I am going to write a bunch of stories about my friend, Dave Werner, with the full knowledge that he would tell me to shut the fuck up.
The year is 2010, or maybe 2011, and I am playing music with Fred Friction. We “practice” at his house every week, which usually means fumbling through tunes for an hour or so and then listening to music while shooting pool.
“Dave Werner would like to invite you over to play some songs,” Fred says, or something to that effect. “I think you should do it.”
“Dave Werner? Fuck that guy.”
And that’s how I never met Dave Werner.
But here’s what really happened.
A few weeks earlier, I was at the Chippewa Chapel open mic night debuting a song. Dave, who I did not know well at the time, flagged me down at the bar.
“You look healthy,” Dave says.
“Thanks,” I said. There’s a long pause. I’m not sure how to take that comment.
“I mean, you clearly haven’t been missing too many meals,” he says, glancing down at my gut.
And now, weeks later, he was inviting me over to play music — through a mutual friend.
I think that Dave made barbecue chicken that night. I could be confusing that with another night because Dave made a lot of barbecue chicken.
But he made some sort of food, and we awkwardly played songs for each other. Dave told me which songs he liked and which ones he didn’t care for.
And when I left, I had agreed to play a show with at a venue called the Focal Point. I didn’t know why I agreed, except that it seemed too awkward to say no.
That show went okay. The guitarist had feedback issues all night, which was common at the Focal Point. At the end of the night, the guitarist revealed that he had a pedal in his car that could have fixed the issue, but he didn’t feel like going to get it.
So that guitarist was out of the band, and I never saw him again.
We played a few other shows as Shovelbutt, a folk-rock quartet that was doomed from the start.
Eventually, the drummer, Matt, got into an argument with Dave and the band just kind of fell apart (I don’t remember what the argument was about, but I don’t think it had anything to do with music. I’m pretty sure they made up at some point).
Around this time, I start getting phone calls from Dave.
“Hey, Kraniac, I’ve got a new song. You up for recording it at your place on Saturday?”
I generally said yes, because Dave would give me $40 and a couple of Red Bulls. I’d throw up a few microphones and track him, occasionally adding keys or guitar or whatever else the tune needed.
Most of those recordings went nowhere. Dave kept them to himself, sometimes passing the best songs to Fred Friction, who’d play them on his radio show. But one December, Dave left me a different kind of voicemail.
“Hey, buddy, I’ve got an idea. Christmas Caroling. Call me back.”
Dave’s idea: Our friend Jesse Irwin had welcomed his first child that year. Dave, Fred Friction, and I would head to Jesse’s house dressed as three wise men, bringing gifts to anoint the child — a package of hot dogs (a stand-in for frankincense), Stag beer (gold), and Merb’s candy (myrrh).
I didn’t know Jesse well at the time, but I went along with it. Jesse was delighted, of course.
I realized around this time — or maybe a few weeks later, when Dave brought me homemade cookies — that I had become friends with a gruff, sarcastic, 60-something window installer. It was a gradual process, and it had happened under my nose.
Dave Werner did not drink alcohol.
Not in the time I knew him. He told me why, once, and here, I’ll note that I’m recalling this from memory and some of the details may be wrong.
It was years earlier, after a birthday party for his daughter, Julia. He’d bought a case of beer for the occasion. He was aware that he was an alcoholic, so he made a deal with himself: He could drink the beers, but only after the party was over.
Minutes after the last guest left, his hands were shaking, and he sat down and pounded the beers, one after the other. When the case was empty, he made a different deal with himself: He would never drink again, but in exchange, if he was ever in a social situation that he thought was bullshit, he would leave immediately. Irish exit.
He claimed that he chained himself to a radiator while shaking on the floor during the withdrawals. I’m not sure how much of that is a metaphor.
Dave kept both halves of that promise.
One summer, we were both invited to be members of the Focal Point’s board. At the first meeting, Dave heard something he didn’t like, so he got up and walked out. The woman who was speaking was in the middle of a sentence, and there were only about 10 people at the table.
Everyone stared as he left, waiting for him to say something. He didn’t. The door slammed shut, and nobody knew how to continue. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I quietly followed him (after excusing myself, of course).
We’d go to shows — comedy, music, open mics, whatever — and Dave would simply leave when he had enough. That might be 5 minutes into the show or in the middle of the second encore. Sometimes, he’d grumble something insulting on his way out.
His attitude didn’t win him a lot of fans.
When I told a local artist that I played music with Dave Werner, I’d often get bad reactions:
“Well, you need to stop.”
“He told me I was too fat for my voice.”
“He told me none of my songs make sense.”
