Brian Doherty, Co-Founder of Canadian Rock Band Big Wreck, Dies at 51

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Guitarist Brian Doherty, who co-founded rock band Big Wreck while at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in early 1990s, died June 5 of cancer. He was 51.

“It is with a heavy heart that we share the news that our brother, Brian Doherty, passed away peacefully yesterday after a prolonged and brave struggle with cancer,” read a statement from Big Wreck released through Warner Music Canada and posted to the band’s social media accounts. “Brian started Big Wreck with Ian in their dorm in Boston and his passing is a profound loss to us all. Our deepest condolences go out to Brian's family. He was a good soul who will be missed by all who knew him personally or through the beautiful music he performed.”

Big Wreck originally consisted of Doherty, lead singer and guitarist Ian Thornley, bassist Dave Henning and drummer Forest Williams. Managed at the time by Jake Gold and Allan Gregg (The Tragically Hip), they signed a joint venture with Atlantic and Warner Music Canada because Thornley is Canadian.

Their debut album, 1997’s In Loving Memory Of…, yielded “The Oaf (My Luck Is Wasted),” which went to No. 24 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart in 1998. In Canada, the album went double platinum. Though its follow-up, 2001’s The Pleasure and the Greed, was also a hit in Canada, the group disbanded in 2002.

A decade later, Big Wreck reformed and released 2012’s Albatross, featuring just two of the four original members, Doherty -- who had married a Canadian and moved to Sarnia, Ontario -- and Thornley. Albatross debuted at No. 5 in Canada and reached No. 24 on the U.S. Heatseekers chart. Its title track was No. 1 on the Billboard’s Canadian Rock chart (which it held for six weeks) and peaked at No. 31 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. The band's fourth LP, Ghosts, came out in 2015, with Grace Street following in 2017.

Tyler Tasson of Endemic Marketing and Thornley’s life partner, who worked with the band when SRO Management (Rush) handled the second stage of their career, posted a lovely remembrance on her Facebook page. 

“Oh Brian. I’m so sorry you had to suffer for so long, and I’m thankful at least that you’re finally at peace," she wrote. "You were the biggest curmudgeon and we all loved you for it. Here’s to all of the great memories of our shopping trips for new stage clothes, debates about the best Law & Order series, and so much more. I’m sorry you never got to meet Beau, he would have loved you. Rest In Peace Bri. Gone too soon. #fuckcancer.”

In 2010, Thornley -- who released two albums under his last name following the demise of Big Wreck -- placed a long-overdue hello call to his former friend and bandmate Doherty.

“I hadn’t talked to him in years and years,” Thornley told me at the time for Music Express. “I just really felt like it was sore spot and I’ve grown up a little bit and figured it was time to offer up an olive branch. [When I did] it was picked up where we left off. 

“And then Paulo [Neta] couldn’t make a Thornley show because he was gonna be in Portugal and he was the one who suggested, ‘Why don’t you get Brian to fill in because you guys have been hanging out?’ Then [came] the idea to do that tour of Big Wreck and Thornley music and from there, I was like, well I really like the sound of three guitars and the band was really starting to gel.”

April 28, James Bukoweic announced Doherty’s illness publicly on a GoFundMe page with an aim to raise $25,000. It quickly surpassed that goal with donations from 392 people.

“Our Big Wreck brother, Brian Doherty, for the past 9 months has been in the fight of his life battling cancer. He is a VERY humble and discreet individual. He had hoped to keep this private but circumstances have changed. We have recently found that his cancer is terminal,” Bukoweic wrote. “He is loved by the fans for his masterful contributions to Big Wreck these past 21 years. His musical legacy, touring all over the world, sharing his gift of music and musicianship with us all has touched our lives deeply. We now have a chance to give back in a really meaningful way."

Many people commented on the page, wishing him well and letting him know how much his music and contbution to Big Wreck, as well as his personal generosity in Sarnia, meant to them.

Mark Moran wrote, “When I was first recording in a Sarnia studio, my guitars weren't 'studio quality' but Brian was a friend of the producer. Brian let me borrow three of his best guitars for a couple of weeks -- a Les Paul, a Telecaster and a Gibson acoustic -- even though he didn't know me, and they (and he) made all the difference.”

Brent Howell added, “I discovered Big Wreck by chance 13 years ago, and their music has spoken to my soul ever since. Brian, you've shared your gift of music for the purest, most beautiful reasons. I hope for your ultimate peace and serenity in this season of life.”

On Thursday (June 6) Bukoweic posted the update. “I am sad to announce that Brian passed away at 11:30 last night June 5th 2019. Your donations and comments touched his heart and lifted his spirits. Your care for him and his family brought him an appreciation and a peace in his last days. Your donations will make a difference. He is in a better place. No more pain. No more struggle. Just pure joy, face to face with Our Lord Jesus, creator and lover of his soul. Thank you all again."