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Charly Greene Homework For Kids

By Simone Cazares

Top: Zach Sobiech began writing songs in the past year, primarily to help with his cancer diagnosis, but also because he hates to “waste time. I always like to be doing something.” Middle: Zach and his girlfriend, Amy Adamle, share a happy moment inside the Sobiech family’s Lakeland home. Bottom: Laura Sobiech, Zach's mom, is doing all she can to raise awareness for Osteosarcoma.

Photo By: Jennah Benalshaikh

“My theory is that everyone has some amount of pain in their life. It’s just a matter of how visible it is. But everyone has some kind of struggle. Everyone has something. And I think everyone can relate to that."

Zach Sobiech doesn’t have to go to school.

But he wakes up early every morning and sits in class anyway.

Diagnosed at 14 with Osteosarcoma — a rare and fatal pediatric cancer that starts in the bones and spreads to the rest of the body — Zach has been told by doctors he might not live past this summer.

While most teens groan at the thought of endless classes and piles of homework, Stillwater High School brings Zach peace of mind. It’s where he can hide from the daily tormentor that has robbed him of carefree teenage moments.

It’s where life becomes normal again.

“He had to kind of decide how to handle it. When you have a date that … you might not be here beyond this time, you have to decide how you want to spend that time,” said Laura Sobiech, Zach’s mom, at their Lakeland home.

“And Zach had to go through that. Especially at the beginning of this (school) year. It’s his senior year. That’s the year, as (teens) know, when you plan your future. Where are you gonna go? And Zach doesn’t have that. He had to step back and say, ‘OK, what am I gonna make this into? How am I gonna spend this time?’”

Bothered by hip pain after a run, Zach visited his doctor. With no visible break, he was sent to physical therapy for treatment. But after two months of the pain worsening, Laura knew something was really wrong when Zach couldn’t even tie his shoes.

The Sobiech family was not prepared for what MRI results would show.

“We did the MRI to see if there was soft tissue damage, so even at that point, we’re not even thinking about a tumor. At all,” Laura said. “So it was like, ‘Wait, it’s cancer?’

“Cancer is rare in children. We were not even thinking that. I remember looking across the room at Zach and thinking, ‘How do I tell him it’s a tumor?”

Had Zach gone to a specialist right away, Laura is confident that they would have seen the tumor in X-rays before it spread to his lungs. However, since only about 400 kids are diagnosed with Osteosarcoma in the United States, “most doctors will never see this cancer,” Laura said. “A lot of kids end up breaking the bone before they even realize what has happened. And it’s still misdiagnosed.”

IN THE ‘CLOUDS’

Now, despite three-plus years of CAT scans, chemotherapy and countless medications, the cancer has finally caught up to Zach. While there aren’t any available treatments to put his cancer into remission, he still sees a doctor twice a week to test new ones. It isn’t meant to kill the cancer, Zach said, but to see how much his body can tolerate without making him feel “really, really sick.”

Through all the trials, Zach, now 17, began writing songs as a way to deal with his emotions.

What started off as a request from his guitar teacher has since turned into a signature moment — the two million hit YouTube sensation “Clouds,” a song originally written for his girlfriend, Amy Adamle.

Zach uses the song to deal with the reality of his fate — how life is being “ripped right out (of his) hands,” leaving him little time to spend with loved ones and wishing that “if only (he) had a little bit more time.” He sings of flying into the clouds, leaving his loved ones behind, and how perhaps, “someday I’ll see you again.”

“I think I was kind of surprised. I had no idea that he was doing that,” Adamle said. “I really liked it, but I also didn’t want to be like, ‘Who did you write this for?’ I didn’t want to be annoying, but I could tell he was writing it for, well, me. I don’t like saying that because it seems kind of obnoxious. But I was really touched by it. I loved it, obviously.”

For Zach, writing “Clouds” was like penning a personal journal entry. It just happened that the rest of the world could see the pages when he was asked to play his song during an interview with local radio station KS95.

