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Remembering Michael Meldrum: Michael Sheffield

Filed under: Allentown, Music, Obituary

Michael Sheffield, a long-time friend and music collaborator with Michael Meldrum, remembers the local folk musician, who died last Thursday at age 60:

As I think about losing an old friend, I realize that I took Mike Meldrum for granted. I took it for granted he’d be there yesterday afternoon so I could show him a new guitar I knew he’d love. But he wasn’t. I didn’t think much about it during the 33 years we played, hung out, and on-and-off lived together. Despite the occasional housemate  hassles, musical dry spells, and drifting aparts, I could take it for granted that a call for

Sketch of Mike Meldrum by J. Tim Raymond

a gig at Nietzsche’s, or Bullfeathers, or Father’s, or Currans, or the Tralf, or a library, church, park, or backyard shindig would arrive just before too much rust had accumulated or road had unwound between us. I could count on the fact that no matter how long it had been, how little we’d planned, what the setting or other musicians, Mike would set up a groove to lock into with a minimum of fuss. If I thought about it, it might be astonishing to contemplate how little we rehearsed for the hundreds of hours of music we played together across the years, but I never had to think about it, because Mike was an intuitive musician and an intuitive man. Whether a tune was counted off glacially slow or manically fast, in a key or time signature which surprised even him, or was done in a new arrangement which he’d neglected to mention to the band, was often a matter of suspense. That we would end in sync, in tune, together, was a given. Mike didn’t so much lead a band as flow with it; like flirting or schmoozing (two activities which Mike also loved), it was about give and take, not command and control. It was always a kick to improvise a guitar or vocal line and hear Mike absorb it and play or sing it back. We didn’t think about it, we didn’t discuss it, and he probably couldn’t tell you what he did, but we (and later, bandmates Mike Morrisey and Rob Lynch) developed songs together in this unspoken way, adjusting to each other’s cues and rhythms to find what worked.  It might have been a year since we played a song but Mike would remember the little hook or riff or turnaround we’d worked out, and so songs acreted like limestone, layer by layer, over years.  Mike could do jaw-dropping things on the guitar or mandolin or harmonica, but he (and we) could never be accused of technical perfectionism; it was about music! I am sure he was a wonderful influence on generations of guitar students because he could hear their songs, no matter how stiff their fingers.

We were very different people, and our lives went in very different directions. We rarely had a conversation over a cup of coffee or a meal together even when we shared digs; I often felt that for his legendary sociability, Mike was a deeply private person who guarded his pain and sorrow very carefully, and wore his wounds stoically. He preferred to light a candle than to curse the darkness. He could be a worrier, a mother hen, a fierce protector of his friends, his children, and the things he believed in. I saw him transformed by the stability, home, purpose, and grace his marriage to Diane brought him, and I know he was ever grateful.  He was a tireless promoter of other artists. Whatever demons may have fueled his drinking, drinking did not fuel his demons; it brought out an inner sweetness and puppy-dog warmth which was perhaps was hard for him to express and which was hard to resist.

Many people will write about Mike as the glue which held Buffalo’s music scene together for three decades; and will recount the numerous friendships, musical careers, collaborations, romances and even marriages he brought into the world just by being himself. For me, a world without Michael will be a world which no longer holds the possibility of that phone call for the last minute gig which reminds me how important music is. When the news came that John Lennon was killed, Mike was on stage at Curran’s, and he put together the memorial service which continues to this day as John Lennon night, where the The Buffalo Song Project Band played together for the last time in November. It was a  beautiful night, and as Mike Morrisey recalled, it was like having the old Mike back, as always, finding the celebration in life, despite his own failing health. So it will be a strange and sad thing to celebrate Michael without him there, but it won’t be lonely, because if any man can be said to live in spirit, especially the spirit of music and fellowship, it is Mike. I heard a song spilling out of the door of Nietzsche’s this cold spring night. I thought of Mike behind that door, as he is behind so many doors in my life. I felt that music was celebrating him. I know I always will feel that way; I can take it for granted.

  • Raw, honestly written rememberence … it brought Michael closer to me way over here in Nashville. The last summer I came back to Buffalo for a few reasons. One was to visit with Michael Meldrum. We sat and had a nice talk at the magical open mike he still led with an energy that belied his illness. Young hipsters and old barhounds all listened to the music Michael brought their way that night. Our conversation was slow and steady. Mike was softspoken always, but that night more than usual. The next time I spoke with him was the Sunday before the week he passed. There was an inkling in his voice that even as sick as he was, he knew it was me on the other end of the line. The last time I called the hospital, he had passed just moments before. Our connection was steady, deep, and eternal… from accompanying him in the real old days of Fingers, Nietzches, Currans, Central Park Grill, etc. etc. til now. My memories of living in those bohemian houses on the West Side with the likes of Meldrum, Sheffield, Grace and a myriad of other young aspiring musicians, poets and artists are filled with bittersweet rememberences. But, the best part of those days was singing at Nietzches with Michael directing the show, the conductor of a never-ending parade of music, life, love, and joy.

