TWENTY ONE YEAR STOKE
A love note on Grief
by: Eric Lilavois
On a random Wednesday in September of 2012, I exited a Ralphs supermarket in a total daze. I had no real idea of what I went in the store for, or how long I was in there. I was lost in the neon, shuffling through memory after memory in my mind. Scenes from a decade or more flashed, from Sierra Madre, to Long Beach, Arcadia, Sonoma, Mexico, Hawaii, and back, to where I was standing Pasadena.
I stumbled in the direction of my car and stared off at the hospital in the distance across the street - Huntington Memorial - where my first daughter was born, and where my second would be born some seven months later. My eyes glossed over blurry with tears.
As I began to approach my parking spot and everything came back into focus, I slowed and stood puzzled. My first thought was that someone must had broken into my car. The drivers side door was open, windows down, with the engine running, and the radio playing, loud. Suddenly it It hit me, holy shit… I left the car this way…
I had no extreme blood alcohol level to speak of and no substance altering my faculties. It had been less then 24 hours since I learned my best friend of almost 20 years, Ryan Hoherd, had passed away suddenly. With the exception of when I got the call, and several trips to the bathroom to wail, I don’t think I had been entirely alone or fully out in public yet. It was clearly too soon.
Fast forward to 10 years since Ryan has passed and there are still moments where I’m completely over taken by the grief. Thankfully not to the extreme point of leaving my car running, but the smallest things can trigger big emotions.
There has also been a flip in this dynamic, big things can remind and unlock a flood of great little memories and moments, and remind me not only of the joyous, connected time we had together, but the ways that our love and connection still survives and thrives, in both the celestial and physical planes.
Ryan was a master prankster, an everyday comedian, a lanky, animated, hurricane, blowing through all of our lives, leaving laughter, and a surreal everyday bit of magic all in his wake.
We met our freshman year of high school, though we were not yet going to the same school. Incredibly fast friends, bonded equally by our similarities and our differences. There is so much depth, and truly so many stories, and adventures, that this version of the story requires some serious fast forwarding, so we’ll pick up the pace to our first year in college, the first time I thought I might had lost him.
He was headed off to Sonoma state, a small group of us stood on his parents lawn and waved as the car pulled away. There was that sinking feeling not knowing what was to come, and if we would ever be as close again. Thankfully, I did not lose him, in fact we grew closer, he was back in no time, and in just a couple of short years later we found ourselves moving into an apartment together in Long Beach, where I had dropped out of college for the first of several tries.
We both got jobs at an Italian restaurant, arranged our various dive bar schedules, while I was gigging around relentlessly with my band the Days In Between, and playing every venue within 60 miles that would have me. He was my biggest advocate, and he LOVED carrying my guitar case around. Sometimes he would just hold on to it at the venue as a conversation starter, not that he needed one. He had unconditional love and support for whatever I was creating. Not blind approval, he would certainly challenge me, but fruitfully, and faithfully.
We took a trip back up to Sonoma together to visit some friends once, and it was on that trip I got a full and better understanding of Ryan’s time up north. Though I had visited him a little, and we had written letters and talked on the phone, that trip back together was my first ear full of stories surrounding Cotati specifically. We wandered the streets late at night, and gathered in a small garage, where I found myself in a familiar situation, holding my guitar, and singing my lungs out as Ryan cheered me on with unbridled enthusiasm. One of those trips and moments that’s so ordinary while you’re in the moment, and so surreal down the road.
Flashing further forward, we continued to see each other through both life’s narrow and wide open pathways, living and laughing along the way, repeating our age old stories and crafting new ones as our careers evolved, our children were born, and life had it’s way about it. He would come see me at my studio in Pasadena, and we would have an ordinary lunch, and ALWAYS make it extraordinary, it was just what we did. Even sober, there we were, Dr. Gonzo and his attorney, always.
I struggle to remember the last few pieces of new music I shared with him, but I know for sure the last time he saw me perform was at a backyard party at my good friend Scott Potters house. Ryan as per usual was chock full of requests, and re-emboldened in his insistence, that my place was behind that guitar, and that microphone, period. He constantly questioned and challenged any venture or endeavor I brought up, including even my studio. He would often say, “that’s cool, but don’t get distracted” emulating his Dad’s tone which always made me chuckle.
The inability to process grief and trauma is something you read about in books, you try to intellectualize and explain, but really, it’s something you can only know through cold, hard, experience.
“Why don’t you stay, for just one more hour,
Why don’t we pray, to the god in our glass.
Why don’t we say, all the things that matter,
We’re always looking back, always looking back.”
I scratched those lines down and wrote the song “God in Our Glass” in the full grips of grief, when the realization hit that I would never create another new memory with Ryan. The joke was over, and this time it was on us. From that point forward, everything would be looking back, which was immensely confusing and frustrating in its sadness, because every time we got together we took so much joy in looking back at all the crazy times we had, the insanity of all the stories.
