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Remembering Avant-Garde Musician David Mead, Who Died December 2

David Mead performing at the Mercury Cafe in 2015.EXPAND
David Mead performing at the Mercury Cafe in 2015.
Kurt Bauer
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On December 2, musician David Mead, who was first diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2008, died at the age of 48.

The longtime member of Denver’s avant-garde music community joked with Westword last July about how his home town of Roscommon, Michigan, where he had moved to take care of his father in 2017, would never tolerate the music that he played. "I mean, I'm the guy with tattoos and a funny mustache that's still wearing his Sepultura shirt and camo shorts, and he plays a snakeskin Japanese banjo. I don't exactly fit in."

Mead’s health had started deteriorating in January, worsened over the summer, and after tests, doctors eventually discovered that leukemia had spread to his spinal fluid. In July, Mead reported that within a three-day period, he had gone from hiking six miles a day to not being able to walk a block.

“It was just straight out of the blue," he said. After lifelong hiking, biking and rock climbing, it was really a shock to me, because I'm used to being the wiry kid, and it really took my feet out from under me.”

When Mead was first diagnosed with leukemia twelve years ago, he went to support groups for people that had various blood-related cancers. He saw a broad range of reactions to it. “Some people were really fear-based, and they told me they had gone through chemo and went through it right off the bat to get rid of it," he recalled. "And that even after doing that, it came back more aggressively. Some people told me that they understood the watch and wait, and they watched, and they waited, and they decided to wait until they were sick enough to go.”

Following a gig at the Mercury Cafe, where Mead often played at Corey Elbin’s Gorinto experimental music nights, Mead was approached by a man in his support group who looked him in the eye. The musician recalled him saying, “'I know that you were struggling on whether or not to do chemo, and I'm glad that you chose not to, because now I see what you're doing here. You're living a life, and you're being creative, and you're being yourself, and you might not have had the chance to do that if you chose to go to chemo first, because chemo’s a bitch and breaks you way down.' He said, ‘I want you to know that I think you made the right decision to live as much as you could before it hit you, because a lot of other people didn't have that opportunity.”

During his fifteen-year stint in Denver, Mead played tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, percussion and other instruments in local avant-garde and improv groups including ANIMAL/object, Aenka (which I was also a part of with drummer David Kurtz and saxophonist Becca Mhalek); he also appeared on more than twenty albums on Kurt Bauer’s BangSnap label. While living with Bauer, Mead said he would play and record every Monday night. Mead also got to share the stage with the Violent Femmes as part of an expanded-version lineup of ANIMAL/object, with whom Femmes frontman Gordon Gano would occasionally play.

In a Westword review of Mead’s solo album Black Stitch in Eternity , Tom Murphy wrote that thanks to the musician's flute playing, the song “The Black” could be part of the soundtrack to an early-’60s Japanese ghost movie. “The throat singing and bass clarinet warble of the title track is like Mead's evocation of a Zen koan, and, employing the shakuhachi on ‘Sorrow's Vine’ and ‘Vine's Grip,’ he blends the spiritual-music traditions of Japan and south Asia with jazz."

Mead, who was self-taught on saxophone and bass clarinet, was a fierce player, not afraid to squeak and skronk. He took inspiration from avant-garde masters like Peter Brötzmann and John Zorn, who signed Mead’s tenor sax neck after a Denver gig with Zorn’s band Painkiller.

In addition to performing, Mead taught people in Fort Collins how to make "acoustic laptops," which were wooden boxes filled with various objects; it was a way to approach learning music playfully instead of studying notes before learning to play an instrument.

“We'd just have parts, and we would build them and only put in the contact microphone,” Mead said in July. “And then it was up to them to glue them together and make them their own configurations. So it was like taking a box full of random junk you find on the street — like marbles and glass and street-sweeping wires and guitar strings and stuff like that, and making it into a musical instrument that sounds like some noise musician playing Ableton or something, but it's all done in a cigar box.”

Before his health took a turn for the worse last January, Mead’s daily schedule included a fifteen-mile bicycle ride in the morning; cooking lunch and doing dishes and other errands for his parents; and then having nights to himself.

In the summer of 2019, he met Cathy Allen, who had been working at his parents’ house.

“I was getting there about the time my dad got up, and I saw this really cute lady vacuuming,” Mead said in July. “She smiled at me, and that was the beginning of the beginning right there.”

In July, Allen told Westword that she recalled seeing Mead walk into his parents’ house and thinking, "'Oh, my God, this guy is weird. That ugly beard and his weird clothes.' That was my first thought of him.”

Over the next few months, they became close friends and eventually fell in love; they would talk to each other about anything. Since Allen had just left a long marriage, she didn’t think she wanted to date anyone. But she said it felt like a magnet was pulling her toward Mead.

“One night I was just lying in my bed and started crying, and I'm like, 'What the hell is going on?' I really liked this guy," she recalled. "So I went for it.”

After a GoFundMe campaign to help with Mead's medical costs was posted in July, Mead said that although he couldn't read his phone because of his recently impaired vision, Allen often read him notes from friends.

"I just started to cry at all the names of the people that I Iove," Mead told Westword. "It was a lot of wind in my sails and gave me something to look forward to." 

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