LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Chad Matheny dropped his pursuit of a master's degree in physics for a career as a musician. Under the name Emperor X, he's released eight albums, a bunch of cassettes. He had one of his songs used in a major motion picture. That was "Veronica Mars." Sam Greenspan reports that Matheny's done at all while facing some serious health issues.
SAM GREENSPAN, BYLINE: If you're looking for Chad Matheny when he rolls through your town, a good place to find him is at your local public transit hub.
CHAD MATHENY: Hey, Sam. Thanks for picking me up at the station.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN NOISE)
GREENPSAN: I met Chad Matheny at the Amtrak station in Emeryville, Calif., just next to Oakland. Matheny's whistle-stop visit to the Bay Area was one leg of a tour across North America playing music from the latest Emperor X record, "Oversleepers International."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "30,000 EUROS")
EMPEROR X: (Singing) I owe 30,000 euros to the German corporation that just cured me of a terminal cancer. Now I've got 87 notices reminding me they can't care at all if my ending came too soon.
GREENPSAN: Matheny was diagnosed with an advanced case of testicular cancer in 2014. He wrote and recorded the album while in recovery from an invasive surgery and throughout six months of chemotherapy.
MATHENY: I didn't want this to be the cancer record, you know? The cancer thing, to me, didn't seem like that big of a deal because I've always been trying to accomplish something that the universe keeps telling me I shouldn't do.
GREENPSAN: Matheny is referring to the fact that he's legally blind. He was born with a condition that prevents the lenses and muscles in his eyes from working as well as they should. And then in 1994, when he was 15...
MATHENY: I was in a car with a friend, and we were involved in an automobile accident. And the airbag blew up in my face and caused internal bleeding in my right eye.
GREENPSAN: Ever since, one of Matheny's eyes has low vision, and the other is nearly useless. That means he can't drive a car. And so for the past 15 years, he's been touring the world using public transportation. And in the U.S., that means mostly Greyhound bus.
MATHENY: I could rank the Greyhound stations of America from nicest, Milwaukee, to scariest, Dallas, and everything in between.
GREENPSAN: Matheny estimates that he crisscrossed the country by bus more than 20 times in the span of five years. And then in 2012, he left the U.S. for Berlin. In Europe, Matheny found that trains made his life as a touring musician with low vision remarkably easier. But just as his career was starting to look up, cancer. Fortunately, even as an uninsured person in Germany, Matheny was able to get treatment right away. He's now in remission. And in starting to deal with the hospital bills, Matheny thought a lot about what his life would've been like had he gotten cancer here in the States.
MATHENY: Not only have I thought about it - but I've done the numbers.
GREENPSAN: Like many musicians, Matheny went years with minimal health insurance or none at all. In Germany with no health insurance, he wound up in debt about 30,000 euros, roughly $35,000, which Matheny calculates is about the same amount of money he'd owe here in the U.S. if he did have insurance. And without it...
MATHENY: It would've been minimum a quarter million dollars, probably half a million, I'm guessing. It just would've been unsustainable. I would've declared bankruptcy or something.
GREENPSAN: In a study done in 2013, the Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for musicians, found that more than half of the musicians it surveyed did not have any health insurance. That was nearly triple the national average at the time. Kevin Erickson is the coalition's national organizing director.
KEVIN ERICKSON: We found that the more time that people spent on their artistic careers, the less likely they were to have insurance.
GREENPSAN: Now, the study was done before the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Erickson does say that things seem to have gotten much better since then but not for everyone.
ERICKSON: I'm just so tired of having to see benefit concert after benefit concert after benefit concert for musicians in health crisis. I mean, I do think about the songs that we'll never hear because it's just too hard for people to keep going.
MATHENY: I'm going to sing a fictionalized-true, true-fictionalized - I don't know which - song.
(Singing, playing guitar) I owe 30,000 euros to the German corporation that just cured me of a terminal cancer.
GREENPSAN: Back in San Francisco, Matheny is playing a house show for about 20 people crowded into a living room. He'll make about 60 bucks for his set tonight, enough to get him on a train down to Santa Cruz, where he'll play another show in another living room. The pay is nowhere close to what he'd need for a round of chemotherapy in an American hospital if his cancer were to come back.
MATHENY: It would be self-destructive to come back just for the insurance reason, let alone the transportation reason. And being a member of the middle class going to Europe and traveling as a musician - it really changed the way I looked at tour. I felt like an organ of society instead of a flea on the skin of a giant, cybernetic creature. I feel like the machine of the United States of America is allergic to me.
GREENPSAN: Chad Matheny is back in Europe now, touring music from Emperor X's not-cancer record.
MATHENY: We are much more than the sum of the diseases and disabilities that we carry with us. And I like to think that this record reflects that just very universal, human fact. Sam Greenspan, NPR News, San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROWN RECLUSE")
EMPEROR X: (Singing) And I know we won't react like the others do. It's okay. We won't panic and hide from the brown recluse.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.