Feb 25, 2008
It's a shame when you get to hear from a longtime friend only because he's calling to tell you of a mutual friend that has passed away. Tom called late this Saturday to tell me that Donnie Voss had died of a failed liver. I would have loved to talk longer to Tom, but I was sick with that horrid flu and he had his infirm mother to bathe.
Donnie was always a bit of a flawed genius. His mom had died early in his life and his dad never remarried. Donnie kept some supersecret image of 'woman' in his heart that prevented his relationships with women his own age maturing into something beyond a broken fantasy.
His love of music was unparalleled and he applied those stubby fingers of his to the bass. He had real talent. Enough to get a short stint with Tower of Power during their years of high-turnover of bandmembers, and even accompanied the Rolling Stones European tour (sometime in the '70s) with an opening band. This bought him a house in California which he let people live there because they needed a place. He also studied double-bass with Stephen Brewster, who was a first chair bassist with the National Symphony Orchestra and was even looking to get in with the National Symphony until Stephen's life was cut short in an automobile accident. Donnie would play bass at home to Beethoven and mostly cry thru the piece.
But Donnie would drink. And drink heavily. In fact he died of complications involving the failure of his liver to keep up with his consumption. Alcohol gave him access to a balance he could hardly achieve elsewhere. Every positive thing in his life could be matched with an equally heavy failure thanks to alcohol. His own discomfort could be balanced by the glibness of a drunk. He also hid his condition from his dad, but then again he drank heavily enough that we all knew this would get him if an error in immediate judgement didn't. Donny would actually drink himself into the body of an aging black man whom he referred to as "Uncle Boogie," and most people referred to Don as Uncle Boogie. As Uncle Boogie, he would mostly refer to himself in the third person. "Give Uncle Boogie a fmoke!" A fmoke was a smoke, a cigarette. When Don got polluted he would be calm and breezy and Uncle Boogie, affable and a real character. He would play the most amazing stride piano and bluesy guitar in the style Big Bill Broonzy. At these times Donny wasn't black or white, he was just Uncle Boogie.
When sober, could be terribly nervous, innocent and sweet, but he could just as easily endlessly drone about some perceived injustice or annoy you with something over and over again. Almost always he was loud. The most common phrase I remember his dad saying (actually yelling from upstairs) was "Goddammit, Don! Keep it down, willya?" But downstairs was his lair. A baby grand with his grandma's pettipoint on the bench and his several basses and his late '70s Marshall amp in blue metalflake vinyl. Don was a mixture of many things, many drinks, many moods.
The only jobs I knew him to have were as a piano mover - he even helped Stevi and I move our piano - and as a grave digger, I believe at one of D.C.'s more prestigious cemeteries.
The last time I remember seeing Don, he was sober and annoying. He was proud of his current collection of musical instruments and was showing them off by playing each one a little bit. He did have a taste for the finer things such as beautifully crafted instruments, antique cars and even a beautiful old BMW motorcycle. He insisted I have a beer and then promptly and absent-mindedly put his cigarette out in it. Of course I drank it. This annoyance and some insistence on his part that I do something had me bolting from the house (he lived at his dads at this time and most of his life), and him chasing after me yelling wildly. I dove for my car and began driving off and he even tried to put his body in front of my path, but not too riskily, so I got by. In my mind I wrote him off and hadn't spoken to him except briefly by phone in some 15 years.
It's all so sad. For me the saddest part isn't his passing - I'm cool with our leaving the planet as much as I can be, but that because I wrote him off, this scant couple of paragraphs is pretty much all the recollection I have of him. Memories of Uncle Boogie had already begun disappearing as you knew him, as you tried to peer into his unfair, misshapen world.