Friday, September 11, 2009

He Was A Friend of Mine

He Was A Friend of Mine
by Paul Metsa (with the help of Joe Gioia)
Originally published in "On the Tracks" September 2002

Singer-songwriter Larry Kegan died Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, of cardiac arrest at the age of 59.
A diving accident left Kegan a paraplegic when he was only 15 years old, and 10 years later he became a quadriplegic from a car accident. Yet Kegan later wrote in a song, "Every misfortune can be a blessing in disguise."
He met Bob Dylan when they were teenagers at summer camp and the two became close friends for life. Dylan's first recording was comprised of songs he performed with Kegan and others. Dylan dedicated his Street Legal album to Kegan. Kegan first performed with Bob Dylan in concert on October 19, 1981 in Merryville, Indiana, singing "No Money Down" while Dylan played saxophone. In 1997, Dylan saluted to him from the stage at Midway Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A few years ago On the Tracks magazine spoke with Kegan requesting an interview After a few days of careful deliberation he decided to kindly decline because he didn't want to risk jeopardizing his life-long friendship with Dylan.

Larry Kegan was a steelwheeled high street hipster; a saint who shook, rattled, and rolled up to the very end. He was born and is now buried in St. Paul, Minnesota, just a stone's roll away from the Mississippi River, right before it floors it along Hwy 61, down to the Big Easy and becomes salt water.

He was halfway through his victory lap towards his 60th birthday before his 3-D heart gave out on him in the van and on the road. He was with his driver, on the way to the record shop to pick up a new platter about love and robbery. This, just hours after two towers crumbled in Manhattan and ripped the heart out of the rest of us. As was his style, King Kegan, as I fondly called him, spent most of that morning calling all of his New York City pals making sure they were alright. Even though he spent the last 45 years of his life confined to a wheelchair, he used a psychic radar to track the trails of those fortunate to be his friends; uplifting us when needed with an abundant grace of spirit, old-world wisdom, humor and prayer. His was a sixth sense born through the blood drops of struggle.

Though he left this world as he arrived-a chosen leader of the tribe, he was, for a little while, just another teenager in Eisenhower's America, deep in the heart of the wild Midwest. Little Richard, Doo Wop, Brando and Berry, Bugs Bunny, and Bugsy Siegel all within spittin' distance of Frankie Laine, spilling into those St. Paul nights where boys whistled at the girls and the girls whistled back. Come all ye fair and tender maidens to these make believe ballrooms for the moon is out and beckons us to dance.

Kegan spent his first 15 years on two feet in a world that never stopped spinning. But it stopped twice for him. Once, in a diving accident that stole the use of his legs and then on a Mexican road at midnight when he was 25 in a car accident that would eventually lay claim to all movement below the neck. Sentenced at midnight to a life in a wheel chair-as he would write about later in a blues howl called "Some Get the Chair," a tune that would make Harlan Howard proud, Mother Maybelle in the air.

I met him in the early '80s on the banks of the river. His reputation preceded him-a Gary Cooper High Noon shadow of Whispers. Word had it that he was summer camp buddies with another local Jewish kid, one from the red dust mines of Minnesota's Iron Range, one who went on to make quite a name for himself channeling the still living spirit of Woody Guthrie.

They were pals like Tom and Huck, first hooked on the 50,000-watt late night border radio broadcasts that spread that gutbucket Negro howl hooteroll all over the White heartland. Now we call it early rock and roll, but back then it was just the real America, unseen and Top of the World, Ma. From the downbeat, Kegan seemed as interesting, mysterious and powerful as his soon-to-be very famous friend. And 'til the end he was the best friend that Iron Range rounder ever had.

Kegan had had his ass kicked from sea to shining sea. Yet, playing the hand God dealt him, he rolled 7's on tilted tables from Tijuana to Times Square. Midnight rambles, prayer meetings, rock and roll shows, emergency rooms, classrooms, red desert highways, winding rivers and sky blue water lakes, Quonset huts, boardrooms and bordellos, Kegan knew them all. He swung with the best of 'em, took on all comers, never backed down, and never once felt sorry for himself nor would let you feel sorry for yourself. His was a high octane spirit world and his heart beat for everyone. Body be damned, say a prayer and be brave like Lenny Bruce, it is Saturday night after all.

He could enter a room like Liz Taylor; head held high, dressed in a coat of many colors, wheeled through the doorway by his Mexican mafia, his personal attendants that kept him on the road, brimming with a dignity that he was always willing to share. Hello Stranger. And in the last ten years usually within love's glance of Carol Krueger, first his nurse and then the true love of his life, and the best friend he ever had.

A natural born story teller. Old Testament style. He'd command a stage in a way that would make Miles proud, except Kegan never turned his back on the audience. Blues shouter, poet, songwriter, author, speaker, student, scholar, son, brother, lover, father, and friend. And such a friend, a friend to you, your friends, and their friends. Everyone equal in the eyes of God.

You are blessed once with the love of your mother when you enter this world. You are blessed twice when you find a friend who'll love you like your mother did. Larry Kegan was that kind of friend, the finest God sees fit to give someone. To say it was an honor to know him would understate how I actually feel. I believe he was put on this earth to show the rest of us the power and strength of the human spirit. A Jericho blast of flesh and bone, honor and dignity, beauty and truth.

At his funeral service not quite 24 hours after the horror of the morning of September 11th, the rabbi supposed that God might have called Larry to heaven to help all of those disabled victims make their transition to the spirit world. I can't doubt this. I do know that when I dream about him he is dancing. After 45 years, out of that chair and dancing.

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