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Farewell, Mike Meldrum

Filed under: Allentown, Music, Obituary
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Photo by Rose Mattrey.

In 2006, Michael Meldrum released his first ever studio album. His first and only This from a guy who’d been playing music in Buffalo for more than 30 years, while mentoring and championing generations of songwriters and performers, and providing them a stage every Monday evening at Nietzsche’s, the longest-running and most famous open mic night in the city.

It was absurd on all sorts of counts: absurd that his one and only recording came so late in his musical career; absurd how good the songs were; and absurd the wealth of talent on the record, a who’s who of local musicians who joined their old friend in the studio, giving to his songs the depth they deserved and to the record the sense of musical community that he had worked so diligently and lovingly to cultivate.

“Well,” Mike told Artvoice’s Mark Norris shortly before the CD release party (which, naturally, was held at Nietzsche’s, his home away from home), “if you can judge a person by the friends he chooses and keeps for life, then I come up looking pretty good.”

We should all look so good. Mike passed away Thursday evening, after a long struggle with an illness that slowed him but could not keep him down. Over the course of the next week, we’ll be sharing some thoughts on Mike and the role he played in the music scene here, as expressed by some of those friends.

That record, by the way, is called Open Ended Question, and you can listen to it and buy a copy through Righteous Babe Records, the record label founded by Meldrum’s most famous protege, Ani DiFranco, who had this to say about Mike when the record was released:

I met Michael when I was nine at the guitar shop where I got my first guitar. From the beginning, he treated me as a friend, not as a kid, and immediately started bringing me to his gigs and letting me perform with him. He taught me to respect the art of song-crafting and inspired me to be a musician by trade. He taught me that music can be the fire around which a community can gather. To me, Michael exemplifies the notion that music is not just something you buy, it’s something you do.

And here’s what singer/songwriter Alison Pipitone says about Mike:

One word that comes to mind when I think of Michael Meldrum is “generosity”—generosity of spirit and generosity in everyday works. Michael was always so gracious about including me in the shows he produced. He and Diane opened their home to me and so many others for dinners, parties, rehearsals, and the occasional bicycle repair. He shared his original musical ideas and his catalogue of cover songs without hesitation and without restraint.

In the eighteen years I knew him, Michael NEVER said a bad word about another musician. Trust me, this is rare. I’m sure there was plenty he could have said, but he never did. Indeed, this quality has inspired me to try and do the same.

Michael spent much of his professional life promoting other songwriters, but his own songwriting should not be underestimated. His album Open Ended Question is filled with poetry and honesty and passion and life.

I will miss so many things about Michael, including the twinkle in his eye and the kindness he carried with him always. He leaves behind an amazing wife and two fun, funny, intelligent, beautiful kids.

Congratulations, Michael, on a life well lived. God bless you. With love from Alison Pipitone.

And Artvoice publisher Jamie Moses:

For the past 25 years, Michael Meldrum gave a stage to some truly gifted singer-songwriters like Suzanne Vega or Ani DiFranco and others, who played at his long-running open mic at Nietzsche’s. He also created a warm home to gawky kids fumbling with guitars they could barely play and who, singing off-key, nervously presented original songs they’d hammered out in their bedrooms. Everyone was welcome and everyone got respect. For Meldrum, folk music was the absolute best of American music, and he had an almost unearthly sense for creating those magic moments in which a group of people are joined onstage singing harmonies and picking guitars or banjos, with him gleefully plucking a mandolin or playing harmonica. Michael Meldrum’s open mic at Nietzsche’s was a shelter from the storm of hip-hop and rock and roll. It was the mystical place sung about in “Bob Dylan’s Dream”:

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

And God bless Nietzsche’s owner Joe Rubino for giving Michael a home for so many years, through so many winters, and so many Monday nights. Whether no one showed up or the place was packed, Joe never wavered in supporting the music. With Michael Meldrum’s passing the question facing us all now is “Will the circle be unbroken?”

Much more to come. Please send your memories of Michael Meldrum to editorial@artvoice.com. Or post them below.

 



  • Rose

    So very sorry to hear about Mike’s passing.
    He was such a nice guy…and I had a great time hanging out with him when I took this photo at his home.
    Sending my condolences and best wishes to his family.
    ~rose mattrey

  • watson cramer

    Well just another great loss to the Buffalo music scene. Sometimes inspiration takes the form of a sad good bye. This good bye comes not from a stanger to Buffalo, or Allen Street where I had heard Mike echo like a whispering wind in the heart of Winter, on the street where I met him, and sat oddly numb listening to the Dylan like music that follows me today. I will surely miss him as I miss Buffalo itself, the old Buffalo, free of the murders, and shootings that have driven so many away.

