Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Remembering Wendy Kale

By Peter Rodman

I'm not much for writing columns to work through my personal grief...but this will have to be an exception--for an exceptional person, and an exceptional friend.

Wendy Kale died yesterday, alone in her apartment in Boulder.  Her death is especially shocking to me, because her life-force would seem to survive anything.  But the 'dying alone' thing? truth, that's what we both expected would eventually happen to us, living alone like we each did. We knew nobody 'in the biz' knew about our real lives...we were too busy writing about theirs!  (We even laughed about it...and it'll still happen to me, Wendy!)

I first met Wendy Kale back around '76 or so, up at the 'Program Council,' which was where concerts got put together, for the University of Colorado, in Boulder.
She was the upstart. The Kid. The Tomboy. 
The girl who'd do whatever needed doing, just so she could be there. And as these things usually happen in the rock world, she eventually made herself indispensable--in effect, inventing her own job.  While she seemed a mere 'go-fer' on my initial visits to that 4th floor office, by the time things really started cookin', Wendy Kale was the 'Program Council Publicity Director.'
Short and chubby, always cheerful (and never nasty), Wendy was driven...but not at all, by what we call 'ambition.' 
I understood her from the start. 
It was acceptance she was after; nothing more.  
(Think:  Mary Stuart Masterson, in Some Kind of Wonderful.)
While rarely starstruck by the big stars, Wendy was strangely awestruck by the local 'names' who made the music business seem like one big blur, back in Boulder's crazy '70s.
Her charismatic boss, himself still (technically) a student, was the legendary Phil Lobel.  She served at his pleasure, and that meant everything from running over to print shops to make posters, and then running all over town to put them up, to fetching lunch, to getting somebody's dry cleaning, if necessary--or even taking some serious flack, for something she might not have done, just to save the ass of some 'bigger fish.' 
Wendy was there for you. 
As the PC office whirled in an avalanche of paper and 8x10 glossies, Wendy was there, to help sort it all out. 

My own role at that time was in flux.
I was transitioning from radio personality, to newspaper columnist, back to radio again--so I'd be back-and-forth on a near daily basis, within that (UMC) building--either delivering a story to the Colorado Daily, or arranging yet another artist interview with Phil, ahead of some upcoming show or other.
Everyone knew everyone.
There was JC Ancell, the Godfather of All Things UMC, who gently-but-firmly oversaw both the paper, and the council, and even the building itself. He was like the 'grown up'--a gentle chaperone, who lovingly nurtured Wendy Kale, just as I did.  Later, there were Stu Osnow and Bob Webster and a few other future PC leaders--and Colorado Daily editors--but in those Golden Years, Wendy Kale became more essential to the workings of things, than she ever knew.

Always...there was Wendy.

That's Wendy Kale on the left, at the PC office.
(Photo from Boulder Daily Camera)
And if this sounds self-serving or conceited, I'm going to say it anyway, because Wendy would want me to.  In fact, she'd be yelling it into the phone, "Go ahead!  (laughing) You should do it!  (laughing) I can't WAIT to see what everybody says, when you do!"
Okay.  I will.  I'll say it:

Wendy Kale was my biggest fan.

At first I was confused by it. Who'd be so enamored of me?
Whenever I popped over there, she just...stopped.  Cold.  In her tracks, midstream.
Then she'd just smile. And wait. And greet me. And wait...
And after I realized what was happening, I began to see myself in her. 
She loved what I was doing, sure...but I saw what she was about--selflessness--from the moment we met.  I made it my mission to give back to her the esteem she was (needlessly, I thought) bestowing upon me.  (Can you tell these two people needed each other?)

Like Phil Lobel, I somehow found myself at the very center of that 'Boulder music/media' universe, and Wendy had tremendous respect for it (more than me or Phil, frankly) and all she really wanted was the 'secret word' to unlock the door to get in and help!
I remember taking her aside a few times, in the early days--this is how we gradually became close--saying, "Listen, don't you let these people take advantage of you!  You are GOLD!!!  You're what everybody wants in this business."
I'm not sure she ever quite believed that, but it was true.
Anyway, from that time forward, we were what they now call 'BFFs,' within the "Belder" milieu. (I can hear her cackling now, at my 'special' spelling...)

What had happened, was that two insecure people had truly connected.  One (myself) was sittin' on top of the world, at the time; the other (WK) couldn't quite believe she belonged there, too. But she did.

