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While still performing with Something Corporate, McMahon had started writing the material that resulted in Jack’s Mannequin’s 2005 debut, Everything In Transit. It was a solo side project that he expected would coexist with the band as an outlet for his more personal songwriting, and he even started touring as Jack’s Mannequin.
But exhaustion crept up on him, and he lost his voice, forcing him to cancel a show and go to a doctor. Noticing his pale complexion, the doctor ordered blood work, which revealed he had acute lymphatic leukemia.
“When I got sick, it changed everything,” McMahon says. “It really put a lot of things into perspective for me as far as the value of time and how you spend it. Jack’s was the authentic life for me at that point. And so while, yeah, [Something Corporate] didn’t officially break up, we’ve been on a five-year hiatus or whatever. My life changed considerably during that time, and my priorities changed a lot, too.”
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While McMahon was working on Everything In Transit, he became friends and collaborated with probably the last person with whom you would associate him—Tommy Lee. McMahon’s piano-driven, melodic, emotive rock isn’t what you would expect to grab the attention of a hair-metal icon. “And who would have known we would have been so chummy?” McMahon says, laughing.
The Mötley Crüe drummer dug Something Corporate, particularly stuff off North, and wanted to work with McMahon on what would become Lee’s 2005 release, Tommyland: The Ride. So he gave the youngster a call.
“And I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, cool.’ Tommy wanted me to come in and write songs with him,” McMahon recalls. “I dropped everything I was doing that day and rolled into the studio with him up in the Hollywood Hills and began this six-month stint in which we were recording and writing together, and he ended up playing on Everything In Transit. He even sat in with us for a couple of songs at a show.
“We don’t get to see each other as often as we used to, but when we do, it’s always a great reuniting. He’s been a good friend to me over the years, for sure.”
That good friend can be heard narrating Dear Jack. Originally meant to capture the making of Everything In Transit, the film wound up documenting McMahon’s 2005 fight with cancer with intimate, hand-held footage. It’s the visual equivalent of flipping through the most brutal pages of someone’s diary, though McMahon maintains a brave face and his winning sense of humor throughout. Viewers witness his hair falling out in clumps as he endures radiation treatments, as well as his breakup with his longtime girlfriend Kelly, another Dana Hills High graduate.
McMahon admits that he found it difficult to view—and that’s why it took so long to make. In order to get through the process, he had to remove himself from the story and approach Dear Jack from a filmmaker’s perspective. When the documentary was completed, he had reservations about putting that much of his personal life out for public consumption, but by then, it was too late.
“People assume they know a lot about me because I’m pretty open and my songs are often autobiographical, but at the same time, I’ve done quite a bit to make sure my private life is still private,” he says. “So it was scary to give people that much of a window into how I interact with the people close to me.
“That said, the value of the story and what we thought we were going to be able to accomplish raising money with the movie and giving people who had maybe dealt with a similar situation a touchstone seemed important enough to push forward and,” he continues with a laugh, “I had already agreed to do it three years ago.”
Although Dear Jack is named after a song he had written before his illness about someone he knew who suffered from childhood leukemia, it has a happy ending. McMahon and Kelly reunited and have been married for three years, and thanks to a stem-cell transplant from his sister Kate, who is 17 months his senior, McMahon’s leukemia remains in remission. “I have this conflict about people saying, ‘You saved him,’” says Kate, who lives in San Francisco. “It’s such a no-brainer. I couldn’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t do that. I would have amputated my right arm for him.”
In 2006, McMahon founded the nonprofit charity the Dear Jack Foundation to raise funds for cancer research; proceeds from the sale of the DVD, which can be purchased at DearJackMovie.com, go to the foundation. And in January, Jack’s Mannequin announced their fall 2009 acoustic tour had raised more than $10,000 for Dear Jack.