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“Let me go”: A father is keeping his son’s memory alive through his music

A plaque at BuffaLouie's of Ben Schwartzman memorializes him. Ben died by suicide in 2007. (Devan Ridgway WFIU/WTIU)

Content warning: This article discusses topics that may be disturbing to some readers, including issues surrounding suicide.

Ben Schwartzman was a singer-songwriter who played an acoustic guitar. His favorite place to play was at coffee shops. Most times when he was performing, he’d be barefoot and keep his head down.

Ben would play a lot of heavy songs, like “Yesterday” by the Beatles or “Creep” by Radiohead, his father, Ed Schwartzman, said.

One of his favorite songs to play was “Can’t You See” by the Marshall Tucker Band. In the song, one of the lyrics reads, “Gonna climb a mountain. The highest mountain. I’ll jump off, nobody gonna know.”

Now, his father wonders if the mention of suicide was why Ben gravitated to that song. On October 15, 2007, Ben died by suicide in the basement of his home at age 19.

Ben’s death was not a total surprise. Ed knew he was struggling. He was seeing a counselor and a psychiatrist. Sometimes he would alternate between taking his medications and not taking them. Ben had also talked about death.

That didn't make it hurt any less.

Ed Schwartzman looks at photos of his son
Ed Schwartzman looks at photos of his son. Devan Ridgway WFIU, WTIU.

For a long time after Ben’s death, Schwartzman blamed himself. 

“That he would do this, I’ve got to be the worst father in the world,” he said.

But he would go to support groups for parents whose children had died by suicide. His eyes would scan the couples. They all looked normal. Sometimes he’d think, ‘They look pretty cool, I'd hang out with them.’

Suicide was complicated, Schwartzman said.

Now, Schwartzman knows more facts about suicide then he ever thought he’d know. He knows that most suicides happen during the spring. He thinks this is because everyone is enjoying the warm weather and blooming flowers, while those with depression are stuck in a dark hole. 

He also knows that the day of the week most common for suicide is Monday. He wonders if those with suicidal thoughts can’t bear to take on an entire week.

While Ben’s death was in the fall, it was a beautiful day. And it was a Monday.

Ever since his death, Schwartzman has been wondering what he could do with Ben’s music.

He used to think if he could keep Ben playing, playing for a crowd, playing at pubs, playing music in some way, he’d be okay. 

“All I wanted to do was keep him playing,” Schwartzman said. “I felt that if I could keep him playing, it was like therapy.”

Everyone has their thing, Schwartzman said, and Ben’s was playing and writing music.

One of the songs Ben wrote was called, “Let Me Go.” A lyric reads, “People are dying just to live. I am living just to die.”

The song opens with the lyric, “Breathe deep. Let me go back to sleep,” which would repeat. But the last line of the song said, “Talk soft. Breathe deep. Let me go.”

Schwartzman noticed and said the song scared him. Now he knows that was for good reason.

Ben wasn’t a dark kid. He had a lot of friends. You couldn’t tell what he was going through by looking at him, Schwartzman said. But he wrote his music from the words inside of him.

After Ben’s death, Schwartzman couldn’t listen to his music. When he would play it, he would feel emotional. He would cry. Sometimes, he would feel paralyzed. Even though he couldn’t listen to the music, he was still trying to spread it. For Ben.

This journey to release Ben’s music has lasted the past 14 years.

Ben Schwartzman plays guitar
A photo of Ben Schwartzman playing guitar. Devan Ridgway WFIU, WTIU.

Ben’s story dates back so far that some of the first musicians Schwartzman told his story to included Jermaine Jackson and NSYNC all the way to the Zac Brown Band and John Mellencamp. 

Every time Schwartzman talked to one of them, he was sure that they were going to jump on the project. But nothing ever happened.

Once, Schwartzman came across someone who writes musicals, who said she wanted to write a musical around Ben’s music. She painted the arc of the story. It was a two person play. She said she wanted the musical to be played in every high school in America. 

Then, nothing happened.

The thing that kept Schwartzman going was that when people would listen to his story, they would empathize with him, but when they listened to Ben’s music, they would tell him it was truly good music.

When filmmaker John Armstrong walked into Schwartzman’s restaurant, BuffaLouie’s, more than four years ago, Schwartzman told him Ben’s story. Years passed, and Armstrong would occasionally tell Schwartzman that he had never forgotten his story, but Schwartzman didn’t think much of it. He had heard similar things before.

Then, a few weeks ago, Armstrong walked back into BuffaLouie’s and told Schwartzman he had a surprise. His friend, David Weber, had cleaned up some of Ben’s songs at Airtime Studios in Bloomington. They went to the studio together the next day, and Schwartzman listened to the songs. They were cleaner and crisper. 

A musician who had been at the studio, Zach Riddle, contacted Schwartzman a few days later and told him he was compelled by Ben’s music and story. He helped Schwartzman get two songs, “Let Me Go” and “My Apology” up on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Spotify, which are also available on Ben’s website. The songs were released on October 15 -- the 14th anniversary of Ben’s death.
There are nine more songs of Ben’s and one from his sister Hayley, that Schwartzman wants to release in an album.

He isn’t sure if he wants Ben’s music to be about suicide prevention or if he wants the music to speak for itself. The song by Hayley, “Your Choice,” will be a part of the album. The song that’s clearly about the effect a suicide can have on a family, Schwartzman said. 

Having this project to work on helped Schwartzman stay connected with his son. Right after Ben’s death, he thought about him 24/7. Driving, the road would remind him of Ben. A song would remind him of Ben. Teenage boys that walked into BuffaLouie’s reminded him of Ben.

But Schwartzman remembers the first day he laid his head down on a pillow and realized he hadn’t thought about Ben. He knew that was healthy, that he was processing his grief. 

Still, this project keeps Ben fresh in his heart, Schwartzman said. 

Now when Schwartzman is talking to friends, he can give them an update about Ben, tell them about how his music is going. It gives them the opportunity to talk about his son.

While Ben’s music was once too hard to listen to, Schwartzman now listens to Ben’s songs every day in the car. He hums and sings along. He hasn’t done this in 14 years.

“So it feels really good,” he said.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

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