For Los Straitjackets guitarist Danny Amis (aka Daddy-O Grande) what seemed like a simple pain in his leg led to a long and grueling journey through modern medicine and health care bureaucracy.
"In July 2010, I got a blood clot in my leg," Amis tells the Scene via phone. "I went to the hospital, and they found some irregularities in my blood. I was uninsured and never saw the same doctor twice.
"When the doctor told me I had multiple myeloma," he continues, "I asked him what it was, and he told me to go home and look it up on the Internet." What Amis found was that he had been diagnosed with a cancer of blood plasma cells that results in loss of red blood cells and destruction of bone marrow — and that in turn leads to severe anemia, weakening of bone structure and a variety of other health problems. Without treatment, his prospects were very grim.
Due to another pre-existing condition, Amis' health insurance had become too expensive to afford. And whatever money he had in savings didn't matter, as Amis explains. "There are certain procedures that are so expensive they won't even do them unless you have insurance."
But as bad as Amis' prospects were at that moment, there was hope. Just weeks before his diagnosis, one of the first elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, went into effect, thus making affordable insurance available for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Even though Amis was eligible for coverage, he found himself tangled in the red tape of individual states setting up the new system. That left him in the uneasy position of waiting five months before receiving treatment.
"I finally got insurance in December," Amis says. "The day it went into effect I had to be rushed to the hospital for a blood transfusion. My red blood cells were almost gone. If [the insurance] had gone into effect a week later, I wouldn't be talking to you now."
With his insurance coverage in place, Amis started receiving chemotherapy, and in May 2011, a stem-cell transplant. But the delay in treatment had its consequences.
"The cancer had deteriorated my bones," Amis says. "My back was broken in six places. I'm now four inches shorter as a result. That wouldn't have happened if I had gotten the treatment I needed. My bone marrow was 70 percent cancer when I was diagnosed. I shouldn't have survived this."
But as a band, Los Straitjackets have always been about beating the odds. Amis, a veteran of the early '80s instrumental band The Raybeats, moved to Nashville to work as an audio engineer in 1984. He met Eddie Angel in 1986 at a Jeannie and the Hurricanes show, the band that had brought Angel to Nashville.
"Danny came up to me and said he'd never thought he'd hear anyone play a Link Wray song in Nashville," recalls Angel. "He told me who he was and that he'd been in The Raybeats, and in my world that was a big deal."
Two years later, Angel and Amis united with drummer Jimmy Lester to form The Straitjackets. The trio played around Nashville for about a year before other musical commitments led to a split. But six years later, a chance meeting led to a second round for The Straitjackets.
"I ran into Eddie at a club, and Jimmy happened to be there," says Amis. "Jimmy suggested we should get The Straitjackets back together but make it a little different."
In the intervening years, Amis had become enamored with Mexican pop culture, and his new interest led to many of the changes. The infusion from south of the border brought about a new name, "Los" Straitjackets, and also their trademark look, with each member wearing his own distinctive lucha libra mask.
"Our original plan was to just make an entrance in the masks, play a couple of songs and then take them off," Amis says. "But once we saw how the audience was reacting, we kept them on."
After playing their first show at the now-defunct Nashville record shop Lucy's in July 1994, the band was quickly signed to Upstart Records and never looked back. Hooking into a nascent surf-music revival that was spurred in part by the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction, Los Straitjackets slowly built their fan following and won many people over to the cause of rock 'n' roll instrumentals.
In 1998, Amis relocated to Los Angeles. "We were touring a lot," he says, "and commuting wasn't a problem. I've always loved the weather in Southern California, so it seemed like the time to go."
Guitarist Greg Townson joined Los Straitjackets in 2010, allowing Amis to focus on his health and getting well enough to rejoin the band for the recording of their new album, Jet Set.
"After the stem-cell transplant I was a mess for about three months," Amis says. "I was so bored being cooped up at home; I started writing songs like crazy. It was great to be able to do that, and it helped me a lot. It gave me a goal to shoot for."
Los Straitjackets are currently on tour in support of Jet Set, with Amis joining them onstage for selected dates, including Saturday's show at Mercy Lounge. Although multiple myeloma is still considered incurable, with the proper treatment the prospects for managing the disease are good. That's given Amis new hope for the future, though he's still grounded in reality.
"I don't make any plans for the future," Amis says, "because I could drop dead any minute. But [Los Straitjackets have] been so fun, that's OK, I'm ready. I never thought it would last this long, and I'm really glad it did. And I'm going to stick around as long as I can."