Honeydogs frontman Adam Levy reveals the heartbreak of son's suicide
Noah Levy is driving along East Lake Street on the second Thursday in January when he gets the call. It's his eldest brother and longtime musical collaborator, Adam.
"He said, 'Daniel attempted suicide. I'm leaving work right now,'" Noah recalls. "We got to talking, and he was kind of frantic. It was almost like...it was inconceivable that he was going to die."
For Adam Levy, leaving work means stepping away from his role as executive assistant to McNally Smith College of Music president Harry Chalmiers, but also from the Honeydogs, the local rock-Americana act he formed with his drummer brother and bassist Trent Norton in 1994. A good chunk of the year ahead has already been meticulously scheduled to support the March release of the band's 10th studio album, What Comes After, but the 47-year-old dad has to help his troubled son first.
Levy soon boards a plane from Minneapolis to North Carolina, then another flight to Albany, New York, arriving around midnight at the Saratoga Springs home of his ex-wife, Jennifer Delton, a history professor at Skidmore College. Their 21-year-old son Daniel is hospitalized—not his first episode of the sort—and in a coma on life support. Sometime earlier that day, Daniel had attempted suicide—a calculated effort to take his own life meant to preserve his organs, but turn off his racing mind. The doctor says Daniel won't improve from a vegetative state.
Levy calls his parents while end-of-life decisions are settled. He posts a Facebook message that begins, "It has been indescribable. I wish it upon no one. Words fail to give real shape to Daniel Levy's tragic exit from our lives...."
Over the next few days, Levy updates his profile photo with snapshots of his family, including a curly haired boy with twinkling eyes, sometimes with glasses, sometimes not. All told, Levy spends a week at Delton's home.
"It was the equivalent of an old Jewish shiva where we opened the home up so that Daniel's friends, and her close friends, could come by," Levy says. "Most of the time it was the two of us talking."
Levy sleeps in his son's neatly organized basement bedroom, reads his books, examines the artwork on the walls, wears his clothes, checks the browser on the computer, and tries to understand.
"My way of processing his death was trying to get as close to him as I possibly could and surrounding myself in his things," Adam says. "I think he'd been spending time going through his life. Setting up his knick-knacks and spending more time alone. There was a three-week period when he wasn't getting back to his friends. In his phone there were all these messages asking, 'Dude where are you?' He was really shutting down."
"I was coming home from a graduation party, and my stepdad said 'It's a boy,'" Noah recalls. "All these big things were happening: I graduated from high school, moved out of the house, and Daniel was born."
Delton gives birth to Daniel in Minneapolis on June 16, 1990. As a young child, his curly hair is golden, and for the first year, Levy and Delton raise the boy together. From then on, everyone stands around and watches this "campfire child."
Everything changes when Delton receives a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. at Princeton. Adam and Daniel initially join her on the East Coast, but Adam's ties to the local music community bring him back to Minnesota. They end up splitting soon after, and share long-distance custody of their son, who's still in diapers—summers and holidays with his father, the school year with his mother.
During the first year of this separation, Levy pens a mid-tempo slice of alt country called "I Miss You," which eventually (in a re-recorded version) becomes the band's biggest hit. It was so big, in fact, that it eventually got turned into muzak.
"Days are cold and gray/It's hard to be away/But I guess that's what I meant/When I said 'I do,' and you said it too," Levy sings forcefully with only a tiny hint of the gravel that exists in his voice today. "I can't get used to this/No matter how hard I try/But if it goes on too much longer/I'll probably die."
Levy characterizes his early songwriting as "very personal, confessional songs," and he confirms that the lyrics were autobiographical. "That song was definitely influenced by the cross-country situation I was in."
With Adam on guitar and vocals, Noah on drums, Norton on bass, and an assortment of other players, the Honeydogs share in-town bills with Run Westy Run, Glenrustles, Polara, the Jayhawks, and others.
They strike up a friendship with their now long-time producer John Fields, a founding member of the Twin Cities' funk act Greazy Meal, now better known for helming albums for the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, and the Backstreet Boys. Fields records the Honeydogs' first demo, and his uncle's label, October Records, puts out the band's self-titled debut in 1995, and Everything, I Bet You the following year.
