"some music was meant to stay underground..."

Feature

No One At The Helm: A Southside Metal Tale

Photo of No One

Band Photo: No One (?)

The fog descends quickly on the Cal-Sag, and the barges loom as ghosts.

It’s not supposed to happen this way. The sixteen-mile Calumet-Saganashkee Channel, an industrial canal providing one of several links between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River system, is a narrow thread of murky water snaking through Chicago’s Southside, and when dusk falls and the fog comes creeping, might as well be a smoke-filled gun barrel.

The tugboats are supposed to pull their monstrous loads to the side, lash up, and wait the conditions out. For the Cal-Sag is also a public waterway, and in the summertime, a popular lane for pleasure craft.

The barges are not lit. They move with utter stealth, as brooding, pacing, unstoppable giants. When fully loaded, they sit low enough in the water to reveal the running lights of the erstwhile tug at the rear of the convoy. When empty, the whole outfit is virtually invisible.

An advancing black wall, blended into the night.

Just before 11:00 PM on Friday, June 20, 2014, witnesses near the Worth boat launch heard screams piercing the thick soupy blanket of mist, followed by an awful crunch. Then silence.

The Coast Guard watch in Milwaukee soon received a call from a tug, UTV BILL ARNOLD, reporting a collision. Search and rescue crews were dispatched via boat and helicopter. The chopper proved effectively useless against the lingering fog.

An overturned and horribly mangled 19-foot inboard was eventually discovered. It had been nearing the launch when it collided with one of the BILL ARNOLD’s six empty barges.

Dive teams from the nearby Palos Hills and Lockport Fire Departments, using side-scan sonar, began searching for its missing occupants. The Palos Hills and Worth Police Departments assisted from shore. The two departments quickly linked the wrecked vessel’s identification to that of an unclaimed vehicle in the launch lot. Two other vehicles remained nearby.

Chicago resident and heavy metal musician Rob Rizza approached the launch with trepidation.

He’d been at a nearby bar, having passed on the opportunity to join a close friend for an evening on the water. Now, facing a solemn garrison of police barriers and flashing lights, cordoning off a mission fast shifting from rescue to grim recovery, he knew.

Because of the fog.

Two bodies were recovered from the Cal-Sag the next afternoon. A woman in her late thirties and a man in his early thirties. No life jackets. Drowned, with multiple blunt-force traumatic injuries. Likely they had been passengers.

The boat’s owner, whose vehicle still waited in the launch lot, remained unaccounted for.

* * *

Sunday, October 5, 2014. Merrionette Park, Illinois. Night has fallen. I park across the street, curse my rented GPS unit one more time, and stalk up to the entrance of 115 Bourbon Street in a flustered huff.

I flew out here from Virginia. As if the current Ebola scare wasn’t making people jumpy enough in the airports - I haven’t bought into the paranoia, but it has given me pause - air traffic control snafus in Chicago have delayed me by several hours. I just know I’m late.

The club is a sprawling, strangely-designed complex, and I peek tentatively around from room to room, wondering just where the live music is tonight. No way I’m in the wrong venue. THAT would be a cosmic joke I’d never live down.

I step onto a patio with a long outdoor bar, brace against that Chicago chill, and finally spot the wide entrance to the music hall a few paces beyond. It seems to be everyone’s destination.

Not much noise, though. Could I have made it here in time after all?

Through the doors, into the quickly crowding hall, and suspended up there above and behind the stage is what I’m looking for. An image burned into my consciousness since high school. The white, emotionless face of a blindfolded man, stenciled ruggedly over a black circle and four-pointed star.

The same logo graces the stacks of DVDs and CDs lining the merch table immediately to my right. With the tacit dismay of defaced art, all sport that ugliest of symbols: the stark black and white “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT CONTENT” warning, a jolting throwback to the days of major-label money in rock ’n’ roll. The days when, admittedly, those of us in the throes of angsty rebellion saw such a warning as a badge of Cool.

I turn my back to the stage to order a drink, and just like that, the lights dim. We all know the drill. The crowd roars, a few hundred strong, though I’m certain it will expand.

A swift-paced, tribal drumbeat, a rapid-fire melodic guitar line, a shadowy figure center stage, gripping the microphone: “BRING THAT SHIT!” Explosion of distorted riffs.

The song is “Cut,” and the band is No One. Once a national touring act, always local Southside heroes, and dormant since 2003, save for a handful of reunion gigs over the past four years.

Tonight’s is the most important of them all.

* * *

Before No One, there was Black Talon. Before Black Talon, there were simply two Southside kids overflowing with ideas.

