Remembering Matthew ‘Wink’ O’Bannon

In early ‘80s Louisville, a small collective of 20-somethings found their shared fervor for making punk rock music. Original Louisville punk bands Skull of Glee, Bunny Butthole, The Blinders and later bands The Bulls, Eleventh Dream Day and Bodeco all had one member in common: Matthew “Wink” O’Bannon. Wink, his adopted moniker, stuck after choosing the punk name Wink Cadaver. His passion to play was equal in measure to his passion to collaborate and help teach others the way of the guitar. A 10-year collection of original and found videos of his and other Louisville music can be found on his YouTube channel: hammerofthedogs.

O’Bannon passed away June 30 after battling cancer. He was 63.

We asked a few people to write tributes about Wink.

Bob Hunter
Former drummer (Antman, Stutter, Brother Stephen and the Humanitarians, Fat Wally), recording studio owner
“I met Wink on December 23, 1980, at his brother Michael’s house on Speed Avenue. My best friend, Bryan Hurst, was playing bass for The Blinders, and I’d come by to meet him. Over the next few months, I became a regular visitor there, and I can still recall the empty Coke cans, cigarette smoke and the music to which Wink and Michael were introducing me from the stereo in the room off of the living room. In the spring of 1983, I built and opened Artists’ Recording Service on Barret Avenue in The Highlands and started working with Wink and Michael recording various and sundry musical projects. In the summer of 1984, there was a brief and early (though not original) three-piece incarnation of Bodeco that was comprised of Ricky Feather and Wink on guitars and myself on drums. Wink and I actually helped Ricky paint some houses at this time so that he’d have time to practice. Practicing didn’t really help, but it was always fun. I remember playing a gig at L-M-N-O-P in Lexington and one at Tewligan’s. At both gigs, Ricky got so wasted before we went onstage that he basically forgot how the songs went, and he was just ‘crazy wild’ while Wink and I tried to keep something cohesive going on behind him. Wink was annoyed, as I recall, but he laughed it off and accepted it. Eventually, Brian Burkett came back behind the kit, and Bodeco went on to be the band that defined ‘crazy wild’ in Louisville.”

Chip Nold
Louisville writer and lead singer of Babylon Dance Band and The Bulls
“In the mid-‘80s, Wink and I played together in a band called The Bulls. Wink played bass — not his usual instrument; he was a great guitarist. But he was an even greater collaborator. When I listen back to the songs we recorded, his parts define them in ways I didn’t even realize at the time. The Bulls are just a blip in Wink’s career, but that’s the point: He played with nearly everyone in the scene that grew out of Louisville punk rock — taught a lot of them how to play guitar; encouraged and boosted others without any thought of what he might get out of it. Richard Hell once called Johnny Thunders ‘one of the unacknowledged legislators of rock and roll.’ In Louisville music, Wink O’Bannon was the tacitly acknowledged Mayor-for-Life.”

Tara Key
Guitarist, Antietam and Babylon Dance Band
“It may seem that our 1978/79 crew chose rock, but I believe rock chose us as its vessels. Wink was a General: a seamless fit between body, mind and soul to put a face to its spirit — to give it earthly substance. That’s why I craved our meetups onstage/on record. He had a hotline, a beeline connection to rock and roll (man, he had the chops); when he plugged me into the switchboard, I became kinetic. When I would send out my half of the helix and get his approval in the form of a knife-edge glint erupting into a squeal, then, bent inside-out to a guttural growl, I knew I was good. And that’s what was great about us — we made each other good. More important — he was my friend, my cheerleader and a truth serum. And, after I left town, it would seem he, generously, was that for a lot of people. I deeply mourn his loss. A wise and soulful man, Fred Cole (RIP) of Dead Moon, wrote me in 2006. Among other encouraging things he said, ‘Don’t give it up.’ A wise and soulful man, Wink O’Bannon (RIP) wrote me in 2018. Among other encouraging things he said, ‘Don’t give in. Don’t give up.’”

Screamin’ John Hawkins
Guitarist

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“Wink O’Bannon was a guitar hero. That fact is undeniable. Every single time I saw him onstage, he had the sort of unwavering confidence and bravado that we want to see in our guitar heroes. He was also a walking encyclopedia of music history, and I always enjoyed our long conversations about jazz, blues and the early days of the punk rock scene in Louisville. One thing I want people to understand about Wink is that he was a great cheerleader for his friends’ musical endeavors. He helped more musicians than I’m sure he realized during his time with us, through his no-nonsense style of encouragement, and his work inspired some of the greatest bands to ever come out of the Louisville indie scene. I’m proud to have known him.”