Whenever I feel afraid,
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune,
So no one will suspect...I'm afraid.
While shivering in my shoes,
I strike a careless pose,
And whistle a happy tune
...and no one ever knows, I'm afraid!*

I knew that feeling well.  There were still mountains to climb for me, and in a way, by encouraging her, I was giving myself some kind of internal pep talk. 
"Quit whining, Wendy Kale!" I'd say, when we'd talk about it all, on the phone.
"But I wanna know how you did it!" she said. (As if I'd conquered the world!)
"Wendy, listen to me," I answered, "and if you tell anybody this, I swear I'll KILL you!!!  But I don't know what the hell I'm even doing, half the time!  Oh, who am I kidding...ALL the time!  You've just gotta fool everybody into thinking you do!"
"But you're a WRITER!"
"Oh, pulleeze! I'm a writer?  Because I beg and plead every other day, to get a story in the Daily, for $35?  Give me a break! YOU'RE a writer too." 
"Thirty five dollars?  They only pay me fifteen!!!"
And on and on it went.
Her self-esteem was never where it should be, and quite frankly, neither was mine.  I just faked it better.

The result of this deception
is very strange to tell;
For when I fool, the people I fool
...I fool myself, as well!*

And that defined our friendship, for decades to come: Wendy's open heart meeting mine, and mine hers, always privately--with a little dose of friendly 'dish' thrown in, for good measure.  Although I've not "mentored" too many people, I think she'd agree, I always took Wendy under my wing--because to me, she was like a mirror of my own life...the too-short kid, who got 'picked last' for the stickball team, just dying to be in on the action, no matter what. 
And don't think it was all magnanimity on my part, either.
I simply couldn't stand to see another person hurt the way I had been, as a kid. 
I wanted her to unlock her 'inner Wendy,' and feel the only acceptance that ever matters: self-acceptance

We spent many hours on the phone back then, because when I was out at shows, I'd often be caught in some crazy scrum, competing for access, or just trying to get out of the place altogether, so that I could meet a deadline, edit a radio show, or just go home, and see if my wife was still there. 
Such is the life of a contract player, or 'freelancer,' as you like.  (Note to freelancers: It ain't all bad. By retaining full ownership of my interviews and stories in exchange for low wages, I inadvertently set up my own retirement fund!)
And as much as I encouraged her, a funny thing began to happen.
Suddenly, this scrappy kid was growing up, and we'd become friends. In addition to becoming a terrific 'back channel' source for this writer, she was encouraging me.
"Oh my GOD, I can't believe they'd do that to you!" she said to me one time. "You're the whole reason anybody even listens to KBCO!"
I could give you another hundred of those, but how do you say what Wendy always said to me, without seeming immodest?
She was my biggest fan.

Much more importantly, I could trust her.  I used to ask her things--sensitive, political things--things I couldn't ask anybody else.  She seemed endlessly surprised (even thrilled) that I needed her advice at all...but I really, really did.  Wendy was the only one I knew who was entirely without an agenda.  
She was everybody else's enabler. 
She enabled us all, to reach bigger heights.  She enabled a dying music scene to be reborn, with ceaseless encouragement.  With no gas in her own tank, and not a penny to spare, she was willing to siphon her own energy, simply to help jump-start YOUR engine.
By this I mean no sexual innuendo whatsoever.  There was none of that with us.  
This was a friendship forged by complete and total trust.

Eagles at Folsom Stadium--July, 1978
Press Box Photo by Peter Rodman  
 When the Eagles came to town, Wendy (as usual) knocked herself out, to score what could only be considered an amazing 'coup.' She'd actually contacted Boyd Elder in Texas, the painter who had designed the album covers for The Eagles Greatest Hits and On The Border, and secured the rights to use one of his famous 'cow-skull' paintings, as a collectible poster for the upcoming stadium show, at Colorado's Folsom Field!
Killer idea, right?
The Eagles' management--notorious 'badasses,' at the time--got wind of her efforts only when Wendy (very sweetly, and ceremoniously) tried to bestow upon them a coveted, framed print of that artwork backstage, as a memento of this 65,000 seat sellout.
By the time it was over, their asshole-in-charge had dressed her down to the point of tears, streaming down both of those glorious cheeks, simply for inadvertently choosing what turned out to be a 'previously rejected' album cover painting!
Wendy, who never hurt a soul, was crushed. 
Witnessing this episode, and watching my dear friend's merciless pummeling, I decided to exact some of my own revenge on those heartless schmucks. 
A few days later, the local newspaper contained this passage:

"For all of the temperamental egos involved in this business, for all of the self-important road managers, like Eagles' Larry Solters, who was introduced to the student who did this show's publicity and said to her, "So what?"--for all of that, occasionally a show comes along that's really worth it.  This one was."