Since then, “Clouds” has blown up and reached audiences all over the world — “six continents,” Zach proudly boasts. Not that he isn’t getting enough attention in Minnesota.

Fellow teens have approached him in public to offer words of encouragement and adult strangers have picked up his tab at restaurants. In January, Zach was a featured guest at 89.3 The Current’s star-studded birthday bash and he sold out his own concert fundraiser at the Varsity Theater a month later.

“It’s very strange, but it’s also great,” he said. “Especially around here. People will always stop to say, ‘Hi, Zach.’ They’re all supportive.’

“My theory is that everyone has some amount of pain in their life. It’s just a matter of how visible it is. But everyone has some kind of struggle. Everyone has something. And I think everyone can relate to that. A paper cut to someone else could be surgery for me. So I dunno, ‘Clouds’ is just based on that.”

NOTGIVING UP

For Zach, life with a terminal cancer diagnosis has meant no “wasted moments.”

Knowing that they’re up against time, he said his family — which also includes dad, Rob, and three siblings — focuses on a “month out so that we know we’re able to do it. Three months is a little shaky right now. But we still make plans. Just not big ones.”

Small plans include “open Sundays” at the Sobiech house, or a “pot of soup kinda thing,” where family and friends can stop by unannounced, Laura said.

These days, there’s always something to catch up on.

Zach’s album, “Fix Me Up,” was released in February and is being promoted nationally by music rights giant BMI. The family even received a trip to New York as part of the signing.

Zach has also been accepted to the University of Minnesota for fall, another move toward “feeling normal,” at least as Zach understands it.

“We’re always hoping for a miracle. You know, for something to happen so he would be able to go to college,” Laura said. “But it just doesn’t look like that’s going to happen right now.”

That doesn’t mean Zach is giving up just yet. While fighting the unimaginable, Zach has learned that he’s a lot stronger than he thought and isn’t a “huge wimp.”

“I’m going to go as hard as I can,” he said. “I want to be remembered as someone who went down fighting. Someone who kept trying until he just couldn’t anymore.”

‘FINDING PEACETHROUGH MUSIC’

To learn more about the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund, visit www.childrenscancer.org/zach. Donors who give $20 or more will receive a copy of Zach’s album, which features studio and acoustic versions of the YouTube hit “Clouds.”

So Charlie, the Stones are playing Glastonbury! Excited?

I don't want to do it. Everyone else does. I don't like playing outdoors, and I certainly don't like festivals. I've always thought they're nothing to do with playing. Playing is what I'm doing at the weekend (1). That's how I was brought up. But that's me, personally. When you're a band … you do anything and everything. But Glastonbury, it's old hat really. I never liked the hippy thing to start with. It's not what I'd like to do for a weekend, I can tell you.

But surely …

[Interrupting] The worst thing playing outdoors is when the wind blows, if you're a drummer, because the cymbals move … it really is hard to play then.

Well, you're also playing Hyde Park this summer. What do you remember about your famous gig there in 1969 (2)?

Oh, quite a lot. The Dorchester! That was our dressing room. And Allen Klein walking about like Napoleon. He was the same kind of shape. And the armoured van going into the crowd. I had to rush around and get my silver trousers done for it. And then Mick Taylor, of course, it was his first big gig. And my wife got hit with a stale sandwich. I remember her going mad with that. I don't blame her. She got hit on the back. She reckoned it was stale because it obviously hurt a lot. The butterflies. I didn't like that, because the casualty rate was worse than the Somme. Half of them went woosh. And the other half of them were dead.

Were you still in shock from Brian [Jones]'s death?

Shock? Brian dying? No. It was very sad but it wasn't unexpected. We'd carried him for a few tours and he was quite ill. We were young, we didn't know what was wrong with him. I still don't really. He always suffered from terrible asthma, and he drank heavily on the road and he got into drugs before anyone else in the band. It was a question of, "Do we carry on?"

And Mick Taylor joined the band …

Amazing player. I think we did our best music with Mick.

