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Born in Jersey, Made in Detroit

The lessons of David Blair

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Last Sunday, at the corner of Cass Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Detroit, musicians, poets, artists, politicos and friends by the hundreds convened under the very hot sun, to mourn their recently departed compadre David Blair — or, more often, just Blair. They carried instruments of all sorts: tambourines, kazoos, various hand drums, guitars, one accordion. A New Orleans-style brass section was on hand and helped dampen the weeping, which was contagious. It had been a week to the day since we'd learned that Blair, 43 (though you'd never guess his age), had died. 

On Saturday, July 23, Blair's body was discovered by a maid at the Corktown Inn, where he'd often go for the A/C during summer's hottest days. Detroit was under an advisory, with a heat index of 98 degrees, and Blair had mentioned to more than one friend the day before that he hadn't been feeling well. A medical examiner's report is pending.

A week and a day later, some of those dearest to Blair held up a banner that read "Detroit Loves Blair." See, the social activist, poet and singer-songwriter David Blair was, in his words, "Made in Detroit," even if he was born in New Jersey. He loved this city and that love was reciprocated. They had claimed each other more than a decade ago. 

When news of his passing hit the Internet, Blair's Facebook page became a moving, real-time memorial. A blog written by Brett Callwood posted on MT's website quickly became one of the most viewed articles in our site's history. Then on Sunday, an incredibly diverse array of Detroiters collected to march behind the banner: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, straight, gay, transgendered, whole families and lone mourners. 

To such melodies as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," and with a police escort following behind, Blair's Detroit family slowly marched a half-mile north toward the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit.

It was a celebration of life. You hear about those when someone dies, but rarely does a memorial feel so celebratory. There was a palpable sense of soulful rejoicing. With Technicolor handkerchiefs and umbrellas raised above marchers' heads, passers-by were curious as to what was going on. 

Inside the sweltering confines of the church, Audra Kubat played heartbreaking arpeggios, minor falls without major lifts, after which Blair's band, the Boyfriends, ripped into one of the late singer's original recordings. The song's heartbreaking theme, it seemed, was Blair's unyielding lust for life. 

The church was filled to capacity, and in its pews sat some of Detroit's most serious musicians and poets, from Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett to the rapper and activist Ilana Weaver, who performs under the name Invincible.

After one of Blair's longtime best friends and bandmates, Dale Wilson, delivered the eulogy, a string of poets, friends, including Blair's partner, Dan Stalter, delivered speeches. The shared message was that Blair worked under self-imposed deadlines and had always seemed rushed to get his work done, so if the several hundred gatherers wanted to respect his memory, the one thing we can do is continue to fight for those who are underrepresented and produce our heart's work, whatever that might be. Let life be curious. Be proud. Write poems, write songs — share them with lovers and strangers. 

Blair worked with many community organizations and often worked with children. Recently, he was working with the Capuchin Rosa Parks Youth Music Class, teaching them the power of call-and-response singing. They took to the stage and started belting out "When the Saints Go Marching In" just as he'd taught them. The call was heard, and Blair's congregation responded with cathartic resonance. Then the brass section, led by parade marshal Larry Gabriel, brought the song — and the people — out of the church in a New Orleans "second line" procession and marched the surrounding blocks of Detroit. And the people sang. 

Upon the heavy outpour of memory and condolence online, Metro Times gathered a handful of testimonials and remembrances from those whose lives Blair touched. An online memorial exists at rememberingblair.wordpress.com. Also see dblair.org.

 

 

 

The night that the world learned of the death of Michael Jackson, who we all know was such a huge influence on Blair, we all gathered at the Motown Records building (Hitsville USA). That night we danced and laughed and celebrated his life. Through his music we were lifted out of our sadness and instead of dwelling on his death, we were able to remember his life. That spirit was so much a part of Blair. Turning destruction into beauty, sadness into laughter, anger into joy. I hope we can all remember that today as we mourn the loss of a great talent and even greater friend. Sing his songs, tell his stories, and remember his passion and exuberance for life and how to live it. 

