And I’ll Ride Beside You
When my brother Joe passed in May 2018, I was almost physically unable to listen to music. I could hear it well enough, especially all the songs my oldest brother Jake would play during those weeks following to disrupt the monotonous silence as we sat across one another chain-smoking cigarettes and trying to understand the new world we found ourselves in. But I couldn’t listen. When I say I couldn’t listen to music I mean to say that when music was played—especially songs I had always loved—I felt almost nothing. No joy, maybe some ambient sorrow. But mostly, an overwhelming emptiness.
I came to music late, especially for having lived in a house with a musician for an older brother. All my life there were guitars and basses around, and when I got into high school, Jake’s band started rehearsing in the garage daily. Joe and Jake were always very close, partly through their shared admiration and joy of jam bands. Jake’s band, “Keef Alfonso and the Groove Revival,” played a host of Phish and Talking Heads covers, music I was unaware of in its original form. My only interaction was through the thin walls of our aging Florida home where the bass would shake the entire foundation, where “Down with Disease” or “Burning Down the House” sounded like muffled, straining bursts of amateur harmonies. I rarely went into the garage, and when I did, it was to complain that I had to study or I had friends over.
It took me until the summer before my junior year to actually try and enjoy what was happening in that garage. Naturally, as the youngest of four, (my sister Ashlee was also not particularly moved by the sounds overtaking the house at all hours) I found refuge in tethering myself to my brothers and their friends. Jake, a bit too old to be hanging out with a 16-year-old, was cool with my presence but hid their day-to-day activities from me (smoking pot, drinking, speed). But Joe—Joey to the many who loved him—took me in.
Joey and I were the two youngest of the Okie Clan (an affectionate term people gave to the four O’Connor siblings; we were indeed a fun-loving bunch), only separated by a mere 21 months. A lot of folks thought we were twins, not necessarily because we looked alike but our affectations and mannerisms were deeply similar. Partly I always thought it was because we were both gay, and that our mannerisms were just another way gay folk lived and behaved and performed—but alas that was a crude oversight. In retrospect, I think I mirrored Joey a lot, watching him float in and out of groups of people at parties, watching as he made everyone fall in love with his charm, wit, and charisma. I desperately wanted to be a part of Joe and Jake’s circle of cool hippies I secretly idolized. I wanted to show them I wasn’t a kid anymore, that I could hang with the best of them, that I could chug Captain Morgan and read books and talk Phish and other shop.
After Jake and the band moved to Jacksonville, some nights Joey would come and tell me to come into the garage to hang out with him and his friends—Natalie, Lyle, and Jocelyn were the regular cast (but I was and remain partial to my dear friend, the “prickly pear” Natalie). We would sit around, smoke cigarettes and weed, listen to various jam bands, and do gigantic 2000-piece puzzles of famous works of art. These sessions, at least for me, would last after midnight; I know Joey would usually stay up all night reading and working on the puzzles. But it was during those times in the garage that I think I first really heard music—when it became affectual, significant. Music began to suspend my sense of self, an absorption of consciousness that, ironically, made me feel decidedly the most conscious I ever felt.
The first time I felt my self suspended, I was listening to the bluegrass band Yonder Mountain String Band. Their first album, Elevation, poured through the terrible speakers we had rigged throughout the garage. Yonder would go on to achieve a fair amount of commercial and critical acclaim, and I still see them on tour, usually playing sold-out medium-sized venues in medium-sized cities. But that first album, full of quick little bluegrass numbers with rapid fire-picking, harmonies, and narratives about loving and longing lasting no more than three minutes was, at least for my 16-year-old self, revelatory. “40 Miles from Denver,” for instance, is a simple ballad full of longing and tenderness, about the patience for seeing someone you love:
It's a cold, cold moon out tonight
And it's a cold, cold point on your knife
Could I call myself a man if I left by the morning light?
And I'd be 40 miles from Denver when you woke up all alone
I'd be 40 miles from Denver and three days from my home
In that cool mountain air, on an Appalachian trail
Ohh, life is better there
The song, predicated on resolute harmonies, compels the narrative forward as it moves slowly towards a sense of incompleteness, embracing an irresolution formed by the irreconcilable distance between you and me that is marked by a mere 40 miles.
Or take "Eight Cylinders," a song about irrationality whose narrator, no matter the destitution of the world he finds himself in, pledges to stand behind the song's devotee. It ends with a declaration of failure which nevertheless reaffirms his commitment to an other:
Because your Ford broke down on 47
Because eight cylinders is your idea of heaven
You'll get it running—someday—and you'll ride right down the line
When you do, I hope it's true,
And I'll ride beside you
When you do, I hope it's true,
And I'll ride beside you
Dave Johnson, the singer and songwriter, has a classically country voice: a full-throated baritone that haunts even as it brings you into a kind of suspended world of old country, a space where the song becomes everything, self-aware and basking in its autotelicity. “Eight Cylinders,” with its quiet progression over the four verses (no chorus in sight), stunned me. Between the pot and Bud Light and the verses floating through the garage, all of us were quieted. We sat together with nothing to say but everything to feel.
