Jeff Walls, Part 4

Valentine: “When it came time for me to record a new CD I asked Jeff if he would play on it and co-produce it. By this point I had seen Jeff play many times, knew that he had a rockabilly-influenced band, and knew that he’d fit perfectly. He made all the arrangements down in Georgia for the studio and invited the band to stay at his house. We flew down on Thanksgiving Day. He did all kinds of dinner preparations before we landed, drove 1.5 hours to pick us up at the airport, drove us all the way back, and then he and his incredible wife Phyllis proceeded to welcome us all as family and feed us an amazing Thanksgiving meal.”

Phyllis Walls: “Jeff was a wonderful family man. Wonderful father. And the thing that I appreciate most about that, is that my own child from my first marriage… she’s the oldest, and her father passed away when she was fourteen. By that time, Jeff and I were already married. And my daughter, she was…a wild girl. Beautiful, and intelligent, and talented – and angry and wild. (I don’t know where she got that shit from!) Jeff never tried to take her father’s place. Her dad died when she was a teenager, and that’s why she was so wild. And [she and Jeff] had a struggle. As she got a little older, but not very much older, she gave birth to my very first grandchild, and they became closer. Where I’m going with this is that he loved her as his own. And he loved her two daughters as his own. And I know that his biological kids, especially Lilli [Jeff’s daughter from his previous marriage to Rhett Crowe], really regret that they will never know their paw the way that my daughter, her children did. He was the best grandfather ever. He loved kids. He loved all the kids all the time. ‘Cause he was one. He totally got them, and they got him. And he would drive me crazy, because he wanted to take them everywhere!”

Alice Berry: “There was such an enjoyment of life with Jeff. And he only loved it more as he grew older. His becoming a father and then a grandfather was something I don’t think he expected to enjoy so very much, and to do so well. I got to watch him grow into these roles. I was not only the singer for one of his bands, but also one of his nannies for Lilli and Carson, [Jeff’s son with Rhett].”

Michael Dickinson (Chicken Ranch Records): “I’ve never seen a musician travel as well with family as he did. He’d bring his daughter [Lilli] on the road, and they’d just kinda hang out. My daughter’s about the same age as Lilli, and it was such a big influence watching how he brought his kids along with him. They’d just chill out, no drama. It was kinda influential on my parenting, watching Jeff being a cool dad and a musician.”

Phyllis Walls: “He put up with a lot from me. It’s no secret to anybody that knows us well that I have struggled with substance abuse all my adult life, and that he really helped me. And really had faith in me, and gave me some really, really good years of amazing clean time. I mean, I owe him my life. I do.”

Holly Golightly: “Music had originally thrown us into each other’s orbit, but that is not what cemented our friendship over so many years. That was held together by the deepest regard and genuine love for each other… I am so thankful to have been in the world at the same time as him, and feel lucky to have been considered a friend by such a beautiful human being. I love Jeff and his family more than words can say.”

Phyllis Walls: “What he never understood about himself was that he always thought he was a hack imitating everybody else. No, let me take that back – he had a style, and he knew he had a style, but he was always insecure about it. But when he did covers – which is what [our] little group [The Deadlines] was, and was what Hillbilly started out doing – he would learn the tone, the style, everything about it that made it sound the way that it did when it was originally recorded. And he taught me that stuff, too. What was great about The Deadlines – we only played twice, ever – was that the drummer, David Freeman, was a friend of his from when I think Jeff was 14 and David was 16 when they met. And [David] never listened to a record or played to one that was made after 1968. So he was perfect for that!”

Freeman: “I think he wanted to play with Phyllis again. So they were looking for a drummer. We played a few jobs. I came up with that name too – The Deadlines. I had to learn 15 to 18 [British Invasion rock] songs or whatever, but he also knew 5,000 more! I’m glad I played with him again.”

Phyllis Walls: “[Opening for] Holly [Golightly] at the Star Bar [on February 1st] was the last time we ever played together.”

Attaway: “He was a very, very dear human being. Nobody that met him didn’t like him. One of the many great things about Jeff, but maybe the best thing about him, was what a big heart he had. He was just a very, very good, decent, generous, loving human being. And there aren’t many of those in the world. One of the best people I’ve ever known in my life. Really, my hero. He really was. And I finally was able to express it to him at the end of his life.”

Phyllis Walls: “[When] I finally got licensed as a counselor and got this job, which took quite a while, [Jeff] was like, ‘I’m so proud of you! I think it’s so great, what you’re doing. You’re helping people!’ He said, ‘I don’t feel like I’ve ever helped anybody, or had any impact on anybody, in my whole life.’ And I was just like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ Everybody in his orbit was happy they were there.”

Emery: “I was starstruck by the guy every time I saw him, but he was so down to earth, you couldn’t stay that way for long. The last time he stayed with me, he got up, came into the living room in his pajamas and started monkeying around with a guitar, so I ran and got my 12-string and he was nice enough to indulge me and played all his amazing leads as I croaked my way through a half dozen Guadalcanal Diary songs. Of course, the first of those was ‘Gilbert Takes the Wheel’…”

Phyllis Walls: “The only hint we had [that something was unusual] was that last summer, he started losing weight. And, you know, since he was a chunky guy, he was excited about that. The thing is, once he started [losing weight], he was like, ‘Oh, man – this is awesome!’ So he started eating healthier to make that come true even more. So last Christmas I bought him all these overpriced Carnaby Street mod clothes that he looked amazing in when he tried them on, and never wore. And I remember, one of the later things that he said was… I took a picture of him and showed it to him, because he didn’t have a mirror, and he goes, ‘I have a jawline! I always wanted to be a skinny rock star.’ He weighed 132 pounds.”

