A Music Lover Remembered

Chris Keeler was the first guy I ever knew with an exotic turntable and a record library that most radio stations would envy. The love of music was a driving force throughout his life, one that sustained him right to the end.

I arrived in Atlanta from Berkeley, California in 1980 as an eager audio technician with a similar passion. By then, Chris had already cycled through his first retail venture, The Stereo Shop, one he started in 1974. The generically named business was among that city's first high-end shops, and knowing Chris as I did later, it probably ran its course because it was ahead of its time.

When I met him he was traveling the South as a sales rep for a local electronics distributor. He often called at the Hi-Fi Buys store on Peachtree Road in Buckhead, where I worked in the service department. Randy Tomlinson (RT), now a reviewer for The Perfect Vision, was also a frequent visitor. A former "Buys" employee who had started his own custom installation business, he came by regularly to gather equipment from the warehouse for one of his projects, or to check on something he'd dropped off for repair. Almost imperceptibly over that long hot summer and the years that followed, our lives became intertwined by our shared passions and our shared determination to make our passions support us.

Chris had an expansive, exquisitely decorated apartment overlooking the Columbia Theater. A Southern gentleman to the core, he welcomed guests with an almost Japanese demonstration of self-effacement, sparing no effort to put them at ease. I recall his Apogee speakers set at an oblique angle to the wide window, some monstrous PS Audio amps, and a SOTA turntable with a Grado arm. Most of his other gear was tucked away in a custom-made cabinet that elevated the electronics to a sort of totem art. Two modern but immensely comfortable chairs were perfectly positioned for optimum listening. He had long mastered the audiophile's Zen exercise—sitting perfectly still through a piece of music of any length without the need to fidget or make comments. Music was a magic carpet he could ride to wherever it wanted to take him. I felt totally at home with him from the first visit.

His audio system was outrageous by the standards of the time, and something he shared magnanimously with all visitors. Only intimate friends could tour his record library, however. A walk-in closet the size of a small bedroom, it had records densely and neatly packed on sturdy shelves, floor-to-ceiling on all four walls. Opera sets and classical works, Broadway shows and movie soundtracks, jazz and rock, indescribable exotica, obscure performances, and unknown performers, all of it was lovingly catalogued and beautifully preserved. He joked that he could have paid cash for a house if he hadn't wasted it all on music.

Chris lacked the nuts-and-bolts knowledge of music that was daily fare for his music-teaching partner Doug, but he had a global understanding that made any selection appropriate. He loved to make compilation recordings, and could link the most unlikely pieces together in a way that carried listeners on journeys to unexpected and delightful places. In Chris's hands, a Buck Owens tune could nestle in back-to-back harmony with a Maria Callas aria. His playlists often made bizarre but always perfect sense. He merged diverse recordings by melody or tempo, subject matter or emotional hook, with satin-smooth segues or abrupt changes, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange—the sort of thing that many college DJs attempt but rarely master. (This almost lost gestalt art is today practiced best by David Johansen, whose "Mansion of Fun" appears on Friday afternoons on Sirius Satellite Radio's channel 24.)

For some audiophiles, music is simply an excuse to play with the hardware —technology for its own sake. Critical listening lets them peer for an instant into the inner workings of electronic equipment. That was seldom the case among our intersecting circles of audio nuts. We pursued good gear because it breathed more life into the music. Delicacy. Nuance. Impact. We sought these qualities like fevered connoisseurs. What we sought and sometimes found wasn't the sheer stupendous numbingly wild ride that big hi-fi could provide—although that was often a collateral benefit—but the sweet revelations in each new musical discovery. For us, it was all about the joy of music.

Cynics believe that audio retailers and salesmen are heartless scumbags out to squeeze every nickel from innocent consumers. That's sometimes true, but the hi-fi business is mostly populated with sincere folks who are in it because they are hooked as deeply as the customers they serve. They want music in their lives all day every day. Audio provides that, and sometimes, a decent living too. It's not a road to riches. It's a way to be near what we love, and if we're lucky, to cover our expenses in the process.

Chris spent his entire career in the business—as a college student in Florida, working part-time in a hi-fi shop, then in Atlanta, where he worked every wholesale and retail angle until he hit the right formula. In the mid-1980s, he opened Music Masters, a small retail shop in Atlanta's Midtown district. The shop sold stylish, good-sounding gear, but its real business was custom-audio systems for upscale residences and restaurants. Over more than a decade, Chris designed and installed systems in hundreds of restaurants throughout the South, from Miami to Baltimore, New Orleans to Knoxville.

RT installed mostly in nightclubs, churches, and town homes in gated communities. I put gear in everywhere: ad agencies, bars, pizza shops, dentists' offices, discos, health clubs, stadiums. The three of us had an unspoken mutual aid pact, pitching in to help each other when needed, providing each other equipment from our various sources at minimal markup. We often met for dinner to swap war stories about crazy clients and impossible installations.

