Lance Norman's telling the story for the second time, because he can't remember telling this bit 20 minutes prior.
He had emailed Toto guitarist Steve Lukather's PR people, telling them his experience of suffering a traumatic brain injury five years ago, and how through the recovery process he listened to tons of music like Toto and the Beatles. He wanted to thank Lukather for the songs that kept him going when learning to walk again seemed insurmountable. Moved, Lukather personally replied to Norman, offering two tickets and backstage passes to meet the Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, of which Lukather is a member, at their INB Performing Arts Center show on Sunday.
"I'm going to meet a Beatle," says Norman, in a low, whisper-like voice, "and Steve Lukather, who I highly respect as a guitar player."
Norman's memory condition is kind of like Drew Barrymore's character in 50 First Dates, he explains. He often tells stories multiple times within a conversation, but he doesn't mind when people say he's repeating himself.
"I could be sensitive, but that's not going to be healing," he says.
Today at a Perkins in downtown Spokane, Norman says between sips of Coca-Cola that he wouldn't have remembered to come to this interview if he hadn't written it down in a pocket-size notebook and set a reminder on his phone. Each day, he gets up and checks the large calendar mounted on his bedroom wall for the day's schedule. Here, he also marks down each time he eats. He could go days without eating otherwise, says the 51-year-old with piercing cornflower-blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair.
Norman — wearing a black T-shirt that reads: "I survived brain tumors, what's your superpower?" — says the focus of the meet and greet with the ex-Beatle has changed from a mere fan handshake to something more important. He recently discovered that Starr's own daughter, Lee Starkey, has had two brain tumor removal surgeries, the most recent in 2001.
"Now it's about talking with a fellow person who has experience with this," Norman says. "I plan on giving him one of these shirts, too. To give to his daughter."
The nasty head cold hadn't gone away for a couple of weeks, but as the busy general manager of a large department store in the Tri-Cities, Norman brushed the symptoms aside. One morning, it was like ice had taken over his body. He couldn't move a muscle. His wife called the paramedics, who were able to snap him out of it. The next morning, he again went catatonic. This time he was whisked to the ER, where doctors rushed him into a six-and-a-half-hour surgery. Had he waited any longer, his doctors said his brain tumor could have killed him.
The brain is a fickle organ. Even though the doctors removed only the tumor and water buildup from Norman's skull, leaving the rest of his brain whole, his life was significantly altered. He remembered how to speak and drive a car, but other skills like walking and playing guitar had evaporated. The motivated and driven person he once was no longer existed. Painful anxiety set in. With all the changes, he split from his wife, and he moved back home to Spokane to attend therapy at St. Luke's Rehabilitation Institute.
Now on disability, Norman lives with his father, and his brother serves as his guardian. These days he solves as many crossword and jigsaw puzzles as possible, hoping to help regain brain function and redirect those misfiring synapses to their original pathways. He'd like to be able to read a whole book again without forgetting main plot points, but for now he's content at his dog-washing job at a groomer's and attending multiple support groups a week.
And he still listens to rock music blasting in his headphones, especially on hikes or when he wants to forget about the realities of his existence. He's gotten reacquainted with old friends, including Bob Gallagher at 4000 Holes record store, who he's taking to the concert.
"This traumatic brain injury made me a better person. I'm infinitely more compassionate," Norman says. "How many people get to start over?"
Just then, Ringo Starr's cover of "You're Sixteen" comes on in the restaurant.
"Wait, listen," he says, pointing upward. "It's like they knew we were talking about him." ♦
Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band • Sun, Oct. 16, at 8 pm • $39.50-$124.50 • All-ages • INB Performing Arts Center • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • inbpac.com • 279-7000
All of the All-Starrs
They may not be as recognizable as Ringo Starr, but the rest of the ex-Beatle's crew have storied résumés as well:
• Todd Rundgren: Played with Utopia and helped produce albums for the New York Dolls, the Band and more
• Gregg Rolie: Co-founded Santana, Journey and Abraxas Pool
• Steve Lukather: Original lead guitarist for Toto
• Richard Page: Mr. Mister frontman
• Warren Ham: A multi-instrumentalist who's toured with Kansas, Olivia Newton-John and Cher
• Gregg Bissonette: A longtime studio drummer