Hey, it’s Anna. A few weeks ago, we got an email from Johnny Solomon. Johnny was the frontman of the indie band Communist Daughter until fairly recently. And he was a guest on our show back in 2018... along with his wife, Molly, and his mom, Nancy. “A lot has happened in our life since we spoke,” Johnny wrote to us, “but here I am beside my mom’s bed writing her obituary as she is ending life in hospice at home.”
I met Johnny and his family at his mom’s home in southern California. They were all living together at the time. Theirs is a story about family that I think about a lot. About Johnny and Molly becoming caregivers for his mom, after his mom stepped up for him, when he needed help because of his struggles with mental illness and substance abuse.
Johnny’s mother, Nancy, died on June 18th, from pancreatic cancer. So we’re going to share their story with you again today. Rest in peace, Nancy.
JOHNNY SOLOMON: When I asked for help, my mom dropped everything. And so when my mom had said that they were having trouble and they needed help, I figured it would be better for us to just be here and make a life here.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
Just a year ago, the Minnesota-based band Communist Daughter was on the road. They were promoting their second full-length album, stopping at clubs, radio stations, and festivals across the country.
But driving from gig to gig, their lead singer, Johnny Solomon, was worried. A few months earlier, he'd gone to visit his mom and her husband outside San Diego. His wife, Molly, came too. She also sings in the band.
MOLLY SOLOMON: It was just... it became more and more evident that they really did need somebody close by.
JS: She said, like half crying that, uh, yeah, that they needed help.
ANNA SALE: Did your mom specifically say, what do you think about spending more time out here, being here full-time for a period?
JS: It didn't, it didn't come off that nicely...
MS: Yeah, she's like "It's time."
JS: Do you guys want some coffee? Do you want some donuts?
We met Johnny and Molly not on the road, but at the two-bedroom bungalow in California that they now share with Johnny's mom, Nancy, and her husband, Hugh.
Hugh has dementia, and Nancy has a degenerative nerve disease that's similar to multiple sclerosis. Johnny and Molly have become their live-in caregivers.
JS: Like, we're living in a guest room out of suitcases still.
AS: So, your clothes aren't in drawers?
MS: No. Well we've created um…
JS: We've done what we could out of, you know.
MS: We've taken, like my dresser right now is, I took out all of Nancy's files in her
JS: So a file cabinet.
MS: It's like a file cabinet made out of like wicker, though. And so yeah that's my [laughs]...
JS: It doesn't feel like...
JS: We tour so much, or we did tour so much, that you know we're used to living out of small spaces and suitcases.
Johnny sent us an email shortly after they moved to California last summer. He wrote, "It put our career, our music, my whole existence into a no man's land. My wife and I made our money touring but now we can't really tour. My band and manager are all trying to figure out how the music goes on, or if it does."
AS: And I recognize this CD.
NANCY SOLOMON: Mom has to have CDs! [laughs]
We sat in their open living room where Johnny's mom, Nancy, has a big recliner that rotates around so she can keep watch on what's going on throughout the house. Molly and Johnny and I squeezed in around her.
JS: I feel like we're, like having a huddle right here. Because we're all gathered around...
AS: I know, just act natural!
NS: Now we should all put our arms around...
Nancy told me her illness makes it hard for her to move around much.
NS: It takes all my energy. So I don't... I can't do as much. So. It's been—it's been a very difficult... because I was a very active person.
JS: Growing up, she was the alpha female. You know, I mean, she's still the boss. She just now sits in her throne the whole time.
NS: Well, I kind of manipulate them. [laughing]
JS: That's something that Molly had to get used to. Mom has this way of like, um, bossing you around. But in a way that you can tell that she cares, but it'll be like, "Move that box, sit right there, move that chair over here." You know, and it's like, she cares. But it comes out as, Mom is in charge.
NS: Having four kids did it. [chuckles]
Having four kids did it, Nancy said. Nancy is tall, and broad-shouldered like her son. She's a psychiatrist, one of the only women in her medical school class. She still works part-time at a local mental health clinic where she used to work full-time before her symptoms got worse. She was getting ready for a shift when I visited, but generally her schedule is less busy these days.
