UPDATE: At the Oscars on Sunday night, Ryder Buck's father, Chris Buck, accepted an award for co-directing the Disney animated movie Frozen, and dedicated his Oscar to his son. “We'd like to dedicate this to our guardian angel, that's my son Ryder Buck. Thank you, Ryder,” he said. 

Ryder Buck was an up-and-coming L.A. singer-songwriter. His band, Ryder Buck and the Breakers, were regulars at Patrick's Roadhouse in Malibu and the Pig & Whistle in Hollywood. His acoustic renditions and reggae originals even gained a following in Mexico. At 23 years old, the young musician was getting attention.    

Then in October, he died in a horrific freeway accident. 

Just a week before, Ryder had met the members of indie rock collective Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, his favorite band. Although they'd only known him briefly, four members came to play at his memorial service. Ryder, and his music, had that kind of effect on people. 

But there's much more to it than that. See, though I was once friends with Ryder, it wasn't until after his death that I learned his full story. It's more tragic and heartbreaking yet somehow hopeful than I could have possibly imagined. 

Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros; Credit: Timothy Norris

Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros; Credit: Timothy Norris

Last month, Ryder's father, Chris Buck, was up for a Golden Globe Award for co-directing the Disney animated movie Frozen. On the night of the awards ceremony, held Jan. 12 in Beverly Hills, Buck's mother, Shelley, told her husband to be sure to meet Alex Ebert, lead singer of Edward Sharpe. After all, Ebert also was nominated for a statue, for writing the score for the Robert Redford film All Is Lost

“That is your job tonight,” she told Chris. 

As it turns out, meeting Ryder's hero wasn't difficult. Chris Buck and Ebert were seated at adjacent tables.

“I wish I could have been at your son's service.” Ebert told Ryder's father. 

Both men won.

Ryder Buck, after chemotherapy; Credit: Shelley Buck

Ryder Buck, after chemotherapy; Credit: Shelley Buck

Two weeks after the Golden Globes, I visit the Bucks' home in the sleepy suburb of La Cañada Flintridge to talk to Shelley. We eventually make our way to Ryder's bedroom, where clothes are strewn about the floor, and papers clutter a desk beneath a Jimi Hendrix poster. It doesn't appear that anything has been moved since her son's death. “I like to spend time in here,” Shelley says, her voice trailing off. “Some days are easier than others.”

This is not my first time in Ryder's room. He was a good friend of mine in high school, and like many who knew him, I'm still coming to terms with his death. It came as a shock – not only because he was so young but also because his death was completely unrelated to his cancer.

For more than a year, Ryder had battled Stage 4 testicular cancer. It began in August 2012, when he had a routine physical and his doctor noticed abnormal firmness of his prostate. Less than a week later, Ryder underwent surgery to remove the tumor and started his first round of chemotherapy.

“After each dose, he would feel completely nauseated and bedridden,” Shelley says. “But by the second weekend, there was just no stopping Ryder. He would be up again, jamming and doing more shows.” 

Despite the fact that Ryder was fatigued from the chemotherapy and lost all his hair, he was determined to spread his music.

During stays in the hospital, Ryder passed time by practicing guitar and listening to new releases. It was then that he discovered Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. He became obsessed with the group, resonating particularly with their lead singer, Ebert, who'd had personal battles of his own, overcoming a heroin addiction. By using Edward Sharpe as his fantastic alter ego, Ebert had found a way to spin the dark moments of his past into a positive, hopeful energy. Ryder liked that.

He made it his mission to reach out to the band. “We're going to meet these guys! We're going to open for them one day,” Ryder told his band at one practice.

Credit: Timothy Norris

Credit: Timothy Norris

This conviction helped sustain him through his lowest point in late 2012, when oncologists discovered that his cancer was coming back. Even as Ryder began a second round of chemo, his songwriting became prolific. He was determined to meet Edward Sharpe one day.

The chance would come in October 2013, when the group hosted Big Top, a four-day music festival in downtown Los Angeles, which featured a circus tent, acrobats and a revolving stage.

About halfway through Edward Sharpe's hit song “Home,” Ryder was up and out of his seat, bounding toward the stage. He had been to enough of the band's shows to know what was about to happen. Sure enough, Ebert asked the crowd if anyone had a story to share. When he saw Ryder, he handed him the microphone.

“Your music saved my life, man. I was going through chemo and it was really hard. But I'm so glad I met you, I love you all, everyone here. Thank you.”

That night was the best of Ryder's life. After the show, he was given backstage passes to hang out with the band. Never one to pass up an opportunity, he approached lead vocalist Jade Castrinos and announced that he wanted to jam with them.

“It wasn't hard to tell that he was a really special, open-hearted soul,” Castrinos recalls of the encounter. “When he told me that he was putting together a record, we made each other a promise that he would open for the band one day.”

