OBITUARY: Brent Macnab and Darren Zenko set their own agendas

Brent Macnab

There are some very sad people in Edmonton this week.

First came word that guitarist Brent Macnab died suddenly late Tuesday night, from an apparent heart attack – just days after seeming as normal as ever at an area jam session. The one-time member of the Models and Famous Blue Raincoat was 53 years old.

And on Wednesday, local writer Darren Zenko, 38, died after a long battle with cancer. Hundreds of tributes had already been pouring in on a special Facebook page – To Darren Zenko, With Love – along with a handmade quilt made by his friends and family, presented to Zenko personally just a few days ago at the Grey Nuns Hospital, where he was in palliative care.

It’s hard to make sense of these losses so close together, one so tragically sudden, one so tragically expected: Two such different artists from different generations, different circles of friends and different fields of creativity. It’s unlikely these two ever met. But each man made his own indelible impact on the Edmonton arts scene, and set their own agendas rather than followed someone else’s.

Darren Zenko

Zenko, with his gift for cutting to the heart of almost every issue he came across, and especially hard on the media, was perhaps best known for his long-running video game column he called “Infinite Lives.” It appeared under different names in at least four different publications, including the Edmonton Journal and the Toronto Star – compelling reading even if you weren’t into video games, which says a lot for his writing talent. He also wrote comics and short stories, having started his journalism career at the U of A’s Gateway newspaper. He was also a DJ at CJSR.

Like Zenko, Macnab didn’t often let people tell him what to do. His friend, drummer Brian Cymbaluk, whom he worked with in several different bands, including Famous Blue Raincoat, says, “He was his own individual. He didn’t change for anybody, which was a great thing: This is who I am, take me or leave me. He taught me a lot: If you like me, great, if you don’t, even better. Let’s not waste time. He lived that – he even lived that 25 years ago.”

Sound engineer and singer Andrew White more recently played with Macnab in a band called the Joint Chiefs. They first met in Victoria in the ‘70s. “He had a skunk-striped hairdo and played a black flying V guitar,” White says. “We all thought he was the coolest thing.” Macnab was in bunch of bands after the Models: One Horse Blue, Slash and the Bleeding Hearts, Famous Blue Raincoat in Edmonton and a popular cover band called Steve McGarrett’s Hair, and he would occasionally come up with new original projects of his own.

Cymbaluk compares Macnab’s attitude to Neil Young, citing the 1985 charity single “Tears Are Not Enough” where producer David Foster tells Neil Young he may have been a little flat in one part, to which Young responds, “That’s my sound, man.” Cymbaluk adds, “With Brent, that’s the classic way I could sum it up. That was his style.”

Darren Zenko likewise had a number of different projects. His friends are seeing a few of them to completion, including a comic book. Most who met him agree the encounters were memorable. Zenko was an early supporter of GigCity. When told we wanted to call it a “digital magazine,” he cracked wise, “Does it come with a CD ROM?” Our theatre writer Adrian Lackey, who worked at the now defunct See magazine around the same time Zenko did, remembers, “Darren was very often the guy who stopped me in the street and praised me for my work – when everyone else was writing hate mail.”

Lackey has been in poor health lately, finding it difficult to find motivation to work, but says he was inspired by the recent story about Zenko in the Edmonton Journal, published just a few days before he died.

“I was feeling down,” Lackey says. “I was feeling conquered by my illnesses, and reading about Darren made me realize I should and can rise above them.”

Reading the hundreds of tributes on To Darren Zenko, With Love, it’s clear Zenko has inspired a lot of people. So has Macnab. They’ll both be missed terribly.