Night Ranger’s Kelly Keagy Returns Following Heart Surgery: Exclusive Interview and Video
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“I think that it has to do with how much fun we have when we’re touring,” drummer and singer Kelly Keagy tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “It always seems like kind of a letdown when it’s done and we don’t take advantage of the energy that we have from playing live.” This time, Keagy says, they capitalized on the momentum that they had built up from being on the road and started work on their next album not long after they had finished touring.
“We started messing around with musical ideas, and then that just turned out to be like, ‘Oh man, that’s great,” he says. “Especially on the last three albums. We’ve been coming in with no pre-written songs — maybe a couple of riffs and a couple of ideas, but we’ll get in the room and we’ll just flesh those things out. It really has been to our advantage to just kind of come in with a clean slate and jam.”
You can check out the exclusive premiere of “Running Out of Time,” the latest video from Don’t Let Up, above.
“We just expanded on that whole intro riff, using it to be the basis of the chorus,” Keagy says. “So when we started to put that together, it just started to come out with a great feel right away. ‘Running Out of Time’ was one of those songs where it was like, ‘This is so Night Ranger.’”
The album arrived in late March, right around the same time Keagy took some time off, missing his first shows in the history of the band to have heart surgery. He says he developed asthmatic symptoms in the past 10 years that flared up — “on the light side, not very heavy” with a slight shortness of breath at first. Things got more serious over the past couple of years.
“When I’d exercise or anything like that, I started noticing a little shortness of breath, tightening in my chest, stuff like that, just when I would exercise, [or be] running [and] walking fast,” he says. “Then I started noticing it a little bit onstage in the last year.”
His heart doctor suggested they take a serious look at what was going on, and tests revealed that there was a problem with his aortic valve. “It was a birth defect, where I have a bicuspid instead of a tricuspid like everybody else does,” he explains. “In other words, there’s just two flaps and not three. Those tend to fail after you get to a certain age, after 50 or 60. After we started taking a look at it, it started closing more rapidly in the last year and a half. The symptoms started to get a little bit worse.”
He had hoped to wait until December to get the procedure done, but “they went up there with a camera and they took pictures and they said, ‘You know, there’s no blockage. You might be able to do that. But the valve itself is getting worse by the month, closing and it’s getting tighter,’” he recalls. “Plus, when they would put a stethoscope on there it was making all of this noise, this backwash, of blood going back in the opposite direction. So that’s when they really said, ‘Look, this is getting serious, and I don’t think you should wait, but it’s up to you.’”
Keagy says his decision was sealed when the doctor told him “I would hate for you to be out there and something catastrophic happen.” “He used that word, and it just kind of went right to my head,” he says. “It was like, ‘Okay, I’d better just shut up and do this.’” Keagy blocked out time in April to have the surgery, and Night Ranger called on called on a few friends — Tanner Hendon, former Journey member Deen Castronovo and Cinderella‘s Fred Coury — to fill in during his absence..Keagy even showed up at a Texas date to sing while Castronovo played drums.
“When we were on the tour with Journey and Foreigner a few years back, he would come out and play ‘Sister Christian’ every night with us,” he recalls. “So I knew what to expect, because he’s such a motherf—er player that it was just a joy watching him play. We had a blast. He’s an old friend, so it was like having a brother up there just having fun with you.”
Coury quickly discovered that filling in for Keagy could be intense. “He sent me a picture of his hands, and they were bloody,” Keagy says. “He just played down to the bone. I was horrified. I couldn’t believe what he did.”
Keagy returned to action in late May, and he admits there was a period of adjustment as he worked back to full strength. In fact, playing in Denver posed a new problem. “We played at 6,000 feet,” he says. “We played in Fargo the night before, and I had a great show. I played 90 minutes straight away, swinging like crazy and singing. But when I got to Denver, I noticed it a little bit. A little lightheadedness and stuff like that. The next day, the few hours before the show, I was totally normal. We got up there and I did a soundcheck, and I noticed it was a little bit harder. Then when we actually got up there, I was really having a hard time breathing.”
He now says, after “bust[ing] through it,” that it was “the most difficult show” he’s ever played. But since then, everything’s been great. He credits his longtime bandmates, as well as the three temporary replacement drummers, for the support. “Having another drummer come in after 35 years of somebody else playing, it must have been really disruptive to them,” he notes. “They didn’t really say that, because both of those players are totally capable of playing what I do. But it’s just all of those little nuances and stuff like that. Those things weren’t there. So they were having a hard time, I could tell. There’s just something about the three of us and the way we play together that you can’t replace overnight.”
Keagy wanted to share his story and experience so that others who might find themselves in a similar situation would know that they shouldn’t avoid getting it taken care of. “With the way technology is now and the science of medicine and how good they are at doing this, it’s incredible,” he says. “People should know they should do that and not have to worry about it.”
Now that Keagy is back at full strength, fans will get to hear songs from the new album live. “I think this album deserves to have these songs played for the audience,” he says. “Basically, my heart is almost brand new. I’m ready to kill,”
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