The day after it ran, on August 3, 1978 (exactly 33 years ago today, as I write this), Wendy called me, and screamed excitedly (and gratefully) into the telephone: "I can't believe you WROTE that!"  (add wildly explosive laughter, here)
She knew what was at stake for me; she said she was actually worried for me, too--and this was before either of us knew what would actually happen, as a result of the story. 

Needless to say, I received numerous calls from various minions (and reptiles) associated with the Eagles, and/or the Folsom show, during the next several days--including one from a screaming Mr. Solters, who swore I'd "never interview another Frontline act" as long as I lived! "You'll never work again! Your career is OVER!"--etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  (Think: Ari Gold.)
The following week, I made sure to get interviews with both Joni Mitchell and J. D. Souther--each, key Frontline acts, at the time.  

In truth, I'd already learned an even bigger lesson from this incident involving my friend Wendy, about my own fears:
Those guys aren't so scary, after all! 
It's the same thing Wendy and I kept teaching each other over and over, when nobody else was looking:   YOU CAN DO IT!

Make believe you're brave
And the trick will take you far...
You may be as brave,
As you make believe you are!*

The point is, even had they pushed me "out of the business, Son!" as threatened, it would have all been worth it--easily worth it--to defend my beloved Wendy Kale.
But I still remember shaking in my pajamas at home, with my nervous wife standing by, as I replied to that bigshot:
"I'm not your son!" 

Oooh, we laughed about that one!!!
And WHAT a laugh! 
Wendy's cackle redefined "cackle." 
Infectious, unbridled, and the measure of support, as always, from the world's most supportive person.

And then, a funny thing happened along the way.
Little Wendy Kale got her mojo on. Big time.

Long after the Peter Rodmans and the Phil Lobels and the Kenny Weissbergs had left town--and stopped writing about, presenting, and interviewing Boulder's musicians--long after we thought that creek had been fully panned until there was no gold left, Wendy Kale began scoring one new musical 'find' after another.  From 'Big Head' Todd to Leftover Salmon, all of those people owe a big debt of gratitude, to Wendy.
After starting out with record reviews (which is how all music writers started out, back then), she churned out endless copy for very little money about concerts, scored backstage interviews on-the-fly--and more importantly than most people realize, Wendy periodically wrote galvanizing, comprehensive overviews about 'the state of the Boulder music scene' --researched for weeks, by a person whose sheer guile (on a bicycle!) took her wherever she needed to go, and then took us along, with her.

A few years after the Eagles debacle, I was fronting an ad hoc rock band at JJ McCabe's, a downtown club in Boulder, for a three-night stand.  It was something all we radiofolks (you may pronounce that liberally) loved to do, back then: moonlight as a rock star, once a year or so.
Unfortunately, I decided to show up in a leopard-skin bathrobe, which I used as a cape/prop...and after we did "Hot Legs," it went straight downhill in a hurry. I'd had many successful gigs in Boulder, but even though the place was packed, this was not to be one of them.  
At some point a heckler started shouting anti-semitic stuff at the stage, and I'd had enough.  I jumped off the stage, went to the club manager, and demanded he be ejected, or we wouldn't continue.
Smack-dab in the middle of this Thursday night stand-off, somewhere near midnight, Wendy Kale came crashing through the crowd.
"Peter! Peter!  Candy's here!!!  She's really messed up.  You've gotta come outside!  She'll only talk to you!  She keeps calling your name!!!"
It was the only time I ever had a harsh word with Wendy Kale.  "Wendy, can't you see what's going on?  The band's onstage, and I just left the stage in the middle of the set, to talk to the manager! I can't go anywhere, right now!  I gotta solve this, and get back up there! Wendy, I'm in a war here! Tell Candy to come inside, and wait for me--and I'll see her after we get this resolved, I promise!!!"