17-year-old Rick Murawski took a 45-minute ride out to Guitar Center in Burbank, Illinois, one night in 1992. An inexperienced but hungry musician, he’d played only in a three-piece band with his cousin, jamming Jimi Hendrix covers. That arrangement had come to an end.

Tonight, he meant merely to browse some guitars, perhaps pick up a pack of cool strings. And then he spotted the flyer outside the door: “Drummer and guitar player looking for singer. Call Bob.” On a lark, he tore off one of several phone number slips at the bottom.

“I could instantly hear the passion in his voice,” Rick recalls 22 years later. Guitarist Bob Bielarz, also 17, drew him into an excited, energetic, two-hour phone conversation. Musical ideas were shared and mutual visions discussed. By the end of it, the two boys had their minds made up: they needed to form a band together.

The first practice began with Metallica covers, but as it progressed, Rick and Bob could not contain the original ideas they’d tossed around. There was no setting aside the bottle of creative juice when inspiration demanded it be served right then and there. By the second practice, the duo was writing songs together with their 14-year-old drummer.

The writing began in earnest once they found a bassist, and such were the seeds of a band they dubbed Black Talon, of which Rick and Bob proved the core creative nucleus as the ‘90s wore on.

“We changed drummers and bassists, but it was always me and Bob. Inside and outside the band. We’d hang out on the weekends, go to concerts, the Ozzfests, and all that. Whether we were practicing or not, we were always talking about what we wanted to do creatively. We’d watch a band, see things they were doing that we liked, and try to incorporate it into our music.”

Black Talon released a demo roughly once a year, each smoother and more mature than the last, until a definite sound had emerged. That sound was what any “modern” metal or hard rock band of its time strives to possess: a healthy dose of old school roots, reinforced with the cutting-edge sonic identity of the era. And in the Midwest of the ‘90s, that identity revolved around groove.

Pantera, Korn, Machine Head, White Zombie, Fear Factory, Sepultura. Such major artists defined the times. Black Talon wasn’t the only Southside act paying attention. Another band, Brawl, was gaining a loyal local following as well. To ensure maximum turnout at each other’s shows, both bands deliberately avoided scheduling gigs on the same night.

“We didn’t want to steal each other’s fans,” Rick explains. “We wanted everyone to get the chance to come see both bands. We started a scene that way, where everyone supports each other.” In 1996, Brawl changed their name to Disturbed.

That same year, Rick and Bob, both 21, impulsively quit their jobs, took the money they’d saved, and set off on a road trip out West. They stayed with friends in Phoenix, Arizona for a while, then migrated to Los Angeles. They even put Black Talon’s CD on consignment with a big area record store.

The adventure lasted a month. Before the week-long trek back to Chicago, Rick and Bob changed the oil in their car engine, but failed to plug the tank up properly. The slow leak went unnoticed until the two young men were almost home, and their vehicle sputtered, choked up, and died.

* * *

Tonight’s show isn’t just a performance; it’s a capstone showcase, a gathering of friends and fans present and past, everyone who’s ever had anything to do with No One. All are welcomed with eager, open arms.

It’s a mostly older crowd, and in rock ’n’ roll terms, that means late 20s and upward. Lots of 30s and 40s. Contemporaries of the band, joined by fans impacted in youth whose memories have not faded with time.

There rarely appear to be any fewer than seven people onstage at any given moment. This includes a casual rotation of backup vocalists (including friend and area musician Rob Rizza), tossing in harmonies, growls, and gang shouts as Rick does his thing. Also lurking to stage left of the drum kit is keyboardist “RJ,” providing extra nuanced layers of atmosphere heard previously only on No One’s lone studio album.

After “Cut” come “My Release” and “Nothing,” completing a three-pronged blitz of some of No One’s fastest, most hard-hitting material. The latter tune even includes a blazing, thrashy bridge. They’ve never been accused of ambling out of the gate. They charge like men possessed.

If one were forced to briefly summarize No One’s overall sound, a blend of a more melodic Pantera, a more aggressive Godsmack, and Machine Head’s “The Burning Red” comes to mind. That accessible energy zone where metal and hard rock collide, swirl, and merge. They’ve been mentioned alongside Korn in the past too, but that must’ve been a marketing move, because I never heard more than minor echoes. But we all hear what we hear.

A quick break, and the first of many crowd addresses. Drummer Billy K, equipped with his own mic, does most of the talking. Rick needs to save his voice. He’s also visibly emotional.