Wink performing with Grayson Hall in the early ’90s. | Photo by Bob Hunter.

Jeffrey Lee Puckett
Former music journalist, Courier Journal
“When I heard that Wink O’Bannon had died last week, my immediate reaction was a tangled mess of thoughts and emotions. If you knew him for any length of time, that was the only appropriate response. O’Bannon was a critical instigator of the Louisville music scene for decades, helping to get the punk movement started in the late 1970s. He was in more than a dozen bands, the most prominent of which were Bodeco, The Blinders, Skull of Glee, Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day, The Blinders, Women Who Love Candy and Sean Garrison & The Five Finger Discount. A guitarist of staggering skill, there was no kind of music Wink couldn’t play with an almost absurd authority. And there was no one he couldn’t piss off in a matter of seconds. He could be, let’s say, difficult.

When I first met Wink I was a young newspaper writer trying to figure out how to turn my love of music into a career writing about same. He was intimidating, a tower of arcane music knowledge who had little patience for lightweights such as myself. But what little patience he had, he frequently gifted to me. I’m still not sure why. He and I talked at length about our various issues with depression one slow night at Seidenfaden’s, where he bartended for many years. The irony that we were knocking back glasses of depressant at the same time wasn’t lost on us. He listened intently, making the same kind of unflinching eye contact he would use to unnerve people under different circumstances. Weeks later I wandered into the bar, feeling unwound, and he took one look and said, ‘One of those days?’ before setting a drink on the bar. ‘It’s on me.’ It was a small kindness that went a long way.

I wasn’t spared his temper, not by a long shot. We hadn’t talked for many years at the time of his death from cancer. I said or did something one night at Seidenfaden’s that triggered him — he had been drinking quite a bit — and he eviscerated me as brutally and efficiently as a battlefield surgeon. It wasn’t the first time but it was the last, and I regret that now, of course. That’s how these things work.

Wink was a primal guitar player. You couldn’t watch him and not want to learn how to do exactly that, whatever it was that he was doing. He was thrilling. I took guitar lessons from him for a few months — I still have copies of his handwritten practice sheets — until one day he quietly suggested that I was wasting my money, and this was a guy who always needed money. My most enduring memories of Wink are of him onstage, especially during Bodeco’s peak period in the 1990s. Wink, Rick Feather, Gary Stillwell, Jimmy Brown and Brian Burkett were, as one of their songs explained, holy rollers rocking in a killing machine and no other Louisville band has ever played better live. It was as if they were all standing on a mountain of gunpowder as Wink’s ever-present cigarette hung from his mouth and threatened to blow us all to atoms. My lasting image is him at full throttle during “Crazy Wild,” beating the shit out of his guitar like he hated it as much as he loved it. Maybe he hated it because he loved it, because it was the only thing that made him feel whole in a world that was constantly letting him down.

A lot of Bodeco songs ended with a snarl, Wink glaring at the band with murder in his eyes. No one in the audience knew why — it all sounded glorious to us — but sometimes the next song would go to yet another level of insanity. As Wink would strangle his guitar to within an inch of its life the audience would levitate, bottles would shatter, girls became spontaneously pregnant. And then maybe, just maybe, he’d let the hint of a grin play across his face. Wink, the eternal pessimist, would allow himself a small moment of satisfaction, as if he’d finally lived up to his own impossibly high standards. I hope he was as happy as we were.”

Joey Mudd
Musician and host of 97.1FM WXOX’s ‘The Deep End’
“Mickey Baker, Al Casey, Jimmy Raney, Steve Ferguson and Wink O’Bannon. Yeah, I’ve included Matthew ‘Wink’ O’Bannon in a short list of iconic Louisville guitarists with astronomical talent and influence. While he did not have the notoriety of a Raney or Baker, his influence on the Louisville underground rock and punk scene is substantial. Starting with The Blinders, he and his brother Michael injected a true, roots rock-and-roll spirit into the punk and underground music scene. Wink was a student of good music, passionate about the virtues of a great rock-and-roll song and the ‘crazy wild’ spirit of the music. His band, Bodeco, was a fine example of this. Onstage, Wink was Louisville’s swaggering guitar gunslinger not afraid to let the spirit of the music guide him throughout the set until eventually rocking us all into a beautiful, sweaty, distorted crescendo. Whenever he performed or recorded you knew he was giving it his all. Throwing everything he loved about the music into that effort. I am thankful I was able to see him play many times over the years. I will never forget his approach and passion for making music and showing us the true spirit of rock and roll.” 

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