Tom Keifer on the illness that almost cost him his career and his long struggle back.
Music is in my DNA. My father passed away when I was very young, but I understand that he was a very talented trumpet player. My mother was also a musician, a pianist, though she rarely ever played around the house. Music has always just been part of my nature, even when it wasn’t part of my nurture.
My earliest musical memory is seeing the Beatles on television and really getting caught up in the excitement of it. Around that same time The Monkees was a really big TV show, too. It was very musical and very popular, and Mike Nesmith’s guitar playing was incredible. Not long ago I went back and listened to some of those old Monkees records, and they’re so well written, just really great songs. Those two bands were my earliest inspiration. I couldn’t have asked for better examples of songwriting.
My mother picked up on my interest and decided to let me take a shot at some lessons. She bought me a little 3/4 sized Harmony acoustic and hired a teacher who came to the house and taught me very basic guitar. He always brought songbooks—the Beatles, some American folk stuff, even the Monkees—and not only would he teach me guitar but he would make me sing the songs, too. From the very beginning singing and playing guitar felt very natural to me, sort of like they were one thing.
I still remember the first hard rock riff I learned. By then I was into Led Zeppelin and the Stones, and I was sitting at home with my acoustic dreaming of having an electric guitar. This guy up the street in my Philadelphia neighborhood showed me the riff to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and I played that over and over on my little acoustic. Like a lot of guys that age I was gravitating more toward guitar than singing.
Eventually I started playing in cover bands, and I sang a little but mostly I was just the guy who gave the lead singer a little relief when he wanted to take a break for a couple of songs. From the beginning I was good at the upper register, screaming kind of stuff: Led Zeppelin, Rush, some AC/DC.
It was great experience, but I didn’t really become a lead singer until I started writing my own music. There were a lot of great singers around, but nobody could make my songs sound like I heard them in my mind. That’s when things came full circle back to my first guitar teacher and that natural feeling of playing and singing.
I started working on my voice. I’m not the most naturally gifted singer, it’s something that I’ve really had to work at over the years. It’s hard for me to listen to those early Cinderella demos from before we had a record deal and a producer to help me out, but you grow and you learn. That’s just how it goes.
When our first album, Night Songs, came out, it was like lightning struck. We were young and everything happened so fast that it was almost like we didn’t have time to take it all in. Not only were we touring and doing whatever we could to support that album, but I was all too aware that we were going to have to record a follow up. I was writing like a madman anytime I could. I guess maybe some musicians might take that kind of “overnight” success for granted, but I didn’t. I wanted to make every show special, every record as good as it could be. I felt obligated to step out on that stage in the best physical and mental condition that I could.
All through Night Songs and Long Cold Winter my voice kept growing and getting stronger. I started working with a vocal coach that Jon and Richie from Bon Jovi recommended, and by the time we recorded 1990’s Heartbreak Station I felt like I was starting to get a clue as a singer. I had some control of my voice, and I was beginning to sound more like the people I admired growing up. And then the shit hit the fan.
My voice just went out overnight. I’d been singing like a bird the whole Heartbreak Station tour, but during the last part of the US leg my voice started cracking and breaking on stage. I had no idea what was going on, and I couldn’t control it.
We were still out on the road, so I’d go see the doctor in whatever town we were in and have them look for nodes. I was sure that’s what it was, because I’d heard about that for years. Singers—especially rock singers—get nodes and callouses from screaming and banging their vocal cords together. I was kind of laughing about it, kind of like, “The years have caught up with me, Doc. I have some nodes, so laser them off and we’ll all be good.” They’d put a scope down my throat and look, but nobody found anything.
After the US tour we had a two week break before we left for Japan, so I went back to the studio to record some new songs. One was for my mother, who was battling cancer. She loved “The Rose,” from the Bette Midler movie, and she really wanted to hear me sing it. I laid down the piano part, and then when I tried to lay down the vocal I couldn’t sing at all. Eventually I managed to squeak it out in parts and put it all together, but that’s when I realized that something was seriously wrong.
We went to Japan and I squeaked my way through that tour, and when I got home I began what ended up being a 20 year journey to get my voice back. The first doctors I went to all said the same thing: “There’s nothing on your vocal cords, I don’t see anything wrong.” Eventually I went home to Philadelphia and found a doctor there. I told him that I felt like I was going crazy. I couldn’t sing a note but everyone was telling me that there was nothing wrong.
