a google search turns up news articles all over the country…
and, of course, in the news sections on CNN, Yahoo, variety.com, billboard, and every local site you can imagine…even crossing onto sports sites like igglefans.com – the news that robert hazard passed away tuesday after surgery to treat pancreatic cancer, days short of what would have been his 60th birthday on august 21st.
if robert’s life were a movie, my part in it would probably be buried pretty deeply in the credits – just after christmas, i got a call from michael radcliffe, a fellow musician with whom i’d worked in patsy foster’s band. he mentioned that robert was looking to make some changes in his band and wanted to know if i’d be interested in being a part of it.
i said yes, of course, because that’s what i do…i nod my head to damn near anything and reserve judgement unless i know out of the gate that there’s no way in hell i’d be appropriate for the project, or i have some piece of information that tips me off beforehand that it would end badly. in this case, though, i was intrigued because i’d heard so many different stories about the guy that i just had to get close enough to form some opinions of my own. one report in particular from a musician that i’m pretty close to (the details of which are really unimportant at the moment) was still relatively fresh in my head…and, were it true, would have become immediately apparent if we tried to work together.
so robert called me, we had a great conversation on the phone, and he asked if i’d be interested in coming up to visit for the weekend and play through some songs and see if there was any chemistry, and whether or not this might work out. after a couple of false starts, i finally managed to clear a weekend that would allow for the trip, and i packed my gear and drove up through five-plus hours of some of the most beautiful countryside on the planet on my way to old forge, new york, where robert lived with his family in adirondack state park. i hauled the stuff into the house through the snow and we settled in for a bit…i had met him once before this, at a show at steel city coffeehouse where j.d. malone was opening for robert, and i was playing with j.d. – this show happened just shortly after we’d begun talking about the possibility of working together, but it was still confidential at that point, and neither of us could let on that we were discussing working together.
now, though, we were riding out a snowstorm in a cabin in the adirondacks, with nothing to do but play music. he had sent me three full albums – blue mountain, songs from the seventh lake, and my personal favorite, troubador (which was recorded and produced by karen savoca and pete heitzman). over the course of the night and the next morning, we played through damn near everything on the three records that he currently played as part of the live show, and we had a blast. his son, rex, had a sleepover that night…when he returned the next day, robert brought him downstairs to check out the array of instruments i had brought along. (he especially liked the jaguar baritone.)
we were both really excited about the possibilities – immediately after mike radcliffe had called, i went to roberts’ myspace page and listened to some of the material from his new record, and i really liked i still believe in you – and could see, just listening to that song, where i’d fit into the scheme of things. when the CD’s came in the mail, it was the first one i put in, and i still remember being in the car, driving in the dark, and listening to the one/two punch of i still believe in you, into bound…and being optimistic that i had something to contribute to this.
we did one more adirondacks rehearsal, with the remaining members of the band, and made it official not long afterward. i had misgivings about not getting to play with freddie ditomasso, because he and i were new friends, and i was looking forward to being in a band with him…so that was a bit awkward, but that had nothing to do with mike’s playing – he’s a very solid bass player, and a great guy.
we did our first gig together as a duo at rockwood music hall in NYC, in front of a table full of rykodisc employees, including ruby marchand (the head of A&R) – no pressure there. actually, it must be said, that aside from getting twisted around in traffic and showing up much later than i wanted to, the show itself went quite well – robert was visibly pleased afterward, and everyone at the ryko table seemed to be in good spirits.
michael tearson (a philly radio legend if there is such a thing) was at our first full band gig, and was ecstatic with what was happening…he loved some of the things that i brought to the table, including the 12 string guitar on nobody but the night and the pedal steel on roberts’ cover of bob dylan’s i need you. later in the year, when the band played the tin angel, tearson joined us onstage for out of the blue and it brought the house down.
we had some great gigs, it has to be said. my personal favorite, though, would be the co-bill at godfrey daniels in bethlehem, PA that we did with karen savoca and pete heitzman. robert was on his game that night, karen and pete sat in with us, we sat in with them…it really felt like a family reunion of sorts, and there were some great musical moments that night, too – pete and i both playing on ride to town, which robert seldom did live – midnight gal, somebody else’s dream, lucky hat – everything that we played sounded great that night.
