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(Still) Thinking about Gene Santoro

A pal of mine died on April 27. He was 71. He was taken out by esophageal cancer, the same thing my own father died from five years ago. Gene Santoro was a mensch, and a brilliant man. Of the circle of fellow NYC scribes that I ran with in the '80s and '90s, he was the smartest (a Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree from Stanford), the wittiest, the most diligent researcher and by far the handsomest. I may have been sixth in the bunch, behind Jeff Levenson, Don Palmer, Kevin Whitehead and Howard Mandel, though far ahead of Lee Jeske. But I digress.

I was invited to attend Gene's memorial by his wife Tesse Santoro. It took place on Sunday, June 26 at Lewis Davis Pavilion in Waterside Plaza, about as far east as you can go on the island of Manhattan without falling into the East River. I had taken Amtrak down to the awesome new Moynihan Train Hall in Penn Station and, given the beautiful sunny weather that day, decided to walk to the memorial from there, intending to cut crosstown from west to east. Little did I know, that particular Sunday was also the gala Pride Parade attended by millions, making a crosstown trek a near impossibility. Striking a blow of civil disobedience, I broke through the steel barricades that lined Fifth Avenue and made a made dash across the parade route to the other side, quickly blending in with the charter bus loads of festive parade-goers who packed the side streets. Gene would've been proud.

On my nearly three-hour Amtrak ride from Hartford to New York City, I penned the following about my pal Gene, with the intention of reading it to the assemblage of family and friends:

I didn’t know Gene Santoro when he was growing up in Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and later coming of age in Springfield Gardens, Queens. I settled in nearby Jamaica, Queens (168th and Hillside) when I moved to New York from Milwaukee in 1980, but our paths wouldn’t cross until 1982-83 when we both began writing for Guitar World magazine. As freelancers, we were under the direction of a pot-smoking hipster editor named Noe the G, who recognized our individual strengths and allowed us to bring to the table stories that we were passionate about.

Gene’s interests were wildly eclectic, with an eye toward seeking out those obscure talents who were deserving of wider recognition, like the idiosyncratic Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence or our mutual pal Robert Quine. He seemed excited by making new discoveries and conveyed his genuine enthusiasm for those artists in his text. And being a former working guitarist who toured in a rock band that his wife then-girlfriend Tesse did roadie work for, he was also uniquely qualified to go toe to toe in interviews with heavyweights like rockers Jeff Beck and Keith Richards or bluesman Buddy Guy.

Gene connected the dots in his writing like an ethnomusicologist, describing not only how something sounded but how it came to sound that way. His observations were always pointed, well-informed, erudite and often laced with an acerbic, observational wit that was his calling card. And at his best, whether it was the numerous columns he wrote for ‘The Nation’ or passages from his brilliant 2000 biography of the imposing bassist-composer Charles Mingus, “Myself When I Am Real,” his prose was infused with a kind of poetry that few other critics ever touched. As he wrote in the preface to that 487-page tome: “The idea for writing a book about Mingus hit me like a sap swung by a Raymond Chandler cop.”

Or take this typically well-turned phrase he wrote about the great ‘30s swing pianist turned pop star vocalist, Nat King Cole: “His baritone/tenor voice is so airy and elemental, so palpably physical, it invites you in, then surrounds you glowingly like the lit cave of a magic mountain emanating song from somewhere deep.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is genius. And there’s a thousand-and-one more examples that I could read if we had time to dissect every piece he wrote over the past 40 years.

On a more personal note, I cherished Gene as a friend. Aside from admiring his obvious gifts as a writer and appreciating his acerbic wit and easy, uproarious laugh,I also was the recipient of his kindness and generosity over the years. In 1987, when I went through a bout of cancer myself, Gene came to my aid by taking on an assignment that I couldn’t do because I was going in for surgery on the same day that I was to conduct a long-scheduled interview. It was with David Bowie, who was embarking on his “Glass Spiders” tour that summer. Gene not only filled in for me, doing that interview with Bowie with very little time to prepare , he also gave me the money I would’ve been paid for that story. What’s more, he printed an item about my situation at the time (I was one of those freelancers who didn’t have health insurance in 1987) in his ‘Pulse!’ magazine column, soliciting readers for contributions to help cover my hospital bills. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a mensch.

When I moved to New Orleans for a few years in 1993, I got a surprise call from Gene on my birthday. He was calling from the pay phone at the Village Vanguard between sets and quickly handed the phone over to another mutual friend, Bill Frisell, who was playing at the Vanguard that night. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a friend.

We remained in touch over the years. I remember attending a 4th of July fireworks party at Gene and Tesse’s place in Stuyvesant Town overlooking the East River. My daughter Sophie, who is 27 now, was maybe five or six then. I remember she spent most of that evening in the girls’ bedroom, watching a VHS tape of the Spice Girls movie. And when I made the move to West Hartford, CT in 2018 we stayed in touch via emails and social media posts.

I got a call from Gene last year. It was a nice, warm chat. We talked for well over an hour, which was always the case with Gene. Always so much catching up to do. And he told me about the esophageal cancer he was struggling with. His words fell like bricks. My own father had died from esophageal cancer just four years earlier. So I feared the worst while hoping for the best. When I got the word of Gene’s passing, I cried. We all cried. We all miss him and loved him madly.

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