As Billy speaks, guitarists Mark Humphrey (a bandmate of Rick’s in Southern Rock outfit Dirt Road Rebels) and Jimmy “Weazel” Provenzano (a national touring veteran) exit the stage. Into their places step Dave Tantillo, formerly of local act Crash Poet, and Mick Zajac, who hosted the regular rehearsal space for this very show at his home.

The new lineup cools it off a few notches with “Shedding,” a slower-paced tune.

* * *

Disturbed caught the big “Metro break” first.

Several bands in the Southside scene had been struggling to play in the city for years, and the historic venue had shown them little love. Disturbed’s popularity skyrocketed when they snagged a plum gig there opening for area rockers Loudmouth.

In the meantime, Black Talon had befriended a young, eager, rookie music producer by the name of John Karkazis, or “Johnny K.” His influence had an unprecedented effect on the songs Rick and Bob had created and spent years trying to hone.

Rick admits, “Our ideas were still pretty raw, and our songs weren’t structured. You need that outside ear to tell you that an intro is too long. In Black Talon, we had some pretty long intros, some even two minutes before I started singing.”

As the decade drew to a close, several major developments occurred: the “nü-metal” phenomenon, Disturbed’s signing to Warner Music Group’s subsidiary Giant Records, and a transformation within Black Talon itself.

Rick and Bob had introduced Disturbed to their new friend and collaborator Johnny K. With the producer’s help, and the major-label connections provided by Loudmouth bassist Mike “Flare” Flaherty, the band struck gold.

The overwhelming success of such late ‘90s albums as Korn’s “Follow The Leader” and Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” had swept in the “nü” era, a further development of the groove-laden metal and hard rock of the ‘90s. Suddenly, labels were signing bands left and right - any band that somehow, in some way, managed to tap into the perceived hallmarks of nü-style. Disturbed were the first to break out of Chicago. Debut album “The Sickness” was released in 2000, and the rest is history.

Black Talon, meanwhile, had parted ways with bassist Rick Oleferchik (nicknamed “Knuckles” after his habitual knuckle-cracking sessions before playing, and to distinguish him from band founder Rick Murawski). Flare, who had moved on from Loudmouth, joined as Knuckles’ replacement. Together with current drummer Billy Kassanitz, or “Billy K,” the new foursome renamed themselves.

Bob had come to be known as “B-Larz,” a play on his surname. Rick went by “Murk.” Along with Flare and Billy K, Black Talon morphed into No One. Flare’s connections, Johnny K’s support, and Disturbed’s success paved the way for the new outfit’s signing in late 2000.

No One’s benefactor was Immortal Records, an imprint of Virgin, noted at the time for having never dropped an artist. The band had a mere handful of songs, holdovers from the Black Talon Days: “Mindless,” “Breathe,” “Hype,” and “Falling.”

The other nine songs that would complete No One’s debut album were written and recorded - with producer Johnny K’s invaluable assistance - under immense pressure in his Groovemaster Studio. Rick even penned some frustrated lyrics directly addressing the situation, a song eventually titled “Down On Me.” Its aggressive and fast-paced style earned the song the lead slot in the tracklist.

“No One” was released on August 14, 2001, amid the most hectic and exciting time of the four young men’s lives.

* * *

Another change-up. Mick bows out. A quick introduction, and up steps guitarist Shaun Glass, probably the most dedicated bona fide metalhead of the bunch. Formerly of SOiL - another Chicago breakout in the wake of Disturbed - and currently of The Bloodline. “We’re gonna give him some of the heaviest songs,” Rick remarks.

And heavy they are. “I Want Everything” and “Redeemer” were never properly produced and exist only as demos, so their unpolished rawness, not to mention the crushing riffs and Rick’s aggressive howl themselves, hit us good and hard.

Between the two cuts, Dave bows out and hands his slot over to Jason Zeilstra of another local act known as Villain vs. Villain. An intricate pattern begins to emerge. A and B play together; A is replaced by C, who plays with B, who is replaced by D. Then C and D play together, and so on.
Delicately controlled chaos; a choreographed domino effect of successive six-stringers.

Now Shaun takes his leave. Up next alongside Jason: Brandon Keane of The Passing.

* * *

No One opened up Ozzfest 2001 for ten dates in July. What set them apart were two combined factors: relentless energy and overall positivity, a blend that seemed to elude much of the nü-metal crowd.

Aggression usually came with the misanthropic vitriol of Slipknot, and upbeat (at least in tone, if not lyrics) music often came with the tamed radio friendliness of Linkin Park - two main stage acts that summer.

Rarely did aggression and a striving for the light come bound together. No One made a conscious effort to deliver that package.