  • Suzanne

    What a loss for Buffalo. He was so talented and such a nice man. I tended bar at Nietzsche’s many moons ago and he would sit and talk with me on slow nights. I loved hearing his stories. He once offered to teach me mandolin. I so regret that I didn’t take him up on it. Rest in peace, Michael Meldrum. You will be missed.

  • Mike is the reason we always visit Nietzsche’s when in town.
    Always a great host!
    RIP

  • Mike gave our raggle-taggle band, Jerkbait, a crack at performing at open-mic years ago that eventually led to modestly good creative accomplishments through our short existence. What was always precious and endearing about Meldrum was his open-mindedness towards all musicians and their craft, and the willingness to give anyone an opportunity to play music. That openness will be missed.

    To the Patron Saint of Open Mics, I’ll drink a dram for you.

    RIP, good buddy.

  • Kathy Moriarty

    Love you Mike. Thank you for the 101 ways you showed you cared.

  • Dear Mike, I think you are now just in the Green Room waiting to take the big stage again…. my bohemian buddy…RIP

  • Terez Peipins

    Always helpful and open. Michael helped organize a fundraiser for a magazine I was working on, Women’s Quarterly Review and poetry readings way back when. He took me to visit an elderly woman who lived in a stately old mansion and an old warehouse full of clothes. So much life.

  • Nancy

    I remember Mike when he played on the street corners in the early 1980s. He showed such a strong interest in me as a person when I needed it. I never got to know him much more than that, but I always knew I had a friend.

  • Mary Bracken

    Life springs eternal…I thought you would live forever. You encouraged not only musicians but dancers, painters, massage therapists, human animals creating a culture that was uniquely ‘our Buffalo’. My heart goes out to Diane and your children. Thank you, thank you,thank you for making me feel like it was all worth so long ago.

  • Mary Lavin

    Buffalo vibrant music scene grew along side, and in many ways due to this gentle kind man. He welcomed all with a nod. He pulled you in with that goofy twinkle in his eyes when he told his stories. He will be remembered and missed by many.

  • Kevin Connors

    Michael was a giant in my book. I’m grateful to have called him a friend. He was always making musical magic, even with a dabbler like me. My love goes out to Diane and Xander and Julia and all those who’s lives depended on Mike. All the connections he made live on with his music. Rest well, my friend.

  • Marla

    I only knew him for a little while long ago, but one thing I can say is that I never walked away from running into him without learning a little something – whether it was why Egyptian cotton felt so nice, or how great Suzanne Vega sounded just playing around his kitchen table (I still have the cassette he gave me somewhere – but no way to play it). I live in Toronto now, but he’s part of the hometown that I miss.

  • Mikel Doktor

    Knowing Michael meant knowing everyone that he ever came into contact with. You could be a thousand miles from home, and meet someone to share a Mike story with. I met him the first day I moved into Allentown in 1996. Over a Guiness or five at Nietzches, the debate started over who was the better songwrighter, John and Paul or Mick and Kieth ( of course you know Mikes side).This would continue for years.
    Mike was always the one who would watch over the new kids to the area. Show them around,who to watch out for and who protect. I’ll charish forever the memories I have with him. His marrage to Diane, the birth of thier children and the many moves ,everytime the family would grow. He would give you the last dime in his pocket if you needed it, or the right chords to a Dylan song if you blanked. All he asked in exchange was that you pass it on. I’ll miss the late nights, and early mornings, at Nietzsches when after a few glass’ of wine , a mandolin or guitar lesson would start. He was the best teacher!
    With all the sadness that comes with someone like Michael passing, I take comfort that his legacy lives on in Xander and Julia. They will keep Mike’s music,stories and love alive for all of us and our children.Cheers!

