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
After graduating high school, Youssef left home to study pharmacy at University of the Pacific, a career he picked on a whim in high school but had a knack for, thanks in part to his father's stark change in professions from library science to perfumery. With an animated charm and passion for business, Art opened his own perfume/cologne stores in the mid-'90s, one in Downey and another in Torrance.
Day after day, Youssef would work for his dad, sorting various classifications, compounds and chemical ingredients of various scents. Even today, the inventory of the business they ran for 15 years lingers in the Youssef home, a glass display case filled with boxes of Yves St. Laurent, Liz Claiborne and Dior collecting dust in a corner of the family room. Art still hawks some of it on eBay when he can.
Since moving back home with his parents, Youssef now keeps his strength up by practicing his chops on one of two Marshall half stacks and a multicolored arsenal of pedals and electric guitars. But the initial buzz he got in the local music scene was with a point-and-shoot camera, not a guitar. He'd snuck it into a Juliana Hatfield show at the Knitting Factory in 2006. Youssef has been enamored by her "honey-sweet vocals and chunky Gibson SG guitar riffs," he says, since his days as a college DJ. Most of the photos he snapped were embarrassingly blurry. But the few good ones provided enough excitement to inspire his devotion to the lens. He started a grassroots indie-music blog, Amateur Chemist, in 2006—it was not only his outlet, but also an excuse to photograph and review as many shows as he could get to.
It was then, in the heyday of the Detroit Bar's musical reign, that Youssef met Dave Segal, the Weekly's wiry, eclectic, then-music editor. At the time, Segal was looking for more vigorous live coverage of OC's music scene, and after a brief introduction and a few drinks, Segal recruited Youssef to join the freelance pool, where he garnered a reputation as a tireless photojournalism beast.
Talk to just about any photographer that has shared a pit with Youssef, and tales of his Herculean strength usually coincide with a time post-diagnosis, when he was probably too sick to even be outside. His column describes weeks spent flying across the country: to Chicago to photograph underappreciated '90s bands such as Hum, a sunburnt double weekend in Indio for Coachella, aboard a plane to San Francisco to shoot at Outside Lands. There was the time he photographed two shows on opposite ends of LA County in one night—catching Muse at the Staples Center in a LA, then his favorite post-punk act Quicksand at the Glass House in Pomona, at least an hour away.
Much thanks for this feat is owed to his savior/nemesis chemo drug Erbitux (Cetuximab), which often prevented him from falling asleep. But it was the abnormal (or perhaps normal) part of his psyche that allowed him to see his compulsion to stay up all night doing what he loved as an advantage. "One could argue that most healthy people shouldn't try to accomplish such things," he wrote in one column. "Good thing I'm not healthy."
Youssef's coverage of his battle with cancer serves as a topographical map of the daily peaks and valleys in his fight for survival. Usually, the bad (his crippling loss of strength, medication-induced acne rashes and mood swings) felt every bit as real as the good (befriending NYC alt-metal outfit Helmet, getting guitars signed by his idols Meshuggah, impulsive flights to catch shows in Godknowswhere, USA).
Folded into the emotional aspect of his weekly commentary has been tips for cancer patients—know your medications inside and out, be your own advocate, and never be scared to ask for a better explanation from your doctor. It's the kind of mentality, coupled with his wit and knowledge as a pharmacist, that made him the best and worst patient.
"I'm the best in that [doctors] automatically assume I know everything about my condition, so they miss telling me some things they should've told me," he explains. "But I'm the worst in that they know if they mess up, I'll know about it and be able to call them out very quickly."
Through the column, Youssef says, he hopes to inspire other patients to tear the skin off their polite, jargon-filled discourse with doctors and ask for their disease and their treatment to be explained in, as Youssef's mother would put it, "living-room language."
"What's happening with that blog is part of the future," says Caroline, adjusting her glasses and streaks of gray hair while sitting at home next to her husband, a balding, Egyptian-born immigrant. "People are going to be blogging about their illnesses and sharing their complaints and sharing things the health community is not talking to them about."
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Even at the height of his sickness, all the Make-A-Wish magic in the world hadn't prepared Youssef to sit across from Trent Reznor, two paper plates of craft-service food on the table between them.