“We always felt different,” Rick remembers. “Nü-metal was more of an ‘era’ to me than a ‘style.’ Musically, there was a lot of variety, so it’s hard to use the term as an adjective. Plus, we’d been playing for so many years already, that we just saw ourselves as a group of guys in a band from the Southside, not the way people might’ve seen us as ‘just some other nü-metal band.’”

The self-titled album, upon its August release, was the biggest-selling debut of any Immortal artist to date, outperforming the first-week sales of respective debuts by Korn and Incubus.

Then came 9/11.

If ever there was a single instance when the entire country, all at once, thumbed its nose at metal and culturally ostracized the genre even further, the fall of 2001 was it. Bands everywhere cancelled tours. Radio stations dropped heavier tunes from their playlists - notably Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” and System Of A Down’s “Chop Suey” - due to lyrics perceived to be inappropriate.

“Being a successful, signed band isn’t just about having a great album. You can make all the right decisions, but sometimes you need a little bit of luck too. The right break, the right timing. A lot of metal had a hard time after 9/11, with a few exceptions.”

The sagging sales didn’t stop No One from joining that fall’s Pledge Of Allegiance Tour, a package headlined by Slipknot and System Of A Down. Also aboard was another Illinois act that No One had played with back in the pre-deal days: Mudvayne.

An extra familiar face from home had arrived, too: bassist Rick “Knuckles” Oleferchik, who stepped in on short notice to replace Flare, forced by other commitments to bow out. Knuckles was quickly made Flare’s permanent successor.

Knuckles was floored by the sudden opportunity. “I was out camping with my father and my brother, and was standing on the seat of a picnic table, hanging up some stuff. The phone rang, and it was Bob. He said, ‘Dude, Knuckles: you need to fly out to Portland, Oregon, learn six songs in one day, and play in front of 10,000 people with Slipknot, System Of A Down, Mudvayne, and Rammstein.’

“My fucking jaw dropped. I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’”

Billy reflects: “You eventually get these ‘road legs,’ where your body becomes immune to pain. It’s amazing what you can do out there with lack of nutrition and truck stop food and truck stop showers and long drives through the night, never knowing if you’re going to drive off a bridge or a cliff. But somehow, some way, we made it to one place after another.”

Needless to say, everyone’s booze tolerance shot straight up as well, although the band stayed away from hard drugs. “All considered, it was good, clean fun,” Rick asserts.

The last man standing at the end of the night was almost always Bob, who held his alcohol pretty well. One round of partying ended up in the middle of a field, where an intoxicated Rick decided to reenact “Fight Club.” It didn’t end well for him.

A smiling Bob explained to a nearby camera: “Let this be a lesson to all you kids watching out there: don’t get all fucked up and think you can fight. Murk thought he could fight us, and he couldn’t. He lost. But that’s all right! He’ll live to fight another day, because he was smart. He didn’t want to go all the way. I’d have killed him!”

Shenanigans aside, No One were dead serious about putting on the most intense show possible. An opening band on a national tour rarely gets a second chance to make an impression.

Rick: “Our goal was to get people’s blood going, to get their adrenaline going. We had our melodic points and slower moments, like ‘Falling,’ but most of the time we wanted to get people’s hearts pumping, because that’s what WE loved.”

* * *

Speaking of getting hearts pumping, here’s some “Hype.”

Jason and Brandon assist Rick, Billy, and bassist Flare in bringing back to vivid life most of the band’s very oldest material, the songs written under the Black Talon banner - the “prequel” to No One. This segment begins with a bouncing, uptempo number that deserves its title.

Then, after the placid melodic interlude “Inside Out,” come “Mindless,” one of the most dense and layered of the album’s headbanging tracks, and “Falling,” its slow, brooding closer. This latter song has always been my absolute favorite off the disc.

For this old-old-school occasion, Flare steps aside temporarily to allow Black Talon member Knuckles - who up until now has been trading backing vocals with Rob Rizza - the bass slot.

Knuckles’ hypnotic, repetitive bass line drives the song, building a foundation for a mountain of melodic atmospherics that settle over us like the scent of burning leaves in a fall breeze.

* * *

Pledge Of Allegiance was a success, but as No One moved into 2002 and wrapped up the touring cycle that spring with a stint with Fear Factory, Immortal - seemingly weeks later - demanded the band get underway with a new album.

The band was empty-handed.

“When you’re touring, it’s really hard to write at the same time. You’re in a bus. You don’t have that time to let your mind think and develop art. Too much going on to sit down and start the writing process. It was over a year after the debut when we finally had about fourteen or fifteen new songs written. And in that time, the label had gone through changes. The relationship between Immortal and Virgin fell apart. Immortal had become an independent label. And we felt that that would be sort of like moving backwards.”

