Remembering Guitarist Josh Ogzewalla

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Charles Joshua Ogzewalla, who went by Josh, died on the evening of April 10 from a combination of colon cancer and liver failure. Doctors originally told him he wouldn’t make it to February. “He had that tattoo on his arm that is the Dylan Thomas quote — ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’” says Barrett Ogden, bass player for Salt Lake City band Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts. “That sums it up. That’s a fitting summary of the way he kind of did things. He was a fighter.”

Ogzewalla was born in Provo, Utah, the oldest of six children, and when he was eleven years old, his family moved to Colorado. Like all active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he went on a mission for two years, living in Japan from 1989 to 1991. During that time, “he learned things about the world,” says Bethany Ogzewalla Holmes, his youngest sister. “He was away from home for the first real time. Being exposed to Asian culture firsthand solidified his love for that culture and its respect for its elders.” When he returned home, Ogzewalla incorporated Buddhist principles firmly into his personal belief system. He also got serious about playing music.

Though he had picked up guitar in his teens, he didn’t form a band until after his mission, when he started Nhumb 19 with his friend Neil Jarmon. Playing in that band led him to music circles that aligned more closely with his interests, and by the end of the ’90s, Ogzewalla was rubbing shoulders with those in Denver’s goth scene and had established a friendship with the members of the late, great goth-industrial outfit Caustic Soul. Through them, he got to know Tonja Yelton and Kevin Nolan of Infinity Waltz, who had just fired most of their band and were in need of a guitarist.

“Right away, our personalities matched,” recalls Nolan. “We were both into the Church and bands like that. We realized that we played differently, but [in] the way the other person needed.”

They named the revamped project Dark Orchid and joined Caustic Soul on the roster of Gestalt Records, a local imprint run by Dave Goff. The two groups often played together in Denver’s flourishing goth scene.

The year 2005 proved to be a pivotal one for Ogzewalla: He decided to move back to Utah, where he became involved in the Salt Lake City music scene and played in various bands including Theta Naught, which toured to Denver in 2011.

Eventually he joined Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts with Ogden, Scott Stringham, Peter Jones and Brian Cutler. All but Ogzewalla had known each other since high school. “He was candid, but he was not blunt,” remembers Stringham. “He was always kind. He was not afraid of saying things he saw, but he would do it with love.”

Something synced up well between the group of guys who had grown up together and the like-minded veteran musician, and the band started to attract attention. Among its fans was David J. Haskins of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets fame, who agreed to record the Cosmonauts’ debut album, Forgotten Stars. That was in the summer of 2014, when Ogzewalla’s health issues had started to become apparent.

“Josh was a very quiet but strong presence in the studio,” remembers Haskins. “He didn’t say much at all, but if he did have something to say, it would be worth listening to. That could also be applied to his playing, and I like that.”

Released in December 2014, Forgotten Stars was a testament not only to the band’s democratic vision in sound and mutual interest in creating stylistically rich music, but also to Ogzewalla’s talent and rare grace as a lead player. At that point, he was spending most of his time in the hospital, and the exact nature of his illness was being communicated to family and friends. It was then that the band discussed a final performance with him.

The show took place at a private event at a friend’s house in Salt Lake City on January 10 of this year. Ogzewalla was not able to play too many songs, but anyone who got to talk to him at the concert was struck by the zen-like calm he exuded. Rather than a farewell, it felt like a celebration of the life of a talented friend who had always put the concerns and feelings of others first.

On February 26, Ogzewalla moved to his brother Nate’s house in Parker, where he spent his last weeks meeting with friends and family, including Daidrie Berry and Tonja Yelton.

“Before he passed, Josh and I spoke of life after death, and his comment was, ‘I don’t know where I’ll end up; I just hope I can play there,’” says Berry. “He’d be relieved of his ailing body and free to play a higher song.”

“We talked about the importance of being alive all the way up until you’re dead,” adds Yelton. “That if he woke up and was still here, rather than waiting until he was not here, that he could just live and try to do what he could with what he had. He could live just a little bit, even if it’s just feeling the earth beneath his feet, or to be present even just listening to music. Just to do something rather than lying in bed waiting, because [that] didn’t match his spirit. We held each other again for a while, and finally it was time for me to go.”

Josh Ogzewalla Tribute Show, with Orbiting Blue, the Sleepers, Lavellas, K-Badness, 7 p.m. Friday, May 22, Larimer Lounge, $8-$10, 303-291-1007.

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