Parkinson's Disease has kept him steady
Cool, calm and collected, with a personality as warm as a smoldering fire, is what you notice within the first five minutes of speaking to Dan O'Brien, local South Florida musician. Casual and courageous about his approach to living with Parkinson's Disease since August 20th, 2012, (And yes, he does remember the exact date of his diagnosis.) Dan's response to the disease; "Yeah, I've got it, so what?" For Dan, this problem is more of an inconvenience than an inconvenient problem. Dan discusses having Parkinson's like someone who has blue eyes; "I wake up every day and it is what it is, I'm not going to change it but at the same time, I'm not going to hide from it." Casual and courageous.
Since being diagnosed in 2012, Dan has continued to do what he loves, making great music, either as a life-long guitarist on stage or at his production studio. His resume goes on endlessly. He's written and recorded hundreds of original songs, has played side- by-side with some of the greats in the industry, and has recorded and produced many artists.
Although his playing style has changed somewhat, due to Parkinson's, his approach to life and music continues to move in an onward and upward direction. Dan is a modest pilar of courage.
For our interview, Dan and I meet at a casual sport's bar / music venue in Coral Springs, Florida. Dressed in a pair of loose fitting jeans and an untucked shirt, this "south-paw" has a very "Sam Elliott" look and demeanor. We sit, he orders the blackened Mahi sandwich and we get to work.
FM: Hey Dan, we finally meet in person. We've been friends on Facebook for quite some time and are both advocates for Parkinson's. My father had Parkinson's and I've been working with the Parkinson's community for over 20 years now. And you, although diagnosed with Parkinson's, have started your own foundation, The Parkinson's Assistance Foundation. Tell me a bit about that.
Dan: I finalized the foundation last September. It's officially a 501-C3. It's a lot of work, a lot more than I imagined it would be. We've been fortunate to be able to help about 25 people in the community so far with direct financial resources for medications, buying orthopedic shoes, helping some with insurance, and to get medical appointments - providing holistic resources, and a resource for information.
FM: That's a great thing you're doing. Giving back to the community through the voice of a disease that's been taking some things away from you.
Dan: We do what we have to do.
FM: You didn't have to do that. You chose to do that. You could have sat back, did your thing and watched others living with Parkinson's, not doing a thing about that, yet, you've made a decision to become a man of action. That's not only commendable but much needed out there.
Dan: It's who I am. I've always enjoyed helping others. It's important. Everyone should get involved in their communities.
FM: I agree, and it's why we are here. You were diagnosed in 2012. What was your first thought when you heard, "Parkinson's?"
Dan: (laughing) Well, after I let it sink in for about two weeks, I decided I was not going to let the disease run my life. I also decided not to take all the medications my doctor recommended I take. I was going to attack it head-on through exercise, meditation, basically as holistically as possible and try not to take medication unless I feel it's really necessary. I've always been active and have always exercised, lifted weights, done martial arts, etc. So that's what I did, and six years later, I think I'm doing pretty well (holding out his left hand which is strong and steady).
FM: You definitely have the right attitude in that you've been so active all these years and have remained steady; which is a huge plus when dealing with PD. Staying involved in your music, has that been a huge plus too? I realize music is a great outlet and some research shows that it can help lessen the symptoms.
Dan: I agree. The music, my guitar playing, I feel has kept me moving in an upward direction. I wasn't going to just sit at home and think about "what if this happens." After I was diagnosed, I spent some time on the internet learning about the disease. Let me tell you, there's a lot of information out there and a lot of it can scare the crap out of you. I wasn't going to let it bring me down. I was the one who was going to help ME! And, after meeting many people who also share the same disease, I knew I had to do something to help others. So, I started the foundation.
FM: And you remember the exact day you were diagnosed?
Dan: Yes, I do. August 20th, 2012. I went to Gainesville to see Dr. Michael Okun. He's one of the best Parkinson's physicians in the country. (laughing) He's the one who gave me the good news.
FM: You really have such a great attitude.
Dan: You can't dwell on it. You accept it and then you continue to move full steam ahead, not letting it defeat you.
