“I’m Don, what’s your name?” A friendly, blonde – haired, 16 year old kid with glasses asked, as I prepared to audition for our highschool talent show, alone. “I’m Steve.” Don climbed over the auditorium seats and sat next to me, asking about my guitar, how long I played, and who I listened to. We hit it off right away. Instantly I sensed he would always be there for me and I knew I would be there for him. He was 16 and I was 17. His band went on first and I performed alone, nervous as hell. I was mostly introverted back then. We talked about how we enjoyed each other’s performance after the auditions. We both made it to the show by the way.
We jammed together at each other’s homes after school, talking about life and laughing as good friends will. Don’s parents were very nice and always made me feel welcome. The strong bond they shared as a family was very easy to see. One day, after school, I went to Don’s house for the first time. He had more cassette tapes from various hard rock metal bands and classical artists to show me. “Hey that’s cool….I love classical music too”, I said, as he rummaged through his bag. Don pulled a cassette from his bag, “Check this out.” I recognized the cover. It was Ozzy’s Blizzard of Oz album, with Randy Rhoads on guitar. Don introduced me to Randy’s playing. I was again, inspired and had to purchase every cassette Randy played on. Unfortunately, Randy passed away far too soon, in a plane crash while on tour with Ozzy in 1982. Don qued the cassette to Randy’s solo spot and started to wave his hands like a conductor. “Listen to his phrasing!” I’ll never forget him saying that. I never saw anyone so young, read into the playing of another like this. It was at that point I knew we met for a reason. There were a few more moments in our musical journey like this, of course.
After graduation, we worked at our jobs and hung out when we could. Don liked my idea of some day opening a recording studio and asked his father to get involved without me knowing. During one of our talks he said his dad wanted to help and would front the money to get our studio going. His dad wanted a list of all the equipment he thought we would need. I was torn and told Don I could not accept such a great gift. Don’t response was that his dad sees our passion and believes in us. We were around 23 at the time. I made the list to humor myself, as I was more into the tech side of things than Don was. At this time I was getting more into metal and hard rock, while Don was moving a little more towards the blues (he loved Stevie Ray Vaughan…and I do too.) We visited various music stores in the area, looking at guitars, amps and recording gear. It was so much fun, and yet, I felt really bad about the money fronting thing. Of course I told Don we were going to pay his dad back. We made our lists and planned for the studio.
This was circa 1991. There was no internet for another 4 years and only the rich had cell phones, which were called car phones (they were mounted in cars.) We had planned on placing ads in local papers and music stores for the recording studio, catering to local bands. We would record on reel to reel recording tape. This is known as analog recording (nothing was recorded on computers yet.) The digital era wasn’t alive yet.
Neither Don, nor I, drank. He chose to smoke a pipe, like what your grandfather would smoke. His apartment always smelled like a tobacco shop. It was cool and different and I’m pretty sure I teased him about it. We got together when we could, working on our songs and experimenting with recording sound with our gear. “Musical brothers” was a good way to describe us. His cats would make an appearance to jump in a guitar case of his, to use the washroom. Don didn’t like that and responded by spraying them with water from spray bottles he kept handy. I made sure to keep my guitar cases closed.
The last time I spoke to Don was on the phone while visiting my parents. We talked about the usual music and recording studio techniques we wanted to work on and made plans to talk tomorrow after work. “Cool man, I’ll call you tomorrow.” Little did I know, those were the last words I would say to him.
The call came later the next morning while I was at work. Don’s wife, Kelly, called me crying, saying Don passed away. After we got off the phone the night before, they took a walk in their neighborhood with their two little boys, Don and Dewey. Don was a couple of years old and Dewey was a couple months old. This was 1996. While walking, a drunk driver jumped the curb and killed Don. Kelly and the boys were not badly injured. I was told Don held the baby to shield him. This is terrible to type. I knew Kelly was joking since Don and I would prank each other at times…but he never played this card before. I began to realize she was serious, while still feeling silly for “falling for it.” At any moment, I expected Don to laugh in the background. He never did. Nothing made sense. I wanted to find the guy who did this. Kelly said he was in custody with 3 other counts of DUI on his record, and was driving on a suspended license. Drunk again, driving around. The guy got out of jail 2 months later, free to roam. This made me hate cops and hate the “system.” I hated most people and wanted nothing to do with anyone. I distanced myself for a long time and stopped playing guitar. The recording studio never happened and I didn’t care. Music felt different and the world was a much different place.
I didn’t go to court, never saw the guy, and never saw Don again. It took a few years to let go of the guilt. If I had only kept him on the phone a minute longer, he would be with us today. Losing him was a black death and I didn’t care about anything. It definitely added a lot of armor to my being and I miss him.
It may sound silly to some reading this, but I’m sentimental. I still carry with me, all the time, a couple of cards Don always had on him. One is a sign language chart and the other, a music store he frequented.
His wake was beautiful. There were flowers, photos of him and all his guitars on stands. Although it was very nice, it felt very wrong. I can’t explain how the days felt blacker. Trust me when I say things were very different.
People get into cars and assume they will be safe. We all take our lives for granted, even me. Others, who drink, get into vehicles and always think they will be fine…it won’t happen to me. Guess what…
Sorry this was a sad read but it was something that needed to be said. If you enjoy my writing, consider subscribing to my blog. I love to write about my experiences in photography, music, video editing, my dogs, and anything else on my mind.
If you are trying to cope with the loss of a loved one here is some additional reading that can help.
thanks for reading!