Now that I have gathered enough details and scared up the nerve to write something that will certainly never satisfy me, I’m going public with my sorrow. Robert Emmett Bowen III died on Monday, August 30th, as a result of injuries sustained in a bicycle crash on Thursday night, August 26th. Someone driving a flatbed truck hit him while he was riding down Second Avenue. As far as I know, that someone is still walking around, breathing air Bob tried to keep clean with his words and with his actions. That someone is eating Doritos and watching television or whatever one does after slaughtering another human being. Time passes. The memorial services keep coming: I wish I could attend the gathering set for Sunday, October 10th, from 2-6 p.m. at Canal Street Tavern in Dayton, Ohio.
I officially met Bob after a Barrow Street poetry reading at Marymount Manhattan College in 2004, though I already knew him by reputation: world class bass player, visual artist, experimental thespian, and subtle but effective social activist. His wife, poet Amy Lemmon, introduced us, and we became friends instantaneously, as if we’d known each other our whole lives. In a way, this was true. Bob and I both grew up in the alluringly wretched town of Dayton, Ohio. He came of age in a supportive and adoring family; mine destroyed itself. We entered the University of Dayton around 1984. He graduated with a degree in music; I flunked out and lucked into a job at a cardboard box factory. All those years ago, we moved in some of the same circles, hung out at some of the same bars. I’d heard he was the best musician in the state, practically a legend, but I could not remember having ever met him or seen him play. That night at Marymount, I made a funny and derisive remark about our hometown—the Miami River Valley smelled like syphilitic corn or all our childhood whiffleball games were fixed, something—and I am proud to say that he actually fell down laughing. He had the perfect laugh. Put that on your list of reasons to love him.
Since 2004, Bob and I spent a fair amount of time together, despite our busy schedules. He had relocated to New York in 1996, earned a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, and steadily climbed through the ranks of the jazz scene while nurturing a marriage and raising two children in Astoria, Queens. I watched him play with some great musicians in the most famous venues in Manhattan. The humblest genius I’d ever encountered, he amazed and inspired me. I simply cannot believe he’s gone. In Bob, I had met a man overflowing with energy. And I’m not talking about that base-jumping, sky-diving shit; I’m talking about boundless curiosity, a body and mind flawlessly built to compose and play music, a guy who made Mother Teresa look like a mooch. He could use the words cat (male person) and bread (money) in conversation without seeming the least bit affected. He was a force of nature, and he made me feel young again—ageless even—at a time when getting older had begun to terrify me. Such self-defeating fears never slowed him down: He lived every day as if it were his first—with enthrallment and empathy. Put that on your list of reasons.
Back in the mid-1980s, I sang in an alt-rock band named after a Sam Shepard play, The Holy Ghostly. I wallowed in the role of the half-talented apprentice poet cavorting with the future gods of rock. The connection one makes while writing, recording, and performing with other musicians amounts to artistic lovemaking and mind-reading. Every gesture, every noise, every glance—they take on great meaning. A bassist can break a singer’s heart during a song, offering admiration with two high notes and a grin. One feels so present, so completely in the moment. I envy musicians their mindfulness, their oblivion. Unfortunately, the Ghostly fought like hangovers and sunlight about everything from the last slice of pizza to whose turn it was to steal gas for the two clunkers we lugged our equipment around in. Thus, we stayed together only a few years. But we made some decent music. In 2004, a couple of us got back together via e-mail, added a new member, and recorded ten original songs, mostly through the United States Postal Service, given that Chris Boyd, Tim Fox, and I lived in Denver, Dayton, and New York respectively. We called ourselves Lunker, “a useless fish.”
The Overlook Press, in 2010, published an anthology I edited, called It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Breakup. The PR Department at Overlook planned a number of anti-Valentine’s Day readings and events and several of the book’s luminaries kindly agreed to take part. I came up with the idea of re-constituting Lunker and doing a few breakup songs to close out the release party at the Powerhouse in Brooklyn. Bob volunteered to play bass for free, and he enlisted his uncle, Paul Vasquez (also for free), to play guitar. We didn’t have much time to prepare, and the idea of singing again in public bumped my heart rate up to that of a hummingbird in a dentist’s chair. But Bob and Paul, both gracious professionals, allowed me into their cabal. In no time flat, they learned three Lunker songs and a Hüsker Dü cover. Paul’s partner, Mariann, snapped a great picture of us banging out “Hey There, Miss Platonic” in their living room:
I felt proud that Bob, obviously a monster jazz bassist, didn’t think our little folk rock songs sounded dull and that Paul, a virtuoso rock historian, likened one of the tunes to Jethro Tull—and he truly meant it as a flattering remark! We had a wonderful time rehearsing and I got to know Bob in a deeper way—inside his art. Six weeks after the Powerhouse gig, Paul would lose a long and hard-fought battle with cancer. He left this world holding an acoustic guitar in his hands. Bob fell apart and kept it together. Put that on your list.
Later that Spring, Bob agreed to fly out to Denver with me and perform at an off-site poetry event during the AWP conference. At the Mercury Café that first night—after James Harms, J. Allyn Rosser, Amy Gerstler, Patricia Smith, Kevin Prufer, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Beth Gylys read poems from the breakup anthology—Chris Boyd, Bob, and I ambled onto the stage and rattled through a couple tunes. Bob intuited an ironic baseline that sort of turned Hüsker Dü’s “Never Talking to You Again” into a gorgeous bluegrass song. If you’ve listened to their music, you know this is virtually impossible. For the next two days, we explored the conference hotel. He said hello to more people in more elevators than I did. He had friends everywhere (with heartfelt hugs at the ready). On our last night in Denver, we lay upon our separate beds in our shared room, discussing coincidence and what we expected of ourselves and how weird the conference was. Just before one or the other of us fell asleep, Bob paid me an unexpected compliment. He said, “You know, if we were in prison, you’d make a great cellmate.” Put that on your list of reasons to love him.
The last time I saw Bob Bowen I was having drinks at a midtown bar with my wife, Shelby, and my writer friend, Greg Williams (no relation). I called Bob and he zipped over from Astoria on his bicycle, and we had one of those nights that happen so rarely these days: The conversation flowed; we were all laughing; and New York felt like the only place on earth. Upon meeting, Bob and Greg became fast friends. Bob naturally drew people to him with his understated charisma and generous spirit. In a single outing, he could relax the entire pace of your life—which is why we had such a hard time saying our goodbyes at the end of the evening. Greg would later share with me an e-mail Bob sent him the very next day:
Hey man !
Yes such fun yesterday – thank you for your generosity!
Let’s stay in touch and hang again… I will put you on my nyc gig mail list, which I send out when I am doing some cool show in the city - like the Iridium gig I was telling you about on Wednesday July 7.
Looking forward to checking out your book.
If you do facebook you can find me by my full name: Robert Emmett Bowen III (there is not more than one…)
peace ~ boB
“There is not more than one.” While taking a charming Midwestern jab at his own name, he unintentionally described himself to the core: a bona fide original. You had to experience the man yourself to know what he was about. “There is not more than one.” Put that on your list of reasons to love him.