In the early to mid-'80s, thriving punk and indie-rock scenes bubbled up in cities large and small across the country, supported by all-ages venues, independent record stores, nonprofit radio and fans devoted to living outside the mainstream.
The punks in Utah's capital shared with other undergrounds a devotion to aggressive, independent music and an anti-authoritarian attitude earmarked by a hatred of all things related to then-President Ronald Reagan; the Salt Lake City scene had the added specter of an overwhelmingly religious culture to rebel against, creating an incredibly tightknit community in the heart of Zion.
Sean Fightmaster was one of the Salt Lake scene's most avid foot soldiers in that rebellion. He maintained the spirit of that scene until he died unexpectedly in December at age 37. And if the Salt Lake City underground didn't die with the end of the Indian Center, the Word or the Speedway Cafe, it probably died with Sean.
But he did not go quietly.
In the weeks following his death Dec. 6, the Internet exploded with online tributes to the man many say epitomizes that era better than anyone. Word spread among veterans of the underground much like it would in the old days when a band like Black Flag or D.O.A. would book a show in town. Except this time, the word was spread via Web sites like Legacy.com and MySpace instead of over a cigarette at the Salt Lake Roasting Company, and the news bounced from Salt Lake City to New Zealand, Portland to Tulsa and beyond.
These people - many of them, like Sean, inspirations for characters in the 1999 Sundance movie "SLC Punk!" - posted messages recalling wild tales of his early years in the scene, as well as examples of his generosity and messages of support for his divorced parents Tom and Toni and sister Cydney.
"I am absolutely amazed at the impact he had on people he might have met once," Toni Fightmaster said about the online homages to her son. "He was a ripple."
For Sean's father, reading the messages from his son's friends helped him deal with the loss.
"At the beginning, I would look every day and read and re-read," Tom Fightmaster said.
"I'll always remember him as that wiry kid with a Mohawk who intentionally stood out in every crowd."
- Sandpoint, Idaho, from Legacy.com
Toni Fightmaster first knew she had a punk rocker living in the house "when I would come home from work and not know what color his hair was going to be." As an early adolescent, Sean went "from preppie to punk" almost overnight, she said, once he got turned on to the aggressive, often political music erupting from places like Los Angeles and London and, yes, Salt Lake City.
Sean got his first pair of Doc Martens at the long-closed Raunch Records. He listened to Brad Collins' "Behind the Zion Curtain" punk show on KRCL radio. He followed from afar bands like The Germs, and local bands Massacre Guys and Maimed for Life up close and personally. He "charged" his hair into a striking Mohawk to let his fellow East High students know just how "punk" he was.
Sean not only adopted the music and fashion of punk, he adopted a philosophy of "anarchy, anarchy, anarchy!", inevitably leading to conflicts with everyone from teachers to cops to "metalheads," even fellow scenesters. But his quick wit and charisma were undeniable, as were his punk-rock credentials, say those who knew him.
"He was a unique kid, kind of over-the-top. He was definitely 'punk,' " said James Shuman, who lived in the same neighborhood with Sean when they were growing up, and who sang with the Massacre Guys. Shuman, now 42 and a pharmacy technician, said he's heard from several old friends from the punk scene since leaving a message about Sean on the Legacy.com Web site. His memories of Sean are dominated by a sense that he was truly "punk" at a time in Salt Lake City when it wasn't easy to dress the part.
"I was a poser compared to him," Shuman said. "I was a punk, but I kind of kept it low-key because I didn't want to be messed with. He was [punk] all the time."
Michael Edwards, a 40-year-old lawyer now living in Seattle, knew Sean from the time he was 10, when Sean lived across the street from Edwards' grandmother. Edwards first heard about Sean's death from a friend in West Virginia, and spent time with his wife on the Legacy.com site, amazed at the places all the old Salt Lake punks have spread to through the years.
Edwards recalls the day Sean showed up at East High and "boom! He was falling-off-the-edge punk rock . . . He didn't buy anybody else's image of it." Edwards believes Sean will always be synonymous with the Salt Lake City punk scene.
"The reason that Sean is so iconic is that because of all the people in the scene, he really lived it," Edwards said. "He lived it, presumably, to the end."
"We were a community. We were all we had. We had one thing in common. Our families hated us - with the exception of mine - and they just didn't f---ing understand. My parents, they were old hippies, so they kind of grooved with what I was doing. They were down. They were like, 'F---, yeah, Sean, go out, rebel. Go out and find out what it's about. Go learn something.' "
- Sean Fightmaster, in an interview filmed by Michael Kaly for a potential documentary about the Salt Lake City punk scene
Sean struggled with drugs, including heroin, for much of his life. He had cleaned up and relapsed a few times; when he moved back to Salt Lake City in 2004 after a couple years in Portland, Ore., he was homeless, addicted and weighed only about 110 pounds despite standing well over 6 feet tall.
"I bought him a bus ticket to come back, and he got off the bus and I couldn't recognize him," said Toni Fightmaster.
"And he kept saying that all that mattered was his family," added his sister, Cydney.
After coming home, Sean settled some outstanding legal issues, went to meetings to help with his addictions and started getting healthy, his parents said. He was also working sporadically with his longtime friend Michael Kaly on a documentary meant to correct the inaccuracies of "SLC Punk!" - like the LSD-induced knife attack in the movie that Toni swears never happened, but Cydney maintains is an important part of Sean's legend. He was talking about taking some classes, too, according to his father, and had a fishing trip planned for February.
"There was a lot of optimism going around him," Tom Fightmaster said.
That optimism makes what happened Dec. 6 all the more tragic. Having coffee with his dad and sister at the Coffee Garden, Sean seemed upbeat despite having spent the morning talking to doctors about treatment for his hepatitis C. About 2 p.m. they split up, with Tom going to his apartment while Cydney dropped Sean at a friend's house before heading out to do some Christmas shopping. Toni arrived home from her job a little later than normal, around 4:20 p.m., and called out "Sean-O!" as she did most days to greet her son.
"I could see his bedroom light reflecting in the kitchen. I walked in and saw him just slumped on his bed," Toni recalled through tears just a month later. "I called 911, and I started doing CPR. I knew it wasn't doing anything, but I couldn't stop."
Toni managed to call Tom, who reached Cydney, and soon the family was gathered in the kitchen while their life was turned upside-down. The family is stilling waiting for the medical examiner's report to tell them why Sean died.
"It was kind of like science fiction," Tom Fightmaster said. "You know, they turn those places into a crime scene. There's a lot of hysteria."
Fast-forward about a week, when Cydney hosted a wake at her home, followed a night later by Salt Lake punk bands paying homage through the music Sean loved.
"We started with this idea, thinking we'd have about 20 of his closest friends [for the wake]," Tom said. "It turned out to be about 50 people for about three hours. Then we went down to Piper Down and ended up with more than 100.
"People have kind of a distorted view of the punk scene," he continued. "Being around Sean's friends at the concert, you see what kind of good people they are, and how close they are."
That was a month ago. Since then, more than 50 people have added their thoughts and memories to Sean's pages at Legacy.com and MySpace.
"I could tell you all kinds of stories about how he was bigger than life, how he was literally a legend in his own time, but it would all sound like the kind of things people say about someone after they have died. The important thing to remember about Sean is that we spoke of him that way when he was alive."
- "Wither in the Light" blog
To read some of the online tributes to Sean Fightmaster, visit:
* the "Wither in the Light" blog at mushika.blogspot.com