JS: Like Fridays, she has her hair appointment. And, and uh, but then, you know, we come back, and she's mostly here in this chair. Um, so, we're kind of running around, and when she needs something, fetching something. Uh—
NS: And we keep one person in the house. Yeah, because I've fallen before. If I fall, I can't get up.
Johnny told me that of all his siblings, he was in the best position to come out to help. But he was not always someone that Nancy could rely on.
JS: I think Mom has seen a huge change in me as a person in the last few years.
NS: There has been a change. A very comfortable change.
Throughout his 20s and early 30s—as Johnny's music career was taking off, and he was running a promising new restaurant near Minneapolis—he struggled with substance abuse and undiagnosed mental illness.
It tested his relationships with everyone in his life, including his mom.
JS: She was always still—like, loved me no matter what I did. And um, 'cause I was a meth addict, I was—alcohol and meth. And you know, people see... they see it from the outside, but it's, it's impossible to explain it from the inside of what it does to your soul, what it does to every part of you. Where, I mean, I could lie all the time, I could do—just this, this dark part of me was just all of me. And, and I did really terrible things to the people I loved.
NS: And one time when he was here—
JS: I had a moment—
NS: He had... he was on, and you had a moment, and, um, he was yelling at me and disrespectful.
JS: Yeah, I was cussing at everybody. And, yeah, Molly was here for that too.
AS: And when you, when you say you were using meth, like, were you—is it something you would buy? Were you ever making it?
JS: Um, I, I always bought it. Um... there was a period for about two years I was using it every day. And um, I would buy it and smoke it, or eat it, or snort it, but then, uh, yeah I was spending I don't know, six, seven hundred dollars a week maybe on it? Um...
AS: Did you have that money?
JS: [Laughs] I found that money. I mean. I, uh, at the time I had a restaurant, um, which probably would have done really well 'cause it was good food.
MS: You got top 10 best new restaurants,
JS: Best new restaurants, Midwest Living Magazine!
MS: Midwest Magazine.
AS: So when you say you found that money, was it money that should have gone to other things? Or money that you got from other people?
JS: Money that should have gone for other things. It was like in the budget of the restaurant to make sure I had, you know, about six hundred bucks a week that I would take out in cash. Yeah, I mean. Yeah, it's very unpleasant to think about.
This was in 2010, when the band was promoting their first record and starting to have a lot of success. Johnny was falling apart. That became clear one night when the band was playing a big show in Minneapolis.
JS: I got on stage and I was a disaster. I was—I mean, it was, it was rough.
MS: It was embarrassing.
JA: It was embarrassing. I mean, and I was I was high and drunk and I mean I was heavy. I was—
MS: We started singing the song—
JS: sores on my face. Yeah. And to the point where like, you know, I think most people knew there was something wrong with me, um, and I ended up, I'd called my mom. And I was like, I can't wait any longer. You know, this is I'm like, I'm at the bottom, and if it gets any lower it's going to get way worse.
AS: Why was it your mom that you called?
JS: Um, I don't know. Maybe 'cause that's the last person that would take my call. Um, and I'd asked her for help so many times and she'd never said no. Um... even though so many people in my life had started saying no. And I just knew that, and I knew what—when I called her, I knew what I was asking for. And I knew she was the one who was, you know, she would know when I was serious. And, and so, she knew that I was asking for help for real.
NS: If he didn't get help, it was over. That was in his voice.
JS: Yeah, I had nothing left. And I suddenly couldn't write songs anymore. And that's when I realized like, oh, like God's gonna take everything away from me unless I do something. So that's when I called my mom.
NS: As a physician, we always sent our physicians, when they got into trouble, to Hazelden. It was just something we did. And we were very, we were, we thought they did a good job. So I insisted that he had to go to Hazelden. And he did.
AS: Did you help him pay for that, did you pay for the treatment? [long pause]
JS: It's Death, Sex & Money, mom. So we gotta talk about all of them.