  • rebecca mercurio

    i used to go to nietzsches whenever i was back in buffalo to hear my best friend’s band play. i met michael at these shows. he was kind, engaging, entertaining and informative as hell. he encouraged every person in that bar to find their voice. he always bought me a glass of wine and we’d sit and chat during many a stepchild show. years later he gave me my first bass and told me to take it on the road but never, EVER play it in buffalo. and thats where it all began.

    i started playing music very late in life compared to most of the people around me. i felt like a complete fraud, a hack. but michael would have none of that. he constantly pushed; offered lessons, tips, compliments, knowing smiles and showed me that its about the joy not the technique. so what if you only know first position as long as you can play the song. he introduced me to some of my favorite artists, local and otherwise. he built such a community that nietzsches felt like home to me. and everyone inside like family. still does. always will.

    michael was full of mischief. he was playful and fun. he knew more songs than anyone else i have ever met. he was an endless source of local historical facts and anecdotes. he was so generous and eager to share every morsel of knowledge he had. he was so proud of his beautiful family; he and diane such gracious hosts. my sister babysat xander and julia in exchange for guitar lessons she didnt even want. she just loved sitting around with him while he played and told his stories.

    michael meldrum was such a gift. we are all so fortunate to have had him touch our lives. i know the next time i walk into nietzsches i will feel him. he is in every smiling face and raised glass and poem read and chord strummed.

  • Paul Zanolli

    Michael was one of the first people to introduce himself to me in 1984 when I ventured out with a band named Proton Decay. Honestly, I didn’t quite know what to make of him at first. He then proceeded to introduce the band to everyone he knew in town. He’d say that he “discovered us” as with many, and who’s to say that he didn’t. Michael won us over with his encouragement, generosity and love of music. For nearly 30 years, Michael always greeted me with a smile and a hug, encouraged every musical endeavor, and shared his time genuinely; that is, every conversation felt like it mattered. Thank you, Michael.

  • Kathryn Koch

    Michael believed in singers before they even believed in themselves. I didn’t even know I was a singer when I met Mike, and he gamely backed me up while I ranted bad poetry at open mic. He gave me my first show and made me feel like I was legitimate…and very sneakily encouraged me to be a singer, not a poet. Good call, Mike. I was also his “student in exchange for babysitting Xander”, which meant hanging out with Mike, learning songs,and listening to stories…he gave so much time to me when I was, frankly, unappealing even to myself….and the first show my little band ever played 14 years ago was a Monday Songwriter’s Showcase, we were awful but he kept including us in shows, encouraging us….just a few months ago I was back in Buffalo, and Michael and I closed out a Monday night with “The Water is Wide”, a song I learned from him, and it was like being 19 again….The first time I played a show with him (Tom Stahl, you were on that bill), I had everyone sign the poster. Michael wrote,”Glad to be your right-hand man”. I think that’s what Mike was to so many people- a right hand man, ready anytime to put us in front of an audience, keep playing when it’s just Nancy and a scared songwriter left at the bar, make us feel legitimate. I don’t know what the misguided kids with guitars will do now that he’s gone. He was such a generous and loving man, and without his kindness I’m sure I would not have had this musical life. Like Rebecca, I know his spirit will always inhabit Nietzsche’s, and Allentown, and Buffalo, and beyond…can’t express how grateful I am to have known him and his beautiful family…my prayers are with Diane, Xander, & Julia.

  • James

    I knew Mike in the early ’80s, before there even was a Nietzsche’s. I was watching him host an open mic at Curren’s when the news came through that Lennon had been killed and that whole mess played out. Mike choreographed much of the memorial in the days that followed. A kinder man never lived.

  • Mira Fink

    Michael Meldrum’s Gift

    I met Michael Meldrum at an arts and crafts festival on Hertel Avenue back in 1980 when I was about 16 years old. He was performing on the street, a one man band, alternately playing guitar, harmonica and mandolin. I sat right down on the sidewalk and listened to him play, enjoying his upbeat music. After a short while, Mike stopped playing and handed me his mandolin. “Here you play this”, he said. “I don’t know how to play that”, I replied, and next thing you know he was showing me chords. I spent the next hour or so completely fascinated, intently practicing. I was even more impressed when he showed me that with only three chords I could play the Beatle’s song “Here Comes the Sun”. He let me take his mandolin home with me that day to practice and I was amazed by his immediate trust in me.

    Michael and I soon became great friends. I returned his mandolin the next week and took some lessons from him, and before long we took a trip down to an antique store on Allen Street and for $50. I bought my own mandolin. My love affair with music had begun. I was excited to learn to play music that I loved to listen to instead of the boring music that came along with school flute lessons. Michael was always giving me recordings of some of his favorite song writers, like Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. He brought me to bars to play with him on stage, when I was way too young to drink, and introduced me to many of his friends and other musicians, some of which later became quite famous. Michael was an oddity. My friends didn’t understand how I could have a friend 15 years older, but despite our age difference, he always treated me like an equal and gradually they began to appreciate him. Later I helped him connect with my high school, City Honors, and he taught his first song writing workshops there.