Golightly: “Jeff and I spoke on the phone for the last time [the] Saturday night [before he passed]. He told me about the joy he’d felt, having just renewed his marriage vows with Phyllis, and the romantic candlelit dinner that followed. It was so wonderful to hear him talk excitedly about what treats they’d had, and the decorations, and oh, how we cackled over the tiniest, most ridiculous details, just as we always would.”

Hartman: “When I last visited him at Duke, the TV on the wall was tuned to MeTV with the sound turned all the way down. There were back-to-back episodes of Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle on. He was obviously very sick and not feeling well, but this was what was on his mind that day: ‘Most people think it was Gomer that made the show, but if you watch Frank Sutton (Sgt. Carter) as the straight man, he’s the one who made the show. Just watch his range of expressions – see it?’”

Golightly: “He also told me that he wanted to live, and how he was holding fast, hoping for a miracle. We discussed all manner of scenarios that may lie ahead, including his recent downturn, and the not-so-bright outlook. At the last minute he remembered that he was going to email me something silly later that night, so we chatted about that too before we said goodnight. It was by far the toughest conversation we’d ever had, but it was well within the scope of our long, cherished friendship. We were nothing if not honest in our every exchange, always. I am sad that we did not get to say a more meaningful goodbye than talking about the content of a silly prospective email, and I am heartbroken that I won’t see his light-up-a-room smile again, at least on this plane.”

Phyllis Walls: “I’m still scratching my head every night going, What? Uh-uh. No. People die in car crashes and stuff, but this is so off the wall. He’s got some weird-ass disease? But… I will tell you this… He did not die of PVOD, like everybody thought. Because, they weren’t ever sure. Despite what went out over the internet, they were never completely sure that’s what it was. It was never diagnosed. The way that that disease is usually diagnosed is post-mortem, or post-transplant. Because the way they find it is a very intrusive, cutting up of lungs and looking at them. He had pancreatic cancer. The attending physician called me up, he said, ‘I don’t know whether this is good or bad or what…’ It metastasized into his lungs… He was a Type 2 diabetic, so he already knew his pancreas didn’t work that good… [Pancreatic cancer] spreading immediately to the lungs is apparently not that common. The lungs weren’t functioning properly, and the heart couldn’t pump the blood and oxygen properly. He died, basically, from congestive heart failure. But that was the cause of death and not the genesis of it. It did not manifest itself in a common way, and that’s why it was missed. And the thing about it is, by the time [doctors examined] him, it was [already] too late. [The attending physician at Duke] said, ‘I want to write to your [primary care physician] specifically and personally and say, ‘Look, none of this is your fault for not catching it. None of this is anybody’s fault for not catching it. Nobody knew. It was a very unusual presentation.’”

Eletxro: “As Phyllis said, ‘In some ways, it’s better that they didn’t know it was cancer, because then they would’ve just told him it was terminal. Then he knows he’s dying. He died with hope.”

Phyllis Walls: “I’ll tell you this: there are a lot of blessings associated with his death. And among them are that, first of all, he did not suffer, particularly, for a long time. He was not in great pain. He was lucid to the end. He documented his entire adventure on Facebook – which, at first, I must say, I found a little hinky, a little distasteful, or weird. But then I realized that was helping him deal with it. And now I am so grateful, because all of the love that was poured out to him on social media was absolutely overwhelming. And the thing is, he did not have a clue how loved he was. Didn’t have a clue.

“And so, I think by the end, because of the way that he just went ahead and spewed it all out there, he finally, finally got a little bit of a hint that he was talented, and that he was loved. Because there were kids that would say things to him like, ‘I was really depressed, and I heard this song that Guadalcanal did, and it just changed my whole attitude.’ He would read stuff like that, and he would cry.”

Attaway: “To this day – and probably for a really, really, really long time – I haven’t processed it. He’s so ubiquitous – in the fabric of my existence he is so present – that he’s still there… Every time I write something, I’m thinking about him. I was working on a song – I might do another record eventually here – and when I’m writing, it’s just a natural thing for me to think, ‘I’d like to see what Jeff thinks about this part…’ That’s how it’s been for my entire adult life. Every creative thing that I do, he’s there in some form. But I’m just one person… It’s really remarkable how many people were affected by him. And then affected by his illness. And then affected adversely by his passing. It’s astonishing.”

Phyllis Walls: “The beautiful way that Jeff died, he was not in pain, and he was lucid to the end. To the very end… So he was able to sort of make his peace with things, and think about his life, and just say that he had a good life. He had very few regrets. He had time to think about all that and put it in order, and he had time to spend with his immediate family. We don’t all get to do that. So, in its way, it was quite beautiful.”

Jeff Walls (personal email to Greg Nicoll in 2003 regarding the impact he had on Joe Emery from The Ugly Beats): “Every once in a while you get a little signpost, a little message, that lets you know that what you are doing is worthwhile and has meaning for somebody. I remember how it was for me when I was a teenager back in the ’70s, how awed I was, and how much my life was changed by certain bands. I still have a sense of gratitude to The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Iggy, and too many more to name for enriching my life beyond words. That I could inspire similar feelings in someone, and that I can live long enough for them to tell me how I made them feel, is truly humbling. This is the greatest honor a musician can ever have in this life. It fulfills the give and take, the push and pull, it continues the chain, and it paves the way for the next wave of great music. Thanks.”

The original Stomp and Stammer and Creative Loafing interviews with Jeff Walls were conducted by Greg Nicoll. Thank you to all who offered their thoughts for this piece.

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