On Tuesday, Feb. 12, blogger, promoter, performer and all-around rock 'n' roller Ben Todd took his life at his residence in Nashville. He was 24. His death sent a shock wave through the community of young musicians and music fans of which he was the center. The loss is staggering, not only for Todd's family members, friends and admirers — of which there are legions — but also for the city itself.
Ben Todd didn't just exist within, write about and contribute to Music City's young rock 'n' roll scene: He forged a community that thrived, pulsed and created — a community that in recent years has become an invaluable and inextricable thread in our town's creative fabric. This community, recognized across the country, helped propel Nashville to its current "It City" status.
"This isn't an industry where you often meet extremely genuine people," says Jesse Baker, a local promoter and friend who worked with Todd on many occasions. "But Ben was nothing but genuine in his enthusiasm, intentions and efforts. It was very quickly obvious [when helping Todd book and promote shows] that this dude had not a care in the world for making money off of any of these shows, and every dime every time went to the artists."
Most people knew Todd as the founder and almost single-handed force behind the local blog Nashville's Dead. He wrote with unapologetic enthusiasm about punk, garage-rock and psychedelic-rock bands, many of which featured his friends as members. He recorded their comings and goings under a pen name that has given the community pause in recent days: "Forever Young."
But the blog was just the social engine for his many enterprises. He established Nashville's Dead Records, through which he issued vinyl releases from Useless Eaters, The Paperhead, Ex-Cult, William Tyler and his own outfit, D. Watusi. For several years, he invited friends and strangers alike into his home, mirthfully called "Glenn Danzig's House," where he'd host all-ages shows — he didn't like to see "the kids" excluded from a good rock show just because they weren't old enough to get into a bar.
One of Todd's biggest successes was the rock festival Freakin' Weekend, hosting some of the country's hardest-touring D.I.Y. rock bands and annually featuring support from locals like JEFF the Brotherhood, PUJOL, Natural Child and dozens more. Todd's death cast doubts in the local scene about whether the event would continue as planned. But his longtime collaborator Jesse Baker tells the Scene it will indeed proceed with its fourth installment March 7-9 at The End and Exit/In.
Friends remember Todd as that rare and invaluable asset to a city's music scene: a coalition builder whose personal appeal cut across lines and cliques. His magnanimity and populist ideals were on bold display last Friday at a memorial service at St. Edward's Catholic Church on Thompson Lane, which teemed with a crowd only he could have assembled. Not only were leather-jacketed youngsters on hand with members of the various bands that Todd touted, but friends, acquaintances and admirers of all stripes filled the pews — among them Jack White, whose Third Man Records had become a venue for Todd's shows.
"Over the past four years [Todd and I] worked on some projects together here at TMR and beyond," Third Man co-founder Ben Swank tells the Scene in an email. "But mostly it was just good to watch what him and all the guys from Nashville's Dead were doing on their own, and ravenously. ... I do want to say Ben Todd believed in rock 'n' roll, he did it His Way, and there's a lot we can all learn from his legacy. He was inspirational."
Among those at the funeral who cited his inspiration were Todd's older sister Katherine and his close friend Whit Smith, his bandmate in So Jazzy and the onetime honorary "King" of Freakin' Weekend. In their eulogies, they emphasized his knack for fostering positivity and creative growth. On the backs of prayer cards depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary was a quote from Todd himself, which he provided the Scene for its 2012 Year in Music Rock 'n' Roll Poll: "No more bummer days. Good times forever." It was just the sort of sentiment that the ever-smiling Todd was known for.
"He welcomed and encouraged all," Smith said in his eulogy, comparing Todd's generosity of spirit to that of Christ not "in a Ginsburg sort of way," but truly. "Freaks, outcasts, punks, hippies, weirdos, kids, junkies, the hopeful, the hopeless, artists, shams, posers, winners and losers."
For those who knew him for his beatific outlook and boundless boosterism, however, Todd's decision to take his own life couldn't have come as more of a surprise. Some remember him mostly as a quiet guy. If he wasn't talking about bands or shows or friends, he probably wasn't talking at all.
The Scene spoke to Todd on many occasions, one of which was in advance of Freakin' Weekend 2011. In a recording of the interview, you can hear Todd's enthusiasm as he vacillates between laughing modestly at his own jokes and explaining his excitement over the latest high-school-age band he's discovered. But there's a brief moment of darkness, almost undetectable amid the giggles and descriptions of bands.
"I'm twenty-something," he says. "I'll die by the time I'm 30." He punctuates his statement with a chuckle.
Todd's closest friends confirm that he struggled both with depression and health problems that caused him the sort of daily physical pain he long wished to escape. Perhaps the circle of support and inclusion he created helped keep darkness and solitude at bay. Perhaps he kept himself afloat by keeping others afloat. With Todd's presence ebbing from the scene, what lingers is the sense of community he fostered.
"Words cannot describe how thankful we are for the outpouring of generosity and support we received throughout this difficult time," Ben's brother Matt Todd tells the Scene. "It was comforting to hear that Ben had such a positive impact on the people around him and in his community; we are going to miss him dearly."
"His impact is beautiful," Katherine adds, "and we're so grateful that his spirit lives on in the music and friends he brought together."
Matt and Katherine relate a story that they say sums up their brother's sense of humor and restless individuality. In high school, Todd applied to work at Maggie Moo's Ice Cream and Treatery in Cool Springs. Most kids would show up in jeans for the interview, maybe khakis. Ben wore a three-piece suit. Not only that, he brought along a portfolio containing pictures of him serving ice cream to his friends.
"He got the job," says Matt, "but left after a month."
It's hard to find meaning in what is ultimately a senseless tragedy, but if there is one, maybe it's this: For too short a time, a truly inclusive and good-hearted guy held the center of our city's young rock 'n' roll movement, and it was just a bit too easy to take him for granted. In appreciating the special, the kind-hearted, the open-armed, the freaks, posers, insiders, the outsiders and the kids lies the true key to no more bummer days — the key to good times forever.
"There's really a lot of things about the scene here that sets it apart from scenes in other cities," Todd told the Scene once when asked about his support for local musicians. "For the most part, it feels like everyone has a general respect and admiration for what everyone else is doing. ... Maybe that's what makes it so different from other scenes, that everyone just wants the best for everyone else."
Or perhaps Ben Todd was what made us so different from other scenes.
Ben Todd is survived by his parents Andrew and Tanya, his sister Katherine, and his brothers Matthew, Andrew and Sam.