Nonetheless, No One pushed forward with writing and crafted an Electronic Press Kit. But the nation’s shift in musical attitudes had grown even more pronounced by then.

Labels and radio stations were far more interested in alternative hard rock and post-grunge - “those Nickelback-type bands,” in Rick’s opinion - than in anything aggressive or hard-hitting. Of the bands that sprouted from the nü-metal movement, some managed to survive by taking this alternative direction. Others tried and failed, never to be heard from again.

Still others, No One among them, stuck to their heavy guns and were unceremoniously dropped from their labels. The window of opportunity had opened and closed, and Murk, B-Larz, Billy K, and Knuckles had sprung for it, nicked the edge, and ricocheted back outside.

* * *

Jason exits. Jimmy the “Weazel” returns, accompanied by Mick, who slings an acoustic. “Falling” slowed things down; now it’s time to turn down the heavy and turn up the waterworks.

Rick is barely keeping it together as he croons a poignant cover of ballad “Angel’s Son” by Sevendust. The song came last on the tracklist of “Animosity,” released in fall 2001, just three months after “No One.” The album, and Sevendust, have always been band favorites.

Most important here, however, is the song’s meaning.

“Angel’s Son” was originally a heartfelt tribute to Lynn Strait, frontman of Southern California hardcore punk outfit Snot. After impacting the scene with debut effort “Get Some” in 1997 and touring on Ozzfest in 1998, Strait lost his life in a car wreck later that year, just before Christmas.

He was on his way to the studio to work on Snot’s sophomore album when a truck struck him. With him in the car was Strait’s beloved boxer, Dobbs, whose snarling mug graced the cover of “Get Some.” Dobbs perished along with his master.

The only consolation in the tragedy was the fact that neither man nor his best friend were forced to mourn the other.

I scan several random pairs of eyes around me. Not many dry ones. In the brief lull after “Angel’s Son,” the man standing beside me, Ed O’Sullivan - who happens to have produced No One’s 2004 DVD - offers some insight into my environment.

“This Southside scene has never really been too big on Satan, darkness, pretend evil, all that stuff. A lot of these guys believe in God. They’re not preachy about it, but the faith is definitely there.”

It seems in keeping with Chicago’s long-noted blue collar character. Lots of Irish families, Polish families, hardscrabble work ethic, humble upbringings. Time only to embrace and share in what brings joy, not to erect egotistical intellectual walls between “us” and “them.” Perhaps also a reason metal elitist-hipster culture never really took off here.

Keeping our minds focused faithfully on death, Rick then announces a personal tale of loss: “Breathe,” the last of the original Black Talon material that made it into the No One canon, and indisputably “No One’s” darkest moment. For this one, Dave Tantillo returns on guitar, joined by Carlos Salazar, formerly of yet another post-Disturbed Chicago breakout: Relative Ash.

* * *

No One called it a day in 2003. Life, of course, went on.

Rick isn’t bitter in the least. “When you think of all the bands out there, we got to do things that most of them never will. We played Ozzfest! We toured with Slipknot and System Of A Down! We had that really awesome year where it all came together. With 9/11 and everything, it was definitely a unique time in American history, but more interesting too.”

In the ensuing years, their passion for music, and support of the ever-growing Southside rock and metal scene, did not dissipate. Nor did their friendships.

Especially Rick’s and Bob’s.

The two men knew each other better than anyone else in the world. Bob, in particular, served as the reliable memory vault and acerbic storyteller. Events long past, their mundane or amusing details faded by time, would come charging back to vivid, knee-slapping life through the guitarist’s astute recollections.

Truth be told, upon meeting “B-Larz,” many people came away with the impression they’d just crossed paths with a bit of an arrogant asshole. However, further investigation and patience always revealed an expansive zest for life shrouded in a dry sense of humor. A taste that, once acquired, new friends became hooked on.

When Bob married his girlfriend Viengsavanh Malaythong in 2006, Rick was best man at the wedding. In addition to Bob’s brother Greg, his parents called Rick their third son. The two had been virtually inseparable since that fateful phone call in 1992.

Bob knowingly and frequently brought out the daredevil in Rick. “If I went skydiving, would you do it with me?” was not an unusual proposal to hear from him (and Rick did go). One night, the two men attended a George Thorogood concert at the House of Blues. The crowd was lame, Rick was bored, and he considered calling it a night and walking out. Then he had an idea.

“I just got a bug in my ass to do something nuts. He’d brought it out of me.”

