in this room. Plenty of time to think and reflect.

Photos by Robin May

“The only burn of it is that I have to leave this wonderful family, this wonderful wife and child and friends and community and career; all these songs that I’ve put together — all this created material and all these attachments, these worthy attachments, and that other dozen songs I wanted to polish up, those albums I wanted to put together, that incredible love song I wanted to write for my wife,” the 61 year old says. “It’s a real burn that I have to leave so many things like that behind. But with the crossing over will come great clarity and relief that it’s all not lost, and in the great scheme of things everything is right where it needs to be, everything is hanging right, everything is setting there the way it should.”

There’s that clarity again. He returns to it often. And to gratefulness.

“To even people who aren’t my everyday friends, but those who have wished me well — I want to get my gratitude across,” David says.

He’s been working with longtime Lil’ Band O’ Gold bandmate and friend Charles “CC” Adcock to get a handful of unfinished songs into recording shape. The lyrics are mostly complete, the chord progressions coming together. It’s more a matter of polishing and arranging. But CC was a natural choice.

“And I’ll tell you why,” David explains. “Because he’s a song person and he’s a hustler, and if he’s got a piece in anything and he’s got some skin in the game, he’s gonna ride it like a Russian race horse. And that can only do my estate, my family, good.”

The two will share songwriting credit and publishing rights on the songs — four or five of them, maybe more depending on how much time the songwriting gods choose to give David.

The Egan house used to overflow with David’s music. He was always on the piano in the living room conjuring a new song, coaxing along a stubborn idea, rehearsing, rehearsing. He was the sum of his parts and the parts were quarter notes, arpeggios, augmented sevenths.

David Egan two-stepped onto the Lafayette music scene a quarter century ago with Filé (far right in photo).

South Louisiana got to know David through his work with the groundbreaking Cajun band Filé a quarter century ago. We fell in love with him through a solo career fronting his stellar band, 20 Years of Trouble, and by his incredible run with Lil’ Band, a swamp pop super group with Adcock, Steve Riley, Warren Storm, Tommy McClain, Dickie Landry and a rotating cast of luminaries.

Real fans also know about A-Train, the Shreveport group that flirted with fame but couldn’t outrun disco. Steeped in jazz, blues, r ’n’ b and rock, A-Train blew up the famed Bossier Strip — “a beautiful hotbed of dancing girls and neon, vice and music,” David calls it — exploded in the Ark-La-Tex and built fans from Dallas to New Orleans.

The bio also tells of being a contract jingle singer for CBS in Memphis and driving a tour bus in Nashville as he scraped at the backside of an established music career.

His songs were covered on Grammy-winning and -nominated albums by Irma Thomas, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Joe Cocker, Solomon Burke and more. But he came into his own, he says, when he started writing songs for David Egan about 25 years ago.

“There came a point at which I said forget all that. Let’s just write the most amazing song I can write, and write it strictly from my heart and soul. And let it have nothing to do with who it’s for; just write a beautiful song,” David recalls. “Write it as if you’ve got nothing to lose. And that’s when my writing got better.”

That freedom produced three records — 20 Years of Trouble (2003), You Don’t Know Your Mind (2008) and David Egan (2013) — that are as good as anything Louisiana has produced in the last 20 years. Seriously.

David says his best song, the one that’ll get him into Heaven, is “Dreamer,” a swampy, languid rhumba-blues boiler off Lil’ Band O’ Gold’s 2010 record Promised Land: A Swamp Pop Journey.

“People have come up to me after gigs who I have never met and told me that they have instructed their wives to have that song played at their funeral. And then the wife said, ‘He means it.’” (David is mistaken, however: His best is “Blues How They Linger” off his self-titled release. Or “Spoonbread” off the Lil’ Band record.)

David Egan (second from left) toured widley with Lil' Band O' Gold.

He’s gigged around the world and says he misses the adrenaline of being on stage. His last live performance was in June 2014 at Charley G’s. It was Rhonda’s birthday. He had been aching for a few months but didn’t know yet that the cancer he thought he had beat in 2004 had come roaring back.

