Talk About Opening Doors: A Tribute to Steve Weisberg

death is not rock

Steve Weisberg
November 14, 1949–May 22, 2014

John Denver fans from all over the world, affectionately known by many as the “John Denver Family” grieve today the passing Thursday evening of John’s lead guitarist from the 1970s, Steve Weisberg.  Steve was diagnosed in March 2013 with a lymphatic cancer he thought he’d beat.

For eighteen months, Steve rode the oscillating wave of cancer treatment, even while traveling to play in concerts across the country, most recently in Florida, Milwaukee, and Texas.  He had another concert scheduled just ahead, in early June.  Steve, lovingly known as “Pokey” to his friends in the music industry (for having shown up late one time to a recording session), was otherwise generous of time and spirit, a passionate man with a tender heart.  You might say he died as he lived, playing his famed guitar and expressing to the untimely end both love and gratitude for his friends, his life and talent, and all his many blessings.

young steve w.

Steve Weisberg, a boy with big dreams in the experimental decade of the musical ’70s, was a man who, in the end, seemed to have his head screwed on straight. He not only didn’t take himself too seriously, he found humor in most situations and he laughed readily and heartily.  His laughter was so infectious that whenever he laughed, you laughed, whether or not it was as funny as Steve seemed to find it.  Never oblivious to the ironic or to the facetious, his trademark saying–also attached in his email signature–was Steven Covey’s, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

A liberal arts major in college and an accomplished songwriter in his own right, Pokey loved a good story, and he created them regularly, both out of ordinary experience and out of the extraordinary. He was in every way a lively and natural communicator, never hesitant to pick up the phone and call friends to share an idea or just connect.  Like his famed boss and band mate John Denver, Pokey was truly a people person, “invested in the human race.”  He made himself accessible to everyone he met and cared for–and if he met you, he generally cared for you.  So friendly was he that he even included a direct telephone number on his website.  In his way, he was a regular sort of guy, and in including the telephone number he likely figured, “How else are they going to find me?”  He frequently helped up-and-coming musicians by encouraging them, and even by playing with them in gigs and informal jams wherever life brought him.  It was in this way that he came to know personally many John Denver enthusiasts, who now remain “family” 17 years after Denver’s fatal plane crash in Monterey Bay, California.

About his condition, in a public Facebook post in May 2013, Weisberg wrote:

When I was referred to the oncologist 2 months ago I was ready for the worst. But what he told me was too good to be true: That my type is now so utterly and completely curable, I have a 98% chance of it being gone forever by July. This is not remission, which expects a return visit. This is…’gone forever after round one of chemo’. I’m now halfway through a very easy, uneventful treatment program. He said my optimism would let me handle this little ordeal much better than another person might. The optimism came from being 24 years in recovery, which led me to God. And getting to know God led me to the actual belief that everything (everything) will always, somehow, be okay.

They say we’re only as sick as our deepest secret, and I do believe this. This illness has brought me closer to God than anything I could have imagined. But trying to hide such a big secret has distanced me…from God, and from those who would help me celebrate the fact that I was spared the expected rigors and outcome of other forms of lymphoma. Mine is called Diffuse Large B-Cell lymphoma. It’s a laydown pussycat for today’s sophisticated chemos, unless it’s spread to the brain, or detected too late. Medical science has deduced that I do have a brain; that it is cancer-free; and that we detected this in time. The new look I’m sporting, as many of you guessed…was not optional.

Those of us in any type of 12 Step program know our illness became our greatest asset….once we had a little recovery under our belts. Life is sweeter than before that problem existed.

Recovery from cancer is an even bigger cause, for me, of celebration. I wish all others with the disease could be so lucky. Bizarre as it sounds, I have never had a more joyous experience being alive…..than right now.

Photos and tributes to Steve are being shared in abundance today on social media, as fellow musicians, friends and family express their shock at his passing and their gratitude for his many contributions.  In a correspondence with Shawn Garvey, Weisberg’s friend and a minister by trade, who recently performed in concert with Steve in February, he muses, “Pokey and I had a special friendship based upon things that ran very deep within us, and I’m profoundly blessed that was where our friendship resided.”

In his Facebook tribute, Pastor Garvey goes on to say:

By virtue of the kind of chemistry we had, and my vocation (I’m an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ), our friendship very quickly developed around matters of profound depth. Steve was a man on a journey, and he felt comfortable enough with me to share a very personal, spiritual side of himself that led us down all sorts of conversational pathways. I met him at a point in his life when he was re-discovering his love and spiritual connection with music–especially John’s; and he’s the first to admit that at the time it was all happening with John, he was too young to truly appreciate what that music was doing for people. In the time that I was blessed to know him, he got it.

He not only got it, he was profoundly appreciative for the genuine and miraculous gift that it was; to the millions it reached and to himself. He began to find more avenues and opportunities to share in his gift, and by the last few years he’d been able to do what we talked about at length for such a long time: go back to playing music full time as his vocation. I was so incredibly happy for him that he’d achieved that after such a long and complicated road since his days with John.