Daniel Levy also makes his debut as band mascot. "I have a picture somewhere of him in the van with all of us in the back, looking kind of sleepy," Noah says. "He was really young. When we were mixing in Atlanta, he came down and hung out for a couple days. Adam flew him down for a gig in Texas with [Gear Daddies frontman] Martin Zellar. All of us at the bar, Daniel drinking a soda. It was all he knew. With musicians' kids, they just think it's matter-of-fact."
In 1996, Mercury Records scoops up the Honeydogs in the major labels' mad dash to claim every band that seems to pair Gram Parsons-style songwriting with an alternative-rock crunch. This was the age of Wilco, Whiskeytown, Son Volt, the Jayhawks, and Old '97s.
"We got the sense that some labels aspired to that, and some aspired to Hootie and the Blowfish," Noah says. "We had to be careful who we went with, because it would've been easy to make a glossy record like that. They would never shoot those terms out, but you could feel it."
To explain the amount of excessive spending happening at the time, Adam points to a meeting the band had with label reps at an office in New York. One of the quickly declined marketing ideas: "Can we do hot dogs filled with honey?" Still, what irks the Honeydogs more is the label urging them to re-record older tracks like "I Miss You" and "Those Things Are Hers" for their 1997 album, Seen a Ghost. Regional hit "Rumor Has It" from the album shows that Levy's songwriting is already drifting into multi-part harmonies recalling his parents' Beatles records, and a less-twangy, but catchier pop template.
In the fall of 1997, the Honeydogs land gigs opening for Jon Bon Jovi, and INXS on their final tour with lead singer Michael Hutchence, and Delton begins teaching at Skidmore College. When the band passes through New York, Adam is sure to stop in Saratoga Springs to see Daniel. Also that year, he marries Victoria Norvell, and she is soon pregnant with their daughter Esther.
"I remember the first tension he had when he was adjusting to his little sister being born," Levy says of his son, who was eight at the time. "He was really insistent that she was encroaching on his world, his material things, and toys."
The Honeydogs are released from Mercury Records in 1999, and their fourth album, Here's Luck, kicks around until finally emerging in early 2001. Increased tension between the Levy brothers—seven years apart but still often mistaken for twins—finally reaches a breaking point, and Noah stops touring with the band.
"Our years of making money were behind us, and Adam and I were butting heads pretty badly," Noah says. "It was just time to move on. The lows were low, and the highs were high."
Adam, always one to diversify, looks to other projects, including a '70s soul cover band called Hookers & Blow featuring several Honeydogs members. Gradually, the band starts getting corporate gigs and playing to packed, enthusiastic crowds around the Twin Cities.
"It used to be that I was in the Honeydogs, and every year we'd work on writing music for a new record, and have a record cycle where you tour and write more music," Adam says. "It was this treadmill that you sort of got on. I broke that in some ways with Hookers & Blow. I needed something to get away from the seriousness of the music business: old soul music."
It also spurs cross-pollination of personnel and musical styles. Put out by Michael Penn and Aimee Mann's United Musicians label, the Honeydogs' 2003 offering, 10,000 Years, is filled with complex changes and sci-fi imagery, and signals a new level of critical attention. Even Levy admits, "that record is a lot of work to listen to sometimes," but counts "Last War Lullaby," an as one of his most accomplished songs to date.
A couple of years later, Daniel Levy tells his father he wants to join the Army. Dad's response: "Truth Serum," a song that shows up on 2006's Amygdala. "I am not myself/Maybe I never will be/But you're too young to die/For something you don't understand, why?/I've loved you since you were born/Don't go."
"I certainly couldn't give him my blessing," Levy says. "But I wanted him to know I was there for him."
Daniel's gifts as an artist lead him to the Twin Cities to study at Minnesota College of Art and Design in 2008. It's the first time in a long time that father and son live in the same city.
After a year and a half of college, Daniel decides he really doesn't like art school. Loves art, loves the people there, but feels pressure to be something he isn't.
"That's when we started really seeing the depression," Adam recalls.
