A Personal Note.

Sunday I got word that my old friend Mike Greene had had a serious heart attack and was in an induced coma, and this afternoon he was taken off life support and died, hopefully without ever being aware he was in a hospital. I met Mike at my first proofreading job, where I quickly learned he knew everything about proofreading and editing (not to mention all sorts of subjects like sociology and numismatics; he was in fact tremendously erudite, though he hid it behind a screen of good-old-boy joviality) and soon found out he was a musician as well — or rather that he was primarily a musician, who like almost all musicians needed a day job. He was from Abilene, Texas, and grew up in the shadow of his much older brother A.C. Greene, of whose writing he was immensely proud; he himself was a born writer and wrote who knows how many millions of words, but he could never accept being edited, so almost nothing ever got published. He was also a born musician who fell in love with “the devil’s music” (as his religious mother called it) as a boy; he learned to play the piano with the same anarchic fire as Jerry Lee Lewis (another untamed Texan), and during the era of segregation used to play with Black bands in joints where they stuck him behind a potted plant so his whiteness wouldn’t be so apparent. (Or so he said. He was also a born storyteller, and like all born storytellers he never let factual details get in the way of a good story.) When we met I was in awe of him and tried to find out about his background, but he was standoffish until he finally invited me to hear his blues band play, and when I was enthusiastic about their music he started opening up. How I wish I could go back to the Village of thirty years ago and hear his pounding chords and sweeping runs up and down the keyboard, accompanied by his yowling, impassioned vocals on songs like “Junco Partner” and “Nine Below Zero,” with the wonderful Jesse Cohen on guitar and the late Bob Guida on bass.

He was fully himself and fully open when he played and sang, but he could be reticent and contrary in conversation, and he tended to react to any difficult or emotional situation with a joke. But when my mother died unexpectedly in 1992 (she’d had a bad heart all her life, and it felled her during a visit to my brother) he clapped me on the back and said “Well, you’re a motherless child now,” and it was just what I needed; it’s one of the few things I retain from a period my memory has largely wiped clean. And after my father died, almost a decade ago now, he was the closest thing to a father figure I had. He enjoyed reading Languagehat (and occasionally commented, always signing off “Ur fiend, thegrowlingwolf”), and I think it was an inspiration for his own very different blog, The Daily Growler, where he would rail against the politicos and moneymen he felt were ruining the country and the world — and then add “I’m evilly thrilled about all this. I love Chaos and entropy.” But he also occasionally reminisced about his life, and those were the posts I loved. I particularly direct your attention to his 2007 series One Spring Morning Off Spring Street, which I linked to in this LH post. I wish he’d continued it, but I think he felt he was revealing a little too much.

I could go on and on, but I don’t want to get maudlin. I never knew anybody like him, and I don’t expect I ever will again. In the course of reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD I recently came across the epitaph (from the Roman Catacombs) of “a comic pantomime artist, Vitalis,” which begins:

O death, what shall I do with you …
You know nothing of merriment.
You do not appreciate jokes.

I immediately thought of Mike, of how much he would enjoy it, and wanted to send it to him. But then it was too late.

I’ll let him have the last word. Here’s the last thing he wrote me, on Saturday afternoon:

I’m having a ball being free to do as I please within the limits of my means — just finished a 120,000-word novel and am now 20,000+ words into a new novel — of course, in my usual abnormal way of reasoning, I’m writing them to finish them not to sell them. In fact, I wouldn’t know how the hell to get a book published in this glutted world. Today is Monica’s 59th — and my niece’s husband John’s 62 — and I just celebrated Cherry’s 69th with her and friends at O’Reilly’s Pub (me footing the bill, of course) (I love that phrase “of course”) — “time, eater of all things lovely” — and tempus fugit and God-damn, where the hell did it go? Yahoo, as Swift said.

