« Goodbye Phil »

My friend Phil Cole died this morning, just hours after I got an email alerting friends that he was pretty bad off with cancer and had a week or two left in him. I had a letter composed in December that I only managed to get sent off by email just last night. I don't think he got to hear it in part because of the timing but mostly that he lost coherence for the last few days anyway. His cancer was rampant, starting in his kidneys about two years ago, and slowly eating him away. The last I heard, it was brain tumors and nodes on his lungs too. He was 45. Cancer seems to be an equal opportunity destroyer. Only a few weeks ago, a friend of mine in Louisiana lost his mother at 57. Kelli too has known a few who got whisked away too early from this wretched disease.

Phil and I met in October 1997 and worked together doing sound for several years. He was rarely my direct employer. Rather we worked for Mitch Grant and his growing Special Event Audio Services company. I was one of Mitch's first associates, invited to work one month before Phil. Being pretty new to stage work and not really knowing anything about professional audio, I was always the assistant. Phil came on with a lot more experience, so I sort of became his sidekick for the next several years. The next few years, a few other engineers came to work with Mitch on an independent contractor basis. I worked with them too, and we all worked together on the big shows. Phil was always the one guy I knew I'd get along with and who I knew I'd enjoy working with (as much as I ever did in that line of work). We worked so many shows together, locally, regionally, and one time, I got sent out to Hawaii with him for a major eight-day event for IBM's international division. We worked almost anywhere, anytime.

He worked incredibly hard for Mitch's company. He even quit his lucrative senior position at Guitar Center to do it. I watched as he invested ever more steadily in his own studio and mobile recording business, and as he bought and remodeled his house (I did a little painting on it, and some studio setup), and as he just made his life what he wanted it to be, despite nearly having to forsake his bass playing and dirt bike riding to make time for all the work he had to do. When we sat at his studio or just outside in his little yard, sipping some brews, it had the feeling of a reward for a job well done. It was for him anyway. He deserved all the Coors he could suck down.

Most of our gigs tended to be challenging yet we somehow got by. We loved to complain a lot, then take more-than-generous smoke and drink breaks, then get back to it. Despite the complaining, he was totally reliable and was the guy that more bands asked for if Mitch himself was not able to do the work. His good nature and technical sense stood out among Mitch's guys, who may have had one or the other to greater or lesser extent, but Phil had it all. In this line of work, and with the way Mitch runs things, it's a lean crew doing some serious work. Rarely did we have any overwhelming force to get gigs done. It kept a few of us working steadily, and Phil always got the top gigs after Mitch. He worked like a dog sometimes to pull off weekends with a gig in Tuscon tucked between gigs in San Diego and who knows, Los Angeles. Sometimes he got calls to do international work. I never stepped up in Mitch's business because I just didn't want to work that hard, around the clock, and any day that work was dropped in our laps. But Phil took it all most of the time. I marveled but didn't try to match him.

My early experiences with Phil somehow gave me the idea he had bad luck, usually with vehicles. Once upon a time at the Catamaran resort where Rockola and numerous of "our" bands played, his wife's minivan was parked in the sloping loading dock bay, and a huge catering/bus cart rolled off the lip of the dock and smashed the front windshield to smithereens. Another time in the same cramped spaces, his own work van dragged its side along a pole that had a marking on it that said "Pole C." He looked at it, and delighted himself in saying "P Cole!" One time we were driving his van up to Las Vegas and were in severe danger of a blowout (the tire was bubbling and throbbing noticeably). We were able to stop at Baker and have a tire replaced at great expense within an hour or so. That was when auto mishaps were still a little bit funny. One time, on my birthday in 2002, Phil was driving his box van half full of stuff to Mitch's shop in Carlsbad, and he had a tire blowout that caused him to swerve and roll over on the I-5. He didn't make my birthday party because he was too shaken (but miraculously not hurt).

It was about six months later we found he had cancer. I don't know whether his "luck" was with him as he fought cancer since early 2003, but it has been nearly three years since he was diagnosed, so I'll chalk that up to a decent share of luck. He got too weak to do the real physical work but Mitch arranged for him to have work anyway, only having to mix the shows. In December 2004 there was a huge event thrown for his benefit. Rockola and some other artists who knew and loved Phil put on a special show to help defray his outlandish medical expenses that were eating into his mortgage payments and forcing him to cannibalize his studio. It was the day after Christmas, and Kelli and I were doing holiday things, so I missed out on what really was a last hurrah for him. I know they raised a good deal of money that day. But it's never enough. Grrrr.

Phil was more than a work associate. He opened up his home to me on some holidays when I would have otherwise fallen between the cracks. I was always a welcome guest at his studio to hang out, and sometimes he had the grill going with beers around, or bigger parties with lots of friends, and a keg and some jam sessions. He always had a big birthday bash in October and I was invited to those too. He asked me to assist at his studio, paint his house, and sometimes just hang out. He had some of his own contracted work that he sent me on and somehow those gigs felt differently for me. For all the things we've done, I think there might only be one picture I have of him. Of course, in my mind, there are whole home movies playing that reflect all the things we've done. The work we did was not the sort where I carried a camera around. It was often very physical, rushed, and ephemeral. Repetitive too. Most days it was just work, and not worth preserving just for that reason. After all, loading a van is loading a van, and wiring stages isn't much to get excited about.

I'm afraid that my letter didn't get to him in time. Much of it echoed what I am writing here as I tried to preserve some of those little things that made Phil more than just a work buddy. Phil gave me a level of respect and tolerance that I don't think came from many of the others I worked with at the time. Even if he just pretended to like my own music, that was more than some offered. He sometimes asked me my opinion about one thing or another I would have expected him to have an answer for. That we had occasion to talk more extensively "off the clock" set Phil apart for me. He was a validating person, in my experience. Everyone we worked with, and I mean everyone, had a soft spot for Phil, both as soundman, and as a person.

So goodbye Phil. When I hear the thunder in the heavens, I'll know it's you up there mixing up a storm!

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