FM: Does anyone in your family have Parkinson's or are you the only one?
Dan: As far as I know, I'm the chosen one.
FM: Did you ever suffer any head trauma, maybe as a child or young adult? In my other life, as a trainer who specializes in working with people who have PD, that's one of the first questions I always ask a client who has Parkinson's. Again, research has shown that head trauma can lead to Parkinson's.
Dan: Possibly. I've been so active in sports and martial arts, it's a possibility. I do know that about 2 or 3 weeks before I was diagnosed, I had an incident where I fell off a stage while performing. About 2 weeks after that incident, I noticed my index finger on my left hand began to quiver. I thought it was a pinched nerve or something like that. As a guitarist, a left-handed guitarist, that's my picking hand, that was a potential problem. So, I was going to Gainesville to see a friend who was going to introduce me to Tom Petty, and I made an appointment to see Dr. Okun while I was there. He gave me the great news.
FM: So, you go to Gainesville to see your friend, and to be introduced to his friend, Tom Petty, and you return home with a diagnosis of Parkinson's. A very memorable trip, for sure.
Dan: Yep, you could say that.
FM: Alright, let's get away from the PD for a while. Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?
Dan: I grew up in Troy, New York. It was a pretty crazy childhood. My father took off when I was an infant, so I never really knew him, and my mom raised me by herself until I was twelve.
FM: Why only until you were twelve?
Dan: She passed away. She was prescribed some medications from her physician for weight loss, and had a bad reaction to it, and suffered cardiac failure.
FM: Man, I'm sorry to hear that. I can't even begin to imagine losing a parent at such a young age, and she was your only parent at the time?
Dan: Yeah, it was rough. I still think about her a lot. She was great. A wonderful woman.
FM: So, then what did you do?
Dan: I then moved in with my grandparents, both my sister and I. It was pretty traumatic. There was a lot of abuse in that household. I think it was because I looked a lot like my father and my grandparents, my mom's parents, were not too fond of him, as you can probably imagine. So, they took that out on me. It was probably more verbal abuse than physical. My sister, who looks a lot like my mother, their daughter, didn't get the same bad treatment.
FM: That sounds rough. Are you still close to your sister?
Dan: Yes, my sister Kathy and I are very close. We speak frequently and I'll see her this Summer when I head back North.
FM: You did not have an easy childhood.
Dan: You know, it is what it is. I've dealt with it in positive ways throughout my life and I'm okay. It's actually made me a better person.
FM: That's a positive outlook. I'm sure there's a lot more to your background growing up, but let's keep the music energy flowing. When did you first pick up a guitar? How old were you?
Dan: I was twelve. Around the time my mom passed, I got a guitar and taught myself how to play.
FM: Is this something you decided to do on your own?
Dan: Yeah, it was. I loved music and it was something I decided I wanted to do, to learn.
FM: Do you play any other instruments; (triangle, kazoo, bassoon, spoons)?
Dan: (laughing) I've played the kazoo. Haven't we all? I play a lot of instruments; keys, bass, drums, clarinet. But, my love is the guitar.
FM: So, no bassoon?
Dan: (laughing) No bassoon. But, you never know.
FM: Never say never to the bassoon.
Dan: That's right.
FM: What exercises do you do to help with your day to day dealing with PD?
Dan: I've got a ritual. I get up every day and walk 3 miles. Then, I do 50 push-ups, dumbbell curls using 20-pound dumbbells. I do Tai Chi, lots of stretching, squats and meditation. I tried some of the boxing but even just hitting the focus gloves, it was pretty hard on my hands. Being a guitarist, and after years playing, having some arthritis in my fingers, and now dealing with Parkinson's, it took about 3 or 4 days to recover. So, this is my exercise routine. I do my exercise and then I go about my daily business, running my music production company, playing the guitar, performing and writing and recording music, tending to my foundation. I definitely keep busy.
FM: That is a pretty busy schedule. You do more exercise in the first hour you wake up then most people do in a week.