Hyde Park was the height of the hippy thing …

Altamont was more hippy than that, I thought. That was a very peculiar one, that was.

With a lot of big stadium bands these days, it feels like the staging of the show is the most important thing, whereas the Stones still strike me as being a real band. Sometimes you're good and sometimes … less so.

Mick [Jagger] is the show, really. We back him. But Mick wouldn't dance well if the sound was bad. It doesn't come into it with a lot of bands because the lead singer just stands there. We've always been about playing it properly. I don't mean technically brilliant … The rest is candyfloss, it's froth. You know, the costumes you're wearing, that's … [shrugs] What you're really doing is playing the drums or the guitar.

What do you think of drum machines?

They're great for songwriters and producers. Recording is a very precise thing – it's playing it dead right every time, and it can be fun. But if you're writing a song, it's great to be able to tell the machine you'd like it louder, rather than having to tell the drummer. It's not what I'm interested in. I like the drum kit sound and somebody playing it – preferably me, but it could be anyone.

Given your jazz background, was it a bit of a comedown when you joined the Stones?

It was more of a shock joining Alexis Korner (3). I'd never played with a harmonica player before – I couldn't believe Cyril Davies when he started playing! We only played out of London once, in Birmingham. Cyril got £1 because he was a professional musician; so did [sax player] Dick Heckstall-Smith and [bassist] Jack Bruce. I wasn't so I got half a crown. Fantastic, isn't it? Half a crown! The Stones were just another gig, but then we started touring around England … I was waiting to start another job, but I never went back to it. I was a bit out of sync with all of them, Brian, Mick and Keith [Richards], but Keith taught me to listen to Buddy Holly and things like that. Mick taught me a lot about playing with songs, really, the melodies and that.

Was part of the Stones' success down to the fact that each of you had really done your homework?

I sort of agree with that. Everything's easier and quicker now. I wanted to be Max Roach or Kenny Clarke playing in New York with Charlie Parker in the front line. Not a bad aspiration. It actually meant a lot of bloody playing, a lot of work. I don't think kids are interested in that. But that may be true of every generation, I don't know. When I was what you'd call a young musician, jazz was very fashionable. It was very hip to know there was a new Miles Davis album out. Now no one knows what records come out. Especially me! Because of this thing [gestures at my iPhone recording the interview, with the inference that it is somehow the devil's work] … But in those days … an album: you kept it, you treasured it.

You must have really studied the records you had.

Oh, we did. I remember a Duke Ellington album that we played for ever.

And you must have had to save up for them.

I'd swap things: a cymbal for a certain record … Then I'd go to Ray's Jazz Shop (4). That's when it was in New Oxford Street, in the basement of Collet's. God bless him! He was green, he was never allowed to see daylight, they used to keep him in the cellar. And then I'd sell the record and go and buy the cymbal back.

What was your big problem with the hippies when that all started?

I wasn't a great one for the philosophy and I thought the clothes were horrendous, even then.

So what did you think of the rest of the Stones in their Satanic Majesties phase?

I didn't mind them doing it. Brian was the first one at it. I remember him doing the London Palladium with his bloody hat on, and his pipe and sitar … fantastic. Brian was the first one to know and meet as a friend Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix. He used to be fun in those days.

At the height of the Stones' success in the 60s, did you have a sense that you were making history?

No. It was just a case of keeping up with everyone else. It's still the same now.

You said the band did its best work with Mick Taylor. What's your favourite Stones song?

God, I don't really have one to be honest, I don't really listen to them that much.

Do you think Bill [Wyman] made a mistake in leaving the group?

No, not a mistake, because he was in the middle of a terrible marriage that he should never have got into – he had a horrendous time with the Mandy girl – and he then married a very good woman and had three children very quickly … and he was very, very happy. But it was a shame he left because a) it was great having him and b) I think he missed out on a very lucrative period in our existence. There were very sparse periods you went through building the band, and he didn't really reap the rewards that we do now.