Those evenings would find us later in one of our homes, parked comfortably in front of the hi-fi, the wine flowing generously and the music washing over us in waves. Our listening sessions usually began with the explicit intent of evaluating some new piece of gear—often one of RT's modified amps or CD players, or Chris's seemingly endless procession of electrostatic loudspeakers. We'd dutifully trot out some serious audiophile-approved discs—fantastically good recordings of dreadfully uninspired performances, chosen for whatever their technical excellence might reveal. Having completed that necessary ritual, we then got on to the real business of listening, plowing through exalted treasures and guilty pleasures with equal zeal until far past midnight. Mozart and Metallica, Renee Fleming and Lene Lovich, all of it fuelled our bacchanalian musical marathons.

Sometimes we met at the symphony or went out to small music clubs. A few times, we even returned to Chris's pad afterwards to see how hi-fi compared to the real thing. These are the good old days. I don't remember ever spouting this particular cliché, but many times I must have regarded my companions thinking such a sentiment. You never know how good you've got it until it's gone.

In the mid-'90s, feeling I had done everything there that I was going to do, I left Atlanta for California. Chris had often expressed similar discontent—Atlanta is oh, so comfortable, but you feel its limits. It's a small town in big-city drag. He began to explore relocating somewhere with bigger cultural opportunities and perhaps the chance to meet someone new. San Francisco and New York were the only real candidates.

Chris came to stay with me twice on reconnaissance visits. He loved San Francisco, but chose New York. He sold almost everything he owned—Music Masters went to his installation manager, whose monthly payments helped sustain Chris for his first few years in Manhattan. His record collection went to a German music fan visiting Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics. So did his VPI turntable, the same one I had sold him before I left.

Chris settled into a tiny apartment on Manhattan's West 57th Street and plunged into the city's rich cultural life—movies every day, the ballet, the opera, the symphony, the jazz clubs. He tried but failed to land the sort of job he longed for in the high-end audio industry, and ultimately sold like a maniac on the floor of the Bang & Olufsen store on Madison Avenue. He was one of the highest-producing salesmen the place ever had. As a newcomer to the city, he didn't have the connections to make a go of the custom-installation business as he had in Atlanta. Instead, after long days on his feet at B&O, he supplemented his income selling table radios, in-wall speakers, and other small audio items on the Internet. He made a few friends but never met the partner he was seeking. At my encouragement, he wrote a couple of clever articles for our Websites, but recognized that trying to make the shift to writing as a form of employment so late in the game was probably not an option.

The obstacles never diminished his wit or his enthusiasm for life. He never lost his appetite for new music, new art, or new theater. Every few months, quite unbidden, he'd send me one of his CD compilations, their clever covers hinting at the musical delights inside: Summer on the Bayou, a Cajun/Southern mix; Luna Loca/Music of the Caribbean; and Scrub, a hilarious collection of rap and hip-hop favorites. The last one he sent me was an untitled mix of French and Spanish songs evoking romantic summer nights in the tropics. It's among my most cherished discs, one I have copied for everyone I know. He probably mixed it to combat the hell of New York winter.

For Chris, the rigor of New York finally overwhelmed its charms. Last spring, he began to talk of moving to south Florida. He thought he had a job lined up with an upscale home entertainment company. He and RT made a scouting visit to Ft. Lauderdale, cruising near the beach in a rented convertible and checking out condos. He left a message for me asking if I would write a letter of recommendation for him. His voice sounded strangely slurred but I wrote it off to fatigue, a mistake I will always regret.

I was out of the country in July. I came back to urgent messages from RT. Chris had collapsed in his apartment. He lay there unable to move for eight days, unable to call for help. His co-workers at B&O thought he was in Florida. Concerned friends got his building's manager to open the door just in time to get him to the hospital, where they got him rehydrated. Two days later the surgeons opened his skull and removed a massive tumor.

"It might have been better if no one had found him," RT told me. I thought this an uncharacteristically cynical remark, but came to understand that he was right. It might have been the easier exit. Our friend and fellow Atlanta transplant Ken Askew spent many evenings with Chris in Roosevelt Hospital, providing whatever comfort he could. I worried incessantly, unable to reach Chris and communicating with Ken and Randy by phone and email. Chris "stabilized," as they say in the medical profession, and went into rehab. He would never get well.

I spent 10 days on the East Coast in September—in New York and Philadelphia for a couple of projects, the trip arranged mostly so I could visit Chris, then convalescing at his boyhood home in Strasburg, Virginia. With RT's help, his family had cleaned out his New York apartment and moved him back home in the hope that he might recuperate in more serene circumstances. Early one Sunday morning, I took the train from Philly to Union Station in Washington, where I rented a cheap Toyota and headed west into the Shenandoah Valley.

