There I was, sitting in front of the wood stove on Wednesday afternoon with the computer in my lap the way I always do, when all of a sudden I thought of someone I hadn’t seen or spoken to for a long, long time: Leo Sullivan, one-time manager for John Clay and the Lost Austin Band, the gloriously flawed and weirdly genius native Texan string band hardly anybody ever heard of, where was he now—sick, alive and well, or what?
“The reason we’re called the Lost Austin Band is because whenever we play, nobody knows where we’re at.”
– John Clay
Leo did a lot more things than work with the band, but that was how I met him. I can’t remember exactly how it all transpired. He must have known someone who knew me and that I played guitar—not amazingly well, but good enough for I, IV, V in the key of G. From early ’72 to ’75, I played or didn’t play rhythm guitar with John and Gary and Doug and Johnny, always under Leo’s watchful eye. The times I didn’t was when I was too pissed off to drive to yet another gig where we were supposed to be headlining or maybe actually get paid but ended up doing an “audition set” for free beer when the main act took a break. No matter what, though, Leo always made us feel like things were just about to break for us: so-and-so might be there, we could leverage this into a weekly gig, the barmaid’s boyfriend had a PA we could borrow next time… I was young and ambitious. I wanted us to go to Europe, where I thought John Clay would knock ’em dead. (Leo thought so, too.) Authentic West Texan, and not the way you think. Authentic deadly brilliant child-of-God West Texan, if that’s not redundant, with the soul of a drunken poet burned alive by Baptists. For several bars of just a couple songs each night, we sounded like real music you had never heard before and never would again. That was the thing, all right, though. You never would again.
I think Leo knew that. For all he loved John and wanted the best for him, it was the doing of it then and there that counted. During those years I saw Leo almost every other day at Les Amis, a university area hangout in Austin where I’d find him with his cigarettes and coffee, taking in the scene. I never really knew that much about him, but he always seemed to know a lot about everybody else. You just wanted to be in his orbit. Years after I moved away to Maryland and email was invented, Leo showed up again online. We didn’t communicate all that much, but that’s the way it sometimes is with real old friends, you know? You honestly don’t need to, because you’re cool.
I guess you know where this is going. I googled Leo’s name plus “Austin,” and the first thing that came up was an obituary in the Austin American-Statesman. I knew he’d had health problems for a long time—one of the things we did exchange some words about—so this wasn’t a total shock, but I was sad I’d missed his passing. Then I saw the date: he’d only died a couple of weeks before! Well, damn. I read a little more—ye gods, the burial was that day, Wednesday, November 19th, in a veteran’s cemetery in Killeen! Calculating for the time zones, probably that very minute.
This shook me up right good. He obviously wanted me to know that he was no longer of this world. Why else would I go looking for him on the very day they put him in the ground? I went out in the fading light to pull some firewood from the snow and felt an energy I recognized. He seemed to say that it was “wild” where he was, and that he could go wherever he wanted. Any country, any planet. That would have been just like him, having a good time on the other side. It was as if he were telling me that everything would be all right, for everyone.
Back inside beside the stove, I read the whole obituary. It wasn’t all that long but full of heart. Here’s my favorite part, italics mine:
Story-teller, sound-man, sage, friend, father. Leo was at the center of the Austin music scene while it was young and free. His knowledge, humour, perception, gentle, kind-hearted equanimity and untamed imagination are beloved still by all who knew him… Leo served his country as a veteran of the Korean conflict. He was a peace-loving, steadfast, independent, good and honest man who loved kids and understood dogs.
That last sentence really killed me. This is all we need to be. If someone says those simple things about you when you’re gone, you have lived a mighty life. Catch you later, man. Take care.