SEPTEMBER 6, 2021
Ever stop to consider your luck?
I first met Robert J 39 years ago, just as he arrived in Madison. It was the Stag & Hound (later Boar’s Head) restaurant located behind West Towne Mall, when nothing else used to be behind West Towne Mall other than an Alliant power station. In fall of 1981 I was working as a bartender there. My brother was one of the chefs. The place was known for its prime rib, its clam chowder and its seafood. One day, the manager mentioned he was thinking about live music. I’d just moved here from Colorado myself after five years of unsuccessfully finding myself. “I could do that,” I offered. After meeting the challenge of “If you can play ‘Sugar Mountain’, you’re hired,” I was just that – a hired musician with a regular gig.
I could hardly believe my luck.
The gig was five hours a night, five nights a week. It was grueling. It wasn’t long before other players came around to play, too. I believe Robert J. Conaway was the third one, in 1982. Well, if I wasn’t playing I was usually working at the bar so I saw a lot of the entertainers that came there, playing to a small crowd of folks who really couldn’t have cared less as they waited in the lounge to be called to their table. On a weekend night this could be upwards of an hour.
I noticed that Robert had an authenticity to him, with several songs that he had written, and a penchant for bringing guests in to play with him. David Cox was one and those two wrote a few songs together in time. Little did I know just how many people would orbit Robert J and his different bands over the next four decades.
And that wasn’t all. Robert hosted the Sunday Night Jams at Morgan’s on Schenk’s Corners (now the Alchemy). Anybody who was anybody came to those jams. It was an institution and ran for just over a decade of consecutive Sundays. He even called me up on occasion and I wish I could remember all of the greats I tried to measure up to. Robert himself is immensely underrated as a guitarist. I always admired his playing because, even if he was playing a song for the 500th time at the Jams, he put his soul into it. “You got to love the music,” has always been his slogan. Boy, does Robert J love music.
Things changed so rapidly in those days. I was “discovered” at the Stag & Hound by a gruff guy with a pipe in his mouth, slurring his words, and before I knew it, I was in the And band and making records. Robert was making records, too. Boys Town was a great band and released an album in 1986. Several singles and several more albums followed with the Moon Gypsies, the Rowdy Prairie Dogs and on his own. We didn’t see each other a whole lot during some of those blurry years.
Robert and I reconnected over the last several years. I was helping him on the business side. And then near-tragedy struck when his son needed emergency brain surgery. A fundraiser was put together with Chris Wagoner and it was an unbelievable success, wiping out many thousands in medical bills. Robert, being the person he is, contacted me shortly afterward and MAMA Cares was born. We asked him to direct it and he did – brilliantly. Anyone who has organized an event knows what an undertaking it can be. Extremely organized and efficient, those events gave MAMA Cares a very solid foundation that came in awfully handy when the pandemic rolled around and a relief fund was established for affected musicians. Robert was always gracious; he never asked for much and gave back in multitudes.
On Labor Day, Robert J played his last show before moving to Connecticut. It was Christy’s Landing on the patio, a glorious late summer day. This has been an annual event for Robert and was always well-attended. But this time it was different. It was a bit like a Morgan’s reunion with a lot of players joining in and a whole lot more in the crowd. It’s amazing to think of just how many lives crossed because of the music that he ceaselessly made. There was no set list although I’m pretty sure he saved “I Don’t Wanna Go” for last.
As the last set began the air changed. This going to be it; the end of an era, really. From the Stag & Hound to Bittersweet, to Morgan’s, Buck & Honey’s, the 1855 and the Come Back Inn; with thousands of other shows mixed in just about everywhere else music has been made around here since 1982. The emotions really started to flow. The mammoth performance of the last number which he prefaced by saying, “Everyone up here is going to get one last chance to show me their stuff,” was epic. I’m sure each and every one of the many soloists felt the significance of it, too. When they’d all paid their respects, Robert took his turn, leaving the stage and circling the crowd while taking a final solo. Getting hugs, slaps on the back and probably a lot of “I love you’s,” one of which I am sure of.
It’s that moment when thoughts of how lucky we all are come, along with some tears. How did that much time possibly march by? It’s not often you know someone of such unbending spirit, taking the hard knocks life brings and still soldiering on, through the high points as well as the disappointments, heartbreaks, tragedies and loss. That is what music is and what musicians do; reflect our lives back to us and try to make things feel alright. Re-invigorating the exasperated. Luck is being there, along for the ride – and even more so, still being here at all at the inevitable finale. Luck is knowing someone of such generosity, giving back to the community and standing up for what we all know is right. Luck is having a friend for nearly forty years. Not all of us can say that. I can. Goddamn, I am a lucky man.
Godspeed, friend. Our city will miss you. But this is not goodbye; this is “Until the next gig.”
I took a video but it failed. Connie Phair captured the emotional ending and posted it to Robert’s Facebook page: