In Days of Woe

By  |  February 23, 2016
Photograph of Jonathan Athon backstage at the Jinx, by Geoff L. Johnson, geoffsphotos.com Photograph of Jonathan Athon backstage at the Jinx, by Geoff L. Johnson, geoffsphotos.com

Last winter, the metal band Black Tusk went on a six-week tour of Europe, where they’ve established a strong following over the past decade. As most any band would today, they shared a candid visual diary on social media. But the trio’s followers on Facebook and Instagram (there are more than 54,000 of them) weren’t just seeing the expected performance photos, landscape shots, party pics, and show promos. Black Tusk had a mission abroad, which they christened #ripathon.

In one photo, guitarist Andrew Fidler stands on the deck of a ship crossing the English Channel, his face obscured by his long hair, his right arm extended over the water, a bottle barely visible in his hand. #ripathon. In another, he crouches on a stone barrier beside the River Clyde in Glasgow, while drummer James May holds a small purple flower above him. Similar images were shared from quiet corners across the continent—along the Elbe and the Danube, beside a canal in Amsterdam, a creek in London, on the Latvian shore of the Baltic Sea, in the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. 

By the time Black Tusk returned home to Savannah, Georgia, in March, their load was a little lighter: they’d left ashes of their bassist, Athon, in every place they’d gone. 

 

On the evening of November 7, 2014, Jonathan Athon and his girlfriend, Emily, were heading south on Price Street in Savannah’s Historic District when an eighty-five-year-old driver in an SUV ran a STOP sign, intercepting Athon’s Harley-Davidson. The two were wearing helmets, and Emily eventually recovered, but Athon—everyone called him by his last name—suffered irreparable brain damage and was removed from life support two days later. He was thirty-two. His band had just finished recording their fifth album, and they were excited about an upcoming European tour with Black Label Society.

The news of Athon’s sudden passing spread rapidly around the world. The metal press, major music publications, and even mainstream news media picked it up. Friends and musicians who had known Athon posted tributes on social media.

“He had an insatiable appetite to fix things, an uncompromising honesty, and an enviable ambition to learn new skills,” wrote John Dyer Baizley of Baroness, another band forged in the Savannah metal scene. “He was a unique person to say the least, hardworking till the end, and with a lust for life that sometimes left us all spinning.”

Susanne Guest Warnekros, the owner of the Jinx, the Savannah bar that nurtured Black Tusk and other metal acts, wrote: “He wasn’t just a badass when he was onstage, he was also a badass at manufacturing and fixing every single thing this bar ever needed, with no complaints and often did these things not because he was asked to, but because he noticed it needed to be done. There’s not one inch of this bar that you can put your eyes on that he hasn’t had a part in making.”

When Black Tusk formed in 2005, Athon was a punk guitarist with no experience on bass. “Since it was Athon, he taught himself how to play bass in fucking a month,” James May told me. “He taught himself how to do everything, man. In a very short period of time, and got good at it. He was just that type of person.”

Athon was known around town as a big-hearted doer—a generous carpenter and handyman who was always willing to help his friends. His absence has been deeply felt. My first conversations with him were at a hunting lodge in the woods along a marsh south of Savannah. Owned by an alligator trapper whose daughter is married to a musician, the property was regularly used for casual potlucks and cookouts. Athon would generally man the barbecue, which he had made out of an oil drum. With his long red beard and constant smile, Athon the grill master was the flip side of the onstage musician, who wielded his bass like a medieval mace.

Some of us in the city’s small music community wondered if the metal scene, let alone the band, would survive without Athon, who seemed to be at the center of so many crucial projects—musical, construction, and otherwise. But less than a month after the wreck, Black Tusk announced that they would honor their commitment to the European tour that had been scheduled before Athon’s death. Corey Barhorst, the former bass player for Kylesa, one of the first bands to be identified with Savannah metal, would go in his place.

Within the band, there was never a question about whether Black Tusk would keep on. “The band at this point is bigger than the three of us,” Andrew told me in July. We were hanging out with Corey and James in front of the auto repair business on Montgomery Street where they practice after hours. “The band is its own fucking entity,” Andrew added. “It’s Black Tusk.”

#ripathon continued throughout the year as the band, with Barhorst now a permanent member, toured extensively across the United States and again in Europe. Jonathan Athon’s remains were deposited in the Mississippi River in Memphis, the Ohio in Cincinnati, Lake Pontchartrain, and Buckingham Fountain in Chicago’s Grant Park. Relapse Records, which first signed Black Tusk in 2009, has extended their contract, and a new album—the last recordings on which Athon appears—is scheduled for release in early 2016.

Corey said, “Athon would have been pissed off to see people moping around.”

 

A port city that has seen many waves of immigration over the years, Savannah has always been a creative enclave. I’ve been covering music here for fifteen years. Today, it’s common to see metalheads at country shows or punks supporting hip-hop, and Athon seemed to know everyone. A week after the wreck, friends and family gathered in Franklin Square to share memories and to grieve. There was a makeshift memorial on one of the benches, while Ghost Town Tattoo across the street continued its fund-raiser in Athon’s honor. The shop eventually completed eighty-nine memorial tattoos, with the proceeds going to medical expenses for Athon’s girlfriend and for two of his friends: the musicians Jason Statts, who was paralyzed in a random street shooting in 2008, and Keith Kozel, who is battling a degenerative kidney disease.

Afterward, some of Athon’s closer friends convened for a sad night a few blocks away at the Jinx. Many of them had been key players in the Savannah metal scene from the beginning, when it grew out of underground punk of the eighties and nineties. “Back then in Savannah, things were so under the radar,” Phillip Cope later told me. “You could get away with a lot without even being noticed.” When Cope’s band, Kylesa, and Baroness gained national attention under the label “sludge metal,” Savannah earned a reputation as one of the genre’s hubs. But most of the artists assembled under that banner resisted definition, including Black Tusk. “It was just punks getting into heavier stuff,” Cope said. Still, as the local bands were embraced by metal fans around the world, their relentless touring left a void at home. “By the time people outside Savannah discovered the scene in Savannah, the scene was already over.” In one of Black Tusk’s best-known songs, “Truth Untold,” from their 2013 album Tend No Wounds, Athon sang: “The arrival of times unworthy behold the future in days of woe shadows shall rise.”

There are still metal bands in Savannah, but lately the scene has been eclipsed by other genres: old-school punk, Americana, and various stripes of indie rock. In 2013, Cope and his Kylesa bandmates Laura Pleasants and Carl McGinley II founded Retro Futurist Records, which has released music by several newer bands like the garage rock duo Wet Socks, the punk act Crazy Bag Lady, and the psych rock band Niche. There is some fast music there, and some heavy music, too, but none of those are metal acts.

“It’s natural for things to evolve and change,” Cope told me. “Moving on is just kind of our thing.”

Baroness is now based in Philadelphia and rarely books gigs in Savannah. Black Tusk played only two hometown shows in 2015, but Andrew, James, and Corey still routinely come out to the Jinx, and Athon never seems far away. A painted portrait of him and his dog, Cutter, hangs above the bar’s front door.


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Bill Dawers is a columnist for the Savannah Morning News and runs the music blog hissing lawns. He teaches at Armstrong State University.