12/15/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
At 25, Kevin Carlberg thought that his rock and roll fantasies seemed to be coming true. Last November Pseudopod—the jam-rock band featuring Carlberg and four college pals—had landed an $800,000 record deal and was touring cross-country to promote their debut album. But the night before a scheduled gig in Fort Collins, Colo., dreams of fame and fortune were interrupted by a real-life nightmare. While at dinner, the lead singer was struck by a crushing headache that would not go away. An emergency CAT-scan revealed a walnut-size tumor in the young musician's brain. "We were stopped in our tracks," says Carlberg, now 26, of learning he had cancer. "Life is more important than music."
But these days Carlberg is proving that music itself can be a lifeline. With his own brain cancer in remission after months of chemotherapy and radiation, he and his bandmates are back on the road. This time they pair many evening concerts with daytime appearances for sick kids at local hospitals for a charity called Rockin' for Kids. "Kevin's walked in these children's shoes, and they can see he's come out on the other side," says Terry Orzechowski, an activities coordinator who welcomed Pseudopod at Washington, D.C.'s Children's National Medical Center in October. "There's nothing more powerful for these kids."
Parents of Pseudopod's new fan base agree. At D.C. Children's, Emily Clayton, 7, a second grader from Sharp-town, Md., who has Hirschsprung's disease, a chronic intestinal ailment, joined other young patients shaking tambourines while Carlberg and a bandmate gave a brief acoustic performance. "Music is important," says Emily's mother, Lea, who says the concert relieved the grim hospital routine. "It heals." So does the sight of Carlberg performing—despite the fact that he is still undergoing chemotherapy treatment to ensure his cancer doesn't return. Says Pseudopod guitarist Ross Grant: "It's cool for kids to see someone doing what he loves instead of lying in bed."
Not that it was ever an option for Carlberg, a native of La Verne, Calif., who began playing guitar and writing songs at 16 and in 1998 joined a fledgling UCLA-student band called Pseudopod. By 2000 the group seemed headed for the big time, winning a best-college-band-in-the-U.S. contest and signing to record their first album for Interscope, which sent them on a 50-city Midwest tour. Then Carlberg's headaches struck. When doctors informed him he had cancer, he says, "the first thing that came to my mind was, Am I going to die?' "
The band abruptly canceled appearances while surgeons at UCLA Medical Center removed a malignant growth from Carlberg's right frontal lobe; then he began chemo and radiation treatments. "All of a sudden I saw how strong he was," says his wife, fashion stylist Meritt Elliott, 26. "He lifted everyone's spirits." As soon as Carlberg returned home to recuperate, he picked up his guitar. "I could still play, thank God," he says. In February doctors-who say his prognosis is "stable" and are guardedly optimistic that the cancer won't return-deemed Carlberg well enough to perform, and, at the suggestion of his comanager Mark Smith, Pseudopod began dropping in on hospitals. "I'd be up there with my head shaved and my scar," he says. "People can relate." The experience has given Carlberg a new perspective on a life that not long ago was focused mostly on achieving rock stardom. While Pseudopod is gaining radio airplay and concertgoers, this time out Carlberg says his hospital gigs are as important as gold record dreams. "This makes me feel that I'm giving inspiration," he says of singing to sick kids. "If I can be an example, maybe this is what I'm supposed to do."
By Thomas Fields-Meyer. Ron Arias and John Hannah in Los Angeles and Alexandra Rockey Fleming in Washington, D.C.