He knew the right people, worked with the right collaborators, and looked and dressed better than many in his circle. But as even his friends acknowledged, timing was never one of David Blue’s strong suits — and if anyone needed a reminder, it arrived at his funeral.
For much of Blue’s career leading up to that day in December 1982, life hadn’t seemed especially fair. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist had rarely complained about it, but everyone except him seemed to be reaping the rewards of a life in music. In the bustling Greenwich Village scene of the Sixties, Blue had shared many a boisterous evening with his friend Bob Dylan and their folk-singer pals, and Dylan had become an icon. Later on, after moving to Los Angeles, Blue watched as his friends Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne became adored stars, two of the era’s leading troubadours.
There Blue was, bowler-hatted and crouched next to Rick Danko alongside the other members of the Band and various circus freaks on the cover of Dylan’s The Basement Tapes. There he also was, dropping in now and then on Dylan’s carousing Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. Scan the liner notes of Blue’s own albums, and you’d see contributions from Mitchell, Graham Nash, Levon Helm, and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, among many. Yet even after songs he’d written had been covered by the Eagles and pop star Helen Reddy, of “I Am Woman” renown, Blue remained a cult artist, his records hardly selling and his club shows not always packed. He’d introduced Browne to Bruce Springsteen early in their careers, and look where both of them were now.
Physically, he was certainly set apart from many of them. Tall, curly haired, broad-shouldered, with expressive eyes that gave him the look of a silent-film star, Blue had a rugged leading-man charisma — a sad-eyed cowboy of the lowlands. No wonder that when he decided to pursue an acting career, he was cast in everything from a Wim Wenders film to one of the leading daytime soap operas. “He didn’t have to play a song to stand out,” says singer and actress Ronee Blakley, who met Blue in 1970, several years before her career-making role in Robert Altman’s Nashville. “He had a beautiful face. Gorgeous blue eyes. He was the original romantic poet cynic, but with a vulnerable heart.”
Yet the fame and success Blue always coveted — as a musician and later as an actor — never arrived for him. He was a new Bob Dylan before the world wanted one of those. He arrived a little too early for the singer-songwriter movement that made stars of Mitchell and James Taylor. He made the move into acting before the thought of musicians becoming thespians was considered legit. He was both behind and ahead of the times on a regular basis.
Now, on this first week of the last month of 1982, friends and family gathered at the Gramercy Park Memorial Chapel in New York to pay their respects at an open-casket viewing. Days before, Blue had died unexpectedly of a heart attack; he was only 41. When the undertaker had asked his devastated and supportive wife, Nesya, if she wanted to include any of her husband’s belongings alongside him, she immediately thought of the Casio watch she’d bought for him. He’d loved that watch, especially the rudimentary video games he could play on it, and she had it placed in the casket.
As Nesya and others sat in the chapel, the quiet was shattered by a loud, piercing beep-beep-beep. “I said, ‘What’s that?’’’ recalls David’s friend, author Marc Eliot. “Scared the shit out of me.” Even more unsettling, the sound was coming from inside the casket. Apparently, no one had checked the settings on Blue’s watch, and the alarm went off on schedule. As everyone watched, a worker at the funeral home reached inside the casket and pressed stop on the alarm. Once again, Blue’s timing just wasn’t quite right.
Show business can be a strange, unpredictable beast. Some people make it, and others who seem destined for recognition never receive it. “He knew everybody and he was there at the beginning,” says Blakley, “but he didn’t make it to the fullness of his talent and didn’t achieve the degree of success he deserved. It’s a difficult thing to predict. I don’t understand it. I really don’t.”
From the start, he was mysterious. He was born Stuart David Cohen on February 18th, 1941, and had grown up in Pawtucket, a town just north of Providence, Rhode Island. He was the regularly overweight son of a Russian-Jewish traveling salesman for a cosmetics jewelry company, and his mother was a hairdresser with a Catholic French Canadian and Irish background. Like many children of the time, his father served in World War II and returned in worse shape, on crutches. “[David] came from a pretty troubled home,” recalls his friend, singer-songwriter Eric Andersen. “These are stories David would tell me. If he did really well in school, his father wouldn’t believe it was him; he thought he cheated. David had a big mouth. One time, he was driving with his mother and was trying to tell her something and she said, ‘Would you just shut up?’ He wouldn’t shut up, and she said, ‘If you don’t shut up, I’m going to drive into a tree.’ She drove into a tree.” Legend has it that his half-sister was busted for prostitution. As Nesya Blue recalls, “He had a constant feeling of ‘I have to get away.’” In one of his first songs, Blue sang, “I will never be home again.”
