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.
Robert was okay when he was sober. Unfortunately, that wasn't often. And it was music, Jean suspects, that pushed him down the road to alcoholism. When he was young, Robert had told his parents he wanted to be a musician. There was no money in it, they replied; music was a waste of time.
A modestly talented guitar player whose tastes ranged from honky-tonk to the blues, the adult Robert wrote songs and occasionally played in local bars. "He loved music," Jean recalls. "And he was good, but he never worked very hard at it. His parents had succeeded in discouraging him. I think he ended up going against his grain, being an ironworker and all, and that's what made him so bitter."
Jean lives in a small brick home in Northglenn that smells of strong coffee and her second son's stale cigarettes. The tiny living room holds an eclectic collection--landscape paintings, a stuffed pheasant, an Indian prayer wheel, Jesus likenesses everywhere. But what really catches the eye are three large black-and-white photographs high on the wall above the couch. They are studio shots of Jean's eight children--six boys and two girls--taken sometime in the early Sixties.
"In my day, we didn't have the ability not to have a child," says Jean, sitting down at her kitchen table. "You took the children God sent and you loved and took care of them the best you could."
As she talks, the sound of an unamplified guitar drifts from a back bedroom. Bobby has come home because of his illness. Jean loves having him near, where she can fuss over him and make sure he is taking care of himself, even though his presence is a constant reminder that death is close by.
"Robert was not father material," she continues. "I think he wanted to be; he'd make little efforts. But he didn't know how. His own parents had always been too busy trying to get ahead, and his father physically abused him. He'd try, but nothing would last. What he really wanted to do was play music and party with his buddies."
The only thing Robert Hornbuckle loved more than a bottle of Jim Beam was himself. He worked hard and played harder--drinking, gambling away every cent he made, carousing with other women, coming home long enough to father another child and abuse his young wife and growing family.
"I even asked him one time, 'I don't understand, my father always put his children first, how can you be this way?'" Jean recalls. "He said, 'I come first, and you may as well know it.'
"His mother would back him up. Of course, she couldn't blame her own child...so it must have been the person he married."
Jean scrambled to feed and clothe her children. She endured Robert's cruel words and occasional slaps in the hope that someday he'd see the error of his ways. And he paid so little attention to his children that she was thrilled when he started taking three-year-old Bobby on excursions. "It was a time to be with his daddy," she recalls. "And Bobby seemed to enjoy the outings."
Bobby was as sweet and sensitive as his father was mean and capricious. The boy was also bright, Jean says, talking at six months and singing at fifteen. By the time he was two years old, he had perfect pitch and was memorizing the words to songs. "His dad said, 'This kid's got it.' He bought him a little guitar."
Jean says she didn't know her husband was taking Bobby to local pubs, where he'd stand him up on top of the bars to sing. The patrons would buy Robert drinks and toss quarters at the kid, who also got to eat all the "bar food"--pretzels, potato chips and soda pop--his belly could hold. She began to get suspicious when father and son would return home, the former staggering drunk and the latter sick to his stomach, but she didn't want to interfere with the father-son bonding.
"It was my mother-in-law who finally told me what they were doing, and I put a stop to it. Bobby wasn't too happy when I did."
Jean looks out the kitchen window. Dead leaves whip by in the wind. A bitter winter waits just ahead. In a bedroom, a guitar weeps the blues. She sighs. "Even then, he knew what he wanted to do."
It seems so hard to bear,
when I wake and you're not there.
All my life I've always been so blue.
Born to lose, and now I'm losin' you.
--from "Born to Lose," by Ray Charles
Bobby's earliest memories are of a guitar--"a Sears with Mickey Mouse on the front"--and singing at the bars. Father and son were often accompanied by Bobby's aunt, who also reaped the rewards for her nephew's talents.
"My dad'd stand me up on the bar," Bobby remembers, "and I'd sing, 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?' and 'California Here I Come,' whatever was popular at the time. Patti Page. Hank Snow. Chet Atkins. I have a pretty good ear and could remember most of the lines if I heard them once on the jukebox."
There aren't many good memories of his father. "I sang for the joy of it, not him," Bobby recalls. "My favorite memories of music in those days was sitting on the kitchen counter, singing along with the radio and my mother as she made dinner."
One of Bobby's hands curls around a bottle of beer, the other holds a cigarette. He takes a drag and sends a perfect smoke ring into the air, where it hovers like a ghost. He answers a questioning look at the cigarette with a shrug. "I tried to give them up after the last time I was in the hospital," he says. "It was too hard, and I figured, 'What the hell for?' They're not what's gonna kill me."
He takes another drag and looks over at the bar as if he can see that little boy in cowboy hat and boots, singing at the top of his lungs against a backdrop of liquor bottles. His father had taken him to workingmen's bars not unlike Ziggie's, with its battered furniture and peeling paint. The men there were big, tough and loud, but they'd quiet down to hear the boy sing.
Robert was as loud and tough as any of them. "He liked to hit," Bobby says. "I saw his nose get broken more times than I could count, duking it out with some other drunk. He actually enjoyed bar fights. And he beat me plenty."
Bobby was five before his grandmother figured out what her son and daughter were doing with her grandson. The excursions ended--but not before Bobby had gained a taste for the spotlight.
"It was a gas. I loved it," he says, stabbing out his cigarette and immediately reaching for another. "I was the center of attention. I got all the candy I could eat and a pocketful of quarters. I guess that was the first profit I ever got as a musician."
He smiles. "I'd come home jazzed up on eight pounds of candy and throw up all over the place. My dad would be shitfaced. When my mom put a stop to taking me to bars, I missed it."
Another smoke ring floats off. Bob's voice, gravelly as a river bottom after decades of cigarettes, booze and belting out the blues, grows huskier still. "Everybody there treated me good...even my dad."
Tell mama and all the folks back home,
sometimes a man just feels
he's got to make it alone.
Tell mama why I be leavin' so soon,
because this life I lead has got me sick
through and through.
--from "Tell Mama," by Kim Simmonds/ Paul Raymond
The phone rings. Jean Hornbuckle listens for a minute, then thanks the caller and hangs up. "Michael!" she yells toward the back bedroom. "Tell your dad they're gonna play something for him on KIMN for his birthday. Turn on the radio!"
She returns to the kitchen table with tears in her eyes. "Oh, it's just one of those people from Ziggie's," Jean explains. "She means well, but they won't leave him alone. He gets depressed when he goes to those places anymore, sees the same people, none of them going anywhere."
Jean got her fill of barflies years ago, when she'd go pick up a husband too drunk to make it home on his own. "Over the years I'd see people I knew back when they were younger," she says. "It was sad to watch them degenerate. Their looks would go and their minds, then there'd be nothin' left, just a wasted life."
Bobby was his father's favorite, Jean says, "probably because of his talent. I think the old man saw that good part of himself in his son...though sometimes it just made him angrier." Floyd, the child born after Bobby, got the worst of his father's abuse, "probably because he looked like the old man, big and husky. I used to feed Floyd his lunch and dinner early so he wouldn't have to sit at the table and have his dad go off on him.
"I should have left him sooner," she says, "but I was sure I could change him." She laughs bitterly. "Of course, I was only wasting my time...and his."