Jade gave him tickets to the rest of the Big Top shows, and fulfilled her promise to jam with him two nights later. For the rest of that first evening, Ryder met each of the band members and shared stories. 

“At about 2:30 a.m. he came bursting into our room to tell us what happened.” Shelley says. He was absolutely jubilant. “Mom, Dad. I think I just made best friends for life.”

The next morning he posted on his Facebook, “I can die happy.”

Ryder Buck passed away just six days later. He was 23 years old.

“I was driving when I got an email that had Ryder's name in the subject line. I had this sinking feeling as I opened the email, and I had to pull over because the news hit me really hard,” Castrinos says.

The details surrounding the young musician's death are not all clear, but here is what is known: 
[At 5:25 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 27, the CHP received a call that a young man had been struck on Glendale's 2 freeway, just north of the Mountain Avenue exit.

Ryder's car was discovered parked just off the exit, with two blown tires on the right side. His phone was lodged underneath his seat in a place he would not be able to find it. Without a way of contacting help, it appears he decided to abandon the car and walk home the shortest way possible: along the freeway.

But for reasons unknown, Ryder ventured into the center lanes. The first car that struck him was a 2003 Honda Accord, driven by a 22-year-old from Sylmar. According to the CHP report, Ryder was forced up onto the Honda's windshield, after which he was struck by a second car, a 2012 Hyundai Elantra.

Apparently it was unusually foggy that morning. Ryder was returning home from a late night at a friend's house. The musician was sleep deprived; over the previous 48 hours, Ryder had been going surfing, recording vocal tracks, and chatting with friends late into the evenings. He had also been drinking; the toxicology obtained by L.A. Weekly revealed that his blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit. 

“Those that knew him know that it was an accident,” his mom says. “I mean, there is just no sane reason that he would walk across the freeway. … He had so much going on.”

Just the day before, in fact, Ryder had spent practically the whole day recording vocal tracks for his upcoming EP. The next day he was slated to give his first guitar lessons to the son of Taboo, of the Black Eyed Peas. Then there was the fact that Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros had promised that he could open for them.

Most importantly, Ryder's last tests had indicated that he was finally free of cancer.

His memorial service, held five days later, was the largest in La Canada memory. On Nov. 1, Dia de los Muertos, more than 1,200 people attended the service in a town of just over 20,000 residents. The church had to set up multiple spillover rooms with televisions to accommodate the extra attendees. Ryder's mom had expected a fraction of that, for a 90-minute program. The service ended up being three two and a half hours.

“The experience was so joyful. It was surprising to see how many lives he'd touched, on a level I hadn't even realized,” Shelley says.

The other surprise was the musical guests who made an appearance. “We had heard some rumors, but it wasn't official until an hour before,” Ryder's bandmate Andrew Bush says. 

Four members of Edward Sharpe, including frontwoman Castrinos, played at the service with Ryder's band. They'd only heard about the memorial the night before but arrived to back up covers of their own songs, including Ryder's favorite, “All Washed Out.”

“It was unbelievable. Only days earlier, Ryder had told us, 'I'm going to get you playing with them if it's the last thing I do,'” Bush says. “And suddenly we were.”

Even while undergoing chemotherapy, Ryder continued to write and perform music.; Credit: Shelley Buck

Even while undergoing chemotherapy, Ryder continued to write and perform music.; Credit: Shelley Buck

Back inside Ryder's room, Shelley is speaking when a voice suddenly breaks in: “Hey! Your haircut looks great, mom.”

“Oh, thanks honey.”

I almost drop my pen. It looks just like Ryder, but it's actually his younger brother, Reed. In the two years since I last saw him, he's grown up to look and sound exactly like Ryder.

It's fitting, considering that Reed is now singing for Ryder's band, working to complete the EP that his brother started.

What once was slated to be a home-recorded album is getting a full-studio treatment. While still performing under the name Ryder Buck and the Breakers, the band is keeping busy with gigs to prepare them for their summer recording sessions, including one March 7 at the Jon Lovitz Comedy Club at Universal CityWalk.

“Reed is still learning the material; he needs to come into his own first,” his mom says. “But he'll get there.”

Reed's studio parts will replace the recordings Ryder made the day before his death. In the course of the freeway accident, Ryder's laptop was damaged in his backpack. (Apple technicians said they could see the audio recordings on the hard drive but couldn't extract them for fear of corrupting the files.) 

On Valentine's Day, the band will release a recording on iTunes from another session, called “I Wanna Love You.” But Ryder's legacy lives on in other ways. Shelley continues to get stories of people he's brought together. A relationship has formed between his family and a world-famous band. And his music and infectious positivity have reached more people than ever before.

In facing down his own mortality for more than a year, Ryder Buck knew his time could be short. He thus lived his life to fullest, making the most of his connections with people.

“There was so much wind beneath his wings,” his mom says. “If only he could have landed.”

Editor's note: The original version of this story did not include the results of Ryder Buck's toxicology report. 

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