My View: By Ralph Heibutzki
Late Friend Taught Editor More Than Chords
(Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on 6/30/05 in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, a GateHouse Media affilate.)
I've been dealing with the news for a month now, but writing this column hasn't been any easier.
On May 24, I lost one of my closest friends, Tony Salazar, to complications from AVM (arterio-venous malformation).
At 39, he took his final breaths in Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, amid the architecture, atmosphere and people that he loved.
AVM is a fancy way of saying, “abnormal blood vessels in the brain” – something Tony didn't learn until his first seizure, and diagnosis, in 2003.
Our last phone conversation had been in April.
I spent most of those 90 minutes reading out portions of a new Clash book that I'd just bought. Business as usual, since we were committed music fans and guitar players.
Eventually, Tony kept firing so many questions at me, I said, “Look, I probably won't need this for another couple months. Why don't I drop it in the mail, and you can send it back?”
“Sounds good to me,” he said.
I never got the chance.
I wound up finishing that book in somebody's car, on the way to the hospital – where we'd been called to say to our goodbyes to him.
About a week before his death, Tony suffered another seizure, while he was giving some kids a guitar lesson.
He never woke up, and his diagnosis never improved.
The hardest part was talking about someone I'd known for 23 years in the past tense – before it was an established fact, before he got taken off life support.
At the same time, I couldn't help but marvel about where Tony was heading.
He'd gotten laid off from some go-nowhere market research job, which had freed him to barnstorm open mike nights around the Chicago area as a high-energy, acoustic solo performer.
He'd released two CDs, plus a single, and was starting to get some paying gigs.
He was even talking about traveling to other states, and forming his own record label – things neither of us imagined when we started working together in the '80s.
Without Tony, I'd never have picked up a guitar; when we met in the fall of '82, I envisioned myself as some kind of alternative poet, with no major musical ambitions.
However, our mutual affection for Britain's original punk rock scene – the Clash, Damned and Sex Pistols – dictated that we form a band along those lines.
With characteristic breeziness, Tony suggested that I play bass: “Don't worry, it's like guitar – you've got two less strings to worry about!” (Note to non-musicians: the bass has four strings.)
So I duly took the stage, and Tony painstakingly wrote out chords and basslines for me, on reams of paper.
Before long, we were firing song ideas back and forth – many of which remain in my trick bag today.
One of our first attempts was “Kill Yourself To Rock,” our blow against the '80s “hair band” metal empire.
Funnily enough, I've just started playing that song again, after a 12-year hiatus. Amazing how these things work out, isn't it?
In 1996, the cycle repeated itself. I'd followed Tony to Chicago, where I was taking up the guitar – this time, of the six-string variety.
Armed with a chord sheet from “Circus” magazine, of all things, I started hacking around on some kiddie model that I'd rescued from my parents' basement.
Whenever that got too frustrating, I'd hit Tony's apartment, so I could fool around on his electric guitar; I couldn't afford one at the time.
Bless his heart, he never complained, and once again, took the time to show me chords, how to approach rhythm, and – most crucially – how to tune the damn thing!
Tony was the most schooled musician I've known, but – unlike a lot of those guys – made it seem fun, whether you made a buck off your talent, or not.
From Tony, I also learned that you could play music right now, without waiting for somebody's blessing. Or, as he once said about overly political bands: “When the jams stop coming, that's when I'm out of here.”
Knowing what Tony could have accomplished makes his death especially cruel; revisiting the memories you've stored away is no substitute for the person struck down in their prime.
I also absorbed plenty of life lessons from Tony, too. Since his passing, I've redoubled my vows not to screw around, because you aren't guaranteed tomorrow. To wake up is a privilege.
Nor will I forget Tony's resolve – which will help me through the tough times, when people put down the songs you play or the directions you take.
The joke's on them. They'll only accomplish a fraction of what Tony packed into 39 years.
He died doing exactly what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it – how many people can say that?
Guess what? I'm not waiting for anybody to catch up.
It's nothing personal. After all my experiences with Tony, I just can't forget what I know, and I can't settle for less.