Gone in a Puff of Smoke

Carol Mercadantr steps carefully around the hospital room and stops at the head of the bed. She leans over and, with all the delicacy of a mother and her newborn, gently combs David Trippy's hair back into a pompadour. Her movements are slow and kind of hypnotic, a grace born of resignation to the fact that her lover of 10 years will soon be dead. He could go tonight, tomorrow, next week perhaps, or even later. Her smile is weak, little more than an insincere formality saved for Trippy's visitors. She is tired, and appears beaten down, the look of a woman who for weeks has been living in a small hospital room taking care of her man.

Cancer has ravaged Trippy's 48-year-old body. His head, when juxtaposed against his bony frame, appears Elephant Man huge, a medicine ball atop a broomstick figure. Tubes snake in and out of his abdomen, arms and throat. The IVs feed nutrition, antibiotics and morphine to kill the pain. A scabbed-over incision on the right side of his neck where a fist-size tumor was once rooted reveals a small X, the entrance point for the futile zaps of radiation. Trippy's voice is but an eerie rattle that only Mercadantr can decipher, and he can no longer write. Eyes are the key to communication with Trippy. His are dark, shadowed with confusion and distance. At this point they say so very little.

The doctors tell Mercadantr that the cancer should have killed her boyfriend by now. They tell her that he is a fighter. But she already knew he was a fighter. In the years since they have been together, she says they've been to hell and back.

When David Trippy is gone, the Arizona blues scene will see a marked drop in value. A charismatic iconoclast, his charm was as much an asset as his talent was in his basic survival. Trippy is well-known in these parts not only as an ace harmonica player but as an entertainer.

Doctors at Mesa's Desert Samaritan Hospital believe secondhand cigarette smoke caused Trippy's lung and throat cancer. For nearly 20 years, Trippy made a living sucking smoky bar air, first blowing harmonica in Texas Red and the Heartbreakers and later as front crooner with the Hoodoo Kings.

When Trippy first arrived at the hospital, doctors asked him how many packs of cigarettes he smoked in a day. None, he said. It's true, he never smoked, not intentionally, anyway.

But Trippy has lived hard. Some say as hard as Keith Moon did. His drinking was renowned, and he did his share of drugs.

"You got to realize, Dave's lifestyle was a thing of legend in this town," explains Paul Thomas, on-again, off-again Hoodoo Kings bassist. "This is a guy who not only battled alcoholism, drug addiction and divorce. I've seen the guy homeless."

Mike Leach, a best friend to Trippy since the early 1980s, has resolved in his mind the fact that his friend is on his way out. His is sadness tinged with anger.

"I'm looking at this guy," he says, shaking his head, "one of my best friends, and he's withering away in the hospital. And it could have been totally avoided. All the doctors that have seen him agreed that secondhand smoke caused this cancer. One death by secondhand smoke is one too many. Musicians and bar employees have to work in hazardous areas. It's like they are second-class citizens. Something should be done. Other workplaces have been made safe. And you know, when was the last time you could smoke on an airline?"

Last month a Florida jury told a flight attendant that the tobacco industry was not liable for her lung cancer. The woman is awaiting a new lung. This after the testimony of radiologists suggested that secondhand smoke caused the disease in the otherwise healthy nonsmoker. The woman even coughed up blood on the witness stand.

David Feuerherd, the vice president of programs at the Arizona chapter of the American Lung Association, says environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) is a "serious, serious, serious occupational hazard," particularly for those who work in bars. He cites California as an example of a state that has reacted to an alarming number of cancer cases attributed to secondhand smoke.

"[In California] you are not allowed to smoke in bars," he says. "And the history behind that is interesting. Because it was done for occupational health reasons, it was not done for the benefit of the customer . . ."

Earlier this month an Australian court ruled that a social club is responsible for the throat cancer suffered by a 63-year-old barmaid exposed to secondhand smoke. The woman was awarded nearly a quarter-million U.S. dollars in damages. The ruling is expected to open the floodgates for similar claims.

Every cause has its sacrificial lambs. Feuerherd expects the laws regarding nonsmoker rights in bars to change here eventually. "Whether it happens next year, in five years, 10 years or 20 years, someone will litigate here and someone will win and the dominoes will start falling."

Trippy's self-destructive path may have weakened his immune system and made him susceptible to disease, certainly. I mean, we know that millions of people are exposed to secondhand smoke and aren't stricken with cancer.

David Trippy arrived in the Valley from Buffalo in the early 1980s. He met singer/songwriter Paul Halperin through a classified ad looking for musicians. The duo picked up Texas bluesman Chuck Hall and his rhythm section, and formed Texas Red and the Heartbreakers. By 1984, the band was the shit, playing its Texas and Chicago-style blues full-time, packing places like Tony's New Yorker in Tempe. They toured with Robert Cray, among others.

