We Should All Be Invincible

REIGN_Groupies_WOOOOOWhen I first started pursuing photography with any kind of seriousness, I read a lot of photography blogs, articles, etc. Not so much technical stuff, but the artistic/philosophical side. I remember reading an interview with a guy, and I’ve tried to find it again but it remains elusive, who said something along the lines of this: a photograph taken often says more about the photographer than the subject. It was in relation to all the cell phone pictures of people captured in their most embarrassing moments, those “People of Wal-Mart” photos, etc. We live in a culture of pointing and laughing at other people, usually anonymously. That is a dick way to be. Who wants to be on the receiving end of that among strangers, right? I’ve been the guy pointing a finger myself more than once, and I’m ashamed of it. Now I try not to be.

So I was mildly miffed when an old band photo I am part of surfaced last week in promotion of a group of local musicians’ big tribute show, with their band’s name placed over the image. The cranky, belligerent side of me thought, “Who the fuck are you people to make fun of me and mine? You haven’t earned the right to! What have any of you done, eh?” but I blew it off. Not immediately, though. There was probably a thirty minute stretch where I was literally fighting mad. It’s embarrassing to admit, even here, because it’s doubtful most of the people who saw it even know who I am, let alone that it was an image of me and my friends.

It’s an awful photo, but it’s a moment captured in a particular time. It was the summer of 1987, and we were just four kids, aged 17-21, who’d won a free sitting at some family portrait studio and chose to use it as an opportunity to take a band photo. At the time we were literally living on popcorn and Kool-Aid, but we were in the process of doing what we’d said we were going to do: we were in the Seattle area, trying to be rock stars. I learned back in 2000 or so that the photo had been kicking around the Internet for some time (how it got there I don’t know, since we hold the only color originals, yet there it is, on the WWW, in full color), being used over and over again by graphics nerds in ways we would call a “meme” today. Even my friend Aaron Draplin — go ahead and Google the guy, he’s about as much of a celebrity as you can be as a designer these days — knew about it, and was astounded that it was me and my band.

What bothers me is that every person has a story. Most of those stories will take your heart, tear it into tiny pieces, then set fire to the remaining chunks. Which means there is a story in every photograph, and a good photographer will show the viewer that. This isn’t a good photo, by any means, but I looked at it, and I remembered those guys, the story of our friendships, and how unhappy it makes me when I realize that none of those guys are in my life now. And now, just a handful of days after my moment of fury over the use of that image to make fun of us, one of the guys in the photo — the one to the far right, the youngest of us, the one whom I remained closest to for by far the longest — is dead.

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In case you’re wondering, I’m all the way to the left. Next to me is Mike. He and I became the best of friends when we started our first band together in the summer of 1983. That band crumbled, we took on a new drummer, added a couple members — including Paul, third from left — and continued on. When the drummer of that band quit, we recruited Bryan “Bubba” Warne, a guy Mike and I had both known forever via the connections of a small town, to play. He was terrible, really didn’t know how to play. Everyone else in the band quit, including Paul. So the three of us — me, Mike, and Bubba — just started hammering away in our practice space, hours and hours, every night. Only now, instead of messing with other people’s music, we were writing our own songs, and slowly getting better and better. I graduated in ’85. When Mike graduated in ’86 we immediately moved, with our gear, to Renton, WA. We hooked up again with Paul, who had moved over a year ahead of us. When Bubba graduated in ’87, he joined us. By ’88/’89 Paul was gone again. We started playing more shows. Recorded an album. Then some of the darker aspects of young men alone in the big city living a rock n’ roll lifestyle set in, and soon enough Mike walked out of work one day and we didn’t see him again (he surfaced, got cleaned up, went to school, and now lives, presumably, a good life somewhere; we reconnected for a couple years, but I haven’t seen him in probably 12-13 years, and efforts to reconnect have failed). Bubba and I replaced him. Then Bubba had a similar disappearance. I decided I was just going to be a family man. This was maybe . . . 1993 or ’94.

I moved back to Montana in ’97 and got a job in Ronan. A guy up there, Mark, who had been a musician in North Carolina, got wind that I had played in bands and recruited me to join his band. The guy playing drums was primarily a guitar player. After one rehearsal and shows already booked I knew it wouldn’t work for me. I had heard that Bubba was around Missoula, in our hometown of Frenchtown, so one night Mark and I went looking for him. We drove the 50+ miles to Frenchtown, walked into the Alcan Bar, and there was Bubba. I hadn’t seen him in 3-4 years, but he was just the same. We hugged. I said, “Bubba, I’m in a band again, we have a show in two weeks, and we need a drummer.”

