Andrew Youssef: An Appreciation of a Life Well Lived
Youssef with Trent Reznor
Courtesy Andrew Youssef
Andrew Youssef died at his home on Saturday, November 30, 2013 at approximately 8: 30 a.m. It was news that I'd been sadly anticipating for days now, though I was not ready for it when I answered a call from Youssef's older brother, Patrick. I'd just gotten home sweaty and tired from a morning run. A couple days had gone by since I'd heard from the beloved Weekly writer and photographer and I was antsy to get an update about his condition. No more than a minute after texting Pat to check in was I hearing the words I'd dreaded for so long: "Andrew's gone."
I plopped down on the edge of my bed, using whatever energy I had to hang on the line and absorb the news. For a minute, all I could do was wipe away a muck of sweat and tears. My ears tuned in to all the important phrases --"he went peacefully," "with friends and family," "no pain." It had been over two months since doctors gave Youssef the morbid prognosis that he had only weeks to months to live. I'd written a cover story memorializing him, and in the weeks that followed, Trent Reznor made sure every Nine Inch Nails fan in the world knew who he was. It still didn't quite prepare me to accept that the man with who made such an impact on my life and the lives of so many others in such a short period of time was now gone from this world.
Still, as I stared up at the clouds outside my bedroom window, a calmness washed over me. Maybe it was the dusty remnants of my Catholic upbringing or some residual food coma left over from Turkey Day, but I truly believe that Youssef's family, friends and supporters have reason to be thankful, even in this difficult time. Not just because he's gone to some better place. Not because he'd become a news item for Rolling Stone, CBS News, People Magazine, NME and nearly all of Village Media Group papers across the country within the space of two months before he died. It was because of a story his father Atef, an Egyptian immigrant, told me one day during an interview with his family for the cover story.
When he was just a baby, Youssef was raised in Toronto, Canada prior to the family's big move to Southern California. According to Atef, Youssef almost drowned in his neighbor's swimming pool when he was barely old enough to walk. He'd jumped in while no one was looking one day when his family brought him and his brother over to visit. All the sudden there he was, kicking, screaming and sinking. Within minutes, he could've died.
The oldest son of the neighbor's family saw Youssef drowning and pulled him out of the pool with one arm and saved his life. At age 38, Youssef wasn't old enough to remember the actual event as his father retold it during the interview.
Decades later, who could've guessed that Youssef would spend the rest of his life jumping into pools of photographers, daring to swim through a sea of bodies and lenses to get the best shots possible night after night. He showed a dedication to his work that made him stand out, not only because his number of years in the field, but because of how he carried his veteran status--with strength, pride and humility.
When I think about Youssef, I remember someone who was always prepared. From the soles of his tennis shoes, to the bottom of his camera bag, to the top of his head (covered by his signature white bucket hat), the man never went into a photo pit half-assed. And that's exactly how he lived his life. And at the point where he was told he didn't have much longer to live, that spirit only intensified. In the two and a half years since he was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, Youssef shot over 330 concerts between the Weekly, Stereogum and his own blog, Amateur Chemist. That number is pretty inspiring when you average out the fact that he was basically shooting a show every other day while living with his disease. He had every excuse to stay in bed and shut out the world. Instead, he produced a volume of work that shocked many of his perfectly healthy colleagues.
In late February of 2013, it was time for Youssef to jump into yet another pool--this time, it was an even scarier one. He decided to take a bold risk by asking to pen a column once a week that would chronicle his fight with cancer. Not only would he be announcing his condition to the world, he'd be reliving it all, often times in heart-breaking detail, week after week. Some of what he revealed about his struggle was personal, by some standards, even embarrassing. It was a real diary of a patient doing everything he could to stay alive. We decided to call it Last Shot.
Youssef with Page Hamilton of Helmet
Courtesy Andrew Youssef
From the moment he delivered his first column, I knew we had something. Sure, it was often a depressing subject when juxtaposed next to heavy metal listicles, scandalous local music news and essays about twerking. But from the outset, I knew if we could strike a serious emotional chord with people once a week by getting Youssef's story out there, it could have a real impact on our readers. Sure enough, I was right.
His messages in each column were bold, his writing was clear, and his knack for describing the clinical side of his disease with wit and wisdom was always on point. And most importantly, you couldn't read these columns without feeling connected to him in some way. You picked up the column once and all of the sudden you just had to follow it. The readership spread much farther than people who knew him personally. Every week, we'd get comments from readers around the country, even the world, who stumbled onto Youssef's work and wrote genuine thank you notes to him for what he was doing, begging him to keep it up. His audience included some of the very bands he'd written about and photographed--artists like Meshuggah, Helmet, Juliana Hatfield, and of course, Nine Inch Nails.
Most Youssef supporters reveled in the news that NIN's demigod frontman Trent Reznor had not only learned about Youssef and his story, but was inspired enough to reach out to the photographer directly in the last months of his life. Even if you weren't as huge of a fan of the band as Youssef was, it was marvelous to see the compassion and the special treatment they bestowed on such a kind, deserving soul. Both Youssef and his brother met them in person, were given the best seats in the house for NIN's Troubadour show this year and granted back stage VIP access to their rehearsals.
At his home in Downey, along with the mind-boggling amount of souvenirs, instruments and equipment he'd acquired from his favorite bands, Youssef basically had the holy grail of NIN fandom--everything from signed drumsticks, to a signed Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12 synthesizer they used on stage, to the analog tape of early backing tracks used on several of their records.
As he took me through his house, showing me all these things during our interview for the cover story, it was like his years of silent dedication to his craft had materialized into room full of once-of-a-kind stuff offered up to a one-of-a-kind person. And that was only a slice of the appreciation when you add it to the support from guys like Page Hamilton of Helmet, who befriended Youssef in 2007 and stuck by him after his diagnosis and almost always gave him a shout out from the stage when he knew Youssef was in the audience. There's the love and support of Meshuggah, who also granted Youssef VIP access to any of their head banging gigs. And we can't discount the glorious gesture from the Offspring's Dexter Holland--who took Youssef up in his private plane as he piloted the skies over Long Beach back in October. As always, Youssef had his camera in tow.
Youssef's final concert shoot with Depeche Mode
Like many who have known Youssef for a while, I felt blessed to have been there to watch his story finally get disseminated to the world and to actually see a response, one that will outlive Youssef for years to come.
After the cover story came out, one of the comments that hit me the hardest came from a guy named Steve Macht, the day after the story was published. Macht sent me an email thanking me for doing the piece on Youssef. It wasn't until I got to the bottom of his note that I realized who he was. He explained that he was the younger brother of the boy who had saved Andrew from drowning all those years ago in their family pool.
"I read your piece and I think to myself, good thing my brother saved Andrew, because he had one hell of a life to live, even if it was still too short. He sure didn't waste the time or the gifts that God gave him," he wrote.
Life as we know it is a fragile gift. It's a notion Youssef had been intimately familiar with on so many occasions. And because of that, he lived deliberately, chased his passions unconditionally and touched us all immeasurably. I am a better person for knowing him and as long as I'm around to spread his legend, I plan on doing just that. See also: Last Shot column archives Our cover story on Andrew Youssef Trent Reznor's Stunning Tribute to Andrew Youssef in Las Vegas Slide Show of Andrew Youssef's Best Photography
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