Not far out of Washington you are in the old South. A little town with two stop lights, Strasburg is the kind of place abandoned by young men with energy and ambition, and the kind of place they return to decades later. So it was with Chris, against all his best intentions.

His mom greeted me graciously at the door, very much the way he had welcomed me when I first visited him so long ago in Atlanta. White-haired, clear-eyed, she was as physically sturdy as she was emotionally resilient: a rock-solid Christian woman seemingly capable of weathering any storm, the kind of woman that has been the unbreakable backbone of small towns since this country was founded. Her voice was a revelation: gentle and lilting as fluffy clouds, supportive and comfortable as a feather bed. I live in California, where the monotonic mumble passes for speech, and had just come from New York, where people bark at each other like seals. Just hearing her made me happy I had come.

"Chris," I said, taking his hand, "Your mom has such a musical voice." He smiled weakly. "She's been teaching choir for more than 40 years." He was frail but in good spirits, despite his diminished circumstances, despite his doubtful future, despite the disfiguring scar across the right side of his head. Surgery and two months of nonstop chemo and radiation had drained him.

Getting up from his chair and shuffling across the room exhausted him, yet his wit was intact. He spoke with irony of a nephew "on state-sponsored vacation," who had made the mistake of selling contraband to a Virginia undercover cop. He recalled sitting in a design meeting for Elton John's Atlanta townhouse, in which the besotted Sir Elton approved a $20,000 solid-gold handle for his shower door. With bemused awe, he described making a pilgrimage to Sea Cliff, NJ with John Cooledge, longtime writer for The Absolute Sound, to visit the castle of audio excess belonging to that magazine's founder, Harry Pearson. He described with delight attending repeat performances by cabaret performer Baby Jane Dexter, a quirky, dynamic contralto with an underground legion of followers. Chris and I were charter members of her fan club. He thanked me for sending him a copy of Sharon McNight's Songs to Offend Most Everyone.

He praised our friend RT for all he had done since the near-fatal episode in July. "I'd be dead by now if it wasn't for Randy," he said more than once. "New York kicked my ass." He talked of moving to Ft. Lauderdale and running a nice little mail-order business from a spare bedroom in a nice little house not far from the beach. Nothing ambitious, just a soft landing for the golden years. He asked, "Do you think that's doable?" and I said, "Of course, but right now you have to concentrate on building your strength." We talked into the evening until he was too weak to go on, and then we listened to some Chopin sonatas by a young pianist he had recently discovered. I sat by his bedside and we listened to the little Bose player on the dresser, in respectful silence as always. Then I kissed his cheek and said goodnight and drove through the damp night to Washington.

I had been home only two weeks when I got the message from RT: Chris, the subject line in the email read. I had a sinking feeling as I clicked on it. He had passed away. The chemo and radiation had weakened him badly; pneumonia raged like a forest fire in the dry season. A call from Strasburg, and Randy drove all night from Atlanta to spend the last day with Chris. He sat beside him, talking quietly, punching the morphine and holding his hand. Chris lapsed in and out, repeating several times "You're my best friend." It's an honor to be someone's friend, Randy said in his message, I'll always remember the good times we had.

I sat stupefied. Silent. Empty. It was a balmy late summer day in California. That afternoon I did the most life-affirming things I could think of. I went to the gym. I was surprisingly strong but was only going through the motions. Every cheesy pop song from the club's sound system pierced me to the core. I went for a walk in the bright bitter sunlight and thought about the deep wisdom in every trite adage: Honor your parents. Be kind to your neighbors. Be generous with your friends.

I came home and cued up some of his favorite tunes: the soundtrack from West Side Story, Esquivel's Other Worlds, Other Sounds, and The Ultimate Maria Callas Collection. Then, the departed songbird, Eva Cassidy, one I discovered too late to share with Chris. She had me at "Autumn Leaves." A torrent of grief drained to a trickle. Our departed friend is beyond our reach but not beyond our hearts and minds. I'll always remember the good times.

On my desk sits the last thing Chris sent me. It's an LP of klezmer music: Streets of Gold, by the Klezmorim. Its cover is a drawing by mutual favorite R. Crumb: a group of rumpled, befuddled immigrants on the deck of a ship entering New York harbor. Full of hope, full of doubt, full of despair, they clutch their musical instruments as solace against a storm to come. Chris sent it to me for the cover as well as the music. He often felt that he was a character deep in one of Crumb's comic books, an immigrant in the big city, the essence sapped from him while the appearance of youth remained. It's one of the enduring mysteries that even as we carry the seeds of propagation within us, we also carry the seeds of our own demise. I may know nothing, but I know this above all: Enjoy the music. We're a short time here and a long time gone.