By Jeff Moses
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Mike "Sir Pie" Gomez, the normally effusive rapper and singer for Cousins of the Wize, looks devastated, wearing a blank look of disbelief, like he's lost his security blanket.
In fact, he has. Days earlier, his Cousins rhyming partner and longtime friend Chris "CPT" Pangrazi, 29, had been killed in a drunken-driving accident, effectively bringing an end to the off-again, on-again, ever-changing hip-hop rock collective. Gomez refuses to contemplate a Cousins future without his on-mike partner, a friend since high school days when they were rhyming under bridges in Scottsdale. Gomez and Pangrazi were the only constants for a band that calls itself a "family," with nearly 30 members passing through in six years, including seven drummers. A few Cousins "graduates," to borrow a term from guitarist Rob Maywalt, went on to play with some of the Valley's other noted hip-hop rock bands, including Bionic Jive, the Phunk Junkeez, and Trik Turner.
According to the Scottsdale Police Department, Pangrazi and two passengers were traveling north on 94th Street around 1:10 a.m. early on May 10 when Pangrazi attempted to make a left turn near Cactus Road. As he did, a BMW driven by a man named Stuart Crane, which had been traveling behind Pangrazi's Dodge Neon, smashed into Pangrazi's driver's-side door, killing Pangrazi. Another passenger, 21-year-old René Reiland, died May 12 from her injuries at nearby Scottsdale Medical Center. Crane, who was treated for minor injuries at the scene, was later arrested and charged with one count of driving under the influence. Toxicological test results on Pangrazi will not be available for several more weeks. Crane may face additional charges once the police department completes its investigation.
As we discuss the accident at Pita Jungle in Tempe on May 12, the wiry 32-year-old Gomez points to a piece of paper. It's a lyric sheet for a song called "Not Any Longer," which looks to have been produced on a manual typewriter and marked up with yellow highlighter.
"Chris' father died the exact same way," says Gomez, as he recites a verse of Pangrazi's song.
'Cause you're drunk at the bar/About to crash your fourth car/The Visa card don't cover smothered mothers/Up on the highway/What a day to die/You picked a Friday/You're hella drunk/And now you get behind the wheel/You're about to take another life now/How does that feel/Appealing to no one 'cause you think you're full blown/What a way to go out/Twisted metal and bent chrome.
"[Chris] wrote that in 1998," Gomez says, adding that Pangrazi's father had died in a Friday night drunken wreck when Chris was little. "That's five years ago, you know what I mean? It's like the kid wrote his own story. It's unbelievable . . . I was looking at that last night, and it was like, how is that even . . ."
Gomez pauses, looking down, hiding his face under the brim of his white baseball cap, wincing, clearly holding back tears. He then continues.
"He had a way of putting stuff into words that wasn't just like champagne and girls. He told stories, and something like that," again pointing to the lyric sheet, "you can't even believe it.
"It hasn't even set in on any of us yet. We still haven't been able to put our fingers on it. It won't hit us until we go to the funeral and go to practice, when we don't see him on Wednesday. He's not going to be there, you know?"
Gomez again strains to keep his composure.
"It's just too much, man."
This story, of course, was initially going to center on music, not on death.
When I made arrangements two weeks ago to meet Pie and CPT, the focus lay on the future. We'd decided to meet on the 12th at the Jungle to discuss new music the multiracial Cousins, now a six-piece, were recording with Larry Elyea, prolific local producer and former guitarist for popular Valley rap-metal band Bionic Jive. A four-song demo, released this spring, showed that the band and Elyea were moving in an unorthodox direction, melding jazz, Dave Matthews saxophone pop and even country into their eclectic mix of party riffs and rhymes. There lay the tension -- three standouts in the local rap-rock hybrid scene maturing and growing more sophisticated together, and crafting some of the better music produced by Valley artists so far this year. Gomez, excited about the new venture, even posted a message about our planned meeting on the band's Web site.
Pangrazi's passing changes everything. While the band had undergone more lineup changes than Menudo over the years, Gomez says Pangrazi was the one irreplaceable component.
Except for a planned tribute night featuring the Phunk Junkeez, equally diverse rap outfit Drunken Immortals and nearly every former and current Cousin set for Monday, May 26, at the Big Fish Sports Pub in Tempe, all discussion of a Cousins future is on hold. Gomez, for now, wants to concentrate on releasing a CPT solo album; Pangrazi had finished recording eight songs with his other band, CPT & A Pack of Smokes, and local producers will help finish three or four other tracks in posthumous Tupac Shakur fashion.
Elyea, out of town the weekend of the accident, says he didn't find out about it until the Wednesday afterward. He says he has no idea what happens from here.
"They were introducing a little more rock into their style," he says. "Chris and Pie were singing a lot more. A few weeks back, I heard one of their songs on [alternative-rock radio station] The Edge. They were getting some attention. . . . We weren't done. We were only a quarter of the way done with it."
Until that clarity comes, Elyea and other musicians in the rap-rock hybrid scene are left to eulogize Pangrazi and the Cousins vibe -- "We were just trying to have fun, man," as Gomez puts it.
"I dug the Cousins' show because it was a little more chill and not such a crush on your senses," says Elyea, who learned all about crushed senses with Bionic Jive.
Mike Hill, drummer for nearly two years before joining the Phunk Junkeez earlier in 2003, says his love for the Cousins drew him into the fold. Eloquently, he says, "They were the kind of band where you would step into the room and you would feel talent. When you watch them play, you just get it. You don't have to figure it out. It's laid out in front of you. You either feel it or you don't."
You also, from the sounds of it, either felt Pangrazi or you didn't. His bandmates describe him as a lightning bolt, the one who could pack a club audience full of admiring off-duty strippers, who stood as the center of attention onstage, the chief imp in a band full of them. Cousins cut its teeth as a band and built a cult following in Tempe clubs; the musicians speak fondly of its weekly gigs at the now-defunct Bojo's. There, Pangrazi and mates built their reputation as partyers extraordinaire.
"You knew one of us was going to throw up off the side of the stage, or we'd break something," says Maywalt.
"Or 50 girls would jump on the stage and take their tops off," adds Gomez.
"We always thought Chris was completely indestructible," says original bassist Steve Faulkner, also formerly of Trik Turner, who arrives late to join Gomez and Maywalt at the Pita Jungle (by the end of my lunchtime visit, several more friends join in the group, effectively making this a therapy session). "Chris was Chris. Nobody could get to Chris."
The accident robs Pangrazi of what might have been -- marriage, patiently earned musical success -- leaving his survivors to wallow in the unknown. Pangrazi and Reiland's friends and families pieced together a makeshift memorial for them in the pebble-littered walkway on the corner of 94th Street and Poinsettia Avenue, two blocks from the crash site.
On Wednesday the 14th, as I stand before the memorial, two crosses are draped with flowers, candles, photos and written remembrances. Reiland's side sports two pastel-colored teddy bears. Pangrazi's has lyric sheets, an empty bottle of Corona and a metal tube of flowers addressed by his mother to "my heavyweight." A pile of debris -- from the looks of things, shattered remains from the accident -- sits at the foot of the crosses, and on the top of Pangrazi's cross lies a startling sight -- a Bud Light bottle cap and his Neon's ventilation knob.
Another reminder this story is not about music.
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