RIP Jeff Healey

It’s weird, but I find myself moved by the news of Healey’s passing much more than I would have expected. Don’t really have the time to go into all this — I’m about out of here for a birthday get-together — but some brief thoughts:

I’m sure if I were Canadian and the age I am that I would have known a lot more about his life and work almost by default — and the fact that he’s only four years older than me does give pause. But as the article notes, he’d struggled with a lifelong disease in any event, having caused his blindness when he was still a baby, and likely always grew up in the shadow of knowing few guarantees. Doubtless the family he leaves behind knew it all very well, though his young son will only know of it later on.

“Angel Eyes” was really the only song I knew of his, being the sizeable American hit it was, but I’d heard bits and pieces of his work over the years, often via covers, and I always thought the same thing — “Well, he’s working in a style and sound that’s not really my thing (didn’t help his bandmates never struck me as being anything more than workmanlike bluesrockers), but he sure can play.” It’s little surprise he gained what seemed like his strongest following among those folks who lit candles when Stevie Ray Vaughn died, another performer who was a killer player but, again, did so in a vein that never connected with me much. Other impulses, other inclinations, and so forth.

Still, there’s also something else he was involved in which has earned him immortality (and hopefully some royalty checks still) — namely, his band ended up as the house band featured in that supreme example of bad movie greatness, Road House. Talking about said film here is almost unnecessary, it’s been so thoroughly dissected — here’s the Agony Booth’s recent treatment, while it was the inaugural offering of RiffTrax — but what’s notable in many of the takes on Road House is that while Healey, who didn’t merely have to perform but also had a small running part in the film, wasn’t ever going to be a great actor, he did a surprisingly great job in a thankless part in a thankless film.

And he did — cast as a generic ‘friend of the lead from past adventures,’ he had to deal with some dumbass lines, but rather than stagily showboating like nearly everyone else in the film, his delivery — whether from unfamiliarity or conscious choice — was easy, understated, reflective. It’s almost out of sync with everything else — and arguably provides a unneeded distraction from the sublime stupidity throughout — but it’s the one performance in the film that could have been carried over into a straightforward, serious and logical take on the same material, if at all possible as a film product.

But he was mostly hired to provide the music, which he did, and you can see both his band’s strengths and weaknesses throughout — they’re collectively just a blues-rock bar band; however, they’re arguably one of the best anywhere. And there are a couple of moments where Healey shows why he had a rep — check the start of the cover of “White Room.” It initially just sounds like the cover it is, but when Healey launches into the first full guitar part after the moody dramatics of the introduction, he frankly beats the crap out of Eric Clapton’s original take and then some.

Meantime, there’s a very interesting performance at the end of the movie which plays out in full over the credits that often goes unremarked upon — a cover of an (obscure?) eighties Bob Dylan song, “When the Night Comes Falling.” I’ve often argued that Dylan works for me best as touchstone, something for people to take and use either as inspiration or as source for more interesting covers. It’s the latter here, and while you can hear Dylan’s phrasing through Healey’s vocals, I actually have to say that I think Healey really does make the song his own in the end — he’s definitely bringing his own spin to the whole performance, and as a big closing number, the portrait of a simultaneously passionate and fractured love seems intriguingly out of place. Here’s the promo video for it, a different visual from the movie but the same performance:

More could be said and will be by those who knew him, his work, and his life — for instance, I hadn’t realized he’d been hosting a well-regarded radio show drawing on his massive collection of old vinyl, something I’ll always nod approvingly towards — and again, there are many musicians out there whose untimely passing will affect me more if they happen that way. But he made his mark, he loved his art, and he died too soon. It’s a sad fate, and I’ll raise a glass to him tonight at the get-together. RIP.

[EDIT: Among the various remembrances now popping up is this one — I urge you to read it. It’s the type of story that helps show that some people are just plain good people, and that’s more than enough in this life.]

One Response to “RIP Jeff Healey”

  1. Alfred Soto Says:

    This is pretty good, and much better than Dylan’s embalmed version.


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