Kelly Holland knew he was dying, and he wanted out of the hospital. Doctors had given him between two and five months to live, but he didn't want to spend them in a hospital room. In February, he hoped to return to his rented room in the Velvet Cloak on Hillsborough Street, where he'd been living with his friend Kent Thomas.
"I said 'Well, Kelly, as your friend, I really can't do that if the doctors think that's a bad idea,'" Thomas remembers.
Holland had played in local bands since the mid-'80s, acts like The Point, Crush and Sundog. He had toured with Aerosmith and lent his voice to a handful of minor radio hits in the '90s with the major label-signed Raleigh band Cry of Love. But suffering from a severe abdominal infection, he had given up. Thomas told Holland that, if he left WakeMed early, he might die before even reaching the two-month minimum doctors had given him.
"Do you want to die before then?" Thomas asked.
"Yeah, pretty much," Holland replied.
And he did, even though he never returned to the Velvet Cloak. Holland, 52, died the morning of Feb. 24 in WakeMed, just a week after he'd made that plea.
Only two decades ago, the future of Holland and Cry of Love looked limitless. Three songs from the band's Columbia records debut, Brother, charted. ("Peace Pipe" was No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, while "Bad Thing" hit No. 2.) Big tours followed, and on the heels of the grunge surge, the record-buying public seemed primed for Cry of Love's Southeastern take on similar tropes. But just after this success, the band let Holland go. Both slid quickly away from what had seemed a guaranteed career. Cry of Love released another album, but it didn't climb the charts in the same way. Holland never really returned to the spotlight.
His closest friends suggest that, in many ways, years of bad living and drinking finally killed Holland. But that doesn't lessen the blow: Demon Eye guitarist Erik Sugg says he keeps expecting Holland to show up at a rock club or post a ridiculous joke on Facebook. Amy Pritchard misses late exchanges with her fellow insomniac.
"I never had a single conversation with him that didn't include at least one really bad joke followed by an awkward silence, then laughter," remembers Jeff Holshouser. His band, Hank Sinatra, will play a memorial benefit Sunday, with proceeds going to Holland's 18-year-old son, Elijah. "That silence, as Kelly often told me, is where the funny lives."
Holland's close friends consistently describe him as an uncommonly funny guy, a born entertainer who spawned new songs and jokes prolifically. He made many of his own problems, says his old pal Chuck Harrell, possibly including the one that finished him off. But more important, Harrell remembers a magnetic personality.
"He could have you wrapped around his finger in just a couple of minutes," Harrell says. The two met in the mid-'80s, when Holland sang for The Point, and they remained close during the quarter-century since. "He was one of those charismatic people."
Thomas agrees, as he and Harrell became fast friends after meeting in the early '90s. At that point, Thomas says, those in the know could find worthwhile rock music in Raleigh most nights of the week. The rock scene hinged on the three Cs—The Connells, Cry of Love and Corrosion of Conformity. It was through an unexpected rendezvous of the last two bands that he met Holland. There was a welcome home party for Corrosion of Conformity, then fresh from a tour with Megadeth, in a Raleigh practice space that's now home to high-rise condos. Thomas arranged an impromptu set with borrowed instruments and a borrowed vocalist named Kelly Holland.
"I got to see Kelly sing for Corrosion to a private audience, and that was the first night I met him," Thomas recalls. "And he was beyond awesome—certainly one of those moments where you feel privileged to be in attendance."
Last summer, Thomas left North Raleigh, where he says he'd been stuck for a few years, and returned downtown. He crashed at a friend's place on Boylan Avenue, then asked Holland to join him. Soon the two were sharing a room at the Velvet Cloak.
"I knew he was in a bad spot," remembers Thomas. "He was in a hotel in south Raleigh, and it was seedy and undesirable."
Holland was deeply depressed, too: He had survived two bad relationships and breakups, and his mother had recently died. Thomas hoped to put his old friend back in good company and get him to make music again, something he hadn't done in years. He hoped to dial down Holland's dangerously consistent alcohol intake. "Maybe not quit drinking entirely," Thomas says of his goals, "but not drinking from when you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, every night."
Harrell says he never saw Holland necessarily wasted, but he had an exaggerated tolerance from drinking all day, every day: "Not a huge amount, but a steady amount, which is enough to kill you over that many years," Harrell says. "Physically, that's what ended up killing him."
At the Velvet Cloak, Thomas witnessed a man who knew he was dying and welcomed it, long before he was hospitalized. There were fun days, sure, but most days, Thomas knew he couldn't play or mention Cry of Love. He'd demand that the music be turned off. Some days, though, he would tell stories or sing along, his once powerful voice—formerly suggestive of Chris Cornell, touched by a Southern twang—faded from the ravages of alcohol.
After Holland was admitted to WakeMed, Harrell, who has lived in California since 2006, gave up a weekend with his son and booked a flight to Raleigh. He called on a Saturday night, told Holland he loved him and that he would be there in less than a week. "You'd better hurry," Holland had told him.
Monday he was dead.
Harrell says he thinks of Holland every morning when he wakes up and every night when he falls asleep; though he maintains his friend effectively died at his own hand, he, Thomas and many other long-term friends miss him terribly.
"A lot of friends were friends until Kelly had a hard time. His friends know that he created his own destiny," Thomas says from the Velvet Cloak room he now lives in alone. "But real friends don't run."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rock scar"