An interview with Jane Schuldiner, mother of Death guitarist Chuck Schuldiner, for Guitar World magazine. Conducted via email on November 8, 2006.
GUITAR WORLD How would you describe Chuck’s childhood?
JANE SCHULDINER Chuck’s childhood was what has been called a Leave It to Beaver. life. When Chuck was a year old we moved to Florida in an area that was largely undeveloped at that time, with woods surrounding us. Chuck and his brother, Frank, and sister, Beth, grew up playing in those woods, building forts in the trees and seeing quite a lot of wildlife there also. Chuck and Frank, his brother, camped out in the backyard with flashlights and snacks lots of times and there were many of the children in the neighborhood at the house most days. At the end he thanked me for the golden memories of his childhood.
GW Was there religion in the house during Chuck’s childhood?
SCHULDINER Although Chuck’s father is Jewish and I’m Christian, we did not raise our children to be either, instead exposing them to each, including the holidays. They ended up being the best of both.
GW Did Chuck have artistic interests when he was young?
SCHULDINER Chuck was interested in art and sculpture from a young age and loved both equally and, as mothers do, I saved everything he did. That interest continued throughout his life and he and his nephew, Christopher, did sculptures together as late as early in 2001.
GW When Chuck was nine, his older brother Frank was killed in a car accident.
SCHULDINER Frank and Chuck were very close. That closeness is surely why the devastation Chuck felt at the tragic death of his brother, and the consequences following it, were so great that he never really came to terms with it. He always missed Frank. The death of Frank brought this family very close together and that closeness has continued always. There is always fear involved when a child dies and I watched diligently, afraid it could happen again. Chuck’s father worked and had tennis and other hobbies, so I was more involved with Chuck and his interests, as I was with my other children. As Chuck grew older he would go with me antiquing and he would frequently call me to just go out for a cup of coffee, or to lunch, or the doorbell would ring and there he would be for a visit. He never forgot my birthday or any other special occasion. He was a wonderful son and friend and we were close, as were his sister and nephew. He took us to the beach on weekends when he was home and met his nephew at the bus stop after school to take him to the mall or to play basketball. His sister fought for his life for three years and he acknowledged that in an interview, saying that his sister was a warrior. They were really close friends as well as brother and sister. Is it any wonder that we infinitely love and miss him in so many ways?
GW What led to Chuck getting his first guitar?
SCHULDINER Chuck’s father and I were searching for something to help Chuck with his grief over losing his brother. We discussed it with him and an acoustic guitar seemed the best. It was portable, something he could carry with him when we went on vacation or camping, to a friend’s house or wherever.
GW Did Chuck take guitar lessons?
SCHULDINER Chuck found the acoustic guitar lessons and his teacher boring, he didn’t like the repetitious of it all. From the first time he played the electric guitar it was as if a switch was turned on in him and it never turned off.
GW So Chuck was self taught.
SCHULDINER I guess you could say that. He had a very good ear for music early on and what he listened to he taught himself to play. He absolutely loved doing that. Chuck taught his nephew, Christopher, to play on the Stealth and he said Christopher also had that ear for music.
GW What was Chuck’s earliest exposure to music?
SCHULDINER Chuck’s father and I always listened to a wide range of music and so Chuck was exposed to that from an early age. He liked a wide range of music throughout his life, though heavy metal was what he really loved.
GW Do you remember when Chuck first formed Death?
SCHULDINER Chuck organized his first band in our garage a few years after the death of his brother. The first name Chuck wanted for the band was taken so the name Death was chosen. From our talks after we found out about his illness, it was obvious to me to that was the deciding factor.
GW Do you remember the first time Chuck played guitar in public?
SCHULDINER I think he was about 15 when he first played in public. He and his friends played at a park near our house in Altamonte Springs. I was there and I remember it very well and have pictures of that day.
GW Would you say that Chuck was obsessive about his guitar playing?
SCHULDINER I don’t think he was obsessive, it was just something he loved to do to relax. Some people’s passion is a computer, some television, Chuck’ passion was his guitar. He was fortunate that it was also his career.
GW Chuck was still in school while he was getting Death off the ground.
SCHULDINER Yes, but his music never interfered with his school work. We had rules from the first that he followed without question; he knew that school work came first. He left school shortly before graduation to pursue his search to be contracted to a label. We talked with his school counselor who urged us to let Chuck pursue his dream, which we did after getting his promise that if, after a year, he did not get that contract, he would finish school and go to college. He got the contract before the year was over.
GW Did you stay involved with Chuck’s career once it got going?
SCHULDINER Of course his father and I were involved the first year, from afar mostly. After that, Chuck discussed his plans but his decisions were always his own. We trusted him to do what was best for the band with the inferred promise that it would above all be the best for himself also.
GW Did you see Chuck often before he contracted his illness?
SCHULDINER Chuck moved out on his own to a town near us and saw us when he wasn’t touring, inviting us over for dinner and visiting us often.
GW Chuck played with so many different musicians during his career. Some have said he was a perfectionist in that regard.
SCHULDINER Chuck never let anything interfere with his quest for the best musicians for his band. I don’t think he ever had any problem finding musicians, and I believe his success time after time with his albums made people realize that he did the right thing in his decisions to do what was best for the band.
GW Chuck was never a big fan of the music industry.
SCHULDINER The biggest frustration with the music business for Chuck were the labels. He told me that if he could bypass the labels and just play for the fans he would be a happy man. The joy Chuck had in playing for those fans were what made it all worthwhile for him.
GW Chuck continued working even after his illness was diagnosed in 1999.
SCHULDINER This is hard for me. I will say that he worked intermittently throughout his illness, as much as he possibly could. He drove himself unmercifully that last year with the last Control Denied album. We worried so much about him and begged him to rest, that it was good enough. As the perfectionist he is, he said it was just okay and that wasn’t good enough for him or his fans. And he would go on until he couldn’t anymore, and he really mourned that he couldn’t finish it.
GW It must have been tough for Chuck once he realized that you might lose the second of your two sons.
SCHULDINER After losing Frank, he worried so about what it would do to the three of us - Beth, Christopher and myself - to lose him. I promised him we would do the best we could if he were to lose that fight and that is what we are trying to do, keep that promise. Chuck was the one who never gave up, who instilled hope and love in those all around him and he never cursed fate. Chuck’s steadfast hope for the future and his family, friends, and the many fans who wrote to him sustained him.
GW Did the doctors ever give you a reason for Chuck’s illness?
SCHULDINER They determined that he had that tumor from childhood, with no symptoms at all to alert us through the years.
GW It’s nice that you stay in touch with Chuck’s fans.
SCHULDINER I still receive so many emails from Chuck’s fans and I know from them that Chuck’s legacy will be that he is remembered not only as a great musician but as someone who made, and continues to make, a difference in their lives. He inspires them still and I receive many emails from young fans 11 years old and up. Just think, another generation is discovering Chuck’s music. He would be so proud.