On the Beat

Michael “Bono” Buono, longtime Sidewinder sidekick, succumbs to cancer

There have been entirely too many deaths in the local music community, and here is another: Michael Buono, longtime onstage master of ceremonies and guru/ringleader for the band Sidewinder, passed away Wednesday morning from cancer.

“It was a very peaceful passing,” said Wendy Veasy, former Sidewinder singer and one of Buono’s caregivers. “He’d been diagnosed last January and put up a brave fight.”

Buono had years of health-related struggles going back to the late 1990s, when he was diagnosed with AIDS. But he survived that and was able to manage his health pretty well up until the cancer. Even that didn’t stop him from from his “guru” role.

“A lot of people came and went in Sidewinder, but no matter who else was in, there was always Bono,” said Veasy. “He had a very magnetic personality and people were drawn to him because he was so real. I’ve heard so many stories the last few weeks about he affected and even changed the course of lives just by talking, listening, giving advice.”

Buono was 58 years old and is survived by his mother, Geraldine Bartholomew. Memorial service arrangements are still pending.

In the meantime, below is a feature from 1998, in advance of the first benefit show that Buono’s musician friends put on for him after his AIDS diagnosis.

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Pro Bono: Sidewinder regroups in a benefit concert for the life of its longtime MC/guru, Michael “Bono” Buono

By David Menconi, News & Observer

March 27, 1998

Raleigh -- Most people keep a scrapbook. Michael “Bono” Buono keeps a living room.

Inside the small house he rents in Raleigh’s Mordecai neighborhood, the walls and even the ceiling of his living room are covered with mementos of Sidewinder, the local cover-band institution - photos, flyers, band banners, license plates, beer signs of every conceivable brand.

“My life story is on the walls here, what I did forever with Sidewinder,” says Bono, 42, who served as the band’s master of ceremonies for more than a decade. Mostly, his job was to keep the party going.

Throughout the ’80s, Sidewinder played for crowds numbering in the thousands on the Southern party circuit. Bono was always there to keep the crowd pumped with beer-drinking or Hula-Hoop contests, not to mention his introductions: “Ladies and gentlemen, the East Coast’s premier rock ‘n’ roll powerhouse ... Sidewinder!”

He nods toward the television flickering soundlessly in a corner of the room with “The Price Is Right.”

“That’s my favorite show,” he says. “Bob Barker, I basically did what he does -- manage the crowd, keep things moving along.”

Sidewinder broke up years ago, and what Bono manages these days is not crowds but a medication schedule that’s familiar to anyone with AIDS. He lives by the clock with a disease that renders time both oppressive and precious.

At the moment, it’s 11:15 a.m., and Bono is reclining on his couch. A brown shot glass sits on his coffee table with a couple of pills he’ll have to take with lunch. A brutal regimen of drug cocktails keeps Bono alive nowadays: Crixivan, AZT and 3TC to hold the virus at bay, plus various antibiotics, vitamins, iron, antidepressants, drugs for nausea, decongestants for sinus infections.

He keeps everything in a blue cooler under the coffee table, 16 pill bottles in all. Because he has to take some drugs on a full stomach and others on empty, he is constantly eating, snacking, fasting - and watching the clock.

“I think I’m gonna live today,” he says. “I can usually tell by 10 or 11 in the morning. Up until then, it’s touch and go.”

Bono laughs a bit, a harsh cackle. Then he coughs, takes a sip from his coffee mug, a drag from a cigarette. Those are both no-no’s, but one can’t give up everything.

“Eating has become a chore,” he continues. “I’ve got to do it, even if I’m not hungry, or I’ll waste away. I have to be up by 7, and it’s hard to eat a handful of pills on an empty stomach. Then I have to wait an hour and a half, which is even harder because they just boil. I have to eat breakfast, then more drugs with lunch. And I can’t eat past 2 because I have to be empty by 4 to do more drugs; then dinner and more drugs, and a snack after dinner but before 9, because I have to take more drugs at 11.”

He pauses a moment to watch Bob Barker give away a car. Then he glances at the clock again before continuing.

“It takes over every aspect of your life,” he says. “I’m thinking about it constantly, always sweating something - and always watching that damn clock. The virus eats protein, and I feel like I’m eating for two. I have to feed this virus. And it eats everything I give it.”

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The reunion

Tonight, members of Sidewinder will play a reunion show to raise money for Bono’s medical and living expenses. The group hasn’t played since 1992, and it’s difficult to imagine any other cause that could pull it together again.

“It’s for Bono, and if he wants me to get up and whistle the ‘Mickey Mouse’ theme, I’ll do it,” says Audley Freed, the renowned guitarist who went on to found Cry of Love.

Sidewinder formed in 1978 as a sort of rock equivalent to the Embers, building a huge following with covers of everything from AC/DC to the Supremes. The band was one of the biggest live draws in the country during the ’80s, playing 300 dates a year in 20 states and Canada. Sidewinder had no serious pretensions to art, just entertainment - and it always put on a Show, with a massive sound-and-lights production.

“That was such a different era,” says Wendy Upchurch, Sidewinder’s lead singer from 1982 to 1989. “It was a time of big bands, big productions, big shows. The bigger you made everything, the better your draw was.”

