By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
About two-and-a-half years after his diagnosis, Youssef had shared the news of his illness with only his closest friends, family and colleagues. Even as the disease advanced, he worked hard, as always. Rarely one to surrender to aches and pains, he was even less likely to talk about them. But then after so many years of watching and reading about people dying from the same affliction, Youssef had a change of heart. In late February, he started writing his column, chronicling his struggle with cancer.
The disease had come out of nowhere in early 2011. At first, he didn't know what was wrong. He'd lost about 20 pounds and seemed to be getting sick more easily than usual. Then, during an assignment shooting Gang of Four at the House of Blues for the Weekly, Youssef was seized by stomach pain and nausea—he'd barely made it through the gig before stumbling to his car. Streaks of blood in his stool, he says, "should've raised more red flags."
Soon after, Youssef passed out at work and was rushed to the ER. A colonoscopy and a CT scan revealed spots in his liver. Later, the doctor sat with him and his parents to deliver nine terrible words that stuck vividly in his mind: "You have colon cancer that's spread to your lungs."
Youssef immediately broke down. How could this have happened? He was young, ran marathons and ate right. By his estimation, he was a good person. He didn't deserve this.
But there was no time for self-pity. The doctors immediately wheeled him into surgery to remove a tumor that was blocking 98 percent of his colon. The operation left him with a zipper-like scar on his abdomen. The simplest tasks became excruciating: rolling over onto one side or walking from his hospital bed to a chair. The cancer had already spread diffusely to Youssef's liver, like a point-blank shotgun blast.
Days dragged by, filled by tear-stained conversations with a handful of friends over the phone and with his parents and brother, who rotated shifts by his side at the hospital. He dutifully emailed his employers, telling them he'd be out of commission—he didn't know for how long. Youssef no longer attended shows, which only enhanced his depression. Because of the surgery, he missed shooting Coachella 2011. He managed to watch a few minutes of the live stream of the Indio festival in bed before closing his laptop in disgust. "The sad part is I barely even had the strength to lift up my laptop at that point," he recalls.
Two months later, after moving from Huntington Beach back to his parents' house in Downey, Youssef decided to get back to the business of shooting shows. "I knew I had to get up and regain some sort of active life, or I would die a lot quicker," he says.
The first show on his list was Fleet Foxes at the Hollywood Palladium in September 2011. Days before, he prepared himself by doing laps around the house with a camera bag strapped over his shoulder.
For the first time in years, Youssef found himself asking for a ride to the show. One of his friends and fellow photographers, Lindsey Best, was kind enough to not only drive him up, but also watch over him as he sat against the barricade, conserving his energy for the headliner.
The roar of fans and the sight of Fleet Foxes' grinning, bearded front man, Robin Pecknold, walking onstage gave him the lightning bolt of adrenalin he needed. He remembers barely having the arm strength to hold up one of his 8-pound cameras. But he heaved himself up and held the camera, which felt like an anvil in his trembling hands. Youssef adjusted the shutter speed to account for his shaking, and before he knew it, it was over. He'd made it through the allotted three songs.
When Best dropped him off at home, they hugged goodbye. Holding each other in her car with the motor running, they both began to break down.
"I couldn't believe after all I had been through that I successfully attended a concert and photographed the show," Youssef wrote in his second column, titled "Helplessness Blues at a Fleet Foxes Show," published this April. "For those three songs, I momentarily forgot I had cancer. It was and still is the best feeling in the world. I was back doing one of the things I loved to do the most."
* * *
To understand Youssef's love for concert photography, you have to know about Judas Priest's Defenders of the Faith tour stop at the Long Beach Arena in 1984. It was the height of the '80s metal scene, crusty Sunset Boulevard types, with Viking hair, black leather and forearm spikes, roamed the pit like Mad Max extras. It was on this sweat-drenched, beer-splattered floor that a 9-year-old Youssef found himself at his first concert, tagging along with his 14-year-old brother, Pat, and their father, Art (an Americanized take on his Arabic name, Atef). The trio couldn't have looked any more out of place.
By the time he hit his teenage years, the skinny, fair-skinned, Brillo-haired boy was addicted to concerts of the metal and grunge variety—the sounds that dominated his adolescence. Even his parents, both retired librarians, bucked just about every vocational stereotype, allowing their sons to blast KISS and the Scorpions as they drove to hockey games with the windows of the family's Chevrolet Caprice Classic down.