It was on a spring afternoon at Kirby's Beer Store in the early nineties that Kirk Rundstrom and I first spoke, but I'd noticed him before that. Everyone noticed Kirk, because he was all magnetism and he caught your attention the minute he walked into a room, but what I knew about him then was that he was lead singer for a band I wasn't crazy about, Red Lizard, and that the first time I'd seen them play Kirk had wandered in from Kirby's parking lot in the middle of the first song, already singing on a cordless microphone. Kirk would later forbid me to bring up anything having to do with this cordless mic, but really it was probably just as cool at the time as he thought it was.
I didn't dislike Red Lizard, I just wasn't too much into what they were doing. Even so, I couldn't fault their commitment and Kirk was their standard-bearer: for their music to work, Red Lizard needed to convey aggression and Kirk wasn't halfhearted or shy even then. To me, in fact, he was scary: he wore a doo-rag and radiated stylistic hostility, the kind of sexy, young alt-rock guy around whom I wasn't completely at ease. On stage he was a monster. He commanded the audience's attention — he craved it, and although the effort may have still showed some then, it diminished over the years until it became invisible — but then he spit it all back with attitude. The unspoken rule was that all of us in the room were allies and that we overlooked differences because of our love of this kind of music, which we thought of as being subject to persecution, and it was maybe a measure of Kirk's success as Red Lizard's front man that his intensity overcame even this unspoken rule. Standing within the force field of his ravening performance, I suddenly saw myself, by comparison, as inhibited, overly cerebral, and ridiculously gay.
Kirk was cool on stage and it carried over off-stage, too: there were girls all around him and some sort of a Jeep, I think, and the other good-looking people in his presence — we didn't know these people — looked to him for their cues. You could not then have convinced me that Kirk was among the kindest people I would know or that he was as vulnerable as I was and for similar reasons. I cut him a little bit of a berth, as I would a dog that I had been told not to run past, and I suppressed any apprehension I felt toward him for the same reason: he'd sense my fear.
And so it was that I had never spoken a word to him when he walked over to me at Kirby's that afternoon, flaunting a cell phone, something no one had back then. He needed a phone number for our mutual friend Sabina; he didn't introduce himself, but he did make a point of using my name, and my surprise that he knew it compounded the surprise I felt that he was addressing me at all. But most surprising was the feeling I had that he could have gotten the number as easily elsewhere and that his request carried the casual, unspoken offer to be my friend.
Where had Kirk come from? My friends and I, who were a few years older, didn't know, and although I heard all about his life up to that point later, the important thing is that when Red Lizard began playing at Kirby's, Kirk in many ways arrived where he belonged. It was there — or in that crowd, which is really what I'm talking about — that he met Jeff Eaton and Wayne Gottstine, the latter becoming his musical partner for life, although their relationship was just as complicated as a rocky marriage. When Kirk and his wife Lisa went for a memorable first date, it was under a table at Kirby's that they first suspected something was going on. Wayne and Kirk formed Technicolor Headrush and then Scroat Belly, and Kirk and Lisa got married. Kirk liked me because I brought good bands to Kirby's and I liked Kirk for the same reason everyone else did: he was, at whatever level he was functioning at any given moment, a star.
Kirk had all these plans and a lot of them he brought to fruition. His ambition was huge. The minute he saw me he would begin to compile an oral list of gigs, projects, and elaborate family vacations that were coming up, filling the air with the names of clubs, bands, and musicians with whom he had played or would be playing, and with projections as to how many people, including Some Guy from Something Label, who would hear him play. Generally speaking he and Lisa were just as broke as me, and it was part of their magical lifestyle that, despite tight funds, Lisa and the kids would always be flying out this next Wednesday to meet the band in Colorado, where there was a guy they knew with a ski resort where they would be staying, or that he was splitting off from the band — whichever band — in Chicago to fly somewhere else to finish a solo CD. Meanwhile Lisa, he would tell me, had a show pending, too — this show in New York? At this one terrific gallery? Her sculpture had been picked from all these entrants, and it was great exposure for her; he was so proud of her and they were trying to work out a way for him to go.
But to begin with Kirk had plans for me and for the shows I was bringing to Kirby's: I should do this and then that and the shows would be huge. He knew everyone living in Wichita and would help me. What Kirk didn't get was that I wasn't him and that I couldn't automatically persuade club owners and musicians to clear their calendars to accommodate my plans using bullshit, enthusiasm, and raw charisma as my only tools. At one point he and Wayne invited me to manage Technicolor Headrush, but I declined, correctly guessing that I could never match the one-two punch of Wayne's common-sense intelligence and Kirk's earnest, blue-eyed charm.
