It's nearing eleven o'clock on Monday, Open Stage Blues night at the Atrium Bar and Grill. In the corner, five musicians -- mostly middle-aged white guys with borderline mullets and let's-get-down looks on their faces -- run through a clumsy reading of "Thunder and Lightning." After they finish, they pass the microphone to the only other person who seems to want it, a scruffy younger man sporting jailhouse tattoos and a Cleveland Indians jersey who launches into a funky, a cappella ballad that he appears to be making up on the spot.
It is both godawful and hard to ignore, although some of the dozen people in the audience do their best. They stir their drinks, admire the bar's collection of beer signs, cross their legs. Oblivious, the guy sings on.
At a small table to the right of the stage, Philip Hamon III sits grinning like an eight-year-old, digging it. He taps his foot to an imperceptible beat. He sways slightly from side to side. When, at last, the song reaches its end, Hamon claps -- vigorously.
"Hey, that guy was pretty good!" he says.
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A minute or two later, the blues band returns to the stage and kicks into a familiar funk riff. A big, fat bass thumps while the vocalist barks out little words like "Hey!" and "Ow!" As Hamon recognizes the tune, he is suddenly overcome with glee.
"You've got to come see my special 'Brick House' lights," he says, standing up and moving behind a large and unruly lighting rig -- a mass of wire and metal, shelving parts, hose clamps, colored gels, scoop lights and lots of tin -- that he starts to manipulate through a series of manual switches. It's an unsophisticated but functional bit of circuitry that Hamon designed and built himself about six years ago; on the side of the metallic box that houses the switchboard are carefully lined words in capital letters: PHIL THE DENVER FAN. LIGHT SHOWS OF AMERICA. A moment later, the stage pulses with primary colors. When the band reaches the song's chorus ("She's naugh-ty, naughty! Ow!"), the lights flicker in imperfect time with its rhythm. The guitarist steps forward to take a solo, and he is awash in a haze of blue halogen; the drummer takes a turn, framed by green.
"A lot of light men around town, they just pick one color and leave it on. But I figure, if you're going to do it at all, you may as well make it look great," Hamon says. "Usually, if it's a slow song, I don't do the flashing. But if it's a rocking song, I flash real fast. I do the light shows for the bands, to help them look good. So I do the light show however they like it."
Many of the bands that regularly toil in venues such as Herman's Hideaway, Cricket on the Hill and Seven South have done so beneath the flashing glow of Hamon's handmade rig. These days, Phil the Fan has more gigs in a week than many working musicians see in a month, sometimes lighting up to fifteen bands. And though he's never studied or played music -- beyond the rudimentary piano lessons that many American children are subjected to at one point or another -- Hamon is one of the most recognizable, enduring and unlikely fixtures in local music.
"Some musicians have told me that I'm kind of like an extra member of the band," Hamon says. "But me and the soundman, we're just production people. It's the band that's the star. I know that I am a good light man. But I only do it because I like to have fun, and I love the bands and the music."
He takes a big swig of Diet Coke and thinks things over.
"What it comes down to is that I'm just a party guy," he says. "I've got rock and roll running through my blood."
Phil the Fan opens a door into the nondescript hallway of a Pennsylvania Street condominium complex. "Welcome to the best apartment in Denver," he says. About three steps inside Hamon's lair, his boast is borne out: This is the kind of kitschy environment that neighboring Capitol Hill hipsters try to cultivate through years of thrift-store shopping. Skeletons leer from window moldings and hang from beams. Jeweled sombreros and baseball caps line the kitchen cupboards. A sign in the center of the living room invites visitors to Party Naked. In one corner, a structure made of wood and colored yarn stands higher than a sixth-grade boy -- naively rendered, but intricate, artful.
If rock and roll isn't actually running through Phil the Fan's blood, it's definitely sharing his apartment. For more than twenty years, Hamon, now 48, has watched the local rock scene, an amorphous culture whose only real constant is change. He's seen bands come and go as precisely and predictably as fashion; nightclubs open only to be razed to make room for parking garages and sports bars; entire genres fade from memory like so many drunken, stageside conversations. He was a regular at now long-gone places like the Rainbow Music Hall, Bamboo Gardens, the Broadway and Quigley's; he was a fan of phantom punk and heavy-metal groups such as the Rok Tots, Helen Killer, Mau Mau 55 and Madhouse. From a distance, he's observed promoters and politics. ("Back then," he remembers, "it was hard to put on those fun shows because Barry Fey would find a way to shut everything down. If he was still around, I wouldn't be able to do my light show, that's for sure.") And along the way, he's collected a few souvenirs.
In his closet, which holds several hundred band T-shirts given to him by area musicians over the years, Hamon also stashes a collection of vinyl recordings that rivals that of many local record stores. Pristinely preserved in plastic, they remain largely untouched, arranged alphabetically with cardboard letters separating one group from the next. While many of the titles are of more well-known national punk acts like the Butthole Surfers and the Dead Kennedys, the majority are seven- and twelve-inch releases from local acts, many dating back to the mid-'70s.
