Born in Grants Pass, Oregon on April 9th 1957 to a 16 year old girl that kept him a secret from everyone but her mother, my father was born and given for adoption to Bob and Lila Irwin to complete their “set”, joining an older adopted sister Colleen.
My father wrote in great detail about the joyous ups and agonizing downs of his childhood, but focusing on the good, one should mention how his father connected with his son by St. Louis Cardinal games on the radio, playing chess and the spectacle of professional wrestling.
Baseball would be a key part of my relationship with him, but chess was my father’s first love. He consumed the game daily and proudly. Before he was 20 years old my father had earned 21 trophies and plaques in chess tournaments. Each one the hard way, by winning. No consolation trophies in the chess world of the 60s and 70s. Maybe his greatest title, at least one that I always marveled at was when he named the Jr. Champion at 14. “The best 14 year old in the country”. At the same tournament he and a friend became the first “Bughouse Team Chess Champions”.
While he allowed an admitted ego and his new found love for playing music to retire him from competitive chess for 30 years, he never stopped playing the game as a fan. Lessons learned from his tenure as a chess player were valuable life lessons, maybe most importantly:
“If you want to get better at something, find people better than you. Don’t go take the easy way and face crappy opponents. And sure, you’re going to lose, a lot, but eventually you will get better. And then when you do win against a tough opponent, it’ll feel like you’ve earned it.”
While chess was his hobby, music was his life. Music is what I feel was his life blood.
As a kid, he quickly picked up numerous instruments. A laundry list. “Including all the woodwinds, and bassoon.” he would say. Playing in the pit orchestra in high school, he would tell how a few times people were sick, or they couldn’t find a player to play a certain part and how he would fill in. Having two or three instruments at his feet, playing a part, and quickly switching to a different instrument, and then back again. He was offered a scholarship for bassoon, but turned it down. There was a different kind of music to be made.
While my father did practice and perform with a cluster of bands that dissolved as quickly as they formed, it was with his wife Marla that he would form “The Spaztics”, who would be become “A Rancid Vat” and then just “Rancid Vat”. Performing their first show on New Year’s Eve of 1980.
The goal was to be as noisy as possible.
Also, to be individuality personified. If you listen to their first show, they are not playing together, not in tune (or maybe hitting bad notes on purpose), feedback a lot and drive away the crowd in 10 minutes, but dammit all they were having fun and doing what they wanted to do.
With timeless and daily dedication, songs were written (mostly by my parents, with lyrics by their crazier than crazy singer) Steve. Many people would come and go, but a core nucleus remained through the Portland years. Slowly building something of a cult fan base of loonies and wackos.
Along with this, friends from other bands were formed. Friendships that became family, even to this day. From the Bay area, to the Carolinas, to Philadelphia and fan mail from all around the world.
In 1994, my father was the brainchild of one of the key moments in our lives. We moved across the country to Philadelphia, seeking better lives and more opportunity in a “real” city.
Rancid Vat would take the city by storm, being named the “Best Band in Philadelphia” (They rigged the ballot box) and also earning the dubious honor of being banned from every club for their raucous and wild shows.
My father would often be seen giving piledrivers to volunteer fans, leaping butt first through tables, waving around a Kendo stick dubbed the “Hostile City Lickin’ Stick” and blood...bleeding a lot of blood.
This hardcore, noise fest worked hand in hand with my father’s love for wrestling.
One night when he was young enough to wear footie PJs, he snuck out of his room and saw his father angry at a man on TV. The man was beating another man with a chain and both were bleed profusely.
My grandfather Bob caught him, but for some reason, chose not to be stern for once. Instead inviting his son to sit with him and watch wrestling.
Maybe it was the pageantry, maybe it was just an excuse to stay up late, but my Old Man loved wrestling. Especially, the Heels. Maybe, it was because he felt like an outsider from a young age, but watching Beautiful Beauregarde, “Tough” Tony Borne, and through the years, legends like Roddy Piper, Bruiser Brody and his favorite, the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Talking the talk, telling people what shenanigans they were going to be up to, entering the room gregariously, beating the goody two-shoes Babyfaces, all of it fit right into my Father’s alley.
As he formed his stage persona, Thee Whiskey Rebel, it was in tribute to these wrestlers that were hated by everyone, but still maintained their individuality. It is in this way that he found his heros and found the confidence to be himself on stage.
After razing Philadelphia to the ground, it was time to move on. In ways, my father related to Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man.
This time we rambled down to Texas.
In hindsight, this was a selfless act of sacrifice for me, his one and only son. In Pennsylvania, state taxes and Unions became a burden. Plus his growing love for country music had him yearning to live in the land of dance halls, Lone Star Beer, the Alamo, and where Bob Wills was still the king. Texas.
In Texas, college was a possibility.
In Texas, Austin and San Antonio were music hubs of the country. And while the bands carried on, it wasn’t the same as the brand new Punk scene of Portland, or the Hostile City U.S.A. of Philadelphia.
So here in Texas is where he gave the last of what he had to give.
Today, I thank him for the move.
I graduated college at Texas State University in 2008. I worked for eight years as a theatre teacher, putting on shows, and passing on the love of performance, teaching kids to be themselves, embrace the weird/unique side of life and work hard at what you’re passionate about. Which is what my father taught me.
At face value, my father was a funny looking, long haired weirdo in sweats and a torn up T-Shirt.
He was a scholar.
He was a writer.
He was a musician.
He was a great father, supportive husband, loving Grandfather and Father-in-Law.
And he fulfilled a lifelong dream, by meeting his blood kin. True family that he grew to love, and grew to love him.
I think the nights with his clan, helped him see how he fit in the world.
Over the past week, an outpouring of stories and sentiments reminded me how many people from around the world looked at what he was doing and saying for inspiration, to find themselves, and to be themselves.
People grew courage to start bands, labels, businesses, magazines and travel thanks to my father.
He supported you and your passions, even if he himself was not a fan.
by Elvis Irwin