It wasn’t prostate cancer that killed guitar legend Ronnie Montrose. He beat that gremlin into the dirt, as he did so many obstacles to his career and musical expression. But Montrose, who was immensely proud of being a “survivor,” simply couldn’t vanquish the clinical depression that plagued him since he was a toddler.
On March 3, 2012, he sought inner peace by taking his own life. A report by the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office, released on April 6, confirms the guitarist died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Anticipating the coroner’s findings would soon be made public, the Montrose family asked me to write this article. I was a long-time friend and colleague, and the family wanted the painful story to be told by a member of the Bay Area media that Montrose himself knew and trusted.
The family also posted the following statement on ronniemontrose.com:
“By now, the devastating truth of Ronnie’s death is public knowledge. We hope you can understand why we wanted to keep this news a private family matter for as long as possible. We can only hope that you will choose to celebrate Ronnie’s life, and what his music meant to you, rather than mourn his passing. Ronnie would have wanted it that way. He loved being a guitarist, a composer, a producer, and a creator of magic. He fully understood his gifts, and yet he constantly pushed himself to evolve, improve, and make better music. He did this for himself, and he did this for you, because he adored and appreciated his fans. Please keep his energy, his joy, and his love in your hearts.”
Montrose did not leave a suicide note, but his wife/manager Leighsa Montrose feels he was probably always planning for an exit.
“Ronnie had a very difficult childhood, which caused him to have extremely deep and damaging feelings of inadequacy,” said Leighsa. “This is why he always drove himself so hard. He never thought he was good enough. He always feared he’d be exposed as a fraud. So he was exacting in his self criticism, and the expectations he put upon himself were tremendous. Now I see that perhaps he didn’t want to carry these burdens for very much longer.”
The torment of self-doubt likely contributed to Montrose’s long-term alcoholism. The toxicology report showed his blood-alcohol level at 0.31% when he died—almost four times the legal limit in California. No evidence of other drugs was found in his system.
“I knew I had married an alcoholic, but Ronnie was never anything but loving,” said Leighsa. “He could be curmudgeonly and cranky, but he was never angry or abusive to me in any way. He definitely had a reputation for his bad temper and controlling personality when he was younger, but he’d always say that I got the best version of himself, and we were nearly inseparable. We ate every meal together. I went to every show he played.”
Famously mercurial, Montrose always seemed to tank a project just when things were getting good. Factor out the depression, and Montrose’s frequent conceptual and stylistic shifts seem like the actions of a true artist following his creative muse no matter what the business ramifications might be. But, knowing what Montrose was suffering through every day of his life, a different perspective arises—one of a man in constant evolution and reevaluation because he always felt he had to do much, much better.
And yet, Montrose was thrilled that 2012 was starting off on an “exponential curve.” The two-year break from the guitar he took between 2007 and 2009 in order to heal from the daily, painful effects of cancer—when his loyal bulldog, Lola, was constantly at his side, dropping him “down to a good sleep vibe”—did not permanently effect his technique. He had been touring regularly since late 2009, performing solo compositions, acoustic pieces, Montrose songs, and some Gamma material. By 2011, he was truly on fire as a player. Happily, he was captured on video just this past January 27, and the release of his one-and-only DVD, Ronnie Montrose Live at the Uptown, was one of the many joys he was anticipating in 2012. There were also more tour dates stacking up, and a Montrose reunion—celebrating Sammy Hagar’s birthday—slated for October.
“He was so looking forward to all the possibilities before him,” said Leighsa.
But the deaths of his uncle and his beloved bulldog within three weeks of each other in January 2012 (the week before, and the week after the filming of his live DVD), put Montrose in a reflective state, and likely exacerbated his ongoing depression.
On March 2, Montrose had been drinking heavily, but he got up the next day at 8 am and made breakfast for Leighsa and her mother (who resided at the Montrose home), which was his typical routine. At 10:03 am, Montrose texted Leighsa, asking if she wanted him to bring lunch down to her design studio. As she was on a deadline, and had already arranged to meet him at home for lunch, she declined his “sweet” offer.
The mood abruptly changed when Montrose texted he was glad Leighsa had “figured it out, found the hooch, and stopped him from going down the dark path.” At 11:01 am, he added, “I have the .38 in my hand and am ready to go.”
“Ronnie always had a dark and bizarre sense of humor,” said Leighsa. “And, at this point, I truly thought he was speaking in metaphors.”
But the next text—“I’m so sorry. Still have the gun in my hand. I’m going on that voyage. I love you beyond measure”—worried her, and she immediately called him and asked that he come to her studio. He agreed, saying he would be right down.
“After about four minutes, he wasn’t here, and I told my mother, ‘We’ve got to go home—something is wrong,’” said Leighsa. “When I turned to look at my phone, I saw the last text from him. I didn’t hear it come in. It said, ‘I can’t. I’ve got the gun to my head.’”
They rushed home, but it was too late. Montrose was sitting in his favorite recliner in his living room, an unregistered Smith & Wesson Model 38 Special CTG Airweight revolver in his hand, and his cell phone at his feet.
“I looked at his peaceful and calm face, and I said to him, ‘You’ve shown me I have no choice in this matter,’” said Leighsa. “I told him I loved him. I accepted what had happened. And then I sat calmly on the couch and called the Brisbane Police Department.”
Ronnie Montrose was pronounced dead by medics from Brisbane Fire Engine #81 at noon.
“My sense of Ronnie as the persistent and decisive adventurer—as well as all his music about space, flight, and travel—speaks volumes about his choice and his action,” reflected Leighsa. “Seeing beyond was always what he did best. He was always breaking new ground, following his heart, his intuition, his star. And for reasons we may never fully understand, he made a choice to ‘lift off.’
“If you were observant enough, you could catch him at every show noodling a bit of the melody to Led Zeppelin’s ‘In My Time of Dying.’ The song contained the lyrics, ‘Well, well, well, so I can die easy. ‘Well, well, well, so I can die easy.’”