For OC Weekly Photojournalist Andrew Youssef, Life Was Music. Then Came Cancer
Sneakers squeaking on white tiles, Andrew Youssef roams Long Beach Memorial Hospital. It's 5:30 p.m., and for the bespectacled, well-mannered pharmacist, that means quitting time. He isn't heading home to a sloshy TV dinner, a plush couch and HBO. Instead, he can't wait to ditch his scrubs and pursue his true calling—his night job.
Youssef dips into the locker room and rips off his turquoise jump suit. As a freelance concert photographer over the past seven years, he has shot everyone from Black Sabbath to Cold War Kids. The rush to change and get back into the action has hardly lost its thrill. Switching into his usual all-black uniform of jeans, a T-shirt and a windbreaker, he fetches his trusty Nikon D4 and his blue bag of pills and is off into the neon night.
Nearly three years ago, Youssef was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Since then, he has held fast in a heroic battle against the illness. His survival rate past five years was less than 6 percent. Today, as the cancer in his body advances, the 38-year-old finds himself nearing the end of his fight; recently, doctors gave him weeks to months to live.
During his epic struggle with the disease, on a good night, if everything went right, Youssef would drive out of the hospital with time to spare, a subtle grin on his face in the waning moments of purple-stained sunlight. Heavy-metal guitars would rattle his car windows. Watching his transformation from hospital pharmacist to a concert photographer, most people would never know they'd witnessed something akin to Clark Kent becoming Superman.
"I wonder how I did it sometimes," Youssef says. "There were times when I'd be up until 3 a.m., and my alarm would ring for me to work at the hospital a few hours later at 6:15 a.m. There's a certain adrenalin you get from being able to do that."
Youssef has the art of pre-show prep down to a science. Tips such as clearing his memory cards after every gig and scouting a band's stage lighting are coiled up with nagging reminders to take Lomotil and Imodium to prevent diarrhea, nausea or other stomach problems in the middle of a shoot. He never ate right before a gig. Impeccable hydration was a must.
As he'd zoom down the freeway, he would run through his meticulous mental notes: Has he shot this band before? What's the route to the venue's nearest bathroom should he need to stumble in and throw up? Where should he post up in the photo pit to get a good shot without getting trampled? Exactly how long should he wait for the woozy side effects of his chemo to kick in before ducking out to his car?
Looking back on the stress Youssef has endured for his craft, he recalls the concern of friends who worried he wasn't getting enough rest. "I'll sleep when I'm dead," he remembers thinking. "If I have the energy to do something, I'm gonna do it. Because there's gonna come a time when I won't have it."
* * *
From the day of his devastating diagnosis, Youssef has had every opportunity to wallow, shut out the world and let his illness quietly choke whatever spirit he had left. Luckily, he didn't let that happen. Instead, he vigorously embraced his passion as a concert photographer. Powered by relentless, defiant—some would say bat-shit crazy—ambition, he crisscrossed Southern California, the country, even the world to capture more than 330 shows since the arrival of the Big C. His day job as a pharmacist in a hospital affords him the professional knowledge of how bad his health situation could get should he push himself too hard.
Despite that, his desire to fulfill his concert and photography bucket list has taken his experience as a fan and his relationships with some of his favorite artists to startling heights. He has befriended rock stars, received beyond royal treatment at shows, even dined with elusive Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor (who now follows him on Twitter).
Helmet's Page Hamilton, a revered renaissance man and alt-metal figure since the '90s, used to see Youssef at just about every show the band would play in LA, and in 2007, they struck up a friendship. During the Christmas season after he was diagnosed, Hamilton showed up one day at Youssef's home for a jam session. The squealing white noise of Hamilton's guitar echoed alongside Youssef's deft guitar chugging. "I just felt in my heart at that moment that he was gonna get through it," Hamilton says. "It's just devastating."
It has given his last days one hell of a soundtrack.
* * *
For the past nine months, Youssef has spent most Wednesday evenings on a laptop with the daunting task of condensing the toughest years of his life into 450-word chunks for all to see. From the living room of his family's middle-class, one-story home, he types methodically, his computer on his knees, skinny limbs sunken into a brown, marshmallowy recliner. The house is tucked inside a Downey cul-de-sac; a lone palm tree on the lawn guards the door, a large front window and its faded drapes.
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.
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."
* * *
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.
For a fan who has listened to Nine Inch Nails for his entire adult life, addicted to the heavy, serrated synths and brooding imagery that compelled him to follow their every move, this was about as surreal as it could get. Only a few hours earlier, Youssef and his brother walked in through the back of the LA Sports Arena, peeping around the corner to watch Reznor and company rehearsing for their upcoming fall arena tour. It had been barely a week since the two had been among a packed crowd at the Troubadour, probably as intimate a gig as the band has ever played locally.
