Orion, out of all the stars

Orion Satushek, 1976 – 2003. Photo courtesy of Jordan Rain.

Maybe you were lucky enough to have a time in your life that was like that time ("Have you forgotten what we were like then," Frank O'Hara wrote, "when we were still first rate / and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth"). We were all very very young and somehow in my memory it was always summer. None of us had any money and it didn't matter; what did you need money for, then, when all your days were long drives into the mountains and climbing through alpine meadows and jumping off waterfalls, coming back to cheap crappy burritos at Casa Que Pasa and wherever you went you knew the bartender anyway. We were always going swimming, always tan, always sleek as cats in patches of sun. It was a time when all of us were so alive, flinging ourselves into the bright world, foolish and filled with light. So many nights that went all the way to sunrise, sweat and sunlight, skin and heat. I couldn't count the number of times I saw Orion's bands play at the 3B: the apocalyptic dance-party weirdness of the Reeks and the Wrecks or the gothy gorgeousness of Spooky Dance Band, both of them with Orion at their centers like a glittering axis around which the rest of the world spun. Equal parts Puck and Oberon, our very own king of Faerie. I could try and tell you what those shows were like, the wild thundering joy of them, all of us shaking loose from the moorings of our bodies, sweat-drenched and thrilled and giddy; I could try, but I'd fail. Spooky Dance Band used to play the most amazing cover of the Brian Eno song "Baby's on Fire"; I still think of that moment, now, when I hear that song, that moment when we were all on fire. It was a different time, a different place, a little backwater town haunted by its own ghosts and steeped in its own foggy, damp magic.

Orion: an apt name, that glittering and distant warrior. He was something of a legend in tiny, sleepy Bellingham: a prodigy, a preternaturally gifted musician, and a beautiful human being in every sense of the word. He built instruments out of garbage, made music out of distortion and noise. Onstage he moved with a kind of loose-limbed, shambling grace that would shift suddenly into a ferocious intensity. The last time I saw him was at a house party in Portland, some ludicrously pretentious dinner thing thrown by a handful of improvisational jazz musicians. Everyone sat around in fancy dresses, pretending to be adults. I talked to him for a little while, I remember that. Spooky Dance Band--Orion, Jason Sands, and Caroline Buchalter, one of my close friends--had just moved to Portland. Both bands were taking off. He was happy to see me. He was always happy to see you, even if you were basically a stranger. I told him I was going to move to Portland too, that I couldn't wait to see Spooky Dance Band play, that I was sure they were going to be famous. None of us ever doubted they were going to be famous.

I was living then in a cabin in the middle of the woods with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and the real world was a distant continent that I did not see any reason to travel to. Our friend Erica called me in the middle of a late June afternoon in 2003; I was in the middle of trying to light the propane stove. "I need to tell you about something really, really bad that happened," she said. On June 25th, Orion and Caroline and a friend of theirs named Angela Leazenby, a woman I had never met, had been biking home from a park in Southeast Portland when they were hit by a van. The driver, Lindsey Llaneza, was going seventy miles an hour in a 30-mph zone. His blood alcohol was three times the legal limit. Llaneza hadn't had a valid driver's license in seventeen years; he'd been convicted on a DUI charge just three months earlier, his most recent of many. Orion and Angela were killed instantly. Caroline had barely survived, was in intensive care, no one knew if she would ever walk again. Erica had been calling people all day and by the time she got to me she could get through the whole story without crying. I drove to Portland a few days later to see Caroline in the hospital--as it turned out, the day she had walked for the first time, ten steps with a walker. She was sleepy, her voice thick and drugged. We watched the music video she and Orion had been working on. The hospital was cluttered with our friends and Caroline's family. Some of them had been there for days. In the courtyard, we told stories about Orion, held each other, cried. "Remember how lucky you are," Caroline said to me, "Remember how lucky you are to be alive."

I understood then that Orion and Angela's deaths were the most terrible things that had happened in most of our lives, but it wasn't until years later that I came to understand how much everything had changed after that. I had never before realized that my own boundless love was not enough to protect the people I cared about, or that awful things didn't happen only to strangers. When Orion died it was as though we all crossed over into a world we hadn't asked for and didn't want, a world where the wrong people were calling the shots, and none of us would ever be the same again. Lindsey Llaneza was like a depth charge whose aftershocks still echo almost a decade later. Outside of the people who knew and loved Orion, there's little record of what he left behind: a Reeks and the Wrecks album on vinyl, a Spooky Dance Band retrospective on vinyl that Caroline put together, the Reeks and the Wrecks' final album Knife Hits. Orion had sent the mastered recordings for that album to their label, Tumult Records, the morning of the day he died. Part of a Spooky Dance Band song was used, improbably, in a Nike commercial. There are blog posts on the internet here and there from people who've come across Orion's albums years after he died: Who is this, they all say, This is magic.

What is there to say about someone I loved and barely knew? I have no claim on sorrow, or on his memory. We had dozens of friends in common, he always said hi to me at parties, asked me how I was and cared about my answer; but that's just who he was. He cared about everyone. A year after Orion and Angela died, Caroline organized a memorial on the corner of 42nd and SE Belmont. Someone had chained two white-painted ghost bikes to a signpost and wreathed them in flowers. We biked there together in the sweet balmy night, dozens of us, carrying banners and flowers and instruments. When the moment of the accident came, we began to play: trombones and toy accordions, a ukelele, a few tambourines. It shouldn't have sounded like music, but it did. The neighbors came out onto their porches with tears on their faces and some of them joined us, hugged us, told us how sorry they were for what we had lost, told us what it was like to be there when it happened, and we told them about Orion and Angela. He was there, that much I know, there among us, laughing.

I still think I see him sometimes. In the last week I've heard "Baby's on Fire" playing in the strangest places: at the coffee shop, in a restaurant, drifting out of an open window. Each time I've turned, expecting to see him somewhere behind me, just out of reach.