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Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) - John Popper, lead singer, songwriter and harmonica player for Blues Traveler, leans forward in his chair and tugs at the neck of his T-shirt to reveal bold block letters tattooed across his chest.
Written in mirror image, they spell out "I Want to Be Brave", the blues-rock musician's daily reminder to soldier on. At age 32, Popper weighed 436 pounds; after suffering chest pains and shortness of breath, he underwent angioplasty to fend off an all-but-certain heart attack. A year later, he submitted to gastric bypass surgery.
Now 37, and considerably lighter, Popper recently spent 11 days with Blues Traveler entertaining U.S. Air Force reservists at seven U.S. bases in Europe, as part of "Operation Seasons Greetings". Playing concerts in giant hangars from Turkey to Iceland and talking one-on-one with the troops, Popper said they saw true bravery.
Blues Traveler - formed by Popper with three high-school friends in Princeton, N.J. in 1983 - has sold over 10 million albums, including its worldwide hit four, and has had six gold or platinum releases. The band won its first Grammy in 1995 for the song "Run-around". Since the 1999 death of bassist Bobby Sheehan, the band has added two new members, Tad Kinchla on bass and Ben Wilson on keyboard.
Cleveland-born Popper, who lives in Seattle, spoke with Robin D. Schatz at Bloomberg's New York headquarters on his way back home. He was wearing a black flight jacket from his 2002 USO tour and his signature black hat. He carried a small black attache case, which he opened to reveal rows of gleaming Hohner harmonicas in every key.
Schatz: Tell me about your trip. Where were you exactly?
Popper: We started out in the Azores, a little, tiny set of islands off Portugal. We went and played in this enormous Air Force hangar. So, that first gig was us learning: okay, we're going to get a lot of echoes on this tour.
Schatz: Where next?
Popper: After that we went to Edremit, in Turkey, which was, by far, the most adventurous country because it's the hottest non- combat zone. So, you're constantly worried about terrorism.
Schatz: How far away did the war in Iraq seem to you?
Popper: Iraq was 40 miles away, I think, but we were way north of it. The thing that I noticed was there was an airman there who said, "I don't feel like I'm doing much because I'm not down range." And down range is the cool military expression we've learned. That means wherever they're shooting at you. I wanted to tell him, "You don't understand, people think I'm cool for coming here for two weeks, and I don't feel like I'm doing anything." And you start to realize, I think, the nature of serving in any of these things is that you never feel like you're doing enough.
Schatz: Did you meet some of the wounded?
Popper: We went to Landstuhl in Germany. That was the next stop after Turkey. And Ramstein is where we were playing, but we got to visit the hospital. We did get some people from down range, and they were from Afghanistan. I think it must've been really surreal for them - they were still covered in smoke, and the next thing you know Blues Traveler is running in and shaking their hands.
Schatz: Did many of them know who you were?
Popper: Yes, most of them. That's always sort of a hit-and- miss thing because all you've got to do is not like our kind of music and you probably would never have heard of us. These guys were just so happy. Some of them recognized me from a Roseanne appearance. The thing that strikes you over and over again is that these kids are half my age. I'm 37, so you get 19- and 20-year-olds. And they have their stuff together so much more than I ever did at their age. And they've done more than I'll ever do in my life. The amazing thing to me is the idealism that they all live. I just wish every civilian could go see what they're doing.
Schatz: Do you hope to go back?
Popper: Yes. We found out that they are allowing shows in Iraq, and we want to try and go, obviously not before the elections are over. I don't think anybody's in a celebratory mood right now, but I'm hoping in the spring.
Schatz: What role do you play as an artist, a musician, in wartime?
Popper: I'm not often confronted with opportunities to have integrity because basically being an artist is like being a hooker. Democrat, Republican, I want to play at the White House. I want to play where the money is - no gig is too small, no fee too big, and we try and live by that. But when you see how much it matters to these kids suddenly you feel like, all right, I should be thinking more about them. And that feels really good. One of the guys in Landstuhl, he looked pretty messed up and the guys were a little scared to approach him. But you've just got to find his eye, look him in the eye, and just let him know that you see him there. I don't care how messed up someone is or how out of it they are or what's happened to them. In some way, they're going to know that somebody at least was trying to communicate with them.
Schatz: Is there anything different about programming for a military show?
Popper: Well, when we did the concerts we were aware that a lot of the little kids were there. So, I'd say, "You guys are flipping excellent. You guys are a bunch of great mother-fathers."
Schatz: So, you toned your language down.
Popper: Yes, thank you. It's kind of neat. But I'd also say that when I do "The Star-Spangled Banner", I try to remember to take my hat off.
Schatz: Now, I'm looking at your hat. Is that hatband made out of harmonicas?
Popper: Yes, it is. A crown of harps upon my head. (laughs) This actually isn't the first one because the first one got stepped on by Leroy (Moore), Dave Matthews's sax player.
Schatz: You've been playing the harmonica since you were in high school?
Popper: Yes, I think I was 14.
Schatz: You and your band have really grown up together.
Popper: Yes. I look at them now and it creeps me out because they have kids. We've all swelled. Actually, I shrank - they swelled.
Schatz: You were 400 pounds at one time?
Schatz: And now?
Popper: 270. And, you know, there's 10 pounds that I'd always like to get off, and sometimes I do, but I fluctuate.
Schatz: What's your secret?
Popper: Painful surgery. I actually made number 65 on E! TV's "101 Most Starlicious Makeovers".
Schatz: My goodness.
Popper: I beat Marilyn Monroe. Explain that to me ... but Barbie beat both of us.
Schatz: How did the death of your good friend and bass player Bobby Sheehan (in 1999) affect you?
Popper: The last time I saw him alive I had just had my angioplasty. It turns out I was 95 percent blocked in the majority of my arteries. Well, he showed up two hours later. He didn't look good and he was telling me how I needed to get my act together. That was the last time I saw him alive. After Bobby died, I really was not that bent on world conquest anymore, because as soon as you get a casualty you got to ask yourself how important is it. I almost died, which in my mind was fine because I was prepared to die for my art, another moronic statement - but that's what you're thinking at the time So, I got this tattoo. This is my only tattoo. It's written backward because if you wake up in the morning and you read that in the mirror you remember how your day is going to be.