When Rick got old enough, Jean urged him to leave home, promising to do the same with the other children when she got the chance. With his older brother gone, many of the responsibilities as the man of the house fell on Bobby's thin shoulders. He remained a sweet, sensitive boy, volunteering to help his mother with the babies and cleaning while she tried to find odd jobs to help them get by.
He was a good student, ahead of his classmates. When he was in the fourth grade, Jean found a complete law-library set at a garage sale that she purchased for herself on a whim. A few days later, Bobby surprised her by saying he found case law interesting reading.
Although a straight-A student, Bobby wasn't just a bookworm. He would eventually captain his elementary school basketball and gymnastics teams, and he later taught himself to play a mean game of tennis.
But his first love remained music. His brother Rick bought him a trumpet, which he played for the school band. He also learned to play the piano and French horn, although his favorite was the guitar. It seemed to his mother that Bobby only had to look at an instrument to know how to make it respond.
"Music was his quiet time," she says. "Pretty much the only time he had to himself, where he could withdraw from everything else that was going on. He'd spend hour after hour practicing without being told."
Eventually, having to be the man of the house wore Bobby down. He approached his mother one day and said, "I know this has to be hard on you, but I'm just a little kid."
Jean looked at her son. He was only ten years old but looked older and tired. He had so little time to just be a boy. She nodded and said, "You run along and play with your friends." As she watched his too-thin body skipping down the block, she made up her mind to leave her husband as soon as winter had passed.
It was easy to think about, hard to accomplish. Robert had moved his family to a rural part of Adams County. The family car had been repossessed, and Jean and her children were essentially stuck. Even if they did manage to escape, Jean was afraid of her husband, afraid he might track the family down--and God only knew what he'd do then.
That February was particularly cold and cruel. Robert hadn't maintained the boiler, and they had no heat--not that he minded, since he was gone most of the time. The electric bills hadn't been paid, either, so there were no lights or running water.
Jean hauled in water from a pond--chopping through the ice every morning--to use for drinking and washing clothes, including diapers for two. "Thank God we had an outside toilet," she says.
The family ate by candlelight. In a vain attempt to keep her children warm, Jean moved all the beds, including her own, into the living room and arranged them in front of the fireplace. In the morning she'd heat a pan of water over the coals so that the kids could wash themselves before school.
One morning Bobby was sitting by the fireplace, washing, when he asked her, "Can't you see what's happening here?"
Jean nodded and hung her head. The baby was severely malnourished, and the rest of the kids weren't much better off. She could see their breath in the cold air. Something bad was going to happen if she didn't act. "I promise," she told Bobby. "When spring comes, we're leavin'."
Bobby looked long and hard at her. "You sure? Because this is impossible."
"I'm sure, Bobby," she replied. "I promise."
Come spring, Jean kept her promise. When her husband and his drunk friends left the house one day, she gathered her kids and "borrowed" a pickup truck that had been left behind by one of the revelers, taking only her brood and their clothing.
But Robert was the only problem she left behind. The next few years were tough, and the family went on welfare. Still, there was no way Jean was going back to her husband.
When Robert tracked her down, he found a woman ready to fight for herself and her children. Surprised, he could only make a lame argument: "You can't raise these kids alone."
"We've been through this before," she replied. "I can't save you, but I'm gonna save them."
It was brave talk for a woman whose family's fight for survival was as fragile as a baby's breath. That point was made soon after they moved to Denver, when Jean broke her foot and ended up in the hospital.
She left some money and Bobby in charge of keeping his brothers and sisters safe and fed. He was doing just that when his aunt came by one day, took the money with the promise of shopping for food, and never returned.
Afraid that social workers would hear about their plight and break up the family, Bobby walked down to Broadway and started shining shoes to earn money. After a long day, he'd buy tortillas and milk to take home to his siblings. But a neighbor eventually called the social workers, and the younger children were sent to live with friends. Bobby stayed behind to help his mother, who came home with a cast up to her hip.
Bobby always had a heart, Jean says, recalling one day when she took her kids to a barber college for cheap haircuts. A number of bums and derelicts were hanging around the school, and as her other children stared, Jean cautioned them, "Don't ever say anything bad about those people...each and every one of them belonged to somebody once in their life. They were somebody's child, and somebody loved them.
"Bobby was one kid you never had to remind of that," she says. "He understood that naturally."
Sitting in her kitchen thirty years later, Jean pauses and listens for the guitar in the back bedroom. As long as it keeps playing, she knows Bobby's okay.
Jean got her family back and, over time, life improved. The kids went to school regularly, and the pain of the days with their father faded. But it was too late for Bobby. By the seventh grade, Jean could no longer get him to go to school. If she tried, he simply walked away when her back was turned.
When he was fourteen, Bobby took off with some friends for Nevada. Jean hadn't heard from him in weeks when she finally received a letter. "He missed the closeness of the family and was sorry he had worried me," she recalls. "I have many letters over the years from him like that. He loved his family, and no matter what else was going wrong in his life, he wanted me to know that."
But by now, the only thing that interested him was music--and everything that went with it. Bobby earned his chops playing with older boys in neighborhood garage bands--The Ventures, Beach Boys, Elvis. They put up with him because he could sing and because he could hang with any of them when it came to banging a guitar. But with the music came experimentation with drugs--marijuana, LSD, mescaline. Jean knew that Bobby was using drugs, and not just marijuana. He seemed to be walking into the same trap that had captured his father.
When Bobby was fifteen, Jean and Rick offered to pay his way at community college. "You have a great mind, Bobby," she told him. "Don't waste it."
Bobby reluctantly agreed to go. He had a hard time saying no to his mother, and Rick was one of the few positive male role models he'd ever had in his life. He hoped to find courses in musical composition, but the school didn't offer any. Instead, he signed up for the standard fare: political science, English lit, history.
For eight weeks, it looked like Bobby had found something other than music to occupy his mind. His papers all came back with A's. But one day he walked into the house and slammed his books on the table. "You and Rick are just wasting your money and my time," he told his mother. "I'm a musician, and that's all I want to be."
In the years since, Jean has often wondered if there was anything else she could have done to save her son. Should she have discouraged the music more forcefully? "But I don't think I could have stopped him," she says. "Not without doing to him what happened to my husband."
Jean no longer bears a grudge toward Robert, who until recently lived in a veterans' hospital near Rifle. When he suffered a stroke in 1989 at the age of 71, he lost the use of his right arm and right leg. "He couldn't play the guitar anymore," she says. "I think he probably paid in full for everything the moment the stroke knocked him to the floor."
Surprisingly, of all their children, it was Floyd, his father's scapegoat, who went to live near his dad and recently took him into his home. "He told me that he had to forgive him so that he could go on with his life," Jean says.
"It was Floyd who told him what had happened to Bobby. Floyd said, 'Dad, Bobby has cancer, and it's bad.'
"The old man was eating at the time, but he pushed himself away from the table. Then he started crying...Bobby was always his favorite."
If the river was whiskey,
I'd be a divin' duck.
If the river was whiskey,
I'd be a divin' duck.
Goin' to swim to the bottom,
drink myself back up.
--from "Louisiana Blues," by Muddy Waters
By the time he was sixteen, Bobby was playing lead guitar for bands that had graduated from the garage to 3.2 beer joints. He already had a reputation as a gifted guitar player, but something was missing.
