Girls! guitarist Joey Blackheart: 1978-2014

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

The only time I ever heard anyone use the word cliché in reference to late Girls! guitarist Joey Blackheart was in describing the circumstances surrounding his death.

Otherwise, the portrait that emerged was far more complex, with friends and family collectively describing the musician as "the world's most extroverted introvert," spinning tales of wild nights on the town and quiet days spent immersed in the insular worlds of video games and literature.

Blackheart was perhaps best known for his larger-than-life public persona, first developed while fronting bands like the Vacants and the Gallows, and he certainly lived up to it at times. He boasted about his alcohol tolerance, insisted he had the perfect formula for how many beverages he could consume during a show, and referred to his altered state as being "Mjolnir-ed," an allusion to the hammer wielded by the Norse god Thor. Removed from the spotlight, however, a quieter side emerged, and it wasn't unusual for the musician to spend hours at a time lost in a video game ("Diablo II" was a longtime favorite) or in a book, and he regularly devoured works by escapist authors like Douglas Adams ("The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy") and fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore.

Even the selection of his chosen nom de rock, Blackheart, contained a degree of irony, considering those who knew him best consistently spoke of the vibrant, beating heart that in many ways defined his existence from childhood.

Born Joseph Macklen Moore on May 1, 1978, in Portsmouth, Ohio, the musician grew up across the Ohio River in the small town of South Shore, Kentucky. The younger of two children, he was raised by parents Lenard and Ernestine Moore, a truck driver and a homemaker, respectively. From his mother, Blackheart inherited a sense of humor and an appreciation for the absurd, while his father, the more stoic, introverted sort, imbued him with a strong work ethic and a quieter, more withdrawn side.

Both taught him to appreciate the importance of education - Blackheart could read by the time he turned 3-and-a-half, and he served as an anchor on the grade school academic team at South Portsmouth Elementary School - and instilled in him a sense of kindness and an empathy for others that carried through to his death from a drug overdose on July 9, 2014.

As a child, he'd frequently offer up the family home if a friend needed a place to stay - "He felt sorry for people [and] he'd be like, 'Mom, is it OK if Tommy sleeps here? His parents are gone and he needs to go to band camp,'" said his mother. This trend carried into older age, where he'd share his apartment with friends, fellow musicians, and the various indigent characters that crossed his path and needed somewhere to crash for a night. At one point, a train-hitching acquaintance lived with the musician for a stretch, and there was a sense, at times, he was operating a halfway home out of his small, north side apartment.

With his tattoos, long hair and salt-and-pepper beard, Blackheart could have passed for an extra on the outlaw biker series "Sons of Anarchy." In spite of his gruff exterior, however, the words most frequently used to describe the musician (following some approximation of "smart ass," typically said in the most loving manner possible) were "selfless" and "gentle," and his list of kindnesses ran the gamut from barely perceptible to life-altering.

On the smaller scale, Girls! singer Jessica Wabbit recounted how every time the band played she would take her glasses off and set them on Joey's amplifier, because she knew he'd keep an eye on them, and she knew they'd be safe. On a much grander scope, several recounted the morning after a rowdy party when Blackheart and a friend discovered one of the evening's hosts still passed out in the basement, covered in trash and empty beer bottles. The two quickly whisked him to the hospital where he remained in a coma for nearly two months before making a full recovery. Had the pair not intervened, it's likely the young man would have died.

Then there was the yearlong stretch after Blackheart graduated from Grant County High School when he remained at home to help his mother care for her father, Joey's grandfather, who was bedridden with a broken leg and arm after being struck by a car.

Even in the midst of the drug addiction that would eventually claim his life, Blackheart never lost this sense of compassion, and he hoped to one day help the city launch an official, regulated needle exchange program. In the interim, he ran a black market exchange of his own, buying needles in bulk and distributing them to whoever might need one, knowing a big part of kicking addiction is keeping the person alive and healthy long enough to make the necessary lifestyle adjustments.

Growing up, Blackheart naturally gravitated toward music. He'd spend hours at a time sitting next to the record player in the family living room, wearing outsized headphones and singing along to songs like the Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Every time it rained, he would spontaneously break into the chorus from Eddie Rabbitt's "I Love a Rainy Night." In the summertime, he'd accompany his brother, who was 13 years his elder, across the bridge to Portsmouth, where the two would cruise around downtown in the family car blasting country and classic rock tunes.

At times, music functioned as an instrument of escape. Blackheart had a lifelong fondness for outlandish, larger-than-life acts like Lordi, a costumed, Finnish metal band best described as Gwar on steroids, and he was obsessed with the idea of crafting an onstage persona. Other times, it served as connective tissue. Many interviewed noted Blackheart never felt wholly comfortable living in South Shore, where his comparatively left-of-center interests (he preferred video games, reading and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons to more popular pursuits like football and hunting) caused him to stand out rather than blend in, and he frequently embraced music as a means of bonding with others.

"It was the one way he always knew he could relate to people," a former bandmate said.

In the '90s, the musician adopted the name Joey Obnoxious with the Vacants, a pop-punk act briefly signed to Mutant Pop Records. He later converted to Joey Blackheart after launching the Gallows, a punk crew he fronted until the Girls! formed in the spring of 2011. For years, not even Blackheart's own bandmates knew his birth name, learning it only after he accidentally left out a wallet that contained his state I.D.

