Category Archives: Music

We Get By With a Little Help from Our Friends

I’m asking for your help again, but this time it isn’t for a school, a daycare center or a library. It’s for my friend–a dear friend in Ohio, Brian​. Brian was recently diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). We went to high school and college together and he was the lead singer in the first band I was in (and the second … and the third​).

[For the purposes of this story, I’m only counting a “band” as a musical group that actually performed in front of an audience. No offense to the countless folks that I’ve visited in your homes to plug in an amp and blunder our way through Smells Like Teen Spirit and a half dozen Zeppelin riffs. Also, if any of the details below aren’t quite right, it could have something to do with the fact that this tale starts out over 20 years ago, and it’s all from my biased point of view.]

The truth is, Brian (along with our friend Matt) is directly and indirectly involved with many of the musical projects of my past. Of course, Brian and Matt were part of the regular crew in the high school marching band (with our other friends Tom, Paul, Aaron, Steve, Mark, and so on, and so forth). And like lots of teenagers in our area at the time, we were inspired to start rock bands by what we were hearing from Cleveland’s 107.9 (“The END”) and the videos from MTV’s 120 Minutes. So, we did. And ask any musician, playing music with somebody is a good way to forge a friendship. Or maybe we would have been friends anyway and it just turned out that we liked to play music together. Either way, we were teenagers, we were friends, and we started a band (or three).

The first band was called Crosstown Traffic (yes, after the Hendrix song). You see, the guitar player in that first band, Jeremy, was crazy for Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And rightly so – he could play a lot of that stuff even when he was 14 years old. I wanted to play guitar in the band, too, but bassists were hard to come by. So I borrowed a bass for a while and became a bassist. Still in search of a drummer, we played our first show on my front porch for my older brother’s graduation party. The adults were more impressed than the kids, because they actually knew the songs. A few weeks later, Matt asked me if I wanted to come to his house with Jeremy to jam. Finally, a drummer! Later that summer, after marching band had started up again, I was at Matt’s house after marching practice, and Brian was there, too. He said he should be the singer in our band. I’m not sure if either Matt or I were convinced, but we went along with it. Lo and behold, in the span of a few months, Crosstown Traffic went from two dudes on a front porch to a real sounding band.

After some time and a handful of real gigs, Crosstown Traffic found itself at an impasse. Everybody wanted to play newer music (like Pearl Jam and Nirvana … or at least some Van Halen or Pink Floyd) except for Jeremy. Brian, Matt and I soldiered on without Jeremy. When Bob, the quirky little guy from the other end of my street found out, he applied … to be the bassist! This was especially good news for me; I could finally put all those Pearl Jam riffs I had been learning on the guitar to use. I think it was great for Bob, too–he wanted to be in a band more than just about anybody I had ever met.

We named the new formation Flower Punks (yes, after the old Mothers song) and started playing as much as possible at Colonial Lanes in Canfield (they didn’t have liquor, so it was one of the only places for all us under-agers to go on a Friday night). And we were good! We couldn’t pull off a lot of the Stevie Ray Vaughan songs we had been playing before, but the kids at Colonial Lanes really seemed to dig us – even our original songs. We also figured out a promotion scheme: Brian, Matt and I would go there (usually with my older brother, Dale, driving us) when other bands were performing and ask them if we could play a song or two on their break. Even without Bob and with Brian filling in on bass, we could pull off a handful of cover songs (stuff from Weezer’s first album comes to mind) over the span of about 10 minutes. Not that we wanted to show them up (though I know we kinda’ did), we were able to get some of those bands’ friends interested to come see us the next time we were playing there. It worked.

The third band came about when Bob got grounded for the umpteenth time since the formation of Flower Punks. (It was very common that he and his mother would not see eye to eye, but she would always seem to win.) He had already missed our recording sessions some months prior due to a punishment (thanks to a multi-track recorder, I could fill in for him). However, this last grounding not only prohibited him from leaving his house, but rendered his bass guitar contraband. Apparently, he not only would have had to sneak out of his house, but would have to break his bass out of a locked closet in order to remain a working musician.

