With a new recording, a new book, and a new lease on life, Boynton Beach-based blues vocalist, bassist and guitarist Mark Telesca (marktelesca.com) has hit a figurative trifecta.
Higher Vibrations is his first recording of solo acoustic blues as a singer and guitarist, and that new lease on life is chronicled in Telesca’s debut as an author. Available in online and paperback forms, Love Music Hate Cancer is the title of his self-published memoir, and its subtitle of How the Blues, Bohemian Rhapsody & Chemotherapy Saved My Life: A Survivor’s Story leaves a lot to unpack.
And unpack he does.
In early 2017, Telesca, 59, underwent surgery to remove parts of his large and small intestines, plus restructure his colon, which was in near-collapse. The cause proved to be Stage 2 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, resulting in several months of chemotherapy — and setbacks from trying to go back to work too soon — before an eventual return to relative normalcy. Isolated at his home for most of 2017 to avoid risk of infection, especially after going back out in public with a compromised, post-chemo immune system and being hospitalized again, Telesca used the time not only to recover, but to arrange the blueprint for the book.
In Love Music Hate Cancer, he recalls the ordeal in vivid detail, and tells how he got there; who and what helped him get through it, and his dietary and philosophical ideas and exercises for fellow cancer sufferers and their caretakers. All told in a conversational, straightforward voice befitting a Brooklyn-born, Queens and Long Island, N.Y.-raised Italian-American lead singer.
“The mission of telling my story is to inspire other people who may need it,” Telesca says. “And perhaps to help them think more positively, if necessary, through some pretty simple changes in their lives.”
Practically in a previous life, Telesca spent more than 30 years working in a variety of different funeral homes. Perhaps subconsciously, his voice in Love Music Hate Cancer is that of someone who’s grateful not to have experienced the end game he’s had to help so many families through.
“This book is dedicated to anyone who is going through cancer or any other health issues,” Telesca writes as an introduction. “This kind of struggle happens to so many of us, so it’s important for us to share our stories. This way we know — we are not alone.”
Love Music Hate Cancer features a foreword by Dr. Janice Johnston, a physician who’s also chair of the Memphis-based Blues Foundation’s HART Fund, which helps blues musicians in everything from medical and dental expenses to, yes, funeral costs. In the appendix, Telesca lists it among more than a dozen organizations that provide such relief.
“Most of the organizations I’ve listed helped me directly,” he says, “and most of those helped financially in indirect ways. One would send a $500 gift card for me to pick up at the local Publix where I shop. Another would tell me to send in my car insurance bill for them to pay. Those offerings are unbelievably helpful.”
The book also features a section for journaling, which helped Telesca through his painful post-surgery relief and literally poisonous chemo treatments. There’s also “An Exercise in Visualization” section at the end by Usui Reiki master Jessica Delgadillo. Photos show Telesca’s parents and childhood shots of him with his older sister Donna; the author looking gaunt and pale during and after chemo treatments, and various stages of him with his wife Karene and daughter Mariah over a 20-year span.
Early chapters document Telesca growing up as a misfit kid, and the familiar yet always-individual addendum of finding solace, relief, and a sense of purpose through music — one that’s resulted in him since traveling to Memphis for the finals of the annual International Blues Challenge four times (twice with full bands; twice as a soloist).
An award-winning songwriter with a signature Tradition bass model made by Austin, Texas-based Delaney Guitars; author of the instructional manual Bass Guitar Chops: Pentatonic Lessons, and an international touring artist, the fruits of Telesca’s labor are spelled out by the middle of the book.
Obviously capable of handling a challenge, Chapter 5, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is titled for the arduous one Telesca presented to himself — playing the epic Queen tune from beginning to end as a finger-picking acoustic guitarist. The chapter begins by telling how impactful the hit became around Telesca’s house when it was released in 1975, when even his mother was singing it around the kitchen table.
With its classically influenced intro, instrumental, hard rock and overdub-laden operatic sections, all documented in the hit 2018 film of the same name, Queen even decided it was too difficult to play in its entirety live and opted for pre-recorded sections over concert PA systems.
“I put a year into learning this song,” Telesca writes to end the chapter. “These days, I’m playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at almost every gig I do with my acoustic guitar. And I’ve yet to play it correctly from beginning to end! But whenever I play it, or hear that song on the radio, it brings me back to that old kitchen table and listening to my mom sing.”
Chapter 6, “The Funky Biscuit,” is named for the Boca Raton-based nightclub where Telesca plays one of his most high-profile recurring gigs. On Monday nights, as bassist/vocalist for the Funky Biscuit Allstars, he hosts the popular “Biscuit Jam,” with special guest performers and multiple sit-ins by professional area musicians.
Telesca started hosting the event in 2014, subbing for talented South Florida-based guitarist/vocalist David Shelley, who was going through his own cancer battle. When Shelley succumbed to the disease in August of 2015 at age 57, Telesca became his eventual full-time replacement.
“I tend to stress having the ‘want to’ factor in order to succeed,” says Funky Biscuit owner Al Poliak, “because if you don’t have that, it always involves heavy lifting. Mark has that ‘want to’ quality.”
Poliak’s own such quality included arranging a YouCaring site, which raised $18,000 in donations to help offset Telesca’s medical and living expenses while he couldn’t work. Beyond that, Poliak even surprised Telesca upon his return with an envelope filled with cash to pay him for every night he missed due to his illness and recovery.
Chapter 7, “Cancer Can Rock,” describes the Falls Church, Va.-based non-profit organization, also listed among Telesca’s benefactors, that was founded by multi-platinum record producer and brain cancer survivor Jim Ebert. His specialty is recording musicians who are fellow cancer survivors, and Telesca describes the trip north, and the complementary recording and video session of his own composition, “It Don’t Matter,” in detail.
Telesca was initially going to call his new recording New Life, but opted for Higher Vibrations. Filled with nine of his original tunes and several pre-World War II blues standards, the solo disc was recorded live in the studio in the no-frills manner of that bygone era.
“It actually is a new life for me,” he says. “But in my studies while trying to get better, I started to look into paradigm shifts, something I started trying to consciously achieve. It can help those who go through something devastating. And when you can accomplish that shift, it means you’re living on a higher vibration. There are theories that life is all about vibration, and the higher your vibration, the higher you can get on the figurative pyramid. Even just going from bass to a guitar, the strings are vibrating higher. Beyond that, the CD is old school; just me, my voice and my guitar.”
Already one of the busiest musicians in South Florida (with working dates on 25 of 29 nights in February between solo gigs, ones with his quartet, and as host of the “Biscuit Jam”), the singer. bassist, guitarist and author has added a new occupation as a motivational speaker. Perhaps talking publicly about his writing, and his tools toward overcoming such unfortunate diagnoses, will be his new life.
“I’m looking forward to these talks I’m giving,” Telesca says in early February on a rare night off. “My goal is to get really close to everybody in the audience, and be engaging enough to grab their attention. I’m hoping to eventually be able to speak at places like universities and hospitals, while making sure this all continues to come from a good place.”
If You Go
See Mark Telesca discuss Love Music Hate Cancer at the release party for the book and his new Higher Vibrations CD at 8 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Funky Biscuit, 303 S.E. Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton (561-395-2929). Telesca also gives lectures on the book at 11 a.m. Feb. 24 at the Institute for Learning, 21346 St. Andrews Blvd., No. 142, Boca Raton (561-883-0999), and at 3 p.m. Feb. 29 at the North Regional/Broward College Library, 1100 Coconut Creek Blvd., Coconut Creek (954-201-2600). For info on his other shows, visit marktelesca.com.