This One Stings (Some Thoughts on the Loss of Gene Shay)
by John Flynn
I’ve lost friends before. We all have. So why did the death of my old buddy Gene Shay from complications brought on by COVID-19 hit me so hard? Why did this sting a little deeper? Why was this pain sharp enough to cause that involuntary gasp during these interminable, mind-numbing weeks of collective national breath-holding? Maybe it was our shared history. Gene and I had been down a long road together.
So many shows. So many festivals, and conventions. I guess many of us in the folk community share that sense of deep time connection with him. Gene was a locus, a trans-generational touchstone. Listening to Ian Zolitor’s moving tribute to Gene on the Folk Show, the Sunday night following his death, made that abundantly clear. Hearing Tom Rush’s guitar doing “Mole’s Moan” during the intro brought that clenched feeling back to your throat all over again because you knew Gene’s friendly voice wouldn’t be breaking in at any moment to welcome us all around the crackling tribal campfire of a radio program that we’ve all warmed our hearts by for so many decades. So, yeah, history was part of it.
But more than that, Gene was like family. My kids had grown up around him. When they were little they’d crowd around the radio in our dining room to hear him occasionally play one of my songs. The whole family had once spent a day mugging for his film crew at the Philadelphia Zoo for a commercial he was producing for the local tourism board. Sean and Sarah had even done his radio show at WXPN a couple times with me. Yep, Gene was like family. But even that didn’t quite explain what I was feeling. Maybe there was a selfish aspect?
Gene always believed in me. Indeed, I remember thinking after the premature report of Gene’s passing (Arlo texted me that he had laughed when he’d found out that Gene had actually outlived his own obituary. I texted back that only Gene could pull it off…) that after my grandmother died, I had a sense that there would never be another person in this world who thought quite so highly of me. When it came to my music, Gene was that person for me.
When I was just starting out, Gene had given me my first radio exposure by inviting me on his show. (That is, if you don’t count playing into a telephone receiver on Don Cannon’s morning show on WIBG when I was in high school!) In those years the experience was always a bit daunting. I loved performing live– a staple on Gene’s programs– but I must admit that I always felt kind of vulnerable at the end of the song– just as that final guitar chord faded to silence. There’d always be this moment of wondering. Would Gene like the song? And if so, what adjectives of praise might ensue from that authoritative and storied voice? What quotable gems for your press kit might you catch as they spilled forth into a microphone that might shape the perceptions of the entire folk community? But praise wasn’t really what Gene was about. I realized years later that he wouldn’t have had you on the show in the first place if you weren’t any good. That was already understood. So, mostly Gene’s response to your composition would be something along the lines of, “Ehh… new song, huh?”
Oh, the excruciating agony of a public damning by faint chronology! Yes, it was new! C’mon dude! Throw the kid a bone here! Did you like it? But nothing ever came back then except… the best possible thing. “Let’s hear another”, he’d say.
I always wondered about this reaction. That is until I first heard a replay of Gene interviewing Joni Mitchell in which Joni plays the (then) three-day-old masterpiece, “Clouds” for the first time – live on the radio. You hear that last exquisite guitar chord decay and you sit, stunned by the craft, the beauty, the sheer brilliance! And then Gene responds (I kid you not!), “Ehh… new song, huh?” WOW! Gene treated us all as equals! No big stars, no local schlubs, just songwriters.
His egalitarian approach to the artist would become even more evident later on. In the mid-90s, Gene paid me the honor of asking me to do a series of songwriting workshops with him throughout the tri-state area. This was a big deal for me as I was only beginning to become known for my own stuff. Having been judged too much of a “folkie” for Nashville, I’d built my living– and a good-sized following– on the Philly and Jersey shore cover bar circuit.
Gene led the workshops and would open them by speaking knowledgeably about what made a good song. He would then use my material to illustrate his points, asking me to perform live and then questioning me about the choices I had made in a particular construction, lyric or melody. (I never admitted to either him or the audience that I felt like anything I’d done right was purely accidental.) I must confess that I learned a lot about the craft of songwriting– and even about my own songs– from doing these workshops with him. I was, and remain to this day, a rather intuitive writer and Gene helped me understand some things in new ways. He was a great teacher.
At the end of our workshops Gene would encourage the audience– who generally came armed with guitars, banjos or some other “implements of distraction”– to share their latest compositions. As you might expect, the songs they regaled us with were of varying quality. Some were pretty good. Others were clearly written by folks just starting out. Some were… well… bad. Back then, my mind would almost always hear these new songs from a critical perspective. I remember Arlo’s great story about Steve Goodman bribing him with a beer to get him to listen to “City of New Orleans”. According to the story, AG had initially declined Steve’s request to listen, saying, “Songs? I hate songs!” That always made me laugh and there were more than a few moments back in those days where I’m embarrassed to admit that I related to the sentiment.
Not that I would necessarily share my negative reactions. But my first instinct was generally to notice what was “wrong” with what I was hearing. My thoughts would automatically race to how the song could be improved. It was a problem-solving mentality. Gene‘s response, however, was always completely different. It was a celebration mentality. It always began with delight.
