My friend Dan Groner passed away this month. He was 48. It was a stroke, apparently.
I hadn’t seen Dan in at least 30 years.
Obviously, even though we were friends, we weren’t super-close. It might be better to say that we were friends who drifted away on good terms after graduation, as happens to most people, I guess.
We were in college together from 1988 to my graduation. He was a music major, having recently switched over from classical acoustic guitar to electric, and started playing rock. He was exceptionally proficient, though given his background he was a little stylistically cold to begin with. He got better over time, though and was always the best thing in any of the bands he had going at that particular moment.
He was a tall, handsome, rock star-looking kinda guy with an enormous mane of late-80s heavy metal hair. Sometimes people would ask him to teach them guitar. I would say 95% of these were girls who just wanted an excuse to get close to him because, duh. His standard running gag was “Sure, we’ll use the Dan Groner method of musical instruction, which consists of three simple steps.
STEP 1 – Basic music theory
STEP 2 – Basic chords and riffs
STEP 3 – The Dan Groner Hot Oil Treatment,” and which point he’d usually wave his hair around. That always cracked me up.
Dan was one of maybe three people on campus who was actually interested in writing original music and songs. I was another. Unlike me, though, his songs actually got heard. Me, I was just a singer who couldn’t hold a band together or play an instrument. Him: he was a musician. He practically had a waiting list to join his bands. Still, we’d talk about the frustrations of trying to find an audience for your stuff when everyone else on campus was just playing John Cougar covers (ugh) or songs by The Ramones. I tried to recruit him into one of my ill-fated projects once. He politely declined.
I say “Bands.” Dan had a lot of bands. They were usually pretty short-lived and there were a few core musicians that he tended to rotate through from project to project, in addition to some lesser folks that’d turn up for one iteration, then never be heard from again. These bands were always almost inexplicably short-lived. A week, a month, six weeks, and they were gone, followed by a new lineup playing largely the same music, plus a new song or two.
I was never sure why he had such a high attrition rate, but I think it was just the strain of trying to do original music around a bunch of kids who really didn’t want it. It’s hard to keep people motivated in a band that continually starts its sets with, “Here’s a new one you’ve never heard before…” You don’t get the adulation you’d get with “Here’s one by INXS.”
Two things were consistent in all of Dan’s bands, though: (1) No matter how good the rest of the band was, Dan was always the bet thing in it and (2 ) The band had a terrible name. For whatever reason, Dan was just the worst when it came to thinking up names for his projects. “Gepetto’s Workbench” was a particularly awful example. And what can you make of “Three Dollar Socks?” There were myriads of others, but those are the only two I can remember right now. If anyone knows any others, sound off below.
But the name and the lineup didn’t matter because whatever they were called, and whoever was in it that week, it was always fundamentally the same, it was always Dan’s show. He knew what he wanted to do and he did it.
One day they were playing somewhere and I couldn’t remember their (disposable) name, so I referred to them as “Dan and the Not-Quite-As-Good-As-Dan Band.” The name stuck – at least among my friends – and we called them that ever after, or at least as long as I can remember afterwards. I came back for a visit two years later and people were still calling them that name.
I’m not really giving a clear picture of what a nice guy he was, though. He was always smiley, he was always friendly. Kind, even. I’m sure he had arguments and disagreements with people just like we all do, but he kept them quite and seemed quick to forgive. Even if you absolutely sucked at music (Like I did), he didn’t talk down. He was just a genuinely nice guy, and while we were never super-tight, he was always on the short list of people I didn’t hate. (I was a bit of a misanthrope in those days)
I don’t know what his life was like after graduation. I know he taught music for a while. I know he got married, but don’t know if he had any kids. I know he didn’t become a rock star, dammit. I’m sure that, had we both lived to a hundred, we never would have crossed paths again.
Even so, whenever he’d come up in conversations about the old days, or I’d find a forgotten old picture of him in a photo album, I’d always smile. It always made me happy to know that he was out there somewhere still gigging around, with that goofy smile.
The world is a poorer place without him in it.