[This story, co-written with Matt Cohen, appeared in the Washington City Paper on May 12, 2016]
It wasn’t John Stabb’s idea. The decorations strewn about his room at Holy Cross Hospital, the photographer, and the minister. Less than a month earlier, doctors had diagnosed Stabb—the wiry, iconic lead singer of seminal D.C. hardcore band Government Issue—with an aggressive form of stomach cancer from which few recover. As part of his treatment, Jaya Vijayan, the medical director in charge of Stabb’s care, asked him what he felt compelled to make happen, what he most wanted to get done. It’s the kind of question intended to help a patient set goals and remain motivated while fighting an aggressive disease. Stabb told her he wanted two things: to get his book published, and to get married. Thus the minister.
Stabb first told others of his stomach pains a few days before playing a Jan. 19 show with his band History Repeated at Comet Ping Pong. By the day of the show, the pain was severe, the result of what Stabb thought was a bad case of appendicitis. “I was deeply concerned about his health,” says Derrick Baranowsky, Stabb’s best friend and History Repeated bandmate. “I showed up thinking it was just a regular night and he said ‘Oh, by the way, I don’t know if you heard, but I might have to go to the E.R. after this show. I might have appendicitis.”
Baranowsky urged Stabb not to perform, but he insisted. “No, no, I’ll be fine,” he recalls Stabb saying. The band played, and Stabb performed in his trademark way—thrashing about the stage and into the crowd while belting out his band’s songs—as best he could. “He did the show and he was still John, but he was clearly a little less animated,” Baranowsky says.
After the set, Stabb went to the E.R. He was released after a couple days, but he wouldn’t be home for long: A week later, Mina Devadas, Stabb’s partner, rushed him to Holy Cross Hospital, his pain now far worse. He needed emergency surgery. Doctors removed multiple tumors from his stomach, and they delivered his cancer diagnosis soon after.
In the hospital, Devadas reminded him that the two had never really talked about marriage before, other than to agree that it wasn’t for them. Both had been married before, and Devadas says they decided early in their relationship that they didn’t need a piece of paper to be happy together. “We could just date each other for the rest of our lives, and that would be pretty cool,” Devadas says. “But going through this illness, we wanted some permanency. There was a feeling of wanting to hold on and cement something.”
So Vijayan called on her team to arrange the ceremony, and on March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—Devadas and Stabb were wed. It was a private ceremony, just the two of them and the group the hospital had assembled. Stabb wore his straight edge hoodie; Devadas wore a hoodie of her own. They exchanged dog tags with their names on them Devadas made at a local pet store. “It was a really fun, really happy day for both of us,” she says.
The doctors had agreed to let Stabb delay his chemotherapy for a day so he’d feel good at his wedding. That night, Stabb began a chemo regimen that would last for 21 consecutive days. The treatment left him weak but did little to stop the cancer.
“Our honeymoon was in a hospital bed that we made into a double bed by pushing a cot together with the hospital bed,” Devadas says. “And I spent every night of those 112 days with John in the hospital, because he asked me to, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Stabb—born John Dukes Schroeder in D.C. in 1961—wanted nothing to do with the fake, the scripted, or the choreographed. Growing up in suburban Rockville, the inauthentic interested Stabb perhaps only as a thing to reject, which is what attracted him to D.C.’s burgeoning punk scene in the early ’80s. It was where he would find his people.
“I think we had a long and abiding respect with each other,” says Ian MacKaye, co-founder of Dischord Records, the legendary D.C. punk label that put out Government Issue’s earliest records. “He was a weirdo from Maryland, and I was a weirdo from D.C.”
But like many of the world’s true and glorious weirdos, he appeared to eschew even the underground. When the majority of the D.C. punk scene showed up to gigs in T-shirts, jeans and combat boots, Stabb would perform in collared shirts and suit jackets, or whatever odd flamboyant thing he rummaged at the thrift store. Even among the freaks, he was an original.
Publicly, that’s who Stabb was, and he never wavered. During Government Issue’s set at Damaged City Fest two years ago, Stabb climbed onto the old stage at St. Stephen’s church in Columbia Heights in his peace-sign-and-eyeball, hand-painted collared shirt and ripped into those well-worn songs as a mob of young fans in black t-shirts and jeans shouted along. That scene unfolded hundreds of times during his decades as a punk singer. Even among the freaks, Stabb was an original.
“[Government Issue] were a really special band to me because they were kind of weird and spastic and smartass, which was me,” says Phil Venable, a longtime friend of Stabb’s. “They could take all that nervous, spastic energy and really do something with it.”
When Venable moved to D.C. in 1988 to attend college, he started looking into the local punk scene he’d heard so much about growing up in Roanoke, Va. By that time, the first wave of harDCore bands—Minor Threat, Youth Brigade, The Untouchables, The Faith, Void—had come and gone, and the next crop of bands, led by Fugazi, were just starting to get big. But Government Issue—which formed in 1980 when Stabb was 19—had carried on, which was nothing short of a feat for a punk band at that time.
“If a band was playing, and someone left the band, that’s the end of the band,” MacKaye recalls of the time period. “But that was not the case with [Government Issue]. People were dropping like flies in that band. But John was always there. He just kept playing. He broke the fuckin’ rules.”
He broke rules in other ways, too, speaking his mind, filterless in any social situation. Devadas says she loved that about him; he would say some off-key thing at an awkward moment at a social occasion and she would struggle not to burst out laughing. He lived most of his life with untreated attention deficit disorder, she says; between that and his already gregarious personality, the daily trudge of school and work could be a struggle.