There was nothing redeeming about the song. It was an honest cry out, I was confused, hurt, and somehow still bargaining, begging, desperate for just one more hour with him. I struggled through an enormous amount of guilt, and anger. I was certain it was my fault, certain there was something I could have done, or at least done better, certain this shouldn’t have happened and certain I somehow let it happen, that I let him and everyone who loved him down. I could have prevented it, I should have called him that day, or the day before, I could have done something, it was my fault, period. Even typing this, I struggle to convince myself otherwise, because grief is a fucking monster, and it needs to feed, but more on that later.
I was also confused because the last thing I wanted to do was play or write music. In fact, there was a part of me that felt like I might not ever play music again. That’s a strange thing to type, a weird truth that feels dramatic and like a child lashing out, or shutting down, but it’s truly a piece of how I felt.
On top of being my best friend, Ryan was my biggest supporter. He embodied unconditional love and support, with him gone, I felt weirdly judged, misunderstood, like a fraud, and just not any good as a musician. Again, it’s not that he gave unconditional approval, he was always honest and at times very critical, but ALWAYS supportive, he was my north star, and his belief that I had “it” made me believe it too. We are rarely gifted such a deep connection and such true belief.
Because Ryan would want me to, I’ll share that recording “God In our Glass” came with its own set of stories you just can’t fucking make up. When we were tracking the organ parts (played by Ryan’s cousin, my bud Andrew DeWitt) the speaker cabinet for the organ suddenly started smoking profusely in the middle of a take, completely out of nowhere…
For context, when Ryan and I lived together in our early twenties, we had a bad habit of using - let’s say - creative and alternative methods to wake each other up. One morning, when blasting Phish at top volume with the subwoofer absolutely rattling the whole apartment didn’t work, my door flung open with a vengeance, and a bottle rocket shot across the room at me in bed. It was a favorited tale, and a service we later extended to houseguests sleeping on the couch.
The Organ in the studio was no doubt Ryan’s attempt to wake us all up out of our somber mood that day during the session. It worked, we laughed, hard, cried, hard, and made our way through the song with the attention it was worthy of, that he was worthy of, and that we all needed to continue to heal.
As I alluded to before, grief is a monster, it will have you laughing uncontrollably one moment, crying uncontrollably the next, unable to sleep, then unable to get out of bed, make you eat uncontrollably or make you unable to stand the sight of food.
A monster, and the kicker is, get this, it never goes away. It just changes forms. It hides everywhere, under leaves, in random conversations, in every little crevice of your seat cushion. It shows up on your best days, and your worst days, and it really could care less which is which or what is when.
If you’ve ever had to live with a monster, especially one in your heart, you already know it’s a fools errand to attempt to control it, though trust me you will try. Instead, you have to learn to fucking dance with it, how to grow, evolve, and change with it. Sometimes you have to even trick it into believe you love it, those end up being the really ugly days.
A year ago, very unexpectedly, there was a massive evolution in my monster, and in me, which this time materialized in a song (Twenty One) that looks back in a very different way, the best of ways. A return to the triumphant tone that all those crazy stories deserve, and a new story that my dear friend and bandmate Kate Neckel and I created and crafted together, with Ryan, in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined possible.
“Dance on every corner, hang on every word,
Buy The Ticket and Take the Ride, just like we did before.
Hang on every memory, signs you can’t ignore
Keep the fire and the stoke alive tonight, alive tonight.”
This time, he hadn’t left, he was everywhere. Along on the drive, in on the late night chats, pulling strings, and pushing directions on us, and we were going to soak it up.
It began as I gathered my things at our gate at SeaTac airport. Kate and I were headed to Santa Rosa Ca, on a sort of creative retreat for The Copper Trees. Our only objective was to take ourselves out of our routines for a few days, find some time and space in a new place with no agenda or distractions, maybe record some new material, maybe not. We had chosen Prairie Sun Studio on a whim, it was the subject of a conversation that started with “wouldn’t it be cool and crazy if”, and ended with plane tickets and days booked in the studio shortly there after. In retrospect even though we didn’t have a clue, Ryan was already present, it’s the type of impromptu trip he would not only sign off on but instigate.
At that point, I didn’t even grasp the studio was in Cotati (nearby where Ryan had lived and gone to college,) and any association with Ryan AT ALL was SO very far off my radar. They called our group to board, and the first thing that struck me as odd was they directed us outside the building, down a long ramp, with no jetway, a first for me at SeaTac after over 20 years of flying in and out of that airport. As we boarded from outside, I was overtaken by laughter, and a flood of a memory of a trip to Mexico with Ryan.
Career smokers at the time, we had landed in Puerto Vallarta, desperate for a cigarette after a very bumpy flight. We had taken but steps off the plane towards a bus waiting on the tarmac when Ryan crouched over and lit one up, and took as big and long of a drag as he could before exhaling a huge cloud of smoke above his head, and naturally, he was spotted. People began yelling in several languages at him, something about, well, jet fuel, so in a panic he flicked it away as fast as he could towards the plane. It tumbled a couple yards, skipping and sparking along the pavement as flicked cigarettes do, when what felt like 20 people came running out of no where from every direction to stamp it out.
I couldn’t stop grinning and laughing at the memory, and shared the story with Kate. The opening line to “Twenty One” had just been written without us even realizing it.
