Musicians and friends across the state mourn the passing of one of the finest people many of us have ever known, Ray Garrity. Ray left us very suddenly on June 26, and we are bereft of his enormous talent, love, compassion, honesty, laughter, and, most of all, his awe-inspiring joie de vivre. He was a man who full-body embraced the idea of “living well”, and who knew that a good cigar, a good glass of wine, and a good friend are the better part of a very good life. He loved his family, he worked hard, he provided us with incredible music, and he was one of the best waltzers of all time.
Ray came from a large and loving Pennsylvania family (10 kids, Irish Catholic, don’t you know!) and started making music when he was just a boy. He moved to Fairbanks in 1979 and soon met his brothers-from-other-mothers with whom he would be musical partners and dear friends for his entire life. In the late ‘80s, at the Alaska Folk Festival, he met Jen King, a lovely and feisty little lady with whom he moved to Homer, set up a homestead, and founded the best Cajun band this side of the Mississippi, Ray-Jen Cajun. Joined by Jack Fontanella, Scotty Meyer, and Jeff “Snertz” Szarzi, they soon became one of the most popular bands in the state, and the yearly special guest artists at the annual Pelican Boardwalk Boogie.
Music, dancing, and family were always preeminent in Ray’s life. If you Google “Pelican Boardwalk Boogie,” the first hit you get is of a minute-long video taken just over five years ago on the LeConte ferry as it made its return trip to Juneau. The video is grainy, hand-held and jerky, but you can see that the solarium deck is crowded, a circle of musicians playing in the center, and, scattered around them, couples waltzing. Bob-O Bell, Elfin Cove fisherman, sings “Un es putain de chanceux” (sic), a song he wrote for the Filthy Song Contest that year. He is accompanied by Danny Consenstein from Anchorage, Thomas Hart of the Republic of Ester, Eric Graves from (mostly) Fairbanks, and Ray, legendary Homerian. Roughly translated, it means “we are so blanking lucky” and the song instantly became the anthem, the siren song, of this very-extended but tightly-knit musical family. And at the heart of this family was Uncle Ray. With that rare gift for making every person he knew feel special, Ray was everyone’s uncle. His super-power was inclusion.
I was blessedly lucky to have had the chance to call Ray my friend, and I thank his family for sharing him so generously with so many. He taught me that only a fool leaves a party to find a party. He was funny. He valued simplicity, but lived as grandiose a life as any other King. His generosity of spirit was a constant and profound inspiration. The world is a dimmer place without his light, but a far better place for having known of him.
The last time I danced with Ray Garrity was on February 10, 2012 at about 8 p.m. at the Homer bowling alley during the annual Homer Mardi Bowl, at their Winter Carnival. We waltzed across the front of the bowling lanes while everyone bowled around, before, behind, and despite us. Like every waltz with Ray, it was perfect, and ended far too soon.
On Monday, July 1, Ray’s family and friends held a remembrance at the home of Jane and Tom Beck in Homer. Guests were asked to form a circle in the back yard. By the time everyone was gathered, that circle stretched from one end of their soccer-field sized lawn to the other. We held on to one another for dear life, for our dear Ray, and Ray once again did what he always did best: gathered his family around him to sing the old songs. He will be sorely, deeply, heartily missed, but never further away than our thoughts.
Un es putain de chanceux, my friend. We are so very, very lucky.
Taken (slightly amended) from “Owl Dancing With Fred Astaire” by Sherman Alexie:
Ask yourself this: How many times in your life
are you going to be asked to dance? Take that number
and divide it by the number of men and/or women
who have expressed deep affection for you.
If that number is X, then Y = heartbreak + X.
And, of course, Y is always equal to Ray Garrity.