Saturday, March 8, 2008

In Memoriam - Jeff Healey

As a Canadian kid growing up in the late 80s, I was aware of Jeff Healey. I heard his hit single, "Angel Eyes", and thought it was pleasant enough if not particularly distinctive. I was aware of his blindness, and I always liked that although people were duly impressed by what he accomplished despite his handicap, he was never seen or treated as a novelty act.

When he released a cover of a Beatles song, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, it put him front-and-centre on my radar. I became an immediate fan. On January 9, 1991, he played in Fredericton, NB, and I lived close enough to there to get to the show.

It was terrific. Although the relatively small venue was not sold out, the audience was attentive and appreciative, and Healey, Rockman and Stephen put an an energetic show. I actually recorded it with a smuggled-in pocket tape recorder. I still have the tape, but it's unfortunately unlistenable. My cheap recorder had no input volume control, and so most of the cassette just consists of distorted rumbling. The only really discernible parts are Healey's speaking between songs.

The friend I went with and I were both huge music fans, and we were there primarily for While My Guitar Gently Weeps. We knew the song very well, and had read an article in a guitar magazine (which I still have around here somewhere) that described Healey's exact technique for playing it, so we were actually watching in anticipation for his hands to be in the correct position for it at the start of each song. The biggest fakeout he gave us was Life Beyond The Sky, which starts with the same chord (A minor, incidentally).

He was enthusiastic, dynamic, and very personable. His jumping all over the stage was very entertaining, considering that he couldn't see how close to the edge he was getting, and he in fact made a couple of jokes about having "fallen off the stage in Saint John last night". I don't know whether he actually did; it's entirely possible that a joke about falling off the stage last night was a standard part of his stage patter. It doesn't really matter, because it was funny either way.

That night was the peak of my interest in Healey, unfortunately. While I certainly respected his later work, I didn't share his passion for jazz and historically authentic blues, and the MOR radio-friendly singles never really caught my attention. I bought his 1992 album, Feel This (and played its closing track, Dreams of Love, a lot when I was a college radio DJ) and 1995's Cover to Cover (for Badge and Yer Blues - the Beatles connection again), but drifted away somewhat after that. Whenever I visited Toronto, I considered stopping by the club where he played, but it never quite made it to the top of my agenda.

I always found it poignant that so many of Healey's best-known songs dealt so directly with vision-related imagery. Angel Eyes, See The Light, Baby's Looking Hot, Lost In Your Eyes.

Healey lost his eyes to cancer when he was eight months old. The most impressive thing about him, even more impressive than his guitar mastery, to me was that in all his interviews that I heard or read, I never detected the slightest bitterness or self-pity over his lot in life. That says volumes about his character. If anyone ever had an excuse to feel sorry for themselves, he did. (In case you didn't catch that, he lost his eyes to cancer when he was eight months old).

He never seemed to give in, though, and many of the recent tributes from those who knew him well indicate that his positivity was not just a public image front. That's just who he was. He had goals and dreams and things to do, and not being able to see was no more a long-term obstacle than breaking a guitar string and not having a spare at hand.

I had no idea that cancer, apparently not satisfied with taking a child's eyes, had returned for another shot at him. Now I see the reports that he had been sick for a few years before his death, and for all I know he may have had medical problems for his entire life. Again, that topic never came up in any of his extensive interviews that I knew of. He had other things to talk about.

So, his death came as a surprise to me, and from what I'm reading to those close to him as well. 41 is far too young for anyone to go, especially for the sake of his wife and children. I hope that once the worst of their grief eventually passes - right now their terrible loss is too fresh for them to believe it ever will - he will have left them with as much inspiration as he gave to the rest of us.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a rug.

No comments: