When we met, both of us were living in Springfield and studying as undergraduates in the communication department at Sangamon State University, now University of Illinois Springfield, where I currently work part-time as an instructor in that same department while working full time as a staff writer at Illinois Times. Our first encounter was during a group discussion on semiotics, which is basically the study of the mechanics of language. From then on, our friendship was always framed by this subject – communication studies were our trench, semiotics our mustard gas (to put it in helpfully obscure World War I terms). Over the years we shared an ongoing stream of book and film recommendations, attended countless concerts together and spent hours, in person and on the telephone, raking over our experiences of life and art.
At the time we met, I was 20 and he was 30. Because of our age difference, Chris had a broader cultural frame of reference than I did, and he sometimes introduced me to cultural ephemera I had previously missed out on, and also could place more current interests of mine into a larger context. I was the relative innocent – naïve, non-smoker, teetotaler, still living at my parents’ house – while Chris was far more worldly – he smoked, drank alcohol and was then living with his first wife, Mary Beth, and their young children, Ty and Bailey.
If biology truly was destiny, Chris would have been a king among men. Raised on a farm in Pana, Chris was naturally physically strong and his looks were such that strangers periodically mistook him for the movie star Robert Redford. (I personally witnessed this happen on the street in Chicago – it was a weird moment but Chris brushed it off with aplomb.) Physiognomy aside, though, Chris seemed plagued by an inexplicable inferiority complex. While he certainly possessed the typical Midwestern Protestant’s reflexive humility, this went beyond that. For a talented, magnetic guy he had a real tendency toward self-sabotage bordering on negation, which I always found baffling, if not heartbreaking.
Chris’s greatest talent was in video production and for a time he owned and operated a production company called Media Works in Springfield, which produced commercials for local businesses as well as the short documentary Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Journey, which still runs on a loop for visitors to the Lincoln Depot on Monroe Street. He became involved with his second wife, Williamsville native Gina Manola, while working on video for her art installation “Springfield Crush,” which was exhibited in New York City in 2000 and later at the Lincoln Library in Springfield. (In addition to this work, they also produced a son, Christopher Townes Durbin, who now lives with his mother in Los Angeles.) When my locally popular band, Backwards Day, was active in Springfield between 1988 and 1993, Chris was the de facto “fifth member” of the group, always there, obsessively documenting our concerts and rehearsals as well as producing a pair of music videos for us. More recently, he shot and edited a couple of videos for my current band, Epsom.
Over the years, Chris proved himself to be the sort of friend who went that extra mile (or 200), always making himself available when I needed help packing or moving or just someone to talk to, even at great personal inconvenience. Mostly, though, we just had fun. The last time I hung out with him was in March of 2017, and it was also the last time we went to a concert together. One of our favorite musicians, veteran California-based singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel, was playing a show in a residential living room in Champaign (an increasingly common venue choice for marginally commercial recording artists in the internet era). Eitzel’s voice has an uncanny emotional register – there is a frequency he often reaches which can seem to hit the listener directly in the spine, causing spontaneous chills and goosebumps, a quality that was bound to be even more visceral in the intimate, unamplified space of someone’s living room. I had seen Eitzel perform several times over the years and knew what to expect but this was the first time for Chris.
The moment Eitzel opened his mouth and that wrenching, yearning sound filled the room, tears spontaneously burst from Chris’s eyes and cascaded down his face as he grinned, sitting there next to me, enraptured by the music, totally in the moment. This is how I will remember my friend – vulnerable and joyful and utterly present.
Scott Faingold can be reached at email@example.com.