Last Call

Nobody played the blues like Bobby Hornbuckle. Now he's living them to the end.

It's been eighteen months since Bobby Hornbuckle sat in the same muted yellow light that now filters through the windows of Ziggie's Saloon, talking about his battle with hepatitis and the lifestyle that had given him the disease. Heroin. Needles. Cocaine. Playing and living the blues.

"If you want to talk to me, you better get here before my liver falls out of my body," he had laughed.

In the spring of 1985, death was still a joke. By then, Bobby had survived the entire alphabet soup of hepatitis viruses, lived through drug overdoses, alcohol binges and jealous boyfriends. Nothing had killed him and, more important, nothing had killed his music.

That spring, Bobby was feeling healthy again for the first time in a long while. There was some meat on his frame; his face, with its long, thin nose, was as full as it had ever been. He blamed a certain forgetfulness on "going straight," as his brain adjusted to a lack of chemical additives--he'd been clean for a couple of months and attending Cocaine Anonymous meetings. His eyes were clear, happy.

Bobby was excited. The next night the Bob Hornbuckle Band was going to rise again at Ziggie's with his son Michael, then 15, on drums, and 22-year-old Brian on bass. And, of course, Bobby would be on lead guitar. It would be the last of his comebacks; this time, he'd regain his place as king of the Denver bluesmen and stay there. So what if he was going to have to borrow his guitar from a local cocaine dealer who had taken it in trade? Bobby knew...he was so damned sure...that it was going to be a good year.

"I can feel it," he'd said.
What he didn't know then was that the pain he was starting to feel in his kidney area meant that this might be his last year. Bobby Hornbuckle has inoperable cancer. Spreading as fast as Buddy Guy plays a blues riff. Deadlier than the deadly sins with which he is so well-acquainted.

It's now a Friday afternoon in early October, 1996. Bobby slouches sideways in the Ziggie's booth, his right leg propped up on the back of the bench because the tumor in his hip makes it too painful to sit any other way. "I even have to sleep like this," he says.

A week shy of his 45th birthday, Bobby's face clings to the bone, criss-crossed with more wrinkles than there are arroyos in a Mexican desert. His blue eyes burn either bright with pain or take on a vacant, far-off look when the morphine kicks in. A once-perfect smile is gone, having quite literally fallen out of his mouth from brawling and neglect. He looks old.

"Gawd, my mom's gonna kill me for forgettin' my dentures," he says, then laughs. He has not lost his sense of humor any more than he has his ability to play the guitar. Those will be with him until the end.

And the doctors say the end is near. After dodging so many bullets, one finally caught Bobby right between the eyes. His wish for "bluesy" experiences has been granted tenfold: You got to suffer if you want to sing the blues. Live fast...die young. Sooner or later, the litany becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bobby says he's going to Mexico. He has a sister down there who's already looking into medical treatments unavailable in the United States. He's going to suck in that clean ocean air and heal himself. Somewhere south of the border, he's sure, there's a beach where he can lay his battered body and soak up hot sun and cold cervezas while gathering energy for one more gig. Down there--maybe Mexico, maybe further on, in Costa Rica or South America--there's a bar thatched with palm fronds, where the air smells of salt, margaritas and maybe just a hint of marijuana.

A bar where the tanned patrons wear white, like sun-worshiping angels. Where the senors nod appreciatively at the honesty of this norteamericano music played strong and hard. And the senoritas look longingly at the guitar player who sings of lost loves and hard times as a man who has known them both.

Somewhere down there is an audience just aching for a bluesman to take them to a better place.

I was born in a dump,
mama died and my daddy got drunk.
Left me here to live or grow
in the middle of Tobacco Road.

--from "Tobacco Road," by the Easy Beats

Robert Brian Hornbuckle was born October 14, 1951, at St. Joseph's Hospital near downtown Denver. His town.

He was Jean's second son, the first by her husband, Robert Hornbuckle. She was a farmer's daughter whose father and mother loved their children and placed their family's well-being above their own. If there wasn't enough to eat, it was the parents who went hungry--never the kids.

In the Forties Jean's folks had given up the farm and moved to Brighton, where her father got a job as a policeman. He introduced her to Robert.

Robert was an ironworker and handsome as a movie star, with blue eyes, white teeth and muscles as hard as the metal he forged. When Jean moved to Idaho Springs for a job, he followed her, wooing her, promising to take care of her and her six-year-old son, Rick. They married in 1950; Bobby was born a year later. By then the honeymoon was over.

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