Denver mourns the loss of multi-talented punk icon Johnny Bender.
Denver mourns the loss of multi-talented punk icon Johnny Bender.
Dawn Wilson

Remembering Johnny Bender of For the Love of Punk and the Gamits

Denver punk icon Johnny Bender, born Johnny Wilson, died by suicide earlier this week, according to a post from his band, the Gamits.

Wilson played in a variety of other acts, including Joy Subtraction, Nuns of Brixton and past bands including Moral Crux, That Guy!, St. Fall Apart, Batum Schrag, the Simians, the Gloryholes, Thankless Dogs, Buffalo Party, Trailer Park BBQ, the Pitz and Always My Enemy.

"Those of us that were close to Johnny knew that he was struggling with some serious issues," write the Gamits on Facebook. "There were times, especially towards the end, that this was painfully obvious. What most people don’t know was the Johnny that came out when he was somewhat free of his burdens. I’m sure this is the Johnny that Heather [Bender, his girlfriend] knows and that everyone that loves him knows. He was easy and care free, the kind of dude you wanted to wake up next to in a van in the middle of Russia. His heart was always in the right place. He was brave. He showed up in Denver and thrust himself into our world, our city, our music scene. He made an impact. He spread positivity and a love for music that was truly inspiring. He created a community out of thin air and people respected that. He made us all part of it. I never thanked him for that.

"I get the feeling that Johnny wasn’t thanked enough for the good that he did. Thanks, man," the Gamits adds. "Your heart and your talents will not be forgotten."

Tom Murphy profiled Wilson for Westword in 2017, describing him as a lifelong punk who became involved with music in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In the story, Wilson recalled his band Uncle Abner playing with Jawbreaker in 1990.

Wilson grew up in California and Washington and moved to Denver in 2004, becoming involved in the punk scene here in 2009. Over nearly a decade, his impact on that community as a musician, blogger and promoter has been immeasurable.

Wilson told Westword, "I think it’s important to support the scene around you. I think it makes the biggest difference quicker.... When you impact the life of some young local musician and they tell you, it is immediately rewarding.”

In summer of 2017, Wilson announced his divorce on Facebook, along with his name change. "Today I give you Johnny Bender because I will be shedding the past and taking away some of the last name stigmas that have held me back. I will no longer be referred to as Johnny Wilson and will no longer carry a terrible mans name. I will literally be making this legal and will not have the burden of this any longer. I am at 44 years old finally going to be the me I see."

He also came public with his new relationship with Heather Bender. "She likes ME. Even the shitty parts," he wrote. "I will take all my lessons in life and make sure I give her what she deserves and although there's no guarantees, I feel I've made enough mistakes to be more thoughtful about my actions in a relationship. I still have hope, I still want to make the world a better place and I still want my life and those around me to be happy in the face of a million blockades or more."

Johnny Bender
Johnny Bender
Dawn Wilson

Friends and family have taken to social media to remember Wilson and his many contributions to the Denver music scene.

The Nuns of Brixton write, "Johnny had an abundance of heart, talent and passion that came out in his drumming, bass playing, guitar playing, singing, songwriting, recording studio work and artwork. Johnny’s creative efforts and big heart cast a long shadow on those he knew and inspired...Hearts as big as Johnny’s stay with you and we will hold on tight to our memories of him. "

Abe Brennan, his bandmate in Joy Subtraction, writes, "Johnny was a multi-instrumentalist, a fantastic guitarist and bassist, great vocalist, and he ripped on the drums. He was one of those all-purpose musicians who could fill just about any need — like the human musician version of a Swiss Army pocketknife. He was also tech savvy, with both computers and audio equipment. We were thrilled when he accepted our invitation to join Joy Subtraction a couple years ago, and he brought a vibrant stage presence and subtle-yet-powerful layered guitar texture to our sound. We were so much better with him in the band. But, beyond the music, he was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known, smart and driven and loyal — he sacrificed a lot for his friends, helped people in many ways, usually with no thought (or realization) of remuneration."

Aaron Saye, operator of the DIY space Seventh Circle Music Collective, remembers Bender as someone who transformed Denver's punk scene. "Johnny lived and breathed Denver punk rock, hell, punk rock in general. In every interaction I ever had with him, his heart was always in the right place, and I can't even quantify into words the impact he made on me, and the amount of selflessness he put forth in assisting local bands in moving forward and upward in the music scene.

"Pay attention to your friends and loved ones," Saye adds. "Be there for them unconditionally, through thick and thin, no matter how hard it gets. Your presence and your communication, your ears to listen, your shoulder to cry on, your advice when needed, may very well be the difference between life and death, and you might not know it at the time." 

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