After dropping out of high school, he continued a family tradition on his mother’s side and signed up for the Merchant Marines, which didn’t work out. Quoting the official paperwork, he later told Nesya he was thrown out for his “inability to adjust to a military way of life.” (In the years before his death, it would become an inside joke between them, applying to many situations in which Blue found himself.) He moved to Greenwich Village around 1960 with the dream of being an actor. During the next few years, he found himself in many of the Village’s coffeehouses and bars, catching poets and beatniks, including the likes of Hugh Romney, later known as Wavy Gravy.
The scene soon made room for a socially conscious generation of singers and songwriters that included Dylan, Andersen, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, and Tom Paxton. “He came to town not knowing what he wanted to be — a poet, an actor, a songwriter, or a personality,” remembers his first manager, Arthur Gorson. “He had a couple of things working for him. He was pretty good looking and he had a poetic quality to him. He chose his words very carefully.” As Andersen recalls, “A lot of musicians don’t read, but he was one of the few who read books. He liked Irish writers and Terry Southern.”
It’s unclear how and when Blue first met Dylan, but Blue became a regular part of his posse; the men would meet up at clubs like the Gaslight and then retreat upstairs to the Kettle of Fish for further discussion, debate, and alcohol. In one of those cafes, the Fat Black Pussycat, Dylan told Blue to strum chords as Dylan wrote out lyrics for what became “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The owner of the Gaslight gave Blue a part-time job washing dishes, and he made tentative steps performing his own songs. “He was around a lot and was accepted as one of us,” says Paxton. “I remember singing one of his songs at the Gaslight, because I wanted to give him some pleasure. I wanted him to hear one of his songs being sung.”
Dylan could be scathing and brutal in his takedowns, but according to those in that circle, Blue was never a target — and perhaps had a thicker skin than some of that gang. “Blue had a certain kind of stature,” says folk veteran Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. “He was a large guy, way bigger than Bob, and he had a certain composed personality. Bob appreciated people who didn’t act like a puppy dog or a fan. That made him extremely nervous and suspicious.” Blue’s cynical wit extended to his rapport with Dylan: When Dylan was injured in his 1966 motorcycle accident — an echo of James Dean’s fatal car crash — Blue supposedly sent him a note saying, “It’s been done already.”
Billed as Dave Cohen, Blue made his recorded debut on Elektra’s new-folkie-overview Singer Songwriter Project collection in 1965, which showcased his jaunty fingerpicking and unhurried, easygoing voice on the slacker anthem “I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning.” He then began recording an album of his own for the label, but not before an important change. During an acid trip with Andersen in the East Village, the two talked about what Cohen would call himself. “He was obsessed with his name, since there was also a David Cohen in Country Joe and the Fish,” Andersen says. “He was always so anxious. I said, ‘Look, man … Blue.’ It was because of his mood, and it had a nice ring to it. He just grabbed it right away and went and changed his name.”
For much of his subsequent career, he would be David Blue. “He assumed the character,” says Gorson. “He was better dressed than most people. He would lean more toward what was happening on [London’s] Carnaby Street than in the Village.” It was one of many mysteries about Blue; Gorson never had the sense his client lived anywhere, since he seemed to be crashing with friends all the time.
David Blue, his first album, was very much of its post-“Like a Rolling Stone” time, with Blue sounding like a more vulnerable version of Dylan and the musicians playing prickly plugged-in folk rock behind him. As derivative as it could be, the record had several gems, including the sparkly gait of “So Easy She Goes By” and the romanticized-lover allure of “Midnight Through Morning.” Later covered onstage by Jackson Browne, the elegant shuffle “Grand Hotel” was an erotic retelling of an affair with a mysterious woman, a recurring theme in many of Blue’s later songs.
Gorson had high hopes for the record. “The expectations were that David’s album would have momentum on the heels of Dylan,” he says. But David Blue almost never made it out of the pressing plants. Elektra head Jac Holzman felt the album was “less than stellar” and “was trying too hard for something,” as he told author Mick Houghton. Not wanting to embarrass Blue, since so many of Blue’s friends knew he was making the record, Holzman went ahead with it: “I thought we owed that much.” But Elektra barely promoted David Blue, which failed to make the pop chart.
In keeping with the increasing amplification of folk, Blue’s next move was to form a full-on four-piece rock & roll band, David Blue and the American Patrol. The group recorded an album, which included proto-garage-rock tracks like “Anything You Find on the Floor Is Yours” and “Tell Me What It’s like When You Get Back, Jack,” alongside material, like “Best of Your Childhood Smiles,” that recalled his more folk-rock debut. The American Patrol hit the road, at times assaulting the audience with their volume, and Blue seemed unapologetic of his change in direction. “I’m a product of my times,” he told one audience. “I like to speak in images, but nobody understands.”
