© 2021 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local News

Everybody’s Best Friend: A Personal Tribute to My Friend Kent Stanton

Kent2.jpg
Lavonda Van Halen/Courtesy Photo
/

On Sunday, April 26, Pensacola lost a legend. Kent Stanton—the iconic punk and folk musician who performed in just about every venue and many street corners—died suddenly in his sleep. Now a community mourns.

Within minutes of Kent’s death, news spread like wildfire through social media. The sentiment was universal. To say news of Kent’s death was a shock would be an understatement. Kent Stanton was a larger-than-life figure in Pensacola, especially in the punk scene. He performed for decades in a number of older bands, yet he never judged the younger musicians and remained supportive until his last days.

He was older than most of the punks, but travelled well with them. They were his people. They loved the intergenerational support, and Kent loved them back. While most of his peers from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s moved on to the things people move on to when they get older, no matter how the scene changed, Kent was still around.  

In fact, he was always around. One didn’t have to be in the punk scene to know Kent, either. A trip to the Palafox Market would often find Kent playing on the street. A walk by the Saenger might find Kent playing underneath the awning. He’d play anywhere. 

-uZfnmDKIy8

Most of his songs were original, but his covers were better than the originals. He played Dylan better than Dylan. He loved Elvis and channeled “The King” when he sang “Suspicious Minds.” For years, he was famous for playing a cover of Van Halen’s “Jump,” a song that admittedly annoyed me—that is, until Kent started singing his version. 

Still, it was his originals that stuck most in my head. As I write this, I keep thinking of one of his older songs “Don’t Even Try” or “The Trouble with Dying Young,” the latter feeling too close to home. One of the lines, “We thought you’d outlive the sun,” is in constant refrain in my head this week. YouTube is filled with his videos, most of which he created himself. They’re all worth a listen, but to be honest, I can’t even play them right now. I feel if I go down that rabbit hole, I won’t be able to stop listening and won’t be able to stop crying. Maybe it’s the depressing pandemic moment, coupled with the loss of a close friend, but this loss feels so heavy. 

Like many, I first knew Kent from his stage presence. Kent’s bands often played at the clubs I frequented, Sluggo’s and the Handlebar, but I hadn’t actually met Kent until the late ‘90s. I moved to Pensacola in 1995, and I’d only heard of his most famous band The Unemployed. I followed his later bands, Plaid Girl and Neutronic. I even tried unsuccessfully to put out a record with Neutronic, but I still hadn’t met Kent personally. Even though he seemed down to Earth, Kent had this rock star aura around him that was hard for me to ignore at that time. 

Then one day, I heard he disappeared.   

For nearly half a year, no one saw or heard from Kent. Friends worried, many thinking the worst. Then by chance a friend of Kent’s went into Books-a-Million and saw him. Turns out, Kent travelled to Elvis’ home Graceland, considered ending it all, but came back to Pensacola instead and lived in his car in the parking lot of the bookstore for six months. Kent disappeared in plain sight. He passed the time reading voraciously from open to close, and went to sleep in his car every night until one day a friend brought him home. 

Although Kent’s disappearance at first reads like an interesting tale (in fact, the anecdote features in a novel by Aaron Cometbus), the story also portends other problems in Kent’s life. I’d be lying if I said that Kent Stanton didn’t wrestle with demons, which some say is where the genius of an artist comes from, yet that constant struggle takes its toll. 

While Kent was almost always ready to greet anyone with a smile, a look into his lyrics betrayed the always-happy façade. Kent struggled with a lot of problems throughout his adult life, but what made Kent seem indestructible was his ability to bounce back. He always made the best of the worst situations.  

In 1999, I moved into a punk house known as 309, now the headquarters for the 309 Punk Project. At the time, the house was a little less famous than it’s become, but 309 was still a beehive of creativity with writers and musicians in every room. Shortly after I moved in, Kent rented a friend’s van which was permanently parked outside the house. With an extension cord, Kent made the van his home. He couldn’t have been happier. Kent had a roof over his head, food to eat, and friends with which to talk.

He wasn’t alone anymore, and that was enough it seemed. 

Eventually, Kent moved into the house itself, and soon after started working at Van Gogh’s Coffee Haus around the corner. Beloved as a barista, he was most famous for running the open mic where he’d often play—either with his new band Flat Broke Folk or solo. On the stage, any stage, was where Kent shined.

No matter his mood or his emotional state, I can honestly say I don’t remember a time when he didn’t seem to transcend the pains of this world when he started singing. 

