A local morning-radio host and musicians including the frontman of Northport rockers Wheatus have released a music video to help raise awareness on suicide prevention, and to honor Long Island wrestler and glamour model Ashley Massaro, who took her own life last year.
"Choose Song," featuring Massaro and starring singers Brendan B. Brown of Wheatus, Vinnie Dombroski of the Detroit band Sponge and Kevin Martin of Seattle's Candlebox, "started out as a poem I wrote right after Chris Cornell passed away," recalls Brian Orlando, 42, of the Smithtown station WWSK/94.3 FM "The Shark." Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden, died May 17, 2017, age 52. His death was ruled a suicide.
"The day he passed away was one of the most emotional I've ever had," says Orlando, calling Cornell "an icon." Radio listeners called in, sharing stories and commiserating. "I realized how important music really is bringing people together," Orlando says. "I just had this idea that with music you're never alone. And I wrote it down on a couple of different pieces of paper and sat on it for about a year."
On the anniversary of Cornell's death, Orlando and Brown spoke about how each had coped. Orlando mentioned the poem, which proffers music as a possible way to avoid contemplating suicide. Brown suggested putting it to music. "So I went to his house in Northport," Orlando says, "and we spent seven hours in July of 2018 putting together a demo” that later became a finished track with drummer Josh Devine, and guitar and bass player Andy Patalan of Sponge.
New York City-born and Babylon-raised former WWE wrestler Massaro, who took her own life on May 16, 2019, at age 39, was living in Smithtown and working as a part-time DJ for "The Shark." Her friend Orlando — who had met her a decade before and helped bring her into the station's fold — "would stop in when she was working, just to see how she was doing, give her some pointers. And we started talking about mental health and I mentioned the song." He played it for her, "and she said, 'I would really love to help. I've had my own struggles with this.' "
Pursuing the idea of a public-service video, Orlando, who was raised in Bayport and lives in Ronkonkoma, sent GoPro cameras to the three singers. Each filmed himself lip-syncing in his car. Interspersed are shots of Massaro, filmed in Lake Ronkonkoma, playing a distraught woman. A portion also was shot at the Holbrook craft-beer maker 1940's Brewing Co.
The last scene was filmed on Jan. 8, 2019. With production help by Matt Hladek and Tim Patalan, the video was set for release that June. Massaro's death came the month before.
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"At that point it was over. I wasn't releasing it," Orlando says. "There was nothing about it that was OK. My friend took her life. It was a suicide-prevention video — the irony was horrible. The situation was horrible. I did not want the family having to see that." But this May, after Orlando helped organize the "Be Well Long Island" telethon for mental health in the wake of pandemic isolation, Dombroski suggested the time was right to release an awareness video. Orlando said he would to seek the family's blessing first.
On June 11 he, in person, and Dombroski by phone met at the Long Island home of Massaro's parents, along with Massaro's brother Ronnie and her daughter Alexa, who turned 20 earlier this month. "We talked and then I showed them the video. And Ashley's mom said to me, 'Brian, this was my daughter's wish. It's obvious Ashley wanted to do this. So I think you need to put it out.' "
The video went live July 11, and includes the number of a suicide hotline. On Orlando's YouTube video, there is a link for donations to the Long Island chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
As a child, Orlando says, "When I listened to sad songs, my father used to make fun of me. 'What are you listening to depressing songs for?' I didn't listen to a sad song to be sad. When I listened to a sad song, I thought, I'm not alone. Somebody else feels the same way I do."