There are many musicians, singers and songwriters out there who have never had their due, seen the bright lights, nor found the nirvana of the popular songs and the end results that bring fortune and fame. Some seek it while others shy away. And there are those that touch the light but follow a different path, a path that takes them down life's highway, in a different but nonetheless just as spectacular way. But one who deserves to be recognized for his great talent at songwriting, singing and musicianship would have to be Minnesota's Gene LaFond.
This is a story that needs to be told.
I'm here to say there is more to the Gene LaFond story than just that. I want to introduce you to an amazing guy with a pretty amazing story.
Gene LaFond grew up in the Twin-Cities area of Minnesota and was in high school during the big folk boom of the late fifties and early sixties. In that time there were beatnik hangouts and coffee houses (yes, there were coffee houses before Starbucks) seemingly everywhere in this northern area. Gene and his friends would often go listen to a young Bob Dylan at a place called The Ten O'clock Scholar, a coffeehouse near the University of Minnesota.
They were drawn into the smoke filled coffee houses to listen to the music like moths to a flame. The area was alive with the contemporary sounds of the 50's as the Beat Generation and its melodic poets were huddled and practicing in this obscure region.
This all took place before Dylan made his big move to New York.
Gene paid attention to these artists and musicians. They filled his head with ideas and thoughts. He was alive with the sounds and the vibe. He never forgot those days and honed his own folk singing craft based on this model.
(As a folk singing guitar player, when I heard that this guy had actually seen Dylan in a small venue, early in his career, getting his chops so to speak impressed me very much.)
In the late sixties, while attending the University of Minnesota Gene met a guy named Larry Kegan. Larry was in a wheelchair, caused by a motorcycle accident he was in at the age of sixteen.
While Larry was still in the hospital from his accident Bob, would come in and wheel Larry into the day room on a gurney where they would sing together. I'm sure the nurses, doctors and patients had no idea what was going on.
Gene had met Larry a few years after Bob had left for New York seeking his fame. They became fast friends, sharing their love of music and travel. They began making up positive songs to lift Larry's spirit. Gene would play guitar and Larry would sing. Health permitting they would travel all over the Twin Cities area of Minnesota playing in coffeehouses and anywhere they could. It seems people really loved the lift the songs gave them too. In my conversations with Gene I could tell the love and respect Gene had for Larry. "Larry had amazing strength of heart and charisma," Gene later told me.
Around the mid-seventies during Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review days Larry felt a lot better. He would call Bob and say, "where are you? We're coming out."
They would load up Larry's handicapped equipped van and catch up with the tour and hang out as long as they could. Sometimes they'd stay for weeks as Bob's personal guests. Bob put the word out to the crew that these were his friends and they were to be treated right and "make sure they don't get in the way or arrested."
The routine was that at the end of the show, during Dylan's encore, they would get in Larry's van and get in line behind Bob's tour bus and roll into the night to the next gig. As they moved through the night, Bob and Larry would talk on the CB until Larry would drift off to sleep in the back of the van.
The two of them would continue this every year for at least fifteen years, as Larry's health permitted. During this time, they met and became friends with many of Bob's crew and musician friends. Such friends as, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Scarlet Rivera, G. E. Smith, Neil & Pegi Young and a continuous string of rock stars and worshippers that were always around.
After meeting and getting to know Bob, Gene realized that Bob was indeed a mortal human being and that he might be able to write also. I asked Gene, I guess you could say it inspired you? "That's a gross understatement, I watched and listened and learned from the best songwriter of the century and longed for the day I could say I had written one that would stand up on its own."
Gene lived a songwriter's dream; back home he and Larry would play benefits and small gigs and go out on tour a few times a year. He didn't have to play in smoke filled bars for pennies. Their gigs and tours kept him satisfied and inspired to keep writing.
Larry's health was always in question but, they traveled all over anyway. For a time Larry lived in Mexico because he could get help cheaper. From there the two of them traveled all over Central America. He even used to run a resort for disabled people in Mexico. That resort became the model for one used in the movie 'Born on the Fourth of July' staring Tom Cruise.
Back home the two of them kept playing and when their new friends would come to town, they would open for them. Friends like Kinky Friedman, Ramblin' Jack and Edie Brickel. On one night when Bob was playing at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, he cut his opening act Soul Asylum short to let Gene, Larry and their band 'The Mere Mortals', with the help of Bob's bass player Tony Garnier, play a full set. They "got special treatment." Bob gave them his dressing room and his guitar-tech to dial in Gene's guitar and hung it next to Bob's off stage, ready for him to go on.
