Light a candle, curse the glare

Will Stewart
June 3, 1966-February 10, 2017

After finishing up some work in rain-soaked San Francisco I drove north over the Golden Gate bridge and pointed the rental car toward the Pacific and a favorite English pub tucked in amid majestic redwoods in the hills above Bolinas Bay. Travel can open one to the mystical, and Will Stewart, my longtime friend with whom I created this blog, had been on my mind.

With each passing road sign — Mill Valley, Stinson Beach, Mount Tamalpais, San Anselmo and San Raphael — images of a mirthful tie-dyed and long-haired Will flickered in my head. Nearly 30 years ago, when we became friends, Will was a devout Deadhead. “Casey Jones” looped in my head as I drove along the magnificent and murky Point Reyes National Seashore, sated from a generous Pelican Inn ploughman’s lunch in Muir Beach, and dodging washed-out road closures on a circuitous and hazardous route back to San Francisco. Trouble ahead, trouble behind.

Every silver lining has a touch of grey, as the Dead song goes. I learned of Will’s passing the following morning, when I checked my Facebook feed and read his poignant posthumous post while waiting for my plane home.  It gave my outing in the heart of Grateful Dead country significance, I suppose, and I retraced my steps during the long flight home.

I was circumspect with Will when he joined the Ann Arbor News in the 1989. The newsroom was under new leadership, and many of us were concerned about the paper’s direction. Who was this gangly new guy from Michigan State and in need of a decent haircut? First impressions are often wrong. We bonded easily — the way lots of guys do — drinking beer and talking choppily over loud music at Ann Arbor’s storied Blind Pig, an outing arranged by mutual friend and fellow journalist the late Owen Eshenroder. We debated whether Creedence or the Doors had a bigger impact on American music. As a kid I combated boredom with a steady diet of Rolling Stone and Creem magazines, mine and my older siblings’ record collections, and listening to as much radio as I could — especially the influential CKLW when atmospheric conditions were favorable. I knew music. And I was happy to convey that wisdom to others. Will knew music too — quite a bit more than I, it turned out — but he was good-natured about my Heineken-reinforced pretentiousness.

Not long after that night at the Pig we tried forming a band with some other journalists in a colleague’s basement in Hamburg — the little town between Ann Arbor and Pinckney, not the German city where the Beatles made a name. It didn’t go well. Only one of us, the non-journalist guitarist friend of a friend, was any good. We moved on.

Will and I had similar quirky tastes in comedy:  Monty Python, the Young Ones, Fawlty Towers, SCTV, and Seinfeld. We laughed at each other quite a bit too. For many years running, a bunch of us made Will’s classy old apartment on the outskirts of Ypsilanti’s historic Depot Town our home base for the uniquely groovy annual gathering that was the Frog Island Jazz and Blues Festival. Sun Ra, Wayne Toups, Dr. John, Marcia Ball, Queen Ida, Los Lobos, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were acts that stood out. One sweltering Saturday afternoon toward the end of the Festival’s run, Will and I attended a talk given by celebrated musician Clarence Gatemouth Brown at a Depot Town cafe. Each of us admired Gate, as Professor Longhair — who we both revered — called him, and we were eager to shake his hand before the talk had begun. Long before the selfie, a quick hand shake, maybe an autograph, was the best a fan could expect. It all went south when, in my clumsy post-talk glee, I extended my hand to Gate for a second time on the way out. “Nah,” he snarled, arms rigid at his side. “I already shook hands with you.” Will barely held it together as we hurriedly left the building. Outside, safely beyond Gate’s glare, Will cut loose with laughter.

In November 1989 I took a job on the features desk at the Detroit Free Press as Will rose to star reporter at the News in Ann Arbor. We hung out Friday nights at the Sidetrack in Ypsilanti, which was more or less Will’s second home during his bachelor days. We played basketball at Slauson Middle School on Thursdays. Saturdays often involved watching games or karaoke at Cubs AC. We sang together once:  Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Looking back, it was music that provided the glue that held us together all these years. Before cell phones and email, we all had answering machines. Recording the greeting was a 20-second opportunity to be creative and impress friends. Will’s and my greetings typically were built around songs. His best was a dub of the Grateful Dead song “He’s Gone,” written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Simple and to the point:

And now he’s gone/Now he’s gone/ Lord he’s gone/He’s gone


After hearing that greeting a few times, Jerry’s and Will’s voices were indistinguishable in my mind.

A couple of years ago, when we were kicking around ideas for doing this blog, we met at one of our old haunts to toast our working reunion. We sat at the bar at Old Town and nursed a couple of bottles of PBR while reminiscing. He had quit drinking years ago, after the cancer news, but for this occasion, for our many years of friendship, what could it hurt? he reasoned. I knew he wasn’t much into the Dead anymore — it’s hard to sustain the intensity during the 20 odd years since Jerry’s passing in 1995. He had other interests now that he wanted to write about:  food, travel, local musicians, books, family life, and his new favorite band, NRBQ.

