Remembering Ikey Owens on His Big Night at Coachella 2015

David James Swanson
Ikey Owens on October 11 in Mexico City, performing with Jack White.
[Editor's Note: This is not really a Coachella post. I'm not speaking to you as a music journalist. Or as a fan. Just as a guy remembering a friend.]

Had he been alive to see it, last night would've easily been described as the biggest night in Ikey Owens' life as a musician. As Jack White's trusted keyboardist, he would've causally strolled on stage behind his boss--shades on, suited up, looking fly as fuck. As the crowd rolled and roared like an ocean for the enigmatic, Saturday night headliner, Owens would've sat down at his white keyboard rig, flashed a quick smile, and proceeded to deliver hell fire behind the ivories. A kid from Long Beach performing for over 90,000 people during a Saturday night, mainstage, headlining set. Not bad.

In so many ways, it would've felt like an end goal of something that so many people wanted for him--recognition, praise, and love emanating for the masses, many of whom who had no idea that his genius stretched far beyond these bright lights of Indio. All of the hard work Owens put into the music business--so many years, so many bands, so many records--would've culminated on Saturday night at the biggest music festival on the west coast. And yet, despite his tragic and untimely death in Mexico last year that left Long Beach reeling, he still did make it to that stage last night. His memory was carried on the lips of his pale skinned frontman, who paused for a simple moment of reverence in front of the sweaty, smiling crowd.

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"I'd like to dedicate this whole show to Ikey Owens, he's from Long Beach and this night is for him," White said. Of all the gestures White has made in honor of Owens since his death, this one felt the most special.

The fact was, though, that after so many years tearing up LBC, Owens was finally ready to leave. His newfound career with White prior to his death inspired him to move to Nashville, persuing gigs as a session player and producer in between jaunts on the road. It was a bold step. One that I was actually fortunate enough to see him take, in some small part, two months before his death.

I'd been with another friend of mine on a late night last August. We'd just taken some shrooms near downtown Long Beach earlier in the evening and the trip was wearing off with plenty of time to kill before calling it a night. That's when my friend, who also knew Ikey, decided to text him and see what he was up to with a reasonable confidence that he'd reply. That's the sort of guy he was--rarely one to hideout when he was in his hometown. Plenty of his friends can tell you stories, post Mars Volta fame, of Owens meeting them for drinks, hanging out at local shows, or in our case that night, visiting his house not far from the V-Room--one of his favorite spots in Long Beach.

After texting us back and inviting us over, we caught an Uber to his place, where he was pacing around, gathering things in the dim lamp light of his spacious duplex which he shared with a roommate--a lifestyle conducive to someone who spends most of his life on the move. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he'd been folding his clothes and packing his bags for Nashville, headed out on a 6 a.m. flight.

I wish I could remember the details of exactly what we talked about or what was said--in my post-shroom haze, my memory is a little shaky and I'm sorry to say as a reporter, without my recorder, I'm not always the best at recalling dialogue. But he sat my friend and I down as we burned a joint and he regailed us with his plans to take one of his final back and forth trips to Tennessee before moving there for good. It was just time. From his appearance at Coachella as the keyboardist for the Mars Volta in 2003 until now, he had accomplished so much more than most of his fans and friends could've ever dreamed.

David James Swanson
Jack White photo from Coachella 2015, weekend one.
Even in the late night hours with a plane to catch at the break of dawn, he couldn't sleep. Maybe that's why he let us come over--to keep him company. We smoked inside, listened to some Miles Davis, and watched a Bob Marley documentary until well after 2 a.m. As a long time follower of his music and someone who covered Owens' career for this paper and others, it was always a trip to feel as though this local hero I admired in so many ways was also someone I could just be a real person around. And in turn he did the same. That's how he always was, cool and approachable. Down for whatever. That's what I'll always miss the most about him in addition to his artistry. And I'd like to think that in some random tear in time/space continuum, we'll be able to have laughs and blurry conversations like that again one day on a leather couch, warm light, smoke floating, Miles playing in the background.

I don't remember what time I passed out on his couch, but just after dawn, I woke up and Owens and my friend were still asleep. I decided to call a cab and cut out quietly, but on the way out, an old copy of the Weekly with my Punk Rock Preacher cover story on his coffee table caught my eye. Fetching a pen from my pocket, I flipped it over and scribbled a short good bye note: "Hey Ikey, had to leave early but thanks for letting me crash. Best of luck out there. See you soon!" Then I headed for the door. It was my last communication with him. To this day it still weirds me out a little, I'm also thankful for it.

Even now, White's memorable chant "music is sacred" at the end of his set last night is still buzzing in my ears. If there was one true thing to come out of this Coachella experience, it is embodied in that phrase. The music we love lives on long after we do, it's passed on, appreciated by someone new and it will forever share our connections to the past and our visions for the future. In that way, the people responsible for it actually do remain with us forever. And if White's chant is as true as I think it is, then I'd like to believe that Ikey really was on stage last night for his big moment--smiling, taking it all in.

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Nate Jackson
Contact: Nate Jackson