We had to move on, though we didn’t have to look further than my own house for our next bass player. My brother, Dale, was always hanging out with us anyway, and he was as good as any of the rest of us at playing the bass. The spot was his for the taking. We named the new band “Trace” because one word names for bands were popular at the time, and that was the best we could come up with. We played some more shows, recorded some more songs, and had more fun, but like most bands rooted in high school, it eventually just kinda’ fizzled. Dale and Brian had already graduated and started at Youngstown State, and Matt and I were about to do the same.

Throughout those high school years, Brian was a regular guest at our house which meant he was a regular guest performer. All the music gear was set up in the basement, and countless audio cassettes have been filled with whatever nonsense was going on at the time. The music usually wasn’t anything to write home about, but you can count on Brian to be funny. His subject matter was most often the people we knew, and he would roast them in song. If you weren’t in the room at the time, you were fair game. There were many about friends, friends’ girlfriends, and the respective family members of all the guys in the current band. A particular song (more of a rock opera, really) was recorded about me while I was away at a teen church weekend. It had multiple characters, all of whom seemed to end up in “catholic hell.” (If it ever surfaces, I’ll put it online for the world to share a laugh.)

As our high school days came to a close, I think we all actually got a lot better at performing music. Brian, Matt and Bob formed another band, Plunge, with a friend of Bob’s named Joel. And it was at an early Plunge​ show that I was introduced to my subsequent band, Raul, that I played with for about six years.

In the years that followed, everybody more-or-less settled into regular, grown-up lives: jobs, marriages, houses, some with kids … the usual. Dale and I both made our way to Arizona. Matt and Brian ended up living in the same neighborhood in our hometown. And sometimes, the not-so-usual happens.

The story above is merely how my friend, Brian, relates to me, as I got to know and befriend him … and just a glimpse of why he is important to me. The story below is from a website set up to get donations to help Brian and his family and tells how he relates to the world right now, how he has been important to his community and how your contribution can be so important to him.

On August 12th 2015, Brian Newhard was diagnosed with an AGGRESSIVE form of ALS (Lou Gehrigs Disease), a terminal illness. Brian is a loving father of three beautiful kids ranging in age from 6 to 11: Mitchell, Carter, and Olivia. He is also a husband to his loving wife Jenny.

Brian is a full time police officer. Brian and his family live and work in the Mahoning Valley. He is a hard worker, often times working two other jobs to support his family. This diagnosis and the subsequent debilitating symptoms have prevented this  hard-working man from working at all. In fact, he has trouble walking, speaking, eating, and many other basic functions that we sometimes take for granted. 

Brian has always helped others in his job, his personal life, and whenever anyone needs him. Unfortunately at this point, Brian desperately needs your help. His family is absolutely destitute without his income.

Please find it in your heart to donate to Brian so that his family may have the basics in life: shelter, food, and clothing.

Brian needs help. And if his friends (and my friends, and your friends) give a little help, he’ll get by because his wife and kids will get by. The truth is, we ALL get by with the help of our friends … just ask the guys in the band.

To donate online, go to and for more information about the trust that has been set up for his family, go to:

Brian and Family

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Posted by on 28 August 2015 in Flashbacks, Friends, Fund Raising, Music


Every fan has his day …

Here is yet another story waiting to be told. I’m not quite set up here to be doing proper video editing, so it might be a while before I can finish this. But, the Bruce Springsteen show coming up in Johannesburg has got me excited to share some of the work I’ve done on this little project. Enjoy.


Posted by on 19 January 2014 in Events, Music



Play It Forward

The next group of Education Volunteers (SA28) arrived in South Africa in early July, and I am part of the team of Volunteer trainers to get them prepared for teaching South African kids in South African schools. In mid-June I wrapped up the second term of English teaching for my learners a week early so I could attend what Peace Corps calls the General Training Of Trainers (or GTOT). When that training was finished, I was shuttled to Pretoria where I had a little over 24 hours to spend before heading back to KwaZulu Natal. The following post recounts the little slice of serendipity that occurred there on the afternoon of Saturday, 22 June 2013.

“Hey, Erik, do you want a guitar?”

I wasn’t expecting this question, especially from Taura, whom I had just met. She was sitting outside at Khayalethu guest house/backpackers with about half a dozen others from her SA24 cohort. They were in the process of reconvening one last time in Pretoria for their Close of Service (COS) conference that was to start the next day. I was only there as part of my travel route back to my site after the GTOT sessions that were held that week outside of Polokwane, Limpopo. Within a matter of hours I would be on an overnight bus bound for KZN, ready to start my three weeks of time off from teaching.

