You don't expect forces of nature to die. You expect them to always be there, lingering in the distance, no matter how far away you may have gotten from them. That's how I always felt about Gared O'Donnell and his band, Planes Mistaken For Stars.
When I first heard Planes Mistaken For Stars, I didn't get it, because I'd never heard anything like it. Even now, all these years later, I still don't know how to describe them to people. Equal parts classic rock, sludge metal, punk, and screamo, their sound was somehow all of those things and none of them at the exact same time. Looking at the band only made it more confusing. They put out records on punk labels and played punk shows, but they grew their hair down to their asses and were often shirtless, with Gared's signature ring of skull-bullet tattoos lining his chest driving home the fact that you probably didn't want to get too close to the stage. If the cover for their rarities collection, We Ride to Fight! (The First Four Years), is any indication, they absolutely loved playing for crowds that didn't get them. Here were four guys absolutely going nuts on stage, pummeling a crowd with sound, while people stood there with their arms folded. They reveled the fight, because it made the converts they'd win over all the more precious.
Eventually, I did get it. And I found a group of friends who got it too. Many of them were from central Illinois, and Planes, being from Peoria originally, were their sort of hometown heroes. Planes would eventually make a mass exodus to Denver, but they'd built a foundation in the Midwest, namely some of the most depressing parts of it because what the band exuded more than anything else was a kind of hard-earned hope. For all their recklessness and swagger, Planes lyrics were a celebration of life and carrying on despite whatever setbacks emerged along the way. When they performed them live, it was like witnessing demons exiting the band members bodies. So many bands just feel contrived when they put on a "crazy" live show, but not Planes. They weren't trying to sell you on anything. They simply cranked their amps as loud as they could go—and trust me, they were loud—and then attacked their instruments like they owed them money.
Gared was dark, mysterious, and effortlessly cool. But despite him having the swagger of Lemmy, he never felt like he was above us. He was a fan of music, and you could tell he took great pleasure in getting to play in front of people who got what he was doing. During the brief period when Planes had broken up, I remember being so crushed at the thought of never getting to see them play again. And then, at Fest 8, I got a text from my friends Keith and Jaime that they went to see Git Some—a band that featured all the members of Planes except for Gared—and a Planes reunion had spontaneously happened. I remember leaving whatever venue I was at and sprinting down University Avenue in Gainesville to try and make it there. I knew the venue was at capacity, and I knew that they were probably only doing a song or two, but I felt like, if I could just make it outside the venue and hear the rumble of Planes through the wall, that would be enough.
A year later, at Fest 9, they did a proper reunion set, and I spent the months leading up to that show absolutely giddy with anticipation. Normally, building something up in your head for that long only leads to disappointment. That wasn't the case here. I remember my friend Keith and I walking grabbing a roll of duct tape from the bar before their set and taping our glasses around our heads so they wouldn't get destroyed during the set, then promptly fixing ourselves center stage and preparing for the onslaught. I remember the band kicking in and being arm-in-arm with Keith, screaming every word as people climbed up on our backs to scream the words in Gared's face. In that moment, it felt like the four-year absence of Planes only made people latch onto them even harder. During the final song, Gared jumped into the crowd and, together, we all screamed "We ride to fight" long after the band finished playing the song. These weren't just some song lyrics; this was our shared mantra. It was the kind of life-affirming moment that just had a way of happening at Planes shows, and it's something I'll never forget.
Years later, Planes would release their a reunion record called Prey, and I got to announce it at The A.V. Club. I spoke to Gared about the record and his quotes were short but punchy—stories of holing up in a Motel 6 and getting into fist fights with truckers was more or less the gist of it. It was the kind of self-mythologizing that would sound so utterly contrived if these lines weren't delivered with the utmost conviction. Because Gared may have been many things, but a huckster wasn't among them.
For the past year, Gared had been suffering from stage III esophageal cancer. Being friends with him on social media, I was able to see that, even in the midst of this, he presented as someone who was road-weary yet optimistic at every turn. There was never the indication that this day would come. Foolishly, I never entertained the thought either. There are certain people who just seem to float above all our humanly concerns and always come out the other end, no matter what danger they encounter along the way. That was Gared, and there will never be another like him.
In moments like this, there's a desire to want to say something profound, but all I can think of is the way that Gared every single set I ever saw him perform: Fuckin' take care of each other.