On a nondescript April afternoon last year at the Durham home of Letha Rodman Melchior and her husband, Dan, the couple's parakeet, Glen, was holding court. Avocado green with a canary-yellow head, he's a sociable fellow. Out of his cage, he greeted new visitors adeptly but cautiously, with gentle encouragement from his human parents. "Lord of the Manor," they call him.
At the front of the house, Dan's large, untitled paintings eat up most of the wall space. "Most are from a set called 'v.o.t.' (vale of tears), which have pyramids as their central feature," he says. "Let's just say it has something to do with the idea of the little people dying to make a monument for the big people."
The air of constant creative flux hung thick in that house, and it felt at times like an artist's studio, a place where the couple worked incessantly on their pursuits, like playing music together in Dan Melchior und Das Menace. They carried it as though there were no other way to live. Inside this self-made world based on their own work ethic, it seemed little existed outside the rigors of their system of beliefs and callings. Dan once held down a restaurant job at Guglhupf and sold collectible records on the side, both jobs done only to pay the bills and fuel other projects.
Letha had worked steadily in their front yard that day. She was trying to tackle gardening, she said, something she had never previously mastered. Between her own music and visual art, gardening seemed like a natural creative endeavor, especially since she was working at a Chapel Hill eco-friendly store, Twig. But by the time spring's blooms had turned last fall, Letha was diagnosed with melanoma and breast cancer.
Letha met Dan Melchior in New Jersey two days before Thanksgiving in 1999. He was still living in his native England. In the '90s, she played guitar and sang in a remarkable all-female New York group, Ruby Falls, which released two albums and several records. (Two sisters in the band later formed The Rogers Sisters.) Eventually tagged with the "math rock" label, the band had more kinship in ideas with the burgeoning Riot Grrrl scene and appeared on the legendary Move Into the Villa Villakula compilation.
"We're feminists, but as a group we spend hours and hours crafting songs, not feminist ideologies," bassist Cynthia Nelson said at the time. "We'd rather people listen to our music first."
On that day in 1999, Letha saw Dan play at Maxwell's in Hoboken. She told him he'd inspired her to pick up her guitar again and mentioned a public-access sexual sitcom she'd been making called "Apartment Six."
"That's funny," he had said. "Sounds like my life, but without the sex!"
"He made me laugh, and at that moment I fell for him," she remembers. They saw each other again at a Thanksgiving party. "It seemed we just kept gravitating to each other, though I consciously was trying to avoid him. Hours later a photo was taken of Dan and I sitting close together, our hands lightly touching at the pinky tips; it looked as if we'd been together forever."
Their mutual needs to create formed a deep connection. "From our first actual date, Dan and I have been a creative pair," Letha said. "At the end of our first night out, we went back to my apartment to drink beer and paint portraits of each other. It's a great way to stare and study someone you like without being embarrassed. I thought our portraits turned out real well."
Over the years, Letha continued to work on her own art, from photography and painting to cross-stitch. Letha still uses collage, too, both visual and audio, and released several CDRs with Finnish label Ikuisuus, under the name Tretetam. Local radio station WXYC-FM, 89.3 thought the CDs had been made by a Finnish man; she only recently confessed otherwise. "I liked that," she exclaims.
Dan went to art school back in London. As he puts it, "I do everything I can to unlearn what little they taught me." The visual tinkering has stayed with him. Music is his main gig, though: His prolific record as a musician since moving to Durham continues despite—and grows because of—Letha's illness. He put out an album, a tape and two split singles in 2010. This year he's already released a new record, Assemblage Blues, on Siltbreeze Records, a tape and a limited-edition lathe. A 7-inch vinyl EP and another album wait in the wings.
Assemblage owes more to his art background than it does straight rock 'n' roll. Found sounds and shreds of noise cling to what stream-of-consciousness storytelling takes place. With the nuanced touch of practiced bricolage, he treats all noises as pointed tools for aggressive stabs and hilarious satire. On the Fall-like anthem "'90s Man," he growls, "If you think Pavement ranks with the Beatles, then you're a '90s Man."
"Letha is far more methodical, and much more of a craftsman than I am," Dan says. "I do everything in bursts of enthusiasm and mania, and then go back and fix them as little as possible."
Dan says he and Letha both need any proceeds from his music and art now more than ever. Letha had some basic health care through her job at Twig, but treatment costs will soon dwarf that. They have both always been afraid that one of them would get ill, having lived in the United Kingdom where health care costs seemed, well, more humane. "The few times either of us needed care before this, the prices always seemed so astronomical to me," he says. "Now the constant flow of bills has just taken on a surreal quality."
Friends far and wide have drawn closer to help. Twig not only provided essential insurance coverage, but her boss there, Shawn Slome, has done all he can do to help, often serving as a sort of family assistant.
"This is a little bit 'To Sir, With Love,'" she says, "but how can you thank your employer for taking you to and from a five-day hospital stay while also getting your prescriptions filled before getting home?"
The music community came racing to help, too, first with a January benefit in New York City featuring New Zealand luminaries The Mad Scene and Capsul (former members of Bailter Space), then with a fund in her name (www.melchiorfund.blogspot.com). To update people on her status, Letha started the fearless, often truly uplifting and hilarious "Letha's Happy Hospital Funtime Blog!"
"I know it's a lot to ask—but if you do happen to think of me—think of how the Interleukin 2 is working for me and how it's actually killing off my cancer cells," she writes on the blog. "With your positive thoughts it will be the hammer that pounds the big C into a little c and knock it right out of my body!"
Letha actually had to wait two weeks to start her Interleukin 2 treatment, due to a room shortage at the hospital. During the layover, she feverishly started working on projects—learning how to play saw, recording more as Tretetam, making more collages and photographs, and trying to get her three books published. "Painting works of art that would live beyond me and such," she says. "Painting was a great way for Dan and me to spend time together outside in the sun. We tried to focus on our brushstrokes, not the upcoming treatment."
Serious illness pushes everyone into the state-run health care tangle, but artists—especially musicians—are often hit hardest. Holding a job with decent health care in the U.S. often serves as an impediment to touring, recording or proper practicing. Elsewhere in the world, of course, the lifestyle of an artist is often not deemed such an unconventional one, and making a living without worrying about someone getting sick proves more doable and less like the behavior of an idealist.
"I suppose it's been one of the most important things to us, if you're not creating, then what are you?" Letha continues. "Both our backgrounds have foundations built on artistic ability; it's a good, safe place to stand. It keeps the world from intruding on our lives."
In May, Dan and Letha will travel to Spain to play the Primavera music festival in the midst of a short European tour. They're not going to give up on their creative life because of a health problem. If Letha isn't quite up for it yet, Dan says, she can just sightsee. If Letha and Dan's decision to pursue this lifestyle appears uncompromising and noble, it may also be because they find it the best, or only, way to go through life. Glen, the Lord of the Manor, would not have it any other way.