The first thing Gene would notice and respond to about your song in these settings was what was good about it. He’d point out what you had done well. The songs originality, evocation, enthusiasm, or even the spirit behind the attempt were of just as much interest to Gene as the final execution of the piece. And he was genuinely excited that you had decided to join the family of artists and composers that kept our music community alive. This wasn’t to say that Gene wouldn’t give you constructive criticism. After he had bestowed some of the biggest smiles I had ever seen on the faces of our fledgling writers, Gene would gently lead the composers into a discussion about how to improve their work. His suggestions were always valid and right on the money.
Gene’s approach to songs mirrored his approach to everything. He could say “no” if he had to, but his instinct was to begin with “yes”. It’s a lesson I still try draw upon. Not that Gene didn’t also have a very funny as hell edge. Once, when I thanked Gene at a folk music convention for asking me to run a high-profile workshop called “Secrets of the Emerging Artist”, he said, “John, no one’s been emerging longer than you.”
Sometime after the songwriting workshop period, Gene signed me to my first recording contract on Sliced Bread Records, a label he and his friend Carl Apter had started. That’s when I first encountered Gene’s indefatigable sense of optimism. It was back in the late 90s. Gene was tasked with lining up the producer for my project. I was excited about his suggestion that we use Ben Wisch, who had received a Grammy for his work on Marc Cohn’s recent album. Gene told me that Ben was up for producing me, providing he and I hit it off personally, and he advised me to drive up to New York City and hang out with Ben. The next night I was standing with my guitar case in the lobby of Red House Music.
Ben was clearly at a loss to see me and explained uncomfortably that he had actually declined Gene’s offer to produce my record. After some really awkward silence, I asked him why he’d said no. Ben responded that, though he liked my singing, he didn’t feel the material on the demo cassette Gene had sent him was strong enough. A couple hours later I had played Ben a batch of new songs and he had signed on as my new producer. When I called Gene at home the next day, he explained that that was exactly what he had envisioned happening. He said he had known I was better live than on my demos, and that if Ben got to know me and hear my stuff in person, he’d change his mind. Gene also knew me well enough to strongly suspect that if I’d had a chance to stew on Ben’s initial rejection, I would have never gone along with the plan. Gene was definitely an optimist. Plus, I remember thinking, that was some serious Jedi-level mind stuff going on there. “This is not the droid whose recording project you declined…”
Throughout my career Gene was probably my biggest, most consistent supporter. Sometimes I think he even believed in me more than I did. So, yeah. That would account for some of the sadness I was experiencing. But there was more to it. There was just a plain old sense of loss.
There was the loss of all that voluminous knowledge and (to me anyway) old school savoir-faire. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was never in Gene’s company that I didn’t learn something. And not only was his grasp of music and culture encyclopedic, it was always conveyed in a way that could make even a sometimes incurious and often self-involved student like me want to know more. Kris Kristofferson once joked that no one could hold you completely spellbound– on a topic on which you had no interest whatsoever– like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. (This is true. I once listened fascinated as Jack talked about his new sleeping bag for forty-five minutes!) Well, just imagine Jack’s preternatural ability as a raconteur rolled into a guy who held forth on subjects you really cared about! Plus, I honestly don’t think I ever knew anyone as sophisticated as Gene who had managed to so completely avoid the joyless tinge of cynicism. It’s what made being around him so much fun.
But beyond all of this, beyond the sense of kin and kindred, beyond the generous career cheerleader and Sherpa, and beyond the bottomless font of musical and cultural erudition, my world had lost something even more precious. It had lost a source of sweetness.
Gene almost always exuded a simple and effortless cheerfulness; a natural good-heartedness. And that dependable source of agendaless affability was now gone. When my mind searches to find archetypes to compare, a few imprecise examples flash unbidden: Fred Rogers, ET, the Dalai Lama, Winnie-the-Pooh. None of these are exactly right of course. Gene was far hipper than these iconic figures (although the image of Pooh wearing Dennis Rodman style wrap-around sunglasses did bring a smile to my face.) Still, my friend Gene shared with them that same simple quality of unpretentious kindness. I’ll miss that the most.
So, for these and many other reasons, this one stings, and will go on stinging for a while. But scribbling out these thoughts today helped me realize that the sadness isn’t near as big as the gratitude I feel for the chance to have called Gene a friend. And it is certainly nowhere near as deep as the affection for him that remains and will abide. So, we’ll continue to remember our friend Gene Shay in our ways. We’ll make and love music. We’ll look out for and take care of each other. We’ll hold each other in our hearts until we can once again hold each other in our arms. We’ll laugh at (or in spite of) awful jokes. And we’ll raise glasses to our absent friend.
I’ll end with some lyrics from the song “Standing Ovation” which I wrote for Gene’s 80th birthday:
You stood with me in the driving rain
In the howling wind and the hurricane
And your soul was kind and your heart was true
And you stood with me now I stand with you
You stood with me when few others did
Back when I was not much more than a kid
You showed me faith I had never known
And I knew that I’d never stand alone
When my hammer rang on that hard cement
You showed me what standing for something meant
When I’d hear your voice on the laughing wind
I would smile knowing I had a friend
Who stood with me when the battles raged
When the lines were drawn from another age
And our songs would try to say something true
You stood with me
Now I stand with you
As your hammer rings on this hard cement
When they ask where standing for something went
I will hear your voice laughing on the wind
And I will smile knowing I have a friend
I’ll stand with you in the driving rain
In the howling wind and the hurricane
For your soul is kind and your heart is true
And you stood with me
Now I stand for you
© 2015 Flying Stone Music