He turned to Bob. “If I jump up on the stage and get myself thrown out of here, would you follow me?” He already knew the answer he’d get.

So Rick did exactly that. In short order, the bouncers seized him, carried him bodily aside, threw open a service door, and hurled him into the alley next to the venue.

After dusting himself off, waiting on the sidewalk, and twiddling his thumbs for about ten minutes, Rick heard another loud crash. A few moments passed. Then a familiar voice, calling out from the dark alley: “Hey, you out here?”

In 2010, they decided to reform No One with Billy K and Flare, playing local and area shows on a limited basis. No mere nostalgia trips, these performances blazed with the same fiery intensity that had begun with the seeds of Black Talon and continued all the way through “the big year” of 2001. Here were the same guys, from the same area, contributing to the same music scene they had helped build years ago.

The reunion shows benefitted from the fact that No One had plenty more songs to their name than in the Immortal days. The demoed tracks that would’ve ended up on their sophomore album, unproduced though they may have been, fit right into the setlists alongside the familiar tunes from the self-titled major-label disc.

In the meantime, everyone had grown up a lot.

Rick, now with a family of his own, drove a truck, and Billy was a car salesman. A pretty suave one too, by all accounts. Bob had become an ironworker. No longer the slim, wiry, boyish figure from the Ozzfest stage of yesteryear, “B-Larz” was now a brawny, muscular rock, a man that radiated strength.

He played guitar in a band known as Rat Bastard, and early in 2014 formed Stank Eye, an area covers outfit dedicated to classic hard rock, with drummer Steve Massari, vocalist Angelo Negrette, and bassist Jeremy Muzika.

A lover of country, blues, and Americana as well as metal and hard rock, Rick had become involved in numerous bands over the years. Among them were The Jimmy Sarr Band, Dirt Road Rebels, and - last but not least - his own pet project, cover band Steel Harbor.

The unspoken Southside tradition of avoiding overlapping gig schedules had not changed, and of course, the advent and explosion of Facebook had made this easier, and the neighborhood camaraderie stronger than ever. Both Rick and Bob knew and thrived on this.

For all Bob’s creativity and sometimes outrageous ideas, his most beloved free-time pursuit was one of life’s simpler pleasures: boating. When the weather was warm enough, Bob would spend every weekend out on the water. He’d put his 19-foot Rinker inboard afloat at the Worth launch, not far from his neighborhood of Orland Park, and navigate up and down the Cal-Sag channel to various restaurants, bars, and picnic spots. Sometimes he’d cruise the Lake Michigan shore.

Friends often joined him, as did wife Viengsavanh - or simply “Vee” - who nearly always found the time, despite her intense schedule in pursuit of her nursing degree. When she finished, her next goal was to become an obstetrician.

Bob routinely joked about his upcoming “early retirement” after his wife became a doctor. “They worshipped each other,” one close friend has remarked.

This was life, and life was good.

* * *

It’s time to kick up the pace a few notches and give us a tremendous adrenaline injection straight into the arm. What better way to do it than cover Sepultura’s “Roots Bloody Roots?”

Sure, it may be that band’s most-covered tune by orders of magnitude, but when played with passion, it’s simply undeniable. There’s a reason the simple, straightforward groove metal burner has endured in so many minds and hearts. For this one, Carlos remains, and Dave hands the guitar over to Rick, who screams his head off at the peak of his intensity tonight.

Carlos bids farewell. Rick retires his axe and grips the mic once more. Now, only one man strides onstage: Dan Donegan of Disturbed.

It’s strange, the way the dice roll sometimes. Black Talon (and then No One) and Disturbed go way, way back. To a time when everyone in the Southside scene was simply supporting each other, and hierarchies were nonexistent. When no one could predict the future.

But Disturbed “made it.” No One very nearly did, could easily have. Hindsight tells us that it just wasn’t in the cards. However, despite his prominence, that didn’t stop Dan from asking No One - as one Southside brother to his old friends - if he could jam in their rehearsals for this show.

Now, here he is, the lone guitarist onstage, cranking out “It’s Real” and “Down On Me.” The insanity mounts. The room is stuffed to the gills now. If anyone had been forced to miss the early songs, they’re certainly here now. There will be no second chances.

One detail that strikes me during “Down On Me,” the album’s opening track and one of its fastest and most aggressive, is the utter lack of moshing.

It has nothing to do with a lack of enthusiasm. In fact, everyone here stands enraptured, thrilled, exhilarated. But that’s just it: the overwhelming momentousness of this occasion, and its bittersweet nature, have precluded any traditional rowdy displays.