Work was necessary, of course—courier gigs and a stint at Glen Echo Hardware. He rarely did well at these jobs; like so many punks, Stabb was ill-suited for a workaday life. He had very little tolerance for any variety of bullshit—misogyny, casual racism, all of the workplace plagues most folks learn to shrug off or quietly seethe about. Stabb wouldn’t: He would speak his mind, and he had no filter. “A lot of the jobs he worked to support himself didn’t end well,” Devadas says. “But there’s a lot that I respect in that.”
But on stage, Stabb was king. He was all wild hair and punk bravado, belting out mile-a-minute lyrics and handing out the microphone so the crowd could do the same. And he never bored his audience. He would often writhe around onstage, crawl into the crowd, or even climb PAs and dive off of them “shocking the audience, who often thought he was hurt,” Baranowsky says.
A lot of very excellent and canonically important punk singers have called D.C. home. Stabb might have been the best of them all.
“That was his zone. It was the most natural place for him to exist,” Devadas says. There was another side of Stabb, one only a handful of people ever knew. He was peaceful, contemplative, at ease with friends and loved ones. But on stage, he was all manic energy, a coiled spring released. He was home.
When Baranowsky and Venable first learned their friend was sick, they responded immediately.
It was the beginning of February when the two started reaching out to Stabb’s friends in the music community about putting together a show to support him. J. Robbins, who fronted D.C. bands Jawbox and Burning Airlines, was in. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who lives in London, immediately confirmed once he learned he’d be stateside for the date of the show. Local psychedelic hardcore group GIVE—one of the many young D.C. bands Stabb championed—was also quick to hop on the bill. The show was scheduled for Sunday, May 8 as a benefit to help with Stabb’s mounting medical bills. When he died on Saturday at age 54, the sold-out benefit became a memorial.
A somber, teary memorial was the last thing John Stabb would want. And those who showed up for Sunday’s sold-out show knew this. It was a time to celebrate John, his distinct sense of humor that Baranowsky describes as “elastic and sarcastic, but never malicious,” and above all, his undying love and dedication to the thing that drove him: music.
Throughout the evening, friends of Stabb and veterans of D.C.’s music community took the stage to perform and share their memories of him. Moore fondly recalled the times he spent and goofed around with Stabb whenever Sonic Youth toured through town. MacKaye shared amusing anecdotes including one about his peculiar first meeting with Stabb when his band, Teen Idles, played a shitty discotheque in Georgetown called Scandals.
Even for those that only met him a few times, he left a lasting impact on them. Because that’s the kind of person Stabb was: Once you entered his orbit, you were there for life. He cared deeply for people, and that was immediately obvious for anyone that knew him.
“It meant the world to him that people gave a fuck about John Stabb,” MacKaye told the crowd. “Because he gave a fuck about the world.”
Devadas and Stabb spent their first date at Radius Pizza in Mt. Pleasant, on April Fool’s Day, 2010. Stabb decided he should start the date with that old punk rock elevator speech—he’s John Stabb, from Government Issue, after all; his band helped start this whole thing. Devadas wanted none of it. “You know, I’m really not interested in going on a date with John Stabb,” she recalls telling him. “I really want to go on a date with John Schroeder.” That night, the two connected through their love of animals and a mutual awkwardness fostered during childhood that, in Stabb anyway, never exactly left.
But the awkwardness was part of his charm. Devadas says Stabb allowed only his closest friends to see that side of him—shy, reflective, content in quiet moments. At nights, he and Devadas would sit in bed, holding hands and watching movies, doting on their pets. Toward the end, he was also most at ease with MacKaye, with whom he’d grown up, bonding over late nights at Dischord House.
In the early days, MacKaye recalls Government Issue and Minor Threat being friendly competitors. “They were another popular band at the time and we were trying outdo each other,” he says. But over the years, that light competitiveness grew into a strong friendship. Stabb never felt the need to entertain MacKaye, and he let his quiet, awkward side show when they were together. For a period, Stabb crashed at Dischord House, where the two spent a lot of time together watching movies, taking late-night walks to 7-11 for burritos, and just generally goofing off with one another. “It was a relationship of teasing each other,” MacKaye recalls.
In the hospital, as the days slipped away from him, Devadas worked to keep Stabb in good spirits. As his health deteriorated, he requested visits from only a select few members of his chosen punk family—including MacKaye, who says he “was so alive in that moment.” But even in his most sedate moments, when he was sleeping or resting quietly, that wellspring of energy would rise up inside of him and his arms would jerk straight out from his body, as if trying to complete some task, out there in the world outside of his hospital room. Devadas says that most days in the hospital when he was awake, his head would hover an inch above his pillow, never still.
“A lot of people have this gregarious façade or persona, but then they’re very different on the inside,” Devadas says. “I’ve met a lot of very well-known people who have a kind of character who they are known for, but are very different inside with the people closest to them, for good or bad.” Stabb at his core was profoundly good, Devadas says. He was kind, caring, gentle. He had struggled through so much, especially during his younger years. But she says he refused to let those struggles leave him bitter. Instead, Stabb turned that adversity into the energy that drove him to perform.
That churning fire inside Stabb existed from the very beginning, Devadas says—from his childhood, to his formative years in the punk scene, until his last breath left his body. Even in those final days, his energy tried to pull him away from that hospital room, that dumb place that must have felt like just another trap he wanted no part of. “Meow,” he would say, using his nickname for Devadas, “let’s get out of here. Let’s do our thing.” That fight was always inside of him.
Even in that hospital bed, he remained John Stabb, the John Stabb, forever bounding on stage, tearing his throat apart, giving it everything he’s got. “It was an affirmation to me of who I know John to be,” Devadas says. “That there is this energy in him that is almost otherworldly.”