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Chris Rea on cancer, family, fame and the key to happiness

Garth Pearce

How rock star Chris Rea's long personal battle against cancer has put his success - and the phrase ' rock 'n' roll survivor' - into perspective.

Chris Rea
Chris Rea with his band

Chris Rea has not only beaten the whims of fashion in a harsh music business, he has had to fight a succession of life-threatening illness.

From the moment he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of just 33, he has faced nine serious operations and has spent a total of 32 weeks in hospital.

But instead of complaining, he's used the setbacks to his advantage. He changed direction in his music - going back to blues roots - and insists that facing his own mortality has made him appreciate life.

"I was a pain in the backside," he recalls. "It was always about me, me, me - as with many performers. But I've had to learn to do other things. Instead of touring America, for example, I started growing tomatoes."

Chris Rea is also notable for having the longest surviving relationship in the music industry. He has been with wife, Joan, since they met as 16 year olds in their native Middlesbrough. They have two daughters, Josephine and Julia.

Chris, who works from a studio next to his country home in Berkshire, talks bout the highs and lows of his life.

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A rocky career 

"I gave up, years ago, trying to predict hits. My career is like a mountain range - up and down, without time for the occasional plateau. I must have written thousands of songs. But I don't want to fall in to the trap of thinking that it proves anything. I remember Ronnie Scott once joking: 'Our trombonist has written 500 songs...and they are all rubbish.'

"With all my own songs, I can remember exactly where I've written them. So that is how I remember words. When I am on stage, in my head I am always where I wrote the song. I close my eyes and imagine, so never forget.

"For Still So Far To Go, I was on the M4 on the way from home to a meeting in London, and there were the usual traffic problems. Someone called on the phone and said: 'Chris - why do you still bother?' I suppose what he meant is that I could afford to be sitting at home, without working. So Still So Far To Go is exactly how I feel about life.

"Touring is easy. We are spoilt rotten. I know this does not make for a good story, but if you are a musician who can play to thousands of people in one night, it is fun. It is what I like doing. If you are a person who dances to backing tracks on stage and aren't allowed to move from the same spot, because of the lighting, it's not so much fun. But I can 'lose' myself on stage, just playing the music with my eyes closed."

The trials of fame 

"I've always had a difficult relationship with fame, even before my first illness. None of my heroes were rock stars. I arrived in Hollywood for the Grammy Awards once and thought I was going to bump in to people who mattered, like Ry Cooder or Randy Newman. But I was surrounded by pop stars.

"The celeb thing has gone totally wrong in the sense that everyone has tried to top each other. They don't put the work in. At one stage, you had to practice and rehearse non-stop to reach any sort of quality or success in music.

"Then digital came along and music company executives did not need to know about music to produce records. Musicians who had to practice for six hours a day were out on the dole, thanks to digital. But the fact that I am still working and touring with musicians who have been around for years gives me great satisfaction in the job. People like Martin Ditchum, who worked with Sade, and Neil Drinkwater, an eminent piano player."

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A close family relationship

"In the past, all the girls have thought I needed moral support in places like Paris - not Glasgow! I think it always has more to do with the city and quality of the hotel, but that's understandable.

"But we have a very long relationship because of such understanding. Joan calls me Papa - I call her Mama - and that's what the girls call us, too. Our golden moment is each morning when there is an elbow fight over whose turn it is to make the coffee. Then there are the large mugs of fresh coffee, BBC breakfast news or Sky and we gaze out of the window over the countryside for an hour and we are still 16. We are lucky to still have that feeling.

"Our daughters? They hate this thing about us goo-ing between the pair of us. I wind them up by putting my arms around Mama in the morning and saying: 'You look sexy today.' They say: 'We just want to throw up!' But they are around less and less. Josephine is lecturing on renaissance art in Florence and Julia is at university in St Andrews. We are so happy to have them.

"Josie's paintings are unbelievably good - I think she gets that from Joan, who was a really good artist in arts and crafts - and she does some fabulous work. She will spend a week on an eyelash. Then she looks at my paintings and says: 'Nice colours, Papa.'

"My daughters don't treat me in any special way when they are at home. I am just 25 per cent of the household. They know when to kick me and when to leave me alone."

Pancreatic cancer problems 

"Someone moved my insulin bag this morning - I have to inject seven times a day, because of diabetes, which was a side-effect of my first operation on the pancreas. So that caused a bit of an upset. But I love being home - it's the best place.

"The original illness hit me hard. I almost had a nervous breakdown, with the shock of it. That was the Mount Everest to climb. Everything was going well in life. Then, suddenly, I didn't feel too good after eating certain spicy foods, like curry. I began to feel tired. But when they said it was pancreatic cancer, I could not believe it. It seemed that if your DNA says you are going to have cancer, then you can. They did not think I would recover from the first operation, but I was determined to do so for my wife and the girls."

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Making close friends

"Since then, I've been to hospital and had so many operations I've lost count. But I've had to look at the good things it has brought, too. I soon found out who my real friends were when I was in hospital. I remember one old friend from Middlesbrough telling me: 'Chris, when you set your sights on Tin Pan Alley, there will always be acquaintances - never friends.'

"I've also got to know people in the village. Otherwise, I would have been like so many of them - leaving the security gates to go to London or Heathrow airport.

"I started to enjoy my painting more and take my time. I didn't need big flash cars any more - I've had Ferraris in the past - and would no longer get impatient when driving. I now listen to Radio 4 programmes and think: 'I get there, when I get there.'

"I've also learned not to ask too many questions. I remember a surgeon, after one operation, pointing to another patient who was smoking and reading the racing paper. 'He is going to get better more quickly than you,' he told me. 'You are asking questions all the time and have seen too many books and pictures.'"

Chris Rea on his music

"The best change for my music has been concentrating on stuff which really interests me. When I did Blue Guitars in 2005, it had 11 CDs with a total of 137 blues-inspired tracks. I even used my own paintings on the album covers. I was never a rock star or pop star and all the illness has been my chance to do what I'd always wanted to do with music. And I don't keep any posters or memorabilia in the house. I've given most of my gold records away for charity, so there's nothing on the walls.

"I have learned, over the years, to be happy."

Read more about Chris Rea on Wikipedia


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