Friday, November 04, 2011

A Final Farewell to ZAK

Joseph Bernard Zak, more affectionately known as ZAK, was a poet and songwriter who dedicated his life to writing poems and songs.

One day in 1997, ZAK went to a photocopy shop to make copies of some of his song lyrics. At the same time, members of a punk rock band named Team Spider were there making copies of fliers for an upcoming concert. ZAK struck up a conversation with the band and soon had an invitation to come to their show and recite poetry. He began reciting poetry at the band’s shows and Team Spider made him a member of the group. He performed with them for nine years until shortly before his death in December 2006.

ZAK was 80 years old when he died and didn’t join the punk band until he was 71. He was an unlikely and inspiring presence on stage and became a revered figure in the New York punk scene.

He had no real family, having been sent to a boys’ home during the Great Depression by his parents. Team Spider became his family. It was members of Team Spider who visited him in nursing homes when his health began to fail. It is members of Team Spider today who maintain a storage space filled floor to ceiling with boxes of ZAK’s poems and song lyrics.

And it was Team Spider who recently laid ZAK to rest, almost five years after his passing.

ZAK made most of his funeral arrangements himself. A devout Catholic, he arranged for his funeral to be held at Our Lady of Peace Church on 62nd Street. He asked that he be cremated and his ashes be scattered at sea.

Not content to let ZAK’s ashes be spread anonymously or comingled with the ashes of others and unceremoniously jettisoned from a plane or commercial barge, the members of Team Spider early on decided they would spread their former band mate’s ashes themselves. Lead singer Chris Ryan very deftly swiped the ashes from the church at the funeral. The funeral director on hand, who was supposed to take possession of the ashes, caught up with the group outside the church, where he told them it was OK for them to spread the ashes themselves, so long as they did so in a way approved by law etc.

You could say that the arrangements of ZAK’s final resting place were made in PRT, or Punk Rock Time. A boat was chartered in 2009 but fell through at the last minute. Other things got in the way. Chris and his wife Allie were married in 2010. Other members have been busy with other bands. Life just got in the way of putting closure on ZAK’s death.

The band invited me along to help them say farewell, an honor I am very grateful for. After meeting at bass player Dave Satkowki’s apartment, a small group set out by car to the Marine Basin Marina near Coney Island, Brooklyn. It is a small marina tucked away in an industrial part of the Brooklyn waterfront. Chris brought ZAK’s ashes along with flowers and video and audio recording equipment. Team Spider hosts a cable access TV show and documents everything.

We met up with the boat captain and boarded the boat, and soon set out for the Atlantic Ocean. We made our way out of the marina where boats with festive names like ‘I’ll Go’ and ‘Why Not’ rested. It was early October and the weather was summerlike and several people were enjoying the last of the summer season, with many apparently living on their boats.

We motored into New York Harbor south of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and went east past the community of Sea Gate and Coney Island and out into the ocean. We continued on until the nearby boats became fewer and the shoreline farther away.

ZAK’s ashes were put in a basket and covered with rose pedals. A few ashes were saved to be spread in Tompkins Square Park. The basket was set on the deck of the boat next a chair that had a framed photo of the departed on it.

Chris gathered everyone on deck around ZAK’s ashes and portrait. We said a few words about ZAK.

Team Spider guitar player Sam recalled one of his fondest memories of playing with ZAK happened in Tompkins Square Park during an outdoor concert the band performed there. While playing the song, ‘Know That I Love You,’ a group of young punk rockers climbed on stage and surrounded ZAK. They began chanting “We fucking love you! We fucking love you!”

I mentioned how when I first saw ZAK at a show at CBGB, I thought he was someone’s grandfather there to see someone play. I mentioned how ZAK did what he was driven to do creatively, not what people expected him to do as an elderly person.

After everyone had said their piece, the boat’s captain lowered the basket into the water. As it began to sink, one of Team Spider’s members pulled a rope attached to the bottom of it, letting the ashes go in a cloud just beneath the water. The rose pedals floated on the water and we each threw a rose into the ocean.

As we watched the roses and pedals float farther out to sea, the ocean was quiet and calm, and buoys in the distance chimed like church bells.

After a little while, we began our way back. A few of us had to go our separate ways, but the Team Spider members met up to have a remembrance dinner for their lost band mate.

Joseph Bernard Zak was an extraordinary man who lived his life to create and found a family among New York’s punk rockers. The members of Team Spider gave him a send off worthy of the beauty and creativity that he brought to the world.

Know that we love you, ZAK, and always will.


Dave Sat said...

Haha! PRT! Truer words were never spoken. Thanks for coming along and documenting the event with this great article!

Xris said...

Thanks Matt! Great memories , that old crazy is still bringing people together
Next project:gotta find a home for those lyrics!
( an archive group? Collection?) AND scan them/ get them online ( a zakproject website?) so others can write music, keep his songs coming ( 30,000 to go :-)
-chris / TS