When Louis Gendron learned his daughter had been diagnosed with autism, he reacted instinctively. First he tried to learn as much as he could about tending to her physical needs. “It’s a marathon, there’s different challenges every day for parents,” said the Claremont native from his Wilton, NH home.
Then Gendron began looking for ways to fight back. “Fathers are typically problem solvers, we try to fix things.” But, he says in frustration, “I couldn’t fix her. I couldn’t solve the problem.”
Instead, he methodically pored through information on autism, a neural disorder with no known cure that, according to data released October 5 by the Center for Disease Control, now affects 1 in 100 Americans.
The more he learned, the greater his resolve to do something in response grew. “I thought I’d really like to help other parents who may not have access to the resources I do.”
This determination led to Acoustic for Autism, a compilation album benefiting Generation Rescue, a research organization devoted to recovering children from autism begun by actress Jenny McCarthy.
The collection of music includes 12 songs donated by a luminous array of independent artists, including Chris Trapper, Dennis Crommett (Winterpills), Kris Delmhorst and Cormac McCarthy.
Using music as a vehicle made a lot of sense for Gendron. Growing up in Claremont, he lived in a musical house, and learned drums and guitar at a young age. “My father was a drummer, I hung out in the studio with Foghat when I was a kid and I’ve been around a lot of musicians,” he says. His mother’s best friend was “Lady” Eve Whitcomb, the beloved Claremont singer who performed with Lionel Hampton and other jazz greats.
As an adult, Gendron did film editing work on music videos by Cowboy Junkies, Alice in Chains Metallica and Queensryche.
At first, he tried organizing a benefit concert, but the logistics proved unmanageable. “I put that on the side and stared working on an album. I thought I could reach a worldwide audience if I did it right,” says Gendron.
Calling on his musician friends (and a few he didn’t know but hoped to snag), Gendron got to work pulling the project’s threads together. “I t was like throwing darts at a dartboard,” he says. “I figured the worst thing people could say to me is no.”
At this point, fate – and Facebook – intervened in a way that would sound scripted if it weren’t true. Michael Cusanelli, a pal from Stevens High School whom Gendron hadn’t seen in 20 years, “friended” him on the social network site. A few weeks later the pair met for lunch in Keene.
They talked about life since graduation. Gendron spoke of his current job with a Southern California software developer, and his work making music videos back in the days when MTV still played them.
When Cusanelli said he was currently VP at World Sound, a Seattle record company, Gendron told him about Acoustic for Autism. “This is something I’m really passionate about,” he recalls saying.
“Mike said, ‘great, I’ll put it out through my record label. Let’s team up on this.’ That’s really what I needed, because I didn’t know how to distribute the thing or put it out,” Gendron says.
Then stunningly, a few weeks after the two old friends began working together, Cusanelli learned that one of his children had autism.
“The fact that we reconnected out of the blue right around the time I hit that wall, where I needed some industry help – that was pretty wild. We both sort of realized it was meant to be,” says Gendron.
“Then, when one of his own kids was diagnosed with autism, we knew we had to make this happen.”
Cusanelli sent Gendron a steady stream of songs, including one by a World Sounds artist, Amuhea, and another from Analogue Transit, a band he’d been negotiating with before getting involved in the project.
The music they eventually chose for the record is as varied as the many ways autism can touch families’ lives.
“I wanted different emotions captured in the songs,” says Gendron. “I didn’t want [them] to be so literal … to be autism songs. I wanted it to be about hope, and spiritual … but I was thinking of things that I’ve gone through personally.”
His intent is perfectly distilled in the lyrics of the Kris Delmhorst contribution to Acoustic for Autism, “Light of the Light,” originally heard on her 2006 album Strange Conversation:
Who will soothe the fevered children?
Who will heal these separations?
Maybe even now it’s coming
We can wait no longer, we can wait no more.
“But I also wanted to put together a collection of great acoustic music,” says Gendron. “Even if you aren’t affected by autism in any way, you could buy the album, enjoy the music and say, I really want to learn more about this.”
The album was released September 29 on iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody and the http://www.acousticforautism.org web site. There’s no CD, but digital copies of liner notes and credits are included with purchase.
“We want to maximize the funds going to charity, and minimize the use of plastics and the environmental impact,” explains Gendron.
The choice of Generation Rescue as a beneficiary may spark controversy – not everyone shares Jenny McCarthy’s opinion about the role of aggressive vaccinations in autism. But Gendron believes their high profile is vital. “We wanted to work with an organization to help get the word out,” he says. “I don’t care about blaming anybody … let’s just figure out what it is and fix it.”
“We’re steering clear of getting on a political bandwagon,” says Gendron, adding that his effort is “not affiliated with Generation Rescue” – only donating money to it.
“We want to keep the focus on helping parents on a direct level. If this project is successful, we’ll have more freedom and choices to help other organizations.”