we went to the bar across the street (where i’d just been some weeks before with the most recent – at that time – incarnation of craig bickhardt‘s on the road and in the round) and closed the place down, said goodbye to everyone and filed that one away in the history books…we were a little demoralized by the thin crowd, but as far as the interplay between robert and i, it was really starting to take shape.
there was no way of knowing at that point that there would only be a few more.
after our show at sellersville theatre, opening for the refugees, robert went home and found himself almost immediately in the hospital in syracuse for a couple of days. i had no idea until it was over and he was back home, but the words that weren’t said when talking to robert or susan were pretty ominous. they said that the original focus was on possible kidney trouble, but susan said that “there are a couple of options and some are definitely worse than others”…in terms of what the possible problem might have been.
robert told me that they ruled out kidney failure, because they were functioning, but they weren’t sure what was happening in the aftermath – where it was going, what was happening to it – and that he was looking at having to go back for tests and a possible biopsy.
that was one of the last conversations we had.
we had something of a non-verbal falling out shortly thereafter, over whether or not he should try to do a show he was scheduled for, and there were a couple of other issues that had been bothering me, as well…in hindsight, they were pretty silly, but in the end, it amounts to the fact that when robert died, he and i still hadn’t discussed any of it. from my perspective, i was still under the impression that this was something that he’d come out of, something that he’d beat, and when he did, i’d reach out to him and we’d clear the air about my gripes, and if there was any desire to work together again, we’d move forward from there…and if not, at least we both know where we stood. it didn’t seem like a priority at the moment – certainly, he had bigger fish to fry than haggling with me over song arrangement issues, money issues, finding fault where no fault existed issues…it was enough to get under my skin, but not enough to warrant getting into while he was dealing with being sick.
but now, i have to live with the fact that i put off making amends and explaining my position, and that my friend very likely went to his grave pissed at me.
mend your fences, people. don’t dick around.
robert sent out a notice a couple of weeks ago, that he posted on his website:
A heartfelt thank you to all my fans and friends who have been so supportive to my music and the direction I have taken over the past few years…
I have been truly blessed as a performer and a songwriter to have you with me on this wonderful journey.
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances beyond my control, I have been forced to cancel the rest of my summer tour schedule. We will pick up again in the fall – in the meantime, I will be preparing for a new CD and more show dates…please stay tuned to your local venues for rescheduled dates in your area .
Until we meet again…
he was scheduled to be admitted to mass general hospital in boston for surgery – yet they still weren’t saying what the surgery was for. i can only speculate at the moment on whether or not they knew at that point that pancreatic cancer was the culprit…but outwardly, he gave the impression that he was optimistic about his return to the concert stage and was giving thought to the next record.
the next record…it would have been phenomenal, if the songs he had been writing of late were any indication. one in particular, summerland, had become my favorite. as much as it pains me that i never got the opportunity to clear the air with robert before he died, it pains me as much that we’ll never get to play that song together again…and that likely no one will get to hear it, either.
it also needs to be said – publicly – that i never saw the side of robert that so many of the stories i’d heard had painted. i’m not saying that they’re all untrue, i’m simply saying that – in his dealings with me – he was never anything but a gentle soul. we didn’t always see eye to eye, but he never lashed out at me or threw any acrimony in my direction.
i talked to my buddy michael vernacchio (robert’s longtime keyboard player) over the weekend, and michael said that he’d never seen robert as pleased with the band as he’d been of late…that’s not to say he didn’t have his complaints, but that generally speaking, in the past there was always a gripe or an issue of some sort – but that he’d moved away from that in the past year or so. i wouldn’t begin to take credit for that, but i will certainly say that the band earned any accolades that it got, from anyone who gave them…robert included.
it’s gonna take a long time to make peace with this.
if it didn’t hit you the first time i said it, i’ll say it again…if there’s someone that you need to make amends with, to mend fences with, to hash things out with – best to do it now. you may not get the chance later, and then you’ll have to live with the same stuff that’s flying about the inside of my head today.
goodbye, robert – i’ll see you on the other side.
susan, remy, rex – i’m sorrier for you loss than you probably know.