Addendum. When Mike’s blog started, I sent a link to Mark Woods of wood s lot (one of my favorite blogs for many years now) because I thought its politics and general style would appeal to him, and sure enough Mark added the Growler to his blogroll and would occasionally quote it in his daily roundup of images and texts, something of which Mike was very proud (and which of course sent him readers he wouldn’t otherwise have had). Just now when I went to wood s lot for the latest update, I found that today’s post (after the inevitable first image) led with a nice tribute to Mike, linking to this post and Mike’s last one and quoting some good bits from it. I wish Mike could have seen it. Thanks, Mark!

Update (May 2015). A nice NY Times piece on Mike by his doctor, Danielle Ofri, who actually went to his memorial service:

As physicians, we get only a tiny window into our patients’ lives. Even when we make an extra effort, it is still hardly a glimpse. It was only as I sat at this pub, steeped in his life, friends and stories, that I got any sense of how richly textured his life was.

Comments

  1. “CIA Interrogator:
    Have you ever met any jazz musicians you would describe, or who would describe themselves, as anarchists?

    Bartholomew ‘Barley’ Scott Blair:
    Hmmm… ah, there was a trombone player, Wilfred Baker. He’s the only jazz musician I can think of who is completely devoid of anarchist tendencies.”

    – The Russia House.

    My condolences.

  2. Thanks, that’s another great quote I wish I could share with him!

  3. Ha, I turned on the radio and they were playing “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” with Oscar Peterson, one of his very favorite pianists. They sure ain’t! The world’s a funny old place.

  4. squadron leader squiffy von bladet says:

    I’m sorry for your loss.

    It is too soon to think about the possibility of his estate needing a literary executor, but one day it won’t be.

  5. May his memory be for a blessing.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    A life that is usefully explained by linking to a performance by Professor Longhair (possibly my favorite ivorist/ebonist in the history of the world) seems like a life that was worth the living. Вечная память.

  7. One of mine as well; Mike loved both Fess and Sonny Boy, so it gave me pleasure to link the songs to them.

  8. The glimpses of “ur fiend, thegrowlingwolf” that I used to get through his appearances at this blog gave me the most vivid impression of an astounding and truthful person. He seemed to be hidden behind a massive persona, yet at the same time he seemed to be right there, honest and true and bold. It was hard to get my mind around him, and I felt that if I were a bigger and stronger person I might have dared to learn more from him. I don’t know how much sense this makes.

    I’m sorry for your loss, and happy to have had those glimpses of him.

  9. The glimpses of “ur fiend, thegrowlingwolf” that I used to get through his appearances at this blog gave me the most vivid impression of an astounding and truthful person. He seemed to be hidden behind a massive persona, yet at the same time he seemed to be right there, honest and true and bold. It was hard to get my mind around him, and I felt that if I were a bigger and stronger person I might have dared to learn more from him. I don’t know how much sense this makes.

    It makes all the sense in the world; in fact, it’s one of the best succinct descriptions I can imagine. He could be a little intimidating, because you never knew what he was going to say or do, and some people (notably those given to following the Rules) were put off by him, but if he liked you he’d stand up for you no matter what, and whatever he said came straight from him, no calculation involved. Thanks very much for your comment!

  10. A man not of the age, but for the Ages. R.I.P.

  11. whatever he said came straight from him, no calculation involved

    As a not very impulsive person, I dislike the implication that spontaneous necessarily equals genuine. When I act spontaneously, it’s just as likely to come from annoyance or indigestion as from my genuine personality.

  12. A very beautiful and moving obituary. I’m sorry not to have known him or about him, and grateful for your introsuction. I do hope the literary remains will survive. There should be a Wikipedia Alexandria for such.

  13. AJP Crowne says:

    I’m very sad that he’s died. I’ll miss his comments.

  14. Meredith Megaw says:

    Steve,

    You have beautifully captured the uncapturable. Thank you so much for your moving and eloquent tribute.

