I'm beginning to tire of writing tributes to fallen (local) musical giants. I know that came out bad. I'm shocked and heartbroken over the passing of a Champaign Urbana legend, Van Montgomery Cagle. Maybe I'm getting to be that age where I have to accept that more of my friends are leaving us, but still. I don't have to like it.
Except for fronting a great art rock band in the early 80s for a single song (the band, Mode Zero, broke up shortly after they'd made their point, the song "Punks For God" is immortalized on You Tube somewhere), Van wasn't a musician, but everybody in the music community in Central Illinois knew him, and loved him. And I can tell you why.
Anybody who reads this blog with some regularity knows that I seperate the world into two different camps: those for whom music is simply wallpaper in their lives, and those for whom music is a visceral, crucial life giving force that we cannot live without. Duh, of course, Van fell into the second group, but he didn't just love music and the culture surrounding it. He studied it. He knowledge of it was encyclopedic. He was brilliant enough to string it all together in his (pretty much treatse), "Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol." If it sounds like somebody's PhD dissertation, well, it's written with that same level of academic rigor.
But he was no ivory tower academic. He was a part of the scene, he went to shows, he hung out with the bands, he managed bands,he wrote and wrote and wrote about the music, the people who made the music, the art that inspired the music, the culture that nurtured the music. Van loved punk. Van loved glam. Van loved Elvis. (Oh, how he loved Elvis.) Van loved music. And he could have a conversation about it that was just as plebian as you wanted it to be, or as highfalutin as you needed it to be, but nowhere along that line could you ever believe that we was talking down or up to you. And because of that, he legitimized our love for all things music, art, and the pop culture that brought it together, he validated that this wasn't just some crazy obsession, but that life giving force that makes it possible for those of us who need more than wallpaper to wake up each day. That's why we loved him. Oh, did I mention (as many will) what a sharp dresser he was? Did I mention how wonderfully witty and fun a conversationalist he was? Did I mention that he had one of the kindest hearts I've ever come across? Did I mention was a genuinely sweet soul he was? All of these. All of these are reasons why we loved him.
I actually didn't know him well 30 years ago in Champaign-Urbana. He'd written a brilliantly funny and touching short story about a road trip to Graceland that was published in the Psychedelic Boneyard, a fanzine I helped edit. We didn't touch his piece. It warranted no editing whatsoever. It was perfect. I'm going to dig it up and scan it in, because to this day, I still think of that wonderful piece when I think of him. But I didn't know him well then. I just knew his words. Rather, I reconnected with him via the Vertebrats reunions, and via Facebook. That's when I realized what a gift having him in one's life was. He was constantly turning his friends on to great little tidbits of art and music, you could feel that love and that gift jumping off the page every time he posted.
Two days ago, he'd posted a link to a beautiful version of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" performed by a variety of artists. I reposted it, bragging to my own FB friends that I knew such a person who "finds the best stuff." I had said, "My friend Van, who loves Elvis even more than I do, finds the best stuff." He'd even posted back, "Thanks for the compliment". Later that evening, according to his beloved sister, Libby, he died peacefully in his sleep. That song and version choked me up when it was just a cheerful exchange and joy of finding and sharing a beautiful piece of music and art. Now it leaves me flat out crying. We loved him because he understood what we loved and he shared -- and most importantly validated -- that love.