"I hardly ever play any of them," Hamon says. "I just like to keep them so I can look at them and remember the bands that made them. I listen mostly to the CDs and tapes that people give me. I put those on real loud, I turn it up, and I dance like a skeleton."
Hundreds of posters of local bands overlap on the walls of Hamon's apartment; they compete for space with photographs of Hamon smiling, embraced by Denver musicians past and present. "Ooh hoo, if you look around, you can see me with Maggie Jack and Rainbow Sugar and Brethren Fast," he says. "I know all the bands. Some of these pictures were taken in the '80s, back when I had a Mohawk and wore punk suspenders. And there," he continues, rolling up onto the balls of his feet as if to emphasize the supreme coolness of the next exhibit, "is me with my favorite band in the entire world."
It is a photograph of Hamon and Dear Marsha, the acoustic-driven rock act led by vocalist Raina Ayres and guitarist Wendy Clay. "I love it when [Clay] gets up on the table and plays her guitar," Hamon says. "She's very talented and very good-lookin'." Taking a close look at the photo, he notices that Clay, who is standing with her arms around his neck, has a genuine grin on her face. His own smile widens slyly. "She always told me she likes the way I do the light show. I wonder if maybe she likes me a little bit. Girls always like light men and magicians."
Many of the posters have been customized to reflect Hamon's feelings about the artists they depict. They are colored with Magic Markers, doused in glitter, covered with stickers and laminated. Of the more current pieces, Hamon is proudest of a large flier announcing a recent gig by Tequila Mockingbird at Cricket on the Hill: Around the flier's perimeter, he has fashioned the band's name in multicolored yarn, spelling out each and every one of the eighteen letters. What started as a simple black-and-white Xerox of a gig flier is now a multi-media collage, a folk-art assemblage of pop culture and history.
"I always see people throwing away fliers, throwing away posters, and it's like, someone has to keep track of this stuff," he says. "I figured, well, I'm already Phil the Fan, so it might as well be me. I think if you like something, if you can do something, you should show it. I always watched people make art with their music, and I realized I could do it, too, with my posters. I never get bored. And when people see my posters and they see my light show, they realize that maybe I can do something."
For most of his life, Hamon has been proving that maybe he can do some things.
He was born with a developmental disability that manifests itself most prominently in his below-average intellect and a diminished range of cognitive abilities. He is articulate, but it is clear to even the most casual listener that he is also different, the kind of person that elementary-school children are encouraged to think of as special, not weird or, worse, retarded. The son of a homemaker and a retired postal worker, he has always been somewhat dependent on the people around him. Yet he has never relied on "the system." He attended public schools, owns and maintains his own apartment, and travels by bike and bus. For the most part, Hamon controls the money he's earned from his job at the University of Denver, where he was hired as a custodian in the facilities-management department back in 1978. That was twelve years before the Americans With Disabilities Act -- which criminalized discriminating against employees on the basis of mental or physical disability and required that disabled employees be accommodated in the workplace -- was signed into law in July 1990.
Tony Sears is an advocate with the Denver office of the Association for Retarded Citizens, a nationwide nonprofit that helps disabled people obtain housing and employment, monitors ADA implementation and provides general support for clients. Hamon has been involved with ARC for nearly fifteen years -- he comes and goes of his own volition, and sometimes even provides lighting and entertainment for the group's annual picnics. Sears, who became Hamon's advocate this year, says he demonstrates a self-reliance that's uncommon among ARC clients.
"About 95 percent of the people we work with have a certain dependence on the system," he says. "Many are employed in programs and workshops that have been created specifically to provide work for them. As far as I can tell, Philip has always managed to provide for himself, with the help of natural supports like his family and friends, of which he has many.
"Philip is very much his own man and, in many ways, I think he has a much happier life than the average person," he adds. "He has his hobbies that he pursues and is passionate about. He is generally well-liked, and he likes himself, which I think is a fine formula for living."
Hamon, who exhibits a relatively keen insight regarding his limitations, says he considers himself a role model for other people with disabilities, including his sister. "I know that I can do things even if other people don't," he points out. "And I know that disabled people can do things even if they don't. Normal people have stuff they know they have to work on, things that make them not perfect. It's no different with me. Sometimes it takes a while for me to understand things, and I can get angry when I don't understand. But once I get it, I get it. I think that's why I like musicians. They're kind people, and most of them take the time to tell me how to do things.
"Sometimes my dad tells me to quit thinking about music because I'll never make it," he adds. "He says I care more about music and the light show than I do about my job."
Hamon's father, of course, is pretty much right.
"Some people don't like music, and maybe I can understand that. But not everybody has got to be a workaholic," Phil the Fan says. "My job during the day ain't all I do in life. I don't want to live that place. Some people in this world, they get up, go to work, go home, watch TV, go to bed, wake up, go to work. They don't understand that other people have some other life that's full of art and music and things that make them actually feel good about themselves. It's like, well, maybe you should try it."
