Photo by: Angela BoatwrightOn November 9, 2014, Black Tusk bassist and vocalist Jonathan Vincent Athon passed away at the age of 32. The night before, he and his girlfriend Emily had gone out for a spin on his Harley Davidson. They cruised through the streets of Savannah, Georgia, taking in the night air and feeling the wind on their faces. I bet you Athon was laughing, revving up now and then to make his lady yell. Sometime around 9:30 PM, an 85-year-old driver ran a stop sign and crashed right into them. The couple was rushed to the hospital, and those close to them were alerted. They were both wearing their helmets, so thankfully, Emily’s injuries were less severe and she’s recovering well. However, Athon’s condition was deemed critical, and he was placed into a medically-induced coma. The next morning, I got the text.
“You should make travel arrangements. He’s going to pass today.” It came from Andrew, his close friend and bandmate for well over a decade. He’d spent the night by Athon’s side. He was hurting.But no. There was still hope. There must be. I pulled up Skyscanner, just in case. I knew I wouldn’t need to book that flight. Athon was too stubborn to leave us now.“Book it now. We are removing the life support in a few hours.”Goddamn.Athon was 32, hale and hearty, strong as an ox and stubborn as a mule, with a mouth like a sailor on shore leave and a heart spun from solid gold. He was loved so, so much—by his family, by his girlfriend, by his friends and fans and everyone he’d touched with his music or with those strong, weathered workman’s hands. It couldn’t be true. But it was.
Andrew asked me not to say anything until the band had made their statement, so I sobbed alone at first, but it was only a matter of time before the news spread. I watched as the posts started coming, as word began to spread through our network, as texts were sent with shaking fingers and calls were made with voices already raw from weeping. It started as a trickle, then rushed in faster and faster until it became an absolute deluge of grief. His smile papered my Facebook feed. My phone shuddered again and again:“Tell me it’s not true!”“Are you okay?”“I love you.”The blogs began to pick up on it, their summaries bloodless and cold. They called him “Jonathan,” not knowing that to us, to the people that knew and loved him, he was always simply Athon. Tourmates and fans came together to grieve. Artist and Baroness guitarist John Dyer Baizely poured his heart out over his friend of 15 years. Andrew posted a photo of his knuckles, freshly tattooed with Athon’s initials. Condolences and tributes came from Mastodon, Red Fang, Crowbar, Howl, and so many others. They were the bands we had toured with, played with, drank with, stayed with. It seemed like everyone I know was devastated, and me? I was a wreck. Hell, I still am.
Athon was best known for being part of Black Tusk, and accomplished more with that band than most musicians could dream of. Black Tusk has always been Black Tusk—the same three members, the same vision, the same intensity. The band came together in 2005, and went on to release four successful albums, toured the world, and were even handpicked to play Metallica’s Orion festival. Onstage, Athon wielded his bass like a battle ax, his burly tattooed arms coaxing out the thunder. His hoarse roar shook the floorboards, his blue eyes would light up with wildfire, and lord, that big red beard flew. He locked into James’ huge pounding grooves and traded riffs with Andrew, stomping and hollering in a punk rock waltz. He was a sight to behold, and his energy, combined with that of his brothers up there giving their all, was what helped propel them to that level of success. They made an impact on people, and have been a huge part of my life since the first time I went on tour with them back in 2010. They became family to me. Fresh out of college, I hopped in the van and never looked back. That’s what we all did. Eyes on the road, heads held high, come what may.
As invested as Athon was in Black Tusk, there was a lot more to him as a person. He was so excited about playing guitar and singing in his new band, Conquer/Devour, a “party doom” outfit that indulged his love for technical songwriting, Southern swagger, and big fat doom riffs. The past few years saw him combine his musical knowledge with his carpentry skills to begin building his own beautifully crafted drums, guitars, and bass guitars under the 13 Star Drums banner. He was a carpenter, and loved working with his hands - the guy could fix anything. He was a hell of a cook, especially when a barbecue grill was involved. He was an artistic soul with an eye for design, and had studied photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He was a sucker for dogs, especially his beloved pup Cutter. He was a great man. He was a great friend. He was honest, caring, kind, and funny as hell. He lived hard, and loved harder. He was Athon.Losing Athon drove home just how connected we who travel the highways and haunt the dive bars of this land really are. As my friend and longtime tour brother Reid said when I texted him late last night to tell him I love him, “The brothers and sisters of the road share the same load.” We bear this burden of grief in exchange for having had the rare, dear privilege of calling Athon friend.Rest in peace and in power, Athon. You are loved, you are missed, and you will not be forgotten. TCBT.Follow Kim Kelly on Twitter.