HAMILTON, Ohio — It was one of those odd quirks of fate — the kind of coincidence you just can’t plan. For a week my producer Monty and I had planned to travel to, of all places, Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday, to catch up with, of all people, Jenna Bush. The president’s younger twin has turned author, penning “Ana’s Story,” a heartfelt book for teens about a young HIV-positive woman she met while volunteering with UNICEF in Latin America. Dayton was the latest stop on an extended book tour that the first daughter has been conducting to launch “Ana’s Story,” and we were promised 20 minutes with her — which we got, and you’ll see more on that in coming days here and on MTV.
But Southwest Ohio also happens to be the home of Hawthorne Heights, the rock band that this past weekend suffered the sudden death of its guitarist and “screamer,” Casey Calvert . Calvert’s passing in Washington, D.C., on Saturday afternoon, only hours prior to the second date of Hawthorne Heights’ Wintour ’07, was referred to by the band, in an official statement on its Web site, as “unexplainable,” and in fact the cause is still a mystery. An official for the city’s medical examiner’s office says that the actual cause of death may not be known for as long as 90 days.
Jenna Bush just turned 26 on Sunday, and she writes about a young woman, now 17, living in a developing country with a condition that, despite huge advances in treatment, is still considered terminal. Casey Calvert turned 26 only a month before Jenna. He lost his life to God knows what, and leaves behind family and friends asking “why?” Just as I asked why — almost six months ago — when I lost my best friend in the world, at only 32, in a way as abrupt, random and unanticipated as Casey’s. So it was with some sense of what his loved ones were going through — having had their world turned upside down only a few days earlier — that Monty and I arrived in Dayton.
It would have been perfectly understandable that Hawthorne Heights would have no interest in talking to the media at such a moment — much less on-camera. But not only did they agree, Calvert’s wife, Ashley, invited us to their Hamilton, Ohio, house on Wednesday night, to share their thoughts on Casey and to allow us to see the place that he called home.
That home is a quaint two-story structure in a development on the outskirts of even more Midwest-quaint Hamilton — and as we approached the front door, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I only knew that this is as tough as any moment in life gets for a family, and that whatever it felt, whatever it wanted, was cool with us. What our five-person crew found was actually kind of remarkable: a twinkling Christmas tree in the front room, and Ashley, a sweet and gracious 25-year-old, an animal lover (as was Casey — big time), who was holding back a Shar Pei with one hand while another dog barked from the back. A couple of cats were running around, and plenty of friends were in the kitchen, including her mom, brother and, of course, the Hawthorne Heights guys — JT Woodruff, Eron Bucciarelli, Matt Ridenour and Micah Carli. They were all talking about Casey, whose body was arriving on a flight later that night, and talking about Friday’s funeral. They were quiet, naturally, but far from somber. And in fact maybe even a little — happy? — that MTV News was there.
Hawthorne Heights wanted this moment — this opportunity — to honor their friend, and, as we started the half-hour interview with the band to, as they put it, “put to rest some of the rumors and misinformation that have been out there since Casey died.” Those rumors include the suggestion that the guitarist had suffered from acute asthma or other lingering physical conditions that contributed to his death. Untrue, says the band — and they reemphasized the point, first made in their Web site statement over the weekend, that there were no illegal drugs involved. Ashley Calvert seconded that assertion, saying “never” in the time she knew Casey had he used any dangerous drugs.
So what did happen to Casey Calvert? All the bandmembers know is that on Friday night they kicked off their tour in Detroit, went to a radio station-sponsored bowling event at which Casey was his usual crazy self, and drove overnight to D.C. According to Matt Ridenour, Casey was in “great” spirits, staying up late, singing songs from “Aladdin” into the wee hours of the night. Oddly though, Matt went to his bunk, and a while later, Casey pulled the curtain aside to say, “Hey man, I’m finally going to sleep. Good night.” Matt recalled, “It was the only time he had ever said good night to me.”
By early Saturday afternoon, the band was about to soundcheck at Washington’s renowned 9:30 Club, but Casey wasn’t up yet. The awful discovery was made by Eron Bucciarelli. The drummer said he went to wake Casey up in his bunk, tried to move him and got no response. His skin was cold, and he was stiff. “I went to get our tour manager,” Eron said, “and when neither of us could wake him, we called 911.” The rest is a scene that only plays out in our worst nightmares.
But their memories are nothing but fond. “I don’t think I have ever read anything about Casey that didn’t use the word ‘crazy,’ ” said band frontman J.T. Woodruff. There’s also “wacky,” and “quirky” (as the band called him on their site), and that’s one thing Calvert brought to this band — along with a shredding guitar, a piercing scream and a never-ending connection with the Hawthorne Heights fans. As J.T. put it, “Casey was on the same level as the kids we played for.” And that is because Casey was, by all accounts, “a kid at heart.”
No one knows that better than Ashley, who spent the past year and a half married to him. She talked with me at length about how “it was the little things in life that got him excited” — movies like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” animals and especially toys. Ashley took us on a tour of Casey’s upstairs “toy room,” a shrine to the sort of over-the-top cartoon toys that are one of Japan’s coolest exports. When Casey is buried on Friday, it won’t be in a drab black suit: It will be in his newest Kidrobot hoodie.
Ashley’s story is even more wrenching than the band’s. She had said goodbye to Casey on Friday, spoke to him a couple of times that day, and then on Saturday afternoon, after volunteering at an animal shelter, she got a call from her brother. “You’ve got to come home right now,” he said. She knew something was up, but figured an animal or a grandparent had died. “Never in a million years did I think it would be Casey.”
She says she doesn’t remember much after that, except her knees buckling. According to the family, Ashley’s been amazingly strong these last few days, tending to the minutiae of a funeral and apparently postponing the full emotional impact of what has happened for days or weeks. But the toughest moment in our interview came when Ashley remembered being handed Casey’s jacket — specifically, the smell of it. As her eyes welled, she said, “It was Casey’s smell and I just realized, I’ll never have that smell again.”
I never knew him, but Casey sounds like one of those humans who did stop and smell the flowers, who appreciated life more than many of us. Still, he battled depression for much of his life and in fact Ashley said he was taking medication for it. Casey’s favorite charity was To Write Love on Her Arms, a group aimed at helping teens at risk for suicide. All of which may raise an obvious question — or not. Ashley says the idea that Casey could have harmed himself was just “incomprehensible” to her — not even possible.
Those answers may come in time. What we know for now is that on Friday, Hawthorne Heights will bury their best friend, and Ashley Calvert, her husband. The band says not only will it definitely continue — as Casey’s mom made them promise they would in a phone call on Sunday — but adds that Casey will always be a part of them. He’ll even continue to receive album credits. They are equally certain they will not hire another guitar player. No question. “We don’t need another guitarist. We don’t need another screamer,” said Bucciarelli. “If the fans want screaming, they can provide it themselves.” Or, as Woodruff put it, “He is the most irreplaceable person I have ever met. In all aspects.”
Rest in peace, Casey.
The family suggests that memorial donations be made to the Animal Friends Humane Society.