Then, appropriately enough, he was introduced to the blues, the "real" blues, the same afternoon he first tried heroin. Sixteen, "maybe seventeen," he was jamming with a friend when the other boy brought out some "stuff" he'd picked up in California. Heroin.
Bobby's friend was the son of a famous Hollywood plastic surgeon and had been in trouble with the law out there for drug possession. Daddy had come to the rescue and worked out a deal: probation, provided his son relocate to another state and attend college. The boy was rich, spoiled, well-traveled and had an extensive collection of the blues.
As Bobby felt the sweet dreaminess of the opiate course through his veins and invade his mind, his friend played albums. The Reverend Gary Davis. Muddy Waters. Willie Dixon.
What was this? Bobby was hip to the Stones, Eric Clapton, even John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, but this was better. The music was eloquently simple. The words spoke of hard times and good times, of love and heartbreak, of hitting rock bottom and picking yourself up and moving on. It was a music of raw, honest emotions, emotions he knew from experience.
For the rest of his life, heroin and cocaine and alcohol would come and go. There would be stark days of desperate cravings when he would give up all he had--his guitars, his health, the one woman who might have saved him--for his highs. Then he might clean up and stay sober for months. But sober or stoned, the blues would keep calling to him like a lover in the night. They were the ultimate high, better than heroin, better even than sex.
Bobby studied his new love, learning its intimate subtleties. But he knew he wasn't going to play the blues in Denver and manage to eat or pay the rent.
In those days, Bobby still dreamed of hitting the big time--playing the best clubs, getting a recording contract, going on tour. He wanted the spotlight and all that went with it--the money, the women, the notoriety, the approval from strangers that he never got from the man who first taught him how to hold a guitar.
"I'd slide in one or two blues tunes a set," he recalls. "The bands would indulge me. But mostly, it was Top 40."
When he was nineteen, Bobby's band was looking for a female singer. In walked the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. He went home and told his mother that he planned to marry her. They were to live happily ever after...
The lines in Bobby's face seem to grow deeper as he recalls the first time he met Cathy. There have been plenty of women in his life, although he's always joked that without his guitar, none of them would have given him a second glance. But no one but Cathy would ever rival the music for his love.
"I once tried to write a song about Cathy," he says. "I couldn't do her justice. In my opinion, most women aren't worth the ink it takes to write a song. But Cathy, now there was a woman who could give you the blues."
Bobby suddenly announces that the pain in his hip is returning. "I need another shot of morphine," he says. He stands and staggers momentarily to the side, reaching out to catch a post. He straightens and, with his worn cowboy boots clumping slowly across the wooden floor, heads for the bar to bum another cigarette.
I can turn a gray sky blue.
I can make it rain when I want it to.
I can build a castle
from a single grain of sand.
I can make a ship sail on the dry land.
How happy am I
with all the powers I possess?
When you got the key to my happiness,
And I can't get next to you, babe.
I can't get next to you.
--from "I Can't Get Next to You,"
by Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong
Cathy, too, was nineteen years old and loved music when she met Bobby, but there the similarities ended. She was a classically trained music major, studying opera at Colorado State University. She came from a "normal" background. Her great-grandfather had been the mayor of Des Moines and had built the hospital where she was born into a middle-class family straight out of Father Knows Best.
When Cathy was ten years old, the family moved to Littleton. Her father worked, and her mother stayed home to take care of the kids.
Cathy was working part-time as a dental assistant during her summer break between freshman and sophomore years when she saw the "Help Wanted" advertisement. "Rock and roll band needs singer." It was 1970, and with visions of Grace Slick and Janis Joplin dancing in her head, she applied.
She auditioned wearing a neck brace--she'd been in a car wreck. But otherwise, she did her best to look the part of a rock-and-roll singer. Her straight dark hair hung to her hips, and a satin blouse showed off her cute figure.
The band consisted of a drummer, a female bass player and a guitar player named Bobby Hornbuckle. Cathy's voice wasn't made for rock and roll, but the band hired her on the spot. "Mostly because they could actually hear me over their lousy sound system," she recalls, laughing. "They needed someone who could project, and I could project."
Now Cathy opens a photo album. The first picture is a black-and-white print of a rock-and-roll band: a drummer, a female bass player and, middle-stage, a skinny boy with shoulder-length hair and a guitar.
She thought the guitar player was "pretty," with his beautiful blue eyes and perfect white teeth. He was thin, but not painfully so, and so shy and quiet--which drew her to him. With all her training, she immediately recognized that this was a truly talented musician. "Gifted," she says.
They fell in love. He was gentle and romantic, and there was nothing he wouldn't do for her. She heard about his childhood and wondered how he had turned out as nice as he had. She was impressed that he still looked after his younger brothers and sisters, taking them on outings to the museum and the park.
Soon it was Cathy he was taking on those outings. He'd tell her about his dreams of making it big in music; she'd talk about her ambition to sing at the Met. His siblings complained to their mother that Cathy had "stolen" Bobby from them, but they loved her, too, because she made him happy.
When Cathy married Bobby that year, her brief career as a rock singer was over. (Today, her sons jokingly imitate her attempts as Beverly Sills trying to do Mick Jagger.) She also put college on hold, going to work full-time at the dentist's office to support the two of them.
The rock-and-roll life wasn't easy on their marriage. Bobby sometimes drank too much and smoked too much pot, and she didn't like the way girls threw themselves at him. But it was hard to voice her concerns. After all, her generation expected a certain wildness in its musicians, and she hadn't been above experimenting with drugs, either. She thought she just had to trust Bobby to make the right choices, and eventually he'd grow out of it.
But there was evidence early on that Bobby was not capable of making those choices. Bobby had told her he'd tried and enjoyed heroin as a teenager and would try it again if available. When a friend showed up from Vietnam with a bag of heroin, he and his girlfriend and Bobby started smoking the drug. Cathy didn't know what to do, so she left the room.
"At least they weren't injecting it," Cathy remembers. "But I still went to bed mad that they would bring that stuff into my house."
The heroin gave out after a few days. Cathy was relieved that it was gone and even more relieved when Bobby made no immediate attempts to replace it. But drugs were slowly carving out a bigger place in Bobby's life. Once he was arrested for allowing a drug-dealer friend to use their home to meet with a customer who turned out to be a federal drug agent. "We were naive," Cathy says. "We thought, 'How could we get in trouble if we weren't the buyer or the seller?'"
Bobby, who took the rap in exchange for letting Cathy off the hook, got probation and a referral to counseling. But two years later there would be another arrest, this time for possession of heroin, and more probation.
Cathy turns another page in the album. A series of photographs of herself: young, pretty and obviously pregnant as she posed outside the small home she had purchased with Bobby.
"We planned our first child so carefully," she recalls. "We talked about it every day. Bobby was excited. He swore that he would never be like his father. He always spoke of his dad as the man who took away his childhood."
It was 1972, and they were among the first couples in Denver to deliver using Lamaze natural childbirth methods. As Cathy went into labor, the nurses wanted to know the name of the child, girl or boy. And so Cathy learned the gender of her firstborn when one of the nurses announced, "It's a Brian!"
