Bryan “Bonzai” Young can’t remember exactly where the gig was, or who he was playing with. But of all the nights the guitarist performed in Wichita, and there were thousands of them, one stands out.
“I don’t know why, but I realized I was on stage and how lucky I was to have a talent and to make a living at it,” Young said. “I don’t know much more you could possibly get out of life than that.”
A lot of people feel lucky to have heard or played with Young, 50, who’s suffering from severe emphysema and other medical problems. Friends and fellow musicians are staging a benefit for him today at the Boulevard to help with his expenses.
Rail-thin, with a lit cigarette stuck on the end of his guitar, Bonzai was a fixture on Wichita’s music scene for 30 years, specializing in the blazing-fast, distorted style known as “shredding.” But he worked in just about every style of band there is, from rhythm and blues and funk to heavy metal, with bandmates of every age, gender, race and background.
“Bonzai is amazing,” said Main McMahon, a former bandmate who’s organizing the event. “To me, he was my guitar hero. He just never got discovered.”
To hear Young tell it, he might never have found his passion for music if he hadn’t moved to Wichita as a kid. Both his parents were musicians — his father headed a college music department — and they started Young on violin as a child. He later switched to guitar, but without much interest.
“I had hardly ever heard popular music,” Young said. “My dad was pretty strict. Once we moved to Wichita, I fell in with probably a bad crowd. I heard rock music for the first time. Particularly, I heard metal and funk — really what I would call guitar-heavy music.
“I had never heard that sound in my life. I looked around and saw how much everybody revered these (musicians). I thought to myself, I kind of know how to play. Let me mess around and see what I can come up with. One thing led to another.”
The bands he played with included Critical Condition, Merging Traffic, Out of the Blue, The Difference, Sherry Cowan and The Confessions, Shawn Kail Band, Freak Machine, Sondra LaVonne Band and Osmosis.
As for the musicians he played with, there are way too many to name. For years, Bonzai hosted open jams at Kara’s — later the now-defunct Studio — and Central Brews and Blues. As uneven and ragged as those unrehearsed sessions can be, he loved them as well.
At one point he moved to Hollywood, trying to break into the music business. He returned to Wichita when he realized there were “a zillion” other people there with the same idea.
Depressed, he didn’t play for a year. But when he started performing again, he realized he had made it in the music business to some extent.
“I was playing my guitar and making a living at it,” he said. “Probably for 10 years I played five, six, seven nights a week.”
As familiar as Young is to many music fans here, there are a couple of things about him that might come as a surprise. The nickname? He gave it to himself, but every time somebody asked about it, he tried to come up with a more outrageous story about its origin. His weirdly shaped guitars? He modified them himself with a hand file. His most recent gigs? In a church.
Today, Young spends his days hooked up to an oxygen tank. He blames smoking for his emphysema. “I smoked a lot when I smoked,” he said. He played his last club gig two years ago, too weak to perform even when bandmates carried his gear.
Doctors have told him he probably won’t live much longer, he says. Asked how he’d liked to be remembered, he said, “I was always trying to do something that was entertaining and original at the same time. I was always trying to invent what I was doing rather than imitate somebody else.”
He’d like to feel better enough at least once to return to church, where he says his guitar style meshes surprisingly well with a choir.
“They want me to jump in and shred,” Young said. “They want me to flat motor it. I can’t even describe it. It’s definitely far and away.”
If you go
Benefit concert for Bonzai
What: A day of music to benefit Bryan “Bonzai” Young. Music by Kevin Cook, The Sleepy Truckers, Rudy Love, The Difference, Sondra LaVonne Band, Barry Harris, Ray Drew and others; auction of Bonzai CDs and memorabilia; barbecue.
Where: The Boulevard, 900 S. George Washington Blvd.
When: 3-9 p.m. today
How much: $5 donation