Ann Osterbauer Bremer lost her 16-year-old son, Mark, to suicide in October of last year. In April, as a way to get out of her house and her head, Bremer and a friend took in the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s annual conference in downtown Minneapolis. As fate would have it, the two friends found themselves at an event featuring Minneapolis-based musician and Honeydogs band leader Adam Levy, who at the time was putting the finishing touches on his new CD, “Naubinway,” an ode to and a collaboration with his 21-year-old son and artist Daniel, who killed himself in 2012.
“The description of the event mentioned there would be authors reading from their work,” said Ann, my paternal cousin and a Minnetonka-based mother, wife, homemaker and writer. “I thought I was going to a poetry reading, which I wasn’t super excited about, but it was at Kieran’s and you can’t go wrong with Kieran’s. The first woman talked about a book she wrote about how her dog helped her out of her depression.
The second woman talked about a book she wrote about people persevering through difficult situations, at which point I exchanged looks with my friend as if to say, ‘This isn’t a poetry reading!’ The third author was a woman who wrote a memoir about her adult son taking his own life.
“At that point I lost it and sobbed through her whole reading, big, ugly sobs. By the time Adam Levy came up with his guitar I had pulled it together and listened to him speak and sing without sobbing. His was the last presentation of the evening, so when he was finished I went up and introduced myself and told him I was six months out from my son taking his life. He gave me a look I now understand to mean, ‘Oh man. You’re very new to this.’ Then he gave me a big bear hug while I cried. I told him I thought I was going to a poetry reading, and if I had known what the topic was I would specifically not have gone, so I guess I was supposed to be there.
“When you lose a child you naturally gravitate to people who have also lost a child and can understand your pain. Losing a child to suicide adds a level of complexity, guilt, and mind-boggling what-the-fuckness. When you meet another parent who’s been through what you’ve been through, there’s a connection and an understanding. We’re not bad parents, we’re just parents like all the other parents loving our kids and doing our best when a giant dose of ugliness and hurt came along and ripped our hearts out.”
Levy knows as much, and deeply so. Part of his therapy and search for meaning has been to write and perform music, and to talk about Daniel’s mental illness and art, which is at the heart of Adam’s debut solo record, “Naubinway,” named for the Lake Michigan beach and the last place Daniel’s mother saw him smile.
“People have reached out to me to say, ‘I’m so glad you’re talking about this, I haven’t been able to talk about my brother’s death for 25 years,’ or ‘My spouse is really suffering.’ So getting the anecdotal stuff from people about what they’re going through and seeing the commonality has been really helpful in me knitting together my story about what happened,” said Levy, sitting in a back table at the Spy House coffee shop in Uptown last week.
“What I hear a lot, and it’s mildly frustrating, is, ‘Oh you’re so brave, thank you so much for doing this.’ And it was very flattering at first, but now my response is that bravery is when you encounter something that you don’t want to do and you do it anyway. This isn’t bravery. This is something I feel compelled to do and it’s been really helpful to talk about it. The more I talk about it, the story that I’m telling evolves and enlarges and sometimes there’s parts of it that all of sudden don’t make sense to me, so I need to replace it with something else.”
Along with his band (pedal steel guitarist Joe Savage, violinist Jillian Rae, guitarist Brian Halvorson, bassist Trent Norton, and drummer Josh Kaplan), Levy will celebrate the release of “Naubinway” with a concert Saturday night at the Cedar Cultural Center. The band will play a warm-up show at Lee’s Liquor Lounge Friday night that should borrow heavily on audibles called by Levy, who also fronts the great dance band Hookers and Blow, while Saturday’s show will undoubtedly find the grieving father and Bunny Clogs leader talking from the stage about the wisdom he’s gleaned over the past four years.
“I’m hyper aware of the fact that I’m trying to make sense of Daniel’s story and I’m never going to get inside his head,” said Levy. “But I’m probably spending more time thinking about his life than at any point in our time together when he was alive. It’s like trying to piece together what when wrong, and also to recollect the great things about Daniel, because there was a lot about him that was really funny. His sisters and I spend a lot of time recalling him, and his laugh. He was such an amazing person and we lost touch with that in his last six months. He was in such a torpor, he could barely express anything.
“In writing this music, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to honor him a way he wouldn’t be bummed out about. That was always Daniel — self-observation. Part of it is being a young adult, when you’re having those meta conversations with yourself and your parents, and you’re just annoyed: ‘Leave me alone. I want as little to do with you as possible, I don’t want to hear what you say about who I am or what I am.’ And now I have the opportunity to do that analysis and talk about him, and if Daniel had lived and we had a positive story here, I wouldn’t be talking publicly because he wouldn’t want me to do it. That’s one of the great ironies of the tale, here.”
