Dave Schools Remembers Michael Houser
Dave Schools and Michael Houser, H.O.R.D.E. Tour 92 – photo by Steve Eichner
Ten years ago today we lost one of the greats when Widespread Panic co-founder, guitarist, songwriter and singer Michael Houser passed away at age 40. A humble, beautiful, complete original in every way, his “lingering lead” approach to the guitar made Houser one of the most unique musicians of the past quarter century, but for those who knew him, like bandmate Dave Schools, it’s the man behind the Telecaster that they remember most.
It’s been ten years, hard to believe it’s been a decade, when you think back about Mikey now what comes to mind?
Dave Schools: A guy who is too smart to have the sense of humor he had. A lot of people that are that smart, they are so cerebral that they don’t get a lot of humor, whether it’s low-brow or high-brow, but he got it, and he instigated it. He was like anybody, he would wallow back and forth, there were certainly days where he wasn’t in good humor, but he’d find something in an article in the newspaper and he’d just go insane, cackling with laughter. It would be like a running joke, sometimes it would go on for weeks. When I think back all the other stuff falls away, the dysfunction of brotherhood and spending a lot of time together in cramped quarters, and what I tend to remember was that he was smart and had a sense of humor that most people that are that smart just don’t have.
What are a few of your favorite Mikey memories, maybe one of him playing on stage and one of him off stage?
Dave Schools: There are obvious moments on stage like his last performance at Red Rocks where Jerry Joseph was sitting in. We played “Road To Damascus” and then this jam just bubbled up out of nowhere. Mikey and I would stay out there and jam into the “drums” segment, we’d both leave pretty much at the same time, but sometimes there’d be this great musical sparring; interesting things were happening. That particular day at Red Rocks it must have gone on for 15-minutes. He wasn’t gonna leave and I sure wasn’t gonna leave, and Jerry wasn’t gonna leave. It was great stuff that was happening, it was emotional, and it was some soulful playing. I was sort of outside of it watching a guy standing there surrounded by people who love him playing music and improvising, and a lot of things came up during that jam but he had this grin on his face that I’ll never forget. Despite everything he was facing at that time, and at that point it was day-by-day for him as far as whether he could play or not, and we all know he made it through one more show in Iowa, and that was just an incredible moment, it meant so much to me on so many levels because here was a guy who loved to play, and a guy who loved to play with his friends, a guy who lived to play. And that was amazing.
The non-playing moment, I remember right after Waker [Houser’s son] was born, we weren’t in buses yet, we were still in vans, we didn’t have digital cameras and cell phones, this was probably 1991 or something, I remember Mikey sitting in the way back of the van and he was looking at Polaroids of Waker and that was all he had. He couldn’t get on the phone, he couldn’t Skype; it showed a side I wasn’t prepared to see. We were all kids up until then, and then suddenly Mikey became a real live adult because he had a little life to deal with. And we were out on the road sometimes for 12, 14 weeks at a time in a van, and we’d finish sound check and there’d be this mad dash to the closest pay phone to call home, things that kids that are in bands now couldn’t even begin to understand, but somehow Mikey would always find the closest pay phone and he’d be the first one there to call home.
What made Houser so unique as a guitarist and as a songwriter?
Dave Schools: On one hand I want to say stubbornness. It was an artistic stubbornness that I’ve come to appreciate over time. Some people will learn as much language as they can, if they have the gift of gab they will read as much as they can and learn how to use language. Mikey had a unique approach to playing the guitar and despite loving people as well spoken in guitar world as like Steve Howe or Trey [Anastasio], he adored Trey, he didn’t want to learn their language. There was this stubbornness to him where, “this is what I do, and this is how I do it, and I’m happy with it.” And it was totally of him, it didn’t sound like anyone else, and that went through to his songwriting too.
What’s your favorite Mikey song?
Dave Schools: You could ask me what my favorite Panic song is or what my favorite Mikey song is and they’re one and the same and it always has been “Pilgrims.”
It’s been ten years, it feels appropriate to consider his legacy 50 years from now, how will Houser be remembered in the history books?
Dave Schools: That’s not for me to decide, that’s for journalist and fans to decide. I think there’s some power in the songwriting. I think there’s a lot of comfort that can be derived from Mikey’s style. His lyrics aren’t so pointed that they’d become anachronisms. I think a lot of his songs are everyman songs; they don’t usually have a specific time stamp on them, I think that the messages inherent in his lyrics can be applied to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and that’s the mark of a great songwriter and that’s something that will allow those songs and melodies to live on. But we’ll see, that’s my hope and my prediction, but we shall see.
To say nothing about what you enjoy in regards to playing with Jimmy Herring, what do you miss about playing with Mikey?
Dave Schools: I’ll go back to that stubbornness, it could be frustrating on stage sometimes, but it could be utterly surprising and that’s what I look for; moments between songs where surprising things happen and alchemy can occur, unpredictable alchemy. I miss that a lot, sometimes I have dreams where he’s back and he’s the seventh member of his band.