Francisco Ramirez was having trouble sleeping. It was January 1999, and he'd just come home from a gig at the Fireside Bowl, playing bass with notoriously rowdy local punks the Traitors. "I couldn't get to bed because my stomach was hurting," he says, "so I went to the hospital."
At 5 AM, after three hours in the emergency room, he finally saw a doctor. "And I was so out of it and tired and exhausted and frustrated by then, that when he told me my white-cell count was really high and it looked like cancer, I completely blocked it out. I went home."
But the bad news sank in soon enough, and within days Ramirez was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia--a common form of the disease, but one typically associated with children or the middle-aged, not adults in their mid-20s. It's caused by a mutated chromosome, and heredity isn't usually a factor: "The doctor told me the only way it could be genetic is if I had a family history from [the atomic bombing of] Hiroshima or Nagasaki," he says. "Which I don't."
Almost six years later, after one transplant of bone marrow and another of stem cells, Ramirez is finally back in good health and working with a new band, Gasoline Fight. The group just released its debut EP, Useless Piece of Weaponry (Thick), and on Tuesday plays the Double Door on a bill headlined by Tight Phantomz.
For the first two years after his diagnosis, Ramirez kept the cancer at bay with pills and other relatively noninvasive treatments. He even managed a couple more tours with the Traitors, though not without making concessions to his illness. "I would have to inject myself with interferon in my legs the morning after a show," he says.
After a five-year run, the Traitors called it quits in early 2000. ("The shows were just getting too violent," says Ramirez.) An employee of local promoters MP Productions since 1995, Ramirez kept his job overseeing shows and working the door at the Fireside, and at the end of the year the Traitors reunited for a New Year's Eve gig. "I was feeling OK," Ramirez says. But in summer 2001 doctors took him off his medication in preparation for a bone-marrow transplant. "That's when I started getting really sick again--it accelerated really fast." He was constantly tired and couldn't sleep. His spleen swelled painfully--the same symptom that had sent him to the hospital more than two years before--and he ran a fever for months.
In September 2001 Ramirez returned to his native Texas and rented an apartment near Houston's world-renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He stayed there for almost seven months, first undergoing intensive chemotherapy--24 hours a day for five days straight--and in November receiving the marrow transplant from his older brother.
"After the transplant they put a catheter in my chest, which was stitched in on my right side, so I really couldn't do anything like drive or play bass," says Ramirez. "Plus, my immune system was still really weak. I spent most of the time resting and going to comic-book stores."
But during his convalescence Ramirez thought a lot about music. He and his friend Scott Anna, a fellow Fireside employee and drummer for Sweep the Leg Johnny, had been kicking around ideas for a new band. "We'd always talked about doing something that wasn't quite as speedy or punk as the Traitors were, and not as complex and twisted as Sweep was," recalls Anna. "Something a little more rock 'n' roll." Ramirez says that after he returned to Chicago in March 2002 they tried to start something, "but it never really got off the ground."
Over the next year, though, the other members of the band that would become Gasoline Fight all came into Ramirez's orbit through his job at the Fireside. Guitarist Scott Flaster, formerly of the Michigan band Small Brown Bike, had moved in across the street and started working at the bowling alley that spring. And in the fall another guitarist, Stan Wood, a veteran of local postpunks Peralta, began doing sound there. "We started jamming and right away it sounded good," says Wood. "We had a lot of common tastes musically."
Still, it took the band a while to get off the ground: on top of the usual scheduling conflicts, Wood was often busy with the construction of his Volume Studios in Wicker Park, and even Anna dropped out for a few months to honor work commitments before rejoining in August 2003. And that summer, just as Gasoline Fight had finally started to write at a steady clip, doctors told Ramirez he needed another transplant. "It wasn't as bad, but I was still producing cancerous cells," he says. "But the [science] had progressed so much in just a couple years with stem-cell research that I knew it'd be a lot easier than the first one."
Ramirez would have to leave for Texas in December, and with that deadline looming the band scrambled to book its first shows and block off some recording time. It debuted in October at the Bottom Lounge opening for Unsane and shared a bill with HeWhoCorrupts at the Fireside in December. Ramirez also indulged in a couple more Traitors reunion gigs in November--"the final ones," he insists. By the time he left he'd also recorded his bass and vocal parts for the EP at Wood's studio. "We recorded all of the rhythm tracks and Fran did all his vocal parts," says Anna. "And then while he was gone we were able to take our time and work on the guitars and stuff and finish the record."
While recovering in Houston, Ramirez sent a copy of the completed Gasoline Fight tracks to Thick Records owner Zak Einstein, who signed the group when Ramirez got back to Chicago in May. The label put out Useless Piece of Weaponry in late September in the U.S. and plans to release it in Europe next month.
Ramirez describes the band's sound as "very midwest . . . similar to all the [old] Touch and Go and AmRep stuff we're all into," but the EP crosses into heavier territory on tracks like "Night Terrors Come and Go" and "Scum." Ramirez and Wood take turns on lead vocals and Flaster sings backup; the songs are all overdriven and assaultive, but they vary in texture, from the insistent riffing of "Threadbare" to the dynamic stops and starts of Ramirez's autobiographical "Truth of What Doctors Tell You . . ." The band is currently finishing material for a full-length follow-up, with an eye toward a release early next year on Thick.
Ramirez is still working for MP Productions (at the Bottom Lounge, now that MP no longer books the Fireside) and plans to transfer to the Logan Square Auditorium at the end of the month. "I'm still trying to get my stamina up a little," he says. "I lost a lot of muscle in my playing arm and I have to get that back some. But I'm almost a hundred percent right now."
According to his bandmates, Ramirez resisted self-pity and kept his sense of humor, even when he learned he'd have to make a second trip to Texas. "Me and all my friends, we made fun of [the disease] all the time," he says. "Joked about it, really. I never, ever got depressed over things."
"Fran's incredible. Incredibly strong," says Anna. "He's dealt with it better than anyone I could imagine. Thankfully we can just focus on the music now."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.