CLINTON — Greg Fier’s clear call to a visitor to “come in” is an indication that he can no longer open his front door. Yet despite being in a wheelchair and unable to use his arms, Fier remains in his home and continues to create music in his small studio.
“I was a musician for many, many years,” Fier said this week from his Clinton residence. “I played in a band called One Brick Shy.”
Fier and some friends founded the band in 1991, performing rock, country and blues.
“We were a fairly decent band, I think,” he said.
Fier was playing guitar and piano and singing with the band when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995.
“MS is an absolutely unpredictable disease,” Fier said. “It disrupts signals around the brain and from the brain to the rest of the body.”
How it manifests is different in each case.
Symptoms include fatigue, loss of balance, visual problems and cognitive problems, Fier said. He remembers stretching his neck while driving, and as he dropped his chin to his chest, he felt micro-shockwaves moving into his legs. Fier thought that maybe he had a problem with a disc in his back and should visit a chiropractor.
The first doctor Fier visited mentioned a number of illnesses that might produce Fier’s symptoms. MS was on the list, but the doctor didn’t think that was the problem, Fier said.
A few months later, Fier realized that his right arm was becoming weak. A different doctor put an object in the palm of Fier’s hand and asked him to identify it without looking. Fier barely felt anything, he said. He thought the object might be a coin.
It was a pocket comb.
“He got me in with a neurologist the next day,” Fier said.
A spinal tap ruled out several other diseases, and the neurologist confirmed that Fier had MS.
“I remember my eyes tearing up,” Fier said. “Everything [the doctor] said for the next 25 minutes was like Charlie Brown’s teacher.”
The words didn’t register in Fier’s mind as he fell into denial.
“The very first thing he said was that you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Fier said. Each of the dozens of people Fier knows with MS is on a different journey. “At the same time, there are a lot of similarities.”
When he was first diagnosed, Fier had relapsing-remitting MS.
“I had to stop playing for six or eight weeks,” said Fier. “Then my symptoms went away again, and I was able to do things.”
Even during periods of remitting, “you don’t get completely better,” Fier said. His ability to perform with the band deteriorated. “I couldn’t stand the whole time, so I sat on a stool for awhile.”
As Fier’s condition worsened he was unable to pick like he used to, he said. In 2006, he retired from the band.
That was a tough time. It wasn’t the end of his music, however.
“A friend of mine ... J. C. Monroe, turned me on to recording software,” Fier said. “I got into writing music and was able to record it” using software.
Fier has composed more than 40 songs using computer software to record musicians and mix the tracks on his laptop.
Fier uses SmartNav, a hands-free mouse, to navigate his computer. He moves his head until a small camera on the nosepiece of his glasses sees the icon or keyboard letter he wants. Hovering over it is equivalent to clicking the mouse.
He also uses Dragon, a speech recognition software.
“Between those two, there’s not a function I can’t do on the computer,” Fier said.
Friends renovated Fier’s home so he could maneuver through it in his wheelchair, and they converted a closet into a small recording studio. Musicians come in and record different tracks for the songs, Fier said.
“I would have a rhythm and just let them come in and play lead over it,” he said.
Fier mixes the tracks on his laptop in the studio.
“I spend hours and hours [in here],” he said.
Monroe, Ken Clarke, Dave Layton, Brent Tinderholt (a bandmate for 16 years), Cassie Petersen, Lee Dohse, Mike Wilner and Ron Tegeler have all collaborated on Fier’s songs. Even former State Sen. Rita Hart sings a phrase on one tune, Fier said.
Fier still performs live as well. He frequents The Living Room, a Clinton performance venue, on open-mic night, singing and serving as master of ceremonies.
Fier hopes that telling his story will help others to realize that “with a little time and determination, physical setbacks don’t have to be the end of having a meaning to your life. Many of the songs I write are about the healing powers of time.”
Fier is a district activist leader for the National MS Society. He travels to Des Moines to talk to state legislators and recently visited Washington, D.C. for an annual public policy conference.
Fier became an advocate for MS patients through another Clinton resident with MS, Tami Leavens, coordinator of the Clinton MS Support Group, he said.
“I am also president of a 501(c)(3) charitable organization called the Bob Finch Memorial Fund,” Fier said.
He founded the organization early last year and named it for a friend and musician who had MS and spent the last 16 years of his life in a nursing home.
“Our mission is to provide resources for area victims of MS to help them maintain their independence and quality of life,” he said.
The Bob Finch Memorial Fund will host a fundraiser called Wild’s Bob’s Big Show, featuring local acts and dinner, April 27 at Gil’s Bar and Grill in Clinton. Details are available on the Bob Finch Memorial Fund Facebook page.