Most fans never become friends with the musicians they love. Brittany Strummer was the exception.
The 26-year-old Denver punk rocker, fan and writer died on March 31, the night before her lifelong hero and friend Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me!, played the Marquis Theater with her other band, Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers.
In her last Facebook post the day she died, Strummer wrote: "this will be the first time i haven’t seen Laura or Against Me! in 10 years or so in denver. give her all my love."
Grace dedicated her entire set to Strummer, as her friends in the audience mourned her death and raged in her memory.
Strummer’s friend Alex Pelissero, who first met her at a Bomb the Music Industry show at Community Cycles in Boulder in 2009, remembers her as a stalwart fan of the Clash, Against Me!, Dillinger Four and None More Black.
“Brittany was in many ways the life of the party and the soul of our scene — not only in Denver, but across the country,” Pelissero writes. “Even though she never played in any bands, she was an absolutely crucial person in our corner of the punk world. It's hard to express how much she was loved and how much of an impact she made on so many people. It honestly feels like the heart was just ripped out of the scene. She was a constant positive presence any time she walked into a room. A loud, energetic presence. It was hard not to smile around her. She truly and deeply loved her friends more than anything else.
“She was someone I could always yell about bands with. We truly connected through music,” Pelissero adds. “Every time I go to a show, I'm going to forever expect her to burst in through the door, ready to party and scream along.”
Grace, who’s on tour supporting the Devouring Mothers’ debut album, Bought to Rot, took time ahead of her April 4 concert in St. Louis to speak with Westword about her longstanding friendship with Strummer and what her loss means to the punk world.
Westword: How did you meet Brittany?
Laura Jane Grace: I've been trying to think of when the first time I met Brittany was, and I can't remember the exact first time, but I've known Brittany for fifteen-plus years. I know that Brittany was one of the first people to have a presence on the Against Me! message board back in the day, when there was an Against Me! message board or forum. She was just a face you'd see at shows, and then definitely stood apart from everybody else, and crossed that distance from just being a fan to being a friend to being someone you just always saw whenever you're in Denver. But then even beyond that, I would see Brittany all over the country. Brittany would come to Chicago. Brittany stayed at my house a couple times. She was someone who was always there.
What are some of the memories of her that stick out?
I just remember always feeling like there was so much potential and that she had such a spark, and I remember initially when she wrote. I want to say it was initially through MySpace that she wrote, because I would always check the band's MySpace and write back to everyone who wrote in. I remember her writing in, and I remember her talking about how she was trying to play music and trying to get started or whatever. I remember offering to send some broken microphones — not totally broken, but some microphones that we weren't using anymore, if she wanted to fuck around with them or whatever.
I remember her being so enthusiastic about everything she was doing and trying to be a part of it and trying to find her place in the scene. She was someone who — having known her for a length of time — you watched find a place in the scene, and she became an indispensable part of the scene. And that's really rare, frankly speaking. I don't mean that in a way that is denigrating or disrespectful to your everyday fan. It's okay to be just a fan. But it's really rare to have someone cross that border from being a fan to being a friend, and to being a part of it in their own way. That just doesn't happen all the time.
And to see someone be there throughout the years for that long. It's so strange these days how you don't need to be a part of someone's everyday life to necessarily feel their presence or feel their presence every day, just following people on social media. She was someone I followed on social media and always knew how they were doing or what they were up to or whatever.
A couple years back, I knew that Brittany was such a fan of Against Me!, and I went ahead and gave her the vest that I wore on the cover of our second record. It's the old beat-up punk vest from the cover of As the Eternal Cowboy. I was like, "Hey, I'm not wearing this. Maybe you can get some use out of it."
I gave that to her as a present. I think she was visiting Chicago in 2014 when that was. She came to my daughter's fourth birthday party that year. I remember being really thankful that she was there, just to have her company. It was a hard period of time for me, and I appreciated her being there.
