Joe Cahill showed up in Boulder with a turquoise Strat and dancing feet.
Music was central to his existence, and the sounds coming off a concert stage sometimes seemed to soak into his body and govern it for hours after the encore. We went to see P-Funk one night at the Fox Theatre, and he danced in the street outside after the show, danced as we bought snacks at a convenience store, danced in the car on the way home, and danced, I’m sure, in his dreams. “Feet, don’t fail me now” was the night’s mantra.
I met Joe when we were students at the State University of New York at Oswego. We became close when we both studied in London for a semester. That’s when we discovered our mutual interest in music and guitar. We jammed together on the plane to England. Not every passenger was pleased with our impromptu performance, but I love that memory. I had found a kindred spirit.
It’s one of the memories I’ve been returning to this week as I’ve read about Joe’s death. Killed in New Orleans. Shot by a homeowner after Joe tried to enter the place. Bizarre circumstances that raise so many questions. What the hell was going on?
Joe and I were housemates in Fort Collins for about a year in the mid-90s. At one point, deep questions of faith and self and life and death troubled him to the point of near breakdown. Joe could be intense. Often this was a wonderful quality. In this case, it was not, and, though I lost touch with him years ago and could in no way speak to his state of mind, I’ve wondered this week if those old demons have continued to haunt him.
But Joe’s friends on social media sites have commented about how big his heart was, and this is why what happened in New Orleans is not the Joe we knew. He was kind to a fault. One night when we lived in Fort Collins he met a guy who needed a place to stay, and Joe told him he could stay at our place. Just gave a total stranger our couch.
He had a magnetic personality. People liked him instantly, and with a cocked yet diffident smile his charm was disarming. More than once he won the attention of a girl that both of us liked.
Joe was a rock-star musical performer at parties. Back when I knew him, one of his favorites to pull out was Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue.” But he made a career in music by working around, not on, the stage. He established himself as one of the key local light technicians. His most recent gig was as a part of the Leftover Salmon crew, and it’s becoming clear this week by reading online comments just how deep a part of the Boulder music community Joe was. He seems to have known everyone.
The last time I communicated with Joe was on March 13. He contacted me after seeing on Facebook a picture of me with Nate Cook, of The Yawpers, in Austin at the SXSW music festival. I wrote to him that we needed to catch up. He wrote back, “Nice, Sounds good buddy, looking forward to it!”
Now that I can’t look forward to catching up, I’m looking back. I hear funky music and I see Joe dancing. “Feet, don’t fail me now.”