NS: Oh, yes. It took most of my retirement. It was—not all of it, but it took a big—
AS: It was an investment.
NS: Yes, it was a wonderful investment.
Johnny went to rehab at a Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center in Minnesota for 45 days.
Coming up, I talk with Johnny and Molly about how his sobriety changed the dynamics of their band, and made him surprisingly suited for caregiving.
JS: People who know me, know that I love things that only old people should love. [AS laughs] I'm a big fan of The Golden Girls and Murder, She Wrote, and going to bed early.
Every week the Death, Sex & Money team shouts out a couple of our favorite recent podcast episodes in our email newsletter, which you can subscribe to right at our website, deathsexmoney.org.
And because it is prime road trip season, we decided to make a playlist for you all of some of those audio recommendations. Our intern Mardy put it together—thank you, Mardy—and it is filled with some really excellent podcast episodes, from shows including the LA Times’ Asian Enough, the New Yorker Radio Hour, and NPR’s Rough Translation, whose recent episodes about a couple straddling the civilian-military divide are completely engrossing. And on the playlist we’ve included some of our top picks from Death, Sex & Money as well.
So when you’re on your next road trip, or wherever, really, and you’re wracking your brain for what to listen to, we’ve got you covered! You can text the word “playlist” to 70101 and we’ll send you a link, or you can find the link in the show notes for this episode.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
While Johnny Solomon was in rehab seven years ago, his band, Communist Daughter, got their first major nationwide exposure. Grey's Anatomy used some of their music in an episode, including this song, "Soundtrack to the End."
[MUSIC — "Soundtrack to the End"]
AS: So did you, you actually saw Grey's Anatomy and heard your song playing—
JS: In treatment.
AS: In treatment, were you in like a group room?
JS: That was exactly what...
MS: Yeah, you have to ask to use the TV or to have, um, the room basically.
JS: I'm like, we have to watch Grey's Anatomy and everyone gets to vote on what they're gonna watch, and it was neat too because when you're in treatment you're with all these different people from all these different walks of life and there's a little bit of like... it's like, "I'm a musician!" "Oh, who are you?" And it's like, "You've probably never heard of me... but now you've heard of me! Look, I'm on Grey's Anatomy!"
While he was in rehab, Johnny was also diagnosed as bipolar. His mom, Nancy—a psychiatrist—knew that was in their family history, but she didn't think Johnny was affected.
NS: I didn't think it was in my genes, or didn't think about it. So, you know, this is sad. But, if they're on medication, they're just as normal as everybody else.
AS: Do you find yourself, like, doing clinical check-ins of Johnny? Do you sort of, like—
JS: Yes, she does.
NS: I try not to. I think it always, because of my training, I can't say I don't.
JS: She asks me a lot about how much I sleep.
NS: That, that's probably true. I have to say, uh...
JS: It's totally fine.
NS: I have, all through my training, when I'm meeting with couples and things like that, a lot of times I have told them, okay, 18. Your children are their own. They're no longer yours, and you have to let them go. And you do kind of cry about it because you've spent all this time. But they have to have that choice. So I was so fortunate when one decided that I was a close part of his life.
It was time for Nancy to leave to see patients at the clinic. Johnny helped her out the door.
JS: Are you going to your room?
NS: Oh, my cane.
JS: I've got your cane.
Johnny is 39 now. Molly, his wife, is 32. It's not clear how long they'll have to live out here in southern California, and that's caused a lot of uncertainty, at a time when they really want to be planning for the future.
JS: I mean, it could be like a year of our life, it could be ten years of our life.
AS: What was the conversation like between you two when you were, when it was first brought up about the possibility of moving out here full time?
MS: Um, honestly I was—I was pretty hesitant to get on the bandwagon there, um, 'cause all my, you know, my. my whole family lives in Minnesota and we're pretty close, and all my friends. And also it was... coming up on the time where we were starting to talk about kids and my whole thing was like, I can't be away from my mom when I, you know, that was something that was like really important to me. I don't know. Also, my parents, they're a lot younger, um, than John's. Um, so I just wasn't really thinking about that yet.
Johnny, though, has been looking for a change for a while. Since getting sober, life as a touring musician has been harder.
JS: I start getting really, I get really angry, I get really short. Um, I get, I feel really lonely, even though like, we're... you know, I'm surrounded by people the whole time. It's really hard to describe and, you know, sometimes the thing that's tough is that I'm sober, and I'm bipolar and I have to be surrounded by drunk, you know, fun-loving party, you know, rolling through every town and it's like the last thing I wanna do, uh, and the last thing that's good for me.
AS: Well, it sounds, like, such a contrast to your routine now.
JS: Yes! I love routine, I love it, 'cause when things get out of control, then I start to really lose control. And we had always—when we were on tour we'd always stop and stay in San Diego and it felt like this real—it felt like this magical place where for two weeks out of our... very hectic and sometimes very stressful life, we got to spend two weeks in San Diego having, you know, like, eating oranges off the tree.
MS: It was like a vacation, yeah.
JS: And so, like, to me it was always like, wouldn't this be great if we just moved to San Diego for a little bit? It would be this huge life shift, where we'd have to decide what we were doing with our life.
AS: You know, it strikes me that like, figuring out different ways to make money at you know, sort of an earlier—like having a kind of like, in your thirties, is this music thing gonna work out, do I need to make money in another way, you all have an extreme version of that? Um, but I guess, I imagine you have peers who have gone through similar sort of like, is this gonna happen, or is this not, do we need to come up with a different plan?
JS: Yeah, and you know, I think, you know, our idea of success—when you're in your twenties you just think, things will figure themselves out. If I do what I love, things will figure themselves out, and, and now in my thirties, my late thirties, it's like, oh well... yeah. Everyone knew, you can't make money in music, like everyone knows that, you know? And so I'm at this age now where it's like, if I don't figure something else out, what else am I gonna do? You know, like, am I gonna be the guy who learned to play, you know, Irish folk tunes so I could, you know, do it Wednesdays at the local Irish pub or something? You know, like, but I don't know, so like I, luckily I've started to like, what I thought would feel like kind of soul-sucking by looking somewhere else, starts to feel actually kind of freeing.
Molly and Johnny are living rent free now as they figure out what's next.
Johnny's started taking online grad school classes to become a substance abuse counselor. Molly told me she was applying for pharmacy tech jobs. Their band, Communist Daughter, is still officially together. But they told me it feels like it's on hiatus.
Most of their time is spent taking care of Johnny's mom and her husband. And they know that will only escalate, especially as Nancy's illness progresses.
JS: It is the thing with my mom where it's funny how like 90 percent of the time, like, when I wake up in the morning and I look at my day, it looks like I don't have anything to do, but as soon as you step out of that door it could be like, oh, you know, mom has to go to a doctor now, or you know like suddenly something happened with the bank and I've gotta run there and so you, even though you have all this like, you think you're gonna have free time, you know, you kind of have to be, your schedule has to be kinda open.
AS: Is she able to move in and out of the bathroom on her own?
MS: It's hard, it's really hard. It like wears her out so much, um... so it is... probably gonna get to that point pretty soon, and we're not sure, um...
JS: We've talked about maybe having somebody come in, you know, once a week or for bathing.
MS: Yeah. But I do you know sometimes I have to help her put on articles of clothing, or you know, put on, well, pretty much every, you know, her jewelry I have to put that on. She can't reach up high, and her hands shake so...
JS: And then there's you know just the things of like, 'Mom, you can't walk around, you can't! You know, you're going to fall over, you're going to knock things over.' So you end up having these conversations where it's like, 'You can't, no! Like, I'm going to pour your soy sauce.' And she's like you know a very smart, very—
MS: Right. Right.
JS: You know, she was the boss for so long and now I'm telling her she can't pour her own soy sauce because...
MS: It is funny how those roles get reversed, and it's been a learning experience, getting older.
JS: I think being out here is interesting, because it forces, Molly's had to you know be vocal about certain things especially with my mom's way of dealing with things.
MS: Yeah, it actually has been good. 'Cause it's, like, making me a stronger person, making me more…
AS: Give me an example. Can you think of something?
MS: Um, I'm a very like, I... I'll go out of my way to do something nice kind of a person, which, I don't know, that sounds so weird saying that out loud. But there have been times when you know I don't finish my breakfast or it gets cold 'cause I have to, you know, help her do something that actually isn't very important and it can totally wait. Like I have learned to be like, 'Actually I'm eating my breakfast right now, so is it okay if I throw away the newspaper for you later?'
JS: She's so bossy about the way she says things.
MS: 'Would you mind setting that on the counter next to you?' Or you know.
AS: I love that thinking about that being like, I get to say, 'Can I please finish my breakfast?'
AS: Like talking yourself into that?
MS: Yeah. She's gotten a lot better though, because you've pointed out those things to her so often.
JS: It's weird now because it's becoming more of like... uh, I feel more like a parent where I catch myself being, I don't know, well, I know what kind of parent maybe I'll be? I'll be the like—
AS: Really. It's like a little glimpse into that?
JS: Yeah and it's like not the good things. It's the things that are like, oh, this is going to really fluster me.
AS: Do you feel like you've found a community at all here Molly yet?
MS: Hm, not, no I haven't, but I kind of, um...I'm kind of enjoying it in a way, like, just having a lot of free time, or at least like John says, you expect to have free time. Um, it's funny how that changes throughout the day. But um, I don't know, it's just such a different, it's such a difference out here. You know, you don't have a community and you don't have friends and you don't have—
JS: We have some friends that we've met through being on tour that like the musicians and some people came to some shows.
Ms: Yeah, but we haven't hung out with them still. Well, once.
JS: Yeah, but they're in, we're up here like in this kind of retirement little area, and, you know, so it's like a 40 minute drive to go hang out with them. And we would, but it's also I gotta be back here every night to make dinner, and you know, you can't miss your shows. [Laughing] We watch a lot of TV right now.
AS: What have been your strategies to have privacy as a couple? [JS laughs]
MS: Well we have decided that once a month, we'll have like a date night where we—
JS: Once a month.
MS: Once a month, and we'll go away to like a hotel or something.
JS: And then every once in a while, they'll go out to eat dinner, I think even if they don't want to, they'll go out you know, once every couple weeks. Which is still then, like, we're looking at once every two weeks. But you know, we talked about, like, this is a time in our life where we wanna talk about starting a family, and so it becomes, like, how are we going to do that, here? You know, you don't wanna be changing diapers on both sides of things.
JS: It's this weird kind of morbid conversation that you have to have where you have to be like, well, will they die before we, you know, get pregnant, so then we could go back to Minnesota? And that's like such a weird thing to like,
JS: To be like, well, we don't hope that.
MS: No. Not at all.
JS: But it's like could we make it work if you know, if Molly gets pregnant out here? Would she resent me and you know, like, uh, I don't know. It's just a lot of conversations where when it came down to it, it was just like, this is what felt like we had to do. Because if we didn't do it, what's the other option?
That's Johnny and Molly Solomon, and the Communist Daughter song, "Speed of Sound."
After this conversation, Nancy’s health continued to decline. She had a stroke, and wasn’t able to work anymore. Johnny and Molly lived with her for two years, and when her health stabilized, Johnny decided to take a job in Alaska, working as a mental health and addiction counselor, flying into remote Alaskan villages. That’s where he and Molly have been living ever since. They recently bought a house there, and are preparing to become foster parents. The band Communist Daughter put out their farewell album, called "Unknown Caller," last March.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I produced this episode back in 2018. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Afi Yellow-Duke, Yasmeen Khan, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Thanks to Will Huntsberry for his help on this episode.
Our interns are Mardy Harding and Kristie Song. The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, that’s P-I-C-S, and you can find the show on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @deathsexmoney. Sign up for our weekly newsletter on our website, that's deathsexmoney.org.
Thanks to Marcia Lovett in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, for being a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Marcia and support what we do here, by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.