Smile Politely

Said it’s alright, I won’t forget

During my high school years, I had a sign that hung in my bedroom that said, “Music Saves.” It was a sparse poster with just those words in a gothic font. I had stolen it from a Verve concert, and the simplicity of the message somehow struck my young mind as infinitely profound. As my religious inclinations had ebbed away with the passage of time, music seemed to be the only way I could access that essence some might call a soul. Of course, as I got older, the message seemed more and more simple-minded — music was not going to change what I had decided was ultimately a lonely journey. But my faith in the restorative power of music has come back to me little by little over the years. And it started that day nearly five years ago when I got a call telling me Kevin Dziadon had died.

Kevin was former C-U local who made his biggest impact locally playing for Bargos Steeler, a late 90s rock band. He moved here to attend the U of I and lived in Champaign until 2002ish, when he moved to Brussels with his girlfriend. He lived there for a couple of years, playing in a couple of vastly different bands. (One of his former bandmates has a song dedicated to him on this site.) It all ended in a flash. Unfortunately, due to ongoing mental health issues and self-induced lack of treatment, he took his own life. He was my best friend. It says something about the guy that three other people could say the same thing, and we were all correct.

Yesterday, Flag Day as he used to proudly proclaim, would have been Kevin’s 33rd birthday. As the years have gone by, I’ve tried very hard to hold on to my memories of him, but they’re fluid and the harder I hold on to them the faster they seem to slip away. So over the last five years June 14 has become an unofficial musical holiday for me — a day in which I spend a lot of time with the music Kevin loved and created. Since our friendship was forged with a common interest in all kinds of music, I find the essence of him comes back to me with familiar songs. So every year I try to pick a few. Here are some that popped up yesterday. Some are good and some are not so good, but that’s life.

“The First Part” – Superchunk
There we are, three points away from winning the doubles championship in our high school conference tennis tournament. It’s all clicking. Kevin’s serve is blowing them away, and my backhand is launching winners all over the court. Just before I serve, one guy makes some comment about Kevin’s dyed fluorescent yellow hair. The next thing I know, we’re in a shouting match with the other team. One of the dudes on the other team is the coach’s son. Kevin nonchalantly points it out and adds some humorous details. The other guy jumps the net and charges at us. The rest is a blur, except that we didn’t play another point, and we didn’t get a trophy.


“Goin Down South” – R. L. Burnside
The day starts off with a drive to Indiana to get fake IDs for our two younger friends — not to buy booze, just to get into an 18 and over show. I think they spend like $90 a piece. The IDs are immediately confiscated at the door, so it is just Kevin and me in the venue. We park ourselves right in front of the stage and R.L. Burnside comes out, sits down right in front of us and immediately starts staring at the two of us. He keeps playing one amazing song after another, saying “well, well, well” between every one. Despite the fact that he is a seventy-something blues man from Mississippi, and we are a couple of schmucks from Bourbonnais, IL, it really feels like he is singing directly to us. Later Jon Spencer absolutely blows the lid off the place. Because our friends didn’t get in, it seems like Kevin and I have the show to ourselves. Best rock ‘n roll concert of my life.


Bargos Steeler – “Why I Don’t Wear a Wristwatch”
Just like dozens of nights in the early part of the aughts, I am in the basement of some house party in Urbana watching Kevin play bass. The Bargos Steeler had added a second guitarist, and tonight the band is absolutely killing it. When they play “Why I Don’t Wear a Wristwatch” something changes. At a moment in the song, they go from being a good band with friends of mine in it to a great band that I like. All at once two people that I have been friends with for ten years become rock ‘n roll stars. I am completely proud and also slightly perturbed that I haven’t been along for the ride. As the song goes on the tension just keeps building and building — it seems like they will keep it going forever. It was one of those moments you never wanted to end. Not too long after that night, they broke up.



“Alone Again Or” –  Love
It’s my wedding reception and Kevin is the best man and, thus, gets to make a speech. It is a moment several of my friends are worried about, and it turns out they have good reason. He puts on some giant sunglasses and pulls out a tape deck. After he presses play, I hear my voice  — I am shouting off key in a song from our high school band. Then he goes on about lots of things, but I’m not sure anyone who is there has any idea what he is talking about. The speech just keeps going on and on. After several minutes of rambling, my wife’s parents have the servers start distributing the salads in hopes he might get the message. He doesn’t. I don’t remember anything he said or if there was some overriding theme, but like many of Kevin’s jokes it was initially funny, then kind of pointless, then slightly annoying and then it finally became exhilaratingly hilarious. Great speech.


“Death of a Salesman” – Low
We walk through the streets of Montpellier at 4 a.m. after a night of drinking. We go to an all night discotheque. We take stupid pictures of ourselves doing bizarre things to statues in the park. We make our way up steps leading to a church that overlooks much of the city. It’s just the two of us, and we talk about women, music and finally jobs. It is obviously wearing on him that he’s having such difficulty finding work in Brussels. Despite a good life in a nice city, a wonderful lady and playing in a couple of rock ‘n roll bands, he still can’t face the lack of a job. Our world demands that identity, a place for us to hang our hat. Like me, he never seemed like the type of person who could be comfortable behind a desk all day, but he still needed that societal acceptance. He can’t be a rock ‘n roll star, and he seems slightly beaten by the pressure.


“Guiding Light” – Television
After a night in Chicago spent drinking and fondly recalling our youth, Kevin walks my wife and me to our car before we leave to head back to Minnesota. He has a flight back to Brussels later in the day. The remnants of booze are not sitting well in my stomach, and a trip to the bathroom is in order. Unfortunately, the only one close is at a Starbucks and the lock does not work. Not an ideal situation. But Kevin stands by the door and turns away elderly women who try to get in. I had no idea, but that’s the last act of friendship he’d ever perform for me. As we pull away from the corner of California and Logan, he gives a big grin and says something about protecting me from babies and something else unintelligible. I’ll never forget that satisfied smile; throughout our years together it showed up often. It would take over his whole face when he said something that he thought was hilarious. That’s the image I take with me, and this is the song that comes with it.

In some alternate universe I wish some song or lyrics could have saved Kevin, pulled him out of his dark place and helped him get through it all, but that’s just not how the world works. So in a way the poster that used to hang above my bed was wrong — music doesn’t save you from a world that is often cruel. But like many other things in high school, I was just trying to see too much. While music didn’t literally save Kevin, music has helped save him for me (and for dozens of others), and for that I am eternally grateful.

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