WORDS BY CHRIS STROUTH
I am going to tell you a story. This story may break your heart, or it might mend it. My guess is that it will do a bit of both. It will make you question your faith, or possibly renew it. I can tell you it has done a number on mine, though I am still not quite sure which way it hit. Perhaps a bit of both.
The story is about a boy, a boy named Alex Etheridge. He is a 13-year-old in the seventh grade and lives in Arizona, in a comfortable suburban home with his Mom, Jessica, and Dad, Brian. He has a brother, Daniel, and sister, Gabrielle. He works out, loves rollercoasters, plays drums and guitar, and loves Green Day, Blink-182, and that after-punk emo sound. He loves it with a fervor that you get only after you have that moment, where the right chord, that perfect beat, hits you like a tidal wave, and it hooks into your soul, with its siren call: “I need to be a part of this”—and like that, it becomes an inseparable part of your DNA. Not everyone has that moment, but those that do, it is just part of who you are, and who you become.
A year ago, at the age of 12 and during sixth grade, Alex was diagnosed with cancer. A cancer found only because he had a swollen knee and some trouble walking. His first fears weren’t about the illness or what it could all mean; it was about the possible hearing loss that could come with it, and how that would affect his ability to play and make things difficult with his band. Instead of rehearsals he got chemo, hospital visits, and all the cancer-treatment trimmings.
Alex Etheridge loves rock and roll. He loves listening to, playing, and living it. His all-time favorites are the aforementioned Green Day, Arctic Monkeys, Pink Floyd, Queen, Olivia Rodrigo, Soul Asylum, Sublime, Sum 41, and YUNGBLUD. He loves this music with a fervor that is rare in his generation. These kids have a very different relationship to music than the ones that came before them: It’s more a sound bed, less a soundtrack. They may have a few artists that they like, but more often than not, the sound is a compliment to the visual. It’s what people dance over or change clothes to on the Tikkity Tok. But Alex represents those kids that still feel the feels, that spark, that quiver, that moment you heard that sound—and like that, your life is changed in an instant.
Playing is a passion for him—so much so that when the Super Bowl came to his hometown, he turned down going and a chance to be in the same stadium as Rihanna to do something else. With the help of Kill Kancer, he got connected to Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum; first for a photo, then a Zoom call, and then something sort of profound.
In January 2023, Alex was given six months to live. Give that a moment. Let it roll around your skull; put yourself in his place. At that age, what would you do? What if you were his parents? His siblings? Daunting, horrifying to think about—yeah, it’s all that and so much more. But the thing is, this isn’t a story about a kid who’s dying, this is about a kid who’s living. A kid with not just a passion but the courage of his conviction. He wants to rock, and illness will just have to wait. This kid is Punk AF.
In the first week of March, at the height of Yeti season, twelve people bundled up and flew from Sun City to Tundra Town in Economy Plus to spend four hours in a recording studio: Alex and his immediate family, plus his Aunt Erica, not-quite-yet-Uncle Jad; cousins Cooper, Ryker, and soon-to-be-cousin Gage; Gma Barb; and Papa Gary. Everyone but Mom and Dad for just under an hour—because studios aren’t really all that big—just to stand by Alex’s side. In the studio with no agenda, no plans. Just see what unfolds. So there was Alex, his dad, and a few others, along with Pirner, Soul Asylum bassist Jeremy Tappero, and junior rock royalty and engineer supreme Kristoffer “KJ” Johnson. See, the thing is, four hours in a studio is less time than you might think. I have seen someone spend 6 hours just setting up mics for drums. (Oddly enough, it was for Soul Asylum.) This small few, this merry band, chatted. They bonded. Then they did something pretty special.
This is the great part, the part that lifts your spirit. Alex Etheridge just kind of comes up with a song on the spot. He shows a simple idea for a guitar line that, in turn, is masterfully modified and played by the aforementioned Pirner. A bassline is thrown down, Alex is on drums, some lyrics half sorted, which he sings into the control room, and Pirner brings them to life, giving outside voice to Alex Etheridge’s inside one: “Oh how the world is turning/ it’s too fast I’m learning/how life is almost over/ fear runs inside me/we’re always dying/it’s always almost over/ but have a place where/I can escape the nightmare/oh my sweet home.” Sometimes it’s the singer, sometimes it’s the song, and sometimes it’s bigger than all the parts combined. This is the full real, not pretend angst, over an uncertain future. It’s a kid singing his dark truth with a lightness that keeps the heavier shadows at bay, all to a heavy backbeat.
It’s impossible not to think about some concept of higher power in situations like this. It’s hard not to ask what sort of universe allows this to happen. What sort of higher power could do this to anyone, let alone to a 13-year-old kid who just wants to play drums? But life is rarely fair, at least not in any way that mortals like us can understand. The universe, God, or whathaveyou is vast and mysterious. Its inner workings are bigger than any mortal could ever hope to comprehend in a thousand lifetimes, each movement causing a multitude of others, which in turn make countless more. Still, this does kind of feel like a total dick move on God’s part, and I think they’d agree with me. Alex, on the other hand, instills a weird, miraculous faith that is equally unknowable.
There is something about faith I don’t entirely understand. A few have talked about the healing powers of rock and roll. I love rock and roll and all, but rock music reached its retirement age six years ago and now it’s 71 this month, which makes it the same age as Marc Harmon, the star of your grandmother’s favorite TV show. I think the real thing here is belief, that of a power of something beyond yourself. You need something to believe in, whether it’s a person, a church, the ancient art of Rock Fu, or Fred, a fine name for anything unknowable. Alex Etheridge believes.
The other thing that people get wrong about Alex Etheridge’s story: He’s a kid who has to live in the shadow of darkness and with all that heavy load on such very young shoulders. It is about a kid being young with all of his might. I don’t know how much I believe in rock and roll any more, but I can tell you this, oh dear and gentle reader: I believe in Alex Etheridge.
As humans we make monuments. We want something to mark that we were here. We put names on buildings, scholarships, and in the end credits of movies. It stands for the person. It helps us remember them when they aren’t here physically. We all want—no, we need—to be heard in whatever that way is, to say this matters. Alex matters, and the greatest service you can give is to hear him. I am asking you to hear him. It isn’t the greatest song you will hear, but that is hardly the point. If this is what he did in 4 hours at 13, with so many things holding him down, the mind kind of boggles to think what he would be like at 21, in good health. For all our sakes, I hope we get to hear that.
I did several interviews to get quotes for this story, but honestly, I just need one. It came from KJ, the engineer, when I asked him about the experience: “It changed my life.” Not a lot more you can say than that, is there?
If there is a spirit of rock, I am pretty sure it is Alex Etheridge. And if you think I use his name a lot you are right, because you need to remember it. We all do. In fact, do me a favor and say it with me: “Alex Etheridge.” It’s a small prayer to whoever is listening to do right by this kid. Because we need that spirit in all of us, to remember that magic of that thing we loved, and rediscover it. And let it be a thing we find a renewed belief in.
I could give some great summary here, some knock-out punch that tears you up like a Capra movie. But Lou Reed already said it in ‘Rock and Roll:’ “You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll/Despite all the amputations/You know you could just go out and dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station/And it was all right.”
Hear the song: soundcloud.com/alexetheridge