A look into Daniel's artwork of the time yields selections of grotesque horror. Characters evolve into monsters on the page, and where the mask begins and the real face ends is anyone's guess. He gravitates toward artists inspired by dreams, like Hieronymus Bosch and Max Ernst, and seems preoccupied with physical torment. Sometimes the pages are ink-spattered like Ralph Steadman's work.
For a brief amount of time in late 2009 and early 2010, Daniel lives with Levy's step-sister Aby Wolf (A. Wolf & Her Claws) in an apartment in Uptown.
"It was a very intense winter," Wolf says. "It was evident that he was in a dark place, but the fun and memorable times were when I got home from work and he'd be up late drawing."
Later that year, Daniel moves back to Saratoga Springs. While attending Skidmore College, he studies philosophy and takes a course called "Death and Dying," and starts working in a tattoo parlor, translating his drawings into tattoos. Levy does whatever he can to connect to his tormented son—they even get tattoos at the same time sitting side-by-side—and enlists Daniel to create psychedelic album art for Liminal Phase, his sonically challenging experimental side project.
"The desire to express himself surpassed any notion of recognition," Adam says. "It was very internal. No interest in self-promotion, and getting him to finish things was really hard. If you look at his last year of sketchbooks, it's vast amounts of unfinished drawings."
When the Honeydogs assemble to record What Comes After this past June, the band consists of Adam Levy, guitarist Brian Halverson, Norton on bass, keyboardist Peter Sands, drummer Peter Anderson, trombonist Matt Darling, and trumpet player Stephen Kung. Utilizing each player's initial musical instincts during the sessions at Institute of Production and Recording, the record—coming out on Minneapolis-based Grain Belt Records—is a massive synthesis of dramatic swoops and clever asides.
"It's got the complexity of 10,000 Years and Amygdela, more recent orchestrated stuff," Levy says. "It does kind of look back at our roots origin. There's Dylan and Nick Drake, and semi-bluegrass country-blues stuff that's in there too."
This proves to be a time when Daniel's descent into depression begins to really take a toll. Adam's songwriting has always been personal, but this album is filled with reminders of his real-life turmoil.
"A lot of this record was me dealing with issues of my son before things got really bad," Adam says. "He was always at the front of my mind. Now it has even more resonance and makes sense to me in so many more ways. A lot of things I'm talking about are questions I'm asking in there. Things got progressively worse to the point where he lost faith. His mom and I were spending a lot of time trying to talk him off the ledge. He was pretty candid about where he was at."
In the fall, Delton and Levy worry enough about their son that the only remaining option for treatment seems to be electro-shock therapy. This past holiday season, Daniel comes to stay at Levy's house in Minneapolis, but seems morose and in a trance-like state.
"I kept trying to prick his consciousness, and get him into a mode where if he was really thinking about suicide, he was going to leave behind a lot of people who really loved him," Adam says. "He was so far gone that there really wasn't any reeling him back in. The last few weeks, we were on the phone for an hour to three hours at a time talking about the darkness he was consumed with."
The day Adam returns from his farewell to his departed son in Saratoga Springs, Noah invites much of their extended family to his house in St. Paul. The collection of step-, ex-, and half- prefixes sits around the dining room table and eats and talks for three hours about what has just occurred.
Although Adam is exhausted and devastated, Noah remembers the night as a powerful one that pulled many family members into a room together who hadn't seen each other or spoken in years. By the end, it dissolves into a multi-generational dance party in the living room.
Right away, Levy jumps back into the day-to-day of his bands, his job at McNally Smith, and interacting with the public and the press.
"I've been talking about this a lot," Levy says on the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday. "For me to say this is off the table would be pretty disingenuous."
Levy's warm, well-restored home is filled with records, books about music, framed artwork, instruments, and a black dog named Peaches. His blond-haired daughters Esther, 13, and Ava, 11, flit up and down the stairs, and jazz hums from a red turntable in the middle of the room. Girlfriend Lily Troia, who has collaborated with him on several projects, is nearby in the kitchen.
His person is equally well-kept: A tweed newsboy cap covers his curly salt-and-pepper hair, and he wears a western flannel shirt with sleeves rolled up to expose a spider tattoo designed by his son on his left forearm and a tattoo on his right forearm that means "to heal the world" in Hebrew.