While Joseph Moore retreated from the spotlight, Joey Blackheart threw himself into the music with awe-inspiring recklessness. Whenever the Gallows, later Joey Blackheart and the Gallows, played Bernie's, which was often, it was inevitable the frontman would at some point find himself rolling around in the muddy mix of beer, liquor, bodily fluids and god-knows-what-else that turned the venue floor into a murky swamp during packed shows.

Performance always came naturally to Blackheart. In the fifth grade talent show, he lip synched a version of Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" with such showmanship that administrators asked him to repeat the act the following year. On Halloween, he regularly collected top honors in school-wide costume contests, because, according to his mother, "He played the part - whatever it was."

The Blackheart who fronted the Gallows in the early days of the band would have been unrecognizable from the bearded, leather-and-denim clad Viking that later graced the stage with the Girls! At the time, he was wiry and clean-shaven, and his chipmunk cheeks made him look like he was twentysomething-going-on-15 - a feel further heightened by his laugh, commonly described as a "girlish giggle," and the fact he had a tendency to make the same face playing guitar that he did while playing tee-ball as a child, a sort of exaggerated grimace.

After Blackheart moved to Columbus in the mid-2000s, there was a period where music was the only thing he had. He lived in his car for weeks at a time, moving indoors to sleep in the back office at his home-away-from-home Bernie's on those nights the weather got too cold. Eventually he landed a job with a printing company, an odd career choice for a man with achromatopsia, the complete inability to see color. In addition to making wardrobe selection impossible (explaining the fondness he developed for wearing black), the condition also rendered him extremely sensitive to light, which is why he was rarely seen in public without sunglasses.

After graduating from ITT Technical Institute, he started working as a database administrator for the Service Employees International Union, commonly known as SEIU, a career that allowed him access to two favored pastimes: computers and seclusion. In the final months of his life, it became increasingly difficult to coax the musician out for any social event.

Along with his achromatopsia, Blackheart suffered from a range of physical maladies. He regularly experienced tremors rooted in spinal damage sustained during a car accident, and over the years he survived being bit by a brown recluse spider, a near-drowning, and electrocution. He used to joke with friends that he was invincible, saying, "People keep trying to kill me, and no one can."

He also had debilitating joint pain doctors could never fully diagnose or cure. The musician's mother noted she has osteoarthritis and her husband, Joey's father, has rheumatoid arthritis, and she worried he had inherited one of the conditions. In 2009, he had shoulder surgery. Two years later, he had surgery on his knee, after which he was forced to walk with a cane. Taken in combination with his new beard, it had the effect of aging the musician decades overnight. One former bandmate described his later appearance as "Father Time dressed as a pirate."

Following the 2011 knee surgery, Blackheart was prescribed pain killers, and several people close to the musician referred to this moment as a crucial turning point. From there, he progressed to stronger medications in an attempt to dull his constant physical pain, first experimenting with morphine, and eventually moving on to heroin. Furthermore, his private life had steadily unraveled. He separated from his wife, whom he married on Halloween in 2005 (the two never officially divorced), and he started to loathe spending time in public.

The years he played with the Girls!, in turn, could best be described as unpredictable. Occasionally flashes of the old Joey would appear - normally at band practice, or onstage during concerts - and other times he would come across as disinterested or lethargic, beating a hasty retreat home the instant the group exited the stage.

An attempted 2013 band intervention backfired, though the crew was eventually able to repair the damage, and there were several stretches over the last year of his life where Blackheart was able to maintain sobriety. In the days leading up to his death, the musician made plans to purchase more Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction.

But time and again he was undone by his own kindness and an inability to sever ties with anyone from his past. He'd regularly invite fellow addicts to move into his apartment with the idea they could get clean together, a poorly conceived plan that failed on repeated occasions.

The night before he died, Blackheart made one final post to Facebook, writing, "Johnny Thunders is my spirit animal," and including a link to the Thunders' album So Alone, which a former bandmate described as "such a cliché," saying, "If there's ever been more of a grand ode to heroin addiction, I don't know what it is."

His body was discovered early the next afternoon in the office where he worked by the building's cleaning crew. He was 36 years old.

Following Blackheart's death, there were tribute shows, copious tears, and countless shots downed. One tattoo artist even offered a "black heart" tattoo for family, friends and fans who wanted to display a more permanent tribute. But even at the height of the mourning, those closest to the musician were quick to note how much he would have hated the public outpouring of grief. "Piss on it" was a constant refrain - Joey's tongue-in-cheek way of dismissing even the heaviest of emotional burdens.

While Blackheart most certainly would have brushed aside the attention in one breath, a close friend insisted he'd have embraced it in the next.

"See, I told you people were paying attention," they imagined him saying, a sly grin stretched across his face, "I told you I was a rock star."

Special thanks to those interviewed for this piece, including Ernestine Moore, Amanda Propaganda, Jessica Wabbit, Big Nick, Kerri Justice, John Willis, Josh Ely, Raeghan Buchanan and Ryan Vile.