“He’s an asshole.”
To put it in charitable terms, Dave was committed to honesty. To put it less charitably, he seemed to have no filter whatsoever, and he’d tell people exactly what he thought about them at any time without considering the context of the situation.
This didn’t change. There was no come-to-God moment where Dave suddenly started watching his behavior; if anything, his rough edges became rougher over time.
The people close to him were not spared. Every one of Dave’s friends and family members has a story of how he would offend you in ways you’d never considered possible — then ask you why you were getting so upset.
But that’s only part of the story. Dave Werner might also arrange a Christmas Carol for your newborn daughter on a cold December night, or drop by your house unannounced so that you could take pictures with his new puppy, or unsarcastically offer to take you on a picnic.
All of these things happened, by the way.
And Dave’s commitment to honesty carried forward through every part of his life. Once, Jesse asked Dave about his work life: When he gave his clients a bid, what percentage of them approved it?
“100%,” Dave said.
Jesse was dumbfounded.
“That means you’re not charging enough, Dave.”
“Fuck! Well, that’s what it costs. I’ll make out alright.”
One night, I had a blockage in my sewer line.
I didn’t think I could afford a plumber, so I rented a sewer snake from the hardware store.
I had no idea what I was doing, and after feeding about 40 feet of the snake into the line, I realized that I couldn’t get it out. I panicked. I couldn’t pay for a broken auger, and I didn’t know what I could do. I called Dave, but he didn’t pick up.
Hours later, I’d calmed down. I called a local plumber, who agreed to come out at 10 a.m. the next day for a flat rate. After I got off the phone with the plumber, Dave called, and I explained the situation to him.
The next morning, Dave was at my house before the plumber with a pair of knee pads, ready to help.
Dave’s kindness didn’t excuse his bad behavior, but frequently, it outweighed it.
I gave up trying to explain this to people who’d had bad experiences with him.
But even when people had problems with Dave as a person, they usually saw the greatness of his art. Dave spoke in a rough, low baritone, and he was capable of singing in that range; he could also hit a high falsetto, which rang with a wide, perfect vibrato that he claimed he couldn’t control.
When Jesse, Dave and I formed a band — the Chimps — we likened ourselves to the Traveling Wilburys of St. Louis. Dave was our Roy Orbison. I was happy to be Jeff Lynne (I’ll share Dave’s thoughts on ELO later).
Our first goal was to play at wineries for cash, but we dropped that quickly. We didn’t want to work out three-part harmonies to waste on drunk people who couldn’t care less.
Instead, we’d play semi-annual shows at the Focal Point, which is a listening room. The Focal Point forces audiences to pay attention, so we had to come up with a setlist that rewarded that attention.
Those first practices were electrifying. Jesse, who is by far the most engaging entertainer I’ve ever known, would grin broadly when Dave found a high harmony, or nod his head when he heard an excellent lyric. I’d noodle on the guitar, trying to pretend I was a lead guitarist, and Dave would grumble about how much better I sounded on the previous song.
We’d pitch songs at each other and get honest feedback. I think we all brought in fantastic material, but Dave was the showrunner, and he was also the least predictable. One week, he might bring in a fragile ballad about a waitress he’d fallen in love with decades ago; the next, he might sing about his mother’s farts, or who might find him if he died masturbating (“What If They Found Me Like This” went over remarkably well with the Focal Point crowd, by the way).
But most of his songs were sad.
“Hagerty,” written for his late bandmate Dave Hagerty, contains a perfect stanza that sums up the unspoken wish of everyone who’s ever felt grief:
If Hagerty comes while we’re playing this song,
We’ll buy him a whiskey, and he’ll play along
And we’ll never mention the time he was gone
And we’ll sing and we’ll play ‘til the morning
My favorite is probably “Past It,” a tune about growing old and wondering what’s left. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and genuine. Some key lines:
I tried to find me a woman
My God, but they’re old and gray!
Maybe it’s time I put little David away.
And the chorus:
Cause it feels like a lifetime
I guess that’s just what it’s been
I don’t mind if I miss out on the next big thing.
As is true of the artist himself, Dave Werner’s songs were an acquired taste.
Unlike many St. Louis songwriters (present company included), he rarely wrote songs without at least one curveball, which might be a key change, a time signature change, an unexpected chord choice, or (most often) all three.
He had strong opinions on everything, but especially music. He couldn’t stand any artists with “affected” voices — his term for folks like Tom Waits or Bob Dylan — with the exception of Tom Petty (and not the Jeff Lynne-produced Petty albums; Dave once noted that “everything Jeff Lynne touches just ends up sounding like fuckin’ ELO,” which is hard to argue with).
