Candye Kane: Fighting For Life with Joy Deep Inside
by Rick J Bowen
Candye Kane was a teenage mother, a pinup cover girl and a punk rock, blues-belting brassy broad by the time she was 21. The self proclaimed “toughest girl alive,” has been fighting an uphill battle with cancer for several years now and refuses to lose. The Highway 99 Blues Club graciously held a successful benefit show for Candye on June 23rd, but she was too ill to attend. I chatted with Candye on the phone from her California home about her new Album Coming Out Swingin’, and about life, love, and being a survivor.
Rick J Bowen: Hello Candye how are you?
Candye Kane: I’m ok. I’m having a good day today. With cancer there are good days and bad.
RB: You just got back from Europe- how was the tour?
CK: It was great I just got back last night. We played a bunch of festivals in France, Switzerland, Austria, and Holland. The people were really nice to us there and they treat us like stars and that’s fun. We played a big gig for Cadillac, there was this huge banner that said “Candye Kane presented by Cadillac,” and it was fun.
RB: Total Rock Stars: that must feel like a victory
CK: Yeah, it’s wonderful to be alive at all and to play music is a victory. Sometimes things like this have to happen to remind you that your life is better than you think and things are going better than you realize. I needed that reminder and the universe gave it me.
RB: There was a benefit show for you in Seattle recently. You have been a champion for so many causes; how does it feel to have people champion you?
CK: It’s odd yeah, sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve it and you’re taking something that doesn’t belong to you. That’s a weird feeling. People work so hard nowadays and life is so hard in general, so people’s generosity is incredible. Yesterday flying home from Amsterdam I forgot to take a medication combination; I usually travel with Laura and she reminds me of everything, but I forgot and had a meltdown and had withdrawals and was ready to throw up and was crying, it was a crazy scene and somebody called the paramedics. But people came out of the woodwork to help me. Just total strangers wanted to help me. One lady was a homeopathic healer and she helped me get centered, and breathe slowly, she was amazing and helped me get over the panic attack.
RB: Amazing makes you have faith in the world again.
CK: Yeah, people are out there who are willing to help, if you let them know, which is hard to do sometimes for most of us. I am still shy about. It was Ed Maloney’s idea: the Seattle show. I feel selfish taking money from benefits because I still work. I want to work because it proves that cancer can’t keep me down. I will continue to keep working, but it’s really hard sometimes with all the pills and the pain. But with the support of my closest friends I am able to do it even when I am sick, and the crowd can’t tell. Partly that’s from doing it for twenty five and doing it without thinking about it.
RB: The show must go on.
CK: Yeah exactly. It’s weird- I can do a show sick more easily than I can go to the bank. The show part is the easy part, its everything else that’s tough, getting ready for a show is tough; getting dressed putting my makeup on. If I have a bad day or if I skip a meal I get sick. I have bad days a lot because I have these injections daily to stop the spread of the cancer, and they give me every side effect in the book. The headaches, nausea, skin crawling, anxiety: even when I don’t take it I get the same stuff. So it’s wonderful when people volunteer to help.
But the money from the benefits really help to buy a little lumbar pillow I use when I am traveling and just little extras that make my life easier, that I couldn’t afford otherwise. There is a lot of stuff that insurance doesn’t cover. People whine about Obama-care, and how much it’s going to cost them, but people like us, musicians, writers, artists, poets are willing to pay an extra twenty dollars to sponsor somebody, and that’s all we can afford. Then the really rich people who can afford to pay more and should be willing to pay more don’t. It’s all about taking care of your neighbor. I have conservative friends who are generous and willing to give money, to me and others, but not always when I need it, just when they think of it. They are not into the help your neighbor thing until its good for them. It’s strange how selfish people can be and amazing how generous people can be and I am so lucky to have received that generosity.
RB: You said a crucial thing there: “cancer can’t keep me down.” That feels like a theme of the Coming Out Swingin’ album- it must have been a cathartic experience to make.
CK: Yes it was. I feel like the focus wasn’t as much on cancer. Superhero definitely had a theme about it, because it was the first album after I had my first surgery. A real “I’ve fallen down but I’m getting back up” theme. I think Coming Out Swingin’ is metaphorically about the fight, the ongoing battle that I deal with everyday. But in a musical way I didn’t want it to be to whiney, ya know. I didn’t want it to be too specific because I wanted people to relate to it; people who didn’t have health problems. Another album called The Power In You, is being manufactured now. It’s a great collection of the great power song like “I’m The Toughest Girl Alive,’ and “I’m A Superhero,” and “I’m Not Gonna Cry Today.” I have thirteen CD’s so over the years I’ve collected a lot of great songs with the power element. So that one I am just going to make available free to cancer patients.
RB: That is awesome!
CK: I know it’s really cool to do and I know it will help someone. There is something mystical that we music lovers know; something that comes to us through the music. If we sit there and say “I’m gonna be fine and all right” it doesn’t have the same power as when we sing it. What I want is the picture of a bunch of chemo patients singing along with my song “I’m a Superhero,” that makes me happy and feel like I am contributing.
RB: There are moments on the album when you can hear in your voice that you are healing yourself.
CK: Thanks- I worked hard to make that record. I was sick all the time. I can say of all the records I’ve made, that was the hardest. It was a struggle, as there were times when I didn’t feel like singing and I had to wait for another hour or day to try again. It wasn’t easy, but Laura is a great guitar player and also a healer of sorts. She really kept me grounded and reminds me to take my medicine and when I’m freaking out she sometimes freaks out with me, or she calms me down and helps me get through it.
