If you’ve been following local music at all since the late 1990s, you’re probably aware of The Icarus Line. Known as the pissed-off quintet who hated everyone and everything, the guys who’d trash their gear onstage and take all your drugs, the group had an aura surrounding them that far too often overshadowed the music. As someone who has known The Icarus Line since they were a high school ska-punk band called Kanker Sores, I often wondered how guitarist and bassist Alvin DeGuzman felt about this hard-partying, confrontational reputation.
I met Kanker Sores around 1996. Although I had seen the band once, it wasn’t until my friend Aaron North befriended the South Pasadena group that I got to know singer-guitarist Joe Cardamone, bassist Keith Whitworth, drummer Tim Childs and DeGuzman (and, later, bassist Lance Arnao). Once Aaron joined Kanker Sores, I’d regularly make the trips from the South Bay to Cardamone’s home, where the band practiced. I was at every show and, eventually, when Kanker Sores had a lull in their set, the members would play an improvised hip-hop song and Cardamone would hand me the microphone so I could rhyme. This teenage emceeing, along with the fact that I’d taken it upon myself to sing backups into Alvin’s microphone without anyone’s permission, means that, for a moment, I guess I became the unofficial sixth member of the band.
No one in Kanker Sores seemed to mind that I sang backups without asking, but definitely not Alvin. Just as George Harrison was the quiet Beatle, Alvin — who died Wednesday after a nearly three-year battle with bone cancer — was the nicest, quietest member of The Icarus Line. In fact, after I visited him a few weeks ago at San Gabriel Valley Medical Center (where he was in the intensive care unit) with former Icarus Line guitarist Aaron North and our friend Steve DeLuca, I realized I had seen Alvin angry only once, which is quite a statement considering I’ve known him for more than half my life.
It was during a Kanker Sores show at the Showcase Theatre where, for reasons I don’t remember, I decided to get Alvin’s attention by tapping his guitar during a break in their set. This, as any Kanker Sores member will tell you, was a dumb move, because in those days, Alvin often had problems with his gear. And of course, by tapping his guitar, I had caused his input jack to stop receiving a signal from his cord. Alvin looked down and gave me a menacing look, and at that moment I thought I had just ended the show. (I hadn't.) Afterward, he was all smiles, as if my snafu hadn’t happened.
To say Alvin was vital to The Icarus Line would be an understatement.
Alvin's reserved and calm demeanor was easily overlooked in the cacophony that became The Icarus Line. Whenever his bandmates were jumping across the stage, throwing guitars and kicking over drum sets, there was always one person who stood stoically, playing through the chaos because, hey, someone had to. That person was Alvin.
To say Alvin was vital to The Icarus Line would be an understatement. Besides being one of only two original members left (along with Cardamone) when the group recently disbanded, at different points in the band’s existence he played guitar, bass and keyboards. Whether it was a psychedelic slide guitar on “Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers” or a fuzzed-out bassline on “FSHN FVR,” Alvin’s influence was always heard, Cardamone wrote in a Facebook post announcing his friend and bandmate's death.
“For years he taught the band to play my music,” Cardamone wrote. “It’s completely impossible to overstate what kind of sacrifice that is. There was no money involved, there was very little in the way of recognition, it was just what he did with his life. … It was his music too and he understood that. I have spent my entire life writing about those close to me and he knew that we were telling the stories of our friends. He knew exactly why it was important and never questioned its nobility.”
Perhaps Alvin’s tenure in The Icarus Line is what taught him how to remain stable in moments of instability. Or maybe that’s just who he was. During his battle with cancer, Alvin never asked for sympathy, didn’t say much about his situation on social media, and wasn’t about to let something like the ICU keep him from enjoying his life. Of course, being hospitalized and hooked to tubes is no one’s idea of a good time, but even in such a dire situation, Alvin remained Alvin. He didn’t know we were visiting him that Sunday afternoon, so when I approached his room, Alvin saw me through the glass wall, threw his arms into the air and screamed “Whhhoooaaa!” as loudly as he could. He did the exact same thing once he saw Steve and Aaron behind me.
Alvin stood from his bed, a move he probably shouldn’t have made, but he didn’t care because he was going to hug each of us. His hair had turned silver, and as I wrapped my arms around him, I could feel how frail he had become. It was then that I realized I was visiting my friend not just to say hello but also to say goodbye.
It’s not my place to get into the conflicts between former Icarus Line members, but if Alvin had any issues with Aaron, he definitely didn’t this day. Alvin’s loudest “whoa” and longest, strongest hug was for Aaron. Seeing my two friends embrace on this level choked me up. Even though I had been texting Icarus Line singer Joe Cardamone for weeks regarding Alvin’s health — often using the phrase “this sucks” because I didn’t know what else to say — for the first time, I was truly aware of just how bad Alvin's condition had gotten.
Although I have countless memories of my friend, the one that personifies Alvin best to me happened during this recent visit. A nurse entered the room and asked him an array of questions, such as “Where are you?” and “What day is it?” Eventually she asked him to identify everyone in the room. My friend was in good spirits, but he was also heavily medicated, and the fact that he was in a bad place was more than evident. I wouldn’t have been upset if maybe Alvin had recognized me visually but couldn't remember who I was. But without hesitation, he looked at me and said, “That’s Ryan Ritchie.” He did the same for Steve and Aaron. My friend — a man who had every right not to remember anything, a guy who was weeks from his death — fought the meds, the pain and the knowledge that he was dying to make a connection and leave me with a memory of him I’ll never forget.
At the time of that visit, Cardamone told me that Alvin had been given 30 days to live. I thought of him as dying, but I was wrong. Alvin was living. And even though that afternoon with him was a weird mix of overwhelming positivity and unbearable sadness, I choose to remember Alvin DeGuzman for what he was — a lively, funny, kind, caring person who just happened to be one of the best, most natural musicians I’ve ever known. And more important, he was my friend.
I’m going to miss him.