Dan: It's important. That's probably why I still feel great. If you're out there reading this and you have Parkinson's, make sure exercise is right there with your medications, if you take any. I believe if I didn't do all this exercise each day, my symptoms would have progressed.
FM: I agree 100%.
Dan: Yes sir!
FM: Recently, the news media has picked up on some pretty notable people in the music industry who have Parkinson's. You’re in some good company, unfortunately. Linda Ronstadt, diagnosed with PD, stopped performing. Neil Diamond, recently announced his diagnosis and is no longer performing live. Jeff Cook, incredibly talented guitarist, and fiddle player with the band Alabama, was diagnosed a few years back and no longer performs with the band. Glen Tipton, guitarist with Judas Priest, diagnosed about 10 years ago, recently announced he's taking an extended break from touring.
Dan: Yeah, it seems you hear about another musician being diagnosed all the time.
FM: You’re still out there plugging away, which is great. How has this effected your guitar playing? You’re left-handed so your right hand is your fret hand and the left is hitting the strings and chords and strumming, picking. What side seems to be your PD side?
Dan: It's affected my left side. My playing has definitely changed. It's adapted to my disease. I now find myself playing more melodic than heavy picking or shredding. So, that's actually not a bad thing. I enjoy the new playing style. And, I'm pretty darn good at it. And, since I'm left-handed and the Parkinson's has affected my left side, it's been a natural transition to play in that manner.
FM: The other night, I saw you playing a gig on a Facebook live feed. You looked, and sounded good.
Dan: It's my life. I've gotta play.
FM: You’re now quite active in the Parkinson’s community. How do you find the time to stay so involved? Would you consider co-organizing a charity concert to raise $ and awareness for Parkinson’s?
Dan: I make the time, I have to. I've done musical charity fundraisers and yes, I plan to do more, a lot more fundraising events.
FM: Which projects are you currently working on as a musician? Is it all originals?
Dan: I have lots of studio projects on the calendar, some new ones, some that I'm finishing up. I'm always busy. I've been working on originals for 40 years so there's no slowing that down.
FM: I'm glad to hear that. Keep the music coming. Tell us about your gear. What guitar are you playing? What effects do you use? Amps? Recording?
Dan: What guitar am I playing? Well, I have over 40 guitars. Let's see. I'd say, one of my Les Paul's, Strat's or Telecaster's. It really depends on the mood. For amps? 59 Bassman or the Deville.
FM: What’s your first guitar choice for live performances?
Dan: Probably my '63 SG. It's white with Bigsby pickups. Great guitar.
FM: What music gets you excited and why?
Dan: Just about everything. I love all kinds of music from classical to metal.
FM: When was the last time you listened to a new artist, band or guitar player?
Dan: Every day. I'm always looking for new artists. It can be a band, singer, instrumentalist, I'm always on the lookout.
FM: Who are your top three musical influences and why is that?
Dan: I can only choose three? Wow. That's a tough one. I can't choose 300? Let's see; Wes Montgomery, Chet Atkins, Joe Satriani. Clapton, Jeff Beck, Mark Letieri (guitarist for Snarky Puppy), Josh Smith. I know, that's more than three.
FM: That's a pretty decent list. Very eclectic.
Dan: I think so. If you've never listened to Mark Lettieri, definitely listen to him. He's really fantastic. Great jazz guitarist.
FM: I'm going to check him out. What musician impresses you? It can be anyone, not necessarily a guitarist.
Dan: What musician impresses me? There's really so many, I don't like to just name one person. Hmm. Really, anyone who goes outside the box. Tommy Emmanuel. That guy impresses me.
FM: What about him impresses you?
Dan: Tommy does things with his guitar that are outside the box, and his technical skills are jaw-dropping.
FM: How would you describe yourself as a musician in one sentence?
Dan: I am constantly learning new things about music. That's my sentence.
FM: I think we all need to strive to learn more every day.
Dan: I've been doing this a lot of years and I'm still striving to learn new things. To continue to evolve, you've got to want to learn more.
FM: How do you spend your free time? Family? Friends? Riverdancing?
Dan: I love spending time with my wife. We've been together many years. I'm fortunate to have so many wonderful friends that I'm close to. Riverdancing? (laughing) I am Irish but have never river danced. I've done a jig or two, does that count? I also have 4 cats. Love my cats.
FM: Four cats? Oh man, I bet you don't get any trick or treaters on Halloween. "Hey, don't go there, they collect cats!"
Dan: (laughing) You know, that may be true. We rarely get any kids to come trick or treating and I used to buy candy every year. Then the year I didn't buy any, a little kid came by the house, so I gave him a dollar. Next thing you know, he's outside yelling to all the other kids, "hey, the guy at this house is giving out dollars!"
FM: That's a great story. Ha! Who inspires you as a musician?
Dan: Anyone who creates interesting sounding music and sticks with it. So many artists start out that way but give into something totally different and get away from what made them different. It's okay to be different if you love what you do. Since diagnosed with Parkinson's, I haven't given up on my playing. I may actually play more. I've obviously had to do some things differently, but creatively, I'm sticking with what I love.
FM: That's such a great response to the question.
Dan: Oh yeah, most definitely. So many artists just abandon what got them from here to there, following trends. Be your own trendsetter.
FM: Who inspires you as a man?
Dan: Without sounding egotistical, probably myself. As a kid, I didn't have anyone to look up to. I always looked into myself, obviously listened to a lot of great music along the way for inspiration, but at the end of the day, I only had myself for many years.
FM: With your musical accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
Dan: Every Thursday, I get to go to the Broward General Cancer Treatment Center, play my guitar and try to sing for the kids, who are going through cancer treatment. That is the best thing I've ever done, what I'm most proud of.
FM: That is awesome. The world needs a lot more Dan O'Briens.
Dan: The world just needs a lot of love.
FM: Amen. Now, with your Parkinsons, who inspires you in this part of your life?
Dan: That's actually a great question and easy to answer. One of them was my friend Joe Saccocci. Joe was an incredible guy, so kind and generous. He introduced me to Tom Petty, Mike Campbell and a few other great artists. He passed away a few years ago and left me his entire guitar collection. We've used his guitars to raise money for the foundation. We will be starting a music education program in his memory very soon.
FM: How did Joe inspire you as a person?
Dan: Joe was a kind and giving man who lived his life in service to others. He was truly one of a kind.
FM: Anyone else?
Dan: My friend Terence Glynn. Terence is the one who got me started going to Broward General Hospital to play my guitar for the kids there who are going through cancer treatment. That gives me so much joy, so much pleasure. I really don't sing anymore. My singing isn't like it used to be but the kids don't care. They love the music and I love bringing some level of joy to them. Music has a healing quality.
FM: What's wrong with your singing?
Dan: Long story so I'll keep it brief. About 2 years ago, on April 8th of 2016, a guy drove his van through the fence at my home and tried to leave. I confronted him. He was obviously on some type of drugs, he didn't look right, did not look well at all. I told him not to try to drive away, he would have killed himself or someone else. He said, "you know, you're right" and acted like he was going to hand me his car keys. Next thing I know, I'm face down on the ground and he's choking me from the back. My wife and neighbor tried to get him to stop, they even used a bat. The police finally got there and he was arrested. I found out later he had been on Flaca. A bad drug. His choke hold damaged my vocal cords, so my singing days are over.
FM: You really like to keep life interesting, don't you?
Dan: (laughing) Yeah, I suppose I do. Hey, at least I'm here and still going strong.
FM: I'll drink to that! (holding up my iced tea).
FM: Moving forward, what do you see for yourself two years from now?
Dan: I want to see my foundation doing well, and be able to help a lot more people. I want to be healthy and strong and still out there performing and making good music.
FM: Dan, thanks for this interview. We finally meet! Now, give yourself a plug. Website? Social Media?
Dan: Website? What's that? (laughing) I'm old school. I've never had a website for business or myself. Most of my clients are word of mouth. I like it that way. The closest thing I have to a website is my profile page on Facebook. For my foundation, I do have a website. That is www.parkinsonsassistancefoundation.com.
Craig Marks, Editor