I don't know how to better express her transcending that divide from fan to person who I invited to my daughter's fourth birthday party, but there's a gulf there. I'm not just going to invite any random person to my kid's birthday party, if that attests in any way to how special she was.
When it comes to the punk scene as a whole, can you speak to what her role was?
I think that's like the demonstrative power of punk rock, and so very much what Brit's hero Joe Strummer talked about, you know. You're supposed to start out when you're new to something, you're supposed to start out like a fan like that. But punk rock is supposed to bring you in and make you a part of it. Brittany lived that.
To go from just being a casual fan who came to shows to then becoming a part of the dialogue and becoming someone who's creating the dialogue, being a writer for Punk News and contributing, making a contribution — she did that.
To go from someone who I only recognized from Denver to someone who you just expected to see at all the big punk happenings, whether that was The Fest in Gainesville or Riot Fest or Punk Rock Bowling or whatever. She was just one of those people who is just as much a part of it and just as much expected to be there as anyone in the band.
When did you find out about her death on Monday?
An hour outside of Denver, I got a call from James, who plays in my band.
And what was that like?
I don't know how to process it, honestly, you know? It's something that I'm still just really in shock over and totally don't understand. It's so completely unexpected, and I feel completely blindsided by it, and I don't know. It makes me so sad, so really, really sad just to know that she was hurting that much and that lonely and in that much pain. It makes me really...I don't know. I feel the passing of time.
There are few things that happen in life where you feel like there's a before and an after, and this is one of those. There was the time before, when Brittany was around, and now when she's not, which we're venturing into.
I didn't know what to say to any of her friends who were at the show. I didn't know how to process it in that environment, even though knowing that was the context I was used to seeing Brittany in. It was just fucking surreal, and it doesn't make any sense.
Having made the kind of music that you make that does get so raw and so personal, you must have a lot of fans who talk about their issues and struggles.
Honestly, in relation to that, it makes me feel like a failure. That was the thought I had the other day. Not to sound morbid or dark or whatever, but I'm supposed to be the one that kills themself. I'm supposed to be the one who's dead that Brittany's talking about.
It makes me feel like I wish I would have done whatever I could have done to make that not happen. If the show would have been a day earlier, or if I would have written a better song, as stupid as that sounds, or whatever.
Is this the first time that's come up for you?
Probably, that directly. Definitely, this particular dynamic. I've had friends who've killed themselves, who've died. I had another friend within the past two weeks, who I hadn't seen since high school days, who passed away from an overdose. So it was kind of a double-hitter. I'm just thinking about mortality, what it means.
I think of how your songs have probably kept so many people alive and gotten them through so much. I think that's a fact that's way more obvious.
As you're thinking about this, do you have anything to say to other people who are in a similar situation or who are struggling?
I think about those things a lot, too. I don't know what the answer is.
I really detest the people who come out of the woodwork when something like this happens and start talking about "Be there for your friends. If someone needs help, be there. Blah blah blah. Be there." It just seems so disingenuous and untrue to how life really is.
If you're someone who struggles with mental health, with depression — I struggle with these things, I struggle with mental health a lot — I know the way I feel is that the people around you, they don't want to hear that shit. They don't want to hear about your problems. They only want to hear about their problems. They only say that shit when you're gone. When it's in the moment — if you're going through something, a really hard time, if you're going through a breakup that's really fucking you up or something like that and you're a mess, no one wants to deal with your fucking mess. And that's the fucking cold reality. That's why these things happen. That's the truth. No one wants to deal with your fucking shit, you know? It's after the fact when you're gone, people are like, "Oh, be there for your friends. Reach out and talk." If someone reaches out to you and they need help and they're a fucking wreck and they're suicidal, people turn them away. That's the way it is. I don't want to be one of those people being like, "Reach out if you need help."
I don't know the fucking answer, you know?
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Anything else you want to speak to regarding Brittany?
I'll really miss her. And I know that all her friends and the scene in Denver will. I just think it's just a fucking tragedy.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported Strummer's age incorrectly. She was 26 at the time of her death.