“I’m in,” he said.

People moved. Lineups changed. Bubba and I kept playing together. Our band recorded at a little studio in Missoula called Bevel Studio, where we met two dudes, Hank Donovan and Jimmy Rolle. We started a band called Lazerwolfs with a guy named Aaron who was a UM student and wanted to rock. When Aaron bailed on Montana and moved right before a show, Bubba and I asked Jimmy if he would fill in until we got a replacement. This was 2000/2001. It fucking clicked. We never bothered to find a replacement.

I know this is a long post already. But how do you sum up a lifetime relationship with a guy and not run long? This doesn’t even scratch the outer skin of the outer surface of the stories I could tell about Bubba Warne. He was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known, yet also one of the most frustrating fuck-ups. He managed to combine the lowest degree of impulse control with the worst luck of any human I’ve ever heard of. If he walked up to a group of dudes who handed him something and he said, “What’s this?” that is inevitably the time the teachers/cops/whoever would show up and he’d be busted holding a joint or something. That was pretty much the story of his high school career, and he remained a walking, talking shitshow of generally innocent trouble the rest of his life. But damn was he fun to have around, and his heart was gigantic. If I had to put together a crew of five or six people to help me save the world from alien invasion, he’d be one of them.

Playing with Jimmy and Bubba in Lazerwolfs was the most fun I’ve ever had playing music. We played a lot of shows. We did a couple little tours. We recorded three albums. Bubba continued to be Bubba — he landed in jail for 30 days one time, requiring us to replace him for a show (Steve Jacobs filled in, who now plays drums with Jimmy and I in American Falcon) — but it was worth it because he could beat those drums like they owed him money. Another of his sideways interactions with the law forced us to replace him for a tour, at the last minute, with my 15yo son, who had taken up playing the drums out of inspiration from watching Bubba play. Hell, if Bubba had kept his shit together, we’d still be playing with him. But he didn’t.

In the summer of 2009 we made a little trip out to Minnesota and back playing a couple shows. When we got back to Missoula, I dropped him off at his house in Frenchtown with plans to rehearse in a couple weeks. We never saw or talked to him again. He didn’t have a phone, so I would leave notes at his house that went unanswered. Then shortly after it was clear he’d moved. We never knew what happened, and he never contacted us, though I’d hear word of him once a year or so. Then this past Monday I got a text from my sister that said, “Bubba died.” She’d seen Bubba’s sister post it on Facebook. He apparently died of a heart attack. It is still hard for me to believe.

We will never know why Bubba chose to do what he did. I have my suspicions. He had just come off several years of probation where he could neither drink or smoke weed, two things he loved to do. Hell, he just didn’t like being told what he could or couldn’t do, period! When he was able to do those things he was mostly functioning for long stretches, until he wasn’t. Then he’d go on the occasional bender. It was something he’d done his whole life. I know he had just lost his job, I know his personal life was a mess, all that stuff that stresses a person out. I think he was embarrassed to ask for help because we’d offered it so many times. His drum set that I had bought for him he hadn’t been using for about a year because he said it was getting re-shelled. He was using one Jimmy had for his studio. This was the story until someone said, “Hey, I bought these black drums from the pawn shop that say Lazerwolfs on them!” That was just how Bubba was. He’d rather run the risk of pawning his drums and hoping to get them back out than ask us for help. I know I’m painting a picture of a guy that doesn’t sound so wonderful, but it was worth it to us. He was our brother. It frustrated us, but we were willing to do what we could for him.

When he left, I don’t think he meant it to be forever. A week becomes two. Then a month. Then a season. Pride gets in the way. Embarrassment. I was angry at first, but that didn’t last. Jimmy and I talked about it the other night. It always seemed like sooner or later he’d show up again, and we’d maybe pick right up where we’d left off. It almost seemed inevitable.

I know I have never really recovered from Bubba’s leaving. It feels like he died twice, now. At first, in ’09, we wondered if he had died; I remember searching the death notices. It was the same as when Mike up and left nearly 20 years prior, where for days and days we didn’t know where he was, until we learned he’d gone home to his folks and I was able to talk to him on the phone and he told me he wasn’t coming back. We didn’t get that from Bubba, but at least, after a year or so, we learned he was alive.

