Eric Stevenson passed away on August 9th, 2011 after years of battling cancer. He was 46 years old. I only met Eric a couple of times and communicated with him via email once or twice, but he always seemed like a genuinely good guy with an incredible talent both behind the drum kit and as songwriter. It was his combination of songwriting and drumming that led to the band Only Living Witness, arguably one of the most influential metal/hardcore bands of the last twenty years.
Blasting out of the Massachusetts underground, powered by Stevenson’s drumming and frontman Jonah Jenkins’ vocals, OLW went on to inspire a whole generation of heavy music. From Killswitch Engage to Unearth to Shadows Fall, who went on to cover one of the band’s songs, the list of whom they touched is endless.
For me Only Living Witness became much more than just music. I first discovered them shortly after my father died. I saw them open NYC metal band Crisis at CBGB and was completely floored. The power of their music, largely written by Stevenson, connected with me on levels few bands have. I bought their first album Prone Mortal Form and listened to it religiously. One of Stevenson’s songs, an epic track titled “December”, helped me through some bitter and sad times dealing with my father’s death. When the drums started and the music crashed in it lifted me to a place where I could drain all the poisons out of my soul.
I was also an aspiring drummer and I stood in awe of Stevenson’s talent. I would sit behind a drum kit, earphones blaring, and try to play along with OLW records. Without fail I found myself stopping and wondering what the hell Stevenson had just played. He hit like a truck but always with finesse and always with some really tasty chops. He played all aspects of the kit, from the hi-hat to the cymbals to each tom and the snare. His ability to structure rhythms behind guitars, bass and vocals took Only Living Witness to another level, one that nobody had even thought of yet. Layered over that were the nearly magical vocals of Jenkins. Together Stevenson and Jenkins made something incredibly special.
Soon after first seeing them, I became pen pals with Jonah and eventually friends. One of the first reviews I ever attempted on television was for OLW’s equally as brilliant second album Innocents. That record is still beyond the reach of just about any band out there. On the cusp of what would have been Only Living Witness’s world domination, the band broke up. The reasons were unimportant; the only thing that mattered was music had lost one of the only bands that mattered. As my friendship with Jonah blossomed he became like family to me and that’s where Witness became more than just music.
From my friendship with Jonah I met so many people that, over time, have become a second family to me. It sounds strange to feel as though I owe Stevenson for these people who mean so much, but it’s true. Without him Only Living Witness would not have been the band they were and I know I would never have reached out. Every good time, every laugh, every show, every late night listening to music I’ve spent with my second family traces back to that first album and, in a very true way to me, Eric Stevenson.
In 2008 my dream came true when Only Living Witness reunited and I got to see them live once again. At first I danced around like a psychopath but, after my age caught up with me, I simply stared and watched Eric play. After all those years he hadn’t lost a step, he was still magic to watch and still stumped me with what he could do. What was even more astounding to me was that Stevenson was playing with the same fire and grit he always had after his third battle with the cancer that would eventually claim his life. It was an inspiring night to say the least.
After Only Living Witness Stevenson stayed active in music. He formed Hank Crane, releasing a CD, as well as a solo project and more recently he played guitar and fronted the group. Everything he turned out had something to it, a certain intangible thing that made you dig what was going down. The testament to his ability remains the two Only Living Witness albums, which still are incredibly far above anything being offered up today. As I said, they were one of the few bands that actually mattered.
Stevenson leaves behind Thomas, his six year old son as well as countless friends and family. As much as his music inspired so many, the real tragedy comes for those who loved him. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who are touched personally by this sad event. For me, all I can do is blast Only Living Witness at top volume and remember how much Eric Stevenson contributed to my life, without even knowing it.