He approached the problem differently. Instead of running a scope down my throat he ran a neurological test. When the results came back he called me into his office and told me he had some good news and some bad news. “The good news is you aren’t crazy,” he said. “The bad news is that there’s something seriously wrong with your voice, and you’re probably never going to sing again.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Partial paralysis of the left vocal cord. It’s not always easily detectable in an exam, you really have to be looking for it.”
There are different degrees of severity for a problem like mine all the way up to 100% vocal cord paralysis, which leaves a person unable to speak. Mine was a 20% paralysis, which is enough to wreak havoc on a singer’s voice. There was no medical cure, no medicine or surgery that was going to get me my voice back. “Your only hope is to start working with speech pathologists and vocal coaches,” the doctor told me. “You’ll just have to try to strengthen it and train it back to work properly.”
Even at the peak of Cinderella’s success, I never really considered myself a singer. It didn’t dawn on me how important it was until I lost it. That’s when I realized that my voice was really my main instrument: that’s what delivers the emotions that I feel when I write songs.
People talk about the stages of grief, and I definitely felt them. My first reaction was denial. I spent the next year going to more doctors trying to find one who would tell me that mine was wrong and what I had was curable. Once I got past the denial stage, my first thought was, “Wow? Really? I’ve walked a straight line all this time to take care of my voice and this is what I get?” It was such a terrible feeling. I trashed a lot of expensive microphones dealing with that anger, and I spent a lot of time on therapists’ couches dealing with the depression that inevitably set in.
There was really a lot going on in my life at that time. This was all happening during the changing of the guard in the music industry. During that transition from ‘80s rock to grunge we lost our record deal. That just made me want to fight harder and make better music, but I couldn’t because my instrument had been taken away. It was so frustrating watching my career getting taken away from me and feeling like there was nothing that I could do about it.
During that same period my mother passed away. Without her I never would’ve gotten my first guitar or those first lessons that made everything possible, and now she was gone. It was a really dark time.
Over the next 20 years I worked with vocal coaches and had six different surgeries to repair what I call “collateral damage” to my voice. I’d torn it up further because it’s so hard to sing with this condition. There have been years that I couldn’t sing a note, and there have been tours where I’ve gotten away with it.
In the mid ‘90s we parted ways as Cinderella, not because we wanted to but because we felt like there wasn’t an outlet there for us anymore. That’s when I first started thinking about doing a solo record. I started recording songs in my home studio, and there’s actually a complete record sitting on the shelf that I’ll never release. It isn’t that the songs are bad, it’s just very disjointed. That was a really tough, confusing time, and that really comes through in the songs. I still have a hard time listening to that album.
Shortly after that I moved to Nashville, where I still live to this day. I love this town, and the musicianship here is insane. Anyway, without a band anymore and really wanting to work on my songwriting, it felt right to move on and get a fresh start. The move was a real shot in the arm of inspiration. Everything about the solo album that I did release, The Way Life Goes, is due to that – writing with other songwriters down here, the access I had to great musicians, it’s all just incredible. This is a really great town.
I get asked all the time why I didn’t just give up, and the answer is simple: Every time I tried to imagine myself doing something else I couldn’t. Even other careers in the music industry—just playing guitar, writing songs for other people, producing—I couldn’t imagine it. For me writing, playing, and singing have always been one thing, ever since I was first learning to play along with a Monkees songbook.
My friends and family who suggested those alternatives were just trying to help, but it wasn’t comforting. They were right: Those were all things that I could do, but there’s a big difference between making a living doing what you can do and what you love to do. I’m lucky that I got a taste of that, and it’s not something I wanted to let go.
These days people who know what I went through to get my voice back often share their own stories of struggle with me. There’s nothing more important to me than knowing that either through music or by sharing my own story people find something there that inspires them to overcome their own obstacles. It just doesn’t get any more meaningful to me.
What I tell them obviously depends on their story, but I believe that anything is possible in life, so don’t give up on something that you believe in. Have faith.
No matter how much I appreciated Cinderella’s early success, it’s nothing compared to how I feel now. Losing everything, working so hard to get it back, then stepping out on stage for an audience who really wants you to succeed, there’s just nothing like it.
In the last three or four years my voice has been as stable as it’s ever been, and in a lot of ways it is better than it was before all of this happened because I’ve learned so much about singing. I thank God every day that I’ve found a way back.
Photo Thomas Petillo