Jimmy and I didn’t play for several months, but ultimately we got a drummer and started American Falcon. While we remain close, we aren’t as close as we were before. We don’t do anything together outside of the context of the band, when in the past we used to. I think I’m responsible for that. I pushed everyone away when Bubba left, convinced myself I didn’t need friends, and if Julia, my wife, weren’t the person she is I probably would have succeeded in pushing her away too. Even now, for these last few days, I have felt incredibly self-destructive. Not in any kind of substance abusing way, that’s never been my thing, but I’ve fought the urge to just cancel all my contacts with the outside world, quit yoga, sever all those ties, abandon all the friendships, such as they are, that I’ve been struggling to build, and just withdraw. But there’s also a part of me thinking, fuck, Bubba was younger than me, and he died of a heart attack. Look at my condition! I’ll be lucky to survive the year! It’s terrifying.

The thing is, I didn’t realize how much I leaned on the guy, how important he was to me, until he was gone. That’s the story people tell whenever someone dies, isn’t it? But it’s true. It kills me to think that he died not knowing how much he was loved, particularly by me, and by Jimmy too, and that there was always a place for him on a drum throne beside us. And like with my dad, who died a year ago, it just seems impossible to me that if I get my shit together, and barring any tragedy, I’m going to spend more time in this life without him than I had with him. How is any of that even possible?

I think there was a side to Bubba’s life that he didn’t want us to be a part of, or know about, and that’s fine. I’m not going to intrude on his life now that he is gone, but I’m happy there are other people out there rallying to his memory. I choose not to attend, because the Bubba I knew wouldn’t have wanted to be part of any of that. I just wanted to share some thoughts about him here, and I’m fortunate to have many ways to spend time with him if I choose to. Decades of photos, recordings, old D&D character sheets, all that stuff. Gallons of remembered sweat, blood, and tears. He died carrying some of my secrets. I’m going to keep carrying a few of his too.

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Author: Chris

Chris La Tray is a writer, a walker, and a photographer. He is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and lives in Missoula, MT.

16 thoughts on “We Should All Be Invincible”

  1. Makes me think hard about past, current, and upcoming choices. Also to count my lucky stars, because a lot is also due to that.
    And in my senior portrait I’m holding my cat. I refuse to regret that.

  2. Extremely moving and thoughtful piece, Chris. I swear, every time I read one of you blog posts I come away feeling some how enriched. So sorry to hear about Bubba. Just from the way you’ve always talked about him, I know how important he is to you.
    Onward, brother.

  3. I got to “I know this is a long post already” and I thought “Oh no, don’t stop!” These are great stories and thoughts, about Bubba and life and its struggles in general. I could listen for much longer than this post took to read. And I love that picture. Sure, it’s funny now that styles have changed and we’ve all “grown up” at least in number of years, but there is so much behind that picture. I hate that someone used it in a mocking fashion. But I see how it could happen, that picture is such a perfect wordless descriptor of that time and that genre. I love it.

    I so hear you about wanting to withdraw and disappear. I fight that emotion myself most days. So I’m lacking the substance to try and talk you off that track of withdrawal, but I’d sure miss you if you disappeared.

    So sorry for your loss of Bubba. Thanks for sharing him.

  4. Chris, you just said what I’ve been feeling all along about Bubba. He was the best friend I ever had. He was there for me and helping me up when I needed it most in life and he robbed me of the chance to help him back when it was my turn. Your words about him are spot on! Thank you for what you wrote… A true tribute to a legendary person.

  5. I was sorry to hear about this Chris. I had lunch with Hank this week and he gave me the news. Bubba was a lovable goofball who just seemed to ooze goodness. I remember getting frustrated with him once and hollering at him after our sound went sideways at a Buck’s Club show and halfway through my tirade I looked into his eyes and I knew it was all on me. Anyway, these were great words and I think all of us could only hope to have some thoughtful shit said about ourselves when we move on.

  6. Thanks everybody for the kind words. I had a friend of mine mention that this post must have been cathartic. I don’t think it was, really; it was more something I finally got up out of bed one night and just blasted out, so it gave me some relief from the thoughts just banging around in my head.

    Catharsis came Friday night. Seeing some old friends, then plugging in the amps and just unleashing a wall of rock, including a couple old songs we hadn’t played since we played them onstage in Morris, Minnesota with Bubba six years ago. That felt great. We printed out a big photo of Bubba to hang behind the stage, and it was awesome to have him there. It was good to celebrate him.

  7. Goddamn, this brought a tear to my eye! Not just the news about Bubba, but the forthrightness of your thoughts. It’s important, I think, to talk about peoples’ shortcomings along with their many glowing qualities. I barely knew Bubba, but having read your words here, I have a much fuller appreciation for his life.

    I only wish that you’d posted that photo you once sent me of Bubba loading drum gear out of the back of a truck, sweatpants riding low enough to reveal a proud and uninhibited buttcrack.

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