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In Defense of Being in a Band

Young musician walking on a countryside road with a guitar on his shoulder. Photo from Shutterstock.com.

Losing someone is never easy. But losing a bandmate puts a particular riff on the pain.

On the back roads of Western Pennsylvania, where the green stretches for miles and the sunsets run as pretty as anything Instagram has ever captured, the sounds of pop punk echoed through the evening air. Each airtight turn gave way to a sprawling countryside that showcased farm animals, pick-up trucks, and broken-down barns. Bands like Brand New or Panic! At The Disco forced their way through the car's speakers at such a volume that conversation wasn't an option, and if the windows weren't rolled down to let the sound out, his ear drums would hurt.

It made all the sense in the world. He loved, lived and breathed this type of music. A Famous Stars and Stripes hat with a brim that never bended would constantly lay on his perfectly positioned head of emo-cut hair. Jet black bangs fell into his eyes from time to time, only for him flip his head a little to make them swish out of his eyes for a while, and he'd smile. It wasn't a perfect smile, but it was bright; a few teeth moderately crooked, yet as white and wide as that big, ol' gorgeous cloud up ahead. His build was thick -- muscular and compact. His height never saw an inch over six feet. He was the proud owner of an adorable face that could never be questioned even if it should have been, a pudgy outline that stayed positioned in a kid-like manner. Think Phillip Seymour Hoffman, if Phillip Seymour Hoffman liked Thrice.

This scene was common for my friend Mikey V. It was the final few minutes before the drive to band practice would end. I never had a car, so he would pick me up in order for me to play my drums in one of the two bands I was lucky enough to be in that included him. He loved singing and he loved driving fast. He also loved playing the guitar. He never met a pop-punk band he didn't like, and of everyone I've ever played music with, he was the one I always thought would somehow end up being a rock star.

And then on Thursday, 30 August 2012, Michael Thomas Vinroe didn't pay enough attention to a stop sign while riding his motorcycle and felt the impact of a large truck come over him at bone-crushing speed. Word has it that he was dead before his body even connected with the pavement -- the pain quick and wordless. I don't know for sure if he was wearing a helmet or anything of the like, though everyone says that it wouldn't have mattered. He simply let the same kind of impatience and enthusiasm that made him such a memorable character get the best of him.

Mikey V. was 24.

Death is one of the few things in life that one can never reconcile. It doesn't seem to ever receive the memo on how lives are supposed to end, and we can all concede that stories of fatalities coming at far too young an age have affected us all at one point or another. But Mikey V. was cheated. He was the rare case of someone who was effortlessly poignant without ever having the intention to leave a legacy. He was a kid, and if the impenetrable nature of our physical existence wasn't as wrong as it can sometimes be, it's impossible to think he wouldn't have been the most childish 89-year-one one could ever come across (and I say that with all the endearing implications a sentence can hold).

People have been asking me for days how I feel about it and I tell them all the same thing: I don't know. It's beyond sad, and it's beyond tragic, and it's beyond unfair. But outside of those surface-level emotions, what could anyone possibly say that could add something new to the conversation? These are moments when words are useless and statements never have the ability to convey a truly accurate depiction of what we all feel.

Of all the layers that Mikey V.'s death includes, the fact that refuses to leave my consciousness is the notion that I would have never met him had I not been in and out of bands for the majority of my life. Anyone who has shared a stage with anyone else, performing songs that you conjured up together, can attest to the idea that being in a band is a lot like being in a romantic relationship. Six days a week, you hate everything about it, but then those few moments occur when people sing back the words your lead singer wrote, or you stumble across a YouTube video of a performance and notice how much fun you guys seem to be having, and that hate not only turns to love, but it also turns to loyalty.

I could spend hours telling you how truly awful some of the bands I've been in were, but the second I hear one negative comment about it come from you, an outside source, I will loudly and vehemently defend each chord change and chorus structure we ever wrote. And my guess is that I'm not the first person to think such things, either.

The irony in this story comes while considering what would be our final exchange. After more than a year of not picking up an instrument, our band was offered a spot on a New Year's Eve bill last year in Middle Of Nowhere, Pennsylvania. We agreed to do it, thinking it would be embarrassingly awful and impossibly fun. As it turned out, Mikey V. never showed up, and we had to find a last-minute replacement. I remember calling him several times that night, leaving scathing messages about how angry we were that he left us out to dry.

Still, we didn't hear from him. We eventually started wondering if something was actually, seriously wrong with him. Maybe he got in an auto accident, we thought. Did something happen to his mother, with whom he shared a tiny trailor-park home? Was she OK? Was he OK? None of that mattered to me as I played my usual role as The Unwaveringly Annoyed Dude In The Band. More messages were left. Angry thoughts conveyed.

It's all so meaningless now.

I never really found out what he was up to that night. Maybe he found a party he couldn't resist. Maybe he didn't feel like driving the two-plus hours to the gig. Maybe he saw an old-friend. Maybe he decided to spend the evening with his mom. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

These instances in our lives always bring grand thoughts of perspective into our orbit. They allow discussion regarding meaning, purpose, faith, relevance, priority, happiness -- the types of overwhelmingly insoluble notions that one considers only when confronted with questions deemed impossible to answer.

But such things also demand reflection. Will Mikey V.'s death bring something as silly as a band together and allow for more constructive friendships in our individual lives? Will it serve as a reminder to appreciate the times and experiences we have now and take absolutely nothing for granted from this point on, moving forward? Does it actually change the basis for our existence, making us lend a more sympathetic ear to the ones we love when confronted with conflict, disagreement or disappointment? Will these clichéd questions serve as nothing more than place-makers for feelings we have no idea how to deal with?

"I don't know why this had to happen," my friend Simon said as he broke down in a violent fit of tears outside a dive bar two nights after Mikey V. passed. "I can't take this. I can't lose you guys."

I held him. It was 2:30 in the morning, the bartender had just kicked a small group of us out after drinking enough alcohol to ensure our hangovers for the next day -- the day of Mikey V.'s viewing. Simon played the bass guitar in some of the bands Mikey V. was in, and despite his sad eyes that gave way to tears more than once earlier that evening, he led the charge as we took over the bar's jukebox, finding everything we could that Mikey V. loved. Blink 182. Paramore. Taking Back Sunday. Any band that sold records between 2002 and 2007 and liked to scream.

It reminded me of exactly how important it was to be in a band. I wouldn't have known any of the people in the room that night had I never decided to learn how to play the drums while growing up. Yeah, it brought me an overpowering sense of loss and sadness in this instance, as I stood there and wept along with my friend as others leaving the bar stopped to stare at us, me holding his head on my chest. But being in a band also allowed me the great fortune of being a tiny part in some kid's life by creating a type of music that was far from original but exceptionally fun to craft. It's an experience that I'll always carry with me whenever I eventually decide to get behind a drum kit again.

The back roads of Western Pennsylvania are just a little bit quieter now. And the world, for as complicated and unnerving as it can be, is just a tiny bit darker. It's missing one of its luminaries. It's missing Mikey V.

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