The people in the picture on this page are all Denver musicians with at least twenty years' seniority. Every one of them played with guitarist Tom Butters, who died of an overdose last week at age 46. And they are just a handful of the players who show up for his official funeral at Fort Logan National Cemetery. Butters left behind two devastated widows--his ex-wife, Jo, and Sherry, to whom he'd been married for nineteen years--who describe themselves as cordial "wives-in-law." He left behind two daughters, Shauna and Page. On their way to Butters's grave, these four women are followed by more than a hundred carloads of Denver musicians. Although they are all wearing black--they usually do--they still look out of place. But in a setting such as this, who wants to fit right in?
In the moments before the service begins, people hug and quietly ask, "How are you, man?" In hushed tones, they are furious.
"That butthead!" someone whispers. "I mean, you're not surprised--"
"But still," someone breaks in, "I'm devastated. How could he?"
"One thing about Tom, one thing I loved about Tom--he was so whacked in his pursuit of pleasure. That butthead."
Having served in Vietnam, Butters is entitled to a military funeral, complete with uniformed attendants, the flag of the U.S. painstakingly folded, and Taps, to whose endless melancholy no one is immune, no matter how far removed from the armed forces. Through the crush, it's hard to tell whether it's Shauna or Page who breaks down sobbing, "Daddy." But there is no time for reflection. Another funeral is slated for the next half-hour slot this Friday morning, and the man from the mortuary respectfully asks that the crowd disperse.
"Taps," says Steve Wilson, the rockabilly singer Butters long ago christened Steve Son. "It should have been Hendrix."
It could have started with Hendrix and just taken off from there to hundreds of songs on hundreds of nights, but always with a bunch of musicians on stage in a bar.
An hour after the funeral, a bunch of musicians and other friends mill around Rose Whitlock's Arvada living room, eating the food people always bring to such gatherings. Steve Son has written a eulogy but can't seem to find the right time to present it. He keeps it folded in his pocket just in case.
"I met Tom almost twenty years ago," the handwritten page begins. "He put an ad in the paper for a lead singer and I went over to his house somewhere in Lakewood. He and his brother had a band and they had three or four singers there. I got to sing 'They Call Me the Breeze.' And I noticed how good he was. He called me back for a backyard jam session which was great except when the cops came right in the middle of 'Sympathy for the Devil' and shut us down."
Wilson and Butters played together, on and off, from that moment until just short of this one, weaving an enormous net of music contacts that grew to include most of Denver's Capitol Hill roots/rock community and bleeding over into jazz and country and--hey, there's nightclub singer Lannie Garrett, whose arranger used to be Randy Handley, who played with Son and Butters and now lives in Nashville plying his trade as a singer/songwriter.
"Tom Butters was important," Handley said by phone a few days before the funeral. "He knew everyone and played with everyone, and he was the kind of highly personal soloist you just don't hear so much anymore. He really did play from the heart. Every time I went to Denver, we got together and had more fun than two grown men could possibly have. He was charming and good-hearted, and he had a couple of major character flaws."
It would be hard to describe Butters without including the seeming contradictions.
That he was generous and big-hearted is indisputably true. He would do anything for you, everyone says--lend you his equipment, let you live in his basement, bring you home to dinner, disappoint you, piss you off, come back into your life a few weeks later and be absolutely charming.
Another indisputable fact: One of the things he embraced with that big heart was drugs. When he died, everyone was shocked. Sadly, few were surprised.
"I was pretty sure some day I would get that call," Handley admitted. "In Tom, it wasn't that classic self-destructive thing, but more like a race-car driver who has to push the speed thing all the time. And all he was looking to do was enjoy a good time and good music."
This he most certainly did.
"He was the most underrated wonderful musician," recalls blues harp player Mark Bell. "He was his own show. The rest of us on stage were just in the way. Tom and I drove thousands and thousands of miles together with a cribbage board taped on the dashboard, playing cribbage all the way, making it back from Jackson Hole before the Cricket [on the Hill] closed. We had such wild adventures together, and this is"--Bell stops long enough to realize how angry he is--"well, you know what this is."
Pianist Chuck Reeder's memories also center on the Cricket. "That's where he always played, and when it came time to solo, Tom could just talk with that instrument. He was such a kick in the pants, he was so fun, he was so self-destructive," Reeder says, all in one breath. "I'm lucky I play jazz; I'm lucky I'm not living the blues, partying till my eyes are on backwards." Reeder was one of the many musicians who relied on Butters's ability to hook him up with other players when his career hit a lull or when he'd been away and just needed an instant reintroduction to the scene. Why there is always an undercurrent of bad drugs in memories of those good times is--"But no," he decides. "This is very morose. The choices are there, and people make them. I'm not going to blame the music."
"I went to check him out at the Cricket and didn't leave for fifteen years," recalls bassist Dan Shore, who now plays in the house band for Always...Patsy Cline. "He was an electrifying blues genius, great fun to watch. He loved Jimi Hendrix but never copied him. Playing with him was glamorous and fun, but once you get to be 45 or 50, you'd better really love living the blues, because you run that risk of doing a Chet Baker. Or a Tom Butters, I guess."
"My dad bought him a guitar for Christmas when he was twelve," recalls Tom's brother Randy, who has flown in from Las Vegas and looks so much like Tom that people keep coming up and peering into his eyes. "Tom couldn't wait; he sneaked under the bed and found it. After that, he never put it down. A friend of his from the military told me that he and Tom went into an empty music store, and Tom tuned up a twelve-string and began to play, and he played until there was no room to stand in the store, so many people were listening. And then he said thank you, put down the guitar and left."
Which would make a nice end to the story--but in real life, Tom didn't put down his guitar for long.
"I used to hate that guitar," says Page. "I used to grab the neck and choke it and choke it, so he would stop holding it and hold me."
"Yes, yes," agrees Shauna. "It got so much attention."
"But as I got older, I figured out why it was so important," Page says. "I used to love it when he would sneak me in to hear him play. I loved to get up on stage and sing with him."
"He was so cool," agrees Shauna, who now lives in Utah with her husband and three kids. "He wasn't like some stodge-podge Mormon man. And he was off-the-wall goofy with my kids. And he called me last week to say he loved me and was proud of me and wanted to be a better granddaddy."
This makes Shauna cry. A minute later it makes her laugh--Butters, whose great love was music, had a secondary passion for lounging in a hot bath, and that's where he was during that last phone call.
"He didn't have his own bathtub," Shauna relates, "but a couple had just been kicked out of the apartment next door, and he had broken into their empty place just so he could take a bath. We used to talk on the phone a lot. It made me love him so much. It made me hope so much, you know, that he wasn't fucking himself up too much."
"My dad had a drug problem," Page says.
"He could have died of a heart attack," Shauna says. "We don't have the tests back yet--"
"It was heroin," Page insists. "He had a drug problem, just like I do." In fact, Page has spent the past two months in the residential Cenikor program, where, if all goes well, she will be for the next two to three years. "Which my daddy knew about and was proud of," she says, "because he knew I was just like him. He would never give me money, because he knew what I would do with it, but he gave me clothes and food, and I could talk to him about anything, anytime."
"It could have been a heart attack," Shauna repeats.
"It wasn't, though," Page tells her.
There is a pause.
"Daddy told me once why he loved to play so much," Page finally says. "He said, 'When I'm up there, I get to see that look in your eyes when you watch me play. You go there with me,' he said."
A few hours into the wake, Erica Brown, the singer in Butters's last band, stands up and sings an "Amazing Grace" so high and lonesome it raises the hair on the necks of dogs for miles around. Then she starts "Sweet Home Chicago," and pockets of singing break out around the room, especially on the "Baby, don't you want to go?"
"Let's have a big hand for the guitar player!" yells trombonist JD Kelly. "Mister Tom Butters!"
The ovation is loud and long, and the room is crowded. The people who go outside later to smoke can feel the cold front coming down from the mountains, and after that, night.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.