something I posted last week that I should share with all of you…
It’s true — it’s Griffen, rather than the more standard spelling “Griffin,” which is appropriate in and of itself because Michael was not a standard individual — no offense intended toward you more standardized Griffins out there. Although he did loom large much like the mythical beast which carries that name.
It was my distinct pleasure to make a lot of noise with Michael in Behead the Prophet for a couple of years, sharing him with his beloved Noggin all the while. Michael was a really inspiring guy in so so many ways… His essential and nearly extreme good nature coupled with his not-give-a-shititude was purely him; sometimes I felt like a psychopath compared to him. I’d be wringing my hands and moaning over whatever trivial or not-so-trivial trial was taking place at the time — generally stuff that follows hardcore bands around, large packs of skinheads or crusties making various kinds of trouble — Michael remained unshook through everything. He rolled like a stone through all kinds of landscapes — excepting Las Vegas, which he notably hated — winding up back at his comfort shack house… east of Bellingham… with pipe in mouth like the settled old guy he kind of was.
It used to bother us somewhat in Behead the Prophet when the kids would approach Michael’s presence in the band as something of a novelty — “woah that’s amazing how you have an old guy.” Michael was the most hard core guy in the band, most committed to making discomfiting racket, most down with the kids, least easily rattled. I gotta bring up Vegas again only to point out that the Vegas experience was really noteworthy to the rest of the band because it was really the only time we EVER saw him lose his cool and even then it was fairly limited. Here was a truly simple-living good guy who wanted nothing more out of life than to enjoy the love of his friends and family — and his family is wonderful too but that’s another tale — and play music. He absolutely could not stand to be surrounded by the neon capitalist monster, it clearly made him feel under siege, he couldn’t deal with a place like that. Sorry Michael, I really did just want to eat breakfast inside a sphinx…
His house in Bellingham, technically 10 miles east, was where BTP practiced once or twice a month, and more importantly spent weekends soaking up the Griffen Way. Nothing to do but make racket in his music room, sit by the wood stove petting the cats, go out and get more wood, maybe pay Jordan a dollar to swagger across the bridge to Nugent’s Corner like Popeye but again it’s another tale. Spending down time with Michael might earn you some of the jewels that were his anecdotes. He didn’t tend to talk about himself much, so when he did and the story went “well yeah me and my friends rode our horses into the middle of the christian tent revival brandishing rifles,” or “I must admit that we found Iron Butterfly’s extended performance enthralling because we were all really high, but then the ring of burning fuel that surrounded them may have played a part,” it was a good ‘un.
His kids are a testament to the kind of guy he was, sweet unconventional people with big big hearts. I hope to see them soon. I feel bad that I didn’t see Michael in these last couple of years when his health was declining. I’ll miss him but perhaps his soul is better off without a failing body; he was absolutely unforgettable. With the last 15 or so years of his life, when most people are settling in for the twilight cruise, he had more spunk and enthusiasm than I will ever have.
A toast and my enduring gratitude: Michael Griffen!
“WHILE WE’RE ALL still mourning the impending loss of the Nightlight Lounge, last week the music community suffered another loss that served to bring things into perspective a bit. Michael Griffen, he of Noggin, Behead the Prophet, Artie Smudges Trio, Bright Shiny Object, and other musical projects too vast and numerous to name, died Monday, January 7. In his 71 years, Michael lived an undoubtedly full and rich life, but that does not mean his loss will be any less deeply felt by the legions of folks who had the great good fortune to know and make music with him.
My connection to Griffen was slight—I’d spoken with him only a few times, seen him play several times and always thought of him, as many of you likely did, as that rad old guy who loved to make music. But to many he was an example and an inspiration and so much more.
By what others have said upon hearing of his death, it seems Griffen was a shining example of what we all should be: a person who loves music for the sake of music. If he was aware of the politics and the posturing and the pettiness that are sometimes part of this tight-knit music scene, he never let on. He just wanted to make music. Lots of it. With as many people as possible. In fact, an entire room in his house was devoted solely to music-making, and he wasn’t one to utilize it alone. Local musicians and traveling bands alike found themselves in his music room, the recipient of his ever-gracious hospitality, playing his instruments and jamming into the wee hours. He would have it no other way.
As a musician, I can attest to the fact that Griffen was fearless. People often talk about music having no boundaries, but he actually lived and created as though he believed it, and, in doing so, inspired countless other people to be just a little braver with their own art. I remember the fi rst time I saw Noggin, which, to my untrained ears, sounded like little more than a cacophony of noise. But it was noise that stuck with me long afterward, and drew me back when I would’ve written off most other bands. Over time, I realized what I was really hearing was music that was as innovative as the people who were making it—and that the “rad old guy” who seemed to be at the center of it was onto something new and real.