In my head I answer, “Yes, of course – but do I want the particular guitar you’re about to offer me? And at what cost?” Out loud I muster up, “Um … maybe?”

It seems that the word had spread to her cohort that I play the instrument and that I might be a good candidate to take this one off her hands. She quickly explained to me that she wasn’t trying to sell it and that this guitar had some PCSA history behind it. It had been passed between different volunteers and she thought it would be good to continue the tradition. That alone was reason enough to at least look at it.

I followed her inside to fetch it. As we walked, she continued to give me all its pros and cons, just in the interest of full disclosure. From our conversation, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect before I saw it. She explained that it’s small and clearly not too expensive. It comes ready with a gig bag (a soft, zippered case), a strap, a tuner, some chord books, some picks and some extra strings. However, the strings currently on it really ought to be changed and overall it could use a little cleaning. Already I have a vision in my head of a student model guitar that doesn’t receive much love because it doesn’t get played too frequently.

We brought it back outside and set the case on the picnic table. The logo on the case was familiar, but when I unzipped it to reveal the guitar itself, I was absolutely floored.

Flashback to over a year ago. Like all the other SA26s, I was sorting out my personal belongings and preparing to depart for South Africa. One of my top priorities was figuring out how to best bring a guitar with me. I did a fair amount of comparison shopping and tried several travel-size guitars before settling on the “Little Martin”; a well constructed, Mexican-manufactured acoustic with decent sound and playability (and it wasn’t too expensive).

But then I had to actually pack everything I was to bring with me. To my dismay, after several attempts of configuring my luggage (with a lot of help from my sister, Sara), I couldn’t make it fit in a way that I felt confident it would arrive in South Africa in one piece. I decided not to bring it. I knew I would be able to buy something in country, and I did just that. While still in Pre-service Training (PST), I found a guitar at a mall that has been more than adequate for playing and singing … and even writing and recording some music at my site, too. So, I really don’t need another guitar.

But there it was: a Little Martin. Exactly what I had left behind in the states, from the gold logo on the gig bag right down to the style and color of the wood finish on the body, sitting before my very eyes on that picnic table.

Little Martin

Taura showed me the Sharpie-signed names on the back of the six previous custodians of what I feel is now truly a PCSA heirloom. I sat down and started tuning up its rusted strings.

Within a few minutes of strumming chords and plucking out melodies, I could see I was holding the attention of the group of volunteers in front of me. It seemed they wanted a show. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love an audience. I proceeded to put on a little impromptu performance fueled by requests for what I figure to have been around 45 minutes to an hour. Little by little, the audience got bigger as more and more of the 24s were arriving. In between songs, there were hugs and handshakes from the new arrivals, and when Howell showed up with his violin, a few of the jams became fiddle-infused.

I’m sure none of my performances were my most accurate renditions. I played and sang many of the songs I used to perform on a nearly weekly basis for over three years before accepting my invitation for Peace Corps, but I was feeling as rusty as the strings. I had fun, and I’m pretty sure the 24s did, too, especially when I got everyone to sing along with songs like Billie Jean and I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). I even managed a half-baked version of Sweet Child O’ Mine. And what show like this would be complete without the obligatory Skynyrd?

My fellow 26, Diana, had been there for the handing off of the guitar, and asked that if I didn’t want it, would it be okay if she had it. Again, I don’t need another guitar, certainly not at my site … and certainly not one identical to a guitar waiting for me in America.

D wants to learn, and this will be an excellent instrument to learn on. I cleaned it up and replaced the rusty strings. I added my name, too, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s now hers to learn from and pass on. Hopefully she can pass it on to the next volunteer in a way as meaningful and fun as it was passed to me. And she can happily sign her name next to mine and all the PCVs who came before us who made this all possible:

  • Taura Jackson, SA24
  • Paula Priebe, SA21
  • Andrew Bernish, SA18
  • Erin Eskilsen, SA16
  • Joey Cardella, SA16
  • Dan Ond???, SA14 (Unfortunately, the signature is rubbing off!)


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Posted by on 21 July 2013 in Events, Friends, Music, Training