The first half of this year has been a brutal one for our musical icons.
David Bowie died early in January, a canary in a coal mine for a string of deaths that's been particularly tough to take—Prince and Phife Dawg, Tony Conrad and Merle Haggard, all gone before the start of summer.
Last week, though, marked the first time a musician's death put me on my knees in my own office late at night, my head crammed inside the dark recesses of a crowded cabinet. I was looking for a pair of albums by Ticonderoga, a trio of old pals who moved from Iowa to North Carolina more than a decade ago. Wes Phillips, that band's bassist and one of the most remarkable musicians I've ever encountered, had died earlier that day. I had to hear him play.
Wes arrived in Raleigh with Phil Moore and Mark Paulson, looking to start a new band and join what they considered a fabled scene. Lucky us: I remember the band's first show, and marveling, even from the start, at their singular vision of collective ambition. They swapped instruments between (during, even?) songs and split vocals in a way that suggested all three members shared the same breath. They pulled loose indie rock skin over a fragile jazz skeleton, and they always seemed aspirational, turning intimate ideas into intricate anthems. The seams could show, but Ticonderoga was always punching up.
Ticonderoga didn't last long, breaking up around the time it released its second album. But the spark from the flame lasted: Moore started Bowerbirds, and I loved his voice so much I launched a record label with my own best bud to share those songs. Paulson became a Bowerbird, played with an array of other acts, and engineered some remarkable records in his restored Raleigh home. Wes—whose magnetic smile always seemed to be conquering some unspoken sadness—became the musician people called when they needed better bass. For much of the last decade, he bounced between North Carolina and Iowa, working to master his own prodigious talent. We'd communicated sporadically online, and I'd always expected big news, not this.
In the last week, I've revisited his old recordings, from solo songs to albums where he was a guest. Mostly, though, I've coveted the spray-painted CD-Rs Ticonderoga famously passed out at each of its shows and the pair of albums it issued in quick succession in 2005.
Hearing them for the first time in a decade, and reading what I wrote so long ago, I now recognize that trio's effect on me and how, in the right context, little-known bands can have the greatest impacts. I was finishing college, but Ticonderoga continued to teach me. They made me stretch my musical references. They made me listen and watch in new ways. They helped me see that, sometimes, success only stems from failure.
I would have liked to thank Wes for those lessons. But I realized them too late, just after retrieving a stack of CDs on the heels of awful news out of Iowa.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Signal Received"