This Machine Kills Cancer—a 12-hour, 17-band benefit scheduled for ailing Durham rock bandleader Shayne Miel—was inevitable. Maybe not the name, maybe not the date, maybe not the bands, but sooner or later, somebody would have orchestrated a musical fundraiser for Miel. Turns out, a lot of somebodies rushed to the cause.
Miel, formerly known as Shayne O'Neill and best known as the frontman of The Future Kings of Nowhere, surprised the local music community late last year when he announced that he'd been diagnosed with Stage 4B non-Hodgkin's B-cell lymphoma, an advanced cancer of the body's lymphatic system. Shayne and his wife, Rebekah (formerly Meek, of local band Eberhardt; their last name is a portmanteau of his and her surname), sent a mass e-mail to friends and posted a note on Facebook about his condition. They began chronicling their experiences with a blog, thismachinekillscancer.tumblr.com.
Almost immediately, news turned into reactions turned into pledges of help.
"He's a well-loved and well-respected man," explains Dan Streib, Shayne's friend for 11 years and his former bandmate in The Future Kings. "I would venture to say that, easily, six or seven people were all like, 'Let's throw a benefit for Shayne.'"
Thanks to the close-knit and productive nature of the Triangle music scene, benefit shows for local musicians—and fans, even—aren't uncommon. O'Neill's fundraiser, though, will be bigger than most. The result of months of planning, the all-day event is stacked with local talent from Bowerbirds and Hammer No More The Fingers to Free Electric State and Tea & Tempests. Songwriter Charles Latham will even return to the state from Philadelphia to play. There's a silent auction, a magician and a compilation CD with covers of songs Shayne has written. Even for a community that generally races to help its own, it's a mass of organization and support.
Duncan Webster's band, Hammer No More The Fingers, will play the last set Saturday. Before the Durham native returned south to form Hammer, he played in a New York City group called Mumu Worthy. In one of the biggest and most musical cities in the world, a band could feel an awful lot like an island for Webster. "There's a million bands," he remembers, "but none of them know each other, or helps each other out, or goes to each other's shows."
He doesn't get that feeling at home. When local music champion Cy Rawls fell ill in July 2008 with a brain tumor, for instance, it led to a whole series of benefit concerts and the launch of CyTunes.org, an online music retailer with exclusive songs from a horde of local bands. Rawls died in late 2008, but bands are still playing benefits to support Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University, where Rawls was treated. More recently, local musicians Reese McHenry of The Dirty Little Heaters and Chris Pope of Blood Red River were the beneficiaries of the music community's generosity.
The calls and e-mails came in a flood for the Miels. They returned to Durham from New York, where Rebekah had briefly moved for school, after learning Shayne had cancer. Moving back home, still adjusting to married life and Shayne's first round of treatment, they redirected well-wishers' requests to help to Rebekah's sister, Amanda Panning.
"It was pretty broad," says Panning of the first wave of what-can-we-do questions. "Anything from people wanting to make dinner, to wanting to put on a benefit show."
Eventually, those ideas converged. Streib and Panning, with help from local publicity and promotions impresario Heather Cook, set the groundwork for the event. They aimed for an April show in Durham's cavernous Trotter Building and soon scrapped it.
"I think this is our third date," says Panning, laughing. "A lot of it has been depending on how Shayne felt at the time."
He likely wouldn't have been able to attend his own show in April. That month, another trip to the ER revealed that, despite a successful first round of treatments, the lymphoma had spread to his brain. Coincidentally, the final date falls on Shayne's thirty-first birthday.
What's more, Shayne now has a positive prognosis: He spends every other week at North Carolina Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill, receiving medicines through an IV connected to a port in his chest. Aside from the tube snaking under his shirt, and the surroundings, meeting with Shayne at the hospital feels little different than running into him after one of his shows. He has his hair, and he's wearing a plaid shirt and blue jean cut-offs, not a hospital gown. He speaks energetically, even though he admits to feeling weak and tiring easily and tries to stifle his laughter every time his nurse, Dave, pays an unannounced visit. If it weren't for the hospital, he wouldn't seem like a patient at all.
Unlike many musicians for whom these sorts of benefits are organized, the Miels have health insurance. Rebekah receives coverage through her employer, Duke University, but the medical bills are reaching well into the tens of thousands by now. That $2 million lifetime limit on coverage doesn't seem like such an unreachable sum. But they feel secure. This Machine Kills Cancer is more than a benefit for the Miels; they hope it's for those who might find themselves in a similar position.
"It's hard to ask for help and not do anything about it," says Rebekah.
The show is the launch of Friends With Benefits, a nonprofit organization Shayne and Rebekah are starting to provide supplemental funds—"It's basically like getting a cash prize if you get sick or hurt," Shayne, always quick with a wry joke, explains—to local musicians.
"If we didn't have insurance, we wouldn't be having a benefit," he says. "It'd be like, 'Why bother?'"
"It was very important to [Shayne]...that he continue, in a very large way, to give back to other people," says Panning. "As long as I've known Shayne, of the times I've seen him play, I've usually seen him play at other people's benefits."
Friends With Benefits is the Miels' way of taking the outpouring of support from the community and paying it forward. That's, in part, a reflection of Shayne's own generosity through the years.
Webster insists that Hammer No More The Fingers was eager to play because "Shayne would do the same thing for any of us."
But participating in a benefit requires sacrifice on the part of the performers. It's difficult enough for musicians struggling to turn their songs into something of an income, a struggle Shayne knows well. The friendships he cultivated through his music and his involvement with the community, however, have fueled the fervor for Saturday's show.
Mimi McLaughin, one concert organizer, also attributes the philanthropy to the general sense of community among musicians and fans in the Triangle. "I really feel like people, no matter what you do in this world, you want to contribute something," says McLaughlin. "You want to do something that makes a difference."
"You can't take the cancer away from him. You can't cure it with a magic wand," she says. "So what can you do?"