Indiana man who died at 19 lives on through his music

Posted11/27/2021 7:00 AM

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On a breezy Monday, Ed Schwartzman plops a bag next to him at the center table of his Bloomington restaurant. It doesn't look like much: laminated photo collages, loose papers, weathered pictures of mid-90s youth soccer teams - all featuring the same smiling boy and his brown mop of slightly curled hair.

But this bag is precious.


It contains many of the physical memories of the 19 years spent on earth by Schwartzman's son, Ben, before Ben died by suicide in 2007.

'What's funny is I brought a lot of the stuff I have about Ben that I haven't looked at ever,' Schwartzman says, as he starts rifling though his bag. 'Because it's just so painful.'

As severe depression and bipolar disorder weighed on his teenage years, Ben took his guitar with him everywhere. Studio time was his release.

He recorded songs of angst, of heartbreak, of the metaphysical and the mundane. His parents' marital problems, God and thoughts of self-harm were all probed.

These lyrics, from Ben's song 'Let Me Go,' are carved into his tombstone and a park bench in Schererville, where Ben grew up.

After Ben died, his father made it a personal mission to share this music - some of the most tangible proof that Ben was here.

After 14 years of cold calls and failed celebrity run-ins help from a few of his fellow Hoosiers have given Schwartzman his chance.

Beginning on Oct. 15, the anniversary of Ben's death, and ending Nov. 12, 'Falling Star' was released in several-song chunks through streaming services and a new website.

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Schwartzman hopes people enjoy the music. But he also hopes Ben's story will spread awareness about mental health and suicide prevention.

All proceeds from the release will go to Centerstone, a nonprofit mental health provider.

He's hoping for a Grammy, Schwartzman is not ashamed to say, but he'll settle for the feelings Ben's newly released songs give him as he hums along in his car.

'Now when I hear his music, I feel optimistic. For 14 years, I'd be brokenhearted,' Schwartzman said, his voice breaking up as he pushes the words out. 'If nothing else, that just allows me to feel good. To listen to my son's music without crying? That's a win.'

According to his family, Ben Schwartzman and his younger sister, Hayley, had happy childhoods in northwest Indiana.

Ben graduated from Lake Central High School in 2007 and attended what is now Purdue University Northwest.


When asked about Ben's interest in music, his father reaches back into the bag.

'I just saw a note in here from his Uncle Tommy, who says at age 12, Ben asked him to teach him some chords on his guitar,' Schwartzman said.

Uncle Tommy came through, and by 15 or 16, Ben was playing open mics at coffee shops. The Blue Room Café in Highland was a favorite spot.

As such, his music has a distinct coffee shop/acoustic singer-songwriter vibe. There is a paradoxical sweetness to his voice, as he sings out lyrics that are anything but sweet.

His cover song choices were also steeped in melancholy - 'Creep' by Radiohead, The Beatles' 'Yesterday.'

'I would say to Ben, you've got to lighten it up for your audience because everything is too heavy for them,' Schwartzman said.

One of the songs on his album, 'Big Man,' was written in part to placate his father's push for something more upbeat, Schwartzman remembers. Ben used to call his father 'Big Man,' though the song seems to also refer to God.

It's an upbeat tempo, but the lyrics are bleak.

Hayley Schwartzman, now 30-year-old Hayley Dolan, is living in Portland, where she performs solo and in bands on the weekends.

One of her first public performances was alongside Ben at a coffee shop just three days before his death. They performed 'One Sweet Love' by Sara Bareilles.

'Just knowing that my brother's music is still thriving and reaching people - keeping his memory and spirit alive in the world - it's a really healing thing to have,' Dolan said.

One of Dolan's early songs, 'Your Choice,' written and recorded within a year of Ben's death, delves into the heartbreak and anger she felt at the time. It is included on Ben's album.

Dolan's perspective has changed in the years since.

'It's truly an illness,' she said. 'Yes, it's someone's choice ultimately, but the illness is really making it. Someone who doesn't have mental illness does not move towards death. He didn't make this choice in a sound state of mind.

As a boy, Ben developed an involuntary tic around 4 or 5 years old. He suffered from asthma and allergies. By the time puberty hit, he was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder.

Schwartzman stressed his son was in therapy and receiving treatment.

Ben's mental health issues were exacerbated, Schwartzman said, when he began experimenting with marijuana while also on medication for his depression. His parents' divorce and financial problems in the family also played a role.

His son never wanted Schwartzman to see his lyrics, which paint a fairly clear picture of his internal struggles. Schwartzman was distressed by the content, but he eventually figured the songs were a constructive release for his son.

