Lamb of Gods' Randy Blythe - Beautiful Tribute to "The Duke"
The Story of “The Duke”
Like it or not, one day you are going to die.
Frightening, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to stay constantly distracted than to deeply ponder one’s own mortality. But what if something happened to you that stripped away any pretense of immortality? What if you were made aware with 100% certainty that you were going to die, and die soon? That your time on earth was coming swiftly to an end, and that there was absolutely nothing you could do about it? How would you handle it?
I briefly got to know someone thrust into that terrifying situation. We only got to be friends for a short amount of time, but I learned a lot about strength and dignity from watching this man. This is how he handled it.
On Oct. 30, 2012, Lamb of God was playing a show in Phoenix, AZ. Before I went on stage, a guy named Adam came up to me and said “My friend Wayne Ford is a huge fan- he’s in the audience tonight. He got diagnosed with leukemia not too long ago, and he wanted you to have this.” Adam handed me a t-shirt that had the words FUCK CANCER printed on it. “Will you give him a shout-out, man? He’s got a hard fight ahead of him, and he could use the encouragement.”
“Of course,” I said, then asked the dude Wayne’s name again just to make sure I had it right. I wrote it out in Sharpie on my hand so I wouldn’t screw it up, and later during that night’s set I dedicated the song “Ruin” to him, saying “This one goes out to Mister Wayne Ford- fuck cancer, motherfucker! You’re gonna beat this thing!” It was a good show that night, and after the gig I met Wayne and his wife Courtney out by the buses. We took a photo together, and talked for bit about the cancer he had been diagnosed with in March of 2010- I mentioned that my wife and myself were both on the Bone Marrow Registry. Leukemia had killed Lamb of God’s merch girl, Evie Carrano, in 2008. My friend Nergal, the singer of Behemoth, had recently undergone a bone marrow transplant to treat the disease- thankfully he had made a full recovery. The blood cancer had hit close to home, and we wanted to help if we could- the amount of folks registered as bone marrow donors is woefully insufficient. After chatting for bit, we said our goodbyes, then I got on the bus and that was that.
Almost three years later, in January of 2015, I was getting ready to record the vocals for lamb of god’s album VII: Sturm und Drang. One afternoon I was checking my email and read one that my publicist Maria had forwarded me from a dude named Sammy. “Hey man, I don’t know if you even remember, but a few years ago in Phoenix you got a t-shirt from my friend Wayne Ford who has leukemia. He fought it hard for five years, but the treatments aren’t working anymore- Wayne’s not gonna make it, man. He’s decided to go home and spend his last days with family instead of in some hospital bed. I know it’s a lot to ask, but do you think you could get the whole band together and maybe say hello on the phone or something?”
I wrote Sammy back- regrettably, it would be impossible to get everyone together as we were in different parts of the country at the time, but I would certainly talk to Wayne. He wrote back, gave me Wayne’s number and email, and then I contacted him to set up a video chat. I remember being nervous in the days leading up to our virtual meeting- this was a fan of my band facing his own imminent demise. What could I possibly have to say to this dying man? I was a heavy metal singer, not a psychiatrist or a grief counselor. I thought very deeply on this, and consulted my father (who has experience in these matters). I decided that I would simply talk about whatever Wayne wanted to discuss, no matter if it was cancer, my band, politics, or
what we were having for dinner. I would not ignore the fact that he was dying, foolishly act like everything was ok, or make some ham-handed attempt to cheer him up- that would be selfish, a lame attempt to make me feel better in an uncomfortable situation. Most importantly, I decided would just listen to the man. I thought that if I were dying, that is what I want- just someone to hear what I was saying.
Wayne made it easy for me- he was quick to crack a smile through the bushy red beard he had grown now that the poisonous chemo no longer coursed through his veins. We talked openly about his cancer, and how he had fought it for the past five years. He spoke of how he was tired of not being at home for the holidays after spending the previous three Christmases in the hospital- in fact, he had been told less than a month ago that he was dying, just two days before Christmas. He told me how much it had sucked to not be able to eat what he wanted due to his cancer treatment’s dietary restrictions, and what a relief it was to have a decent meal whenever he wanted. He told me of a possible clinical trial that maybe, maybe could have prolonged his life a bit, but that he wasn’t interested- Wayne was done with hospitals and treatments. He told me of how he just wanted enjoy what time he had left; to spend it with his wife and family and friends. He did not once complain to me, nor bemoan his fate, or burst into tears- he didn’t seem to be that sort of guy (I know this to be true after further conversations with him, his wife, and his family- Wayne was a stoic man, a quality I greatly admire in a person). We talked some about my band and what we were up to, but mostly I remember asking him some questions, then just listening to his answers. I was deeply moved by the experience- when presented the option, Wayne had decided to live and die surrounded by his loved ones, and on his own terms, to the best of his ability. What more could any reasonable person put into his grim situation want?
