A couple years back Don Rodgerson called me and said not to say anything to anybody but he was being tested for Lou Gehrig’s disease.
I was shocked. So was he.
Don was as athletic as they come. Played baseball with the Gateways, scuba dived, sailed and never seemed to gain a pound. Hearing him talk about what he eventually was diagnosed with was, like I say, a shock.
Don and I go way back. Back 50 years ago when we became part of a local rock band called the Runic Stones. I played drums. Don was the bass player.
This week Don died in Halifax. The disease he had fought for years finally took him. By then the shock had worn off. His fellow band mates at the time – Bob Vacon, Ray d’Entremont, Duke Greene and me – knew it was inevitable. I suspect Don knew it too.
Anyone who has ever played in a band knows a band is like a family. You pretty well live with the other musicians and you share the laughs and the sorrows.
Don and I had a lot of laughs.
He normally stood on stage a few feet from me holding the big booming bass and throwing his big grin my way whenever he and I managed to lock step in a rhythm. Not hard to do since we played a lot of British music, mostly songs made famous by the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
Back then we travelled in a hearse and I well remember the day the band bought our first hearse (we had two). Don called me up and said he didn't want to travel around the province and part of New Brunswick, where we also performed, in a hearse. Too late. It had been bought. Which brought about one of the “family” squabbles bands often have.
But in the end whatever criticism he had turned to laughter – laughter at the idea of five guys travelling about in a hearse.
Now hearses aren’t exactly full of seats, so after we stuffed all the gear into the back part we all sat in the front seat. Big seats, admittedly, but not exactly cozy for five people.
I remember one night we were on the way to our regular Friday night gig at the old Shelburne fire hall. We stopped at a garage down Barrington way, I think. Three of the guys jumped out and went in to buy treats. Don and I stayed in the hearse.
Don was a man of few words but this particular night he said to me: Why are all the people staring at us? We’re the Runic Stones, I said. Around here we’re almost famous. We’ve been on television. He laughed. No, he said, why are they staring? Everyone who comes to the gas pumps is staring at us.
I paused. Don, I said, we’re sitting in the front seat of a hearse. And I’m sitting on your lap. Do you think that’s something people down here see everyday? Two guys sitting on each other in a hearse? He laughed that distinctive laugh of his.
Life in a band is like that.
Much of what we did offstage stayed offstage. Sort of like what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
We had fun. Don and I were two kids from south end who suddenly had a bit of money, stayed in hotels, travelled around two provinces, people liked us and we had a ball.
But like all families the time came when it was over.
Frankly I didn't miss it.
But Don did.
We used to say he’d probably quit his job in the city if we all just kept playing music.
And every once in awhile we’d hear from Don and he’d make a pitch that we should get together again to play a New Year’s Eve dance or some such gig.
Don was a persuasive fellow. So we would gather our gear, head for Duke Greene’s house and work through the songs we had played hundreds of times just to polish up our act a bit. And we’d play the odd special dance almost always, I’m thrilled to say, to sold-out houses.
Then we’d go our separate ways again.
Until Don would call and make a pitch for just one more gig.
One day he called me and I decided I'd be honest for a change. Don, I said, I really don’t want to cart my drums from the attic and play again. It’s over I don’t want to do it anymore. Can’t you get someone else to play drums? He’d hear none of that (although one summer the band made a CD at a recording session in New Brunswick and used a studio drummer because I didn’t want to go….that’s another “Vegas” story.)
He listened to me say I had had enough, paused and said words of wisdom.
Fred, he said, we have a gift. We make people happy, and we ought to keep doing that.
He was right.
So we’d gather up the gear and play “just one more time.”
The last time we played it was for a packed house at the Red Knight as a farewell of sorts to Don. He was losing strength and for much of the performance he sat, not stood, in a chair next to me. I could tell it was an effort.
The last song we ever played as a group was, of course, one by the Beatles. Don picked it and wanted it to be our last song. Here’s a few lines from it as I say goodbye to one of the family:
“And I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more.”
And with that Don stood up, blew a thank you kiss to the audience and the music stopped.
I miss him already.