"Dave and I were really close," says Halperin from his home in Minneapolis. "We were roommates when we were on the road with the band. We were the ones who stayed out the latest, always looking for the party. We had a lot of fun. You could say we were partners in crime."

A few years later, Hall split the Heartbreakers to front his own band. Trippy and Halperin pressed on for another year using different players before calling it quits. In early 1987, Halperin sobered up, giving up the booze and drugs for good.

"The band wasn't what it was with Chuck gone, and I was gonna make a lifestyle change," continues Halperin. "So that was the end of it." He pauses, then adds, "I really feel terrible for David. I feel really, really sad."

The demise of Texas Red gave rise to the Hoodoo Kings, a turbulent jump-blues outfit that many compared to the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Trippy took over as lead vocalist. The band played anywhere and everywhere and soon amassed a large and loyal following.

"We did all our rehearsing at the Sun Club when Hans Olson opened it up," says Thomas. "This was before the Gin Blossoms came and kicked everybody's asses. Our first paycheck was a dollar apiece. Over the years, there have been a few incarnations in this band, but David's been the only one that stuck with this band.

Being a Trippy bandmate was not always rays of sunshine and flowers. "He got us fired from a lot of gigs, too," continues Thomas, explaining just how far the Trippy antics would go. "We'd get angry and say, 'Let's fire Dave.' But if you fire Dave, you don't have the Hoodoo Kings anymore . . . . He had this greasy kind of persona that people dug. He had a good sense of humor and stage rap. He would just do crazy stuff. He would be fucked up and dance on tables or let people come up onstage. Dave was an unpredictable guy; you never knew what he was gonna pull."

The Hoodoo Kings hit their zenith with a self-released CD in 1995 titled One Foot in the Groove.

Three years later, Trippy's cancer began to reveal itself. A hard, knoblike lump formed on his neck. Having no health insurance made the idea of a doctor visit almost incomprehensible. So Trippy chose to ignore the growth. At one point it became so large that his breathing became impaired.

"That thing on his neck was getting bigger," explains Thomas. "We were playing at the Yucca Tap and at a place called Antlers. I would say to him, 'What is that thing on your neck?' and he'd go, 'I dunno; it doesn't hurt, though.' It kept getting bigger. I'd tell him to go have the thing looked at, you know, it could be a tumor or something. One day I asked him if I could touch it and it was hard as a rock."

When he finally made it to the doctor, his days were numbered. The lump was diagnosed as a tumor and removed. He was back onstage soon after, and drinking. Soon something was discovered in his lungs.

"He got it checked out when it was way too late," says Rhythm Room honcho Bob Corritore. "He may have had a fighting chance, but he just let it go. It is so sad. At a point when he was in the recuperation stage he had the ability to maybe fight this, but he was really doing some championship drinking."

"What we all in this scene have in common is living life on the edge," says friend Mike Leach, who swore off the bottle four years ago. "Dave stayed at the party just an hour too long. It's sad. I think in Dave's case he was killing pain. He had a lot of pain. In his eyes, his life was a mistake. And this is a guy who made so many people happy as an entertainer."

Trippy over the years lost his first wife and two kids to divorce, to the lifestyle. "He couldn't afford child care," says Leach. "That stuff ate him up. Underneath it all, Dave had a heart. Not everyone saw it. And not everyone liked the guy."

The romance of William Powell and Myrna Loy lining up shots in a smoke-filled lounge with cigarettes between their lips is irresistible. The question is, if cigarette smoking is banned in bars, then where do we stop? According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Environmental Protection Agency, toxins and cancer-causing carcinogens are everywhere. Do we ban autos, cow shit, and someone else's waste? Sunlight causes cancer; what about that?

Trippy has demonstrated that life was fraught with risk in degrees based on the choices that he made. He knew the risks involved and dived in headfirst. He told a friend just before sinking into the depths of cancer that, if nothing else, he wanted to be an example that would help legitimize the work in bars; the barmaids, bartenders, doormen and musicians, etc.

"How do you keep the faith and alter your lifestyle?" asks Leach. "That's the sad part. He paid dearly for choosing to be a musician."

"Dave liked to drink and he lived life to the fullest," says Paul Thomas. "So people can sit there and say, 'This is why Dave is suffering the demise.' Nobody knows why Dave is suffering the demise. None of us know why we live or die."

Trippy's last public performance was a fund raiser for the Boys and Girls Club at the Pointe Hilton on South Mountain in late March.

Carol Mercadantr sits in a small, gray-toned hospital waiting room. She fidgets, and her thoughts are scattered. When she finally leaves the hospital, it will be alone, and her partner will be dead. The thought makes tears well up in her eyes.

"David loved, loved, loved, loved to entertain," she says softly, wiping her cheek. "That's what it was. He just loved to entertain."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith