Two days ago I found out Michael had passed away in mid-July–so two months ago already. There have been local tributes to him on radio, and this obituary.
But I missed it all. I probably hadn’t seen him in two years before he died. I spoke to him on the phone around this time last year claiming I would put together a visit to him, but he wasn’t the sort you could just drop in on for coffee or like that and I have a hard time setting up appointments that don’t help pay bills anymore, but I do very much regret not having made this happen at least once or twice before he got sick.
We met at a jazz jam session hosted by a real nut-job of a sax player named Rico I won’t get into. They had a rugged friendship, those two, and much of the time, rather than productive, it was borderline toxic but I was working on my self-designed jazz degree, looking for outlets wherever I could find them. The room was small, and thick with a couple different types of smoke most of the time. He was using Rico’s kit and considering his background as a professional and dedicated drummer, it was beneath him, but he had some good nights with it. He didn’t have a car and so I drove him to these sessions most of the time–he would bring sticks, and maybe a favorite snare and a cymbal or something like that.
He could be very encouraging. He called me, Barn-Burner, “Because he cooks–he cooks!” He could also offer a kick in the ass when he thought it was appropriate.
The quality of those sessions was all over the map, depending much on personnel but also libation and smoke. What time of the day it was, and how early the drinks of the evening had been purchased could impact the quality of playing and the interest level in maintaining something like a serious session. When it wasn’t serious, I would get antsy to leave, and Mike would get frustrated and depressed.
One night going home he was quiet, occasionally muttering displeasure with his own playing, along with a critique of two or three other people involved, though I don’t remember discussing whatever I had made of the evening as a bass player. When he was in this kind of mood, I would sometimes feel the need to try and offer suggestions–how we might put together something more serious, where else we might play, and inevitably these ideas were found to be out of means, as he didn’t actually own a kit, it was Rico’s, so getting it out for his use apart from the space was problematic; and then where might we find another place to play, to invite those he thought were ready to work on something more consistently rewarding? Neither Mike nor I had much money and Mike also mentioned that he liked being able to smoke cigarettes when he was playing, which narrowed the possibilities even further.
I didn’t have time to go in and hang out that evening, as was part of the ritual. I was teaching in public school at the time and it was probably a weeknight. He was always eager to have company and share stories of playing, and strange things that had happened to him like the night he had a three-way with Janice Joplin and a female lover of hers. I might go into that in another piece, but once he had his things together, the manner in which he said goodnight felt like a punch in the stomach: after another recap of the misery he had suffered by a worthless night of playing, he said, “And try coming down a little harder on yourself, sometimes!”