RB: The two of you wrote the album together- how does that work?
CK: I write a lot of prose and poetry throughout the year and so when it comes time to make a record I give Laura my book or I tell her I have a poem about this or prose about that. She picks the ones that speak to her. Like “Invisible Women,” it probably would not have been made had in not been for Laura liking it. I wrote it as a poem about my friend at the time, it may be about me now. But this piano player friend is a bit older than me; she was telling how when you get older people don’t pay attention to you anymore. Like if there are some pretty girls in the line they’re gonna get the attention and waited on first. You feel like you’re invisible. I thought wow, that’s a powerful statement.
RB: That song is a punch in the gut.
CK: People either love it or hate it. I find that men don’t like it much. I think they don’t understand it. They don’t understand the perspective of a fat girl or a black girl in a white neighborhood. Or an older women or considered not pretty or if you’ve been disfigured. Especially the face, I have a friend who had mandible cancer and her face is scarred, she was a top model and now people won’t look at her; it’s so ironic. The first thing you notice about someone is their face and if it’s disfigured, you won’t look because you are afraid you’ll stare, but then you look back a second time and they know that. We look at people who are not like us as different, and they didn’t ask for it.
RB: The other thing I like about your music is when you dish the dirt on tunes like “Barbed Wire Mouth.” Are these about real people?
CK: Oh Yeah. It’s rough if you’ve ever been my boyfriend or girlfriend or broken my heart. It’s tough to date songwriters because of what they draw on: all of my heartache is written in all the records I’ve made. One of my boyfriends called me up when this record came and told me “I love this record because I know there’s nothing on it about me,” and I said “don’t be so sure.” Some of them are bits and pieces of a whole lifetime of heartache. Some of them are about more than one person or could be about anyone we all know. That’s how you want to write a song, you want a song to be inclusive. It’s hard to do. When I wrote “The Toughest Girl Alive”, my biggest regret was that it mentioned gender, because if you’re the toughest girl you can’t be the toughest man alive. It is tough for men dealing with cancer who are supposed to be big and strong and they are now losing their hair and being vulnerable and weak it’s got to be the toughest transition, yet they manage to do it. And I want to write songs for them and for every person who feels they haven’t been included. And I want to write songs for those people who think they are all that, and haven’t been told they aren’t. I like it when a song is relatable and moves somebody and you don’t even know the person in question.
RB: Wow. Part of your image is the whole burlesque party girl, but there is real depth to you and your songs.
CK: That’s the big secret about me. People think of me as this bawdy Candye Kane image and I am more than just that. That’s one thing that in a way cancer was a welcome surprise. It’s never been fun- it’s been horrible the whole time, but it was welcome in that people started taking me seriously a bit. I’m the one you self proclaimed “I’m the toughest Girl Alive,” so it was easy for people to look at me as a power house and not think of me as being vulnerable. The persona of Candye Kane is seen as a bawdy invincible one, but the real Candye Kane is a vulnerable one with real depth and intensity that people who don’t know me aren’t aware of. A lot of the things I did in my career that ended up hurting my career were well thought out. For instance playing piano with my breasts: now that I am a 38D and not a 44 triple G, it isn’t as interesting anymore, but doing that was a political statement. Every mention of me was as a burlesque star- even my caricature in the New Yorker. Not many blues singers can say they had a caricature in the New Yorker, but I did. It showed me with pasties on my big breasts, now I wouldn’t even be considered for Natasha’s book of big breasts. It was very flattering that Candye Kane with her giant boobs was a recognizable icon, a shocking profound moment. All those moves like the piano and taking the whiskey bottle out of my breasts was fun loving but a political statement. Hey -you know what, we are a breast obsessed culture; they are just body parts let’s get over it. By making fun of it or having fun with my body I felt like was de-stigmatizing it in a way. So people could laugh about it and say “yeah I was porn fan and looked at her boobs,” or “I grew with magazines of her.” By making fun of it, it was no longer something scary or something to hide behind. I paid a price for that in credibility and people didn’t get that I had a mind behind all that. People thought I was just this bubbly party girl with big boobs and it was all fun and games. It has been interesting to go through this cancer transition and become a different person. I mean literally I am a size eight and I was a size twenty four. Now I am so small and people fight so hard to become small and they are constantly telling me “you look amazing,” and I say “well great,” but I have cancer and I am still fighting it that’s why I’m skinny, not because I went on Nutra-system.
RB: Like they don’t understand this is not what you wanted.
CK: Exactly! I loved my big body; I miss it- I really do. I miss that big sturdy, healthy, unashamed body. The body I have now is way more vulnerable and there is huge scar to show what I’ve been through. And again it’s completely different like being born again as a different person. If you compare the album covers of Coming Out Swingin’ and Whole Lotta Love, you can see the difference. It’s ironic as people tell me I’ve never looked better, but really deep inside I feel that I have lost half of me and that half isn’t coming back. But that’s ok, I am grateful for a body at any size. There is a certain grief that goes with losing that person; that invincible, unashamed party girl. That Candye Kane doesn’t exist anymore and I hope my fans can feel my joy even though I don’t look jolly.
RB: That’s in your soul and it’s not going anywhere.
CK: I liked it when you said you heard the record and thought it was a happy record. I don’t want to share my misery; I think people have enough misery of their own. I want to share the parts of me that are hopeful and the parts of me that are courageous and that are invincible. And those parts still exist just in different packaging. http://www.candyekane.com/