I met Kenny in 2005 through Brian Joseph. We did a couple shows together at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley and Don Quixote’s in Santa Cruz. I was starting to tour more, and was hoping to find some new venues singing with Brian. Brian hired Kenny to play guitar and they had become close friends. We met up in the attic of an old roadhouse my friends were renting. The third story overlooked the ocean and felt like a creaky old boat with the afternoon sun cutting swaths of sail-like sunlight and shadow across the walls. We sang some songs. I’d never met Kenny before and I remember having the strange delightful feeling of our harmony locking in right away. He had that kind of voice. His pitch would come under and hold yours up. I didn’t know much about Kenny and he was not one to impose his story or agenda, so right then his long glorious life only glimmered warmly behind his eyes and rang through his guitar and mandolin.
We stayed in touch. I was looking for someone to produce a record and Brian thought we’d be a good fit working with Freddy Koella, whom I’d yet to meet. Freddy had just produced Kenny’s solo debut. And I loved the sound—clear, spare, warm, dark. We talked about making it work and planned a little tour together. He came up to Humboldt in Dec. 2006 to play the Caspar Inn and Muddy’s (nothing was ever below Kenny). We got to know each other better. He was very easy going. Clear spoken. His vocabulary was rich, both culturally and linguistically. With his own talent overflowing, he was a true fan of music. He turned me on to Chris Whitley (another gone too early) and Bonnie Prince Billy. He was enamored of the DYI scene. I found this fascinating because he’d spent so many years in the industry. Somehow I always thought, “Can’t he call Linda and have her cut that song, like, tomorrow…?” But he had a fondness for sleeping on couches, sharing food with people, travelling simply, discussing the ups and downs of the biz. He toured a lot with his dear friend and colleague Karla Bonoff and would open shows for her, singing his own songs.
The last time I saw him play was with Karla at the new Freight and Salvage. He seemed tired, but his playing and singing were as beautiful as ever and is songs were delicate and tragic. I had only spoken to him on the phone since he had been diagnosed with cancer and we had a long talk. He was in the middle of chemotherapy. He was very philosophical about it—was writing a song wherein “the poison was the medicine.” He said between heartbreak and cancer, heartbreak is harder, because at least physical illness is tangible. Kenny was dark witted but with a deeply compassionate heart.
I would joke “You are too nice.” His friends would say of the era he lived and worked in LA, “He was the only nice guy in LA.” But Kenny worked at being kind. He had a deep spiritual practice. Would meditate every morning. We toured together a bit in the Pacific Northwest the fall of 2007. I had just had a serious head injury and was close to useless in terms of driving , which he took on generously. I almost cancelled the dates and hadn’t set up many of the final details so we were winging it. We stayed one night in Cottage Grove at a Buddhist center. I remember waking up and seeing him in the next room meditating. “This is rock and roll,” I thought.
In Portland we played at a little restaurant (which has since closed) called Albina Green. The owners were music fanatics who had old show posters from the 60s and 70s plastering the walls. Their menus were old album covers. Kenny asked for a menu and was handed an old Linda Rondstadt record. Inside was Kenny thirty years ago.
The truth is, you could turn on the radio any time of the day and very likely hear a song where Kenny is playing bass or guitar or singing harmony—holding it all together. We are lucky with music. It sticks around.
We cut 15 scratch tracks or so in what we came to call KDC: “Kenny’s Dirty Cathedral.” This was his studio apartment behind Karla’s house. It was simple and deliberate, like Kenny. There was a bed with a ProTools set up. In May of ‘08 we moved it to Freddy’s studio “Le Garage” in Santa Monica. Kenny would come down from Santa Barbara. Freddy’s whole family loved Kenny like family. His daughters would come in, “Can Kenny stay for dinner when you are done, pleeeeeeeeeease?” As I came to meet more of his friends, I realized he had this effect on everybody. He valued human connection and was loved deeply all around.
After we finished making Letter Home, Kenny gifted me his old gps unit, “The Bitch”—a reminder to keep on the path.
Kenny came through the Bay area a month ago and stayed with me. He brought beautiful avocados and nice wine. We caught up as we made dinner. The sun came out so I grilled some veggies outside, we laughed as my fire kept going out and I tried and tried to rekindle it. He kept me from burning the falafels. We sat and listened to Ian and his friend Loren play mbira. He slept peacefully on our hundred year old Murphy bed. We woke up, ate breakfast, drank coffee, before he had to hit the road for a gig in Shasta. I might be reframing things if I said that when I saw his instruments were packed I actually thought for a second “No, wait! Let’s play one last song!” I don’t think I knew that it would be the last time seeing Kenny. But I said goodbye, closed the door and came inside and cried.
The world lost a fine musician last week. The world also lost one of its finest human beings.