It came without warning.
During the last few moments of an interview on Sunday, the news broke. The temporary bassist for The Airborne Toxic Event, Adrian Rodriguez – who had been covering Noah Harmon since his paternity leave – was announced as a permanent member of the band.
Hours later, Noah confirmed the news on Instagram. “I got fired,” he said. “7 years. 0 regrets.”
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and exhaustion. It was almost 3:00am, and I just happened to be in the middle of a bout with insomnia. In hind site, I should have turned my phone off and tried to sleep. Normally, I am a reasonable person with responsibilities and a family. But when it comes to That Band, I am known to forego basic needs like food, water, and sleep to get the coveted barrier spot at a show. I take my passions seriously. And I have yet to be disappointed.
But this. This was shocking. Unbelievable. Disturbing.
I immediately took to the social media capital of the world to make sense of what I couldn’t believe with my eyes. I wasn’t the first to have seen it. A collective wailing began – words so loud on a screen, you would have thought someone had just died.
Then the rioting started. A demand for a formal announcement and an explanation. A cry for justice. A search for someone to blame. Some took the objective approach. Some intellectualized it. Others chose a state of denial. It can’t be true. It just can’t.
To the casual observer, we seem like stark-raving lunatics. “It’s just a band,” you might say. “Get over it.” And do you know what? You would be absolutely right. At the end of the day, they are all just people. They are fans of their favorite bands, just like we are fans. They have families just like we have families. They make mistakes, they get mad, they make up, they move on, just like you and me. And what happened is none of our business, no matter how frustrated we are over the news.
The problem is some of us are not simply frustrated. We are heartbroken.
How is that even possible? How could someone be heartbroken – yes, truly in emotional pain – over a bassist’s departure from a band?
As I wrestled with those questions myself (contrary to popular belief, I really do question my sanity when it comes to this band quite often), I remembered I had made a similar connection some years ago, only this was with a character on television. His name was Wash.
Speak the word “Firefly” in a group of sci-fi loving nerds and you will immediately summon the fangirl in all of them. If they had it their way, the show would still be on TV, not cancelled after its first season on FOX more than a decade ago. Following its premature cancellation, a movie was released based on the TV show, called Serenity. If you’ve never watched this series, but you’d like to, I would advise you to stop reading this post altogether.
Still here? Great.
Part of what made the series Firefly and its subsequent film Serenity so memorable was, among other things, the characters – their individual personalities and unique perspectives they brought to a ship of misfits. So when Wash, our beloved pilot, was suddenly and violently killed in the middle of his wistful mantra, “I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar,” another kind of collective wailing was heard in the universe. As one Firefly fan put it, “It was the closest I’ve come to feeling real grief over a fictional death.”
It came without warning. It can’t be true. It just can’t.
The departure of Airborne’s beloved bassist has elicited a similar reaction from the fans. All anger and shock aside, the overwhelming response has been sadness.
Certainly, Noah Harmon’s contribution to the band was superlative, and his performance onstage is unforgettable. He was (and still is) a ridiculously talented musician, and just about every single fan of The Airborne Toxic Event hates to see him go. Undoubtedly, he will be sorely missed.
But we are grieving something more.
A few years ago, when I was still furiously writing a novel about a fictional musician’s journey, my “research” was interviews and articles about The Airborne Toxic Event, simply because they were the band I listened to the most at the time. Little by little, I uncovered the distinction this band had over any other, that of a refreshing and honest approach to the way they made music and the way they connected with one another. Even from an outsider’s perspective, witnessing the chemistry between band members who at the same time share a common goal and an inside joke is electrifying and highly attractive. It’s as if they share some creative magical bond, and the end result is music for which we’re willing to pay good money.
For The Airborne Toxic Event, this was a group of exceptionally talented individuals who brought their distinct personalities, unique perspective, and even sense of humor to a collaborative project that ultimately became three albums’ worth of material, and then some. But they didn’t leave it at that. Instead, we have hours upon hours of interviews with the band detailing their journey, a DVD that was essentially a making-of special of their concert at the Walt Disney Hall in 2009, and even homemade video blogs of their adventures during the early days of touring. They weren’t shy about bringing us along for the ride for the past seven years, and we packed our proverbial bags and joined them. Surely, it could be said that a few classically-trained musicians and a prolific writer with a flare for the melodramatic and propensity toward death-defying motorcycle trips across the country are a band of misfits (but not the band Misfits), a group of characters who are real people, and have graciously shared their lives with us onstage and downstage for a chat after a show. This wasn’t just once or twice or just long enough to make a video and create an “image” of how the band wanted to be perceived. This has been going on for years, long before I ever jumped on the bandwagon. But even if you were to discover them today, you could start with their pilot episode on YouTube and follow their journey as a fledgling band of an undetermined musical genre with a handful of fans, to playing Lollapalooza to a screaming crowd of thousands in the pouring rain.
Yet time and time again, in more interviews than there is time to cite, they attributed their creative success to their collaboration with each other, not just as musicians, but as friends. As recently as the spring of 2013, Mikel Jollett himself stated during the live session at KCRW: “It’s a collaborative process between artists, and there is an overlap of a lot of friendship, and also just a common sense of you’re a team . . . and every part is extremely important.”
These sentiments spilled over onto Twitter just days prior to that session, when he reminisced and waxed poetic publically just enough for us to feel proud we were supporting such an overlap of artistry and friendship:
“Falling asleep to the gentle, stoney sounds of the band and crew skateboard-jousting in the loading bay. Some nights when I can’t sleep here in the bunk of our bus, I worry the bus will crash..and all I can think is that it’s precious cargo..You know my friends are here sleeping. We’re in this vessel together and I just don’t want anything bad to happen to them. I feel responsible. I feel protective. Im reminded of the night the Drowning Men got hit by a drunk driver. We turned our bus around and there they were in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, on the side of the road. We slept 19 people on our bus that night..And all I could think was: I’m glad we’re here together.”
Whether this was the intention or not, the vast majority of fans felt this connection as soon as they took the stage. As outsiders, we were eyewitnesses to their dynamics and chemistry, both on and off the stage. Their humility and their humanity set them apart from other bands, and ultimately endeared themselves to us, to the point we believed we were sharing some kind of collective cathartic experience every time Anna Bulbrook pulled the bow of her viola across our heartstrings.
Now one member of this band and group of friends has left.
It came without warning, and we are scratching our heads in wonder and rubbing our eyes in disbelief. It can’t be true. It just can’t.
“It is a loss of innocence,” as one fan stated, “that the perfect band of friends who have a blast and just happen to make amazing music and whose live shows are transcendent are human after all.”
It is the humanity we are mourning. A reality, both refreshing and tactile, that perhaps this wasn’t just a job for them – that maybe they enjoyed it as much as we did. And being human, they make mistakes, they get mad, they make up, they move on, just like you and me.
But all of us will have seven years’ worth of music and memories, and none of us will have any regrets.
As for me, I’m excited to welcome Adrian to the group, and I’m anxious to witness The Airborne Toxic Event transition into a new season. I know things will never be the same. But I’m glad their story isn’t finished, and I’m glad they’re still making music, and the feeling I get when I see a show will always remain: that I’m glad we’re here together.
And all I could think was: I’m glad we’re here together.
— Mikel Jollett (@Mikel_Jollett) April 24, 2013
*Special thanks to Anneke, Wendy, Jennifer, Ryan, Kristina, Elizabeth, Jamie, Christina, Susan, Kevi, Andy, Christie, and Glen.