During a break, he grabs a puffy coat and a cigarette and walks down into the chilly air of the Midtown Greenway bike path. He knows exactly how many steps are needed to reach the halfway point of his smoke.
On his walk, he laments how many families cover up a suicide, and how communication shuts down.
"Suicide is still treated with a great degree of discomfort," Adam says. "While it is a very horrible, tragic thing, there's a lot of misunderstandings about it that create a haze for people, and false assumptions about why people do that."
Nearly 13 out of every 100,000 young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 committed suicide in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and among that group, males are six times more likely to take their own lives than females.
Once back inside, Adam takes out his iPhone and shows a photo of a drawing done by Daniel that'll end up in the program for the memorial service. It's a haunting, grotesque image of an emaciated, naked figure with a cloud of demons swirling out of its head. The work illuminates his son's dispair, but also shows an uncanny level of sophistication.
Rather than stay on this topic, Levy gathers his family around a YouTube video created by Daniel's friends, who called him Dan, featuring a montage of epic skateboarding moves. It's called "Dan Levy—Dirty Maneuver." Filmed around Upstate New York between 2008 and 2010, the clip shows a range of emotion, from frustration when his wiry frame scrapes the pavement to utter elation after landing a series of complicated tricks.
The memorial for Daniel Levy at the History Theatre in the McNally building could only be described as a production. More than 200 friends and family come out. Adam Levy is in a black tuxedo with a bowtie, but some of the supporters come in spiked leather jackets.
The dark, hushed ceremony contains tearful eulogies by Delton, who reads letters from Daniel's friends; Noah Levy, who cuts the tension by speaking in his nephew's voice ("Uncle Noah, you got a big old nose") and likening it to a New York cabbie; and a stoic Adam Levy.
"Daniel saw the long-term solutions as inadequate Band-Aids, and at worst, as a terrifying, permanent, living nightmare," Adam says. "This reflects not the failures of compassion and boundless love of those around him, but the shortcomings in our understanding as a society and as a world of his plight, and so many like him who have seen suicide as the final peace."
Several musical interludes break up the service in the darkened, hushed auditorium. Among them, Kill the Vultures' Alexei Casselle, who had enlisted Daniel for artwork in the past, gives a spoken-word piece with his daughter resting on his shoulder, and Semisonic's John Munson sings Nick Drake's "Way to Blue," a song by another talented artist who succumbed at a young age to mental illness. After it's over, the empty auditorium is littered with crumpled tissues.
The crowd, with several Honeydogs and Levy's other musical collaborators mixed in, gathers and embraces in the lobby, then gradually disperses. A smaller group continues for a potluck at the UBS Forum in the Minnesota Public Radio studios. Then, as the sun goes down, an even smaller group heads to the historic bar at W.A. Frost & Company on Cathedral Hill.
After a draining day, Adam still wants to sit down and be in that beautiful room and talk and reflect and compare notes. This is the time of night for easy relationships, Noah says. He has Adam's ear for a bit, and is glad that they've been communicating more. Cocktails populate the table, except Adam's got a club soda with lime.
"I've been sober for eight months," Adam says. "I hate to think what would've happened if I'd been not present for this. I would've been a mess. I would've crawled deeper into that hole. Not that I didn't think about it when the news broke. Boy, a glass of wine would've sure tasted good. Long-term, I knew I'd feel better if I soaked it all up and confronted everything I was feeling rather than go to that oblivion place that can be so easy with drinking."
The final song on What Comes After is the string-enriched "Turned Around," and Levy admits that there's a lot of his son in the song. "There's no maps where we're goin'/There's books that been written but they're not showin'/The rules we've been breaking, the paths we've been taken/The love we've forsaken...we're alone/Our GPS is down, does it mean this is the end/Turned around again/We're turned around again/Lost and found again." Though its lyrics express fear for the future, by listing every piece of the struggle ahead they also hint at this trying time's final solution: acceptance.
The Levy family is establishing the Daniel J. Levy Memorial Fund for mental health research on depression and schizophrenia. Please send contributions to:
Daniel J. Levy Memorial Fund
c/o Adam Levy
2832 18th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55407
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