Death is such a strange thing to describe, talk about, write about, yet it happens every day. I’ve been trying to find the right way, the right words, and the right conversation to have. I know it’ll be discussed in therapy and usually I’m fine with relaying to people what I’m feeling. But this is something I’m writing mainly for myself, in order to bring it to the surface.
Several years back, I made a record called Anchorage that I eventually took off the Internet because I didn’t think it was very good; had a few good songs but it never sat with me well. How that record started - I basically contacted drummers on Craigslist and even had one record their tracks via Skype, more or less. But the songs weren’t strong hence my decision to delete them. I think I wrote them as an excuse to make music with a drummer again, rather than have anything of merit to say. Part of it was motivated by something I told a lot of people about - I was at a Vitamin Shoppe picking up Vitamin D supplements that my doctor recommended to me. I was browsing the store when an elderly man walked in, started to fall, and when I ran to him, he fell into my arms grabbing his chest. I waited for the paramedics to arrive as the manager too stood close by and made the call to 911. It was clear that this man stopped breathing, his eyes had closed. When the paramedics arrived, they couldn’t get a pulse or a heartrate or anything. They went through his things to retrieve his identification. I left around the time the coroner arrived to take away the body.
I guess when that happened I was more or less in shock. But something in me wanted to deal with this through the catharsis of making loud rock music again with a real drummer in the same room. Hadn’t done it since my long-time drummer moved to Indianapolis over a decade ago, if not longer. I actually had no plans to make a new friend. But one of the repliers to the Craigslist inquiry was around the same age as me, and his name was Josh. He actually looked like a more beefed up version of a bass player friend of mine also named Josh, who I was in a band with about two decades ago now. Anyway, new drummer Josh had me over to his space and we jammed on and off for quite a stretch. I told him I wanted the songs to find me, rather than me sit down to write them. So between Josh and I, we wrote about four songs that would eventually go on the record that I decided to un-release. We spent time after jamming watching YouTube music videos, drinking beer, and telling stories. He wasn’t always very social, and rarely attended events I invited him to such as movie screenings. He loved having his practice space, drum kit, and recording equipment. We both loved a lot of the same bands whether it was Jimmy Eat World or The Afghan Whigs. Sometimes we would play covers and not necessarily record them. But in fact, you can hear his incredible drumming on a cover of “What Jail Is Like” that I did where I screamed at the point where it’s not even pleasant for me to listen to now. Sadly, I don’t know when I can listen to that recording we made now.
We’ve been in touch for the past six years or so, though I became so wrapped up in a teaching job that involved teaching drums, to where we rarely jammed together. I would sometimes meet up with him but it was rare. He was not easy to get a hold of, even when I would check in with him via email. He worked a lot of hours and also tried the best he could to be a good father even though he and his wife were no longer together. It’s clear that he couldn’t always be available to make music the way he wanted to; drumming was his passion and it showed. He did write to me a couple years ago and I wish I could find that email today. I’m not sure why it was taken out of my archives, possibly because a large file was attached. It was an MP3 of him playing a song off the Flaming Lips’ record, Clouds Taste Metallic, he loved the drumming on that and the record that came before it. In addition, he confided in me about why he’s not social or struggles to keep in touch. He was an addict. I sensed that when we hung out together for a good long stretch. He always found it odd how I could have one or two beers and “nurse them” the way I did. In that email he sent with the MP3 cover, he came clean about the many substances he would indulge in. I replied with a lot of complements about his drumming, his talent, his kindness when we did spend time together.
This past weekend, I had enough of feeling downtrodden and headachy. I wanted to fight my pain by jamming live with a drummer again for the first time in a while. I had told my friend Patrick when we went to the movies that a good thing for me to do is to make music again, preferably with people. So I sent an email to Josh, well-knowing we hadn’t hung out since the winter when things were tough for both of us. That was the last time we jammed, he was a little out of sorts. Granted, so was I due to losing a job. I also recently invited him to my birthday party hoping I could introduce him to my friends, but he didn’t show. That last time we spoke in the winter, Josh, along with my other friend Patrick incidentally, both dropped out of social media at one point, saying that seeing other people so happy only made him miserable. Part of my decision to do the same thing was based on hearing his thoughts last winter though it took me a long time to finally delete Facebook.
Back to the present, in which I emailed Josh in hopes he would reply to my request to hang out and record something again with him. Even if it was just playing my old songs with a drummer, it was something I truly wanted to do and I know very few drummers with practice spaces in Chicago. Plus I wanted to see how Josh was because I knew he struggled and at the very least we could have a good talk. So he replied by saying that we could hang out sometime on Monday, maybe in the afternoon before work since him and I both work later shifts than most folks. I wanted to spare a few hours of my day and be proactive by seeing a friend and play some music. It was a short email reply and he just said to come over with my guitar. After an incredible conversation with a former roommate of mine about her sobriety, I felt a bit inspired and excited to see Josh. I had finally felt better after a weekend of migraine pain and was ready to take on the week.