He also hated hip hop, which led to a heated discussion one night.
“Dave, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean that there aren’t good rap songs,” I said.
“Bullshit! There’s one good song, and they keep remaking it.”
“I mean, that’s not true. The music changes every year, you’re just not listening to it.”
“Well, tell me what the good shit is, then, and I’ll listen to it.”
“No, because you’re not going to like it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still good.”
Around that point, Jesse gently guided us back to the song that we were practicing, and I forgot about the exchange until the next morning when Dave left me a voicemail:
Hey, Kraniac. Just wanted to say…Snoop Dogg…”Gin and Juice”…that’s another good one. [Long pause] Okay, see you Thursday. Don’t eat. I’m making spaghetti.
When Dave sensed that he went too far, he’d try to correct it. His friends learned to deal with him when he was difficult and to call him out when he was being unreasonable.
He was worth that effort, because I have never known a person with more kindness in their heart. I don’t think that Dave was rude because he hated the world; I think he was disappointed that it wasn’t as good as he thought it could be.
For our final Chimps shows, we pulled out all of the stops.
A Valentine’s Day show featured a setlist packed with love songs — and a few depressing Dave songs about people dying, because hey, they were good songs.
The Chimps decided to give the audience chocolate-covered bananas. That was going to be my job. About a week before the show, Dave asked how I was going to do it.
“I don’t know, probably cut up some bananas, put toothpicks in the slices, and stick them in chocolate.”
He scowled immediately.
“No, no, fucking no! If it’s not full bananas, it’s bullshit!”
So the day of the show, Dave spent the morning dipping full bananas into a tub of chocolate, then putting them on a clothesline to dry. The audience wouldn’t have cared if we half-assed those bananas — but Dave cared.
The show was a success.
We had added Katie Jones to our band, a violinist with a fantastic voice and tremendous songs. That changed our dynamic a bit, and with four singers, we had to work harder to get everything on our setlist up to speed. We also added strings to half of our set, and the string section couldn’t practice with us, so we had to play everything perfectly.
That final show — February 15, 2019 — probably should have been a disaster. A snowstorm hit St. Louis, cutting our audience significantly, and various minor mistakes were amplified by the new complexity of our setup. When we got offstage, I felt like we’d failed.
But listening back to the recordings from that night, we nailed it. And Dave had the brightest moments, including a cover of “Someday Jane,” which was written by Roland Norton, a local artist who’d died that year.
Dave wasn’t a fan of all of Norton’s stuff, but Jesse insisted on playing him “Someday Jane” at one of our practices. By the end of the song, Dave had tears in his eyes.
“I’m doing this one,” he said.
His performance is tender, starting at the lowest part of Dave’s register; as the bridge crescendos, his voice rises up, his tremolo widening to cut through the strings and guitars before suddenly cutting back for the last verse:
I can’t promise the sun, the stars, or the moon
But I made up this name, and I made up this tune
And I make this promise: I will wait for you,
And I’ll finally find, Someday Jane
Playing that song, on that stage, was one of the greatest musical moments of my life. A half-dozen of the other greatest moments also happened that night.
Dave had health problems.
His hip and back pain often left him completely crippled and unable to work, and he’d take Percocet, valium, and whatever else he could get prescribed to struggle through his days.
“I got an x-ray, finally,” Dave told me one day. “The doctor looked at it, and — I swear to God — turned to me and said, ‘You’re fucked.’”
Before his hip replacement, I took him to a doctor’s appointment. He struggled to sit, breathing heavily, and I grabbed the admittance form to help him fill it out.
“What is your pain goal?” I asked.
Dave was quiet for a moment.
“No pain,” he said. “What the fuck else would my pain goal be?”
“And how would you rate your pain on a scale of 1-10?”
“10! Who the fuck wouldn’t say 10?”
In that visit, he also compared the doctor to one of the villains from Hostel. The nurses loved him.
The hip pain was constant and debilitating, and unfortunately, it wasn’t the only problem. While we were in the early stages of preparing a show one year, Dave had a stroke. He recovered, but his voice acquired a raspiness — the falsetto was still there, but rougher now. It wasn’t perfect anymore.
Months later, we were at the studio, trying to record a follow-up to our debut album. Dave brought a rock number, which leaned into the changes in his voice. He barked out the lyrics over a distorted bassline, each word sounding like it could break him. It was incredible.
I’ve still got the tracks from those sessions, but we haven’t completed them. We will. I promised Dave a few months ago, and I’ll stick to that.
When someone you love has a stroke, or gets a hip replacement, or gets treatment for depression, there’s a tendency to assume that the problem is solved.