I should have walked out of that club altogether, and trusted Wendy's eyes.  I kick myself to this day, that I didn't.  
It haunts me still. 
Wendy knew that Candy and I had grown a lot closer, during those last few months.
The next day, I found out that Candy Givens had drowned  later that night, in a hot tub. 
Wendy had been her (and my) 'canary in the coal mine'--playing the role she'd always played--but being caught up in my own silly-ass dramas at the time, I'd somehow missed it. 
I'd missed the cue, dammit!
From the only person whose cues never, ever let me down!
I will hold that regret in my heart, forever. 
I've always wondered what I could have done to help, if anything, had I simply dropped it all, and left the club--mid-gig--to go find, and somehow help, Candy.   

And I will hold Wendy Kale in my heart forever.

Somewhere during the early years, she'd added "Rock 'n Roll" as (more or less) her middle name.  Wendy "Rock 'n Roll" Kale, it went.  I always thought it was unecessary, and refused to call her that. 
Even if somebody had briefly 'tagged' her that way at the PC office, it was Wendy's decision, to let the nickname 'stick,' but it always seemed to me like she did it because maybe she thought people might forget who she even was, if she just called up and said "Hi, it's Wendy Kale," instead of "Hi, it's Wendy Rock n' Roll, remember me?" 
I told her that, too.  I said I suspected it was maybe a good strategy, but I was sure it was born of the insecurity I was hoping she'd gotten over.  She was way too talented to ever sell herself short.

Occasionally, decades after leaving Boulder, I'd call her up just to surprise her.  We'd immediately pick up where we left off--dishin' the dirt, laughing hysterically at the changes in some of our mutual characters' lives, and updating our current activities for each other. 
I always tried to tell her, "Wendy, you've now far exceeded the contribution to Boulder's music scene that any of us ever made; you literally helped nurse it back from life support!"   
By now, she was THE rock-solid music columnist in town.  Everybody counted on the lady, to tell them what was good, what was happening, who was hot, and where it was all going. And she did it all, as the editor of the Daily said today, "for peanuts."
...but not really.
Wendy Kale saw a story in Boulder.  She fell in love with it, and told it until there was nobody else left to tell it.  She would have done it, and often did it, for free.  It was never about success or money.  It was all about love.

When KBCO had a "25th Year Anniversary Celebration" several years back, Wendy just assumed I'd be part of it.  So did I. 
Anyway, before the event, she called me here in Nashville, and for the first time ever, she did a full-bore interview with me, about two hours long.  The resulting cover story and multi-page spread was so amazing, I couldn't have asked for anything more.  She wrote something to the effect of, "Back in the day, when Boulder was cookin', you could go out six nights a week and find any number of great bands playing.  But on the seventh night, everybody stayed home, to listen to Sunday Night with Peter Rodman."

It was her personal gift to me--in essence, a culmination of all she thought, that she'd never really said to anyone else but me. I've included only one of a ton of complimentary statements within the story, but it was a love letter from someone I loved in return, and I'll never, ever forget it.  
Unfortunately, KBCO had been sold, and sold again--and by this time, nobody there even remembered my name
It  must have been hilarious to see the dumbfounded looks on their faces at the 'new' KBCO, when they saw this huge newspaper spread about me, commemorating their big anniversary!
"Who the hell is this?"
The point is, Wendy remembered--which was all I ever needed.  

"And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make" is a cliche to most folks, now. 
Wendy Kale, more than most, really knew that truth, and lived by it.

And in the end,  I was HER biggest fan.

I don't know quite how to end this--just like I would never have known how to end a solid, 35 year friendship.
But I wonder what she'd think of this little column about her. I wish I knew. I wish there was one more call.  I can just hear her now, on the other end of the phone...
"Peter, I loved your piece about me!  But could you just take out the 'chubby' part?  Do you have to say 'chubby'?"
"No way, Wendy!  That's a huge part of your appeal!  Without that babyface, where would we all be?" 
Then, there would be that indelible cackle.

I never wanted this conversation to end, Wendy.

Copyright 2011 by Peter Rodman.  All Rights Reserved.
*"I Whistle A Happy Tune" Copyright 1951, Words and Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein.



  1. Thank you. I'm crushed that she is gone, but reading other people's memories helps. She was so important to the Boulder music scene and I always read her columns.

  2. Wendy was a beautiful human being who did much for little. Thanks for your heart-felt piece. Wendy always gave of herself for others; it's nice to see someone giving a bit back.

  3. An extremely heartfelt piece. Thank you for sharing what Wendy meant to you and the Boulder music community.

  4. in the picture she didn't look chubby ... great piece!!