In the fall of 1984, the Make A Wish Foundation contacted the band Journey. A 16-year old fan from Cleveland named Kenny Sykaluk was in the final days of his lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis. One of his dreams was to meet his musical idols. The members of Journey flew to Cleveland in November to meet the boy as he lay in a hospital, gasping for air; his young lungs were giving out on him. Among the gifts Journey brought with them was a cassette containing the band’s upcoming single, a song cut from their 1983 hit album, Frontiers, but soon to be released on the soundtrack to the film Vision Quest. That song was “Only the Young.”
Kenny became one of the very first Journey fans to hear the song, as he played it on his Walkman while the band stood by his bedside. Eventually, the visit came to an end and Journey returned to their homes back in California. Their time with Kenny deeply affected them and they would honor the boy on their 1986 tour by opening each concert with “Only the Young.”
Being a huge Journey fan raised in Cleveland, I naturally read the story of this visit as it appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I was 14 at the time. Like most teenagers my age, I scanned the article in the newspaper looking for information that interested me most. I came away from thinking that Journey was a cool band for coming all that way to visit a sick boy, and how cool it was that they’d brought a new song.
If I’d been more aware I would have dug deeper. I would have realized that Kenny Sykaluk had a disease that could be linked to my own family. My cousin, several years older than me, had a son who passed away from CF when I was a boy; he was just five years younger than me. I didn’t know him very well when we were growing up. The fact that we only saw my father’s side of the family once a year made it difficult for me, at a young age, to feel a strong connection.
If I’d been more aware, I would’ve also followed up on the fate of Kenny Sykaluk. Sadly, he died soon after meeting his heroes. It’s said that his Walkman was in his hand, the Journey tape still in it.
I remained a Journey fan throughout high school and into college, even when it wasn’t cool and the band was considered derivative corporate dinosaurs. One of the reasons I continued to enjoy their music was this story. Despite the slick direction their music took at the end of the 80’s and the infighting that led to the band’s first breakup, the story made them seem less like rock stars and more like decent people capable of kindness. Their actions that October in 1984, like the lyrics and music of “Only the Young,” gave me hope.
For Christmas in 1992, Julie bought me the Journey box set, Time 3. Besides the thrill of hearing several unreleased tracks from one of my favorite bands, I was excited to finally add “Only the Young” to my record collection. Because I’d owned all of Journey’s studio albums, I never purchased their multiplatinum Greatest Hits album from 1988. I figured that I could make my own (bigger and better) “best of” compilation tape using my LP’s, and borrow the Vision Quest soundtrack from the library to add “Only the Young.” Now I had the song in a clean, digital form and it never sounded better.
The 63-page booklet in Time 3 details the colorful history of Journey and includes the story of Journey’s visit to Kenny Sykaluk. The booklet, of course, mentions CF, but I did not correlate how that disease related to my own life. The story of Journey’s Cleveland visit would be revisited in the late 1990’s when Journey was featured on VH1’s Behind the Music. In that hour long documentary, Steve Perry, Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain, the chief songwriters of Journey and the men responsible for “Only the Young,” spoke about how meeting Kenny Sykaluk changed them and gave them a new perspective on life. Cain even broke into tears on camera.
You could be cynical and say that the Journey members were using this poor boy’s death to be opportunistic and make themselves look better. I don’t believe that to be true. The way I see it, each time Journey and their fans mentions Kenny Sykaluk and the horrible disease of cystic fibrosis, they keep his memory alive and bring awareness to a little known disease. They’re doing their small part to help find a cure and stamp out CF once and for all.
I’ve seen Journey in concert three times, the last one being in August of 2001. I didn’t know what to expect from the band, as they were touring in support of a new album and a new lead singer, Steve Augeri. Would the music have the same power and the same emotion? My worries were quelled when they began playing “Only the Young.” Augeri hit each note perfectly and the band was flawless. What I’ve always loved about “Only the Young” is Neal Schon’s understated guitar playing, how it compliments the vocals and melody and doesn’t overpower everything. On that hot summer night, Schon delivered each note with the same intensity and soulfulness that he did in ’86, when I heard them play the song the first time. With my brother and younger sister in attendance with me, that particular concert experience seemed even more exceptional.
Jacob was born in November of 2001 and diagnosed with cystic fibrosis a month later. As I Julie and I grappled with this news, distressed at what meant to our baby boy’s life, we leaned on our families and friends and turned to music to soothe our weary souls. Out of pure coincidence, my brother, Budd, had given me The Essential Journey for my birthday in early November, so I had been listening to a lot of their classic songs. You’ve heard of comfort food? Well, Journey soon became comfort music.
It wasn’t until the following spring, while rereading the booklet from Time 3 and I finally connected the link between Journey’s “Only the Young” and cystic fibrosis. So many years had passed and I had never once thought to look into the disease associated with one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. Now I was a father with a son afflicted with the same disease and the song took on a new meaning. I never listened to it the same again. However, I never had a cathartic moment listening to it; I never felt a swell of emotions that caused me to associate the song with Jacob. It remained that song, linked to CF, but not a song about my family, until last weekend.
The city of Santa Clarita hosted a free concert in the park with the Journey tribute band DSB (Don’t Stop Believin’). Julie, Sophie, Jacob and I joined my brother’s family and 14,000 other people, old and young, to listen to a covers band perform the Journey hits. I have to say that the guys in DSB were top notch, putting on the closest thing to hearing Journey in concert besides the real deal. As they began their 18-song set of Journey classics (including several deep cuts), Sophie and I stood close to the stage to get the real concert experience. After about five songs, my daughter had had enough of her ears ringing and we walked back to join Jacob and Julie, some 10,000 people back.
We sat in lawn chairs, ate Italian ice, watched the strange people walking around the park, and enjoyed the music of Journey. Midway through the set DSB played “Only the Young.” For the first time in my life, all of the elements about this song aligned. Journey, CF, and now my family. As the music soared, I looked at my precious son, then over to his darling sister, and finally to my radiant wife. A huge wave of emotion swept over me. I have listened to this song at least a thousand times in 25 years, but it has never brought me to tears, not like it did that night, and not like it does as I’m writing this.
No longer would I associate the song with Journey’s visit to a dying boy in 1984. The sadness that surrounded that day and always seemed to be just below the surface of the song (for me) has been replaced with hope. I refuse to let this song make my heart hurt. I now have a lasting memory, one filled with smiling faces and the love of my family, to drive me. I will only let he optimism of “Only the Young” inspire me to do all that I can to ensure that CF is something my son lives with, but that it doesn’t define him.
When the song came to an end, I wiped my eyes and took a drag from the beer I was cradling. Soon thereafter, Julie and Jacob went home so that he could do his breathing treatments. By the end of the concert, Sophie and I returned to the front of the stage to hear DSB complete their triumphant show with a final round of hits, including Journey’s signature anthem, “Don’t Stop Believin’” No concert is complete without the band playing that one. As far as I was concerned, it already was.