About five years ago, after the death of legendary Houston partyer Bruce Henry Davis, a letter writer penned some words to the Press that I have always remembered: "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to serve as a horrible reminder."
On June 30, Hunter Ward, the guitarist in the two-time Houston Press Music Award-winning Best Punk band Poor Dumb Bastards, was found dead in his bedroom. He was 26 years old, a victim of a suspected overdose. Toxicology reports are pending.
Like most musicians, Ward had something of a double life. By night, he was known as a hard-charging guy, the life of every party, sometimes taking it to extremes. Rudyard's bartender Brad Moore allowed that Ward could be "a handful" when he came in the club, but never was the kind of guy you wanted to bar from the premises permanently. "You hoped he was just going through a phase. It's really sad because he died so young. You always thought a new girlfriend or logic or maturity would prevail and he would pull out of it."
Byron Dean, Ward's bandmate in the Poor Dumb Bastards, agrees. "He was in his mid-twenties, and was doing the same kind of things we were doing in our mid-twenties," says the musician, who is in his late thirties. "You know we've had our ups and downs with coke, although this is the first tragedy we've had. And we told him about that. We all grew out of it, but one of the guys had to go to prison for two years before he did, so we told him, 'You'll either end up dead or with prison tats. You can choose all of the above or none.'"
Dean says that Ward first started hanging around the band ten years ago, when the guitarist was all of 16 years old. "He found out where we practiced and he would start hanging out down there," Dean remembers. "He didn't drink or anything back then, he just showed up one day with a Pepsi and a bag of pork rinds." Dean remembers seeing him regularly around town between 1997 and 2000, but never being able to remember his name. "He was kind of a pest back then, but the good kind, like a happy fly you don't want to go away."
Ward's knowledge of many types of music won Dean over. "He didn't just know current punk or early punk, but he knew stuff like classic rock too," he says. "That was uncommon for a younger guy."
Ward worked for several years as a clerk at Chuck Roast's Vinal Edge Records on the north side, where he worked alongside Chris Unclebach, who says that the store's punk section is still operating on Ward's blueprint. Unclebach says he was the type of clerk who didn't suffer fools gladly. "Sure, he could be a know-it-all," he remembers. "Some kid would come to the register with a crappy punk record, and he'd say, 'You don't want that, you want this.' But the thing was, he would be right."
Unclebach says that there was never a dull moment when you worked with Ward. On slow nights they would burn stuff in the parking lot. "Or he'd put some cheesy song on like Europe's 'The Final Countdown' and just bounce off the walls, playing air guitar," he adds.
According to Dean, Ward had uncommon ideas about his rock and roll heroes. Dean says he wasn't the kind to worship people like Keith Richards or Robert Plant, rock gods up on inaccessible mountaintops. "His heroes were people like Ruben, who used to play with us, and Andy Wright from Sugar Shack," Dean says. "He loved the regional and local guys he could talk to and hang out with."
Poor Dumb Bastards were his heroes too, and in 2000, he was invited to join the band. "He got to be one of his heroes," Dean remembers. The singer says he was a "hell of a guitarist." "You could just throw an idea out there and he would pick it up right away," he says. "Maybe not exact, but close enough. And there were times where he would come up with ideas and we'd take it from him and he was okay with that. He also brought a lot of enthusiasm to the band. We've been around forever, and there are times when we feel like we are just going through the motions. He never did that."
Ward's other family his biological one, parents and siblings and nieces and nephews is grieving. These are the people who took pride in him as a member of MENSA, the youngest person ever to be appointed a financial officer with Saturn automotive company, the cool uncle with the tattoos in the rock band, the little boy in shorts playing in the rain.
Ward's sister Sarah Ward says the family is completely and entirely distraught. "Here you have this absolutely brilliant, funny and creative young man who touched the lives of so many," she says. "There are people coming up out of the woodwork from junior high, high school, remembering all these funny stories about Hunter. It's been amazing. Like all of us, things happened to Hunter in his life, and he didn't get help and they began to fester like a cancer."
Sarah definitely knows that no one is to blame for Hunter Ward's death but Hunter Ward himself. Not the friends he partied with, nor even the people who may have shared substances with him, for money or for free. "I think a lot of people can go into the music industry and not have this happen," she says. "This is by no means a blame on the music industry, this is a personal choice made by someone who was repressing their feelings and did not get appropriate help."
According to Sarah, her brother started dabbling with drugs a few years ago when he was working in the automotive industry, and his involvement in them cost him his job. The loss of his job freed him to indulge his demons fully. "He had the attitude of, 'Screw it. I got my band, my new friends, I got the music scene. I'm gonna lose my four-bedroom house in the suburbs and I'm gonna move into Montrose and board up with a couple of guys,'" Sarah says. "The last time I saw him, he told me he just wanted to live the grunge-y rock star lifestyle. I said, 'Baby, you're dying, and I know you are doing more than coke.' And he wouldn't admit it to me. I said, 'Hunter you look like crap. I'm not stupid. Please don't do this.'"
Sarah's words echoed those of many Racket interviewed. Toward the end of his life, many were alarmed by his pale, emaciated appearance and erratic manner, and some pulled him aside to encourage him to get help. Hunter would tell them he was fine.
Unclebach says Ward came to the store a few weeks ago in bad shape. "He hadn't been by in a long time, and he could hardly stand up, and it was noon on a Saturday. I talked to him a little bit later and told him he should take better care of himself, and he kinda blew me off."
Ward's family's concern is documented in the MySpace comments they left on Ward's site the last weeks of his life. People who are doing relatively well aren't usually on the receiving end of peppy messages like the one Sarah sent on May 23: "i want on the i love you train. i LOVE you HUNTER," or the one from his mom on June 7 reading, "Whad up? Where are you? What's going on? I miss you."
Sarah says that MySpace was the only method she had of keeping track of Hunter. "This was how sad it got I would go on MySpace every morning just to see if my brother was still alive," she says. "The other day I was looking back through the old comments I left on there. There was one where I said, 'You are my most favorite person in the whole entire world.' Or I'd leave one where I would tell him I loved him or that I wanted to play air hockey with him. Or I would go on his pictures, and even though I absolutely hate some of them, I would try to leave something funny on there just to let him know I was watching him.
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"And you know how I found out about my brother's death? MySpace. How screwed up is that? MySpace is good but it's bad. It's good because someone e-mailed me to call Steve from PDB's right away. But people were already leaving mourning comments before the family even knew."
Sarah and Ward's family and friends are facing many tough questions right now. "Hunter had so many friends," his sister says. "I've gotten so many e-mails from these people, and others who say they just met Hunter once at Rudyard's and remembered what a light he was. And yet he was so tragically alone. A person who feels good about themselves doesn't do these things. So you look and wonder. How far back does this go? How long was he hurting? And how long was this festering?"
And how best to explain Ward's death to his young nephews? "My oldest son told me, 'The reason I am crying is because hope is gone. Not my hope, but Hunter's. I know Hunter made this choice, but I just wanted him around a little longer.' My boys thought he was their cool uncle Hunter. I had to sit my kids down and say, 'Listen, you want to be in a band, that's great. I support any creative move you want to make. Tattoos? Hey, it's your body. But lemme tell you something. It is not cool to kill yourself with drugs and alcohol. That's not the legacy you want to leave your family and your kids if you have them.
"Hunter wanted to be that cool punk rock guy," she continues. "But then he got consumed by the fire."