Early last week, Kevin Pate — a valued member of the Phoenix music community — was fighting for his life in a hospital in Yuma, where he was serving a six-year jail sentence for DUI and violating parole. Misinformation was spreading across online social networks that he'd passed away, but, ever the fighter, he hung there, his heart continuing to beat for days. His sister, Karen Pate, flew in from Oregon to be by his side, updating his status throughout the week. On Friday morning, she reported that Pate, 54, had died from cirrhosis of the liver while they listened to "Bach's most beautiful cantata, 'Wachet Auf (Sleepers Awake).'"
Her dispatches throughout the week said as much about Pate as anything could: "Kevin remains with us," she said early in the week. "I'm not sure why — I've been reading The Grapes of Wrath aloud to him, and I hope he's not waiting to find out how it ends — but he has always been one to do things on his own schedule," she wrote on Wednesday morning. "Kevin continues to hover between the worlds this morning. When we tire of reading, I play music for him — lots of Bach and Townes Van Zandt. I found some Beat Angels last night, at which he reared up and made to get out of bed. Maybe he thought he was late for rehearsal."
When you saw Kevin in any of the many bands he played in — Gentlemen Afterdark to The Beat Angels, Busted Hearts, The Dynoglides, Phono-Royale, Greyhound Soul, Lonna Kelley and The Broken Hearted Lovers, and countless others — you had to take note of him, even though he came from the old school of thought: If you noticed the bass player, chances are he was fucking up. Kevin knew his place was not as the lead guy, yet he commanded stage right in a manner that let you know he was the most important chess piece on the board, the one holding it all together. It irritated him — and rightly so — when bands forfeiting bottom end came into vogue. "I don't remember when that trend of not having bass players began," he wrote me in his last letter from prison. "Maybe it was that band Timbuck [sic] 3 or 2, anyway, it wasn't the best idea."
"Kevin was just such a great musician," says Michael Brooks, who always shared the right side of the stage with him in power pop/rock combo The Beat Angels. "I once watched him walk up to a piano in a studio somewhere and just start to play this really great honky-tonk stuff. I was really impressed with that. I used to like watching him track in the studio, too. Just plug in and play, standing up with his eyes closed and his head tipped back. He had such a great feel for everything and you could tell that in the way he walked, talked, and carried himself. So unique. Very much how I imagine Keith Richards to be."
Seeing him as I first did, at one of the many shows The Beat Angels played at the Mason Jar, I noticed that band's formidable rhythm section immediately. (I like to imagine that in an alternate universe, the Angels are still playing regular gigs.) Besides having a world-class drummer like Jon Norwood, also sadly gone much too soon, you had Kevin holding down the cool. Back when you could still smoke in clubs. Pate's ever-present cigarette magically dangled from his lips and never, ever fell out, like he was a mobster in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I'd noticed that stance, legs spread wide apart and a sleeveless shirt, so you could see every vein in his muscles, just like Dee Dee Ramone. Like Dee Dee, Kevin had his demons, too, and he'd be the first one to tell you about them. He got hooked on the same junk Dee Dee did and went to jail for it, but he got clean and stayed clean for a long time, and then fell into the old habit again. The parallels between Dee Dee and Pate are striking.
When Pate was sentenced to jail for a DUI conviction and avoiding parole, it wasn't a light sentence: six years. But having kicked junk once again in the only foolproof way he knew how — in our penal system — he was counting the days where he could redeem himself once again. The two letters I received from prison found him in good spirits, considering his situation. In the first one, he said he was playing in a jailhouse band that was kinda good, and in another, he was already making arrangements to have a place to parole to when he got out. He noted that things had changed since his last stint. You couldn't receive cassette tapes from the outside, and that wasn't all. "Prison has changed a lot since the last time I was in," he wrote. "You can't even send in for a hooker anymore."
I'd rather not picture him there in my mind's eye. When he played in my band Serene Dominic and The Torchbearers, I lost the ability to watch him for the duration of a show but felt his confidence. You were going into battle and he had your back. I quickly learned that look of pained concentration that crossed his face when you showed him a song with too many chord changes. You know he could figure it out and make it not seem so mannered.
Lonna Kelley, who stayed close with Kevin after the Broken Hearted Lovers ended, played a short European tour with Kevin opening for Giant Sand and held a regular gig with him at Carly's Bistro every third Saturday for nearly two years.
"Talking to Kevin was like talking to your best girlfriend or your favorite aunt who buys you cigarettes and lets you drink behind your parents' back," she says. "I don't mean to say he was feminine per se. He just didn't have that male front. He told great, really funny-crazy stories about his drinking days, and some really sad stories about his childhood. His dad was a jazz [woodwind] player but also a raging alcoholic. A lot of his stories involve him hiding. But when he told these stories, he never indulged in self-pity. They were just stories, and he just happened to be a character in the story. And, boom, he would light another cigarette and cross his legs and lean forward and give me that crooked smile of his. You could talk to him about feelings. If your life was falling apart — if you wanted to gouge your eyes out from some new heartache — he was there. He was good at empathizing without over-indulging grievances. He was quick to remind me that things always change. Feelings fade, things fall apart and come back together."
Pate strived to live without ego and wouldn't tolerate entitled nonsense from someone else. He was quick to call out stupidity: Once, while hanging out at the Emerald Lounge, we observed a nascent wanna-be glam band indulge in a fit, taking forever to start a Tuesday night gig while generally acting like idiots. He took a slow drag of his cigarette and said disapprovingly. "Man, they're acting like rock stars, but they haven't earned it yet."
The fact that Kevin believed you had to earn rock stardom is reason enought for him to have gotten the kind of rock stardom the world at large could recognize. Somehow without the platinum records or the big car, or the massive ego that goes with them, he was still a rock star to a whole lot of people. Maybe the best kind. The kind that stayed your friend.
Exit stage right, Kevin Lee Pate, you've earned your peace.