“Down the ramp to board the plane, a memory came flooding in. You flicked a cigarette, they all ran to extinguish it, but that moment lit a flame, that still burns in me today.”
We landed in Santa Rosa, Kate grabbed the rental car while I grabbed our bags. We were anxious to get over to the studio to settle in. There was a little traffic on the way, so GPS took us down a few side roads that were lined with vineyards. I started thinking about all the many trips I had made to Northern California under different circumstances. The vines caught my eye, and I said something to Kate about it being likely we are passing the same vines I’d probably passed on previous trips over the years, and how fascinating it was that the vines were likely the same but new grapes had grown on them every year. How much wine they had made, and how many stories were intertwined? Same vines, new growth. That led us to think and talk about people staying in the same place, all these things happen to them but they change, and I wondered if some people I had met maybe in passing a decade or more ago were still there. How crazy would it be to run into someone, not knowing you had actually met before at some other point in life. The conversation swirled late into the evening and evolved into the lines:
“I had to leave the grey to trace, the sun you left me in your place. All the vines keep making wine, year after year new stories wind their way, late into the night, into the night.”
The coincidences continued to waterfall. As we headed to the nearby market to grab some supplies for the week, I looked up at the street signs as we turned. I don’t quite know the chances on this one, but the street name of the grocery store, was “LA SALLE” the name of the high school Ryan and I went to, and where we met. Kate and I wandered the grocery store, in a dream like state, giggling at how spaced out we felt. I had flashes of wandering into that Grocery store back in Pasadena just after he had passed, and could feel him laughing at me “Hey- remember when you left your car running, with the doors open, and the music blasting.”
We made our way back towards the studio, and passed a park with a statue of a man playing according with sheer joy. Kate later pointed out it felt like there was music everywhere in the town, and that coupled with all the coincidences on what felt like every corner evoked a strong visual of Ryan dancing for whatever reason, a skill set which was deeply unrefined in him, but only added to it’s charm and infectiousness. As our friend Sera ever so famously put it, he danced like he was being attacked by killer bees. This also evoked the sentiment, that Ryan was kind of calling on us all to dance like no ones watching, and do it with joy till they were watching, so you can spread and share that joy. And generally, to just find joy, make every moment, every corner a little danceable.
So the line “Dance on every corner” was born.
Our cabin at Prarie Sun was extremely “dorm room“ like, and little flashes and glimpses continued to inspire as conversations about Ryan swirled as more and more came to the surface. We sat outside for a moment, as a cat swirled at our feet, purring, incredibly sweet, and insistent on getting into our little cabin. Brett our engineer came over and Kate asked the cat’s name. “Charlie” he said… She saw the color leave my face as I laughed out loud and said, “As in Ryan’s brothers name, Charlie. The phrase “you just can’t make this shit up” had become the standard.
The area I was sleeping in was this little loft area and when I woke up the next morning. I was in a meditative state, and had that - not one hundred percent sure where you are and if you’re in your body or not feeling. I snapped a picture of the window frame. Kate and I later had talks about waking up with joy, and feelings around good memories waking etc, the line "Morning breaks a window pain” came into the mix. Kate had gotten up early downstairs and was sitting outside the little cabin. We were both inspired and excited to get moving, and the next line of the song, stemmed from that moment of calm before heading out, and from just driving around, and feeling like the clues were still coming our way, as if Ryan was telling Kate where to turn, and directing us all along. “She waits outside the door, wants to show me something more and she knows just where to go, as if you told her so”
I can’t understate how dreamlike and time-travel-esque the whole experience felt, and lines like “moving forward in rewind” came directly from that sentiment. Processing, moving forward, happy in memory, and happy in the moment. Speaking of Happy, Brett our engineer was in a band called the Happys, which cracked us up as it nailed the description of both his bright personality and of the bands van and all the trinkets in it and stickers on it. While we were out driving, we saw these giant signs the band had made. Kate mentioned something to Brett about it and he said those are old road signs that they take, flip over and put their own messages on to recycle them, and we thought, wow, how beautiful a metaphor to again tie the past, present, and mysterious together. “Flip the signs and make them all our own’
So ever present, is my sweet friend, our sweet friend, the prankster, the light, the dancer, the laugh, the point, the connector, the believer, the father, son, friend, brother, the lover of life, and cosmos alike, who I firmly believe made an impact on everyone who crossed his path, be it as a light rain, or the ocean size hurricanes he was famous for conjuring.
He absolutely conjured one up in us, over a quick trip to Cotati, with the steadfast reminder to “BUY THE TICKET, TAKE THE RIDE”, just like we did before… Keep moving, keep going, keep doing, being, inspiring.
Love you Ry, thanks for the endless flow of gifts, love, memories, and for your family who is a blessing of their own. Grateful you got to know Kate and that she got to know you, especially in this crazy can’t make this shit up way.
Happy Birthday out there in the stars.
Signed, Your Attorney,
LISTEN TO GOD IN OUR GLASS HERE AND ON ALL PLATORMS
LISTEN TO TWENTY ONE BY THE COPPER TREES HERE AND ON ALL PLATFORMS