"Bobby was so proud...he couldn't stop smiling," she says. Another page in the photo album has a photograph of Bobby at City Park holding newborn Brian above his head. "That's Bobby talking to his son," she adds. "He's always been good about talking to his sons." She points to another photo, this one of the young father napping on the couch with his son asleep on his chest. "That pretty much says everything about how close Bobby and his boys were."
Cathy looks up and blinks in a futile attempt to control her tears. Just then, the front door opens and Michael comes stomping in. He wants to talk to his mother about money, $80 to be exact, to buy new tires. If she can just see her way to loaning him the cash now, he'll pay her back as soon as he can sell his stereo speakers.
"We'll talk about it later," she says firmly, and Michael heads off to his bedroom. After he's gone, she confides, "He's a lot like his father--he wants instant gratification and doesn't think things through.
"Sometimes it scares me. Of course, he's only seventeen. His father...well, I used to joke that I was actually raising three children, and sometimes Bobby was the biggest kid of them all."
Five months after Brian was born, Cathy went back to college as a pre-med student. Meanwhile, Bobby's music career was hitting an all-time high with the creation of the band Dreams. It was more Top 40, but the musicians were all top-notch, and Dreams was a real show band with a huge following not just in Denver, but also in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.
Bobby was traveling with the band so much that "sometimes it was more disruptive when he came home," Cathy recalls. "We'd all have to readjust our schedules. In between, Brian and I were a self-sufficient little unit. I was making good money, and Brian was such an easygoing baby."
Occasionally Cathy and Brian would fly off to meet Bobby on the road. Bobby loved being with his son, and he always made sure the motel had a pool so that he and Brian could swim together during the day. But after Brian started school, the times apart increased. "Bobby was always gone and missed a lot of Brian growing up," Cathy says. "I was the one who was there when he got sick. I was the homeroom mom. The mom who put together the Valentine's Day parties.
"I was getting tired of being married and feeling single, without the benefits of either."
As Bobby's success grew, so did his intake of drugs, especially heroin. Cathy didn't understand it. The other members of Dreams weren't into the drug scene, but Bobby couldn't seem to stop. The people who hung around him were drug dealers and users. They were leeches, clinging to whoever was hot at the moment. Their drugs bought them special privileges, sort of as pseudo-members of the band, and so their drugs were always available.
By her senior year in college, their fifth year of marriage, the relationship was in real trouble. Cathy was studying for mid-terms when Bobby came back from a road trip. He seemed tense and ready to fight at the slightest provocation. Cathy was used to being ignored: Bobby's first love was his music, and he spent every spare minute playing; he'd even left her alone on her 21st birthday to practice with the band. And they'd had the usual marriage squabbles. But this was different.
Unsure of what was wrong, she decided to follow Bobby to the nightclub where Dreams was playing. At the club, Bobby acted aloof and hardly seemed to notice her. During a break, Cathy turned to the bass player and asked if Bobby was seeing another woman. She'd never before considered that he might be unfaithful--they'd been so much in love--but the idea had suddenly popped into her mind as she watched women in the audience flirt with her husband. The bass player hesitated, then said, "If I can't answer your question, does that answer your question?"
Cathy confronted Bobby. She was stunned by his coldness and knocked out by his answer. "Cathy, it wasn't just one. There have been thirteen others," he told her.
"I was shaking so hard, but I couldn't cry. I just left," she recalls. "When we talked about it later, he said he couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't be with somebody else again unless I went on the road with him."
So Cathy quit school and took Brian on a nine-week road trip--a decision she's always regretted. She turns to another page in the photo album. It's Christmas in a motel room, following Bobby's admission of infidelity. The small family is smiling, having a good time. Cathy disguised the hurt well.
For a time, Bobby cleaned up his act. He took jobs driving long-haul trucks. Promised to stop seeing other women. Got off the dope. He tried to be a good husband, but nothing took. There were always more women. More drugs. More reconciliations and bitter partings.
Michael was born in 1979. Seven years younger than his older brother, he was a cranky, needy baby. "Born with a chip on his shoulder," says his mother. He was two years old when the marriage finally ended, like a rusty clock that ran out of time.
Bobby hadn't really worked in two years; even his music was suffering. The family was sick with pneumonia, but Cathy had gone to her job. They were behind on all their bills and needed the money.
As she left the house, she asked Bobby to call a man who owed them money so that they could pay the mortgage. "When I came home," she remembers, "he was sitting on the couch, smoking pot and playing his guitar. I asked if he had called. He said no. It was as if maintaining our house and our relationship wasn't worth the effort to make a single phone call.
"Bobby left the room and then came back and poured a bucket of water over my head. He said, 'This ought to cool you off,' and went to collect the money," Cathy continues. "Well, I had suffered all the indignities I was going to suffer. I called the man he was going to see and told him to tell Bobby that all of his things would be on the front lawn and not to come into the house.
"I was so tired. I wanted something else--stability, faithfulness, a future. He wanted his music."
I sleep with the sun,
I rise with the moon.
But I feel all right
with my needle and spoon.
--from "Needle and Spoon,"
by Chris Youlden
Bobby smashes another cigarette stub into the ashtray. "I thought I was neglecting my music," he says. "I had decided I wasn't going to work some 'straight' job that would distract me. "She grew up, and I didn't," he continues. "She was my rock for twelve years. But I drove her away...fucked her around. When she left, I was devastated. I essentially stayed drunk for the next two years.
"There's the song, 'You don't know what you've got 'til its gone.' Well, that was me. When I lost her and was free to explore my music, it was bitter and painful. I had to keep playing, otherwise, without it--and my kids--I probably would have killed myself. The funny thing was, my music got better the more miserable I was."
There was nothing left but the blues. Bobby reached that epiphany in a pizza joint in some godforsaken South Dakota town.
"I went up to the jukebox and realized every single song we played was there," he says. "I said right then, 'I gotta quit. This is a fuckin' waste of time. If I'm gonna be poor, I'd rather be poor playing the blues in Denver.'"
Besides, in Denver he could be near his sons. He may have lost everything else important to him, but he never stopped loving his boys. He taught them to play tennis, and he taught them to love music as much as he did. And Cathy, who had custody of the boys, cooperated; although she might be concerned by the example he set, she would not prevent the boys from knowing their father.
"The highest I've ever been had nothing to do with drugs," Bobby says. "It was watching my son Brian being born. I said to myself then, 'This is the most special thing to ever happen to you.' I didn't know--not really--that people were capable of creating such a miracle."
The decade following his divorce passed in a blur of whiskey, drugs, women and music. The bands changed as rapidly as 45s in a jukebox. So did the women, most of whom shared his addictions to drugs, alcohol and self-destruction. In 1992 Bobby was arrested on charges of domestic abuse and assault. "It was a scuffle in the house. I slapped her," he recalls. "I felt like shit when my head cleared. I don't believe in hitting women. And it's no excuse to say the violence went both ways."
Every once in a while, his hepatitis would flare up. Bobby had first been exposed to hepatitis B when he was sharing needles in the Seventies; over the next twenty years he was exposed many more times, and he eventually contracted hepatitis C. The doctors warned that he was ruining his liver--that if he didn't give up the drugs and alcohol, he'd need a transplant or die young. But Bobby shrugged off their warnings.
