Despite Alzheimer's, Spirit of the West's John Mann still 'has a memory for melody'
'He still has all the melody and the songs. It's like they exist inside of him,' partner Jill Daum says
Much of the day can slip by without any words passing John Mann's lips, the silence cut short only as the Spirit of the West's frontman slides on a pair of headphones and allows familiar melodies to awaken his voice.
In 2014, the then 51-year-old singer of Canadian classics — among them Save this House and Home for a Rest — received a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's. His wife, Jill Daum, says the illness has made it extremely difficult for Mann to speak.
He can, however, still sing — something he does at his Vancouver home every day and in rare performances following the end of the band's farewell tour in April — reading his lyrics off an iPad.
'A memory for melody'
"He has a memory for melody, which is astounding," Daum told CBC's Here and Now Thursday. "He's still got a great singing voice and he still has all the melody and the songs. It's like they exist inside of him."
Mann was in town lending his voice and his name to a benefit at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern, with other musicians planning to sing some of the Spirit of the West's songs to him. All of the money raised will go toward buying iPods for those with dementia to help stimulate their lyrical memory as part of the Alzheimer's Society's music project.
"You can actually physically watch someone with Alzheimer's lift and become more and more present when they have the headphones," Daum said. "It really is like something comes a little bit more alive."
Mann still plays his guitar at home, an exercise that helps him to stay grounded in one of the loves of his life. It's too stressful, however, for him to wield the instrument during a performance, Daum said.
"I really don't want that muscle memory to go because he loves performing so much. And both he and I believe that if he doesn't keep at it that it could disappear, because some of the things that he doesn't use, he loses."
That's evident in Spirit Unforgettable, a documentary that chronicled Mann and Daum's life as they deal with the changes dementia has brought to their lives.
They have been partners for 29 years.
Things just get harder and you have to constantly adapt to it getting more and more difficult — and the person you love getting farther and farther away.- Jill Daum , partner of Spirit of the West's frontman John Mann
"It's so hard," Daum said Thursday. "Things just get harder and you have to constantly adapt to it getting more and more difficult — and the person you love getting farther and farther away.
"I mean, there's a reason why people are terrified of this disease; it's very hard."
But Daum said that the pair have found a collective strength in the kindness and compassion of other artists and musicians, of fans and of family.
"And I think, for me, living with John, it's remembering that he's still there."
Music stimulates memory, neuroscientist says
Music often acts as a bridge, one that brings Mann back through the strings of familiar notes and chords.
It's not an unknown phenomenon for those who have trouble speaking or with their memory to still be able to sing, said Jessica Grahn, a Western University neuroscientist who specializes in music's effect on the brain.
"Music tends to activate emotional centres and we know that emotional centres really solidify memories," she said in a recent interview. "Some of our strongest memories are the ones that are associated with strong emotions. And another thought is that the music helps support the memory for the lyrics because it's another thing that's always coupled, so it's another cue … whereas with speech there's no supporting information."
While Spirit of the West finished its official farewell tour in April, Daum said Mann will continue to play events if he's able. Standing on stage stimulates him, even if, at times, it's hard for her to watch now.
"It makes me nervous. I don't want John to be in over his head with performing," she said. "It's like watching him go on a tightrope, I'm going, 'Don't fall, don't fall.'"
But as soon as she saw him rehearse alongside the band, Daum said, she relaxed.
"You can see the joy come off of him when he's with his bandmates," she said. "And he misses them so much."