Mystery Man

Who is Ralph Gean, and why is he the latest hero of Denver's musical underground?

At the Lion's Lair during the waning hours of a Thursday in late August, the hipsters have gathered. Knots of musicians, fans and hangers-on cluster around the venue's bar, patting backs, exchanging gossip and otherwise epitomizing all that is fresh and modern and now about nightlife in the Nineties. In other words, they look nothing like the man they've come to see.

"I just got a request for a murder song," says Ralph Gean. As the crowd lets out a cheer, Gean, 53, offers an orthodontically suspect smile. He's wearing a gaudy Hawaiian shirt that disappears under the waistband of stretch pants that are belted around his considerable midsection, and his stoop-shouldered stance and non-threatening demeanor don't exactly cry out "rock intensity." But when Gean begins flailing away at an acoustic guitar so timeworn and flimsy that it threatens to snap in his hands, the effect is curiously riveting. And so, too, are his lyrics, which he croons in a deep, rich Texas baritone:

Homicidal me
The man you see
Yes I'm gonna be
On a killing spree
Underneath the moon
The full and shining moon
Homicidal me

As the Lair's patrons whoop, Gean bugs out his friendly, hangdog eyes and chuckles. The words to his ditty are dangerous, but its simple melody, which bespeaks the influence of early rockabilly, is almost impossibly jaunty. Soon, everyone in the joint, from dour poseurs to grimy derelicts taking a brief respite from the sights and sounds of East Colfax, are swaying along to the beat. By the final verse, Gean is practically leading a sing-along.

I need a thrill
A perfect kill
Carrie Lee or Jane
Or Jack and Jill
Anyone will do
A doctor, nurse or you
Homicidal me

Amid the applause that greets Gean's final chord, a young woman wearing a skintight black minidress and smoking a cigarette dangling from the tip of a lengthy holder greets three friends who've just entered the room. "Hurry up, hurry up," she urges them. "You've got to hear this guy. He's like nothing you've seen in your life!"

Just before the evening's engagement, Gean is holding court near the Lair's entrance when John Spencer, a stocky, middle-aged man with a soft handshake and a thousand-yard stare, pushes a pack of smokes to within an inch or two of his face. "Look at these," Spencer says in a quiet but edgy voice. "These are the best-priced cigarettes in town. The best."

"That's good, John," Gean replies gently. He backs up a step, then asks, "Are you sure you can't stay?"

"I can't stay," Spencer confirms. "I can't stay. I need to go and have a cigarette."

As Spencer rumbles into the night, Gean explains, "John is my friend, but he's also my line of work. When I first got to Denver back in 1987, a friend of mine spotted an ad in the paper looking for somebody to take care of a guy. I thought he might be an invalid, which was okay with me, since I worked as an orderly back in 1974. But it turned out to be John. And he's rich."

In fact, Spencer is the heir to a mining fortune. "It's probably in the millions," Gean guesses. However, Spencer has what Gean describes carefully as "some emotional problems"--and because of his condition, the money willed him by his parents at the time of their deaths was placed in a trust. The overseers of these funds subsequently decided that while Spencer was self-sufficient enough to live outside an institution, he still needed some supervision. Hence the hiring of Gean, who lives with Spencer in a condo on the east side of the metro area.

"All I have to do is make sure he doesn't get into trouble or accidentally hurt himself," Gean says. "And really, it's the easiest thing I've ever done in my life, since John is able to do just about everything for himself. He works at Bayaud Industries, and he spends every dime he makes on the Lotto. He's won a few hundred dollars that way, and when he wins, it makes him really happy--I don't think he has any idea how much money he really has. And they pay me to take him on vacations, too. We recently toured the sites of famous Western gunfights--I went to 204 different places, and John was with me for 186 of them. I'm telling you, this is the kind of job I've always dreamed about."

Actually, Gean's dreams more often revolve around music. With a few more breaks, he feels that he might have given Elvis Presley, whose recordings and memorabilia he avidly collects, a substantial amount of competition; as he states in the title of one of his typically eccentric numbers, "I'm What Would Have Been If What Is Hadn't Happened." But even if he hasn't yet reached his goals, Gean has lived an idiosyncratic life while shooting for them. He was a recording artist in the Sixties. He was a polygamous member of an outlawed Mormon group in the Seventies. He was a street musician living off the kindness of strangers in the Eighties. And in the Nineties, he's the latest favorite of the local music-scene intelligentsia, thanks to his ability to mix disparate covers (he does both "That's All Right" and "The Tide Is High") with his own exceedingly quirky compositions. "I don't know how I got here," Gean confesses, grinning, "but I'm glad to be where I'm at."

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