Friday, August 8, 2008

Another One Gone Too Soon

Robert Hazard 1948 - 2008

When they call my number
On the day I die
Gonna rise up singing
In the azure sky
(Lucky Hat - Robert Hazard)

It's unfortunate that I must report on another death this week. This time it's a friend and songwriting colleague who should be far better known than he is.

When I first met Robert Hazard we were both skinny kids performing on the local Philly scene. It was roughly 1979. He was the more popular performer by far, and there was no mystery as to why. I watched his shows many times, in awe of his total command of the stage. He was the kind of entertainer who made you completely believe in his fantasy for 90 minutes. He had that intriguing combination of aloofness and fire that was emblematic of many rock stars of the day. Stalking the stage like a film noir character in black leather and a thin tie, Hazard sang in a vaguely Bowie-esque style, and yes, he drove the girls crazy.

Along with his back up band The Heroes, Hazard quickly took the city by storm. When I say he took it, I mean literally. His first independently released EP sold over 300,000 copies in the Philly area alone. He was a household name here in the early 80s. By the time Cyndi Lauper cut his anthem "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" there was a sense of inevitability about Robert's success.

He signed a record deal with RCA and had some chart action with a couple of singles, "Escalator of Life" and "Change Reaction", but as many local icons learn, major labels don't always know how to make you a national star. In retrospect, the songs seem permanently rooted in the era of Wang Chung and Billy Idol, with little indication that there was a unique songwriting genius behind them. But this was just one of Hazard's artistic incarnations. A much more compelling one lay dormant.

Eventually he burned out on the image he'd created with this music and took a hiatus from full time performing during which he discovered a knack for buying and selling antiques. Except for some forays into new bands (Hombres) and independent CD releases, and the occasional reunion with various members of The Heroes, he mostly kept a low profile at his home in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

But all the while he was sharpening his songwriting skills and going back to his roots to find inspiration for what he wanted to say next. In 2006, with a new collection of songs under his belt, he found interest at Rykodisk Records. The new songs bore no resemblance to his music of the 80s. They were poetic, mature, deeply artistic and compelling. His CD "Troubadour" was released in 2007 and made a brief splash on the Americana scene with a couple of charting tunes. But the national spotlight still largely eluded him.

When I moved back to Philly in 2006 we quickly became closer friends out of mutual respect. He'd mellowed, but he still had the fire I remembered from the old days. We did a few shows together and in our talks he
eventually warmed up to the idea of the intimate, acoustic In The Round format. We booked a couple of shows to try it out, but sadly we only got to do one of them.

It was a mild June night in Doylestown. We'd brought the wonderful Terri Hendrix and the legendary Lloyd Maines up from Austin, Texas for our show at Puck. What followed was one of the best nights I've ever experienced on stage. The chemistry between all of us was magic. The songs and stories complimented each other as we traded the spotlight for two hours. It was certainly one of Robert's finest performances. He knew he had a serious medical problem that night but he put his concerns aside and gave all.

When I received the shocking news of his death on Wednesday (from post-surgical complications for pancreatic cancer) I realized immediately why that show had such a glow on it.
In retrospect it was not only his final performance, but a very brave one as well.

I've been listening to Robert's song "Troubadour" for the past couple of days. The song speaks for many of us who feel as if we're lifers on this musical journey. He's been in the same joints we've all been in, and known the highs and lows of road life as well as anyone when he sings:
"The spotlight's a light bulb, the stage is a floor
If this place don't like me there's ten thousand more"
It takes a lot of passion to live this troubadour life-- passion and a restless side. Robert Hazard was a passionate, restless soul. Now he's free.

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