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Hearn Transcending A Desperate Situation

By JOHN MACKIE, Vancouver Sun, October 27th, 2001.

The Barenaked Ladies keyboardist joins the Rheostatics on stage tonight at the Commodore

The day his band went to No. 1 in the States, Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn found himself in the isolation ward of a Toronto hospital, fighting for his life.

Hearn had lost weight and experienced pain while recording the Barenakeds' Stunt album in Austin, Tex. Back in Toronto, he went for a checkup, and the news was bad. Hearn had chronic myelogenous leukemia and had to undergo a bone marrow transplant immediately. "They said you've got to take care of this right away, because we don't know how long you may live if you don't," recalls the soft-spoken Hearn, who will open for the Rheostatics tonight at the Commodore Ballroom.

"One minute I'm in a rock band, the next I'm in a hospital bed, a patient. The record actually went to No. 1 the week I was in the hospital, so I was kind of going through two extremes at once. Having dreams realized, and on the other hand, grappling with my mortality."

Hearn was in the hospital for over a month, most of it spent in an isolation ward because bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy drugs wipe out the immune system. He took a guitar in for company, and started writing songs, partly to pass the time, partly as therapy.

Three years later, Hearn is fully recovered and back in the Barenaked fold. And the songs he wrote in the isolation ward form the heart of his recently released solo album, H Wing.

The album, which is named after the isolation ward, isn't exactly a rock 'em sock 'em collection of airpuncher anthems. Musically it's quite sombre, a subtle mix of swirling keyboards, gently chiming guitar and dark lyrical themes.

But the spirit of the album is never depressed or depressing. Hearn is a survivor, and in the end, the songs he wrote while he was battling cancer are uplifting.

The Diving Board, for example, manages to find humour in the hallucinations he experienced when he was out of it on morphine. It's written from the point of view of being in a one-man play, waiting for the doctor to arrive to tell him the news, good or bad.

"I guess the gist of the song is 'give me another shot, I'll embrace life so much more,' " he says. " 'All the little things — swimming, being alive — I want another chance to embrace it.' "

Even the album's bleakest song, The Good One, has a positive outlook. Basically, it deals with the horrors of chemotherapy.

"The side effects are quite brutal," he explains. "Depending on how much (chemo) you get, all your hair falls out and you become very weak. Basically you feel zapped from head to toe. It's poison, you know? Because they can't differentiate at this point the bad cells from the good cells, so they've just got to attack everything.

"My nurse was saying 'You go through this, and it's bad. But it's good, because you'll be alive on the other end.' That's the meditation of the song: it's the bad one, but it's the good one."

After the Rheostatics tour, 32-year-old Hearn will be joining the Barenakeds for an American tour in support of a new greatest hits album. (The closest shows to Vancouver are in Seattle and Portland in mid-December.)

Hearn was recruited by the Barenakeds in 1995 after the original keyboard player, Andrew Creeghan left. His first group of note was '80s cult favourites the Look People (several old Look People are in his touring band), then he had stints in Corky and the Juice Pigs and the Rheostatics.

H Wing is his second solo album.

"It was therapy for me, it was my way of expressing hope," he says. "The album is basically about transcending desperate situations.

"If anything I can say or do can give courage to somebody who's faced with this — they can look at me and say 'well that guy got through it' — then it's worth it to me."