His music filled the emotional spectrum

Danny DeGennaro at a benefit in 2011 to raise money for his mother's medical bills.
Danny DeGennaro at a benefit in 2011 to raise money for his mother's medical bills. (PATRICE CASSIDY RIPLEY)

Remembering the artistry of Danny DeGennaro, killed a year ago at his mother's Bucks home.

Posted: January 06, 2013

The news, more than a year ago, that the 56-year-old musician Danny DeGennaro was murdered in his mother's home in Levittown caused little stir beyond the Bucks County area. Various websites and blogs noted that he had been a member of the Grateful Dead-inspired band Kingfish, and that he had played with the also recently deceased Clarence Clemons. But that was it.

There was so much more to it. To him.

I heard Danny for the first time nearly 20 years ago, in the spring of 1993. In the throes of grief for my wife, who had died in late February, I would walk down the hill overlooking Lambertville, where we lived, through town and across the iron bridge into New Hope. I took comfort where I could find it, in the Lambertville townhouses and antiques stores filled with warm light, in the distended river reflections of the waterfront bars and restaurants of New Hope. There is a heightened, almost painful sensual clarity that attends the early stages of grief, much as it does moments of intense happiness or love or beauty, like childhood Christmases, the early stages of requited love, the occasional glimpse of sublime nature.

As the days pass, and grief subsides to resignation, you almost miss those early days of seeing everything so clearly. But that kind of intensity cannot be sustained, except perhaps by saints or mystics. Or certain artists, like Danny DeGennaro.

I was walking down New Hope's Main Street on a chilly Wednesday night in early spring, heading for Fran O'Brien's Pub, when the most mournful, sustained guitar note I'd ever heard nearly dropped me to my knees. It wasn't, as I initially suspected, someone playing an Eric Clapton recording loud; the music was live, and it was emanating from the Ringside Pub.

I entered to see Danny DeGennaro, fronting a band called the Deal, standing in a corner of the bar playing a cream-colored electric guitar, stocky, eyes closed, black hair long, in blue jeans and a leather jacket. He was investing every note with a total emotional commitment that gave shape to the sadness I was feeling and transmuted it to beauty. One of his own compositions, a soul ballad called "Bye Bye Baby," became the searing anthem of my grief:

"You know the girl left without any warning

"And it's driving me insane."

I became a regular at the Deal's Wednesday night performances at the Ringside, and marveled at the band's range. Danny could play and sing the saddest blues with the best of them, and then switch instantly to uproarious party music. He inhabited every shade of the emotional spectrum. He was, like the great artists, incapable of emotional fakery in his work.

He made joy seem possible amid heartbreak.

But he wasn't a saint, or a mystic, who could live in the world with open-hearted intensity without ever going numb. He was a musician. There were nights when, to reach that special place, he required the assistance of a stimulant or depressant or two. They were some of the best nights, when the band would play long past closing time for the sheer joy of the music. On one such night, the New Hope police were called, and they asked the band to tone it down a bit. When the musicians responded by raising the roof, the police shut them down.

Danny DeGennaro and the Deal weren't at the Ringside the next Wednesday, or ever again. Someone told me they had disbanded and Danny had gone to Florida. Eventually, the Ringside Pub closed. I moved away. Occasionally, I would search the Internet to try to find out what Danny was doing, but I eventually stopped looking.

In late September 2011, my wife and I were walking in New Hope to have dinner at the Logan Inn, when I heard that familiar voice above an acoustic guitar. "That's him!" I said, and she knew instantly, from my stories, that I meant Danny.

The voice may have been undiminished, but the rest of him seemed broken. He sat hunched on a bar stool, wearing glasses and a hat, with the sheet music in front of him so he could remember the words.

We saw him several times in New Hope. When I first reminded him of the Ringside Pub, he didn't recall it; he thought I was talking about a place in Florida. He told us his memory sometimes wasn't too good, and that he'd come home to Pennsylvania to see his mother through her last days with cancer. I told him how his music had helped me through a bleak period, and I thanked him for that. "That's the reason to play music," he said.

I offered to help him, as he had helped me, by supporting his efforts to revive his career. We exchanged contact information, texted, and resolved to get in touch after the holidays. On Dec. 28, 2011, he suffered a shotgun blast to his chest and died. Three teenagers from Trenton and Morrisville have been charged with his murder.

Danny exists now in the memory of those who heard him, and in fragments on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet. There is a stirring rendition of "Bye Bye Baby," from 2009 with Kingfish in Portland, Ore. My favorite, though, is from summer 2011. Danny is playing at a suburban pool party, barely heard above the party, eyes closed, strumming his acoustic guitar, singing, "She's as sweet as Tupelo honey" as the world turns.

It's there all the time, beauty in the world. All the time. So long, Danny. So long.

John Farmer Jr. is the dean of the Rutgers School of Law in Newark and the author of "The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11." E-mail him at farmer17@msn.com.

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