Otherwise, we’d be worrying all the time, right?
But over the pandemic, I worried about Dave. His history made him a prime target for COVID-19 — and for vaccine disinformation. Dave would follow conspiracy theories regularly, though he never landed squarely on one side of them. I did not expect him to get vaccinated, but he did; not because he believed in the vaccine, but because his family asked him to. His love outweighed his stubbornness, as it usually did.
That was a weight off my shoulders, and it gave me hope for another Chimps project. We’d grown distant from Dave during the lockdowns, and the isolation hadn’t made him any friendlier.
A few months back, I called him on my way to work. I left a message asking how things were going. He didn’t call back for a few weeks. Then, one day, I had a voicemail waiting when I woke up.
“Hey, buddy. Got your message, just wanted to make sure my head was on straight before I called you back. We’re having a get-together for Julia’s birthday, wanted you to come. Invite Lucy. Tell her I’m making chicken. Call me. Alright.”
I called him and we talked for a bit, and I told him I’d be there. The party was a family gathering — I was the only person there who wasn’t part of the family, I believe. That might have been awkward, but it wasn’t. If the best thing you can do for a person is make them feel welcome, the Werner clan has that covered.
We ate and discussed the Chimps tracks we’d recorded years earlier and how we should finish them. I told Dave I’d get him a copy of the recordings, warning him that they were rough.
Then, he nonchalantly announced to the table that he was going to dig up his dead dog and put the bones on display.
Again, this would have been awkward at any other table. They were used to this sort of thing, and we discussed — with remarkable scientific rigor — how long you’d have to wait after burying a dog to make sure that it was just bones when you dug it up.
I left after dessert, satisfied in every way.
“Bye, Krane,” Dave said. “Don’t forget about those tracks.”
I thought about calling Dave this week, but I didn’t.
I was planning on having drinks with Jesse next week, so I figured I’d call Dave after that, and maybe we’d be enroute to another Chimps show. Possibly another Valentine’s Day special, if we could figure out a way to escalate the chocolate banana gag.
But Dave passed away on Friday. I’m still in shock, and I’ll be heartbroken for a good long while.
Dave was the gentlest and most honest person I’ve known. Often, we refer to people as “complicated.” Dave was not. He showed you exactly what you were getting from the moment he saw you, and that was incredibly refreshing.
Do not try this at home: Dave supported his honesty with genuine kindness. He was loyal to close friends and family, even when he was skeptical of just about everything else. He would ignore hip pain to lay on some knee pads and pull a snake out of your drain, just to save you a few hundred bucks. He would dip bananas into chocolate for hours, just so the people who came to his show would feel like they got their money’s worth. He’d give you a sly smile when you said something funny and gently correct you if you said something bad about yourself — or call you out if you were fishing for compliments.
There is value in honesty, and Dave practiced it, more often for better than for worse. I loved him, and he was my friend.
And along the way, he said some really funny shit.
Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorites, because I didn’t know where else to put them.
“The guy’s got one trick, he kills the fuckin’ kid in everything he writes.”
– On Stephen King.
“How dare you say that to me? I’m a friend of the queers!”
– On being accused of homophobia.
“I can’t stand that piece of shit.”
– On Gordon Ramsay.
“I can’t stand that piece of shit.”
– On Jay-Z.
“What are you talking about? We’ve seen you naked!”
– On me, when I refused to play a song because I hadn’t finished it.
“When they start talking about their kids, all of ‘em just suck. I can’t explain it.”
– On comedians.
“How come you get better looking, and I just look like an old ballsack?”
– To my mother.
“Fuck, I could get you a hundred of those.”
– After I told him that my new dog was a good dog.
“I got vaccinated, so shut up.”
– On getting vaccinated (unprompted).
“Hey, sorry for not calling you back, my head was in the oven for a few weeks.”
– On dealing with depression.
“I went over to a guy with a puppy, and started petting it and saying, ‘Aw, isn’t he so cute?,” and I was just thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me?”
– On using antidepressants.
“If we were any better, we’d be good.”
– On the Chimps.
“If it was any better, it’d be good.”
– On my writing.
“Bah, I’ll shut up.”
– At the end of any conversation.
I don’t exactly know how to end this. Dave always had the last word, so I might as well give it to him here. He wrote “Another Chance” for a friend of his who died of cancer, and was very proud that he got to sing it to the friend in the hospital.
Funny standing here without you next to me,
Somewhere down the road, I hope we find that harmony.
Gather up the ones you love, and give them all a kiss
I only wish we all could have another chance at this.– Dave Werner, “Another Chance”