Jul. 11, 2012 - Issue #873: The Big Cover-Up
Forever the most famous guy in town
Darren Zenko passed away on July 4, 2012. Zenko wrote for daily newspapers and occasionally investigated pet ghost stories, but here in Edmonton he was best known for covering video games and the city around him for Edmonton-based weeklies Vue Weekly and See Magazine.
At Vue and See, Zenko's words went beyond the superficial, digging into the earth below the landscape of the city. There's no doubt: Zenko's pieces could be tough reads. They were dense with ideas, and if you just skimmed them over it was easy to miss the layers (upon layers upon layers) of subtext that he hid within his sentences. But settle in and try to decipher the messages, whether in his Most Famous Guy In Town column for See or Infinite Lives and Dispatch for Vue, or even inside reviews of a Quiet Riot concert or the various mall Santas around Edmonton, and Zenko would Jedi-mind-trick you into thinking about the world around you in a new, inspired way.
As has been mentioned elsewhere (and often) by the man's former editors, his penchant to file late would lead to many excruciating moments as press time loomed and the space for his column was the single hole remaining to be filled. Zenko's advice to young writers was to file late in order to avoid editorial interference. As one of those editors who experienced the unnerving waits, I can say that only a man as brilliant as Zenko could pull off such a maneouver. Darren Zenko excelled because he cared about the written word just as much as he cared about his voice as a writer—a voice that helped to shape how we view and love our city. That voice, and the man behind it, will be missed. V
Riding shotgun on the way to the International a couple weeks ago, Stephen Notley said quietly, "I'm scared."
Like scores in the thickening orbit around Darren Zenko's bent-up bed and body lately, Notley had long loved a limber man of iron—a daredevil with a freakishly complete utility belt of characteristics. But Zenko was also, importantly, a man whose free-flowing and hyper-articulate praise and enthusiasm were among his most superpowered medicines; ask his people.
"Tell them I believe in them," Zenko stressed in an exit interview he'd arranged, among his many savvy pushes to be remembered in case the shittiest possible rolls darkened his last saving throws. Even so, Zenko believed in us, apologizing for obvious outbursts of body betrayal instead of complaining. "I feel sorry for you guys," he whispered in the cancer wing, sort of a joke, but not really.
And now, by the dozens, the regular crowd shuffles into the void and we're trying to compose and stitch and maintain his immortality with art, with archive, with alcohol raised and spilled, with anecdote of his serious sexual advice given at parties to—karate-chop style—"fuck through the woman." Gonzo, even there.
Failing to acknowledge the uncensorable spirit of Zenko's raw life streaking down Whyte would be as wrong as ignoring his cartoony arpeggio laugh or that for-fucking-real genius. Better than anyone on the riverbanks, Zenko word-documented for years a weekly, stream-of-often-consciousness bounty hunt, many times starting in a mummified box full of disorganized arcana from his bedroom, ending up reordering the cosmos. One such gem: shaving your head for cancer was a pussy stance. If you really want to prove a thing, shave your balls.
The newspaper editors who loved his language and hated his appalling disregard for their deadlines were backcatchers of the greatest and most intentional of defensive throws. Speaking to a crowd of new-era Gateway kids seeking advice on how to survive the media, DRZ pulled out his mantra: "File as late as possible; they won't have time to fuck up your work." Cue that laugh. My lord, his fleet, elastic brain. His trouble with deadlines was because such rolling intelligence can never truly finish a thing. There is always another angle.
Working closely with him unleashed paradox—he was dismissively confident, furious and Trudeau-finger-stabbing the pedantic choices of our weakened estates of government and media, especially when it came to excusing war or the takeover of browntown by one-note, craven developers. Anyone parroting the meaningless phrase "world class," written off forever. But he judged his own work as lividly, practically thrashing his head on the alphabet piano like Don Music if one of his proofreader-pen cartoon panels didn't meet some high personal standard. Snowballs of paper at his feet. Another coffee mug of wine down. He'd joke about the density of his work—there's plenty of time, forever really, to transmit all these ideas, right? Plenty of breathing room? Guys?
But just look at who he was, so many (if not precisely "infinite") lives compressed into one crazy goofball—like a polyfaced central computer overheating a '50s pulp. He was a soothing CJSR DJ scientist bent on exploration and aural seduction, ever asking, are we not men? A woodcarver, sinew-sewer and art encourager. A patient dungeon master who refused to snuff the torch on oral history and collective imagination, even as he scripted his comic script swan song, Delving. Zenko, a son who had more contact with his parents than any of his close peers dared, love and respect and, let's face it, an underlying hope to make proud. He was a total culture fetishist who packed encyclopedic knowledge and philosophy into every barely-played-videogame review, pulling wider during late-night conversations about everything from Achewood rap to the cricketed air in Nanton to the taxonomy of the known gods. Throw in a note-perfect karaoke "Piano Man," while you're at it, and maybe move a few inches back from the TV, OK, buddy? Shadow hide you!
Darren was the author of 2.5 published books of, as he self-reviewed, "total bullshit," written nonetheless with campfire tenderness and come-hither awe—and then came the shining Field Guide to Monsters. Back of the net, a-ha! A basically perfect toss of the scrote.
He was a librarian-priest of the Marvel Universe, quoting canon religiously; one of his end requests was a Kirby god on his whiteboard, alongside his mysterious spirit weasel. Spellcasting, it seems, and why not? The spiller of wine liked big butts and he could not lie; this devotion he once discussed with Leonard Nimoy. He was a skeptic; he was also a believer who taught each of us on the inside thousands of things, a walking university. Even poisonous, he was hilarious.
A restless outsider because of skill and fetish, Zenko was perhaps most crucially a loyal lover of damaged hearts, and these rushed in great numbers to him in the end, like some shrunken Mecca, to smell the warm peach fuzz on his head and thank him for the love that none could own but pretty much anyone could have. He was the best friend to many, a hopelessly dedicated husband, too. As the days shrank away he snuggled with his estranged wife via handheld tech, merging tenderly their two hospital beds in separate cities over 3G: </3.
And this we shall all remember forever: Zonks passed out at, seriously, every single fucking party, ever. There are hundreds of photos of his public narcolepsy. So, his body a final ruin, as he grew sleepier and sleepier holding hands on the way to last Wednesday, something familiar was actually happening. May as well lay back and enjoy it. The party—including the adventure party, his fellowship—was shutting down, fading, and so, too, he. Watery breath. Please no. Can't we just ... but so it was. Darren Zenko went peacefully, beautifully to sleep. Shadow hide you.
And this sure fits: of the many souls I have ever known, his was the most human.
He has been and always shall be The Most Famous Guy in Town. You spoiled us, Darren. Now we come to spread your dust in the alleys and valleys you adored, places you wandered, ever pondering. You spoiled us.
// special to Vue Weekly
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