When Kenny Edwards passed away, on August 18 at the age of 64, the world lost a pivotal figure in the development of rock music. If one reads the obituaries in major publications and web sites, this becomes self-evident. Kenny literally was in all the right places at the right times when folk, country, and rock and roll collided in the clubs and studios of Southern California in the early and mid-60s.
The success of his career as a sideman and producer followed the upward arc of some of the greatest artists to emerge from the L.A. record machine. Yet unlike the legend he was, and could be remembered as, musicians, friends, and fans around the world are mourning the loss of a true human being and gentle fellow traveler. I think that is the way he would like to be remembered above all else.
Kenny ended up being a friend to everyone he met, which made his incredible gifts as a songwriter and performer so special. It was simply not in his nature to put up the protective barriers that many performers have to maintain. One could not only vicariously but actually become a part of his life by the sheer power of his humanity and his art.
Kenny referred to himself as the Zelig of the music business. Like that Woody Allen character, he saw himself as a witness rather than a mover of events. It was endearing to hear Kenny describe hanging out with Keith Richards as though he were just a lucky fan, or to hear him describe his daily visits to Frank Zappa’s rehearsals when his group, the Stone Poneys, had a residency at a New York City folk club downstairs from where Zappa’s group, the Mothers of Invention, had a studio.
It is a shame that Kenny could not have written his memoirs, because they would have represented a valuable compendium through an egoless lens with no agenda of self-aggrandizement or justification.
In 1997 Kenny moved to Santa Barbara, where his mother Carol lived at the time, and where his long-time friend and collaborator Karla Bonoff had recently moved. Circumstances and a quest for the essential found Kenny leading the simplest of lives. Between tours accompanying Karla, he found the time to surf again and to explore his spirituality. Most importantly, he made the decision to embark on a solo career.
It is astonishing that until his last years, Kenny did not think of himself as a viable solo artist. Initially he was not comfortable with the idea, on several levels, yet Bonoff’s generosity in giving him opening solo slots at her concerts, and the enthusiastic embrace of listeners, gradually gave him the confidence and will to pursue his own muse on his own. “After being a sideman for so long, it is hard to start a solo career when you are older,” Karla said. “I wanted to help him put some miles under his belt.”
Kenny entered the vibrant Santa Barbara and Ventura acoustic music scene, developing friendships that resulted in great songs, memorable performances, and many recordings enriched by Kenny’s musical and production skills. Bonoff feels that this involvement helped him to finally go solo. “Santa Barbara musicians really created a safe circle for him that was very sweet and tender, which he needed.”
He loved his new home, and never felt it was an afterglow of his former achievements. He would talk with equal enthusiasm about jamming on Pat Milliken’s porch and playing a sold-out concert in Japan. When he asked me to play on his first solo album I was well aware that he could have used any of the great drummers with whom he had played, yet he valued our friendship as an important ingredient of his music. When Headless Household asked him to perform and record, he actually was nervous to be playing what he called “complicated music,” but we will miss and mourn his invaluable contributions to the band. The ending of that connection of support from a generous soul has saddened so many musicians and listeners.
Kenny’s cancer and its treatment did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm and need for performing and songwriting. In fact, his trials served his art, bringing out profound songs and performances of breathtaking immediacy. His performance of the song “In Your Eyes” (co-written by Pat Milliken) at a Soho tribute concert for that recently deceased, much-loved musician, brought the house down on an evening filled with heart-felt performances. Even though Kenny’s illness was a cause for concern among his friends, he never complained, and kept its progression to himself. “He just wanted to play music as long as he could, so he did not dwell on his illness,” Karla said.
He was hospitalized in early August, while on the road in Colorado with Karla, and airlifted back to Santa Barbara where he died peacefully. Kenny lived his life the way he wrote his songs. He made simplicity the catalyst for many levels of beauty and meaning. He made the songs, and his memory, reverberate long after the last chord has been played.