Frankie Banali | Quiet Riot Drummer Works (and Plays) Through Stage 4 Cancer Fight

Frankie Banali, a perpetually active 68 year old native of New York, is a husband, father, talented painter, and most prominently, the drummer and co-founder of Quiet Riot – a pioneering heavy metal band that became the first to hit # 1 on the mainstream Billboard charts.

These days however, Banali is becoming nearly as well known for his very public battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and his spirited efforts to maintain every inch of his previous lifestyle that his health will allow.

Earlier this month, in the hopes of raising awareness for the disease, Banali generously took time out from his treatment to candidly discuss his experience with it, and his determined efforts to manage a meaningful life around it.

Robert Ferraro: Frankie, above all else, how are you feeling?

Frankie Banali: Well, I was originally diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer back in April of 2019, which has now metastasized to my liver. Initially, you know, the prognosis was that I would probably die by October of 2019. I basically had a six month window left. So when you consider the fact that we are here talking to each other in June of 2020, it means I’ve managed to make it past the one year mark. Listen, I’m still very conscious of the fact that I’m at Stage 4 with one of the deadliest cancers there is. My prognosis to survive one to five years is only 10%. So, I just continue to fight the good fight. Even as we’re chatting now, I’m hooked up to an IV that I have to do 18 hours every day.

Robert: That sounds like you might not have much mobility. Can you go out and about?

Frankie: The reason this particular treatment takes 18 hours is because of it’s huge amount of volume. I mean, this is the biggest IV bag I’ve ever seen. So, it has to be monitored with a digital pump because it only can be administered a little bit at a time. I have mobility if I want to carry the pack around, but for the most part, I’m pretty much tethered to this thing here at home.

Robert: What has struck me about your demeanor throughout this chapter of your life, is that you appear to be very comfortable acknowledging that yours is a fatal diagnosis. You’re very pragmatic about it.

Frankie: I think that’s always been a part of my DNA, my psychological makeup. I’ve always told people that I am not an optimist or a pessimist. I’m a realist. I look at the facts as they’re presented to me and I try to vet that information as much as possible. Even with all the advances that have been made in medicine regarding cancer, there haven’t been as many made in regard to pancreatic cancer. So I’m a realist about it and I try to make the most of every day. I find some sort of joy in everything I do and see. And we’re all gonna go some time, right? There is just no question, in my case, as to what will eventually kill me. The only question is when will it happen?

Banali finding comfort in a Led Zeppelin CD during one of his numerous hospital visits.

Robert: It’s noteworthy that you lost your father to this disease as well.

Frankie: Right, he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1974. Like me, he was given six months to live at the time, but he lasted only six weeks.

Robert: Almost half a century later, despite the lack of advances you mentioned, I assume you are receiving far superior treatment than what was available to him at that time?

Frankie: I think they’ve made some advances in the chemo aspect of it. Actually, I just started round 21 of chemo this past Tuesday and the side effects are…well, I recommend these side effects to no one. They are very difficult. I just have to deal with them as best I can because I’m still taking care of the business of Quiet Riot. As a matter of fact, I just got off the phone a little while ago with my agents, and we were rescheduling some dates that were postponed because of the Corona virus situation, as well as accepting dates for 2021 which, you know…

Robert: Unfortunately I do.

Frankie: Right. Who knows if I’m going to be around in 2021? Or Christmas? Or my next birthday in November? It’s impossible to know.

Robert: You’ve gone to great extent physically to maintain business as usual with the band.

Frankie: When I was initially diagnosed last April, I had a fully scheduled Quiet Riot tour to play, so I made a decision to not tell the band immediately. I played a festival in Florida, but by the time we played the M3 festival in Baltimore, I had two tubes sticking out of my side, draining my abdomen and liver into two bags. I hid them from everyone by safety pinning everything to the back of my shirt. No one knew what was going on. Unfortunately, what grounded me was that it was going to be impossible for me to fly because of blood clots in my right calf, left lung, right lung and in the saddle between both of my lungs.

Robert: You went public about your diagnosis not too long after that.

Frankie: I went public in October via the internet and PanCan (Pancreatic Cancer Action Network) contacted me to do a PSA for them. They suggested them coming down and filming a show we were playing at the Whiskey (a storied music venue in Los Angeles) because it would be my first show back since letting everyone know that I have terminal cancer, and they did a beautiful job with it.

Robert: Another way you’ve vowed to live your best life, is to create art every day you possibly can. The fruits of those efforts are displayed in a collection of minimalist paintings you recently shared with the public, entitled Spirits I – VIII. At this point, can simply creating art be taxing on you?

