‘I try to make jokes about my trembling hand but it can take me 20 minutes to put a shirt on’: DJ DAVID ‘KID’ JENSEN reveals how he’s lived with Parkinson’s for seven years after a career carousing with pop’s greats
Ambling down the road near my Surrey home on a sunny day, I noticed a family approaching from the other direction.
A mother with her two children and a beautiful long-haired dachshund trailing behind.
I smiled as our paths crossed, and looked down fondly at their furry friend. ‘That’s a really lovely dog,’ I said. ‘What dog?’ she replied.
It was a hallucination – a side effect of the drugs I must take for my Parkinson’s.
The medication helps to manage the symptoms of this incurable condition which I was diagnosed with in 2013, when I was 63.
The experts advised me to tell no one about my condition, but the news was shared with my wife Gudrun, writes David ‘Kid’ Jensen (pictured together)
As a kid, I had always been a lazy walker and my mother nagged me not to drag my feet.
The trait became more pronounced as I grew older and I started to shake as I stretched in the morning on waking.
It became one of those puzzles you plan to mention to a doctor – one day.
But it was a Royal Marine, rather than my doctor, who prompted me to take the symptoms more seriously.
Embarking on a fitness drive while working for Smooth Radio in Salford, I signed up for PE courses the Forces were running, which demanded a medical assessment before the torture began.
The Marine moved my hand around. ‘Does this hurt?’ ‘No,’ I replied. He moved it again. Still no pain.
He tried another arm-wrench, but despite his determination to make me wince, I felt nothing.
In a tone of voice you do not ignore, he cautioned that there was a medical issue and recommended I get it checked out.
Noel Gallagher was leaving the Harley Street surgery just as I entered. We nodded on the steps. A bizarre coincidence rather than a premature hallucination.
Inside, a neurologist questioned me before shuffling his papers and failing to look into my eyes as he delivered his blunt yet accurate verdict.
I went on to consult a second neurologist, too – not because I wanted verification, I simply found the bedside manner of the first offputting for this most sensitive of conversations.
A team in white jackets prodded, probed and subjected me to a kaleidoscope of tests. The MRI scan suggested all was well.
I have broadcast to the whole of Europe on the mighty Radio Luxembourg, and on Radio 1 at its zenith (DJ David ‘Kid’ Jensen pictured in 1978)
Then came the scan providing 3D images of my insides.
The doctor studied the results. ‘That’s fine,’ he said, pointing his pencil at one unrecognisable blob.
‘And that’s good, too,’ he said, pointing at another.
‘Ah,’ he exclaimed, pointing near the top of my head. Parkinson’s was diagnosed. ‘It could be worse,’ he reassured. ‘Now we are going on a journey together.’
I gather that has become a curious medical cliche for such situations, trying to make the worst day of your life sound like a jolly package holiday.
No tests can show conclusively that you have Parkinson’s. Doctors base a diagnosis on your symptoms, medical history and a detailed physical examination.
None of us ever knows for sure whether the anticipated path for the remainder of our life will be as expected.
It could change tomorrow. And we wonder whether we would be able to cope – and how.
I was scared. I was devastated. I was angry. And, yes, you ask yourself selfishly: Why me?’
I had wrongly thought Parkinson’s to be a disease for old people, and the start of a long slope to the Pearly Gates.
Reading all I could about my condition, I drew little comfort from learning I was unlikely to die from Parkinson’s itself, but from the symptoms, such as not being able to swallow food, or falling dangerously, or something equally cheery.
I would recommend avoiding Google and talking things through with a doctor instead.
The experts advised me to tell no one about my condition: ‘Don’t tell your wife, your family, your best friend. Nobody.’
They suggested that people would persist in asking: ‘How are you?’ The proposed silence seemed an odd strategy to someone like me.
I quite like people in Waitrose asking how I am.
I’ve reflected on my privileged professional life, achieving everything I dreamed of and mor (pictured with Simon Bates, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis, Peter Powell and Ed Stewart for the Radio 1 Roadshow in 1979)
Regardless, the news was shared with my wife Gudrun and a close doctor friend in hushed voices, before five years of subterfuge, guilt and loneliness began.
Even aside from the doctor’s advice, I feared that others might think less of me were they to be aware of my situation.
