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SANTA ANA, Calif. - Andrew McMahon is on the verge of becoming Orange County, Calif.'s next internationally adored pop star.
Ask your daughter, ask her teenage friends, ask any group of 20-somethings: They'll tell you he already has seized that crown. Gwen Stefani may be O.C.'s most recognized icon, but it seems no performer is more locally loved right now than the piano man from the band Something Corporate.
And recently, he took a major leap forward by releasing a solo project under a new moniker, Jack's Mannequin. The semi-autobiographical album, titled "Everything in Transit" and issued by Madonna's Maverick Records, finds McMahon retreating from the punk- pop that made him a favorite and instead crafting denser songs that emulate the sound of his heroes - Billy Joel, Ben Folds, Brian Wilson.
There's just one stumbling block: McMahon is physically unable to promote it.
The same day his potential breakout arrived in stores, McMahon, 22, was due to undergo a stem-cell transplant, the first crucial step in a bone- marrow operation doctors expect will cure the acute lymphatic leukemia they diagnosed June 1.
This isn't the first time significant moments regarding his album and his illness have coincided, either.
The day McMahon's doctors called him with results of a blood test - taken because the singer was looking peaked and had been suffering from laryngitis that forced him to cancel a show for the first time in his career - he literally had just stepped out of the Manhattan studio where he had completed the final mastering session for his new disc.
"I was so excited that it was finally finished!" he said. "And the doctor calls and he says, `Look, I don't even know, with these blood counts, how you're still walking, let alone playing concerts every night.'" It was the most blind-sided I'd ever been."
Hours later he was hurriedly admitted to the leukemia ward of New York Presbyterian Hospital. "They gave me forms to fill out, and I had barely put my pen to the paper when the nurse said,
Are you Andrew? Come with me.' And I was like,Oh, God, this must be a bear, if I'm at the most bureaucratic place on Earth and they're not even asking me to fill out paperwork.'"
More than two months later - shortly before going back into the hospital for radiation treatments and chemotherapy to prepare him for the stem-cell transplant - McMahon sits curled up underneath a blanket on a couch in his San Clemente, Calif., home.
He's gaunt from rounds of chemo that beat his cancer into remission, hiding what once was a shaggy head under a trucker cap. Slightly concealed beneath his shirt is an intravenous tube leading to a bag of antibiotic fluid.
Seems the latest round of tests uncovered some residual pneumonia from when McMahon was at his immune-deficient worst. "So they're dosing me hard for that now."
You wouldn't know it to look at him. His slightly crooked smile widens constantly in conversation, whether recounting the most painful part of this healing process or relating how the name Jack's Mannequin (derived long before he was diagnosed) was in part a nod to a friend's younger brother - who had suffered from childhood leukemia.
"Andrew has always had this incredible spirit about him," his mother, Lin, says. "He's carrying us through this more than we're carrying him through."
A perfect example of his indomitable way: "Two weeks ago we were in the hospital for some tests, and he was listening to his iPod. He put an earphone on me and the other on him, and he said, `I'm gonna be the cancer dancer!'
"We were literally dancing down the hallway to Simon & Garfunkel."
"People in the hospital ... call me the wellest man on the ward," McMahon said. "That's what's going to sustain me. I have these energy reserves that I somehow can't seem to deplete."
His friends and family say McMahon has always been fueled by those boosters. "He's like a little kid, like a full-grown newborn," says Something Corporate guitarist Josh Partington, a best friend of McMahon's since their days at Dana Hills High School.
It's that infectiousness that has attracted so many young fans to the singer-songwriter. Something Corporate's two albums have each sold roughly 400,000 copies - not the kind of numbers No Doubt posts, but hardly shabby.
Yet after five years of nonstop touring, McMahon had grown weary and homesick. When he returned to Orange County, an alienation set in that led to both a split from his longtime girlfriend (they've since reconciled) and a long stretch of soul-searching that gave rise to "Everything in Transit."
Never one to slow down for long, McMahon found his latest songs colored by exhaustion. Certain lyrics, from titles such as "Bruised" and "Dark Blue," now seem eerily prophetic. "She thinks I'm much too thin," he sings. "She asks me if I'm sick."
Before he was diagnosed, he simply thought he was juggling too much, launching a new project while still performing with his proper band.
Now everything is on hold.
At McMahon's insistence, Maverick went ahead with the release of the Jack's Mannequin disc. "These songs are so relevant to me currently," he says, "and I think a lot of it is my best stuff."
And as crass as it seems, McMahon acknowledges that his battle with cancer could bring attention to his music.
"There's a lot of drama to this, no question," he says. "But I feel like there are a lot of people watching me right now, watching how I'm progressing. And I want to put a record out when people are paying attention, because that's when it has the best chance of being heard."
It also stands a good chance of shedding light on McMahon's illness, which typically afflicts children younger than 15 and adults older than 65. McMahon, who is expected to fully recover, falls into a less-studied group of leukemia patients ages 15-25.
"There's a lot of research that hasn't been done in this age bracket, for leukemia or cancer, period. This puts me in a position, especially if this record succeeds and I'm given a platform, to heighten awareness and raise some money to help this cause."
For now, however, he remains in a gray area that can produce complications. Once the transplant takes effect, McMahon will be laid low for at least a year recuperating.
He hopes to record a new Something Corporate album during that time, if he's up to it. Until then, he'll "just let things happen. In a lot of ways I feel like I've been taken care of by the world. Things have fallen into place or fallen out of place for the right reasons.
"And my motivation to recover is so high because there is so much waiting for me on the other side. I really do feel like it could be just a short period of time before I'm back."
(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.