“Where’s that hot-shot reporter?” After weeks of ignoring my calls and rejecting my in-person requests, the man who didn’t do interviews left a message on my answering machine: “This is Denver Joe. If you want your interview, I’ll be at the end of the bar at the Cricket on the Hill for the next two hours.” Click.
That interview was one of the highlights of my journalism career. Nearly 22 years later, on April 25, 2018, Joe Vasquez, better known as Denver Joe, passed away. He was 62.
A unique combination of Waylon Jennings, Shel Silverstein and Andrew Dice Clay, Denver Joe was brash, offensive, lovable, puzzling, worrisome and implausibly funny. He was an unimaginable, self-destructive combination of the most rebellious honky-tonk man, the punkest rocker, and the most laughable lush.
A comedic genius with astounding talent and timing, he got away with things on stage that no other performer could weather. He hurled roundhouse insults at an audience that cherished every punch. He would skewer a fan with machete wit and leave the victim and the audience in stitches. His skill at tossing endless F-bombs — his stock song introduction ended with “and we don’t give a fuck if you like it or not” — was matched only by his skills at draining numerous shots of Jack Daniel’s and embodying his mantra of “Drink up and be somebody.”
He did all of it backed by the most wholesome and country-music-steeped couple in Colorado, “Aunt” Lois and “Uncle” Dick Meis, making his act that much more bizarre and wonderful.
“Would somebody please get Aunt Lois out of the men’s room? We’re trying to play some music up here,” he would say.
Denver Joe’s Monday night shows at the late, lamented Cricket, a dive music bar of the finest sort and the perfect home for his act, led many a Capitol Hill resident to call in sick on Tuesday mornings.
He could finish a set without ever completing a song — “Whoa, hold on there, Uncle Dick. I was getting a little misty” — while carrying out the most completely entertaining musical comedy you’d ever witnessed. The most unlikely hero Denver ever had, he put permanent laugh lines on local faces and made that darn “cowtown” moniker a badge of honor.
And while his rough exterior and tough life made him genuinely qualified to sing his hard-luck songs or carry out the occasional ass-kicking he winkingly promised a fan, his edge was tempered by something else: a genuine love for entertaining people, even at his own expense.
“Joe was kind and gentle,” says Luke Schmaltz, King Rat frontman and a longtime friend. “He was also very, very articulate and well read and had a deep understanding of people. He was the antithesis of what he was on stage.” Denver Joe’s importance in the music community was big, Schmaltz notes. “He inspired so many musicians with his showmanship and his wicked sense of humor. When he was on, he was really on. And when he wasn’t, at least he was entertaining.”
Vasquez’s son, Rio Pezzi, provided details of his father’s passing on Facebook: “He had his doctors in tears. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. He dealt with the situation with so much grace, only as Denver Joe could do. He went peacefully, he wasn’t in pain, he was aware, he wasn’t alone, and he was ready to go.”
He also left this life with his son by his side. “He didn’t have cirrhosis of the liver or drink himself to death,” Pezzi says. “My dad never drank whiskey at home. The only time he did that was when he was on stage being Denver Joe.”
Pezzi had a close relationship with his father and saw or spoke with him nearly every day. “He lived on his own terms his whole life,” he says.
Vasquez watched along with the rest of Denver as housing prices skyrocketed in recent years. But he found a way to survive, by serving as a caretaker for his apartment building by day and playing guitar and writing songs in his apartment by night.
“He didn’t go for people talking down the city,” Pezzi says. “He told me, ‘Denver’s always been a changing city. You gotta figure out a way to make it work.’ And he did.”
One facet of Vasquez’s stage persona was in full form at home. “He was the funniest man,” Pezzi says. “You think he was funny for an hour or two on stage? Try sitting with him for three hours of a Broncos game. Now, that’s funny.
“People know my dad, and they see that hat, the guitar, the whiskey at the bar. They know the man, the myth and the legend,” Pezzi says, echoing a line that Vasquez would say on stage when talking of his heroes. “But he was also something else: He was a really great dad.”
Denver Joe Tribute
3-11 p.m. Sunday, June 3, Skylark Lounge, 140 South Broadway, 303-722-7844.
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