  • Well said Mike!

  • Patrick Cornelius

    I am but one of so many. Others knew him better,I am sure. I met Mike around 1979, I think, maybe 78. PeopleArt was just getting on it’s feet and the Lexington Food Co-op was actually on Lexington St. It was a magical time to be an artist in Buffalo. I was an actor and had been friends with Dave Dunklin, who taught me a few chords on guitar and always encouraged me to sing and play. He got that from Mike. Dave invited me to a play George Grace had written that was being produced by Dave Goddard and his wife Stephanie at PeopleArt. That’s how I met Kim Cady and Mike Sheffield, at a house party a week or so later. I’m pretty sure that’s where I first met Mike. We all saw a lot of one another in those days, throughout the end of the 70’s and the early 80’s. We were young; we were poets and writers and actors and musicians, and there was a wonderful energy about it all. For all artists, finding a venue to ply their craft is a never ending, difficult pursuit. Back then, in the city anyway, there was little in the way of open-mikes and the bars and restaurants. In fact,there were at times had almost nothing at all. Since those days to the present, every musician whose path has crossed a local stage in Buffalo owes Mike Meldrum a debt of gratitude. The man was as tireless and driven as he was talented and generous. Age and level of skill meant little. Giving people the confidence and a place to perform was his calling and he answered it heroically. I never had many close days with Mike, as Mike Sheffield noted, few did. But I did spend time with him in the clubs, so of course there are stories. The following stands out. At the time of that house party I had a gig in the advertising department of Hengerer’s Department Store. I was asked to do some promotional productions. One was “Breakfast with Bunny,” wherein we had to entertain between 75 – 100 kids. I hired two actors to wear a bunny costume and a Raggedy Ann costume. I asked Dave Dunklin for help getting a musician and he immediately said,”Ask Mike Meldrum.” I caught up with Mike and hired him for the gig. Now, all I knew of Mike was the guy who played and sang and drank – a lot. I felt I was on shaky ground, because the show was at 10:00 am, but it turned out I couldn’t have found a better person for the gig. He knew dozens of children’s songs and a few Easter tunes to boot and he loved every minute of the show. Especially when the kids discovered kazoos in their gift bags and paraded around the breakfast room while Mike acted the pied piper with his Martin guitar, playing “Easter Bonnet” and the “Bull-frog Song.” That image and those sounds are forever in my memory. Here’s my favorite part of it though. For years, every time Mike introduced me to someone, he always and without fail told that story and expressed his gratitude for the work. I don’t think he made $50.00, but he never forgot it and always thanked me, many many times over, when in fact it was my good luck that he took the gig. You don’t find that in many people in any walk of life anymore. You’re welcome, Mike. You are so very welcome.

  • Glenn Wallace

    I am so sad that I was out of the country last week when Mike passed away but so thankful that I was able than see him the day before his passing.
    I am certainly more thankful that I met him in 1975 and knew him for so long. He was one of the first people I met in Buffalo when I moved here from Chicago that year.
    He was in 1975 just as all the others have written…. he has always been the same…. the most genuine, honest and real person there ever was. What you saw
    when you first met him was what you saw no matter how long you knew him.

    I often described Mike back then as a homeless person because where he was at the end of the night is where he spent the night. He had a
    toothbrush at my house (he owned a LOT of toothbrushes). Yet, he had the biggest home anyone has ever had…. Buffalo. Buffalo and all the
    people who knew or ever met Mike was where he lived and who he lived with. Every person he ever met was a friend. He had a wonderful home.

    When he met Diane he changed so dramatically. Yet, he didn’t change a bit. He just suddenly found what he had always been looking for and
    he was the most amazing husband and father I have ever seen. Same ole Mike, but it seemed he completed his life with love for a family
    while continuing to so freely give love for his many friends and of course his music.

    I have a lot of stories about Mike, and we played so many places together. No one has talked so many bar owners into having music in their bar
    as Mike has. No one has so genuinely played for the love of the music alone. There has never been anyone who would grab the microphone or just
    play a song anywhere, anytime…. yet always invite others to join him…. or give up the stage for others so he could hear them or help them succeed.

    A stage was where ever Mike was, a friend was whoever was next to him, home was where his music lived, and family was where his heart was.

    If there ever was a real “folk singer” Mike was it. He brought out the talent in everyone and he got people singing together. So many people
    say he loved music. Yes he did, but he loved people more. Mike played music for his love of people.

    I am certain that by now Mike has talked God into starting an open mic and there is a lot of folk singing going on… after 10 pm of course, and
    long into the morning. Mike is playing guitar while his one leg is dancing to the music. See you soon Mike. Glenn

  • Beautiful, Michael. So glad to find you, so damn wrong this way.

  • Patti Meyer-Lee

    Beautifully written Glenn. I remember you from those times, sometimes in the wee hours of a cold winter night, sitting around a circle sharing our music together. Michael was the glue that held it all together. His spirit will continue to inspire me to pick up my guitar after a long day’s work. I will always love him dearly.