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.