Brian Allen seemed to know everyone in Louisville. Go out with a group that he was in, and more people would always join simply because he was there. His friendliness was all inclusive. But for me, my most fond memories of Brian focus on music. Quite possibly, he and I were the only college students in town circa 1990 who listened to The Housemartins.
We spoke about the best new music in a pre-Grunge, post-80s sonic landscape. He had The Housemartins' offshoot The Beautiful South's debut CD before I did. The same could be said for The Wonderstuff's Never Loved Elvis. After hearing Brian play some of The Railway Children's Native Place, I picked up my own copy. I believe between the two of us, we accounted for 10% of its U.S. sales.
He also claimed Big Audio Dynamite, The Pogues, Drivin & Cryin, and BoDeans as favorites. Long before satellite radio and WFPK's local Triple A mix were available, Brian was a source for the latest good music. Over a decade after we had those talks in the Bellarmine suite he shared with seven friends, Brian felt an insurmountable burden, a burden not even the jangliest and most hopeful pop music could alleviate. He had hidden his personal distresses from so many, but there came a point when he felt he could no longer cover up his pain with a smile and carry on. Brian took his life in July 2002 on a Louisville train track.
Within three months, a group of Brian's closest friends had put together the BA5K Run/Walk in his honor. The event debuted on November 2, Brian's birthday. The walk was a success in that it raised awareness of the fragility of mental health, but it also reminded participants of Brian's spirit, an energetic force that sadly lost its momentum much too soon. Since then, the BA5K has become part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Out of the Darkness Community Walk, 3-5 mile walks taking place in over 200 communities across the country. This year's Louisville Out of the Darkness Walk will take place at Waterfront Park this Saturday November 6 at 10:00 A.M. The walk and activities will last until noon. Check-in time runs from 8:30-10:00 A.M.
One of the acts involved in the post-walk activities will be MidLife Crisis Band, a Louisville cover band of 50- and 60-somethings, who formed in 1999 when Hammond B-3 player Joe Etheridge got his musician friends together to play at his parents' 50th anniversary party. The fact that this band will be performing at the Out of the Darkness Walk is not happenstance. Vocalist and guitarist Denny Donohue's two sons were friends of Brian Allen, and they helped organize that first walk eight years ago. Among that contingent of organizers was Dr. Fred Rhodes, Vice President for Academic & Student Life at Bellarmine University, who continues to publicize the annual event throughout his campus.
Denny's son Chad Donohue said that 95% of participants in 2002 were Brian's friends and family. The race was held in Seneca Park, a place Brian, an enthusiastic runner, often visited. That first year, the race raised more than $12,000 with over 150 participants. "The fact that we were able to organize such a successful event in such a short amount of time really was a testament to Brian's character," said Chad Donohue, looking back on how the first event came to fruition. "I often joked to Brian that he was going to have to rent out Freedom Hall for his wedding reception in order to accommodate all of his friends and based on the way this event is growing, I wasn't that far off on the friend estimate," said the younger Donohue, who along with brother Chris, are members of the local band Turn3. In fact, Chad Donohue wrote the band's song Live Today about Brian.
In 2005, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention requested the BA5K become an official chapter of their national organization. So the race was renamed, and by 2007 the walk was moved to Waterfront Park because it had grown too big for Seneca. In 2009, there were a record number of participants in the Out of the Darkness Walk (over 450), and that correlated into surpassing a fundraising goal of $30,000 for education, prevention, and awareness.
Denny Donohue's acquaintance with Brian Allen took a sad turn that fateful night in the summer of 2002. The elder Donohue was working for CSX in the office that first got the call that a young man had been killed by one of their trains. "It's hard to put into words what a gut wrenching experience it really was," said Donohue. "Not only did I know Brian Allen, I also knew the engineer who was driving the engine that terrible day. He's a nice guy and a good family man who did all that anyone could have done to prevent this horrible incident. All one can do is pray for both men."
Although the Out of the Darkness Walk is not their first involvement in a worthwhile cause - they have played for Kosair Shriners as well as at the St. Joseph Children's Picnic - obviously for Denny Donohue, it takes on a special meaning. "Playing for an event like the Out of Darkness Walk is somewhat like an Irish Wake where people used to come from near and far to share the sorrow of those who are left behind," he said. He adds that participants are there to "celebrate the life of the departed and faith in the life ahead, the music being part of the celebration."
