Commentary: At the familiar corner of love and loss, saying goodbye to a friend

A few weeks back I gathered with fair size group of people at the funeral of our friend, Steve Helmick. And as we stood around I had the sense we all were at the now familiar corner of Love and Loss.

Some will remember Steve by his given name.

Others will know him as the bass player of Fast Change, a band that played around these parts 15 or so years back when the Savoy still stood and Jeff Malone held court in the Ringside.

Back then, Steve had another name he used near the end of set. In the midst of a song, he’d introduce singers Melanie Uhl and Connie Hensley, guitarist Bud Cushwa, then Mike O’Brien, Mike Stark or Doug Gibson on drum. Then, after a dramatic pause, he’d say, “and I’m Tangerine.”

The news of Steve’s quick fade from us played out in a now familiar way: Through a series of posts on Facebook.

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He was in the hospital. Hadn’t been feeling well for a while.

Heart trouble again, but this time with a mention of blood clots, including one in a lung.

Soon came the overnight attack, the move to intensive care and a call for prayers.

Then the words maximum life support appeared and he was gone.

In an ankle bone connected to the shin bone way, it’s hard to think of Steve without thinking of his late mother, Inez, or Steve’s forever musical and personal friend, the late Bud Cushwa. There also was his late girlfriend Vickie, who I was just really getting to know and like when she passed away.

All those losses mixed together felt like a disturbance in the force. Which was why, with so few family left, it was so gratifying to see 70 or so at the funeral.

Other area musicians were on hand to remind everyone that Steve had been the only musician to appear on all four WTUE “Home Grown” albums. Four played one his if favorite songs, “Midnight Rider.”

The list of band names he was in brought to the usual suspects: Wesley Mooch, Sticks & Stones, Shakertown, Mad Rhythm, Housecall 24/7 and, my favorite, Sonny Combs & Kitty Kat Rodeo.

In addition to the musicians, there was a throng of people from Miami Industrial Trucks, where Steve worked for 30-odd years.

It was a crowd that seemed to love him every bit as much as his musician friends, which was a great comfort to both groups.

Comic relief was provided by Steve’s beloved dog, Penelope, who wasn’t present but caused a few smiles among those of us who knew without question we all were playing second fiddle to a dog.

I was there for a couple of reasons.

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For years, I served as Fast Change’s designated dancer, willing to dance with anyone brave enough to endure the occasional bead of sweat I propelled their way. Something about that band’s cover tunes was so hard-wired into my spine that I couldn’t understand how anybody in the room could stay in their seats.

I came to know Steve better when fellow Springfielder Karen Highman and I played with him – and, for a time, Bud Cushwa -- in Sticks & Stones.

He was the first guy with whom talking about music seemed easy. I’d ask him about how my drumming sounded on a song, and he’d usually talk about the part I was wondering about.

One of our first conversations came when Steve - after assuring me nothing was wrong with what I’d played - noted that it might just “just a touch more of that dirty, funky grease.”

Our relationship was cemented that I preferred my late father-in-law’s pronunciation – “greeeeze” -- and he smiled.

I found his playing surprisingly lyrical. I especially liked listening in – and sometimes following along – as one of his bass lines wandered off like a square dance who headed out to the back-40 to do-si-do with other partners, then returned just in time for the pattern to circle back around for the chorus.

Mostly, I’ll associate being with Steve with a moment at the end of a song we’d worked over and over in practice: that moment when the music fades to silence and everybody in the band knows we just made magic together.

The moment can stretch out to include the spread of smiles around the room but expires with the first work spoken. It’s a holy space.

And to be connected with others in that moment through memories is to share a little piece of eternity – a piece of what the essence of life is like in the brief space we occupy between ashes and ashes, dust and dust.

For 66-year-olds like me, his 67 years do not seem an extraordinarily long life. But I don’t think Steve got cheated, nor that he felt he got cheated.

Still, for a time, we’ll be feeling cheated of him.

Those closest to him will be milling around on Lost Street for a while, feeling that deep hurt that needs time for the mind and soul to accept before moving on.

On the Thursday before his funeral, I got a little vision of how to get my feet back on Love.

The vision came midway through a skate I was having in the Springfield ice rink the Thursday before the funeral.

Like many new rinks, it has expanses of white wall and is awash in light that reflects off the silver insulating ceiling tiles to the sheet of ice below.

That day, it seemed to me like a set a movie maker might create to give a glimpse of heaven.

As I got off the bench after a rest and took a stride on to the ice, I heard a recording of some guy trying to sound like Fast Change’s Melanie Uhl singing “Here Comes My Girl.” A few minutes later, Robert Palmer and a host of women tried a hand at “Addicted to Love.” That didn’t live up to the live Fast Change version, either.

Just after I tossed my skates in the back of the car, a version of “My Sharona” came on the radio and was getting to the part where the punchy theme gives way to the up-tempo section where Bud Cushwa used to launch into a screaming guitar solo.

Such songs are likely to seem tinged with sadness the first few times we hear them after a friend’s passing. But there will come a day when, while riding in a car or walking in a mall or skating at an ice rink, they’ll bring a smile again.

They’ll be reminders of those special, holy moments in our lives. Those bits of eternity we sometimes get to share with one another between our allotted two doses of ashes and two doses of dust.

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