I was in awe of how in his world, you could be an outsider and still have community across New England
A few days before Halloween in 2005, instead of going to class at Virginia Commonwealth University, I got on an Amtrak in Richmond, Virginia and spent the next day crawling up the East Coast until we switched over to a diesel engine and Vermont’s fall colors came into view.
I was 19, and alternating between guitar, flute, and floor-tom with a group of other weirdos while a mercurial twentysomething Vermonter sang about How the World Sucks. It seemed like the best way to spend a Saturday night, especially since it involved skipping an economics class. After arriving at a dilapidated house in Moretown, I laid on a couch for a few hours shivering, unable to sleep because the heat wasn’t on yet and I had brought exactly one flannel shirt. The cold air did keep the fleas from biting.
Later on, we drove a full two hours back in the direction I came from to a classy, dinner-oriented music venue in Bellows Falls. This would be our first show ever in a place where people seemed genuinely interested in seeing us play. Out of respect for the couple dozen members of our new audience, we did not bring any of our CDs to sell. Our album, “Made from Dirt,” had been lovingly prepared as CD-Rs sprinkled with cat litter. Exactly one person seemed to think this was intriguing …
His name was Jeff Breeze, and at the time he was the editor of New England Performer magazine and host of “Pipeline!,” WMBR’s local music show. He wrote a glowing review and a feature, then played our most palatable song on his show. This is one of hundreds of stories where Jeff, for one reason or another, tuned in to something that most people would ignore.
Jeff did more than tune in. He showed up. I’m not sure whether we had told him about the show or not, but he was one of the first people there that night. I walked in, and there he stood: tall, long-bearded, with a gently booming voice. He had driven from Somerville to Vermont just to see an hour or so of some oddballs thrashing around in togas with cardboard wings.
After the show, the sound guy who had reverently told us Radiohead recorded The Bends on the mixing board suddenly wasn’t up for small talk. We had clearly made a mockery of all he held holy. Jeff was thrilled.
I will always remember the train trip and the cold the night before we played. But the night after is a blank. All I remember is that feeling of connecting with someone who loved our music. That feeling of finding a sudden, deep friendship 500 miles from home in someone who I’d never met, who picked up this obnoxious and deeply loved thing we were putting down.
Jeff straddled two fading worlds at that moment. The magazine fired him within a few years and it returned to the irrelevance from which he had plucked it. His radio show on MIT was noncommercial by design, and of course did not pay him.
We played a small tour together the next summer. I was still in awe as he showed us a world where you could be an outsider and still have community across New England. So many small rooms to play, so many kindly offered floors. A few years later, I ended up sleeping on Jeff’s floor as my girlfriend and I looked for a first place in Boston.
I began to realize more fully that the choice of a rock show over statistics class and a life where music and community rules over all else can lead to stress and uncertainty. Jeff never did anything for the money; looking back, even my pursuing local government accountability journalism seemed like some kind of compromise in his eyes. I would tell him of the latest Somerville scandal I was working on and he would smile but shrug. He wanted the world to be good for everyone, but felt like music was the path.
He did have to earn money. Whether it was booking shows, assembling turntables, tending to frogs at Harvard, or working as a line cook at ONCE, the job somehow had to connect to his desire to have fun. Even when he was caretaking for a retired MIT professor in failing health, he never spoke about how difficult that job could be. He was delighted by the daily company and wisdom.
The jobs were ephemeral. There was always another layoff around the corner. The professor died. Rent, however, is forever. As long as he had his weekly radio show, Jeff would thread the needle of finding some odd job that evoked his sense of playfulness while putting the bulk of his energy into the show and his music.
Boston and New England music gained so much from Jeff’s dedication and passion. Money would come and go, but he always knew that music was more valuable.
That conviction held even as Boston became an increasingly difficult place for Jeff to make ends meet. Then came 2020. He did his best in a remote world, but there was also despair. On his Instagram, he posted a picture of Boston-band Mini Dresses and wrote: “I look up and wonder what this city will look like in the Spring with so many musicians evacuating to places they can afford to live, and venues vanishing quickly.”
A week later, Jeff was gone. I don’t know exactly how he died, but I am confident our healthcare system failed him. Whether a life spent enriching others through music should yield so little stability from the world’s largest economy and government is, of course, some larger failure.
Jeff loved music so deeply, across so many genres. To get in his car meant hearing everything from some basement project to Taylor Swift to Raphael Saadiq. There is, of course, the much retold story of him getting Big Star back together. But fewer people know there is one piece of music he loved that maybe in some way predicted Jeff’s fate.
Almost every time I went to his place, of the thousands of records in his library, he had Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” on display. For years, watching over him.
I listened to Stravinsky with him a few times, but never watched the ballet that accompanies it. I’ve since learned that it depicts rituals celebrating the advent of spring, culminating in a young sacrifice who dances herself to death.
In the hours before Jeff died, he was working on his radio show, trying to keep a community engaged and alive even as the world was entering what then seemed the darkest phase of the pandemic.
The many tributes to Jeff written by friends and loved ones online offer a glimpse of how bright his light was; still, it doesn’t feel loud enough yet. Sometime in the truly COVID-free Spring that Jeff longed for but didn’t live to see, I hope people around Boston will get together and make some music for him.