He wanted the drugs enough that he lost what little he had left. The house he'd shared with Cathy. Furniture. Guitars. Bobby lived wherever anyone would take him in; he never owned his own place again.
But the effects of heroin or cocaine only lasted so long. Bobby's only real escape from the mess of his life was on the stage. Playing his guitar, the pain went away. The music could take him to another place. It could take him to paradise.
"I don't like to use the term 'zone,'" he says. "Too many people use that loosely to mean they had a good night where they played well and the audience was like, 'Hey, this guy is good.'
"What I'm talking about is going to a place and taking the audience with you. You can't go there alone; there is an exchange of energy between you and the audience--you're bound together. It's time-transcendent. Something extraordinary is there...I'll be damned if I know if it's what we call God, but I know it's unique, and it's not there every night."
Bobby sought that place more than he ever craved a hypodermic full of smack. "Sometimes it's hard," he says. "You're having a bad night. Your fingers hurt, and you're sore and tired of playing the same thing over and over. But I used to tell the guys in my bands, 'If I can just get into the zone for thirty minutes, I'll hack through the other four hours and be happy.'"
And Bobby hacking was better than most playing their best. He didn't write much of his own music, but he chose songs that seemed to apply to his life and made them his own. "Born to Lose," "Tobacco Road," "Going Down Slow." Some of the big names in the music business--Coco Taylor, James Brown, Buddy Guy, Robert Palmer--would catch his set at a festival or in a club and seek him out to praise his work. But there would be no big recording contract, no tours. For the most part, Bobby's music was limited to Denver. His town.
He found a haven in Ziggie's Saloon. The tavern had a reputation as a rough place, a onetime mob joint, then a biker hangout. But it was also one of the few establishments in Denver that boasted live blues music.
Bobby was a Ziggie's fixture--if not on the stage, then at the bar. If he couldn't get a gig anywhere else, Ziggie's owners would let him throw together a band and perform. And when the place was taken over and cleaned up by a former federal law enforcement officer, Joe Teitsworth, Bobby came with the banged-up furniture.
In the meantime, Bobby's boys had been growing up and wanted to know him better. Brian came to live with Bobby at sixteen, when his mother kicked him out of her house because she was no longer able to control his wild ways. Michael was jealous. He wanted more of his father's attention--which gave Bobby the idea of playing with his boys, in the latest incarnation of the Bob Hornbuckle Band. Michael was thirteen the first time his dad had him up on stage.
"The one thing I can never lose is the respect and love of my sons," says Bobby. "That's when I would have nothing worth living for." He sips his beer, Robert Cray playing in the background.
Bobby says that after his folks split up, he gave little thought to his father. There was so little to think much of. For instance, when his grandmother died, his dad and aunt took their inheritance and went on a seven-year binge. "That's how long it took them to drink and gamble it away," Bobby says. "They'd charter jets to take them and their entourage to Las Vegas. The friends lasted about as long as the money."
Bobby peers through a smoke ring that frames his face and smiles. "Funny how that happens."
Bobby Hornbuckle has reached a cruelly introspective point in his life, and the truth--that touchstone every blues musician must seek--has to be recognized and reconciled. Is he like his father? "Maybe the drinking," he says. "But I never gambled, and I never beat my kids."
He closes his eyes and nods as the cigarette smoke escapes his lips along with his words. "And I was cruel to my wife and neglected my kids...yes, like my dad."
By 1995 Bobby Hornbuckle, born to hard times in Denver was finally, forgive the pun, getting his act together. Those who knew him raised an eyebrow when he said he was clean and sober and going to stay that way (he admits to a few relapses), but they hoped for his sake that it was true.
The hepatitis seemed to be in check, but then he was arrested again for fighting with his girlfriend, the same woman he'd slapped in 1992. He spent a month in jail, and when he got out, he got out of the relationship. "We were bad for each other," he says. "She was an alcoholic. I was into drugs. They don't mix." He was still living in poverty, but he was playing music with his boys, making plans.
But there was a pain in his kidney area that would not go away. He tried to ignore it. He tried to drink it under the table. He finally went to get it checked out.
It was rectal cancer. First a polyp, then a major tumor. The doctors opened Bobby and closed him right back up. The disease had spread too far; it couldn't be removed surgically without killing him. Even radiation treatment and chemotherapy would not take away the threat, just lessen the pain.
Just when it looked like Bobby had figured out what he was going to do when he grew up, he discovered he'd gone as far as he was going to go.
She left me in the morning,
she didn't come back 'til late.
She swore before her maker,
that's she's been treatin' me right.
I'm gonna murder my baby.
Yes, I'm gonna murder my baby.
''Cause she don't do nothin'
but cheat and lie.
---from "Gonna Murder My Baby,"
by Pat Hare
When Joe Teitsworth bought Ziggie's in 1986, his friends and former colleagues "said I was nuts," he remembers.
"The place had a reputation. It was a tough joint. Bikers. Drug dealers. But I said I was going to give it back to the neighborhood, and that's what I did."
It's nine in the morning. Joe, who proudly points out that the number of police calls emanating from the bar has dropped to almost nothing, is getting the joint ready for another Friday night. A sign by the door cautions bikers to leave their colors outside. Joe doesn't put up with a lot of guff.
In the early light, the interior of the club, a square, fortress-like building with LIVE MUSIC painted on the large window facing westbound 38th Avenue traffic, looks the worse for wear. The smoke-stained paint on the walls is a jaundiced yellow. The Naugahyde on the bar stools and booths is ripped and repaired with tape; some of them have literally had the stuffing knocked out of them. The stage is about a foot off the dance floor and covered with a nasty-looking carpet that appears to have sustained an ocean's worth of spilled drinks.
At night, of course, the blemishes will hide in the half-light. Cigarette smoke will hang in the air like mustard gas, with little ventilation to move it along, and the sound blasting from the stage is guaranteed to leave ears ringing for days. But the drinks are generous, the beers cold. And the music blows hot.
It is not a politically correct yuppie club. And it doesn't care to be. It's the perfect blues bar--just what Joe wanted.
A trim, middle-aged man with a thick black moustache, clean-cut looks, a big silver belt buckle, cowboy boots and a Texas accent, Joe looks and sounds more like the proprietor of a country-Western establishment than a blues bar. But growing up in a small ranching community near El Paso, he heard an old bluesman named Long John Hunter and he was hooked.
When he took over Ziggie's, "I sort of inherited Bobby Hornbuckle," Joe says. He didn't anticipate that the relationship would sometimes resemble a stormy marriage more than a friendship between bar owner and musician. But almost ten years after he met Bobby, he wouldn't change it. Much.
"It was his band that was playing the weekend after I bought the place," Joe recalls. "I was impressed with the people who came to hear him play--young and old, people from all over the neighborhood, because he was the neighborhood's musician. They told me, 'He is the blues at Ziggie's.'
"Then I heard him play. He was incredible. I was thinking, 'What's a guy like this doing playing here?' But I was damn sure happy that he was. But as good as he is, the thing that has always impressed me the most about Bobby was that he wouldn't have any money and he'd still buy you a beer."