Every band Kirk appeared in after Red Lizard connected, not to say that Red Lizard didn't connect in its way, too. How could they not? In Kirk a band found both a deadly guitarist and a front man with an alchemical allure, and the increasingly less hostile vibes of Scroat Belly and Split Lip Rayfield allowed his enormous good nature to show through. Off stage Kirk's extroversion and good will built not just fan- but friend-bases across the country, and the conversation in which a friend or relative of mine living elsewhere announced to me breathlessly that he'd met a friend of mine in a killer band became one that I knew chapter and verse. Add to Kirk's natural charm the fact that he rarely forgot fans he'd met a single time and you had the recipe, rarely known, for both unfailing affability and growing stardom.
The only thing better than Kirk on stage was Kirk on stage with Wayne. The two of them connected on a channel so clear and static-free that a single exchanged look could communicate information words struggled to convey. An alternate verse to the Scroat Belly song "Harold," developed when the band played a gig before a grade school crowd, changed the lyric
Harold is a motherfucker
He killed his wife, he killer her lover
Harold is a bunny lover
He kissed his wife, he kissed his mother.
Watching the band perform once at Panama Red's, I happened myself to catch the split-second glance that Kirk threw at Wayne, and I was still wondering if I had imagined it when the next chorus came out sung that way by both men.
There's something about the fact of Harold's transformation, under certain conditions, from a motherfucker to a bunny lover that gets at Kirk's essential goodness. Since his death, much has been made of his battle with cancer and his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol use, but to me Kirk's kindness verged on the prince-like long before. Although he sometimes lied (and lied transparently, by the way; I lied back) and was never too far above a con, my experience was always that both he and Lisa would do anything in their power for anyone, anyone ranging from nice strangers to the people they knew best and did or didn't love. Money, housing, emotional support — the two of them have bailed me out in any way that you can name, and they've never asked for anything in return. Lisa, incidentally, has always seemed to me to be not only the perfect match for Kirk's force-of-nature personality but the only one, and for that very reason: she can match it. Their relationship was sometimes tempestuous but my advice to them was always the same: whoever had left would be back, because where else could he or she go?
Intentions vs. reality
At Kirk's service at the Orpheum last Monday, one speaker — a man I like and always have — said that Kirk hadn't lived the life of a hero, but rather that of a warrior. Without meaning any offense, I wish respectfully to disagree. Partly it's a matter of semantics: this man said that since his "redemption" — that is, since Kirk gave up drugs and alcohol not long before his cancer diagnosis a few years ago — he had placed his love of his friends and family before anything else and that this, among other examples used, was behavior typical of a warrior. I see it as being just the opposite: to me such a sacrifice is better described as an act of heroism than an act of war, however symbolic or metaphorical the terms of warfare. At the very least, I believe, it can be described as both.
But I disagree on broader grounds, too. The road to hell, we are told, is paved with good intentions, but I believe that there are other, more noble roads paved in the same material. I reject the idea that a man's intentions are a worthless consideration; if that were true it might likewise be true that the first thirty-five years of Kirk's life were of little value morally, and as a husband, father, son, and friend. But they weren't. Even during what a previous speaker described as the "long nights and dark times" of Kirk's most committed drug use, his intentions remained sterling. Even then — and I believe this with all my heart — Kirk harbored little malice, he was unfailingly generous, he was a man driven more than anything by love. Kirk's dream was that his family and friends might be happy, and he longed to be the vehicle for that happiness. He hungered for approval from his loved ones as powerfully as he did from a crowd.
I was on hand for some of those long nights and dark times, and I can tell you that the discrepancy between Kirk's intentions and the reality of his life was as much the cause of that darkness as the drugs and alcohol, that it was Kirk's disappointment in himself, as he imagined that he saw it mirrored in the eyes of those he loved, that brought those long nights on. Kirk was hurting long before cancer came along. The cause of that pain was that, on behalf of his family and friends, he expected so much more from himself than he could deliver. No one could have brought those ideals home.
The battlefield shifted from finding drugs to abstaining from them, but the battle was nevertheless the same. Kirk's enemy was always Kirk himself, his private assurance that he wasn't as good as he might be, that he was letting others down. Who knows what demons led this personable, talented, intelligent, loving, and beautiful guy to believe that he wasn't the superstar he was? Those were the demons against whom he fought every day of his life, and he did it not for himself but for us, his fans and loved ones. The results, I concede, were often mixed, but never as catastrophic as he imagined them to be.
Kirk's fight against himself was a fight to express the enormous, aching love that filled his heart, and that's just one of a hundred reasons that he'll always be a hero to me. It was never less than a privilege for me to call him my friend.