I don’t know if Griffen knew how many people he inspired through both his music and his outlook regarding it. I do know he was beloved and lucky enough to be surrounded by the kind of people who nurtured him the way he nurtured everyone else. Although he never intended it to be, his life was a lesson we could all stand to do a bit of learning from.”
I first met Michael late on a cold Fall evening, minutes after my ancient VW self-destructed while coming down the long hill into Cedarville. His was the second door I knocked on seeking a phone. Needless to say he welcomed me in from the cold.
The following summer, through one of life’s delicious coincidences, I attended a friend’s birthday party which just happened to be hosted at Michael’s. At this party, I glimpsed the creative spirit that was Michael and tasted the infectious atmosphere of Griffenshire for the first time.
At the time of that second meeting, my life was much closer to major change than I could have imagined. Six months later, the farm where I and my “back to the land” partners struggled to recreate a lost lifestyle, was buried under a mudslide. That physical destruction presaged the fracturing of almost all of the relationships in our protected little world, leaving me with a two year old daughter, a few hundred bucks and no clear idea of what was next. It was at this point that I knocked on Michael’s door a third time. Needless to say he welcomed me again.
What drew me back was the distant memory of my childhood love of music. While 12 years of Catholic school had nearly driven that from me, I still retained a little spark of my former interest. Knowing that music happened at Cedarville, I took my battered cheap acoustic guitar and asked to be included in the magic. I was not disappointed.
What I envisioned as a chance to explore music soon became much more. I remember well, many hours spent around the kitchen table discussing everything and anything. As well as a creative mentor, Michael was a significant friend to me during a really tough transition. I remember my first single Christmas when I got “snowed in” at Cedarville and spent several days enjoying music, food and companionship. In one of the darkest periods of my life, the light that Michael nurtured, nurtured me.
Later, there were endless Sunday jams with anyone and everyone who wanted to attend. Some of these were great. Others were a bust, but they were always interesting. I remember one summer Sunday when Michael, Adam and I sat on the back lawn to escape the extreme volume of the latest, greatest blazing lead player.
Because I was closer to Michael’s age than many of the musicians that showed up, we often shared similar points of view. I remember the day that we decided that, while most of the guys that were present were trying to prove their manhood, Michael and I were trying to live with ours.
Over a period of several years, I explored both my musical interests and tried my hand at some visual art, but most importantly, I explored myself. At each turn, where previously I’d been criticized and discourage, Michael challenged me to do what interested me and to seek my own satisfaction. Perhaps the greatest gift that he gave me was his example. Michael was, without a doubt, the most self-directed person I have ever met.
As I began to rebuild my life, a new relationship, a college degree and a teaching career fell in place. During that time, Michael went on to pursue his musical endeavors. For a long time, we lost touch.
Then, last fall, I decided to knock once again on that door in Cedarville. And, once again, Michael welcomed me in. As we sat at the table, nearly unchanged in the intervening years and enjoyed the warmth of the stove on a rainy Sunday afternoon, we shared where our lives had taken us. Despite his physical condition, Michael’s spirit was as lively as ever. In many ways I felt as if I’d been hanging out with him all along.
Sometimes life puts people in our paths that make truly significant contributions – people that, with a word or gesture present possibilities to us – people who’s presence alone changes our trajectory – people that, though you may not see them often, always feel like family. Michael was one of those people for me..
Wow, thanks, Steve. I think because I was mostly a kid while you were around, I didn’t have much perspective on what brought you into our lives and what made you stick around. But you were a part of the fabric of my childhood, for sure. Thank you for sharing your history with Dad.
I wrote the following for the upcoming ish of Roctober. BTW: I am so glad that Noggin braved the border so often so i could see and hang out with them! and I even got michael to be my vouching contact one time when July fourth toilet went over the border to the US!
Michael Griffen passed away on January 7th of 2008. I had seen him play many times as one half of the noise duo Noggin which he formed with Eric Ostrowski and it was always a very wonderfully loud, cathartic experience. He would wail away wildly and wiry on the fiddle, teeth missing- he’d often joke that he looked like Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman- the hair on the sides of his head blowing as strings frayed. Damn, he looked great. And he’d always be grinning, man, he was infectious. And here’s the thing that really made me love Noggin: Michael listened. So much of playing this kind of music is based on response and he had the most amazing listening faculties. Michael also played in the multi-piece wild rock act Behead the Prophet, No Lord Shall Live and so many other types of combos. In the 50’s he played in various country bands and started playing noise music in the 1970’s (!). He explored all kinds of mediums. From the 60’s to the 80s he was a visual artist. In the last couple years Michael was writing plays and a novel in his home in Washington.
Michael was incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging to so many people. I remember him telling me that it didn’t matter what instrument you played or how many people you had: you could still start a band no matter what the combination of people and instruments! His spirit is truly one to cherish and pass on to others. It’s impossible to ‘sum him up’ but there will be various wakes in and around Washington for him.
R.I.P. Michael Griffen