    Much love and thanks,

    Meredith

  15. Nicholas Buckworth says:

    I knew Uncle Kitty through the prism of my wife Arabella, who was married for 20 years to Kitty’s nephew and now 11 years and counting, to me. I listened to his music, his stories and his jokes, and I would like to think that as an irreverent Aussie, I was able to connect with him in a special way. Now that he has been taken by that bastard the grim reaper, I am so sorry that I did not have a chance to say good-bye. But we rarely do get a chance to say good-bye. That is why we should treat every moment with special people as just that, special.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, that was thegrowlingwolf?

    🙁

  17. I’m sure Hat was in no mood for such a wisecrack, but a good title for this post would have been “Death of a Fiend”.

  18. Meredith and Nicholas: Thanks very much for your comments; it means a lot to me that people who knew and loved Mike approve of the way I wrote about him. It takes a lot of trepidation to try writing about that guy!

    I’m sure Hat was in no mood for such a wisecrack, but a good title for this post would have been “Death of a Fiend”.

    In this context, a wisecrack is perfectly appropriate; Mike would have loved that one, and so do I — I’m glad you thought of it.

  19. Damn, he rambled ’til the butcher cut him down. I have been reading the growlingwolf for years after clicking on your blog link list, and had a fondness for his legendary curmudgeonlyness. His style of writing made my worst cynical streaks look like naive innocence. I often wondered about the identity of the mysterious wolf – I too knew and sometimes played with the late, great, huge Bob Guida back in the last century in New York. Guida was eulogized on Wolf’s pages as well. His posts often began with obituaries: thanks for providing his. The man will be missed but his writing is – internet willing – for the ages.

  20. His style of writing made my worst cynical streaks look like naive innocence.

    Mine too!

    his writing is – internet willing – for the ages.

    From your keyboard to G-d’s input device.

  21. that his memory is not lost R.I.P

  22. Marybeth says:

    Oh dear Languagehat! I’ve been watching Mike’s blog, as I always have been, waiting for another post. Of course I know that he hasn’t posted since February 6th and I started to worry a little. I would check every couple of days or so for a new post and see always that Feb. 6th post at the top. I have been wanting to write to you to ask after my old growlypants but was somehow a little afraid of the answer. I know that he had a heart condition and that he was in his late seventies, an age when things can get very touchy. I finally got up the courage to look to see if you’ve had anything to say about him. Oh my. I am so sad. I scrolled all the way back to early February to find this. Well, I guess I knew it had to happen eventually. I have certainly worried about him dropping dead from heart failure. I always have worried a little when his posts didn’t appear rapidly. I loved him, I think you know. We never met in the flesh but I was an avid reader of his Daily Growler. I commented frequently. I tried to get him to meet me on several of my visits to NYC but he would not cooperate which I think was a damned shame. He was afraid I wouldn’t like him if I actually met him which could never have been possible. I already loved him. I hope he had an inkling. He always called me thewomantrumpetplayer or TWTP. I think he appreciated my support of his writing. It certainly enriched my life. I think he knew that. I hope he knew that. Ahhh fuck! Thank you for this post. All the best to you. His absence, I’m sure, will be felt more deeply by you who knew him face to face. I really hate when people go away forever.

  23. I’m glad you found the post when you needed to, and yes, he knew, never fear.

    I really hate when people go away forever.

    Yup, and it’s not something you ever get used to. “After the first death, there is no other” — what a load of crap! Sometimes when I want to feel his presence I put on the hat he gave me.

  24. Marybeth says:

    It always seems so huge when people I love disappear. I really hate it and as many times as I’ve navigated the death of people I love it is always just as awful each time. Each death is just as horrible and painful as the first. Well, I’m glad that I stumbled upon Mike’s blog back in 2006 or there abouts. I was enriched immeasurable by my little virtual relationship with him. I’m glad to hear that he knew that I loved him. I was certainly an avid reader of his delightful writing and I already really miss him immensely. I had snagged some photos of him off another old site of his called something like “the little greene schoolhouse” but I can neither find my images of him, nor that site (probably long gone). My photos of him included a bunch of shots from a night out with you and others at Brendan Kelly’s joint and one photo of him very young that looked like a yearbook photo. It sucks that I can’t find them but I remember what they looked like. I hope his blog stays up for a good long while. I will be rereading old entries. Thank you for replying.