Blair, I take solace in knowing that because you worked so tirelessly in life, we are left with a seemingly endless catalogue of music and poetry that will allow you to continue to inspire and teach us, even in death. I will be forever grateful for the time we spent together. From the long nights of Scrabble on our Prentis porch, to the longer rides in the van on what seemed like never-ending tours. Moments like that have always been special to me and now I will appreciate them in a different way. They shaped me into who I am today. I was just an 18-year-old kid from the suburbs when I met you, and you helped me develop my understanding of this city. A city that you loved so much. I've been here for 12 years now and recently my eyes had grown hard. I had become cynical and begun to turn away from the city. When I found out you were gone, I went to the places we used to go, walked the streets we used to walk and began seeing things the way I used to see them. The way you taught me to see. The city, in a way, has become new for me again. Thanks to you. 

Goodbye my friend, my mentor, my bandmate. Goodbye, and thank you. —Dale Wilson 

 

 

A complex and rarified individual, Blair was a poet in one of the oldest senses: He was a bard. And like those extraordinary Celtic poets, he committed himself to the study of the craft, memorization of the lyric, and arresting conveyance. His was the bardic realm of song, when song and lyric were indivisible. —Vievee Francis

 

 

David Blair is an artist, a poet, a musician, an actor, an author, a thinker, a performer, a teacher, and one of many gods I've hugged in life. I'm so happy, in a way, that I have an opportunity to help cultivate the seeds he's spread. He's not gone, but he did die. I'm expecting him to call and say, "Oh, they mixed me up with some other dude. You know how it goes!" — and then laugh big with a piratey tooth gap. But he left, and he just gave everyone he touched the next task: to take his lessons and craft them into our own beauty, to give that beauty to other people of all creeds and stations (I don't care how cheesy this is) and to ensure that that beauty is multipliable infinitely. He traveled the whole world and called Detroit home. He introduced me to half of my friends, and the other half just knew him. I played his CD release two years ago, my birthday eve. We did an impromptu unrehearsed "Purple Rain." I'm rambling but I guess I can't help it.

This loss is such a shock that it requires me to be vigilant of all the amazing people that Blair has touched in his life. He was so completely uncompromising that he lived seven lifetimes in his short years. And he didn't lead just by example; hundreds of students can attest to that. I'm one of them. ... He has believed so enthusiastically about humanity that typical Detroit cynicism immediately stops being cool as soon as he enters the room. His natural knack for musical and English language commands whatever he points his tongue or pen or guitar toward. He's worked hard his whole fucking amazing life. The things he can see make the most privileged feel blind. Just say "hello" and you may have stopped a war, right? ... I'm going to leave you with a poem about this city. <what does this refer to??> Why? Because I can't lie, I hate it here sometimes. But you can't listen to this piece and not fall in love with the insanity like the first time. You just can't. Us mental cases are too sweet. —Julia Stephenson (Stephenson and her fiance Scottie Stone played occasionally with Blair in his band the Boyfriends)

 

 

"Blair's dead." A shock. He went through my mind the night he died while I was waiting to play a set at the Corktown Festival just around the corner from the hotel where he was found. He just came up in a conversation I was having with one of his former Black Planet bandmates. I said that he was one of the best and most successful talents that Detroit had produced in years and that I Ioved hearing him whether it was a yard party jam, at the Buzz Bar or his one-man shows. He made it. He lived the dream of making his work his love, his love his work. Though I haven't seen him in a few years, the silence of his absence — on this plane, at least — was deafening. But now, I can hear him singing the last line of his version of "Karma Police" while we jammed in Audra Kubat's back yard during one of her birthday parties: "For a minute there, I lost myself. I lost myself." Just for a minute, Blair. Now you've found it all. —James Keith La Croix

 

 

This past Sunday morning I had a most disturbing call. I have been saddened by the news of the passing of my dear friend, David Blair. A Detroit poet, musician and an amazing soul who has touched and inspired thousands of people through his art, kind spirit and overall love that showed in his encouraging and influencing of other artists. His work is truly great, not only because his songwriting and poetry were remarkable, but because his performances and the way he delivered each word was done with such power and conviction and truth. Someone once asked me why I thought Detroit artists were so great. I merely said that art comes from life. The greater the life, the greater the art. And Blair spoke his life through his words. For those of you who had the opportunity to witness this, you know exactly what I mean. I feel blessed and honored to have heard and seen his poetry and music, but to have also been inspired by him directly and call him my friend. 