I arrived at Josh’s. Texted, called, knocked on the door to his basement practice space. No response. Eventually, I just decided to try turning the knob to open the door. When I did, I looked inside and saw Josh lying on the couch. It took me a second to process the vomit, foam, whatever it was. But I fell to my knees and began shaking. I took out my phone and called 911. The paramedics arrived, tried giving him an adrenaline shot, and there was no response. Josh was gone. They found a needle stuck in the couch cushion. He had overdosed on something. I had to give a statement to the police and then left. Once again, I didn’t stay around for the coroner. I think that’s the hard part because I did that when my dad passed. I don’t know. All I could to think to do was get something to eat because I hadn’t eaten all day and decided to still go to work instead of calling off. I had to keep the day going. I didn’t want to say anything to anyone, though oddly enough, a friend of mine from Indiana knew him and I knew I was going to have to give her the news. Suffice to say, more happened on Monday that is hard to process too. But this is about Josh.
I considered him to be a friend who was there in a way that I needed close to a decade ago. We definitely spent a lot of time together for a good stretch of time because of a love of music and practicing, but then like a lot of friends, we lapsed. We sporadically texted something related to music like, did you hear ____’s new album yet? Sometimes it would take a while to get a reply but when I did, there was comfort. Also, I really wanted to consider playing live shows with him, but he had social anxiety and so did I. Around the time when I tried again to collaborate again was when I became a teacher and then that became my sole focus. I feel like I should’ve kept better in touch with him these past couple of years because it’s clear things got worse or he never was able to deal with certain things that I am not going to elaborate on. There’s no way to know what went with through his mind and it’s selfish to place blame in order to make sense of this loss. What’s bizarre is that a Chicago library worker died too young due to gun violence, another issue that is hard to fathom but plagues this country to a horrendous degree. Death has weighed heavily on my mind just as much as guilt, shame, regret. I keep thinking about arriving there sooner than we had planned or any number of scenarios where I could’ve helped.
I think I had to write about the Vitamin Shoppe incident because I remember wanting to make music again after that experience. Life it too short, or some cliché like that. And that’s how Josh and I met, was a result of me witnessing the death of a stranger. I couldn’t handle the emotions of that, so I channeled it into music. That Craigslist ad lead to a friendship. So I’m grateful I made the effort close to a decade ago because I was able to record songs with him, in time. Granted, I didn’t know the man who collapsed in my arms at the Vitamin Shoppe at all, but seeing him take his final breath, and knowing I was the last thing he saw, still clawed into me. And obviously after nearly dying myself at the age of 18, and then seeing my dad pass when I was 21, death is this ghost that feels like it’s following me. But really, it’s following anyone each time we step out in the world. Josh once told me that if he could just make music and have that be the way for him to pay his rent, he would be truly happy. He came from Texas, even battled and overcame cancer. Music saved him and if it had been his career, maybe things would’ve been different. I remember him even saying, “I would probably do less drugs.” He laughed after he said that, and I tried to as well along with him. An uncomfortable sentiment in hindsight. Probably because I understood the sentiment of wanting to be something, but something holds you back. Some kind of monster, which was strangely enough, the name of a documentary we watched together once that covers sobriety and therapy surrounding the band Metallica. We each have some kind of monster. We each struggle in different ways, carrying around that monster inside. I wish Josh could’ve gotten help, support, and maybe come to terms somehow.
I wish I could’ve done something, well-knowing there was nothing I could do. We don’t know what people do when they’re alone. We don’t even know for sure if they’re being completely authentic when we are spending time with them. I’d like to think that music brought out the best in Josh. He was definitely a true talent with a great spirit and a wonderful laugh. I know I have to go to his service next week and see his family, talk to his friends, probably bring along my friend from Indiana too. I want to play at least the cover of “What Jail Is Like” we did, but I can’t. Part of me wants to link to the song but I can’t. Maybe if someone asks about his recordings, I’ll mention it and pass it along to his other friends and family. Listening to it now is too hard, because I will think of his face, his movements, his coordination, and his choice to play the song differently than the original – even at one point in the second verse focusing on the Toms, improvising in the moment and surprising us both. How he wanted to be credited as “Ellen Rage” for some reason for that record’s liner notes. I know people might come up to me or know me as the “one who found him.” I’m just hoping he has found peace that was probably very hard to find and maintain in life.
I’m just truly taken aback by what happened because I was expecting something good, something cathartic, something liberating, something that could help connect us again, and instead, Josh is gone at the age of 44. I wish I could talk about it more, but I almost don’t know what to do with this. Monday is a day that made me dizzy, panicked, scared, and lost. I felt like I was in a fog. I couldn’t even tell other friends about everything that happened. There’s been a lot of loss this year. Something about losing the ability to record and/or make music with Josh again has hit me harder than expected. Something about finding him and knowing it was too late. I guess I needed to write about this instead of texting or talking this time, well-knowing it may not help for a while. I remember once listening to the record Figure 8 by Elliott Smith, a singer/songwriter who also struggled with a number of issues and addictions. Josh told me his favorite song was “I Better Be Quiet,” and I decided to sit down and listen to that song. It was about letting go and not externalizing. Maybe it’s the shock, maybe it’s the fact that this song stood out to him that I’m almost choosing to also be quiet. I have to brace myself to say a final goodbye to him at the service next week. I can imagine him being buried with drum sticks, as cheesy as that sounds. I’m glad he was my friend. I wish he were still here so I can ask him to cover that Elliott Smith song, even though it doesn’t have a drum part. I am tired of drugs and losing good people. I don’t want this to happen to any other friend, any family member, anyone. Josh, thank you for recording music with me, and may you rest quietly in both power and in peace.