My shaking hands were secreted quickly in my pockets when I began a conversation, and I found excuses to explain the many pill bottles I fiddled with in the studio every few hours.
I shall for ever be grateful to the small group of people with whom I did share my news, for keeping my condition to themselves and allowing me to choose the time and place to say more.
Talking to younger members of the family demanded a deep breath, and a book called My Grandad Has Parkinson’s proved as useful as it sounds.
‘Grandad’s going to be a bit slower,’ my seven-year-old granddaughter was warned. ‘You might notice him walking more slowly and shaking a little.’
The explanation was listened to with admirable attentiveness, before the wide-eyed question: ‘Can you catch it?’
Dave Clark’s appearances on Sky Sports – he is best known for hosting their boxing and darts coverage – were the unexpected catalyst for sharing my news in January 2018.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2011, Dave was warned his career in front of the cameras would expire in just two or three years. He continued for almost ten.
It was inspiring to see him cope on screen, hand in pocket but speaking normally and ploughing on with his job.
I concluded that I, too, should speak openly and demonstrate it is possible to continue with one’s life.
I need not become a flag-waving ‘Mr Parkinson’s’, but the way I conducted myself could bring hope to someone else and pay back some of the debt from all that life has given me. The illness does not have to define you.
I try to keep my hands in my pockets, or joke about the trembling. Nevertheless, I feel tense and self-conscious when I address people in public, fearing all eyes are on me as I walk into a room.
Football with the Stones at midnight
When Mick Jagger suggests he’d like you to join him on the tour plane as the Stones dashed around the United States, you do not argue.
This was the band’s private plane, with their iconic red tongue and lips logo emblazoned on the tail fin.
It was winter 1972 and they were promoting the album Exile On Main Street.
My presence was not wholly popular, with American record producer Marshall Chess making clear I was not welcome.
I know this because the seating arrangements on the small aircraft meant I witnessed every heated word.
On touchdown in Philadelphia, a police escort and outriders accompanied us as we sped through the streets to the Spectrum, a huge ice-hockey venue which had gained a reputation as the home of the biggest rock names.
When I asked Bill Wyman where I might sit to watch, he generously handed me an Access All Areas pass and gestured to the stage: ‘Sit with us.’
I did – witnessing a performance from the greats from a vantage point just feet behind them.
On occasions since, I catch vintage footage of the gig with the camera panning round to catch my young face sandwiched between Mick and Bill.
After the concert it was onwards to Pittsburgh, from where take-off was delayed.
Given this was a private plane, airport procedures were a little less formal and we disembarked for the wait.
Killing time, one of the guys got out a football and the band invited me to join in a kickabout on the runway.
A career in radio offers many surreal experiences, but little compares with playing football with The Rolling Stones at midnight at a Pittsburgh airport.
Friends usefully reassure me that my Parkinson’s is not obvious, and if people do notice, it matters little.
On sensible days, I concede the conceit of thinking that people are always looking at me.
‘It’s a real bastard,’ said Chris Tarrant, in his way. He was among the first to get in touch, with a hugely welcome and typically generous call.
Our relationship has always been good and, knowing how well he keeps his counsel in an industry famed for its gossips, I have always been able to be honest with him.
He assured me that he would help in any way, and troubled to follow the call with a touching handwritten note in which he pledged again to offer support. I shall never forget his kindness.
You fear, too, that your working life will grind to a halt. So I was delighted that my radio station boss Terry Underhill said he’d always guarantee me work.
Never before have I valued the vibe of a radio station quite so much; I treasured the distraction of being briefly back among the banter as I recorded shows.
In times of challenge, there is no substitute for waking up knowing you have something to look forward to.
Jools Holland promised to help in any way, and it was touching to receive a call from Noel Edmonds.
Steve Wright was hugely encouraging when I was interviewed on his Radio 2 programme.
Not only is it the calls from familiar figures from radio and music that get you through, it is the lovely thoughts from people you have never met before.
In the days following my announcement, more than 50,000 messages of support fell into my inbox from listeners, fellow Crystal Palace fans and people who had just been touched by my story.
I valued, too, the support from the charity Parkinson’s UK for which I am now an ambassador.