What do you spend your money on?

Me? I collect things.

Old records?

Yeah. There's a great place in Vienna. I collect jazz mostly. Drum kits as well. I've got one of Kenny Clarke's drum kits that he gave to Max Roach – I bought it off his widow. I have Duke Ellington's, the famous Sonny Greer drum kit, it's fantastic. Big Sid Catlett, one of the great 30s swing drummers, one of his … [continues in this vein for some time]. And books. Not antiquarian books. Signed first editions of mostly 20th-century writers. Agatha Christie: I've got every book she wrote in paperback. Graham Greene, I have all of them. Evelyn Waugh, he's another one. Wodehouse: everything he wrote.

It sounds like quite a healthy addiction.

Well, I'm old. It's not the sort of thing a boy of 20 would be keen on.

Have there been times when you've thought about knocking it on the head?

I thought that before the O2, but it was actually very comfortable to do. It was good fun, is what I meant to say.

But you had misgivings.

Misgivings? Yeah, oh yeah, I always do. It's a young person's [game]. The thing I find difficult is that 50% of it is image, not my side of it, but it is, and as you get a bit older you think, "Oh gawd!" I don't like looking at the pictures. I think Bowie looks all right. For some reason everyone's talking about David Bowie at the moment. But he does look good. Some others haven't weathered so well. And some guys who were really on fire haven't made it. It can take its toll on you. Without you knowing, or caring at the time, because you don't care when you're in your 30s or 40s.

Was it fun playing with Mick [Taylor] and Bill again at the O2 show?

It was great. I loved it.

And what about your guests, there and in the States?

It was really good. We were lucky we had Jeff Beck. He's a phenomenal player.

What about the younger bunch like Florence and the Machine?

Florence, she was all right. Lady Gaga was a really good sport. But they hung about with my granddaughter more than they did with me. We're silly old farts! I think Mick tries to keep up with them …

As well as Hyde Park, you've also announced a US tour.

It's a very short tour for us. It's only 18 shows. It's nothing.

Who's the driving force in putting the band back on the road?

Well, you wouldn't do it if Mick didn't want to do it. You've got to have Mick and Keith, but the driving force is Mick. If he's enthusiastic, he'll push everyone along. Keith's much more laidback about it.

Are they getting on well? Keith was quite rude about Mick in his book.

Oh yeah. Oh, that. Brothers, innit? Brothers in arms. You just let it take its course, really, things like that.

Is there any more new music in the offing?

There's nothing yet. I've lost track with the record industry world, I don't get it any more. It's gone beyond me. The last single I thought was very good, but things don't mean anything any more. They're just tacked on the end of a reissue – and that ends up selling more than a new album. It's not like when Sgt Pepper came out and you thought, "Blimey! We'd better do one better …" People say you need a new album out when you go on tour. Well, we did that on our last tour, and I don't know if the record sold. I suppose, as Mick says, it gives us something different to play on stage. It's not Brown Sugar again.

Does it ever feel like you're just going through the motions on stage?

Sometimes you're pot-boiling. Sometimes you're on song.

So will you get to a point where you say, "That's it, no more"?

You do now seriously have to look at your age, because if this goes on for another two years, I'll be 73. But I say that at the end of every tour. And then you have two weeks off and your wife says, "Aren't you going to work?"

Footnotes

(1) Charlie was looking forward to a gig with his boogie woogie group ABC&D at the Pizza Express jazz club in Soho, London.
(2) The Stones founder Brian Jones died two days before the free Hyde Park gig in London on 5 July 1969. Mick Jagger read one of Shelley's poems at the show to commemorate him as thousands of butterflies were released into the crowd. Mick Taylor made his live debut with the band as Brian's replacement. Allen Klein was their manager.
(3) Jazz fan Charlie was a member of Blues Incorporated, the UK's first amplified R&B band, lead by the late blues musician Korner.

(4)Ray Smith's jazz shop in London was a meeting place for generations of the capital's hippest musicians.

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