MidLife Crisis Band, whose band members range in age from 52-64, consists of Donohue, Etheridge, lead vocalist Brenda Biegert, lead guitarist David Hess, who once played in The Lynchmen with Tim Krekel and opened for Bo Diddley at the Kentucky State Fair, bassist Bill Donnelly, and drummer Dennis Willinger. In addition to charity shows, they have played everything from festivals to conventions to weddings to corporate parties, and you will also find them at local establishments like Brendans, Mike Linnig's, Gerstles, Saints, and Incredible Dave's.
A MidLife Crisis Band set list primarily focuses on songs from the 50's and 60's by acts such as The Platters, Temptations, Four Seasons, Sam Cooke, Elvis, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, Beatles, and Rolling Stones. "I have a different appreciation for the music today. Back in the day I guess you could say I was ‘living' the lyrics to the songs we used to do," says Denny, who also appeared in the local TV show Hi Varieties in 1961. "Now, the songs are a wonderful part of my past, especially the ones that were playing when, Joyce, my wife and I were falling in love."
He is not alone. Music is arguably one of life's greatest triggers of memory. In a recent interview with NBC News, Bruce Springsteen said, "Music is so intensely personal; it strikes you on such an emotional level." This emotional bonding can also prove to be cathartic; it can lead to healing; it has the ability to be used as a prayer and a medium for articulating what we feel. Whether it's Peter Gabriel's Don't Give Up, Genesis' It's Gonna Get Better, or R.E.M.'s Everybody Hurts, the theme of holding on has consistently run through modern popular music. Music can truly be a source of healing and introspection, but even those making the music are not immune from personal demons that can cause a loss of hope. Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Stuart Adamson of Big Country, and Michael Hutchence have all succumbed to suicide.
In February 2005, The Finn Brothers were in town for a show at Headliners and played an in-store at ear-X-tacy. My oldest son was three at the time, and I asked Neil Finn how his former Crowded House band mate Paul Hester's appearances on The Wiggles came about. He said that Wiggles band members were friends of Paul's and asked him to be on the show, and he agreed. It was a pretty mundane exchange. But a month later, Hester hung himself in an Australian park. The Finn Brothers would go on to reflect on their grief in songs. Tim's Salt To the Sea off his solo Imaginary Kingdom CD offers lines that truly touch upon the victim's hopelessness and the questions that remain for those left behind. "Somewhere in time, he was a friend of mine. Now his story gets told, an event unfolds. The ebb and flow, the letting go, it's hard to know why." Neil's response was a bit more inclusive, providing a great deal of subject matter for the Crowded House return LP Time on Earth, which is a poignant and striking, albeit often melancholy collection.
The famous are not immune from suicide; it happens in all walks of life. The stats are staggering. In the United States alone, a person dies by suicide every 16 minutes; it claims more than 33,000 lives each year. It is estimated that an attempt is made every minute with close to one million people attempting suicide annually. Those are astonishing numbers, numbers that are sobering, numbers that capably refute Tom Cruise's inaccurate pontificating on mental wellness a few years ago on NBC's Today show. Participating in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk helps raise money for research and education programs to prevent suicide and save lives, increase national awareness about depression and suicide, advocate for mental health issues, and assist survivors of suicide loss.
As Brian's peers enter their 40s, we are reminded that he never had the chance to reach middle age. To paraphrase a moving Willy Porter song about 9/11, "One more November has come and gone; we're one year older, but you're still eight years too young." Brian is frozen in time as youthful and active. Chad Donohue fondly remembers how much Brian loved music. "I recall a time in college when we lived together, that he once spent so much money on new music from ear-X-tacy, that he didn't have any money to eat with for a week. When I asked him why he did that, he told me food he could do without, but he had to have the music."
There will be music at the Out of the Darkness Walk on Saturday. MidLife Crisis Band will capably supply the event's soundtrack. While Put Your Head On My Shoulder, You Send Me, Under the Boardwalk, and Mustang Sally may not have found their way on any of Brian Allen's mix tapes, he would appreciate the music. "Brian was such a gregarious and outgoing person that the irony of this whole thing is that he would have enjoyed this event more than anyone had he still been alive," said Chad Donohue.
The soundtrack of Brian Allen's life was an eclectic mix of tuneful, alternative songs, but sadly its running time was way, way too short.
The Out of the Darkness Walk is November 6 at Waterfront Park. Check-in Time is 8:30 A.M. to 10:00 A.M. The race starts at 10:00 A.M. While online registration ends at 11:45 P.M. Friday night, anyone who wants to participate can register in person at the walk. Walk donations are accepted until December 31st, 2010. For more information see the Louisviille walk's website.