“I can’t tell you how many times I wake up in my bed dreaming about a gig I’ve got to go and do. And I’m not sure how I’m gonna get there or pull it off, but I know I’ve got to get there and that I’m just gonna have to take a deep breath and suck in and go and do it, and after it’s all said and done, it’ll come out fine. I’ll make it. I don’t have to do that much; they’ll love it,” he says. “Then the more I wake up the more I relax and realize I don’t have to do it, and the more disappointed I am at the same time.”

No one really knows where the lung cancer that is shortening David Egan’s life came from. He never could commit to smoking; he flirted with it for a while but only managed five or so cigarettes a day, and he hasn’t drawn a drag since he and Rhonda married nearly two decades ago. But he did spend a lot of time in smoky bars playing music and practically as many hours in hazy vans traveling to those gigs snug up against the notoriously carcinogenic habits of bass players and guitarists.

He became during his “post-cancer” decade a high-profile face of the Let’s Be Totally Clear campaign promoting state and local smoke-free workplace legislation in Louisiana, convinced then and still that it was exposure to second-hand smoke that exiled him to this sunlit den in the back of a house near Four Corners. But his father died at 60 from pancreatic cancer, so who knows?

David’s first brush with abnormal cell growth was in 2004. Surgeons removed a lobe from his right lung. It was successful. The Egans thought he was in the clear.

“I had a good 10 years off of that,” he says. But, patient and persistent, cells were betraying his left lung while he loved a wife, raised a son and brought music to the world.

In February 2014 that pain, again. Another “successful” surgery; this time they cut out only part of a lobe. He recovered quickly, but it was short-lived. Around his birthday in late March a soreness came on. He had played a recent Mardi Gras parade. Maybe that was it. Just overdid it. Tests were negative. Painkillers were taken. Doctors said maybe it’s an infection. It couldn’t be cancer.

By June he could hardly get up. Everything was hard. Painful. The tightness in his chest was debilitating. When surgeons finally opened him up they found a mass that had welded his lung to his rib cage and fractured a few ribs. No shit it was painful.

It took two weeks for the pathology to come back after surgery. He started chemo the next day, and he went into that dark place of saline bags, intravenous tubes, poking nurses and beeping machines — a near-death blur. “It was like he fell down a flight of stairs — it was so fast and shocking,” Rhonda remembers.

He was two weeks laid up, taking a dive so deep at one point Reuben was rushed over to tell his daddy goodbye. But friends and family near and far rushed in, an emergency transfusion of love, and he rallied.

The rest of 2014 is a fog. David remained gravely ill. Last year was one of small victories — dining with the family, sitting on the porch. The chemo treatments sometimes included blood transfusions and steroid shots, and he would feel good enough for a drive out to Lake Martin or, a few times, to dine at a restaurant with his beloved. And throughout 2015 they came — friends, family, fans, admirers — to wish him well, to sit a spell, reminisce, drop off an étouffée. David and Rhonda believe that support and love put miles on David’s odometer, it gave them extra time to cherish as a family.

I believe that possibly I’ve got big work to do in my next life, and that’s why I need to leave this one a little early — to prepare for the next one.“I hope I get a chance to educate myself all over again. This time practice more, practice harder, learn how to read music better, learn how to play better.

Cancer doesn’t give a damn about David Egan. But he wants to talk about it, and about living and dying.

“Modern medical science, for what it’s worth, has pretty much given up on me, and we’ve tried a few different avenues and we’ve hit dead ends,” he says between measured sips of coffee, a blues music streaming service paused on the television in front of him. “So I want all of my community and my friends to know about it, and that I am filled with gratitude for the love and support that I have gotten from this community, from my family, from my friends, from this city. It means so much. Everyday I get notes and texts and emails from people wishing me well, praying, and it means everything to me. It’s a big difference not to have to face it alone.”

In late January the birth father of so many great songs, with Rhonda at his side, made the decision to end cancer treatment and go into hospice. The chemotherapy had ended months before, when it became clear it could not, would not, diminish the mass clinging to his left lung. He had been on a new drug, Opdivo — you’ve probably seen the commercials — marketed as a way to give people with advanced lung cancer a few extra months to live. But pain and side effects forced his hand. Now a hospice nurse drops by weekly with pain meds, and David is, to a degree, finally comfortable after 18 months of hurt.