I think it was following this moment in the garage that Joey and I grew closer than we ever were. We started hanging out more; I spent long nights sitting and doing puzzles with him. Joey was always a reader—he loved long, capacious novels and I would sit and see him devour David Copperfield and War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Emma, watching these stacks of books grow and grow over the next year before he left for college. But it would be our nights listening to Yonder Mountain String Band and other bluegrass bands that engendered something deeply phenomenal, an unnamable kind of happiness where we would feel the sounds together, exploring the complex history of bluegrass music while still relishing in its capacity for astute melodies, intoxicating harmonies, and deceptively simple narratives.
As we got older, bluegrass seemed to underline our most significant moments together. After I went off to college, Joey and I became even closer, often trekking between Sarasota and Jacksonville to see one another (using Jake’s band and other shows as justification), where inevitably we would end up partying all night. And to put it simply: when Joey and I saw each other, we went hard. We would ingest most things that came our way. We would stay up all night and watch the sunrise on a beach or in the backyard at a house party. And bluegrass would always be the sounds we heard at the end of these nights together.
It also underscored some of the tragic moments. One night, at a house party on New Year’s Eve at a small beach house near Jacksonville after one of Jake’s shows, Joey asked me to come to the car to do whatever drugs we had on hand. He turned on his car—that white Nissan had become almost infamous for its activities within—and the album O.C.M.S by Old Crow Medicine Show began flowing from the speakers. One of the most poignant songs on the album, “Poor Boy,” started filling the cabin of the car, sounding like it was getting louder and louder despite our never touching the volume. A deeply moving song about continual failures and promises of redemption, “Poor Boy” provoked Joey to start weeping. He started begging me to take care of him. He was spiraling. He was out of money and revealed that he started using harder drugs. And in between tracks, we talked about options. At 20, I was ill-equipped for the severity and couldn’t hear the undertones beneath his pleas for a loan and desires for redemption. I gave him all that I thought I had. But I don’t think it was enough.
After Joey died and we were planning his service, I could only handle listening to Manzanita by the Tony Rice Unit. A perfect album of bluegrass, it is neither devastating nor depressive; it rests on a precarious notion of something like salvation, where the failures of today promise not to upend and continually displace later on, where songs build towards an inconclusive refrain that satisfy through their harmonies. Jake and I listened to that album maybe 50 times in the days between his death and the service.
Leaving my parents’ home in Cape Coral, Florida after nearly six weeks there trying to regain my emotional and physical stability, my best friend Rosalind and I went for a long road trip to try and get out of our heads and let ourselves be absorbed by nature. The depression and sadness were debilitating. During our drives, I was still plagued by the forces that precluded me at my parents’ house and still couldn’t hear anything musical—everything sounded cacophonous, unreal, forced. We jumped genres, we tried pop songs we knew by heart, and even a little Yonder Mountain, a band Roz and I consider our “friendship band” since we travel at least twice a year to see them together. But my foggy, dilapidated attentions persisted. And didn’t relent.
I wandered in this fog for over a year. I went to shows to clear my head, but it usually propagated the pain, forcing me to confront Joey’s death despite my escapist impulse. I would drive in silence where before I drove with the windows down and music at full volume. I stopped cooking to music. I stopped showering to it. My commutes on the train were filled with the sounds of Chicago life instead of the sounds that I used as my navigation while adjusting to living in a new city. It was paralyzing, like I was missing a significant part of myself but unsure how to capitulate to it.
In the summer of 2019, Roz and I decided to fulfill a longtime goal to attend Northwest String Summit, Yonder Mountain’s festival in Oregon. My apprehensions were high: a weekend devoted to bluegrass, a festival that Joey and I talked about going to for years, which, reminded me of Joey, of sadness, of not being able to make sense of my feelings or the music that guided me into the person I became. A couple weeks before the festival, Jeff Austin, the former front man of Yonder and mandolin virtuoso, died unexpectedly. Never one for feeling a celebrity’s death, I was shocked to find myself debilitated by the news about Jeff. I wept. I thought of Joey. I knew that, if he were here, he would be crying too.
During Yonder’s first set at this festival, they told the audience that in dedication to Jeff, they would play Elevation in its entirety. I’m not sure if it was the atmosphere, the music, or the company of new and old friends, but I felt the sun emerge from behind the clouds for the first time in 14 months. Standing in that crowd I felt that same kind of suspension I felt in the garage over ten years ago. Even having heard them a million times before, the songs almost felt new—they sounded so individuated that they enraptured and compelled me. I could hear myself in those songs of lost and longing, love and heartbreak, the most deceptively simplistic versions of being a human sounded now like the emptiness I felt since Joey died. Standing in that crowd, hearing those songs play and echo within the amphitheater under the warm Oregon sun, I learned that bluegrass is tethered to melancholy—it knows of sadness and disappointment, but also of redemption and empathy. It couches itself between the pillars of sentimentality, deep longing, and heartache. Though it is also rooted in a certain capacity of humanness in its storytelling, its ability to shape the shapeless, to find the sounds that underline feelings when words aren’t enough. It tells the sad, the heartfelt, the jubilant, the funny, the absurd.
It tells the story of Joey.