'He is telling you how he feels now, and that was always why we thought if he could just keep singing - I know he's hurting, I know he's in pain, but look at this release he has and how beautiful it is,' Schwartzman said.

Ben's mother, Debbie Flanagan, said she took him for psychiatric evaluation after reading her son's lyrics. Still, she agreed Ben's music was his release.

'Music was his therapy,' Flanagan said. 'His music kept him alive to 19 as far as I'm concerned. And if someone else gets therapy or comfort from it? I'm great with that.'

Flanagan is not involved with the album's release, saying she poured her efforts into advocacy and suicide prevention awareness through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She ran a support group in Franklin for several years.

'We help people to recognize the warning sings -- things I was not privy to while Ben was alive,' Flanagan said. 'I wanted to honor his untimely death in a way that helps others.'

After his son became an adult, there was only so much Schwartzman could do to keep Ben upbeat and on track.

'To show you how strong mental illness is, about a week before he died -- before he took his life,' Schwartzman said. 'That was the last time I saw him, or maybe second to the last. But he said 'Dad, I think I'm going to quit the guitar. ... I know everybody tells me I'm good, but I'm really not.''

Schwartzman pleaded with his son to keep at it, saying he may not be Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, but he had talent.

'I don't want to make this whole thing about suicide, but you look at like a Robin Williams, and they're up on stage and they're laughing and loving and getting all this adulation,' Schwartzman said. 'But you can not run from what's inside your head.'

After Ben's death, Schwartzman found it too painful to remain in Lake County, so he took a job at BuffaLouie's in Bloomington, where Hayley was planning to attend college at IU.

Schwartzman would eventually marry his coworker, Jaimie, and the couple soon bought out the restaurant's owners and settled in Bloomington with their two young children.

As life went on, Schwartzman continued to share Ben's demos with anyone he could. He cold-called record companies and musicians. A plaque with Ben's photo - as always, he's playing guitar - hangs near the front of the restaurant.

Famous Hoosiers such as John Mellencamp and Jermaine Jackson were given demos along with their chicken wings, as was anyone else even remotely involved in the entertainment business who may have been speaking at IU, Schwartzman said.

He was hoping to get some sort of record deal and release the music in the traditional way.

In 2017, local filmmaker John Armstrong visited the restaurant and asked Schwartzman if he would feed his crew in exchange for a spot on the project's credits. Schwartzman agreed, but he also passed along Ben's demos in hopes they could be of use for a film soundtrack.

Like every time before, he didn't hear back.

Armstrong said he did not have a spot in the film, 'Ms. White Light,' for Ben's music, but he was moved by Ed's story and impressed by the songs.

'I have a 17-year-old son myself, and I empathized with Ed,' Armstrong said. 'You can't help but ask how do you survive something like that?'

About two months ago, Armstrong returned to the restaurant with news: He had given the demos to Dave Weber of nearby Airtime Studios, known for producing IU group turned a cappella stars Straight No Chaser. Weber and his wife, singer-songwriter Krista Detor, took interest and worked to clean up and modernize the recordings.

Armstrong invited Schwartzman to Airtime for a listen. As is his custom, Schwartzman brought chicken wings.

Zach Riddle was in the studio that day recording with his group, The Hinterland Band, and was invited to listen in on Ben's updated music.

Riddle, who had never met Schwartzman, was also moved, and stressed to Schwartzman how good the songs were.

'It just matters that it's a real recording,' Riddle said. 'It's earnest. It has a genuine quality that you can't replicate with studio musicians.'

Riddle explained to Schwartzman that he no longer needed a record deal to get his son's music out.

Within a few months, Riddle had helped Schwartzman set up his website and upload Ben's music to Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music.

As he searched for a way to further the significance of Ben's music by helping those struggling with their own mental health issues, Schwartzman contacted Centerstone, a nonprofit with a location in nearby Bloomington.

Centerstone provides mental health care and crisis counseling for those who need it, as well as suicide prevention training for individuals and other organizations.

'We are so honored to be a part of this journey with Ben's music,' said Ramona Rhodes, executive director of Centerstone's foundation. 'We deliver help to those who need it across Indiana, and this money will help fund someone else's care.'

Schwartzman said it isn't clear whether the songs will make any money, but 'every penny will go to Centerstone.'

He called the chance meetings across the years leading up to the album's release 'serendipitous.'

Armstrong agrees.

'The universe is conspiring to keep Ben's music alive -- to keep it in Ed's heart, and now we all get to experience it,' Armstrong said. 'But that's also Bloomington. The community, how everyone helps each other -- that's just how things work here.'


Source: The Indianapolis Star

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