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Blues Singer Fighting For His Life, Career 

Paul Pena's record out despite many setbacks

James Sullivan,
Chronicle Staff Writer
SF Gate Home

Paul Pena made a great record. It took 27 years to get it heard.

The disappointment cut deep, but the words to describe it don't come easily for Pena. Finally, he settles on an idea.

"It's a lonely thing,'' he whispers, leaning forward in his rocking chair. "That's all I can tell you.''

You'll have to forgive Pena if he is feeling a little emotional. They just told him he doesn't have cancer after all.

The hardships of Pena's star-crossed half-century would have mowed down a lesser man years ago. Born blind, his promising career as a soulful singer-songwriter was stifled when the notorious record-industry mogul Albert Grossman declined to release Pena's second record, "New Train.''

All but forgotten for two decades, Pena and his wife, Babe (who was also blind), lived off their royalty checks for "Jet Airliner,'' Steve Miller's hit version of a "New Train'' song. When Babe died in 1991, Pena, already prone to recklessness, sank further into despair. Improbably, he found some long-overdue recognition with the surprise success of the microbudget 1999 documentary "Genghis Blues.'' The truth doesn't get much stranger: Pena, who had been studying the ancient art of throat singing after discovering it on a shortwave-radio broadcast, traveled to Tuva, the thumbnail country in a remote part of Asia where the vocal technique originated. There the solitary man befriended an entire nation, winning its traditional throat-singing competition.

The good fortune didn't last. Around the time "Genghis Blues'' collected an Academy Award nomination, Pena was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Doctors gave him six months to live. Now, a year later, they tell him the chemotherapy treatments were in vain. He has pancreatitis, not cancer.

"He's definitely not out of the woods,'' says Jon Waxman, Pena's legal counsel, friend and confidant for more than 20 years. "He's still an ill man, for sure.'' At Pena's apartment near the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park, he receives around-the-clock attention from caregivers and a close circle of companions.

Waxman, an entertainment lawyer who has represented Thelonious Monk, Bobby McFerrin and Joan Osborne, arranged the deal for "New Train'' with the small New York label Hybrid Recordings after years of futile attempts. The record was released late last month. "The day I told Paul it was going to come out,'' Waxman says, "he started crying. This was his baby. It was like a stillborn child. "I've literally listened to that album for 25 years and never gotten tired of it. They don't make records like that -- the wisdom of his voice, the depth of his songwriting.'' The album, cut during a period when the rising star was touring with blues giant T-Bone Walker and planning a move from his native Massachusetts to San Francisco, features appearances by the late Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar, Merl Saunders on keyboards and the vocal group the Persuasions on the album's irresistible opening track, the gospel-soul celebration "Gonna Move.''

Pena, long past allowing himself any hope for the album, still has a tough time acknowledging that it is finally available. The people at the record company, he says in the only face-to-face interview he has granted in months, "really seem to like it. It's been a long time since I heard that.''

Every moment is a struggle for Pena. The man the Tuvans called "Earthquake'' for his imposing, unruly presence has shrunk to half his former size. His nails, always kept long for guitar picking, now seem bigger than his wrists.

Dr. Chris Stoehr, a specialist in internal medicine who just took on Pena's case, says he saw the singer make a guest appearance several months ago at the Red Vic Movie House, which was screening "Genghis Blues.'' (The movie comes out on video and DVD on Dec. 5; local labelSix Degrees will release a revised version of the soundtrack on Nov. 7.)

It wasn't a pretty sight. "He was so out of it,'' Stoehr recalls. Pena, sitting in a wheelchair, ignored the guitar someone put in his lap. ``He didn't even know he was there,'' Stoehr says. "I thought, `He's dead in a week.' '' But Pena, 50, refused to die. They did another biopsy. This time there was no indication of cancer. "Nothing ever happens normally with Paul,'' says Waxman. "He can't even get pancreatic cancer and die normally, God bless him.'' Setting out on the long, agonizing road toward recovery, Pena made a surprise appearance at the San Francisco Blues Festival last month, singing "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac'' with a friend, the local bluesman Big Bones. In the middle of the song, Pena slipped into the eerie multi-tones of throat singing. That primal sound has become his eloquence. The Blues Festival appearance was a confusing whirlwind for Pena. "I got flipped up out of bed,'' he remembered the next day, talking in a slow, deliberate croak. "I was at the center of the wahoo. Jesus, man, I was hustled and bustled to the facilities and everything. "All I remember, really, was that I was up there on the stage with Big Bones. Then we went out to the ocean. That was the best part,'' he said, his voice trailing. "So peaceful.'' Later, he asked for guava juice. He drank the whole can in one long swig, then gasped and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Again he tried to explain the feeling that overcame him when "New Train'' was shelved all those years ago. He might have been talking about his entire life. "It's a weird thing,'' Paul Pena said. 'You never know if you're welcome.''