RIP Michael Meldrum
“Come on autumn leaves, fall tired and slow
I think I’ll let you write my song…”
I was 19 or 20 when I first stumbled into Nietzsche’s – a hole-in-the-wall bar at a corner of sorts, where one road curves into another, in the Allentown neighborhood of Buffalo, NY. The neon sign in the window held the Niet solidly, while the other letters often blinked, stuttered, or sat dark and burnt out completely.
I was in college at Buffalo State, studying English literature, but my real passion at the time was singing and writing songs. I’d been studying music at that point for 15 years, but had only picked up guitar three or four months earlier. It didn’t bother me that my instrument felt foreign and unwieldy. I figured I understood melody and harmony well enough; knew well enough what to do when a mic was in front of my face. I was going to make a go of it, try to figure out how to write a great song, or at least have some fun trying.
Then I wandered into that bar and met Michael Meldrum.
Through the years, I’ve often filed Michael in my head under “teachers,” but he never really sat me down and taught me anything. He fed me coffee, bought me beer, shot the shit with me, gave me a ride home when the show went too late, booked me for showcases, and encouraged me to keep writing. Always with the encouragement, always the emphasis on songwriting.
I learned a lot from Michael which no formal music teacher had ever so much as implied. For one, I learned the name Townes Van Zandt. That went a long way.
I also learned about what music can do. A lot of people talk about how music has the power to change minds and hearts, as if it’s a quality music possesses which is separate from the music itself. As if this “power” is an occasional accomplishment – one achieved only if and when the music is manipulated correctly. But, that’s not the case. Music – like all art – changes hearts and minds. That is the point. That’s what it does.
Whether it gets a humdrum person onto a dancefloor; whether it inspires someone to make their own art; whether it influences a decision which could change the course of a person’s life…all of these things are changes. Changes which affect not only the songwriter, but the person listening, and everyone around them. A song, in other words, can become the catalyst and vortex of an entire community. There’s a responsibility in that.
When you get on a stage, I learned from Michael, you can either entertain people, inform them, provoke them, or you can cause emotions to surface which those in your audience have been ignoring or suppressing. The best art does all of these things (consider Bob Dylan or John Lennon – two artists whose work received numerous tributes at Nietzsche’s during shows which Michael organized).
This is such a basic truth about art. Look at Lady Gaga. Look at Woody Guthrie. Look at Steve Earle. Look at Radiohead.
If you have the opportunity to be on a platform, behind a device which makes you louder than everyone else in the room, you have an opportunity. What you say and do is going to do one of those things – you may as well make it deliberate. You may as well steer that wheel.
I don’t recall a time when Michael said these words to me, but that’s what I learned from him. It was a very implicit, experiential sort of thing – because of the songs he sang, those he wrote, those he applauded; because of the artists with whom he surrounded himself. I wasn’t alone. Ani DiFranco, whom Michael befriended when she was a child, told the Buffalo News, “Any success I’ve had has been predicated on what he taught me — that staying in touch with what music is and why it is that we give our lives over to it, is essential. He taught me that music isn’t something you make — it’s something you do. It’s about making a connection with others, about establishing community, about freeing yourself and urging others to do the same. I learned all of this from him, and it has stayed with me every step of the way.”
Considering art in this way, at that age, got me realizing such a thing spills over into every day. In fact, being a musician isn’t just about what you do at a microphone. There’s also all the other stuff that goes into getting gigs and keeping your audience. It’s all part of the job. Art is a way of life – a commitment to living artfully, which doesn’t mean life as performance art, but is rather a recognition that each interaction you have can (and often does) boil down to those things: entertainment, information, provocation, emotion.
(I’m adding my own ideas here too, of course. But I’m a writer these days, and that’s part of the job.)
The last time I saw him must have been 2004…I’m bad with dates. He showed me his banjitar that day, and handed me one of his Takamine acoustics. His son was playing the snare drum, and had written a song about the universe – how all the stars and planets are far apart, but still part of this one big thing together…
All of this to say Michael Meldrum passed away last week, at the age of 60, after a bout with liver cancer.
The news came to me this morning in an email from a stranger – a colleague on the internet – a note stating that perhaps this news was appropriate for About.com Folk Music. After all, Michael was a folk singer. He made one one album in his 30-year career, to my knowledge. Open Ended Question (Righteous Babe, 2006) was produced by Ani DiFranco and recorded, at least in part, in Michael’s attic.
When I saw him last, more than the immortalizing of songs he’d been writing and singing his whole life, he was excited to tell me about the music that was happening in his new attic studio. He smiled as he told me about the friends he’d gotten to see again, the locals who had agreed to lend their instrumentation and voices, the jam sessions, the unexpected instruments which would appear on the recording. I got the sense, as I always did with Michael, that making this record wasn’t about what could be done with the finished product, but was rather about the importance of making the music happen at all.