Frankie: The fascinating thing is that the only time I’m not aware that I have cancer, is when I’m sleeping, playing my drums, or creating my art. For some reason, when I’m doing those particular activities, cancer doesn’t exist in my life. So, those activities are still almost a daily thing for me. My art is a very rewarding thing. I do almost all of it outdoors in my garden – I just have to make sure that I’m hydrating myself. Just like with my music, there are so many things in my mind that I really feel the need to get out there now – to put down on paper. So, I just do it. And it’s not forced – it’s not like I go out there and say, “Okay, what am I going to do today?” I usually have a general idea of four or five things I want to do and then I get to it. I really enjoy it.

Robert: So painting is something that you expect to do daily as soon as this round of treatment is done?

Frankie: Definitely. I can’t wait until I get unhooked from these IV’s so I can get myself cleaned up and head out into the garden to work on some of these pieces. The ideas are flooding my mind.

Banali’s ‘Technicolor Zen’, 2020

Robert: In regard to your day job, Quiet Riot has sold over 10 million copies worldwide of just the Metal Health album alone, other artists have paid tribute to the band in their lyrics, it’s music has appeared in movies and the ‘Rock of Ages’ musical, and it even became part of a funny moment on the Simpsons. Frankie, you co-founded the band, have been it’s drummer since Day One, and have managed it for decades. Do you have the same appreciation for all of the above while hearing it, as I do saying it?

Frankie: Absolutely. I really do. The first thing I’m always conscious about is the fact that if the fans hadn’t supported us in the very beginning, continuing on to this day of course, Quiet Riot would not exist. I’m very aware and appreciative of the support that we’ve received from fans for over three and a half decades now. The band is something that I’ve spent more than half of my life at so it’s been very important to me that we gave audiences exactly what they came to hear. I never phoned it in, I never took it for granted. I’m very appreciative of every single day that I have had to continue doing what I do.

Robert: I mentioned your practicality earlier, but how about sentimentality? Have you been looking back more since you received the diagnosis?

Frankie: I have been. I think what has happened is, spending weeks at the hospital and having to be in bed with these different IVs and infusions has given me a lot of time to look back and reflect. A lot of memories have started to flow back into my mind and I’ve been sharing them with my wife. It’s an interesting process and there’s a lot of laughter involved in these things that I am remembering, but there are some tears involved with some of them as well.

(L-R) Rudy Sarzo, Kevin DuBrow, Bananli, and Carlos Cavazo. Quiet Riot in their early 80’s heyday.

Robert: Considering the circumstances, is there anything that you might try to tackle, health permitting, that you haven’t tried before?

Frankie: Not knowing what the future might hold, the things that are important to me right now are making sure that when I do sit behind the drums my level of performance and enthusiasm are what they have always been. Because if I ever feel it slip, and I’m not able to do it at a level that I expect from myself? I’ll have to make some decisions.

Robert: Have you felt your performance slip?

To be honest with you, one of the most amazing things about this cancer that’s running through my body is that when I sit behind a drum set it feels like nothing has changed. My energy hasn’t changed, my playing hasn’t changed, my concentration hasn’t changed.

Robert: But other things have changed.

Frankie: The side effects from the treatment are ridiculous. What is fascinating though is that it attacks the nervous system, so it affects your feet and your hands. And I’m a drummer!  [laughs]. I have no feeling from the middle of both of my feet to my toes, and I have no feeling in my fingertips either. It doesn’t affect how I play at all, but I am perfectly aware of it. It’s the most bizarre thing. When I’m just walking around I constantly feel like I’m walking on gravel or little springs. But when I sit down and play? I’m in deep concentration and it disappears. The same with my art. When I go outside and paint, I put on some music and concentrate on what I’m doing and it just goes away.

Robert: Have you told the doctors about this?

Frankie: They understand what it is. I forget what it’s called – some kind of ‘theory’ I believe – but the numbness and all of that is a typical side effect. There are times I tell them things I am experiencing where, well…you know when you say something to a German Shepherd and their head kind of tilts because they’re not quite sure what you’re saying? I feel like I might do that to the doctors at times with some of these things I describe. [laughs]

Robert: Well, here’s to you tilting more and more doctor’s heads Frankie.

Frankie: I appreciate it brother. And listen, you do a great job. Reach out if you ever need anything. And then when (Quiet Riot) gets back on the road, you’ll have to come to a gig. I’ll leave you passes and you can come back and hang. I’m looking forward to it.

Robert Ferraro engages in conversation with pop culture figures. Recent guests include Melissa Etheridge, Paul Stanley, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, comedian Gary Gulman and model Bobbie Brown.

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