    I have been playing music ever since that first day on Hertel Avenue. Michael instilled a love of playing music that has brought me some of the greatest joy in my life and helped connect me with many wonderful people. Over the years, I branched out beyond folk to play in many other musical styles like bluegrass, Irish, Cajun music, rock and blues and more. Needless to say, Michael was very proud. I came back to Buffalo one time, after many years away, and stopped by to see Michael at Nietzes. He called me up on stage to play with him and told the audience. “I taught Mira how to play and now she’s better on mandolin then I ever was!” I have played with a number of bands and continue to do so today. I can honestly say that if it were not for Michael Meldrum, I would not have become a musician. How Michael saw this potential in me, before I could even imagine it in myself, I’ll never know. That was his talent. I will always be grateful that he came in to my life and brought me the gift of music. I frankly cannot even imagine my life without it.

  • Mark Kubiniec

    Buffalo’s Troubadour, Elmwood Art Festival, Scajaquada Creek Clean-up, and Popa Wheelie

    I knew of Michael first many years ago when he smuggled Ani into Essex St. Pub to play when she was all of 15 or 16 yrs old. She lived with a friend on Ashland who knew places to play music. Mike’s bushy hair, beard, plaids and ever-present vests set him out as a troubadour – he always seemed to make introductions, set the stage, play a tune or two and then put up varied and incredible acts, giving people a place to ply their passion. Ani is one of many he gave a leg up to, and he was always doing this to the end.

    Fast forward twenty years and Mike was helping with the first and subsequent Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts by stage-managing the kidsfest stage, playing around with the littlest kids, getting them up and in front and anyone who wanted participating by clapping, singing, being joyous. Amazing to see two and three year olds together away from their hoovering parents five rows back, but that was part of the magic work he did. A kind of musical alchemy occurred. Whole generations of kids will have a love of music, with no stage fear, from Mike’s generosity of spirit. He put loads of kids onstage including his own Zander and Julia. Mike did strenuous roadie work getting staging, sound system and doing set-up / take-down (thanks Nietzche’s for the loan of that stuff I hope it all got back in good shape even after the rains!)

    Mike did things like that quietly, and with his presence lent his perseverance to causes. He volunteered every Spring and Fall at the Scajaquada Creek Clean-up to play tunes for fellow volunteers at the after picnic at American Legion on Amherst St. His songs of water and sun (Michael Row Your Boat, Here Comes the Sun, Sloop John B, 15 Miles on the Erie Canal…) helped transform a grimy morning of slugging trash and shopping carts into a celebration of community re-creation and hope. And yes he got us a sound system and did the roadie work there too.

    As a side-job to music, Mike resurrected bicycles out of basements, attics, and garages. He mined from garage sales to curbsides and set up hundreds of people with vintage Columbia, Raleigh, Schwinn, Takara, Ross, you name it bikes for next to nothing. He peddled his way around the neighborhood often followed by a mini-entourage of his kids and neighbors going shopping, to the bikepath and park. I will treasure his Popa Wheelie business card next to the Bob Dylan Impersonator’s Contest poster, while I remember this giant of a man forever.

  • Saul Broudy

    I used to spend some time in Buffalo in the 1970-80s, occasionally to do gigs but often just to visit friends or when enroute to Canadian folk festivals. I have fond memories of hanging out with Mike at Nietzche’s, the Towne, and other haunts. For me, he *was* the Buffalo music scene, and as a visitor from out-of-town, he always made me feel like a “big shot.” I found him to be a kind, generous, and gracious man. Although we unfortunately haven’t kept in touch in recent years, I find it hard to realize that I will never get to see him again.

    Saul Broudy
    Philadelphia, PA

  • Betty Spivack

    I met my future husband, Jim Daigler, at one of the catch-as-catch can sites that was used for the the open mikes that Mike hosted, between the one at Curran’s, and the one that lasted at Nietsche’s. It was in a small, Lebanese restaurant called “Star of the East”, which seems an odd place for a couple doing such things as English ballads (me), and blues/songwriter stuff (Jim). After all, on the other nights, they offered belly dancing as entertainment to their customers. I’m not sure which got them more business.

    I can’t think of all the time we spent in Buffalo without thinking of Mike.