Music pioneer, farmer, son, brother, spouse, father, friend. Born April 9, 1945, in Montreal. Died Dec. 20, 2004, in Honeydew, Calif., of heart disease, aged 59.
My sweet-hearted only brother, Gary, had a complicated start to life when he contracted polio at the age of 4; what he always remembered about that time was the intense care he received from his recently divorced, single mother, Diane. In 1950, Diane married Gus, whose last name Gary adopted.
When he was just 15, Gary travelled south to help in the U.S. civil rights movement. He came back home with exciting tales for his three fascinated sisters -- with a guitar in hand, and music to share: Woody Guthrie songs, gospel and blues, folk songs and anti-war protest tunes. He never went back to high school. Instead, he learned great lessons on the coffeehouse circuit, particularly in New York City.
Gary was still a teenager when he wondered how he could bring all the great talent he was hearing to his hometown. And so in 1963, he started what became a series of Montreal coffeehouse-clubs -- the Fifth Amendment, the Penelope, the New Penelope -- featuring the famous and the emerging-famous from the worlds of blues, folk and rock: among them, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, James Cotton, Frank Zappa and Dave Van Ronk, who one night included Both Sides Now in his set. Gary told me: "Next month, the songwriter, Joni Mitchell, will be appearing here; I think she's going to be a great star." He was right about that with so many others, too, who played his clubs before they hit the big time: Gordon Lightfoot, Kate and Anna McGarrigle (then part of the Mountain City Four), Jesse Winchester, Ian and Sylvia. He brought some of them home for Shabbat dinners or billeted them overnight, much to the delight of me and my teenaged friends.
With his elegant girlfriend, Melinda, at his side, in his granny-glasses and long hair, Gary was the epitome of cool in those days. But people who knew him now mainly recall his sense of humour and his generosity: all musicians got in free and there was usually a job and a couple of bucks for his unemployed friends.
Gary's forte was never the business end, so when the music world grew more complex and commercialized, he moved on. Later, he recalled the kindness of some musicians; after he locked up the New Penelope on its final night in late 1968, he turned around to find blues great Paul Butterfield waiting to walk him home.
When Gary and Melinda split up, he visited California and then Hawaii, where he learned to sail and met Susie, who became his wife and mother of his only child, Riva. Gary tried to make a go of fatherhood, near her family in Indiana, but he couldn't abide life there and headed back to northern California, asking Susie and Riva to join him (they never did). He settled in the mountains near the Lost Coast.
Over the last 16 years, with his partner, Elizabeth, he homesteaded a patch of land and then bought more acreage nearby to save his beloved redwoods from the lumber corporations. Gary's passion for music transformed into one for the environment.
Gary's health had started to deteriorate a few years ago, but his death still hit us hard. He wished to be buried on his land but, when state law forbade that, Elizabeth asked us to bring him back to Montreal. At his funeral, family and friends -- including some of the musicians who had played in his clubs -- honoured him: besides the traditional Hebrew prayers, my daughter played some fiddle tunes and accompanied us on guitar while we sang The Circle Game. We buried him on Mount Royal, far from his California mountain, but in the city that he had once loved and endowed with a musical legacy.
Harriet is one of Gary's three sisters.