Adam’s eulogy for his son, to a packed roomful of bereaved family members and friends in St. Paul just weeks out from Daniel’s suicide, was edifying, inspiring and educational for everyone involved. Incredibly enough, Levy’s wise words about his own grief, his son’s struggles, and suicide in general helped everyone in the room learn and heal.
“Looking back on it, I was definitely very vocal or very public about what happened, and when I read what I wrote then compared to how I think about it now, I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of changes. When I think about my eulogy to Daniel and I watched [Adam’s brother and fellow musician] Noah’s comments as opposed to mine, and Noah was very heartfelt in that moment. And I just wasn’t able to be that, publicly. I felt like I was much more analytical and felt the need to be more … I wanted to help people understand what had happened on a real cerebral level, and I guess what’s happened in the four years is I’ve gotten in touch with the emotional [piece].
“I didn’t really cry for the first six months. I felt like I needed to steel myself for my daughters. Part of it is just the overwhelming trauma of it. You’re so tunnel-visioned to get through it, I wasn’t able to take it all in, and once I finally allowed myself to sit with it and kind of hit rock bottom about six months later.
“I’ve gone through a lot of thinking about what happened to Daniel, and the narrative of what went on has shifted as time went on. I think I felt like I had to have all the answers for everybody else, and I’ve gone through periods of complete incomprehensibility, and I guess talking about it publicly has helped crystallize it a bit more, and to be OK with the unanswerables.”
“I went to hear Adam speak to parents who lost children to suicide a year ago at a mental health conference at Temple Israel,” said Wahlberg. “I didn’t know Adam at all at the time but thought it’d be interesting to attend since I’m doing mental health stuff with Think Piece, and the guy was so wonderful in talking to these people, all parents with a lost child. What he was able to do that no one else was able to is validate their pain and help them release it.
“I’ll always remember him telling one man who tearfully raised his hand and asked Adam how he got through the grief and he said it was so hard the first year, he was completely immobilized, and that it was so hard, but it gradually got better, but to be extremely careful about your own self-care. He was huge on that topic. He told another person, and I’ll never forget this, ‘You might have done everything right’ — and the woman’s shoulders immediately slumped in gratitude and she started sobbing.
“He’s flat-out the best I’ve ever seen talk about this stuff. They all ran up to him afterward to thank him and take selfies. And I was so moved I emailed him on Facebook that night and we started talking and he mentioned his idea for an advocacy solo record and here we are.”
Levy: “When Daniel was sick, people would ask me how he was doing and I told people, ‘I’m really worried about him. I think he’s going to kill himself.’ So it really wasn’t a surprise to a lot of people around me. The more that I talk about it, the more people want to reveal their own stories and their own observations about things, and I think that’s really helped me make sense.
“What still sort of freaks me out is the level of shame around it that people experience. Especially parents. We have this feeling that it’s about personal failure for parents, that a child who is mentally ill is mentally ill because of deficits in parenting or genetics. And there’s some truth in that: My son got a fucking loaded gun from his mom and me. We both suffer from bipolar anxiety stuff, but I also know rationally that my son was hell-bent on killing himself at a certain point, and none of the resources that were out there provided enough hope for him in the cost-benefits analysis for him to say, ‘I want to hang on.’
“It just looked really ugly, like, ‘I’m going to be living in a ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ residential setting when I’m 50 years old and that looks horrible to me. And I couldn’t say otherwise. I couldn’t promise him anything. All I could say to Daniel is, ‘Dude. Hang in there. I’ve been through this, too. You’re not going to look at this the same 10 years hence. You’re going to be mature in a different way, you’re going to have life experiences, the anguish is going to feel different.’ And he just could not see anything that was going to look great.”
Written in Hebrew, the tattoo on Levy’s left forearm reads “Tikkun olam,” the Jewish concept that literally means “repair the world,” which first appeared in the ancient rabbinic literature of the Mishnah. Levy got the tattoo 15 years ago, but these days it’s taken on even greater significance with his work as singer/songwriter/rocker/grief counselor.
“There is no individual redemption without the healing of community and the creation of greater equality and the bridging of gaps with different sorts of people, with neighbors, with the other,” he explained, rolling up his shirtsleeve to display his tatt. “My grandparents never said, ‘Hey, we need to live our lives by tikkun olam,’ but it really is something I’ve learned all my life. So now when I talk to people, I talk to them about tikkun olam. It’s inscribed on my body, and it’s a very meaningful idea: that we can’t heal ourselves until we help the world, or try.”