For Photojournalist Andrew Youssef, Life Was Music. Then Came Cancer
|Andrew Youssef with Trent Reznor.|
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 August 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 September 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.
Andrew Youssef Shooting Depeche Mode at Staples Center
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 frontman 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 adrenaline 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 long-time 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."