20 Years Gone: Remembering Widespread Panic Guitarist Michael Houser 1962 – 2002
The band’s namesake and co-founding member sadly passed away 20 years ago today.
Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser died at age 40 from pancreatic cancer 20 years ago today. In the two decades since Mickey’s passing, the band continues to honor his legacy both in song and with the community that surrounds the group and its fans. JamBase contributor Aaron “Neddy” Stein wrote a tribute for Michael Houser that originally published on the day he passed away, August 10, 2002. With an updated message from Neddy, the original obituary follows below.
When someone passes away, people often say that he or she “left us,” so it’s tempting to say that today it’s been 20 (20!?!?!) years since Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser left us.
But Mikey never did leave, did he?
Every time you go see WSP — still working their magic, two decades later — Houser is there, a presence so tangible you can literally feel him in the room, maybe even see him lurking about on stage, but most importantly you can hear him whispering along as John Bell sings his timeless lyrics or strumming along on his guitar as the band goes deep.
Mikey is still with us, embedded permanently in the music, endlessly pulsing in the hearts of his bandmates, and buried deep in the soul of the Home Team faithful. His guitar lead did linger, every solo he took during his too brief time with us, and it continues to linger, and ain’t that grand?
[Aaron Stein, August 10, 2022]
“In my mind I was a child… and it felt good!”
There was an old saying about the Grateful Dead: “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones who do it.” This sums up Michael Houser – the man and his music.
No one played it like he did, and I feel confident saying no one ever will again.
His nickname in the day was “Panic” which made the band name, “Widespread Panic,” a double (or maybe even a triple) entendre. The music was undoubtedly punctuated by the omnipresent, widespread wail from Michael Houser. I don’t know what his best friends called him, but those who understood the haunting intricacies enough to believe themselves anointed called him “Mikey.”
Today I learned that Mikey has left us. As I sit here and listen to one of the hundreds of live Panic shows lining my walls, my soul swims in myriad feelings. I’ve prepared for this moment for months now – the rumors of his illness precluded his official announcement by months all I could do is sit here, listen, pray and wait.
Certainly many will mark this passing by culling meaning from lyrics – Michael and his bandmates left us many to speak the words we cannot think of ourselves. Of course, this is music’s higher purpose: to elucidate those feelings that are sometimes impossible for us to arrive at independently. The truly great musicians can transcend such impasses by seemingly siphoning their souls into their words and their instruments. Michael Houser could do this.
A man of few spoken words, he instead chose an infinite number of notes on his guitar to express joy; sadness; a raunchy heat sucking sweat from your brow; cooling winds rippling tree branches; haunting, evil nightmares; the chill one gets from the touch of the woman he loves; the smile on his face when he looks upon his children.
Widespread Panic was a rock and roll band that defied every single rock and roll band cliché and this was epitomized most by Mikey. In the alternate universe where flash and style mean as much, or more than, talent, you had the unassuming-yet-impishly-grinning visage of Michael Houser hiding beneath his tight curls. In a universe where lead guitarists are as flashy as laser beams and pyrotechnics at an arena concert, Michael Houser chose to play his guitar with neither pomp nor circumstance; sitting in a chair at the corner of the stage… because it was more comfortable.
He was a guy who was beloved by thousands and yet carried himself with a quiet dignity, writing songs about his true loves and passion for his own children. Yet, at the same time he fucking ROCKED: his licks split eardrums like karate-chopped two-by-fours. This was what Widespread Panic WAS… and this was Mikey.
He leaves behind family:
Wife Barbette, son Waker and, as of a year and a half ago, Eva Houser, his young baby girl. His love for them was obvious, my tears are for them.
His five bandmates, soulmates each – the beauty of Panic was not in its individual members, but in the way each of those men found a way to bind tightly to each other member, musically and otherwise.
Many people refer to Widespread as a “six-headed monster” but really it was just one head, one heart, one soul, one spine, a quartet of limbs, and a dark, warm blood running through it all. Houser was the central nervous system, synapses firing pulses of electricity with every thought, every movement, every sound… the six-headed monster would still be the same monster without one of its heads, but this monster is a different beast without Mikey.
Of course, there is one more family, the fans, those of us who “got it,” who knew the code and swore by its gospel. Whether we knew Michael Houser or not, we certainly felt like we did: we made room for him in our lives and in our hearts and now that space is a little bit emptier.
The highest compliment I feel I can give to a person is “I’m better to have known you.” Michael Houser: I am better to have known you.
[Aaron Stein, August 10, 2002]