A string of bad luck, then a break After 3 cancer battles, Columbia musician scores in film 'Pecker'

October 01, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Columbia musician Dave Hardin sometimes wonders whether someone has been sticking pins into a voodoo doll with his name on it.

First there was the lymphoma, when he was 29, and the doctor who Hardin says gave him too much radiation. Then the recurrence, when he was 32, and then the colon cancer, when he was 46, which forced him to put away his guitar and put his country music career on hold.

Now 52, he suffers from the gradual deterioration of spinal nerves, caused by the radiation treatments he received nearly a quarter-century ago, which threaten to confine him to a wheelchair.

But whoever holds the voodoo doll must have felt a pang of compassion in the spring. That's about the time Baltimore film director John Waters decided he wanted one of Hardin's songs -- "Baltimore, You're Home to Me" -- in his recently released film, "Pecker."

"It had to be a 'Pecker-ish' sound," Waters said. "That song was almost embarrassingly pro-Baltimore, and that's why I loved it."

As for Hardin, it's clear that having up to 39 seconds of his song in Waters' movie -- and prominently, not just as background -- has tickled him pink. He's hoping it will be the spark that reignites his stymied career.

"It's mine," Hardin said. "It's years old. But it's all mine."

Hardin wrote "Baltimore, You're Home to Me" 24 years ago, two years after moving to the Baltimore area from Nashville, Tenn., where he had been living as a singer and songwriter since finishing graduate school in theater at Southern Illinois University.

"Baltimore, you're home to me, you're everything a home should be, love of friends and family, holding me, holding me," the song's refrain goes.

It helps evoke a sense of place in "Pecker," a film about a little-known Baltimore photographer who finds fame and gets thrust into the snobby New York art world. The song comes in the middle of the movie, when Pecker and his girlfriend and family -- with much relief -- return from New York to Baltimore on a Greyhound bus.

Waters said he chose the song because it has a blue-collar, Baltimore sound, and he suspected that few people had ever heard it.

"It fit perfectly the scene in the movie," Waters said.

The song, which is on the "Pecker" soundtrack now in stores, is on Hardin's first -- and only -- album, "Dave Hardin," produced in 1974. It marks a high point in his life. When he wrote the album, friends say, Hardin was a big, strapping man, newly married, with a voice and a stage presence that made people say, "Wow," and turn their heads.

"He had a lot of talent, as good as they get," said George Kelch, a longtime friend from Pasadena. "He was just ready to take that step, and then he got sick."

In 1976, at age 29, Hardin was diagnosed with lymphoma.

"It's still kind of tough to talk about the health stuff," he said. "It brings up goblins and demons that I sort of do in a male way and keep suppressed."

What happened, Hardin said, was this: He was at a regional hospital in Baltimore and, as he puts it, radiation to treat the cancer was "questionably applied." Doctors have since told him the radiation damaged his spinal cord, although he didn't feel the effects right away.

"It's kind of like Hiroshima," he said. "They drop the bomb and then years later people have problems. Well, I was zapped directly on every lymph node in my body."

Hardin was young, and he bounced back from the radiation. He returned to entertaining in bars and occasionally writing songs and doing voice-overs for commercials.

A recurrence of cancer

But in 1979, the cancer came back, worse this time. It had spread throughout Hardin's lymph system. The prognosis was not good. He was prepared to die -- and almost did, he said, during an operation to remove his spleen.

Doctors had planned to remove tumors from Hardin's abdomen, too, but they found too many. Instead, they put him on an experimental regimen of chemotherapy, he said. He remembers losing his hair and having his head in a bucket from vomiting so often.

Hardin never fully recovered from that, but, as his wife, Kathy, puts it, he "struggled on."

"The chemotherapy worked at least," Dave Hardin said. "So again, you pick yourself up and you try some more, but as [Baltimore friend] Country Phil would say, time is picking your pocket. You know, you're never as energetic as you were before."

Sometimes, Hardin plays the what-if game. He wonders what would have happened if he had gone to Johns Hopkins doctors in 1976, if he had received state-of-the-art treatment for his lymphoma before it became so advanced.

But then he stops himself -- outwardly, at least.

"That was then," he said. "You can't sit and dwell on it. And I'm sure I do. I have a lot of anger. Moments -- it's sort of like you have a bad day and then somebody doesn't serve your food right and then you take it out on them. There's a lot of simmering and bubbling going on."

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