“You know what’s coming now, don’t you?” Rick asks. Of course we do. His Dirt Road Rebels mate, Mark Humphrey, returns to join Dan on guitar. Billy leads them off with his cymbals, an extended buildup. Rick quasi-raps along with the rhythm.

“Lemme hear ya say RAGIN’ …… Lemme hear ya say RAGIN’ ……”

* * *

It was the first time Rick had ever felt truly angry about having to play a show.

He’d gotten off work Friday afternoon, June 20, 2014, and was preparing for a relaxing evening adventure when the text message came from the bartender at Buddy & Pals in Schererville, Indiana, his current home just over the state line: “See you in a couple hours!”

Rick was perplexed. “What are you talking about? I’m about to go hang out with my buddy Bob here.” The bartender helpfully reminded him of the gig he’d booked with his cover act Steel Harbor. He’d flat-out forgotten.

Dismayed, wishing he could cancel but knowing that was impossible, Rick had no choice but to inform Bob that he couldn’t make it. The plan was to put in at the Worth boat launch, as always, and motor up the Cal-Sag to Papi Chulo’s Bar & Grill, a popular joint with a pier and a beer garden overlooking the water.

Thanks to family and work commitments, it had recently gone some months since the two friends had spoken, and this would’ve been a really nice way to reconnect. Rick grudgingly took a rain check and began preparing for his show.

With a few other friends also unable to come along this time, Bob and Vee took 33-year old Jeremy Muzika, his bassist in Stank Eye. Nearly everyone in Bob’s social circle somehow involved in his passion for music. Three making a crowd, they all took off as planned in the late afternoon.

Bob had told Rick he’d only planned to stay at Papi Chulo’s until around 8:30, but didn’t get underway back home until nearly two hours later. Whether he simply allowed time to get away from him or he deliberately stuck around longer to let the alcohol wear off, no one can be sure, but one thing is known: on the ride back, Bob was almost completely sober.

Rick’s band had begun playing at 10:00, and took a mid-set break close to 11:00. He stepped outside. The first thing he noticed, as if it was possible to miss, was the fog.

It hovered over everything like a blanket. The air beneath was swampy, sticky, shrouded in an eerie haze. “It just seemed like a weird night,” he recalls.

A bandmate of Rick's, who’d been unable to play with Steel Harbor that night, took a break from his shift at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, right near the channel. He stepped outside around 11:00 and the fog was pea soup.

On the channel itself, Bob stood at the helm of his small craft. An enthusiastic but conscientious boater, he kept to a reasonable speed as he threaded his way through the opaque gray curtain, back toward the Worth launch.

Vee and Jeremy sat behind him on the couch at the stern that stretched from gunwale to gunwale. It had been a nice evening, but everyone was getting weary and ready to pack it in. As a passenger, you begin all boat rides on your sprightly feet in broad daylight with the wind in your face, and end them on your butt in contented silence through the dark.

It was late, and the light by the launch was turned off. This wasn’t a problem for Bob. He knew the contours of the Cal-Sag by heart, knew exactly where he was going.

He passed the launch making around eight or nine knots and, as was his custom, prepared to make a wide 270-degree loop, intending to approach the ramp straight on.

Then, like a lightning bolt, the advancing black wall suddenly appeared from the mist, bearing roughly four knots in Bob’s opposite direction. And that was all he saw.

There was time only for a startled shout before the relatively tiny vessel collided head-on with the empty barge, one of a convoy of six, powered by the UTV BILL ARNOLD, running lights hidden behind the towering wall.

The bow was crushed. A boat contains no seat belts, and nor should it, any more than a beer should be served with a straw. Vee and Jeremy were launched straight forward into the console and windshield. No one stood at the helm. Bob had been instantly ejected into the water.

The boat capsized.

* * *

Rick finishes “Chemical” - the second album track, video single, and No One’s signature song - and staggers. Sways. Amid a monstrous cacophony of supportive cheers, he collapses to his knees, mic still in hand, unable to contain his sobs any longer.

“I love you, Bob. I love you so much. I love you with all my heart. And I miss you.”

This has been the final show No One will ever perform.

* * *

After an exhaustive two-day search, the body of Bob Bielarz was found and retrieved from the Cal-Sag channel on Monday, June 23. He was taken to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office early that afternoon and pronounced dead. He had drowned. He was 39 years old.

Vee and Jeremy had been found Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the collision. They had sustained multiple injuries before drowning. All three deaths were ruled accidental.

During the desperate wait for search results, several friends and relatives had gathered at the Worth boat launch and lined the banks of the channel, keeping a grim vigil. Because they knew.

