20 Years Ago: For Squirrels Lose Half Their Band in a Tragic Van Accident
On the first day of September 1995, 23 year-old Travis Tooke was one of three founding members of For Squirrels – an up-and-coming post-grunge outfit from Gainesville, Fla. that had just signed to a major label and were on the verge of releasing their breakthrough album. On the last day of September, Tooke was the only living original member of For Squirrels – the once-promising outfit from Gainesville that never got a chance to start.
During the late afternoon of Sept. 8, on a long trip back to Florida after playing CBGB during the CMJ Music Festival in New York City, the band's van blew a rear tire on Interstate 95 just south of Savannah, Georgia. It prompted a horrific crash that sent the vehicle hurdling instantly claimed the lives of singer Jack Vigliatura, bassist Bill White and tour manager Tim Bender. White and Bender were 23. Vigliatura was 21. Tooke and 28 year-old drummer Jack Griego (who had joined the band two years earlier) were the only two survivors of the one-vehicle accident.
Less than a month later, Sony 550 went ahead with a pre-existing plan and released For Squirrels' debut, Example, as both Tooke and Griego were still recovering. Tooke, now a 43 year-old dad in Gainesville, told us that he doesn't often talk about everything that happened two decades ago this month.
"It's still hard to find a lot of positives out of what happened," said Tooke. "Not only is it painful to think about losing my best friends, there's also a longing to think about what could've happened and what might have been had they not died. And sometimes that brings hurt."
Although there's no telling what could've happened to the band under different circumstances, there's no denying For Squirrels were about to move up to the next level. Formed in 1992 at the University of Florida by Vigliatura, Tooke and White (who knew each other from their high school soccer team) Tooke said the band originally came together almost just to see if they could. Although White played piano and was drum major of the high school marching band, Tooke and Vigliatura learned to play and perform as they went along. Their first performances in college dorm skits and at campus pubs were almost more comedy than they were serious attempts at music. But it wasn't long before the band's raw talent began to emerge.
After a stint with drummer Jay Russell, the band enlisted Griego in 1993 and spent $6,000 of student loan money recording an album, Baypath Rd, released by Y&T Music. Their earliest sound was very obviously indebted to R.E.M. complete with jangly guitars and Vigliatura doing an impressive Michael Stipe. But an infusion of grunge gave the band a jagged edge that likeminded indie-inspired outfits like the Gin Blossoms or Toad the Wet Sprocket just didn't have. "Sounds like R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins" would've looked pretty sweet on a CD wrapper in the early '90s and For Squirrels actually found a way to let both sounds coexist right next to each other. It's apparent in Example opener "8:02 PM" – and although the studio version sounds great, this live footage (featuring noticeable technical difficulties) allows Vigliatura's personality to shine through:
Obviously, part of the appeal of For Squirrels (named more or less at random) was in their lack of refinement. True, some of their reference points were pretty on the nose – but this was a group of friends still starting out and learning to write songs. "At first it was like, 'This is neat. You can make songs up like a jigsaw puzzle, attach it to your feelings it and then play it for somebody,'" said Tooke. "But we just wanted so bad to get it to a place where it was like art."
After hooking up with a manager who helped take the band first to Miami and then beyond, buzz began to grow around For Squirrels, prompting a 10-week tour and a decent amount of label attention. They signed to Sony 550 at the beginning of 1995 and began recording Example in May with Nick Launay (David Byrne, Public Image Ltd) at Compass Point in the Bahamas and at Criteria Studios in Miami. That September, in the weeks leading up to their album release, the band and the "fifth Squirrel," tour manager Tim Bender, traveled to New York for CMJ. The response at the show was encouraging and For Squirrels left for home in their 15-passenger van loaded with gear.
"Jack the singer was driving, Jack the drummer was the co-pilot and (White) was behind the pilot in the bench. (Bender) was sitting behind the co-pilot and I was in the back," said Tooke, sounding uncomfortable to recount the details. "I'm not uncomfortable with people knowing that. I'm uncomfortable with the fact that I should've been sitting where (Bender) was."
He explained that the band always used a rotation while on the road, where each person would only spend a certain amount of time in each spot inside the van while taking their turn to drive. But Tooke said Bender let him remain in the back to sleep an hour longer than he had to. "He was just being selfless as usual." Tooke said he was just between awake and asleep when he felt a massive boom, then the van grinding against the pavement. "The tire didn't pop, it disintegrated," he said. "When the metal wheel well hit the ground, it pulled the van to the right and I think Jack instinctively turned the wheel the other way. When he did that, the side of the van caught and we just started flipping down the highway. When we came to rest, I was still awake. I had glass in me, I had broken my elbow and I was in shock. But I knew right away that my friends were dead. I remember being outside the van and just screaming it over and over."
Tooke was airlifted to a hospital for a broken elbow and lacerations while Griego required surgery for a broken neck and nerve damage in his spine and arm. He was eventually able to drum again, but only with the aid of a pully and crane contraption that would take pressure off his arm.
In the meantime, Sony 550 moved ahead with the planned release of Example. In a statement, label head Polly Anthony said:
There are no words to describe our grief at this terrible loss. For Squirrels were at the beginning of a long and successful future in making music. In our too-brief time together, the Sony 550 staff had come to know Jack, Bill, and Tim for the incredible talented and dedicated people they were. With Example, For Squirrels leave behind a truly great album, one which captures all of the personal and musical qualities which endeavored them to us."
Tooke understandably has mixed emotions about the album and the fact that it was released at all. "I thought people should still hear the music. If it were to get on radio or MTV, that would be a good thing," he said. "I looked at it like even though it’s a tragedy, at least people will be introduced to the music. Now, looking back, do I have some regret about it? A little bit. I don’t like the thought that people automatically align the tragedy with it, but the music is cool and we did our best with it. That’s what the guys would’ve wanted people to hear. It definitely sucks that they’re dead, but it doesn’t suck that a lot of people got to hear their music."
But in the pre-internet era, many people who heard For Squirrels for the first time after the album dropped were completely unaware of the band's tragic backstory. Sony released a single and video for "Mighty K.C.," a song about Kurt Cobain that took on macabre new meaning after the accident. It's almost painful to listen to Vigliatura sing, "Ship me off to the morgue / I'm ready to be buried," but most listeners in 1995 only heard the song for what it was: a radio-friendly mix of ebullient melodies and bittersweet sentiment.
"Mighty K.C." became a moderate hit, reaching No. 15 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart while the album sold 100,000 copies but didn't make much of a dent in the mainstream. Tooke and Greigo enlisted bassist Andy Cook and embarked on a brief tour in support of Example with Tooke taking on vocals, but the band eventually changed their name to Subrosa and released Never Bet the Devil Your Head in 1997. After a tour in support of Creed, Griego decided to turn away from music and Subrosa disbanded in 2001. The band was still under For Squirrels' contract and Tooke said Sony wanted him to revert to their original name. When he refused, they were dropped.
Although Tooke has remained active in the Gainesville music scene, recently releasing music as Helixglow. But it's difficult for him to consider the career For Squirrels could have had. "I try not to think about it too much," he said. "It's the kind of thing that can really drive you crazy." He also doesn't listen to Example very often, although a song will occasionally pop up on a Pandora '90s playlist. But just last month, he reconnected with Griego for the first time in 15 years and they informally played music together – including For Squirrels songs. Tooke said it felt right.
"You really need to dig into your soul to find what moves you in life," he said. "We've all got this energy to want to mean something to other people. Maybe For Squirrels would have gotten big or maybe we wouldn't have. The important thing is that the album got made and that it began to mean something to people – whether they knew about what happened or not. And that gives meaning to me."