I told him I liked his Facebook photo essays from Detroit, where he shot notable images of the iconic Hitsville USA and Fortune Records buildings, as well as the modest Westlawn grave sites of two underappreciated singers we both liked, Jackie Wilson and Nolan Strong. We had planned to return together sometime — a mutual pilgrimage of sorts — and also visit Woodlawn Cemetery, where Four Tops singer Levi Stubbs was laid to rest in 2008.

When we were younger, Will tended to dive headfirst into whatever caught his attention. A devotee of counterculture novelist Ken Kesey and other Merry Pranksters, he named his friendly but fierce cat Cassady. I’m sure I still have scars from that cat, but was inspired from many hours of play with him to get my own tabby a few years later. Will was a connoisseur of everything he liked. Often times those intense pursuits were short-lived, and it was hard to keep up with him. At Old Town, we talked about being middle age and boring, and the perspective it gave us. No more burning the candle at both ends, which suited both of us. Gone was his youthful edginess. He seemed grounded and more in tune with the ordinary. Family life with his wife and kids, and dogs, agreed with him. He was happy.

The last time I saw Will was before Thanksgiving last year. We made plans to meet at the Ann Arbor nightclub Live to see our friends in the band F.U.B.A.R. hold court. We chatted briefly over the din and in between songs, just like the old days. Will was with his wife, Janice, and another couple. They wanted to dance. I got another beer, listened to the music from my perch near the sound guy, and periodically glanced at Will and Jan dancing. I knew Will was seriously ill, but they danced like a high school couple at the senior prom:  intense, and dreamily oblivious to anybody or anything around them.

He could pass his time
Around some other line
But you know he chose this place beside her
Don’t get in the way
There’s nothing you can say
Nothing that you need to add or do

During the break between sets before I ducked out, Will and I agreed to have lunch when I got back from a Thanksgiving trip to visit my wife’s family in Phoenix and Los Angeles.

I didn’t reach out until early January. He texted back that he couldn’t do lunch because he was in home hospice and bedridden. It took me several hours to respond. When I finally did I told him I admired his courage and strength, that I was glad to have been his friend for all these years, and that I loved him. He texted back a couple of days later, thanked me for my affirmation, and said that he and Jan were still able to find smiles and laughs and absurdity each and every day. And that he loved me too.

Our chief purpose in creating this blog was to dabble — unlike the old-school objective journalists we were trained to be — in a more personal or subjective style of writing. Our aim was true even if we did precious little dabbling. His self-penned obituary is among the most poetic things I’ve read, and it fortified me to write this homage. Will would have thought it funny that it took his dying for me to get serious about the dabbling.

Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track
He’s gone, gone, and nothing’s gonna bring him back

Listening to the Dead these past couple of weeks has been cathartic. When I hear Jerry I hear Will. Their presence facilitates my mourning.

Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile

Editor’s note:  All quoted song lyrics by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia.


9 thoughts on “Light a candle, curse the glare

  1. Cindi Stewart says:

    Thank you so very much for this loving,heartfelt, and so very, very accurate tribute to your colleague and friend and to my son. He lived his life with an enthusiasm matched by few. And, by the way, I have scars from that cat as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave Turner says:

    Thanks for this. Will and I became best friends in 1st grade and I have always been lucky enough to call him my oldest friend. While we didn’t see as much of each other the last 20 years it was clear from spesking to him once a year or so that he had built a great life for himself in the Ann Arbor / Ypsi area surrounding himself with great friends, music, and family. This post really gave me a feel for that a little more specifically so thanks for that. Six of us oldtime friends who are spread out from Rhode Island to Seattle will be sharing an Airbnb in Ann Arbor next weekend and we look forward to honoring him with everyone else who loved him.

    Dave Turner

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kelly (Murphy) Seelbinder says:

    The brief time I had the pleasure of meeting Will was at a high school reunion with his wife Janice, an old friend of mine. He was quite a gentleman and witty too. I knew he had made my friend quite happy being her husband. I am so sorry their wonderful time was cut short. I will keep you all in prayers and my God carry you through this storm. Love, Kelly (Murphy) Seelbinder

    Liked by 1 person

  4. potterchris says:

    I’m so out of the loop alumni-wise — I didn’t even know this site existed until yesterday — I hadn’t known Will had died. I’m devastated.
    Will may have been short-changed on one’s usual allotment of time on Earth, but he damn well made the most of the time given him. R.I.P., friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Janice Alvarado Stewart says:

    Thank you Bill, for keeping this site up and live. When I click on the site, settles many of my senses. A slow smile creeps across my face when I see Will’s words. I can hear him talking about Fred with that lilt in his voice and his slouchy -shoulder, shrug. I appreciate being able to come here when I need to. Gracias.

    Liked by 1 person

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