But even now, off treatment and in hospice care — hospice patients typically live fewer than six months — he oscillates between acceptance and guarded optimism.

I think anything can still happen. I don’t want to be charging at windmills or being a damn fool about it, but I believe anything can happen and things can turn around.

Yet reality, like his cancer, is persistent.

So this is not a goodbye. Not exactly. More like see y’all later and thanks for everything. David and his family want quiet now, peace to spend together whatever time he has left.

“What I want to do is not make a big secret out of it, you know? But for people to just accept it, know that it’s happening, and not feel like they have to rush over here in the next three days,” he says. “Know that I’m here and that I feel the circle — whether I see you or not before I’m gone — the circle remains unbroken. We’re always together. My love is forever. I’ll always be.”

In His Own Words

In 2012 and ’13 David Egan was an infrequent columnist for The Independent. He wrote just 10 Clef Notes columns during that time despite our persistent pestering and grand pronouncements about the column being “the first draft of one hell of a memoir.” David was just too busy with recording projects and performances. But what he did produce were gems that offered an often confessional insight into the mind and heart of a great songwriter. Read the column by searching “Clef Notes” at the ind.com. In the meantime, here’s a sample:

Whether one’s music will be celebrated through the ages or will have its grandest moment in a café in front of 30 beatniks smoking hookahs, it might well have been telegraphed in from God. The process is so mysterious that for me it’s as good an explanation as any.
— “What Comes First?” January 2012

We made our way onto the stage. ...The entire venue erupted into a thunderous standing ovation that seemed to go on forever, all for us. We just stood there, drawing their energy like voltage into a light bulb. It was as if the folks were saying, “OK, so much for Star Time. Now let’s get down to what we came here for — YOU guys!”

Suddenly, we were bulletproof. All those monotonous miles left our tired bodies and psyches. No one could slight us. We cranked up. We ruled. We hit it hard and people went nuts, dancing around like drunken, liberated jackasses. Let the party begin.
— “A Foreigner Falls for Filé,” March 2012

Late that night, an after-hours call from Miami was put through to my father’s room at the Morton Hospital in Dallas: “Reuben? Hey, this is Bob. Bob Hope. I just wanted to tell you, man, I had the pleasure of working with your son, David, earlier this afternoon. I just have to tell you, what a talent! And strictly pro! What a great fella. Couldn’t have done it without him. So you flew some bombers over Italy in World War II?”

“I was a radio man on a B-26, Bob. We got shot down once, but were able to crash-land.”

“Holy Smokes. Glad you came outta that. Thanks, Reuben. Thanks for serving. And thanks for the pleasure of working with your son. What a pro!”

What a gift, to my father and to me. After a full day dedicated to bringing joy to a huge gathering of veterans, the legendary Bob Hope gave an extra few minutes to give just a little more before turning out the lights.
Old Reuben would soon depart this world. I see so much of him in the grandson he would never know.
— “Hope Springs Eternal,” September 2012

Leadbelly was always a hero to me and to all blues musicians, especially Shreveport musicians. I have walked the streets where he walked, drank, fought and whored. I’ve played in dingy buildings where he played. I’ve made pilgrimages to his grave. Amidst some jeers, I have played “Goodnight Irene” and “Pig Meat Papa” to crowds who would much prefer some Billy Joel. And for the record, I still don’t do any Billy Joel.
— “A Pleasure to Be Here in Lovely Angola...,” January 2013

For years, I wouldn’t write a 12-bar blues, thinking that I needed to expand upon the blues genre and innovate fresher and newer forms of blues. This was no slight to the great, classic blues artists who never cease to inspire. But I was chasing those big cuts and felt that the only way to secure them was to innovate. A few years ago, I allowed myself to exhale and wrote a half-dozen 12-bar blues in “rabid” succession. They were fun to write, full of ribald humor and double entendres — good for a laugh but nothing that would change the world. Strangely, on the heels of those songs came some of my best — songs I would call breakthroughs. These breakthroughs were blue as blue could get, but not the typical 12-bar blues. They were honest to what I was feeling as opposed to made-up monkey business. They had a fresh template, fresh form and fresh approach — what songwriting can really be all about.
— “On Golden Beetles,” August 2013

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