You see I'm not one of those lucky few that learned early on in life what my passion and true calling was. Even after years of education and working in the field that I graduated in, I still felt incomplete. I searched far and wide and tried all sorts of hobbies to stir some kind of hunger and desire to make me feel alive. I found that passion in a spot off Woodward and Mack called Bittersweet coffeehouse. It was there that I met Blair and he was one of the first open mic hosts that I played in front of. Back then I was shy and timid, but Blair went out of his way to make me feel welcome. It was his welcoming nature that made me want to come back. My first show ever was me opening up for him!

There was another Bittersweet coffeehouse open mic host that encouraged me and that was Sean Fitzgerald. Like Blair, Sean passed away too soon a few years ago. Through the years both of them taught me a lot, but of all the things that stuck with me the most was their love and support. Supporting of others, the arts, music and for our little music community that is truly like a family. While I do mourn the loss of a friend, I understand that while they were on this earth, they lived their lives. They did what they loved. They touched other lives and inspired people to find and follow their own passions whether it is music, acting, art, dance, social change, or whatever. I am who I am today because of people like Blair and Sean and I will continue to do the same as them. Encourage. Love. Inspire. Live your life to the fullest and be great. —Emilio Basa

 

 

I will always remember the times I got to be with Blair the person. Drinking more beer that I'd like to admit at Cass Cafe or shoving sushi down our throats at Wasabi, sitting on the corner after a night of poetry and whiskey. I consumed him with every sip and chew. I'm happy that I was able to tell one of my favorite people that he was one of my favorites, but he made it easy to love him and express that love. Blair, show me how to grieve for you, show me where pain should be. Teach me the way I should remember you. My tears don't seem right; they seem unworthy of you. My memories can't quite articulate the meaning that your life, your love, your smile, your hugs, your art have to me. I don't know how to grieve because I don't know how to say goodbye. —Kayla Burton

 

 

David Blair was the most inspiring, creative and loving person in my life. I'm not really good with words, which is probably what made me gravitate toward Blair in the first place. The first time I heard him perform, I was literally moved to tears. I'm moved to tears now as I think about every amazing moment we spent together. I will cherish forever what Blair gave to me. My first published photo in a magazine was of Blair. I took my portfolio into the magazine and a shot of Blair was pulled right from it and used as a full page. David was the closest thing I've ever had to a muse as I've photographed him for nearly a decade. He had a hole in his smile so when we worked together he was a little reserved about showing me his smile. Those of you who knew Blair know that he was far from shy about smiling when a camera wasn't around. One of the fondest things I will always carry with me was his laugh. He laughed with his whole body and it was absolutely infectious. Blair meant so much to so many creative people. He was a phenomenal teacher and one thing he was great at was knowing when to get you out of your comfort zone as an artist. I remember him telling me it was time to take the photos that were in me, not the ones other people wanted me to take. He trusted me with his image and that played an integral part in my maturity as an artist and more importantly as a person. I cherish the gifts he gave me and the powerful words he spoke. I'll miss you, friend. I love you. —David Lewinski

 

Through his poetry, music, and friendship, Blair touched so many people in Detroit. He was also our cultural ambassador as he traveled all around the country and the world. While it's impossible to trace it all, I witnessed one of the most powerful demonstrations of his influence at one of the many open mics he hosted some years back.

A young woman showed up with a handwritten poem, and asked Blair if she could read it while he played his song "When I Was a Girl." He, of course, obliged her. Blair could be wickedly funny, but this is one of his deeply serious songs about a suicidal girl who discovers the strength within herself and the will to live. After singing a verse or two, Blair strummed his guitar while the woman read her poem, a passionate and personal account of her own empowerment. It served as tribute to Blair, and I recall her saying that his song helped save her life.

Then hammering home the gravity of the song and the moment with his husky baritone, Blair continued to the song's crescendo: "And it was then I decided: dead was something that I'd never be!"

