Kevin Donahue was an enigmatic “character” around Cincinnati, one of those people every city of reasonable size has a few of — someone who you consistently spot randomly walking down the street and, due to his distinct look, instantly recognize. Donahue’s tall frame and lumbering, frazzled swagger made him hard to miss. Due to such frequent sightings, I knew who he was long before I ever met him. There’s a good chance that if you’ve hung around the Clifton area for any period of time in the past few decades, even if you don’t recognize the name, you’d recognize him.
But Kevin wasn’t some street urchin. Donahue was a die-hard music-head with a passion for, in particular, Garage Rock. That passion was evident in everything he poured into his band The Pariahs, a local cult favorite that has played (often packed) shows on and off since the mid-’90s.
I knew Donahue had a lot of fans locally, in part due to The Pariahs, but also because his eccentricities were endlessly endearing; he was kind yet honest and conversations with him were always interesting and funny. But I didn’t fully realize Donahue’s full and broad impact on local musicians, fans and his many friends until I heard that he had died on Sept. 13. Gradually I started to see a steady stream of sincere, reverential tributes on social media. Local Garage band The Long Gones wrote about what an inspiration Donahue was to them, calling the singer a “Cincinnati Rock & Roll icon” and one of the “all-time great frontmen.” Numerous others from the local music scene expressed similar sentiments.
Donahue, who was originally from Dayton, Ohio, was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer three years ago and doctors told him he had about six months to live. He, of course, proved them wrong, and even through treatment he’d still work up the energy to do an occasional Pariahs show every few months (which was about the band’s usual schedule anyway). The last show was at Northside’s Comet on July 31, Donahue’s 56th birthday.
The Pariahs counted numerous local musicians among its ranks over the past nearly 20 years, with Donahue (who also spent some time singing with local Psych/Garage group Flesh and the Devils and created unique visual art in his spare time) the only constant. Bassist Scott Haggerty was in the final Pariahs lineup and was a friend of Donahue’s for over 30 years. Haggerty is heading up efforts to raise funds to use a cemetery plot that was donated for Donahue’s final resting place. A GoFundMe page has been set up here to accept donations, which will be used to pay for a service and burial of Donahue’s cremated remains. Haggerty says if he’s able to raise more money through the site, he wants to use it to purchase a headstone/marker; he says he believes Donahue would’ve wanted such a memorial for friends to be able visit and hang out, Jim Morrison-style.
Haggerty has spent the past few weeks helping to get Donahue’s affairs in order, including going through all of his “folk art,” as he calls it, a lot of which used animal skulls and bones. He says he’d love to be able to have the work exhibited. He also says he’s exploring the idea of compiling some Pariahs recordings for public release. The Pariahs’ discography is the definition of scant — two songs that appeared on a couple of local music compilations from Deary Me Records at the turn of the century seem to be all that exists officially. Haggerty also says there are plans to celebrate The Pariahs’ and Donahue’s legacy with what he calls “Pariahs Karaoke,” a sort of tribute concert where bands will play songs The Pariahs were known for and fans can get on stage and sing some of their own favorites. But right now the priority is to raise the money needed to have a service and bury Donahue’s ashes.
I asked Haggerty what it was about Donahue that made him so widely respected, appreciated and seemingly influential. He believes it’s at least partially because of how Donahue genuinely lived freely, never getting bogged down by the responsibilities and lifestyle changes that have killed a million youthful Punk Rock personas.
“I think people were jealous. (Kevin) lived the way he wanted,” he says. “He always seemed to do whatever he wanted to do, whenever he wanted to do it.”
CONTACT MIKE BREEN: [email protected]