Over the next few weeks, Wayne and I kept in touch, mostly via text message. Every now and then he would text me to ask me how I was doing, and I would do the same. There was even a bit of mutual ball-busting here and there- if I like a person, I feel compelled to pick on them every now and then, just to let them know I care. Wayne gave back as good as he got. During this period my bandmates finished recording the music for our new album, and I flew to California to record the vocals. I was sitting in the studio one day when I had an idea- I texted Wayne to ask him if he wanted me to video conference him into the studio so that he could check out some vocal sessions. Aside from guest vocalists, no one comes to the studio while I am tracking- not my bandmates, not anyone. It’s my time to do my thing, and I don’t need distractions. But (for obvious reasons), Wayne was an exception- plus, he was just a mellow guy. I remember after I turned off the video chat, my producer Josh said “Whoa, that was heavy. You guys just seemed so normal.” That was how our conversations were- normal. I didn’t beat him over the head with the fact that he was dying, but I didn’t ignore it and pretend that everything was going to be ok, either. Wayne didn’t need either of those things, so I tried to adjust my perspective to what had become his “normal” reality the best that I could- if he seemed to be accepting it with grace, then I would do my best to do the same.
One of the last messages Wayne sent me spoke of how he was going into a diner with his wife and was going to destroy some food- it made me so happy to read this, and I remember grinning like a crazy man and pumping my fist into the air as I read it- YEAH, BRO! FUCK SHIT UP, MAN! GO! GO! GO! I thought. He texted me one more time, but I was busy recording, and didn’t get back to him for a day or two. I regret not replying to him immediately, because I never heard from him again.
Shortly after his last message, I got another email letting me know that on February 3, 2015, Wayne had died peacefully at home, his beloved wife by his side. He was just 33 years old. I was sad to see him go, but I was happy that he was finally out of pain. He had fought as hard as he could for five years- the man deserved some peace.
While I was in the studio, I had asked Wayne if there was anything he wanted to say to the world, any particular words he wanted to be remembered by. My idea was to record him saying them over the phone and then layer them into the record, or perhaps I could take the words and work them into a song’s lyrics. “That’s really cool- let me think about it, man,” he said- but he never got back to me about it. I don’t know if he hadn’t made up his mind, or if he just didn’t feel like it. Regardless, I wanted to honor him in some way. I wanted this level, collected man who had become my friend, all the while staring down his own death, to be remembered through the music of the band he loved. Seeing how calm he remained was (for lack of a better word) inspirational. Those of us who think about how we will die all hope that we will do so with dignity, but no one knows how they will handle death until it comes for them. Wayne provided me with a living example of how to leave this world with grace. So I decided to write the lyrics to “The Duke” from my feeble understanding of his perspective, and in his honor.
Some of the lyrics for “The Duke” arose from things Wayne had said to me, others from a conversation I had with his wife, and some just from my own head. I had originally named the song “Immortalis”, but after a conversation with Wayne’s father Frank, I decided to keep the original working title that my bandmates had come up with, long before I had ever talked to Wayne. When I told Frank about the working title, he laughed and told me that he was a big John Wayne fan. He had named Wayne after the actor, who also happens to be known as… The Duke. Synchronicity at work.
For various reasons, my band decided to not release “The Duke” as an album track. I was fine with that- I thought the song and the story behind it would get more attention if it was released on its own later. And I do want the song to get attention, for more reason than one. Besides honoring this man I was friends with for such a brief amount of time, I want the story of The Duke to raise some awareness about leukemia, especially the need for blood marrow donors. There are not nearly enough registered donors to fill the need. Bone marrow matches are very specific, much more so than blood, and people die from leukemia and other blood related diseases each year because a suitable donor can’t be found. It’s easy, painless, and free to register- just go to WWW.BETHEMATCH.ORG. You may save someone’s life. Another great organization to support is The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society- they fund research and provide information and resources for patients with leukemia and lymphoma. Check out WWW.LLS.ORG to find out how you can get involved- 100% of the funds generated from the charity auction I set up to coincide with this release will go to the LLS.
I know from talking to Wayne while he was alive (and to his wife and family after his death) that he was a pretty private dude, a quiet and humble man. He wasn’t a big attention seeker, but in his final days he opened up and talked about his disease more- he knew how much his dying could bring awareness to leukemia, the need for bone marrow donors, and funding for research to try and find a cure for this terrible disease. If he were alive, he would undoubtably be annoyed by the attention I am trying to draw to him now- it would harsh his mellow. But his wife Courtney reassured me recently that he would understand why I am dong this- to try and help people- and that “he would be so honored to have not died in vain.”
Rest easy, brother. I’ll see you on the other side-