Q: You mean you have a tick disease now?
A: Well, I had two very bad tick bites in the ’80s, and my health has never recovered since then.
Q: Is that why we don’t see so much of you?
A: I can’t sing. I have Parkinson’s disease, which may be a result of that tick bite. They’re saying now they think there’s a relationship between tick bites and Parkinson’s disease — that a virus can switch on a gene, or cause neurodegeneration. So I can’t sing at all.
In fact I couldn’t sing for the last five or six years I appeared on stage, but I kept trying. I kept thinking, “What if I tried singing upside down? Or standing on my head? Or while juggling? [Laughs] Maybe I’d be able to sing better then.”
So I didn’t know why I couldn’t sing — all I knew was that it was muscular, or mechanical. Then, when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I was finally given the reason. I now understand that no one can sing with Parkinson’s disease. No matter how hard you try. And in my case, I can’t sing a note.
Q: When were you diagnosed with Parkinson’s?
A: About eight months ago — just when I was writing the acknowledgments for the book, actually. I got the initial diagnosis, but they didn’t confirm it until six months later. I didn’t want to write about it in the book, because I wasn’t sure.
Q: You noticed the symptoms in your voice before anything else?
A: Yes, but it didn’t occur to me to go to a neurologist. I think I’ve had it for seven or eight years already, because I’ve had the symptoms that long. Then I had a shoulder operation, so I thought that must be why my hands were shaking. Parkinson’s is very hard to diagnose. So when I finally went to a neurologist and he said, “Oh, you have Parkinson’s disease,” I was completely shocked. I was totally surprised. I wouldn’t have suspected that in a million, billion years.
Q: You seem to be handling it emotionally quite well.
A: There’s nothing you can do about it except inform yourself. And I’m learning from other Parkinson’s patients that there are different treatments besides the drugs they give you. There are other things to try besides [the drug] L-DOPA, which I’ll go on only when I’m circling the drain. [Laughs] I’m so sensitive to drugs you have to talk me into taking aspirin.
A lot of patients tell me marijuana is very effective for Parkinsonism. But I don’t tolerate that very well either, so I don’t think it will help me. Unless it has low THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) — I’d have to find the kind that doesn’t get you stoned! [Laughs]
Q: You’ve kept your sense of humor, though.
A: Well, that’s about the only thing I got left. [Laughs]
Q: You’re 67 now. Our generation thought we would be forever young. Is 67 what you thought it would be, or has your disease altered that?
A: Well, my father was quite robust until he died [at 84]. My grandmother was 96 when she died. She was doing fine. My mother didn’t fare quite as well, but she died pretty fast once she got sick. I didn’t see people in a decrepit state. So it’s a little shocking to me. I used to feel kind of impatient with people who couldn’t do things fast, or couldn’t remember stuff. Now I have tremendous sympathy for them. I’m still walking and talking, but I walk really slowly.