So I went to see my girl, told her about my day
She said, “Life can be that way
But don’t give up, don’t give up, no,
‘Cause where there is love, there is hope”
– Michael Houser “This Part of Town”
It is difficult to write anything about late Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser that hasn’t already been said about the man. Those who really knew him well have either already written what they need to say or haven’t written anything because their feelings are no one’s business but their own. I haven’t written much, mostly because it is too painful and complicated. And honestly I never thought I could do justice to the memories of the man or to the beauty his music has created in the world.
So I’ll just start writing my feelings and see what unearths itself and maybe there will be some truth in it for others to find. And maybe some magic will happen and there will be a bit of the spirit of the man in these words.
Some called him “Panic.”’ Others “The Lingering Lead.” Most called him “Mikey” and his mother called him “Michael.”
He was a confident observer. A soft speaker. A gentle conversationalist. An unlikely lead guitarist with a tone unlike anyone who had come before. He had a unique style of playing involving bends, slides, tremolos and the volume pedal that would create a vibration that felt like an ancient hymn.
Or a growling electronic bear.
Or a distant voice singing a lullaby with a southern drawl.
Or a soaring eagle.
Or a dark machine.
With his guitar he could create an atmosphere, an immersive resonance. His songwriting was conversational with unique phrasing and cadence. And with his fans he was gracious, patient and quick with a smile and a wave.
In the fall of 1996 my wife and I had completed an editor’s proof of a Widespread Panic setlist book called the Everyday Companion. We intended to publish the book in time for the band’s New Year’s Eve Run at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta. We wanted to make sure the band and management were given the chance to see an approximation of the final product before we spent the effort and expense of publishing.
I made several perfect-bound editor’s copies and numbered them: one through six were meant for each member of the six-headed monster. At the end of October, we found ourselves backstage at The Barrymore presenting our imperfect rough draft to the band and crew. The response was very positive and each band member and some of the crew took time to thumb through and look at old dates and venues and think of the “old days.”
And then I heard someone behind me say, “Do you have one for me?” It was Mikey. He was the last one to get a book. He had been waiting patiently for his turn. I reached into my bag, handed it to him. He thanked us and immediately sat down on the floor and started digging into the book.
He found the date of the first show his mother attended. He recalled the one show he missed (for the birth of his son, Waker). And he sat and quietly turned pages, reading and pondering. Just when we thought he was lost in the book and perhaps we should let him have his privacy, he would address us directly with an anecdote. He made sure that we could feel his gratitude for our work as he flipped through the pages recounting old memories. The lack of pretense was so refreshing it was disarming.
This may be my favorite image of Mikey. Sitting on the floor, quietly sharing stories.
I once had the great fortune of meeting Mikey’s mother and she said to me, “Michael gave me one of those books.” When I remember this moment I like to imagine he gave her editor’s copy #6.
The last time I saw Mikey was in the load in area at the top of the climb hill at Red Rocks on Sunday in 2002. I had just gotten off of the shuttle and caught his eye and waved to him. He was standing near the backstage entrance on the phone with someone. He had a smile on his face as he waved back.
When I remember this moment I like to imagine he was on the phone with his mother.
Ted Rockwell is the editor of the Everyday Companion, a setlist and information resource for Widespread Panic.
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