What do James Taylor and The Beatles have in common with the Head of the National Institute of Health? Quite a bit, I recently found out when I was hired by legendary financier and philanthropist Michael Milken as Musical Director for a concert during the Celebration of Science, a major event in Washington, D.C.
The Celebration was a three-day gathering of the world’s most brilliant and influential medical researchers and public officials, members of Congress and heads of universities. In panels and talks, they gathered to share ideas and deliver the message that America should recommit itself to bioscience. On the Saturday night of the Celebration, there would be a Kennedy Center event featuring patient stories, talks by political leaders and performances by Kenny Edmonds, Stevie Nicks and Melissa Manchester.
I would arrange, conduct and produce the music for the live event and the subsequent TV broadcast. At an early meeting Mike told me his idea (every show Milken produces — whether it be for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the Milken Educator Awards or FasterCures — is centered on one of Mike’s “ideas”): “So many of these amazing doctors are musicians,” he said, “I want you to put together a band of doctors.” Just because a doctor can map the Human Genome, doesn’t mean he can play the guitar well enough to perform in front of 1,000 people, not to mention a televised audience of millions. (Conversely, I don’t think anyone would want me to take out an appendix.) Instinctively I started to say to Mike, “But what if…” Mike smiled his Cheshire Cat smile. I didn’t even bother to finish my sentence.
I was going to put together a band of famous doctors and they were going to play live at the Kennedy Center. As he disappeared to another meeting Mike called back over his shoulder, “Call Francis Collins. He plays guitar.” I’m not a scientist or even particularly interested in science, but I did have cancer (in remission, thanks docs!) so I knew that not only is Collins the head of the NIH, but he was also the man who led the mapping of the aforementioned Human Genome. I simply couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone and say, “Hey Francis baby, let’s jam.” I sent an email. Within seconds, my phone rang. “Hello Glen, This is Francis.” We talked for a half hour about music and how much music means to him and how he couldn’t wait for this gig. All the time I was talking I tried not to imagine the day that President Obama must have call Ed Francis to inform him of his nomination to be head of the NIH. He gave me a few of his colleagues to call, people like Dr. Steve Libutti who played drums. Libutti’s day job is Director of Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care and he was one of the pioneers of regional and targeted cancer therapy as well as an internationally recognized surgical oncologist and endocrine surgeon. Jonathan Lewin, Francis continued, played a mean sax and his day job was as Radiologist-in-Chief at John Hopkins Hospital, with secondary appointments as Professor of Oncology, Neurosurgery and Biomedical Engineering. I loved talking to them but kept thinking, I hope these guys can swing.
I made more calls and everyone was thrilled to talk, probably because I was the only one calling that day, or that year perhaps, who was not fighting a terminal disease or asking about the side effects of a particular chemo. Or calling to cut their funding. I just wanted to know if they could read chord changes. I left a phone message for John Burklow, Director of Communications for NIH. “If I’m out of the office, and this is a reporter who needs me immediately for a comment, please call my cell phone.” He had to be glad it was me calling about his sight-reading abilities and not 60 Minutes calling about some new cancer drug that causes a third eye to suddenly appear.
Once everyone was in place, I discovered I had four keyboard players, five guitars, one singing bass player, one drummer, one flute player, one harmonica, two trumpets and a sax. Not exactly a standard band configuration. I now had to figure out what the hell they were going to play. Mike was very clear the concert had to serve the greater purpose of research and FasterCures, so the doctors or Rock Docs as I was now calling them (Francis didn’t like Amino Acid) couldn’t just play the songs from Oklahoma! I concocted a medley of You’ve Got a Friend, Here Comes the Sun, and Help, songs I thought the doctors and audience could relate to. My partner Irwin Fisch and I started writing for four keyboard players, five guitars, one singing bass player, one drummer, one flute player, one harmonica, two trumpets and a sax. We didn’t have a clue as to the level of musicianship, let alone if they could sing. They said they could play, so I trusted them. If you can’t trust a doctor, whom can you trust? I made demos of the music with me singing the parts and sent them to the Roc Docs. One of the guitar players dropped out immediately. He said he would be much happier (and I would be much happier) to sit in the audience. Francis, who struck me as a winning combination of James Taylor and Jimmy Stewart, arranged for the local DC doctors to get together over Labor Day and run through some of the music as a pre-rehearsal rehearsal. I mentioned this to Larry Lesser, Mike’s producer, and before I could get out, “Should I…?” he said, “Go!”
On Labor Day, I met all these brilliant people in Francis’s living room and frankly, I hadn’t encountered such enthusiasm in my bands since I was a kid. No “when is the break?” “How much is this paying?” “Who’s got the weed?” They were dying to do this. Although they were all completely terrified. They tried to smile and joke, but I know terror when I see it. They were on the high diving board and they really could only dog paddle. They were getting into a Ferrari and didn’t quite know how to use a clutch. They had diligently practiced the music I sent. A few surprises: the keyboard players asked me to write out the chord notes as opposed to the chord symbols, something no high school player would ask, but fair enough. High school players can’t cure cancer. Most of The Players were uncomfortable with just their own music parts and wanted the words written in. Again, fair enough. One musician asked if he should bring a music stand. I gently said, “Do you ask if you should bring a scalpel to the operating theater.” “We will supply music stands. And even lights.” They started to play.
Francis has a lovely, sweet, folk-type voice and we ran through You’ve Got A Friend. It wasn’t half bad. Some of the chords were misread, the rhythm was all over the place, the bass player forgot to bring the music, so he didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about when I said let’s start at bar five, but all in all, I was thrilled. They must have seen my facial muscles relax, because they relaxed as well. It was a complete role reversal. All of a sudden, I was the doctor. And they were the patients anxiously awaiting the results of their test. Would they live? (That is, play the concert or be fired? They would play.) Was it fatal? (No, it was not. We’d rehearse and make it great.) Would they need more treatment (Oh, yes. But it won’t be as scary as the first time.) We moved on to Here Comes the Sun. John Tisdale, who is on the way to curing sickle cell disease, told me he could sing the lead. While playing his bass, his light, airy baritone wafted through Bethesda and Dr. John Tisdale became the Fifth Beatle. I called Milken and said, “It’s gonna work.” Milken said, “Told you!”
We had a full rehearsal scheduled for the Thursday before the Saturday show in the cavernous Kennedy Center rehearsal room. No more living room. This is the big time. Finally, all the musicians would be there, the trumpets, the sax. I even brought down three background singers from who have sung for everyone from Bette Midler to Dolly Parton. I thought my Rock Docs were going to explode with joy when they heard my pros sing along with them. They were now the center of the Oreo surrounded by world class cookies. Their playing improved immeasurably. They presence of the pros energized the amateurs, especially Leonard Zon, founder and director of the Stem Cell Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and the first incumbent of the newly established Grousbeck Professor of Pediatrics Chair at Children’s. And trumpet player. In fact, Len was so enthusiastic he insisted on playing the trumpet over everyone’s melody, over everyone’s solo and all the interludes. I gently told him the arrangement needed to build and if he simply played the assigned part, it might sound better. Then I had to tell them the bad news. The Kennedy Center could only give the Rock Docs one hour to rehearse on stage. I could feel their panic suck the air out of the room.
The usually very brave, very stoic, very brilliant doctors got very quiet. I, the new resident-in-chief, a bit too cheerfully said we didn’t need more rehearsal and I’d meet them in an hour. They started to pack up all their gear; I gently told them we had stagehands to do that, they didn’t have to carry anything, not even their guitars. I said stagehands were sort of like nurses. Just let them do their jobs or they get very testy. Musically, the on-stage rehearsal went fine. But Larry Lessor came up to me and asked if they were in pain. Their faces were priceless. I’ve never seen terror so well expressed. They looked like they had been painted by Munch. Now, I thought, they know how we feel, lying in a flimsy robe on that gurney waiting to get knocked out and cut open in the operating theater. Larry ran up on the stage and started waving his hands and dancing, all 6’5, three hundred pounds of him. Even that didn’t work.
Saturday was show day. It started with an emergency. One of my musicians forgot her anti-depressants; believe me, you don’t want to go into show day if one of the musicians isn’t on her meds. Is there a doctor in the house? Fortunately, yes! I had no compunction in e-mailing the most brilliant doctors in the world for a prescription. I got a response immediately from Wolfram Goessling, day job: Assistant Professor, Depart of Medicine, Harvard Medical School whose laboratory seeks to understand the signals that indicate organ injury and regulate growth and regeneration. Night job: Trumpet player. Wolfram asked for the vital information from my musician and the prescription was there within the hour and my musician was happy, happy, happy.
Next emergency: my bass player came down with a virulent rash on his arm. Another e-mail blast. This time Leonard Zon answered and asked for me to take a picture of his arm on my phone and forward it to him. Len then responded and said he’d look at it at rehearsal. At 8:00 PM the show started and my patient/musicians had to fend for themselves. They waited in the green room for Whoopi Goldberg to make their introductions. I decided the Rock Docs should wear lab coats. Just in case the music wasn’t up to par, the visuals would help. But Doc Rock needed no help. The curtain opened, Francis made his Jimmy Stewart-esqe speech and he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Obviously, someone who runs a 30 billion dollar agency knows how to make a speech. You Got A Friend was perfect. Everyone was in tune, Francis rocked the vocal and after the Jon Lewin alto sax solo received spontaneous applause I knew audience was going on the journey with us. I had structured the number with a false ending after Friend. I wanted the audience to think the number was over. So there was a huge ovation and then John O’Shea (Day job: Chief of Molecular Immunology and Inflammation Branch at NIAMS. Night Job: Mandolin player) counted off Here Comes the Sun, and although it was 8:30 PM at the Kennedy Center, the Sun did indeed come out.
Tisdale on vocals, aided by the husky alto of Sally Rockey who is in charge of giving out the grants at the NIH, brought the medley to a new high. (I had to wonder if Sally could somehow convince Francis to give ME a grant so the NIH could see the correlation between an artist’s bank account and happiness.) After Sun there was no break. Libutti changed the tempo all by himself (take a bow, Steve, brilliantly done) and the group rocked into a raucous version of Help! The audience was on its feet! And when Leonard Zon started blowing his trumpet solo, the roof of the Kennedy Center flew off.
Doc Rock was a sensation and, using band talk (although probably not Doctor-speak) they killed! The operation was a success. The experimental drug got FDA approval. The patient will live to fight again. And of course, Milken was right! It was a great idea.
Later that night, 10-time Grammy winner Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds took the stage and spoke before he sang. He said that he had no problem performing after Melissa Manchester or Stevie Nicks or any of the artists on stage, but no one told him he had to play after Doc Rock. He said that was completely unfair and no artist could ever hope to follow them. I heard cheers emanate from the green room when, with a sly smile, Edmonds said, “Maybe I should go to medical school.”.
In the hotel bar, where all real musicians gather after a concert, Steve Libutti, Director of Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care/Drummer and I were having a late night drink, going over the events of the night. This peerless doctor has a baby face that would put Kenny to shame, but when he talked about the experience he was positively angelic. He said, “I finally got to live my dream. I opened for Stevie Nicks!”