“I have to thank David for putting me where I am today. He gave me my first opportunity to play.” —Don Felder
The album was never released, supposedly at Blue’s insistence. Rock was beginning to unplug, and with the help of Warner Bros. A&R man and Ochs pal Andy Wickham, Blue moved to Reprise Records in 1968, where he made These 23 Days in September. Singing in a more plaintive and less nasal tone, and fully embodying the role of the troubadour of a thousand hangovers, Blue began to find his true post-Village style on the album. The title song was elegantly haggard and acoustic. “Deep inside something is wrong/Something I can’t touch upon,” he sang, hinting at his inner turmoil. “Ambitious Anna” felt like a lazy afternoon in a south-of-the-border cantina. Again, hopes were somewhat high: “Color your head with David Blue,” proclaimed radio ads for the album. But the sales were again dismal.
As the Sixties gave way to the more nebulous Seventies, Blue still seemed to be searching for himself. Taking another cue from Dylan, he recorded his next album, 1969’s Me, in Nashville. But in a confusing turn of events, he billed himself by his birth name, S. David Cohen. The record was slightly more upbeat than its predecessors (Blue had “lost his blues … or else he’s faking it awfully well,” mulled one critic), but something about Blue still felt unformed, and he remained dogged by Dylan comparisons. Narrated by a desperate guy trying to to make a collect call back from home to Los Angeles, “Atlanta Farewell” (“Please, please answer/Accept this call/I’m so high, I’m about to fall”) was five minutes of pedal-steel–laced country lament that cried out for a cover version by a major country act.
By then, Blue’s life had undergone a West Coast makeover. The Village folk scene had largely expired, and Blue — along with a woman with whom he was in a relationship with at the time — relocated to San Francisco and then Los Angeles. Thanks to Joni Mitchell, whom he’d met in New York and with whom he had performed at a workshop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, Blue found himself with new managers. The offices of Elliot Roberts and David Geffen had become the cool-lunch-table gathering place for so much of the L.A.’s music crowd; among their clients were Mitchell, Browne, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and later the Eagles, and thanks to an introduction from Mitchell, Blue signed up as well.
When Geffen started his own label, Asylum, he launched it with three albums in early 1972: debuts by Browne and singer-songwriter Judee Sill, along with Blue’s fourth, Stories. One of his strongest and most consistent albums, Stories placed him in the gloriously bleak mode of Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt, and Blue’s singing exhibited a new, sullen depth. One of its songs, the Celtic-imbued “Marianne,” was reportedly about the same Marianne Ihlen who had been Cohen’s partner and muse (and Blue’s as well): “I know her from another song/Her older poet wrote before/We played it in the morning laughing on the floor/Till he came knocking on the Lower East Side door.” The title song had a barren, hangdog beauty, “Come on John” (later covered by Helen Reddy) was a stomper about a friend with a drug habit, and arranger Jack Nitzsche added tasteful strings to “Fire in the Morning,” where a desolate Blue sings, “I don’t have much to offer, I know/All I really own is my soul.” Even the cover portrait of Blue — by Anthony Hudson, Slash’s father and the cover designer of many of Asylum’s classic albums — was arresting.
Like its predecessors, Stories didn’t find an audience, but Blue was now part of a scene that openly welcomed him. Geffen and Roberts sent him on the road to open for Browne. At the tour’s New York stop, Blue went to Max’s Kansas City to catch a talk-of-the–tristate-area talent, Bruce Springsteen. As Springsteen wrote in his memoir, “He introduced himself to me after my set one night, then squired me around to meet Jackson Browne at the Bitter End,” where Blue and Browne were performing. In what was becoming a typical critical insight, Billboard reviewed their sets and called Blue “a hard man to know but well worth the effort.”
Blue was, at least, honest about his intentions. “I couldn’t consciously write a hit,” he said during an interview to promote Stories. “It’s not in my makeup.” At a club show in Ottawa, he paused to tell the small crowd, “My manager told me to be funny because the songs are so depressing.” The people in charge of his career were also learning what an unusual client he could be. “It was hard to put your finger on who David was,” says Leslie Morris, Elliot Roberts’ assistant at the time. “He came off really gruff, but he wasn’t. He was soulful and critical and hard on himself. He was sort of an enigma.”
In 1973, Don Felder, who hadn’t yet joined the Eagles and was looking for any music jobs he could get, showed up at an apartment on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood for an audition. He’d never heard of the troubadour he was auditioning for — David Blue — but had heard that Blue needed a lead guitarist for an upcoming tour. “Come on in,” said the towering guy who opened the door, and Felder set up his instruments. While looking around the place, he saw photos of Joni Mitchell everywhere. “It turns out it’s her apartment,” recalls Felder. “I’m walking into Joni Mitchell’s apartment.”
