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Sub Pop founder finds calm in dire diagnosis

Friday May 31, 2013

Nicole Brodeur

Seattle Times - You could always count on Jonathan Poneman to keep things calm, even amid the chaos that often reigned at Sub Pop Records.

When Seattle was the center of the music universe, Sub Pop was the center of Seattle, the place where Nirvana was launched and where Mudhoney still kicks out the jams. However, Poneman, who co-founded the label in 1988, has always been just a little to the side of the spotlight. The Steady Eddie with the wry smile.

Yes, it was a seminal moment for the city, and a time when Poneman and his partner, Bruce Pavitt, made a lot of money. But Kurt Cobain still needed a grounding presence, and, once he was gone, Courtney Love needed someone to call at all hours — and for hours. Poneman provided rock ’n’ roll a moment of zen — and still does, as the label continues to thrive.

A few years ago, though, Poneman, now 53, became almost too mellow. Slow. Sleepy. You wondered if the man with such a celebrated and successful ear for music was even listening.

“At first there was this lumbering slowness,” Poneman said the other day. “But it became even more so, like the Tin Man without any oil.”

Staffers would slip into Sub Pop vice president Megan Jasper’s office and drop their voices: “What’s wrong with JP?”

Then came the day in 2010 when Poneman was having lunch in New York City with an old friend, a radiologist who looked him over and came out with it: “How’s your health?”

Poneman had been having trouble with his right hand. Writing. Holding cutlery. And there was a degeneration of movement on his right side that he was only “fleetingly” aware of.

“I realized then,” Poneman said of that New York moment. “I can’t deny this anymore.”

After some tests came the verdict: Parkinson’s disease. The news brought “a sigh of relief.”

But it also brought Poneman some measure of fear, and a “grave curiosity” about what was going to happen to him, and how long it would take.

“You have these morbid thoughts,” he said. “Then you realize that if things are going to go away, they are not going to go away immediately.”

So Poneman is speaking out, not just to explain his condition, but to show others who may be suffering that there is life beyond a Parkinson’s diagnosis.

In fact, for him, it has been a strange kind of blessing.

For starters, it has caused him to recalibrate important parts of his life, starting with his soul.

Until his diagnosis, he had been feeling “a sort of spiritual emptiness.”

And now?

“My love of life and its precious elements became more vivid at the thought of seeing them fade away,” he said. “When you’re confronted with the concrete, finite aspects of life ...

“As ironic as it sounds, I am truly grateful to the disease.”

He is also more aware of other people and their conditions.

“Mindfulness,” he called it. “Being an open heart and mindful. Anything that leads a human being to that kind of living can’t be all bad. In fact, it’s pretty good.”

Perhaps the biggest act of living fully was Poneman’s marriage to Magdalena Panak, a Polish national whom he met at a Mudhoney show at the Sit-n-Spin a dozen years ago.

“We were good buddies for a long time,” he said. “And then we fell in love.”

They split their time between Seattle and New York, where she has family.

Poneman stays focused on the things he can do, like drive, work, and “jog around my house in my socks.”

To better manage the day-to-day, he has outfitted his desk at Sub Pop with a stationary bike instead of a chair, to keep his legs moving. Exercise has been shown to lessen the symptoms of Parkinson’s without any side effects.

He still goes to clubs and music festivals.

“But I am less inclined to go up front,” he said, “because I am a human bowling pin.”

He smiles, slowly, like he always has. His eyes crinkle up.

“I feel like this can be a source of so much humor for me.”

In the meantime, business is good.

In July, Sub Pop will celebrate its 25th anniversary — they’re calling it a “Silver Jubilee” — with a free festival in Georgetown.

“Putting it on is sort of like, ‘Oh! Woodstock!’ ” Poneman said. “We’ll see what kind of mayhem ensues.”

But along with the mayhem, the music and the booth seeking donations for Northwest Harvest will be a booth dedicated to the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation.

It’s a little gesture from Poneman, who is trying to do something for those who share his illness, but not the same kind of support he enjoys.

“I can imagine people struggling with this and it knocking them down,” he said.

There will be more to do, and Poneman may be slow, but he will get to it.

“I accept that I have this disease,” he said resolutely, “but that doesn’t give me the right to be passive.”

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