These days, Hamon has much more time to concentrate on other parts of life. Since late July, he's been on paid leave from his job at DU while Sears, representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, of which Hamon has been a dues-paying member for more than twenty years, and the university's human-resources department finalize the details of a disability retirement package that will allow -- and require -- Hamon to leave his job for good.
Over the past couple of years, Hamon's relationship with his employers has grown increasingly strained. He's had outbursts at work, yelled at his supervisors, been disciplined, even suspended. This past summer, his supervisors devised a plan to transfer him out of the day shift to a graveyard slot, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. In a letter dated July 27, DU's custodial director, Alfredo Abad, cited Hamon's "continued verbal abuse toward others and inability to work with others during the day shift" as the reason for the proposed transfer. But after Hamon's doctor notified the university that Hamon could not work the shift for health reasons, DU started talking retirement.
Yet according to Hamon and some of his supporters, his frustrations with his job -- and occasional bad behavior displayed while working -- were symptoms of a larger problem: what they perceive to be DU's inability to accommodate Hamon's special physical, mental and emotional needs. So while Hamon and Sears agree that the numbers in the current package proposal are fair, Hamon can't shake the feeling that his employers have opted to simply get rid of him rather than deal with him.
"They have always treated me like they don't want me around," he says. "Sometimes I think they don't even want to see disabled people, they don't want the students to see us. They yell at me all the time, but if I yell back, I get in trouble, get written up. No matter how good I do my job, it is never good enough."
Michael Glassey spent nearly nine years working alongside Hamon, and although he acknowledges that Hamon could be a challenge to work with at times, the two developed a friendship that continues today; Glassey even helped Hamon produce a book that explains the operations of his light rig. Glassey left the facilities-management department in 1995 to take a job as a dispatcher with the DU campus police, but he still remembers how Hamon's supervisors often neglected to acknowledge that he might need special instruction when new tasks were introduced.
"There was a demonstration given once on the proper way to clean a large room," Glassey remembers. "But the demonstration was given very quickly, in this tiny little cubicle. The man was using both of his hands, talking very, very quickly. There were twelve or fifteen people gathered around, and no one would let Philip come up to the front to see. After it was over, we were all expected to just know what this guy had done and to start doing it.
"I think if they had explained it to him properly, a little more slowly, he would have been impressed. He would have wanted to do it himself, as well as they had done it. But the way it turned out, he got frustrated and confused. They knew this, and they did nothing. So then it seemed like he just stopped trying."
"Philip is very aware when he is being made to feel unwanted, or like he is in the way, or in any way burdensome. He's very sensitive to it," says Sears. "I think there has always been a question of whether or not DU was really making an effort to accommodate that sensitivity in any meaningful way."
(In a letter to Westword, Shannon Winckel, DU's associate director of human resources, declined to comment on Hamon, citing a policy that protects "the confidentiality of employees who have complaints or who are seeking general information about discrimination; because this case involves personnel issues, it would be inappropriate to provide details of his specific case or to speculate about outcomes." Winckel also quoted from the school's policy on discrimination: "University of Denver is committed to providing employment and educational opportunities for all people, and does not discriminate on the basis of disability status.")
Despite some residual hard feelings, Hamon knows his pending retirement has its bright side. In fact, he's more than ready to give up his day job and pursue his art full-time.
"I have always dreamed of doing my light show professionally," Hamon says. "I'd like to do lights at the Pepsi Center or Red Rocks. Or the Magness Center. Maybe the next time I go to work at DU, I'll be working as their light man."
When Philip Hamon first started doing light shows regularly, he pushed his light rig from gig to gig in a shopping cart -- sometimes through snow.
"He'd show up with that light set, that strange, almost prehistoric thing, and he'd set up and be ready to go before the band was," recalls David Menio, drummer for Willie and the Po' Boys, a blues-and-soul band that adopted Hamon as an unofficial member five years ago. These days, Po' Boys frontman Willie Rencher usually gives Hamon a ride to and from Tubby's All-American Bar & Grill, the Aurora venue where Hamon and the Boys play about four times a month.
Sometimes Hamon signs on for slightly more unorthodox jobs. "We had a gig at the Mountain Aire Ranch in March, which is this nudist resort that's been there for like sixty years," Menio says. "It's like another planet. It's like Mars. Philip went with us, and he was kind of shy and embarrassed about it at first. After a while, he was shining his lights on the band and shining them on all these topless women. I think in the end he even had his shirt off. That was very Phil, too, you know. He just loves music so much, he'll do anything to be a part of it. If he's not with us, he's at some other club. The guy is constantly keeping me up to date on what's going on with local music, because I've kind of lost interest in keeping track over the years.
"He's just amazing, one in a million," Menio adds. "He's kind of a legend, in a way, an American institution. The last of the light men. The last of the real believers."