A quiet man who made a great deal of noise slipped into eternity yesterday. Don Hill left us in the way he lived, quietly and without fuss or fanfare. His passing showed us all how to go. I rushed to Don Hill’s last night, where friends gathered to support each other, remember and honor. All around, rumors and tales percolated about the circumstances of his passing. It was left to others to figure out how he died, as we all agreed that how he lived was far more important.
I did some math and realized that I must have known him for 30-something years. In a business where a 60% approval or adoration rating is tremendous—and often a great exaggeration—I can honestly say that, in all the time I knew him, I never met a person who didn’t adore Don Hill. When he merged with Nur Khan and Paul Sevigny back in August 2010 I wrote this:
“Don Hill’s was born in April 1993 to much flag waving, fanfare and hoopla. The Smithereens set the tone that night and it has since become a virtual rock and roll hall of fame. Don has booked the joint, hired staff, run day to day and night to night operations, he’s answered the phones and I suspect that on some nights he swept out the joint. He will now be joined by superheroes Nur Khan and Paul Sevigny. They will come in with mad skills, new energy and cash to redux the place. They will merge with Don to create more of the same but even better.”
I had forgotten I wrote it until Brooklyn Vegan referred to it in their post last night. They do a great job. Last night, this piece of news was official, although so many didn’t want to believe it. It was, after all, April Fools Day, and there was the weird coincidence of another Don Hill dying in Kingsport, Tennessee. Was it just a bad rumor—a game? I and many others hit the internet hard to find out. Don Hill, of Kingsport, seemed like a great guy. Hardworking. Loved by all. Kingsport Tennessee is described by it’s Chamber of Commerce as “a beacon of hospitality in an increasingly impersonal world. “ Our Don Hill was also a beacon of hospitality in an increasingly impersonal world. Our Don, I think, would have liked that Don, and I’m sure he would have liked Kingsport too—provided they had a music scene. If they didn’t, he would have brought one there.
My calls to Paul Sevigny didn’t help. He was sure, but not 100%, and this is a 100% sort of thing. But then it was true. Paul called close friends when the hope that it was just an April 1st prank fully faded. Paul said he was “ageless” and asked me what records he should bring to the fast-forming tribute at the club? I told him anything rock. We talked about how loved he was, and how the new incarnation that Paul and Nur brought to Don Hills was a blessing for Don. “All of the wounds were healed all amends were made, he seemed healthier lately. He was getting it back.” We agreed that Don wouldn’t have wanted us crying, at least not alone, and we headed to the club. Paul was organizing a moment of silence at places all around the world.
Nur texted me: “Yes it is (true). I just found out 2 hours ago. Having a tough time processing it. He was a dear friend to all of us for so long. It’s late now, but we’re gonna have a toast and moment of silence tonight, and then I’m gonna figure out how to put the best motherfucking NYC rock ‘n roll tribute show together for him.” He continued: “He was a very dear friend for many years, as he was to any NYC rocker. A true sweetheart, and a gentleman who cared about everyone and everything rock and roll. Maybe this year happened for a reason. You can bet your ass I’ll fly the flag in his honor!“ We chatted some more, and he summed up the last year and its meaning: “I’m so glad we were able to carry on the legacy cuz I’m just as passionate about everything he was. It’s almost like it was supposed to be. I’ll make him proud. Gonna put a lot of heads together for this one and give him a good send off.
The accolades came in on my phone via text and Facebook. A bombardment of “The most nurturing of club owners” and “the best guy ever” and “tell me a Don Hill story.” Someone told me the original concept of Don Hills:
“The place was born from a thousand meetings at his pal Martin’s joint, the Ear Inn just up the road. In the 10 or 20 years they had known Don, that was the place they met. Don Hills was to be a lounge where artists could gather and possibly jam after their Madison Square Garden Show. Hip crowd, no press— a true rock mecca.”
The consensus was that, although his health was failing, the last year he was invigorated by the talent again hitting the stage and the “good crowd“ coming back. We all agreed that he died a man doing what he loved to do, loved and respected by all. That isn’t a bad way to go. Laughter and tears sprang from all of us. A funny story made us laugh, and then lose it. The room was filled with familiar faces—some that have shared air with me for 3-plus decades. Some were new and eager. Michael T, who was as sad as I have ever seen him, commented that it was great that a new generation had seen Don Hill’s as it was meant to be seen. I can’t name all the names, or repeat all the praises.
Nur was beyond tears, hunched. He hugged me and talked of his last moments with the man. “I knew he wasn’t feeling right. he was huddled by a space heater a couple days ago, then he didn’t’ show up yesterday. He wasn’t himself, maybe he knew.” Someone said: “He took a cab to the hospital where he died, he didn’t want to bother anybody and maybe somebody else needed that ambulance more.”
Don’s death is a large rock thrown into a pond. We see the splash, and maybe the first ripples, but there will be more ripples, and some may prove to be difficult. With Don gone, how will neighbors and enforcement view the place? Even they loved and embraced the man. What other neighborhood embraces a popular club? Other ripples might come from the liquor authorities, and maybe even a landlord. Lyle Derek, a longtime Don Hill worker bee, understood how Don would support the scene, even though it didn’t make as much money as other promotions might. The biggest ripple might bring change. In an age where bottle service pays the bills, greed might win out. Paul and Nur will do their best, no doubt, but death brings vulture—types who feed on despair and confusion. They may have other less fabulous ideas about the property. We must support the legacy of Don Hill, and maintain one of the few places in town where guys like him and I could actually hang out. Don Hill was a gentleman, and that’s the greatest compliment I have about a fellow.