It seemed that Bob even had an extra bus that he needed to keep on the road and since he was tired of hassling with opening acts all the time, Jeff Kramer (Bob's manager) asked them if they wanted to be the permanent opening act. Or course they were thrilled but it wasn't in the cards. Larry fell victim to one of his many near death throes and they just couldn't pull it off.
Around the early nineties, Gene and Larry sent a tape of songs they had written to Neil Young. The great Rocker must have liked what he heard because he invited them to open the show at the prestigious, Bridge School Benefit, at the Shoreline Amphitheater just outside of San Francisco.
They agreed eagerly to play and were flown in like the stars that they were. Picked up at the airport in a long black Cadillac, the two were treated just like the "rest of the hotshots." Playing for 20,000 people, Gene thought he was in a dream. And they were asked to come back the next year too. The Bridge School being for disabled kids, well; it just seems natural to have a performer in a wheelchair at this event.
Gene wanted to get Larry a stand-up chair so he could wheel up to the microphone, unwind and stand up. In fact, Bob and Larry had tried using one before, but Larry didn't want to draw any more attention to him then was necessary. The show was a success.
Geno at the Honky Tonk bar
For years LaFond kept writing songs and performing off and on with his friend and musical partner, when Larry's health permitted. Up until about seven years ago, he finally got up the nerve to run them by his friend, local producer Willie Murphy. Willie had produced Bonnie Raitt's first break through album and most of Spider John Koerners records. Willie liked what he heard and encouraged Gene to record it which became The Wild Unknown, his first CD.
Larry's health had dwindled over the years and he couldn't be featured on the record as much as Gene would have liked but he was able to sing on a song they wrote called "Some Get the Chair".
"Some Get the Chair", was written as an uplifting, inspirational song about life and what it offers you. Life just keeps life'n along and even if it gives you what appears to be a rotten deal, like say, I don't know... breaks your neck and puts you in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, you can still accomplish a lot. All you have to do is live life on life's terms and keep on rolling."
The song has since taken on different meaning to those who were close to Larry. You see, on September 11, 2001, amidst all the tragedy that was going on in our nation, bringing no fanfare to himself or his situation, Larry quietly died in bed in Minnesota. There is now sadness to the tune, sadness for the loss. As you listen to "Some Get the Chair" and hear Larry's iron lung assist his breathing I want you to know that regardless of what life handed Larry, he still followed his bliss and got to do incredible things along the way. And he took some people with him as a result. We can all learn from that.
Gene released his second CD, Geno, soon after Larry died. Gene was not able to spend a lot of time on marketing. He says, "Because it takes away from writing, gigging and working to pay the bills, I'm not rich and famous." He plays around the twin city area with his new band The Wild Unknown, sells his CDs at www.cdbaby.com/cd/lafond/, at his website www.genelafond.com or at his gigs.
It's pretty much an uphill battle for him as it is for all independent artists. Not to worry though, as he puts it "I am just happy to have written a few good tunes that may give someone a lift." I think he recently did some soundtrack work for an independent film that I was up for, I'm not sure. Let me know Geno... If so, I'm not bitter, disappointed or tired.
For me, I'm real glad to be getting to know Gene (thanks for the intro Lois) and I'm look forward to hearing more of your stories in the future. I really like his music, I think his approach is honest, from the heart and is meant for good. We need this type of music more than ever, especially in this day and age. All of the corporate generated rock that has brought us the likes of Britney, Ashley and the next lip-syncing clone. It is refreshing to find someone like Gene who plays music for the love of it and not for the fashion of it.
Unless we support artists and choose them based on their talent and heart, our choices of music will dwindle away until all we will have left is the dribble that they try to shove down our throats now. Music is the universal language, truly the language of the heart. It is not meant to be something that is just mass-produced and put on a conveyor belt from a factory. It seems like much of today's music is produced to make us want to wear the "right" clothes, not to open up the mind and heart to allow for growth and (dare I say it) free thinking.
Gene LaFond writes and performs the kind of music that has staying power for him, for you, and for me. It is a sound that resonates with life. Check it out at www.genelafond.com.