Two weeks ago I learned that Bob Sterner, my dear friend of 24 years died from a suspected drug overdose. (Autopsy report still pending.)
I first met Bob when I was nineteen. Odell and I were just old enough to start checking out the local Detroit music scene (which at the time was quite vital: Necros, Negative Approach, etc.) One evening we happened into a show by the band Grief Factory.
We were totally unprepared for what we saw next. Grief Factory was a minimalist three piece... An incredibly talented jazz drummer, tribal repetitive bass licks, and... Bob. They burned incense, lit candles, said prayers... it was not so much a concert as a ceremony. All of this could have been incredibly pretentious... but it wasn't. It was real, and somewhat frightening.
Bob was part shaman, part madrigal... He moved like no one I've seen before or since. He sang like no one I've heard before or since. Poetry flowed from him effortlessly. He was plugged into something deep and ancient, that I don't think he even understood or knew how to manage. He was so raw as to be almost unhinged... as if he were tripping or even mentally ill... But because he was willing to flirt with these scary, dangerous parts of himself... genius erupted.
After Grief Factory broke up, Odell, Bob and I formed Spahn Ranch. We were totally unskilled as musicians, and were seriously worried about that first practice session with Bob. He was still a larger than life character for us, and we were certain he was going to call our bluff... and we had literally nothing. Neither Odell nor I knew how to play an instrument. We hadn't even decided who'd play what. We had no equipment. But at that first session, Odell grabbed some souvenir ornamental drums from the walls of his family's Afro-pride decorated suburban home... And we rustled up a pawn shop guitar in time for Bob's appearance... And I remember that first time, playing outside... near the shed on the Double O ranch... magic happened, and we all knew it. Over the years Sarah Babb, Rob Rude, Billy Rivkin, and others floated in and out of the band... And eventually Hobey Echlin became our fourth permanent member.
Eventually we achieved some measure of success by modest local standards. We put out an album on California's (in fact Oakland's!) Insight Records, and pretty much commandeered the privilege of opening for national acts that came through Detroit in the 80's: Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Jesus and Mary Chain, Swans, My Bloody Valentine, Nina Hagen, etc. We had an avid fan base... But apart from the small modicum of local success we enjoyed, playing together always remained a ritual. Even if it were the four of us in a basement, it still gave me an opportunity to watch Bob in action. Whatever noises or melodies I could tease out of my guitar were just raw material that would hopefully inspire him and provoke him into action.
After a couple years, we broke up. My recollection is that this happened when Bob moved to the Cape to study nursing. I soon followed him to Massachusetts to grad school at MIT. Odell and Hobey pressed on and formed Majesty Crush. Majesty Crush were freaking amazing, and I still love them. Go buy this CD.
Anyway, my friendship with Bob shifted away from music (or at least from "the band") to a deeper connection. Bob and I shared a spiritual connection, that eventually led him to India where he served as the staff nurse in a small rural Ashram. He intended to stay for a short while, but ended up spending years there.
While in India, Bob nearly became Indian. He picked up fragments of Hindi... It was his seva (service) to take care of a number of elderly ashramites (folks in their 80's or 90's) that had been instrumental in the very formation of our path. These guys were "walking antiques" [(tm) Bob Dylan]. These guys loved Bob and he became not only their caretaker and mascot... but one of them. He joined their posse (and they very much ran as a posse.)
At the clinic folks would come by with the usual litany of minor ailments (scratches, rashes, bug bites, dehydration, etc.) and Bob would treat them with love and respect... but also a deliver a dose of connection, good will, love, smiles, gossip, poetry, art and advice. He became an institution, and literally hundreds of people grew to know him and love him through that role.
Bob absolutely adored Indian culture. When I came to visit, we'd make trips into Bombay where he'd show me back alleys, little chai shops, how to travel on the trains with the working class, etc. He adored everything about India, but especially the people...
Over the years, we watched each other go through relationships... We watched each other change jobs... Change tastes... change habits... But our friendship and love was constant, and truly never wavered.
We were very, very different... but we totally appreciated each other. The world will never be the same for me with out Bobji on it. I lost a brother. But I am committed to honoring his memory in the way I know he'd want me to... by "loving bigger"... a beautiful phrase his sister Jeannie invoked at the memorial on Friday.
Okay, now a public service announcement...
PLEASE DON'T DO DRUGS THAT CAN KILL YOU!
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I am particularly devastated by Bob's departure because it was so senseless. I have gone through the usual bouts of self-flagellation around "How could I not have known?!" and "I failed him..." Truth was, I had no idea that Bob was back on drugs. I knew he'd had a problem over the years, but all signs pointed to a total recovery... Everything seemed to be going so well for him. We had made plans to see each other on Friday night... and instead I was at his memorial that day.
So please do not OD on drugs.
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Attached are some memories from Bob's friends who gathered together in Trenton MI to celebrate his life...