About 60 musicians passed through Sidewinder during its 14-year history, most notably two future members of Cry of Love - Freed and bassist Robert Kearns, both of whom are scheduled to play at tonight’s reunion. Sidewinder peaked in 1984 when it made six appearances on “Star Search” before losing in the semifinals to Sawyer Brown, a country band that later had three gold-selling albums in the ’90s.

Bono joined up not long after Sidewinder formed and was there for most of its existence. Among those in the know, he added his own note of ghoulish glamour as the son of Angelo Buono, better-known as one of the Hillside Stranglers. Bono’s parents split before he was born, so he never really knew his father, who is serving a life sentence for the string of rapes and murders in Los Angeles in the late ’70s.

Bono’s official title with Sidewinder was “MC/Guru,” in which he served as mascot and sidekick onstage. Behind the scenes, he mediated disputes and even did maintenance on the group’s trucks and buses. Bono can be heard at the very end of Sidewinder’s 1986 “Fade to Black” album drawling, “Oh wow, what a concept.”

“That was one of his lines,” says Upchurch. “The whole ‘Guru’ thing came from this hippie look he had - the hair, the bare feet. He had a real laid-back, go-with-the-flow attitude that drew people to him. They loved to hang out with him. On the road, he was like the person to be with.”

Even though he never actually played in Sidewinder, Bono was its most visible symbol because he was there longer than all but a handful of people. In the same way that certain sportscasters become trademarks of specific teams - Vin Scully with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the late Harry Caray with the Chicago Cubs - Bono became Sidewinder’s ambassador to the world.

“He was the best PR you could have,” recalls road manager Matt Veasey. “If a club had failed to advertise, all we had to do was drop Bono off on any street corner in the town we were playing, and people would see him and know to show up that night.

“Guitarists, bass players and singers came and went, so many I lost count. We’ve got pictures and pictures, and some of them I can’t even remember everyone. But there was always this hippie standing on the side of the stage. I remember a conversation with a club owner who said, ‘The new guitar player is who? Well ... Is Bono still there? He is? OK, we’re good, then.’”

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The diagnosis

You probably don’t remember what you were doing last June 12. Bono does. That’s the day he found out he had AIDS.

He’d been showing signs for a while - unexplained night fevers, fatigue, weight loss, shoulder pains so excruciating he thought he might be having a heart attack. But thinking he wasn’t in any of the main risk groups, Bono didn’t get tested for a long time.

When he finally did, his T-cell count was an anemic 173, a fraction of the normal range of 900 to 1,200, with a viral load of more than 1 million. AIDS. Bono’s friends were as stunned as he was.

“It’s not something you’d ever imagine happening to him,” says Veasey. “You just wouldn’t. He very rarely fooled around, didn’t have a bunch of girlfriends.”

Bono was devastated at the news, and also perplexed.

“I wasn’t a slut,” he says. “Sex was never my main goal. In my early teenage days, yeah, I experimented with every kinda drug and sex there was. I decided early on that I was a monogamous heterosexual male, but I still never ran around that much. Sex happened so casually and infrequently that I never carried around rubbers. I figured, ‘I don’t do this too often, so it’ll be OK.’ I assumed that because I wasn’t sleeping around much, I wasn’t in any danger.”

While Bono is in better shape now than when he was diagnosed, he still doesn’t have the strength to hold down a full-time job. He does volunteer work at the AIDS Service Agency when he has the energy, and he spends a lot of time haggling with government agencies over money and medical care. Since he never had medical insurance or saved any money during his years with Sidewinder, the benefit show will be a much-needed windfall.

Sitting on his living room couch, Bono picks up a bottle of Crixivan, a protease inhibitor. The pills look like something you’d give a horse, and he does not appear to relish taking his next dose. But without them, he knows ...

“The thing with the drugs and the virus is tricky,” he says. “If I was off these for two days, the virus would mutate and become resistant. So if you take them away, it’s a death sentence. This isn’t about going to the store to get Tylenol for a headache. This is about whether I live or die. If I stop taking these pills, I’ll decay pretty quick.”

The only thing that has made this ordeal bearable, Bono says, is his friends.

“I’d be a psycho case if not for them,” he says. “This whole band reunion thing started out as friends wanting to do something. They didn’t know what to do and figured, well, here’s something.”

What will happen to him in the long term, Bono isn’t sure. His T-cell count is higher, though still well below normal at 380. He has managed not to drop too much weight, and there are days when he feels pretty good. But there are other days when everything hurts. Like a lot of people with AIDS, he can be morbidly, heartbreakingly glib about his long-term prospects.

“The doctor never talks about long term because he has no idea,” Bono says. “I could have the drugs start to fail today and be gone in a couple of months, or go on for 10 damn years. I’ve felt really bad the last few days. I hope my viral load is not increasing because then I’ll have to start swapping drugs.

“So I don’t know,” he adds with a shrug. “It might be quite a while, or you might be over here stealin’ beer signs off the wall in a few months.”

If all goes well, Bono would like to make tonight’s benefit show an annual event. Have other bands and other charities, and him onstage hosting the show. Just like old times.

“If that happened,” he says, “it would give me back a fraction of the life I had and I wouldn’t feel so out of the loop. Christopher Reeve is doing something like this with spinal injuries. He’s got bigger friends, so he can do TV galas.

“I can’t do that,” he concludes, “but I can do a rock show at the Ritz.”

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