It's still a little unclear just how Reznor had heard about Youssef, but there are theories. Maybe he'd seen the column Youssef had written about shooting the band at this year's Outside Lands; perhaps someone in NIN's inner circle who knew of Youssef's situation and dedicated fanhood tipped off the right people. But on Aug. 29, just after midnight, Youssef heard a chirp on his phone that notified him of one of the simplest, most unbelievable messages he has ever received: "Trent Reznor now follows you on Twitter."
For the record, Youssef is one of about 200 people out of Reznor's more than 1.6 million followers to hold that distinction. Naturally, he was floored—and mystified. A day later, Reznor emailed Youssef directly, personally inviting him and his brother (also a huge NIN fan) to the band's ultra-intimate Troubadour show.
The band's team made sure Youssef and his brother had the best seats in the house. Following the show, NIN's tour manager extended another invitation their way, this time to spend five days watching rehearsals at the Sports Arena. So there they were.
"I was loaded up on medications in order to get me through the time spent there, as I was well-aware this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Youssef later wrote of the experience. "It never got old seeing some of my favorite songs performed back to back."
Whenever they dimmed the lights to rehearse their visually explosive show, Youssef found a way to sneak in tears of gratitude and dry them quickly before the lights went up. For a half hour every day of that week, he and Reznor ate lunch together, talking about everything from Breaking Bad to his resolve to battle cancer to the end. When it was all over, Youssef left with a signed Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 12 synthesizer that he'd bought from the band (for a steal)—signed by every member. It sits triumphantly in his family's home next to his favorite chair and his Apple desktop; when the mood strikes, he's liable to lean over and plunk out the riffs on "March of Pigs."
* * *
"This is the most difficult column I will ever write."
Those were the only words Youssef could think of to start his column on Sept. 26, barely a week after his oncologist's final bullet of sobering news. The new chemical trials he was taking as a last-ditch effort to cure his cancer hadn't worked. There was nothing else his doctors could do. It was recommended he seek palliative care, then hospice. The amount of time doctors predicted was piercingly vague: "weeks to months."
To reserve what was left of his emotional fortitude, he restricted himself to calling a handful of close friends and family to circulate the news, share tears and endure canyons of dead silence over the phone. The evening after his column was posted, his brown recliner sat empty; he went to LA to shoot a Depeche Mode concert.
For plenty of local media types, Youssef's fight has made him a folk hero. On the opening night of Depeche Mode's three-night stand at the Staples Center in October, he was mobbed by concerned colleagues anxious to talk to him. It felt unnatural; he missed the old thrill of slipping in, taking shots and disappearing before anyone knew he was there.
That night, he didn't want to talk about his struggle to carry his equipment or his muscles fighting fatigue, with Ritalin to keep him awake. It was about taking that perfect shot of moody front man David Gahan singing with his eyes open, something that rarely happened and would certainly make his gallery of photos stand out. It was about the thrill of having the best vantage point in the house to take in the precious moments in the presence of one of his all-time favorite '80s bands, possibly for the last time. Ironically, he says, it felt as if he were shooting his first show again. The adrenalin from that show fueled him through all three nights.
"I think Andrew just wants to be normal and do his job," says Timothy Norris, an LA Weekly photographer and one of Youssef's longtime colleagues. "Some of us, me included, are more interested in just getting home some nights. And I'm sure he is, too. But when it matters to him, he's staying. He's gonna make sure he hears that band."
Youssef is reserving his dwindling energy supply for a few choice endeavors, including using a pair of tickets to see NIN again in LA on Nov. 8. "He's planning to go and do another shoot," says Art. Though he fights to hold back his tears, his quivering, accented English conveys hopefulness and heartbreak. "He's still planning to go, and God help him. And we love him for it."
This week, Youssef drove to Long Beach to meet up with Dexter Holland, the Offspring front man and OC punk legend. They befriended each other after an interview Holland did for the Weekly some time ago. The plan involves one more thing Youssef has never done before: man the co-pilot controls of a four-seater charter plane, as he and Holland (a licensed pilot) take off down a runway. As always, his camera bag was in tow.
He takes pride in documenting every high point. Each photograph represents a notch on his belt that his disease can't take away. "For me, it's all about trying to prove to myself that I wouldn't let this beat me," Youssef says. "I'd like to think I'm just as stubborn as my cancer."
In life, maybe there's no greater joy than to watch a person with nothing left to give dig deep to somehow find a little extra, enough to flip open a laptop and release their pain, stand up and leave the house, lift a camera and get the shot.
Whether you discovered Youssef through his column, sweated it out with him on the front lines of Coachella, or are seeing his face for the first time on the cover of this newspaper, there's no doubt he has shown people what that kind of strength is all about. He reminds us that Superman is often the guy you least expect—the guy who spends his life in the trenches. Though not long for this world, he's prepared to leave it exactly the way he should—at peace, hurtling towards the clouds, a mortal looking down on the world through the lens of a god, flying high.
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