A lesson before dying

Jay Walsh and Norm Rogers in Sioux Falls last month. “I have the wisdom of a dying man,” Norm told us. “I find pleasure in everything. I cherish every moment.” Photo by Jim Walsh

The Sunday after the Minneapolis Miracle, my brother Jay and I drove down to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to say goodbye to our old friend, Norm Rogers, a true rock ’n’ roll believer-warrior-soldier and drummer for Minneapolis music legends the Neglecters, Jayhawks and Cows.

Norm passed away last night after fighting cancer for much of last year, and so through real tears I need to tell you what I learned from him during our visit last month.

“I have the wisdom of a dying man,” he said, sucking on a cigarette and fondling a crisp red apple. He’d lusted after that apple so much that we’d gone on a mission to the grocery store for it exclusively, now here he was about to bite into it for the first time. “I find pleasure in everything,” he said. “I cherish every moment.”

And how: I can still see him looking at the red skin of that apple, like it was everything, and he bit into it like it was, because as he reminded us with every word, every shake of the head and every laugh, being grateful and present is just that — everything.

Norm doled out his wisdom matter-of-factly but seriously. Everything he said, everything we talked about, between the lines he was telling us, Let me be a lesson to you, and for God’s sake be grateful for this gift of life. “Enjoy every sandwich,” is how Warren Zevon put it, and so we did, Norm chomping on a late lunch, and my brother and I raising our glasses of Guinness in a toast. Later we retired to Norm’s assisted-living home, which was festooned with pictures of family and posters of his old bands, where he told us of his love for the Foo Fighters, who he was thrilled to have caught in Sioux Falls last year.

After four decades spent rocking hard in the bands and bars of Minneapolis, the last part of Norm’s story is one of redemption. Two years ago after he got fired from his job at Brit’s in downtown Minneapolis, he hit the bottle hard. His family scooped him up, moved him to Sioux Falls, and got him into treatment, where he got sober.

Soon after he suffered a stroke, but as the haze of alcohol wore off, his memory returned and in short order he forged new bonds and deeper connections with many of his newfound family members. During our five-hour hang he was sharp as a tack and clear-eyed with memories of our times meeting at the University of Minnesota and forming bands in the late ’70s at the dawn of punk rock.

A former sailor (or “the worst excuse for a sailor the Navy has ever seen,” as he put it), Norm’s lilting cackle was a song unto itself, and his drumming was bat-out-of-hell furious and as relentless, powerful and urgent as the punk rock that inspired it.

“We were part of something,” he said, with the perspective and certitude of a man whose life was flashing before his eyes. “We were part of a movement.”

One life can give so many gifts, a sad fact that we realize profoundly when death comes calling. For one example, Norm’s terminal illness gave us the chance to tell him what he meant to us, to hug him and say our long goodbyes, and it gave me and my big brother a chance to go on a road trip and talk about Norm, family, friends and everything under the sun. I’ll always cherish that trip, thanks to Norm.

He and Jay were band mates and fellow philosophy majors at the University of Minnesota, and the hours flew by. We met his niece and visited her home, and a few weeks later Norm’s Sioux Falls and Minneapolis families gathered at Brit’s. The Irish wake humor was in full effect throughout the night, with many old punks making the joke that we’re seeing more friends at funerals than rock shows these days, and the truth is that there is a similar carpe noctem to both.

Tears. So much of our time is spent these chaotic days with our armor up, thick skins getting thicker, numbed by the news of the day, suspicious of humanity itself, wary of love and human connection, all of us all the while trying fruitlessly to come to grips with getting older and pain and loss, and then the news of an old buddy dying pricks your skin and penetrates your heart and leaves you blubbering and opens you up to let life back in, just like Norm said we should.

Last night, my answer to the What Would Norm Do? was to go see Run Westy Run at Mortimer’s. As I headed out from my own funk and hibernation, I was reminded of a tweet my friend Ellen Stanley put out from the Folk Alliance music conference in Kansas City a few days ago: “Mary Chapin-Carpenter on the value of live performance: ‘There is no substitute for being together… I couldn’t live without it.’”

So true. Turns out Monday was the birthday of First Avenue’s MVP stage manager Conrad Sverkerson, who attended the festivities in a suit and even took to the stage with his brothers and sisters for a joyous Swedish birthday song sing-a-long. Crammed into the club were many of the Minneapolis rock scene’s brightest lights and many of Norm’s friends, a group that has been through its share of collective loss — friends, family, innocence — and, as Run Westy Run lit up the night with their swampy-Stonesy-sexy-punk-blues, Norm passed away.

I got the news when I got back from the club, but in honor of Norm, for much of the set I fixed on drummer Peter Anderson and that relentless Westies beat. I made my way up close to the stage, where I let Peter’s kick drum hit me hard in the chest, feeling Norm’s spirit all the while, and hell if it didn’t sound like a heartbeat, the one we’re all attached to, the one that never stops.


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].