Musician with ALS makes the most
The Winston-Salem pop-rock songwriter Snüzz is onstage with his band, which includes Greensboro guitarist Sam Frazier and former Athenaeum member and current novelist Nic Brown, at Greene Street Club on a recent Wednesday evening.
Snüzz introduces some musical guests: Catie Braly and “the infallible Tim LaFollette.” LaFollette is broad-shouldered guy with straw thatch hair who is blessed with kind, intelligent and humorous eyes. That’s the way I’ve known him since I met him in 2005 when his band Kudzu Wish played its final show on this very stage. I get the impression that Tim is considered among his friends and fellow musicians someone who can be leaned upon. He’s also the one who is most likely to express his emotions. He was the one who cried onstage at the culmination of that final Kudzu Wish show. Tonight, he’s walking with the assistance of a black flame-job cane. He nimbly makes his way to the stage, takes his place next to Braly and makes a smiling appraisal of his fellow musicians. LaFollette’s primary band, Decoration Ghost, will be playing later tonight, but this is the stage debut of a home recording project called the Popovers. LaFollette and Braly sing a rousing version of their song, “Yoga In the Morning,” with an infectious call of “wake up, wake up.” LaFollette leans on the cane and braces himself against the microphone. His voice is strong and clear, and he nods his head and rolls his eyes with just a touch of stage drama. It’s a funny song that is appropriate and inspiring all at the same time. It brings smiles to the faces in the room. When the song is over, LaFollette steps of the stage, hugs Braly and then receives a kiss from his girlfriend, Kaylan Szafranski. “Yesterday, I surrendered my license, and I picked up my walker and my wheelchair,” LaFollette tells me in the stairwell. “I have no reaction in my right foot. I’ve got lower limb onset.” His former Kudzu Wish bandmate Adam Thorn has started an acoustic solo set, and is singing a hoarse and affecting version of the old hymn “Farther Along”: “Farther along we’ll know more about it; Farther along we’ll understand why; Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine; We’ll understand it all by and by.” LaFollette was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that took his mother and grandmother’s lives in 1982. Short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS is a terminal neurological disease that affects the brain and the spinal cord and leads to progressive breakdown of the muscles. Snüzz says LaFollette is the same age as his mother was when she died. “I remember when this started happening before he was ever officially diagnosed and in the back of our minds we thought, ‘Oh, God, no, don’t let this be what it seems to be,’” Snüzz will say later. “And well, our worst fears have come to fruition.” What does a man facing an effective death sentence look and sound like? In the case of Tim LaFollette, who’s being celebrated and supported under the banner “often awesome” with this benefit concert tonight, he admits to experiencing grief, but conveys gratitude and a positive outlook. “The buildup was terrifying,” LaFollette says. “I won’t say it was a relief to find out it was ALS, but at least it had a name. My girlfriend and I decided to go public with it very quickly. This isn’t the kind of thing that even two people can do alone. I’m lucky to be in Greensboro, where this kind of support exists, whether it’s someone chipping in a few bucks or driving me to the doctor. I’m between two great ALS clinics at Duke and Wake Forest. We have one of the best chapters of the ALS Association — the Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter Chapter.” The ALS hasn’t yet impeded LaFollette’s ability to make music. His hands and fingers work fine. His lung capacity is diminished, but not noticeably. He notes with admiration that his girlfriend has “put her life on pause” for him. Szafranski has moved in with LaFollette, and taken on a new role of caretaker in addition to girlfriend. “We wanted to have some of my more mobile months be together,” he says. “Even now, I need help getting my pants on and off
Tim LaFollette, one of Greensboro’s seminal musicians, was dioagnosed with ALS this spring. (photo by Quentin L. Richardson)