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."