Among them were Bob’s original No One bandmates Rick “Murk” Murawski, Mike "Flare" Flaherty, and Billy “K” Kassanitz.

Months later, Rick is fully aware that were it not for his gig that fateful evening, he undoubtedly would’ve been aboard for the deadly ride. To the credit of his strength and resolve, his words and tone reflect not a wretched case of survivor’s guilt, but a sobered, introspective maturity.

“Our sound guy on the Pledge Of Allegiance tour, Jamie, died a year and a half ago by suicide. No one saw that coming. And then another guy, our drum tech on the same tour, died of a heart attack. We had four band members and four crew guys. Now three of those eight are no longer with us. It’s weird.

“Bob loved life. He definitely wasn’t ready to go. But sometimes you don’t have a choice. We’re all going sometime, I guess.

“The whole memorial gig, from planning to practices to the show itself, was a great way for us as friends to deal with this tragedy. Bob’s parents were there, and that was hard. He loved ‘show day.’ He loved seeing all his friends there. Playing the only No One show without him on guitar was pretty hard, but it’s how Bob would’ve wanted it.

“For a minute, I could feel his presence. I was wearing his shirt. I’d gone to his condo with his mom and dad, which was hard to do. But I’d wanted to get a few of his shirts to remember him by. He’d always give me ideas to help me out with what to wear on stage. He had no problem telling me that some shirt looked ridiculous on me.

“One of his last Facebook posts stated that Sepultura’s ‘Roots’ was the soundtrack to his ride home, which was why we played ‘Roots Bloody Roots.’ We were covering that one even back in the Black Talon days.”

As we speak, there are moments when Rick’s voice noticeably cracks.

“It’s just… it’s never easy to say goodbye to someone, y’know? I mean, I’ve had grandparents die. I wrote the lyrics to our song ‘Breathe’ after sitting beside my grandfather on his deathbed, and watching him take his last breath. And I’ve had some other friends die too.

“But he was my BEST friend. Bob knew me better than anyone else in the world.”

All proceeds from the final show on October 5, among other donations, have gone toward the design and construction of a memorial bench at Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens in Palos Heights, a stone’s throw away from the Cal-Sag.

A simple, modest, fitting monument, symbolic of something complex and fascinating and alive, of something frustrating and maddening and heartbreaking. Of earthly unions destroyed. The union between man and wife, between one friend and another.

“Three beautiful lives… just gone,” one friend, a graying, mustached fellow in a denim jacket, whose name I never learned, lamented to Billy after the show. “I can’t understand it. I can’t begin to comprehend it.”

He stammered before ultimately repeating himself, at a complete loss for further words. “Three beautiful lives gone.”

Vee and Bob had supported one another in every endeavor, every step of the way. Now, as with Lynn Strait and Dobbs, their loved ones’ only consolation was the fact that neither had to grieve the other. They both rest together in peace.

As for Jeremy Muzika, a close friend of his made the following remarks during his eulogy.

“I know Jeremy’s faith was strong. He asked me to read a passage from John 14 at his grandma’s funeral, and I remember him taking a great deal of comfort in Christ’s promise of those heavenly mansions. He’s with his grandma now, and I look forward to our eternal reunion with him around our Lord’s throne.”

John 14:1-4, King James Version: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”

* * *

Since the accident, Rick has noticed that the barges on the Cal-Sag are very well-lit at nighttime. It wasn’t like that before.

Every night, the tugs push their loads past mile marker 311 by the Worth boat launch. And surely they see the three crosses by the edge of the water.

The crosses are rigged with solar-powered lights. When the sun goes down, they illuminate automatically, beacons both of hope and remembrance. And stern warnings.

They remember.

OverkillExposure's avatar

Mike Smith is a native Virginia writer and a diehard metal and hard rock fan. As a music journalist, he is a staffer with Metalunderground.com and Outburn Magazine.

What's Next?

Please share this article if you found it interesting.


3 Comments on "No One At The Helm"

Post your comments and discuss the article below! (no login required)

Anonymous Reader
1. Joel writes:

This is beautifully written and heart-wrenching.

# Dec 9, 2014 @ 5:22 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
2. Laura Neuberg writes:

This was beautiful. My brother Bob would be proud. We miss them very much. Thank you from my family.

# Dec 9, 2014 @ 11:40 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
Anonymous Reader
3. I'm not Jesus Christ writes:

R.I.P. Bob

# Dec 10, 2014 @ 10:47 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address

To minimize comment spam/abuse, you cannot post comments on articles over a month old. Please check the sidebar to the right or the related band pages for recent related news articles.