I am also a supporter of The Cure Parkinson’s Trust, which is working to fund research to slow, stop and reverse Parkinson’s.
There is a sense of comfort in helping others. I hoped I could make constructive use of my public profile, to heighten understanding of the condition.
Its assault on the brain is not confined to older people, and that person you think is drunk as they stagger down the road at ten in the morning may not be.
The comedian Billy Connolly has done much good work, too, leaning on the gift he has, saying: ‘I’ve got Parkinson’s disease… and I wish to f*** he had kept it to himself.’
My illness was part of every thought in the first days following the diagnosis, a dark shadow greeting me each morning.
Now, aged 70, it occurs to me much less, although a demanding exercise regime has become a necessary part of my timetable, with more than two hours a day of t’ai chi, press-ups, jogging and walking.
The medication continues alongside in earnest. Fingers are wagged, and I am warned my tablets must be taken exactly as prescribed if I am to fend off this monster as long as possible.
‘Twelve o’clock means twelve o’clock – not ten-past,’ insists the consultant. Accustomed to being punctual for news bulletins on-air, I rather hoped I might manage that feat.
The hallucinations continue as the medication is faded up or down, balancing the effect of the Parkinson’s and the side effects of the pills, trying to ensure the best mix.
Going to the loo at night, I meet my weird friends on the stairs, the faces unfamiliar but never scary. They seem happy to see me – and utterly real, until I reach out and put my hands through their bodies.
Despite having lived through the heady days of the late 1960s and 1970s, and mixed in exactly the right colourful circles, I’ve never been much of a drug-taker, but have now discovered a little of what it might have been like.
I have not cried. Sad movies make me cry, and tears flowed when my friend Ian Wright was brought off the bench for Crystal Palace in the 1990 FA Cup Final to score against Manchester United and put us in the lead.
There was an occasion when, in poor light, I tumbled on the staircase after leaving Sky TV studios. Blood dripped from the gash in my forehead.
A taxi driver kindly dispensed tissues to help mop things up, and I apologised, of course, in the most British of ways.
It was a warning of the way Parkinson’s might threaten. I cannot regain my balance from the sort of minor stumbles we all have from time to time.
Gudrun has been taking care of me, and little I can ever say can pay the debt I owe for her love and care. She gets anxious about me and annoyed when I do not do as I am told.
Not every day is a good day. It is easy to get depressed. I find it difficult to do those fiddly, necessary jobs which we take for granted, such as tying a necktie, putting on cufflinks or just fastening my trousers.
It used to take 20 seconds to put on a shirt, now it can take 20 minutes. With Parkinson’s you become reliant on other people, and I spare a thought for the people who cope alone.
Although the timbre of my voice may have shifted a little, I am grateful that the tool of my trade remains intact.
I am now part of the online station United DJs (which is found at uniteddj.com).
Dubbed ‘the station of the stars’, it involves many familiar DJ names from the days when radio was freer and we could have more involvement in the music we chose to play.
Positivity is so important, alongside eating well and exercising regularly. To a large extent, I decide when I wake whether I am to have a great day or not.
On tough days I think of the uplifting words from a doctor at a specialist hospital in Epsom.
Having measured my agility, stamina and strength, she suggested my performance was remarkable for someone who had lived with Parkinson’s for the length of time I have.
Advances are being made and we are tantalisingly close to finding a cure or, at least, managing the symptoms better than can be achieved currently. That gives me hope.
I do not have a bucket list. Death does not bother me, but I fear pain. Pain for me and for my family.
I do not want people to be sad. I have been upset that I may not see my seven grandchildren grow up.
I’ve reflected on my privileged professional life, achieving everything I dreamed of and more.
I have broadcast to the whole of Europe on the mighty Radio Luxembourg, and on Radio 1 at its zenith.
I have played football with the Rolling Stones, been hugged by Elton, sat next to Princess Diana and enjoyed the friendship of John Peel.
I have watched Queen play in their earliest days and been backstage at Live Aid. I have enjoyed pop star status – just for playing the music I love.
Who could wish for more?
© David Jensen, 2020
lExtracted from Kid Jensen: For The Record, by David Jensen, published by Little Wing at £15 and available to order from mangobooks.co.uk.
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