Garvey concludes:

I think what I’d share for those of you who primarily connected with Steve through the music was that he’d come to a very deep understanding of how the music touched all of you, and how there was great power, healing, joy and transformation inherent in that. John’s music and John’s personality continues to do that for people, and Steve came to a very special understanding not only of that reality, but that he played a part in it and continued to do so these last few years. This was something he regarded as a magnificent blessing.

He’d want all of you to know that – and that it meant the world to him.

In the video that follows below (linked “Sunshine on My Shoulders”), we find the two friends sharing in synch a song written by the beloved John Denver, whose music brought them together five years ago when Garvey reached out to Weisberg in a fashion similar to that which, many years before, Weisberg reached out to Denver. In both instances, Denver received Weisberg’s enthusiasm and talent as Weisberg received Garvey’s…and (to echo another famous John Denver song) this reception opened doors for both musicians.

Filmed in 2011 at Stanley Congregational Church in Chatham, NJ, it is also apparent in this video clip that Weisberg himself was inherently touched by the music he made (see link below).  In this example of one of Steve’s many musical encounters, this time with a fan who became his friend and spiritual confidant, we see clearly that Weisberg himself exuded the musical element.  With Garvey on vocals and Weisberg on lead, we see Weisberg “in the groove” he often referenced.  As he plays, we observe the guitar riff resonating in his body–so much so, that his fingerpicking becomes not just an accompaniment to the song, but seemingly a dance his body cannot contain. A beautiful dance of joy, a celebration.  We witness firsthand the music that lived gloriously in the man we now grieve.

Shawn Garvey and Steve Weisberg perform “Sunshine On My Shoulders”

RIP, Steve Weisberg

With permission.

All rights reserved, © Debra Valentino.

Driving Away for the Last Time

to reupholster

The dog was with me when I pulled away. The seatbelt alarm rang from the weight of him, panting in the passenger’s seat. As I drove away from my parents’ home for the last time, the past two years whirled in my head. Then, all the comings and goings over all the years. This time, with a pickup truck full of furniture to reupholster and the console sewing machine my parents bought me for my 8th grade graduation.

How many memories I have of this same act, yet going in a different direction, with contents other than these…babies in the backseat, containers full of Mom’s homemade leftovers, the new bike rack my dad bought us to haul the kids’ bikes….It seemed appropriate that it was still dark outside, 4:30 in the morning, with not a soul stirring except the ghosts of one’s entire life.

Every single part of my body ached, not just my heart, though I wasn’t focused on the pain. It had been a surreal week of long air travel and all its implicit stressors, followed by hours and days of endless sorting, moving, and deciding, taking things out, putting them somewhere else, then dealing with many people both in person and online wanting lowered prices lower…millions of bodily movements to match a few sharp, recurring and sometimes unexpected emotions. How does a person keep from being swallowed up by all the minutiae of breaking down a home?

I kept reminding myself that it wasn’t so bad. That it wasn’t really the house I grew up in—the house where indelible memories lie. But it was the house where my cousins grew up, the house my aunt drove away from on her lunch hour, the house where on Christmas I opened the best gift I ever received (an Easy-bake oven I could not wait to try). I had plenty of memories here. After my parents moved from our house to here, my brothers and I hosted a surprise 25th anniversary party for them at this house, even as we each returned for the weekend from college. I remember scrubbing the basement steps in preparation.

They were the same stairs, later carpeted, where in my nylon-clad feet I slipped and fell, tumbling rapidly down, breaking my tailbone (for the first time). I have so many memories of these stairs that they alone probably belong in a poem.

emptied cabinetThis was also the place where I found out that my fiancé had a brain tumor. Much later, this became the house where I dressed on my wedding day. Later still, the house my baby shower was held for my firstborn. It is the house I read so many books in, both inside and out. It is also the house that one summer (while lying outside on a chaise lounge reading a book) I decided not to return to graduate school, but to go to work full time instead—a decision that changed everything for the rest of my life.  This house. The house where I breastfed my babies, and where I sat panicked at age 34 with a stack of seventeen books on breast cancer–trying to learn what it meant exactly, when the doctor said preliminary testing showed I had it.

No house really, no matter the circumstances, is safe for a writer, a scrap-booker.  I walked somberly about, taking final pictures of the hollowed rooms. As I stood with my phone camera, my husband arrived unceremoniously and I heard myself say to him, “This is the room where my grandmother died. Right in that corner there.”

pegboardAll that was left of a generation were remnants. The last of the last of what no one had  use for–no one in the family, no one at the garage sale, no one on craigslist, none of the neighbors, not evenbox any of the charities. Stuff that somehow couldn’t even make its way to the garbage: my mother’s handmade peg board that displayed the necklaces she crafted in her last years; the ornate shoe shine kit (well, the box, anyway) someone (it had to be my brother) gave my dad one year, possibly for Father’s Day; an ironing board…my mother’s ironing board.

