To say that Gary Burden was complicated doesn’t do him justice. That's one reason why Burden, who passed away from liver disease surrounded by friends on January 3, left an impression on so many people. He burned bridges as fast as he built them, but suffice it to say, people loved him and hated him, sometimes both, and the emotion was rarely noncommittal.
Gary first friended me on Facebook years ago, when he was still going by Onus Spears, having a go at being a comedy impresario and later a talk-show host. I was even one of his guests at the old Deerpile. He was funny yet sly, lived to ride and fix bicycles, loved music, loved to let go and dance possessed, and more than anything, loved art so desperately it was almost too much for him to process. He’d survived dark times and wasn’t very good at taking care of himself, but he knew every detail of his medical conditions.
He was often homeless and looked like a wildman, and in some ways he was: He was known for his rants, and it’s clear he wasn’t in sync with the world he adored, but he was also special, otherworldly in the way of indigo children, griots and shamans. He saw right through people, good and bad. And behind the rat’s nest of hair, he hid a prodigious intellect and a sensual soul driven by all things beautiful.
Gary told a story about seeing the painting “The Horse Fair,” by Rosa Bonheur, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which brought tears to his eyes only for its sheer beauty, light and animal power. That’s who he was: mercurial, feeling, prone to life-changing epiphanies.
His friend and erstwhile significant other, Charissa Afshar, offered Gary hospice at her home in his last days. “His end was hard but joyous,” she recalls. “He struggled with liver disease, yet even at the end, he still had not acknowledged he was dying. But he made peace, said ‘I love you’ to so many people. He tried to make amends for bad things he’d done or said. It was redeeming. There was not a lot of peace in his life — a shiny object.”
For most of January, Afshar has put energy and overtime into planning a proper farewell for Gary, scheduled for February 2. It’s been a psychic journey.
“It’s weird to be the curator of someone’s life,” Afshar admits. “I feel honored. He’s a complex person to write about — he had so much tenacity. I’ve never met a person as tenacious as he was. He could be knocked down over and over again, get found out, be outed, and he’d lose everything, but he’d get back up and try to find his place in the community. I think that was because he was homeless a lot of the time. Anyone else would have offed themselves or be bitter. That’s where the rage came from.
“He was one of the funniest men I’ve ever known, but not his standup — some of that was cringe-worthy,” she continues. But as a writer, he was a supreme storyteller, and in a funny way. That was part of his charm.
“He was fearless in trying anything,” she adds. “He would have people wanting him to succeed. He had a joyousness. He was a supreme study in opposites. He loved something till he didn’t and not love something until he did — hang with that, and you’ve got him.
“And the other part is: When Gary engaged with you, there was nobody else. He wanted to know your story, and not in a fake way. It was too intense for some people, but he was listening. I think that because he was homeless a lot of the time, he was a magnet for the marginalized pariahs, the great thinkers — there was an amazing variety of people he would attract. That’s the gist of the lovely parts of him.
“He was also a killer dancer.”
That, Afshar promises, will be addressed at Gary’s memorial.
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“I have bike parts strewn everywhere, which is strange and quirky — just perfect for him,” Afshar says. “There’s going to be an odd mix of people, from AA friends to comedians to Mormons to homeless people. He created a tribe, and it will be moving to have people from all factions get together like that.
“Most of them want it to be a celebration, so it’s not going to be a normal memorial, but something more irreverent," she adds. “There will be a eulogy and a film tribute, and then we’re gonna dance. It might be odd for some people, but it would be good if we can muster up at least one dance.”
Help send Gary Burden off “with ruckus love on his final ride..his final curtain...his final Slurpee” at a memorial celebration at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 2, at 1725 East 30th Avenue. Parking is limited; organizers recommend taking a carpool or riding a bike, as Gary would have appreciated.