Joe knows the stories about Bobby Hornbuckle the bluesman, and Bobby Hornbuckle the drug addict. But he'd rather talk about Bobby Hornbuckle his friend. "One morning he was sitting in here drinking coffee, and this guy came in and said an elderly gentleman who lives down the block was having a hard time fixing his garage door," Joe remembers. "It was snowing like hell outside. But Bobby jumped up and we went down and helped the old guy in the middle of a snowstorm. It took us quite a while. Bobby didn't have enough money to buy breakfast, but he was the first one out the door to help a neighbor.
"He never looks down on anyone. I've seen him stop to help people most of us wouldn't give the time of day to. Even now, when he's in such pain and it looks like he's gonna die, he's more worried about how his friends and family are coping. He's always telling me, 'Ahh, there's people worse off than me.'"
Even at his lowest, Bobby was always there for his friends or if someone needed help. Sometimes it seemed that he played more benefits than paying gigs, "even when he had no money himself to even pay the rent," Joe says. But recently the tables were turned, and two benefits were held to raise money for Bobby's medical bills and his trip to Mexico. ("I think it's one of those things where having a place to go is what's important," Joe says, "not necessarily gettin' there.") Hundreds of friends and fans showed up to support Bobby and listen to more than a dozen bands.
"When Bobby was going through rough times, he lost some members of his bands because of his problems," Joe says. "But they still like him and come in to jam with him. All of those guys brought their bands to the benefits."
Bobby isn't one to take something for nothing, either. "He and his boys played at his own benefit," Joe points out. "Basically, he just wants to play. He'd play 24 hours a day if he could.
"I can't tell you the number of times I've seen him in here during the day, giving free guitar lessons to some kid who wants to learn to play the blues. How many professional musicians do you know who would do that?"
Joe credits Bobby with creating and sustaining the bar's Sunday night jam session. "It's outlasted every other blues jam in this town," he says. "Sometimes the bands that were playing at the other clubs would show up here to jam."
And none of the musicians, including those from bigger, well-known bands, was better than Bobby Hornbuckle.
B.B. Walker of B.B. Walker and the Roadsters, a band that used to play in Denver and has found success in California, pays tribute to Bobby every time he plays, Joe says. "He always says, 'I stole this song from Bob Hornbuckle, a good friend of mine in Denver. It was not complete until he showed me the guitar licks.' Every time."
A beer distributor walks in the back door with cases of Coors Light for that night's crowd. He and Joe get into a discussion about baseball player Roberto Alomar spitting on an umpire.
"Aaaah, they shoulda kicked his ass out for spittin' on that ump," says the beer guy. "What's the world comin' to?"
"I don't know," Joe says, wagging his head as he looks down at the floor and his cowboy boots. "What bothers me the most is the kind of example it sets for kids. My son won't even watch the games anymore, and he loves baseball. He's lost interest 'cause of that."
The beer guy leaves, and Joe starts talking about Bobby and drugs. From the beginning, the two men--the blues musician and the former drug enforcement agent--knew where they stood. "I told him where I was coming from and that I wouldn't put up with drugs in the bar. He said he wouldn't," Joe recalls.
"Now, I don't know if that meant that he was going back in the alley and doing something. But he never brought it up in my face. Even when I'd go over to his house as a friend, there wouldn't be anything laying around...no needles, no roaches in the ashtray. He respected me too much to make me uncomfortable, even in his own home. And I respected him."
Their relationship has not been without its rough spots. Many nights, after hours, the two have had it out. "Usually me telling him he needed to quit drinking so much," Joe says. "And him telling me I need to quit badgering him about drinking so much. Then we'd get to talking... about life, our kids, the blues.
"I've kicked him out of here once. Usually, it's been Bobby who gets so mad that he walks out the door like he's never coming back. A few days later he'll walk back in and act as if nothing had happened."
But Joe knows that one of these days Bobby's going to walk out of Ziggie's--and he won't be coming back.
It was Brian who called Joe to say that his father had cancer.
Joe's a tough guy. A cowboy. A cop. He's been knocked around, shot, stomped and done his share in return. But this is hard. "He looks terrible," he says of his friend. "Now, I know some people say, 'Oh, Bob Hornbuckle, he's a junkie' or 'He owes me money,' and that may be true. But if you are Bobby Hornbuckle's friend, you have the best friend you'll ever know."
Joe pauses to look around his tired old bar. "If you haven't heard him play, you've really missed something," he says. "Some of the heart and soul of this place will go with him."
Whiskey and women almost
wrecked my life.
--John Lee Hooker
Cathy lives in an immense home on top of a hill in one of those new, upper-crust house farms with wide, lazy streets where the children, as well as the sidewalks, dogs, cars and windows, all look recently scrubbed. The back of the house faces the Front Range. Standing on her sunny front porch, she can see the downtown Denver skyline, which on this day gasps beneath a dark haze.
Cathy needs no such reminders that she lives in an entirely different world from the one she left behind when she walked away from Bobby Hornbuckle. She's so far removed--physically and intellectually, if not emotionally--that she asked that her full name not be used in this story.
At 45, she remains a beautiful woman: green-eyed, her hair now blond and short. She tries to run six miles every day, having picked up a fitness bug after leaving Bobby. Her husband, to whom she has been married six years, is a successful real estate entrepreneur.
Cathy leads the way past a sunny, plant-filled room with a baby grand piano to a Better Homes and Gardens kitchen about the size of Ziggie's. On the counter are twenty videotapes focusing on such topics as developing "more loving relationships" and "making your marriage divorce-proof." Even in the best of circumstances, she notes, relationships take work.
It's been a tough year for Cathy. Her sister recently died from cancer, soon after which she got a call from her ex. He, too, had cancer; it also looked bad.
The memory of the telephone call still brings tears to Cathy's eyes. Fourteen years after she left him, she still can't decide how she feels about Bobby. Hates him. Pities him. Admires him. Gets mad at him. And yes, there's even a little love left over for the boy with the guitar in the photo album.
When she left the marriage, Bobby told her she was holding him back. But when his career took a nosedive after she was gone, part of her felt vindicated. "The other part knew that what was bad for Bobby would be bad for the boys," she says. "I didn't wish that...I wanted him to get his life together."
She had seen plenty of the damage done to others in that scene. The drummer in the band in which they'd met had since died from alcohol and drug abuse--after borrowing money from Cathy that he, as a junkie, of course never repaid.
Bobby had been so gifted. But it was almost as if he were afraid of success. He had sabotaged every real chance with drugs and alcohol, losing gigs left and right, chasing off band members and people who might have helped him make the big time. "Every night he played, it was a party," Cathy remembers. "It was like the little boy who never got to have a childhood decided to have one as an adult.
"He might think he was, but he was not at his best when he was so drugged-up that he would stumble around and mumble the words or forget what song he was playing. When he was using drugs, he did not give his audience what they deserved, and that was to see him at his magnificent best."
Like Bobby's mother, there was nothing Cathy could do to save her husband. But for fourteen years she has worked to save her children from following in his footsteps.
It hasn't been easy. The boys worship their father. They want to be musicians. And if that's what they want, she won't try to stop them, only make them aware of the traps their father walked into.
