Tuesday, August 9 marked the 9th anniversary of the day we lost Mikey Houser. It always sneaks up on me because Jerry Garcia died the day before and I usually hear the talk of that and forget. This year rolled around like a freight train, and it’s like the loss of all 9 years is rolled into one and I can’t seem to get it off my mind and my heart.
I was always a big Mikey fan. Schools always had his big following, and the I Love JB fan club has never suffered attendance. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all (Team JoJo!!) – but I loved Mikey. There were times when he would play the intro to Surprise Valley or the gut-wrenching solo in City of Dreams that would make my heart surge and tears burst from my eyes at the same time.
I remember my reaction to the first Mikey critic I encountered – “how could you not love the lingering lead?” At the time, was a ‘noob’ so I left it alone. But I just remember thinking that Mikey WAS Panic. His sound distinctly defined that band! Even I knew that!
Though I was first introduced to Panic in 1997, it took a few months and a couple of shows to ‘stick.’ I saw them 2 times in 97, 10 times in 98, and the number grew each year from 1999 – 2002. I met so many people along the way that are now lifelong friends. I’ve lost dear people along the way due to the hardships that come with this wonderful life. Anyone who knows me knows what a tremendous part of my life Widespread Panic has been since our introduction.
I remember the New Years Eve run of 2001 – there were murmurs of Mikey being ill. The rumors started to soar between those shows and the next time I saw them at Oak Mountain run of 2002. By that time – rumors abounding, the fans were upset and uneasy. I don’t think the band made an official announcement about his illness until after those shows, but the Oak Mountain run said it all. It was as if the band took the opportunity to put their ‘arms’ around the crowd and bring us into the process of losing Mikey. They played the most heartfelt shows and songs and moments that I have ever experienced in my life. This would be, hands down, the best run I ever experienced. I left that weekend knowing that it was not good, and that the future was uncertain. I was scared. I saw the band again at the first annual Bonnaroo that year as they headlined 2 nights (keywords: Dottie Peoples & choir, Tall Boy > Testify > Tall Boy). Hallelujah! I heard my last This Part of Town with Mikey on lead. The ‘event’ that was Bonnaroo 2002 was epic in so many ways. I was surrounded by a very large group of my very closest friends. Exactly as it should have been. I did not know that when I saw Panic at Red Rocks the next weekend, that I would not see Mikey on stage again. Ever again. I just remember thinking that he was so frail, but he was so determined to play as long and as much as he could. I would hear my last Mikey-led Waker this weekend. One of my all time favorites. Still I feel like I am free…..
This was back in the day before Facebook, so I got most of my news either through phone calls from friends or from Spreadnet – a message board for Panic fans. I will never forget reading that on July 3, 2002, Widespread Panic took the stage for the first time without Michael Houser. July 2, 2002 – Cedar Rapids, Iowa – would be the last show that Mikey played. As I sit here and sort through these memories, I am surprised at how vivid they are. I remember WP playing in Little Rock on 7.16.02 – my first show without Mikey, and it was painful. On a break between Panic dates, some girlfriends and I went on a camping/float trip weekend at the Buffalo River, so we were “off the grid” for the weekend. On Sunday, August 11, I remember getting the first voicemail that Sunday when we started packing my van. Mikey had passed the day before. It was real. Jennibette, Joy, and I lay in the back of my van and held each other as we cried.
George McConnell had some huge shoes to fill. I had always been a big G-Mac fan since also following Kudzu Kings around. He carried the band for a few years, and for him I was grateful. Word on the street was that Mikey’s dying wish for the band – his friends – was to keep the music going. They did it. In late 2006, Jimmy Herring took over the lead guitar and all began to seem right with the world. He was just a better fit for this band.
To date, of the 132 Panic shows 64 of those were with Mikey. Though it’s now slightly under 50% of my Panic repertoire, Mikey’s presence has been at every show. At a recent show in Oakland in the depths of Party at Your Mama’s house, I closed my eyes and it was as if Mikey was up there. I told my friend, “That’s Mikey. I hear it.”
I am so grateful for the experiences this band has given to me. I am happy that my life led me to Panic early enough that I got to ‘know’ Mikey. I will never forget the “wizard in the corner” who founded the band that changed my life. As the band prepares for a bit of a hiatus (the first one since Mikey’s passing), I am looking forward to celebrating with the band at Panic en la Playa in Cancun for a 4-night run in January. Is this a dream? Yes, it’s real.
“The man in the moon is a musician……..”