  25. Oh yes, I remember the little greene schoolhouse — thanks for reminding me! I told him he should just go ahead and meet you, but he was reluctant for reasons he could never really explain. He was a complicated guy.

  26. Marybeth says:

    I think he was just shy and afraid that I wouldn’t like him if I met him in person, or that he wouldn’t like me. I figured out his name. I thought initially that Daily Growler was a variation on his name, which it is (David Greene) and it didn’t take too much effort to learn it, learn that he hung at O’Reilly’s, etc. I used to pop into O’Reilly’s every time I was in NYC but I never struck gold, as it were. I had been reading his blog for a while and only finally got the courage to comment when he posted a photo of Natalie Wood. I was very often told, when I was young, that I looked like a young Natalie Wood, which I found insulting at the time. I thought, “I know I’m ugly, but shit I’m not that ugly!” I thought Natalie and I were both hideous. Oh Geez, I can laugh now. I figured if he liked her he would like me. See, he should have met me. We would have had a great time.

    I was only ever in NYC for short little trips. It’s not like I would have taken over his life. But who knows. Maybe he wanted a woman to take over his life and someone who lived 3000 miles away would have been a frustration if he really liked me. I thought it was colossally silly that we never met but I could only respect his wishes in that realm (though I did pop into O’Reilly’s hoping to catch a glimpse of him which maybe wasn’t so respectful). There were many things I wanted to write but didn’t. I even thought of sending him a photo of me playing my trumpet at the age of 12. I think he would have gotten a kick out of it, yet I didn’t want to be too intrusive. It’s funny that we had trouble on the physical plane because he was so wide open in his writing. He laid so much bare that I would have protected in my own life. He was outrageously intimate in his writing and then so shy, too shy to actually see me face to face. I have another friend who won’t meet me. Another NYC friend who writes beautifully, writes the tenderest things. He and I share a love for a woman I knew as a child and a teen. She was gorgeous and full of life but developed brain cancer at 25. She valiantly battled the cancer for 32 years (30 years longer than her most optimistic prognosis) and finally succumbed last year. I met her old boyfriend on line and we have done so much commiserating yet when we had a chance to meet he bailed. He later wrote that he was frightened, that he doesn’t like himself that much, that I might have rejected him if I saw what he really is, blah, blah, blah. Hmmmm, I thought. Perhaps an insight into my Growling Wolf. I think Old Growly was afraid that meeting me would somehow kill our friendship. I know absolutely that it would not have because I liked him so well and I have an arrogant confidence in my ability to judge people I’ve never met. Ha! Charge headlong into experience is my motto. Well, hell, I’ll never meet him now and that’s ridiculous!

    The little greene schoolhouse was fun and I wish it was still up somewhere. He had posted a lot of info there about his family history which was fascinating. He came from interesting people. His grandmother especially sounded wonderful. I think it was on that site that he posted photos from some “Ides of March Banquet” at Brendan Kelly’s with many of his friends present, like you and Nick Jainschigg and Manfred Percy Mann and maybe theryefarmerfromqueens and other luminaries who peopled his writing. I was a little envious of that whole crowd. It looked like so much fun, so many interesting and brilliant people. I wanted to meet all of you.

    Life is too damned fragile and too damned brief. So here I am in the electronic age missing a man I never met, yet I feel like I knew him so well. Writing is a very intimate art form. One of my lovers once said that conversation is the greatest form of intimacy because even cockroaches fuck. Mike and I would have been the same people in the flesh that we were in our electronic communication. I’m sure of it. I mostly wanted to see his eyes. Eyes tell so much. Well damn. Why did he have to up and die like that? Actually, a heart attack is a blessed exit. Much better than the slow agonizing decline. So he is a lucky man. I only wish he had waited a little longer.

  27. Amen, and my condolences about your friend you lost to brain cancer. Cancer can go right to hell.

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