Whether leading dozens in a Van Halen cover, talking about the history of the song “Amazing Grace,” getting a crowd to play kazoos, or singing about his multiple heartbreaks, Kent Stanton almost always had an audience in his hands. Even when the audience was too busy drinking or talking and didn’t seem to care that he was baring his soul, he kept on playing his music and just went back into his head. When Kent was performing, he was doing what he was born to do. Kent was a performer, and he was happiest on stage.

tw77AVjYjY8

Every day wasn’t good, though. After one particularly very low point in his life, Kent was arrested and went to jail for a short time. When I visited him, if I remember correctly, he spent the whole time talking about these “jailhouse burritos” he learned to make. Apparently, the typical jailhouse recipe wasn’t good enough, so Kent, who co-founded End of the Line Café, created a special recipe that made him pretty popular behind bars. When I was scrolling through Facebook after he died, I laughed when I saw someone else posted a story about Kent’s jailhouse burrito. 

I like that story because it’s pretty emblematic of Kent. No matter where he went, he made the best of the situation and made friends. I once complimented him on this really bright paisley shirt he was wearing, and he said a homeless friend took it off his back and gave it to him. Literally, this man gave Kent the shirt off his back. The same guy gave Kent his shoes. Everyone loved Kent, and Kent loved everyone. He seemed like everyone’s best friend. 

It’s fair to say, however, that Kent went through some serious ups and downs when he lived at 309, but what I’m leaning on most now are the good times. In my mind, I remember Kent sitting at our big table during potlucks. I remember Kent smoking on the porch and sketching. I remember Kent drinking coffee and reading the paper. I remember Kent listening to the radio upstairs with our roommate Andee. Most of all, I remember Kent playing his beautiful songs on the balcony upstairs. 

Hearing Kent sing on that balcony was beautiful because I really don’t think we were the audience. I think he was singing to the stars. Kent Stanton loved the stars. He not only loved to talk about stars, but he loved feeling closer to them. Some of his favorite memories were going to Hobo Beach on the east side of the Graffiti Bridge to watch a meteor shower, an eclipse, or any celestial event. He’d lay on the beach and watch the heavens. That’s where Kent found peace of mind.

Recently, however, Kent went through one of his low periods, but thankfully was coming back up again. He just moved into this new house that he loved, was about to start working again at the cafe, and seemed on top of the world. He even came by 309 for a big clean up and was the life of the party. I don’t think he actually cleaned anything, but no one cared. We were just happy having him around.  

A few weeks later, Kent was riding bikes with a friend and stopped by 309. They’d just come back from Hobo Beach. Kent was smiling, laughing, and typically talkative. We talked about all of the things Kent loved to talk about: astronomy, friends, books, family, and Elvis. I was really happy to see him in such a good place, both physically and mentally. Before he rode off, I thanked him for dropping by the house to see me. “I love you, Kent,” I said as I walked back into 309. 

“I love you, too, Scotty.” 

Those were the last words we ever said to each other as he rode away forever. 

Kent Stanton was a beautiful soul. From what I’ve heard, Kent died peacefully in his sleep.  Currently, there are no solid plans for a community memorial, but surely some will arise.

His brother Scott Stanton, known to many as Panhandle Slim, wrote me a note after Kent died to see how I was doing. At the end of his note, Scott wrote about Kent: “He finished the long race on the crazy place. Kent got 1st place. His other beings picked him up and took him back to the place he belongs, the place that fully understands him. This place did not."

oPE2aXseMs0

There is a hole in this community with Kent’s death, and there are a lot of broken hearts. There are also a lot of smiles and laughs, which Kent would’ve loved. His family and close friends are taking great comfort in the huge outpouring of love expressed online. In the real world where Kent lived, someone painted a giant mural dedicate to Kent on the Graffiti Bridge. End of the Line Café has a massive poster in its window with pictures of Kent greeting customers as he once did in person. There’s even a petition circulating to make a statue for Kent. I’d love to see that happen.

All of that said, I’d rather just have Kent back. I’ll forever miss his smile, his talks, his wild hair, his swagger, and his haunting voice. As I write this tribute in 309, I can almost hear him playing his guitar upstairs in the house we shared with some of the best people this city ever produced. If I had to live anywhere and hear this news, I’m glad I live in Pensacola, and I’m glad I’m here at 309—the house he loved in the city he loved.  

There’s a very short, but poignant, poem by Langston Hughes that I often turn to in moments like this:

“I loved my friend

He went away from me

There's nothing more to say

The poem ends,

Soft as it began-

I loved my friend.”

Like so many people in Pensacola, I loved my friend. To borrow a line from one of Kent’s songs, we all thought he “would outlive the sun.” But of course, that doesn’t happen—not even to Kent Stanton.  

When I go outside at night and walk near the train tracks, I like to look up into the heavens. Venus is bright these nights and the other stars seem to be a little brighter too. I like to think that Kent Stanton is with those stars he loved so much, and with our friends and his family who went there first. Mostly, I just hope Kent Stanton is at peace right now and that he knew just how much he was really loved.

Rest in peace, friend.