Brian has begun to recognize the dangers. He doesn't use drugs or alcohol. "He sees my current husband's success and wants to emulate that," Cathy says. "He wants to travel...for pleasure. He's going to college. He still doesn't understand that the company he keeps can determine the circumstances, especially if they're still into drugs and alcohol. But I think he's going to be okay."
Michael is more of a concern, although he, too, has been attending college. He's more like his father, physically and emotionally. When she heard that Bobby had put Michael on stage at thirteen, she was upset. "Apparently Bobby didn't draw any parallels to his father using him to sing for his drinks," she says. "Michael truly glorifies his father: 'Dad can do no wrong.' I try to point out what happened to his dad without tearing him down, but Michael comes back with, 'Who's to say you're right?'"
She blames her ex-husband for introducing the boys to drugs. "Bobby doesn't understand that you can't raise children saying, 'Do as I say, not as I do,' and have them understand," she says. So the burden has fallen on Cathy, and her current husband, to be role models, which sometimes makes her "the bad guy."
Thinking about Bobby still tears Cathy in different directions. She was angry with him for neglecting his teeth until they fell out, but she recently arranged for him to get dentures. "He had such a beautiful smile," she says. "I wanted the boys to remember him the way he was."
These days it's more difficult to stay mad at Bobby, and they talk frequently. "The boys were telling me how he was cleaning himself up," she says. "It seems almost too cruel. He was so abusive to his body for so long. He overdosed a couple of times and was lucky to have someone around to revive him. All those times he could have died...then now, when he was looking forward to living again, he wakes up and death is here."
Cathy doesn't believe Bobby will make it to Mexico. "He's never going to go," she says. "His health won't allow it."
It's just one more of those topics that makes her angry. She thinks talking about Mexico is a way for Bobby to avoid dealing with what he needs to do here in Denver. Before Bobby Hornbuckle goes anywhere, he's going to have to have a heart-to-heart with her.
"As angry as I've been at Bobby, it's hard to see him in such pain," she says. "I know he talks about finding a 'cure' in Mexico and playing music down there with the boys. And maybe that's what he needs to think about to get through a difficult time.
"But at this point in his life, he's only going to get this one last chance to make a lasting impression on his boys, to make them learn something from his example. I want him to tell them, 'Guys, you got to believe me, don't do what I did. Don't follow in my footsteps. Here's why your mother and I are not together. Here's what I did to my body. Here's how I wasted my talent. You've seen the devastation; you don't want to do that to your own children.'
"If he's going to leave them something, it should be that he has higher expectations for them than he had for himself. It's his last obligation to them. He messed up, and if he had an opportunity to go back and do it all over again, he would. But you only get one chance."
It's not enough, she says, for Bobby to assume that the boys will learn simply by seeing what the life did to him. "He has to say it; they won't accept it otherwise. But when he says something, it's like God speaking."
Well, I ain't superstitious,
black cat just crossed my trail.
Well, I ain't superstitious,
black cat just crossed my trail.
Don't sweep me with no broom,
I just might get put in jail.
--from "I Ain't Superstitious,"
by Willie Dixon
The boys' first memories are of guitars and watching their father "blow 'em away" at clubs. He is their hero, a guitar god with a hot electric ax.
They share their father's dream. They grew up seeing women wanting him and men wanting to be like him. Strangers and even other musicians described his playing as soulful and inspired and rare, described Bobby as being maybe the best blues guitar man in Denver. His town. Where, according to legend, he chose to forgo the easy money and instead dedicated himself to a truly noble, if underpaid, form of music. The blues.
"People put him on a pedestal," says Brian, now 24. "I was like, 'Whoa, cool.' I wanted to be him, the star of the show."
Michael nods. His dad bought him his first guitar when he was five and he's wanted to be on stage ever since. "People respected him and would do anything for him," he says. "I admired the way he looked when he played...and all the women that were around him."
The boys laugh like they've been caught revealing trade secrets. Apparently, they discovered early on their father's theory about guitars and women giving a guy a second glance.
They've only been sitting a few minutes, but they're already shifting around nervously. At last Brian asks, "Can we smoke?" Permission granted, they immediately reach for the twin packs in their shirt pockets, each shake out a cigarette and light up in unison. That first drag comes out as a sigh of relief.
Looking at the cigarettes as if they don't know how those objects got there, the boys say they're thinking about quitting, especially considering what's happened to their dad, but they're not quite ready yet. They are already more like their father than they know.
Like Bobby, they are friendly and open. As they talk about him in smoke-husky voices, they seem older than their years. As though they've already seen it all, or most of it, and still, more than anything in the world, they want to play music. Preferably with their father.
Physically, they are very different. Brian resembles his uncle Floyd and grandfather more than his dad. He's husky, compact. His mother describes him as the more level-headed and easygoing of the two. He looks you in the eye when he talks. He's a respected bass player in town, a former member of the popular Underground Railroad. With his father sick and the Bob Hornbuckle Band for the most part on hold, he keeps busy filling in with other bands.
Michael is a younger version of his dad. His facial features are more like his mother's, fuller and more sensual. But he has his father's build and mannerisms. His shy smile, that sideways look, the same loose-jointed slouch, and he shakes hands like he's worried that damage might be done to his musical career. Although Michael's a talented guitar player, his father has had him banging the drums on stage with him since the boy was thirteen. ("Now I just need a grandchild so we have someone on keyboards," says Bobby.)
"You should have seen the bar managers freak out," says Brian.
"It was a privilege," Michael says. "People treat you different. My last name was Hornbuckle, and that meant something to people."
Brian nods. "For years I didn't even have a first name," he says. "It was 'Oh, you're a Hornbuckle,' or 'You're Bobby's son,' and suddenly you had respect."
Being the older of the two by seven years, Brian has more memories of the days when his father and mother were still together. He remembers Christmas in motel rooms and swimming pools where he swam with his father between gigs on the road. He remembers being left to play in club dressing rooms while his father was on stage, "and the keyboard player from Dreams 'doing' my babysitters."
Brian also remembers the fights and tears as his parents' marriage fell apart. "I guess she'd had it with the rock-and-roll lifestyle," he says, stabbing his cigarette at the ashtray. "She felt that all these people who were putting him on a pedestal didn't really know him. But she was from this white, middle-class background and didn't really understand.
"They just wanted different things. She got what she wanted."
But there is a feeling among some of Bobby's friends and family members that perhaps he got what he wanted, too. That, perhaps subconsciously, he sabotaged his own career. There were people who wanted to back him, bar owners who gave him chance after chance to play in the nicer clubs and be heard by people in the music industry who mattered. But Bobby would get drunk or stoned, have fights with his band or the club employees until only places like Ziggie's would have him.
The boys say their father got high so much because of a lot of unresolved issues from his childhood. Having to raise his brothers and sisters. The lack of love from his father. If Bobby has lectured them about avoiding drugs, the boys haven't listened.
"The rule when I was living with him," Brian says, "was 'I get half.'" The boys laugh and shake their heads as though Bobby were some crazy friend, not their father.
Brian has stopped using alcohol and drugs, in part because he was arrested for possession and drug-testing was court-ordered. "But I was ready, anyway," he says. "I knew it was a waste of my creative energy, and I saw what it did to my dad.