On the walls in two rooms stood the calendars. I couldn’t bear to leave them hanging there. My dad, so fastidious about time and date, surely had others, and so had left these behind. He had written on them in his hand and now they said May 2014. Life in a sheaf of pages–just like that–and there they remained, the calendars. May 2014. Leaving them behind was like marking in time the end of all things. A family’s life. Making human life as disposable as all the stuff we accumulate. I quietly removed them, as if it was my secret. As if no one in the world but I would understand what calendars mean.



All rights reserved, © Debra A. Valentino.

On Writing it Down

"Perhaps Love" lyrics

I’m just back from what has become my annual Mother’s Day excursion with my dearly beloved daughter Lia (pronounced /Lee’-a/, long “e”-schwa “e”).  My heart is full from the experience we shared (this time on our memorial trek to my mother, as introduced here). I’m still more or less “deplaning,” and during breaks, trying to catch up on the Facebook tributes to moms.  What a great thing when we can celebrate together across the miles through words and pictures.  We live in such extraordinary times.

Of course I can’t think about Mother’s Day without thinking of my own mother and grandmothers–all now gone, which in itself seems surreal.   It’s amazing how such losses change our perspective on just about everything.

As I was reading, this news clip on Sarah McLachlan gave me an insight.  Maybe resilience is not so remarkable after all; maybe it is our true character as humans.  To be strong and to overcome great misfortune, when you think of it, is something most of us do several times.  Sometimes, many times.  We find it amazing because on many levels it is remarkable to survive and to overcome tremendous physical suffering and emotional or psychological anguish–but maybe it is actually our natural composition.  “NBD” (“no big deal”), as my twenty-something daughter says.  The life force.  It gets us through.  It permits our healing.  That is, for those whose time has not yet come.

Mother’s Day and the life force.  A heady contemplation while still jet lagged.  But jets and Mother’s Day also always bring to my mind another great and favorite spirit (and through him, his own mother)–both also now gone.  That’s four grandmothers, four mothers, and one son/father/grandfather/husband/singer-songwriter-musician/ humanitarian/ environmentalist/activist.  “JS,” (just saying).

{Language moves through the generations like the fluent, flowing hands of a conductor.  “That’s money,” my anti-capitalistic twenty-something son says to mean, “That’s a good thing.”  I think.  Anyway, he says it ironically.  Or wait, not ironically.  I mean, it’s ironic because he seems to have very little interest at this point in money.  The root of all evil, you know.  And who am I to argue?  Anyway– (We are always first and foremost the roles we hold dearest).   Is anyone following me?  It’s okay if you’re not; I’m just writing.  Anyway–}

John Denver, who wrote some 300+ songs and performed all over the world, said he wrote “Perhaps Love” while thinking of his mother, Erma Deutschendorf, even as he was experiencing the heartache of separation and divorce.  “Perhaps Love” (also purportedly John’s first wife Annie’s favorite song of his) was performed live at the Metropolitan Opera Theater in Japan with Placido Domingo at a Mother’s Day concert in 1984 with John’s mother Erma in the audience.

John Denver was truly an inspired man.  He could stand on a mountain top and write a song (“Annie’s Song).  He could round the bend of a road and write a song (“Perhaps Love”).   He could pack a bag and write a song (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”).  He could return home and write a song (“Back Home Again”).

As a student of poetry, I can’t stop studying him.

He saw art in everything–in his life experiences, in nature, in injustice, in ideas, in what his heart felt.  His creative process seems so much like my own–he was always composing, always writing.  This is how I have lived all my life.  Must I be embarrassed to say that? I’m saying not only that I love his work and so many things about him, but that I identify with his artistry–even though the differences are vast and obvious.  I think we can identify with something vast and grand (and in John Denver’s case, wealthy and famous) and not be those things ourselves.  I think it is okay not to want to be any of those things, but simply to enjoy them, to experience them.  We can’t all talk at once.  Some of us just need to listen.  “Listening” is its own art.  Indeed, some people should be better at it than they are.

Anyway, as I was saying, I am not at all musical.  I don’t even play an instrument. Although my dream as a child was to play the piano.  John’s dream was to play the guitar, and his grandmother gave him her guitar when he was 12.  When I was 8 years old, I asked for a piano and got an organ.  Two keyboard levels and electronic.  I started writing poetry instead.  At 8.  But I almost never share my stuff with anyone.  To this day, when I have an opportunity to sit at a piano, I plunk out melodies I make up spontaneously.  They are there and then they are gone.

John shared readily and easily and generously.  There are a lot of things that go into such sharing–believe it or not, besides talent.  In fact, one of the things that develops talent is the actual sharing.  But anyway, I digress (again).

What I finally want to say is that I miss my mom.  I miss my grandmothers.  I miss John Denver and his work.  I am sure he is glad he wrote down that song and performed it in front of his mother at the Met.  I am also sure that she would have loved him just the same and ever as much even if he hadn’t.  Mothers love their sons no matter what, and that is a fact.

The point is to write it down.

And to be grateful.  No matter what.

Thanks, John.  Thanks, Erma.  Thanks, Mom.  Thanks, Nana and Grandma.  Thanks, kids.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.