That's the line stuck in my head for now. You'll always live on, my brother. —Scott Kurashige

 

 

I met you 10 years ago. I was a freshman in college. A shy kid who didn't talk much. You introduced yourself, handed me a flier to a show, smiled and said see you around. For the next 10 years, we would work together to get your music and poetry to the masses. We did great things. We laughed. We cried. We fought like brothers ... but that's what brothers do. And now you're gone and I'm left here thumbing through unreleased poems and listening to unreleased songs thinking of the possibility of what could have been. But I will never forget what you were. You were more than just a gifted writer and performer. You were an inspiration. You gave so many people the courage to pick up a guitar, write a poem, write a song, march in a rally, and do the monkey to Beethoven. Most of all, you were a bridge. You introduced and connected so many people of all ages and races. You taught us how to love unconditionally. You taught us how to live life for the experience. And for that, I thank you. You took something from me with your passing. But the memories and lessons that we shared will stay with me forever. So many people are affected by your death, but that is a true sign of how many people were affected by your life. ... You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten. I love you, Blair. —Matthew Wisotsky

 

 

I wasn't fortunate enough to know Blair as well as so many others seemed to, but he still had a profound impact on me. I was in 10th grade at Cass Technical High School when I joined Citywide Poets, a branch of the InsideOut organization. Blair and Francine Harris were my instructors and they both inspired the Hell out of me. Blair was kind, but critical, and an excellent instructor. He was among the first to encourage my writing.

The next year I didn't have Blair as an instructor, but whenever we ran into each other at the InsideOut offices or just around Detroit he always had a kind word and a smile. I ran into Blair a few months ago whilst studying at Wayne State's Purdy/Kresge library. Again, he smiled and asked what I was doing with myself these days. I told him that I was working on my thesis, and he seemed impressed and wished me good luck. About a month after that, I saw him while I was working at the Barnes and Noble on Wayne State's campus; I helped him pick out a birthday present for a friend.

What I will remember about Blair is his kindness — he was always so genuine and so interested in the people around him, and life in general, really. He wasn't a teacher out of obligation or necessity, but because he cared about Detroit's youth. I keep seeing people post stories about him on Facebook and I wish that I had been able to be close to him like they were, but I'm honestly just thankful for the passing smiles and small talk we shared.

Blair was kind, Blair was talented, but most of all, Blair was one of a kind. —Elizabeth Van Horn

 

Moonwalk

(After Lucille Clifton, For D. Blair)

 

May the spirit

you carried guide you now

 

Like a lamp to a book

or a book to an eye

 

That now, even closed, 

sees some flower of light

 

Quiet as spaces 

between notes 

 

Curved inside the gold bell

of your voice

 

May you moonwalk 

where there is no moon

 

And write poems 

on the stars

 

Sing songs to the great ends 

of things

 

As if they were your children  

 

—Norene Smith 

 

Send Condolences to the Family of David Blair, 100 Swartswood Rd., Apartment 136, Newton, NJ 07860, and to his Detroit Family at 812 Blaine St., Detroit, MI 48202.

More information, including how to donate to a memorial fund, at dblair.org. 

Also see rememberingblair.wordpress.com.

 

Blair: in his own words

Right after Michael Jackson's death, Blair contacted Metro Times about the possibility of publishing poems from his then four-years-in-the-making book — then conceived as a book-CD package — about the King of Pop. These were from the manuscript that a year later appeared as his book Moonwalking. 

Moonwalking

 

Why did I leave earth?

Because it's crazy down there, but not

crazy enough. I dance it all away.

I'm so gone. I walk backwards and still out-move you.

I glide, receding towards innocence.

Back to childhood. I'm a star, suspended,

floating like a god or a king — no

too young to be king — a prince.

I used to be a robot, but robots move too slowly,

too earthbound and I'm unable to be smooth.

I'm soft, like the dust I kick up when I spin.

Dust some color no one's ever seen before.

My dirt is your souvenir. John Merrick's bones.

I build fortresses from Ferris wheels,

climb giant bonsais with chimpanzees

higher than you could

imagine. Into the air

thinner than me. Have you heard

the sounds I make? Out of this world

How many millions does it take to prove, Earthlings

can't move like me. Adults

can't touch me.

 

I walk backwards on another planet   singing

and still leave you in my dust. Climbing,

morphing into a whole other dimension. 

One small step for man. One giant step

for me, on my platform, poised

for takeoff. I won't move

until you scream me into motion.

I am one glove. My other hand invisible.

If not for this coat of medals, these rhinestone socks,

shining pants, you would not see me

a ball of light slowly fading.

I can't breathe your air. I'm terrified

of your sun. I can't stop dancing. I don't

understand these laws. I can't

obey these laws.

 

 Gravity?

Be serious.

Have you seen me move?

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