"But it's hard," he continues, lighting up another cigarette. "I've been in bands since I was a teenager, and it's just part of the lifestyle. If you have a weakness for booze and drugs, it's going to be there for you...every night. And there's no such thing as a strong support group in a bar."
Michael has slowed down, but not stopped. Don't do drugs, stay in school--"that's my mom's job," says Michael. "My father never encouraged drugs. He was more, 'Do what you're going to do, but learn from the experience.'"
The lessons have often been tough. One day, when Michael was staying with his father, he found Bobby passed out in his van, slumped over the passenger seat with his legs hanging out the door. He wasn't breathing.
"I freaked out," Michael says. "I didn't know what was wrong. Then I saw on the floor of the van all his heroin stuff. He had overdosed. I hit him on the back, and he started breathing. Then I got him in a cold bath and revived him. It scared the hell out of me."
But the turning point came just as Michael was entering high school, still living with his father. There was never any money to pay the bills, so they had little food and no electricity or running water. They were both high all the time--that's where the money went.
The first day of class, Michael went to high school and sat down on the front steps waiting for the doors to open. He'd been up for several days straight. "I threw up and passed out in front of all the other students and teachers," he recalls. "I knew then that I had to get out. That's when I did the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I told him I was going back to Mom's."
Michael has to look away. Putting the cigarette to his lips, he inhales deeply. But this kid is tough, like his old man. After a moment he continues, "It was the first time I had ever seen him cry.
"He wanted me to be there. He feels better when he's near his kids. He's extremely lonely. But he knew he could barely take care of himself. It was tough to walk away, but I had to save myself." Michael grinds out his cigarette. He looks up. When they are filled with tears, his eyes look a lot like his mother's.
"I feel sorry for him sometimes," Michael at last says quietly, then corrects himself. "All the time."
The boys think of Bobby as a good dad. He never hit them. They came first, at least when he was sober. If they needed to talk, he was always ready to listen. He encouraged them to attend college as something to fall back on should their music careers not pan out.
"He loved us unconditionally," says Michael. "He never judged. I felt like I could tell him anything."
"I think he did the best he could," adds Brian.
And he gave them what he loved best. His music.
Both boys plan to make it big someday. "He influenced our style and encouraged us," Brian says. "He didn't have a lot else to give us, except his love and the blues. I think you do have to live the blues if you want to play them honestly. But the blues can be a feeling and it can be a lifestyle, and there's only a thin line between them."
After a couple of false starts--including both father and one son doing jail time--the Bob Hornbuckle Band, featuring Bobby and Brian and Michael, was starting to hit stride this year. Then came the news about Bobby's cancer.
Michael went with him to the oncologist. "He was saying on the way, 'I hope it's not the Big C.' But I knew it was before he said that. I didn't want to know, but I knew."
The boys and their father played the Breckenridge Blues Festival in August. Robin Ford, one of the top avant-garde jazz-blues guitarists in the country, had just finished his set and was back in his dressing room when the Bob Hornbuckle Band took the stage. Ford stopped packing and went up to watch and listen.
"I heard the first few notes of that guitar," he explained to the festival producer, "and I had to come back." He stayed there until the band finished. "I couldn't leave," he said simply.
The producer relayed the message to Bobby and sons. It is a memory that will remain with the boys long after their father has played his last note.
Not that they're ready to let him go. They plan to catch up with him in Mexico. He's going down first to scout out the scene, line up a few gigs, they say. Then he'll send for them.
We're going to leave
our troubles behind,
go home to ease our minds.
We're going to spend our days
by the cool Arkansas.
You'll find your place there,
and dream your dreams.
Down in the Valley.
--from "Down in the Valley,"
by Bobby Hornbuckle
"I tried to live my life as a bluesman," says Bobby. "I tried to be the kind of guy who couldn't wait until that next gig on the weekend.
"I lived for the next 'bluesy' experience because I thought it would make my music better, more real...like waking up in a jail cell because I was too drunk to get myself home...or facing off against some jealous guy in a parking lot because I had messed around with his woman...or pawning my wedding ring to buy a tank of gas to get to my next gig..."
Bobby chokes up for a moment. He looks out the window of his mother's kitchen. Dead leaves whip by in the wind. A bitter winter waits just ahead. He tries to smile. "I guess that qualifies as bluesy." The smile gets lost in the lines on his face. There are some pains, often self-induced, that morphine can't touch.
Like any true-blue bluesman, Bobby sees his life as a gauntlet of hard knocks and great good fortune. "I've had serious doses of both," he says. Love was tough on him. "It hurt me more than helped me, though a lot of that was my own fault. If love was a plant, I forgot to water it."
He blames no one but himself for the down periods of his life. Not the drug dealers. Not the fans who wanted to share a line of coke. Certainly not Cathy, whom his mother still describes as "the great love of his life."
"I could have walked away from the drugs. I didn't," Bobby says, sitting at his mother's table. "I was my own undoing." The boys don't need lectures to understand what drugs did to him. "They can see the damage done from 25 years of my lifestyle."
But the cancer is the hardest knock of all. Always in the past, when the heroin or cocaine had dragged him down near rock bottom, he had been able to fight his way back up through the healing power of his music.
Now, he knows, he will never feel good again. He massages the colostomy bag attached to his body. "This is horrible," he says. "I would not wish it on my worst enemy."
He closes his eyes and allows a wave of pain to pass. "On the other hand," he says, "I was kissed by God with my blues ability. I love my mom and my family, especially my children, and they love me. But this ability to play the guitar, it's my gift from God, the only real thing I have left.
"I was lucky enough to recognize it at a young age so that I could refine it. I could be at my lowest, and still even famous people would recognize what I had and give me respect accordingly."
Bobby is tired. "It's weird dying," he says. "I know I'm dying, but I'm not supposed to admit it. Everybody wants to give you 'hope for the future,' says 'there's a new miracle cure.' My brother Rick came to visit the other day. He lives in Seattle, and I hadn't seen him in years. When I saw him sitting on the chair at mom's, I said, 'Jesus Christ, now I know I'm gonna die.'
"He said, 'Ah, I've seen you look worse when you were doin' that heroin.'"
And so Bobby makes plans to go to Mexico, taking his boys along. He says his music doesn't inspire him anymore, that he needs a change of scenery to find that old energy again. He has a few more radiation treatments to reduce the tumors and thus the pain, and then he's off...even though he can't walk across the street without stopping. "But I can still stand long enough to play a set," he says.
Somewhere south of the border is a beach on which a bluesman can lay his battered body and soak up the hot sun and cold cervezas while gathering his energy for one more gig. A bar where the air will smell of salt, margaritas and maybe just a hint of marijuana. Where the sun-tanned senores and senoritas dress in white, like angels, and wait for him to take them to a better place with his songs about lost love and hard times.
Some of Bobby's friends believe he wants to go to Mexico to die as he sometimes lived. A guitar close by and enough heroin in his veins for a last sweet ride into eternity.
Bobby shakes his head. "Uh-unh. I'm going to work," he says, then smiles. He suddenly looks much younger.
"I'll be playing the blues in paradise.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- Senate Committee Approves Medical Marijuana for Veterans
- Reader: Denver Is Full of Smokers and Beta Males Who Refuse to Grow Up
- Denver Health To Limit Patients Passively Enrolled In Its Medicaid Plan