Sunday was another one of those bittersweet winter days we sometimes get here on the harsh Kansas plains. Until the sun set in beautiful pink pastels the endless prairie sky was brilliantly blue, the temperatures were as moderate as one can hope for this time of year, and our day began with another invigorating worship service at the West Douglas Church of Christ over in the rough Delano neighborhood, where we joined the small low-church congregation in singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the earthly birth of Jesus Christ.
A good friend of ours delivered the communion message, and he spoke eloquently of how a good friend of his had recently prevented another good friend of his from committing suicide, and the guest lay preacher’s sermon was about Christ coming to earth to redeem all of us sinners, so we went home with a hopeful feeling. During our usual post-church nap we had a very modern nightmare about losing our debit card, however, and then were obliged to head to one of the musical joints in the rough Old Town neighborhood to attend a memorial service for a weird but dear rock ‘n’ roll friend of ours who recently shot himself in the heart.
You’ve probably never heard of the guy who called himself Joe Rio, but judging by the standing-room-only crowd at Barleycorn’s on Sunday afternoon he had a lot of friends around here. One of them, a fellow we vaguely know but can’t quite name, asked us how well we knew Joe, and we had to admit we only knew him well enough to appreciate his unique creativity, and to consider him a friend, and to appreciate the friendship he generously extended to us, and to sympathize with the obviously troubled life he chose to end. That was more than enough, though, to make Sunday one of those bittersweet Kansas days.
Joe wasn’t a notably gifted musician if you’re judging by strictly technical standards, but he always added an irresistibly human thing to the old-timey country and post-punk bands he played with in Wichita’s roughest musical joints, and even his most talented former band mates were at Barleycorn’s on Sunday to attest to his expressive gifts. He had a knack for the visual arts, too, and we also enjoyed his similarly primitivist verbal skills, and we’re told that in his younger days he was one hell of a skateboarder. He more or less made a living for himself as a handy-man, plastering all the dives in town with stickers promising that “If I can’t fix, I know who can,” and although he never came through on that promise for us for us we know he was a an undeniably resourceful fellow. For all the undeniable flaws that everyone at Barleycorn’s could to attest on a bittersweet Kansas winter Sunday, Joe was an irresistibly likable fellow, even if he never much liked himself.
Joe had tattoos up to his neck, a scary surgical scar running down his body from the shoulder to the belly button, and deeper psychological scars from an unhappy childhood in small town Kansas. We were also “Facebook friends,” and every Father’s Day we’d read Joe’s posts about the drunken old man who would daily beat him. We’re even older and dearer friends with one of Joe’s ex-wives, who is also the mother of one of his children, and she’s a Wichita school teacher and we trust her confirmation of every tragic detail. Joe apparently ran away at a young age to the big bad city of Wichita, where he lived for a while under one of the bridges over the Arkansas River, and given everything we’d have to say he made the best of it for a while.
By weird coincidence today is the 85th birthday of our beloved Dad, who is about the best earthly father one can hope for, although he still he insists that his own beloved Dad was the better man. We can’t brag much about what we’ve made with that blessing, however, so we’ll leave it our merciful heavenly father to judge how Joe Rio played his hand. We wish the best to all those friends of Joe who showed up at Barleycorns in their biker gang jackets and neck tattoos, and those who brought food and donations and pamphlets with the 1-800-273-TALK suicide help line, and especially to all of the children he has left without any earthly father. We also wish a Merry Christmas to all of us sinners in need of Christ’s redemption.
— Bud Norman