Felder was hired as Blue’s lead guitarist at a pivotal moment, as the push to make Blue a star on the same level as his fellow Geffen-Roberts clients began in earnest. Early in 1973, Asylum released Blue’s Nice Baby and the Angel, which Geffen-Roberts star Graham Nash had produced at his San Francisco home studio. With tracks like the fiddle-driven hoedown “True to You” and the modest rocker “Darlin’ Jenny,” the album was drenched in the L.A. country-rock prevalent at the time. Blue sounded at home in that genre, yet he also returned to the theme of rootlessness in one of his most exquisite folk ballads, “On Sunday, Any Sunday.”
Soon after the album’s release the Eagles unveiled Desperado, which included a cover of “Outlaw Man,” the Nice Baby and the Angel ode to an on-the-run rebel who could be either an actual desperado or a rock star. “We all heard David Blue’s album before it was released, or got copies the same week of release,” former Eagles guitarist and co-founder Bernie Leadon told Rolling Stone in 2016. “I believe it was Glenn [Frey] who suggested the song fit the theme of the Desperado album, and that we should work it up. The song was needed, as we needed some rockers and weren’t writing very many at that time.” To promote both albums, Asylum dispatched two employees dressed in Old West garb to at least one radio station, and Blue was sent on the road to open for, of all acts, Deep Purple, whose Frisbee-flinging fans were largely indifferent to a folkish act.
Blue had better luck later that year opening for Poco and, with his new guitarist Felder, a series of shows for David Crosby and Graham Nash. “I have to thank David for putting me where I am today,” says Felder. “He gave me my first opportunity to play. He was like a big brother with his arm around you.” The Crosby-Nash crowds were more receptive, and it looked as if Blue might have his chance to connect to a larger audience.
By then Blue had the accoutrements of fame — famous friends (he would regularly partake in card games at Frey’s home), a house in Laurel Canyon, and a steady stream of girlfriends he would bring by the Geffen-Roberts office. He was seen at all the fashionable events, from a launch party for Mitchell’s For the Roses to a 1975 bash thrown by Paul and Linda McCartney on the Queen Mary, where Blue hobnobbed with Dylan, George Harrison, Cher, Linda Ronstadt, the Jackson 5, and many more. He briefly dated Sara Dylan after she and Bob broke up; the two attended a Bob Marley show at the Roxy club in L.A.
But the recognition and commercial success that came so readily to his friends and peers still eluded him, and he clearly yearned for it, perhaps as a way to fulfill something missing inside of him. “He was a thorn in my side, every day in my office,” laughs Morris. “He was always on the fringe, and it was frustrating for him. That’s why David came to the office so much, to get David and Elliot to do things for him. They did their best to make it happen, but it didn’t happen.”
It didn’t help that Blue was an intense but not always crowd-pleasing stage performer. As his one-time road manager Howard Burke recalls, “A lot of people were big fans of David and wanted to help him, but he didn’t know how to help himself in some ways. There was an aloofness to David, and to some people, his music wasn’t their cup of tea.”
Through it all, Mitchell remained one of Blue’s most loyal supporters. Her album Blue was not about him — some of its songs were inspired by James Taylor, Mitchell’s boyfriend at the time — but Blue never exactly dissuaded anyone who thought otherwise. (“David told me Blue was for him, about him, and named after him,” says Marc Eliot. “He wanted to believe, would be the best way to think about it.”) But the two were close friends, and Mitchell not only let him crash at her Hollywood apartment but — as she confirmed to Rolling Stone by way of a representative — also paid for his rent and electric bill at points. “He was a ward, for lack of a better term,” says Morris. The arrangement didn’t always work out for the best. As Mitchell later told Andersen, she was once in a cab in New York and, looking out the window, saw Blue walking down the street with three dozen roses for his latest girlfriend. “Joni said, ‘Stop the cab!’ and jumped out and started screaming at him,” says Andersen. “And she said, ‘After I just paid …!’”
Blue would make two more albums for Asylum. The first, 1975’s Com’n Back for More, was soaked in L.A.-rock ennui and included cameos by Mitchell and Dylan, while the following year’s Cupid’s Arrow returned him to the smoother folk pop of his earlier work. Both were in the same lushly decadent league as period classics like Gene Clark’s No Other. But like Clark’s work, the music remained an acquired taste — one critic called Cupid’s Arrow “a good substitute for those days when Gordon Lightfoot seems too positive” — and the industry started to throw up its hands on the subject of David Blue. During a meeting with Elliot Roberts to discuss producing Cupid’s Arrow, R&B and blues keyboardist Barry Goldberg was told that Asylum (by then part of the Warner conglomerate) wasn’t going to promote the record either way, no matter how it came out. “Elliot loved David,” says Goldberg, “but I guess he couldn’t do anything about it.” Like all their predecessors, both albums were nowhere to be found on the charts.
Blue’s house in Laurel Canyon eventually gave way to an apartment in the increasingly run-down Montecito Apartments in Hollywood, home to actors both well-known and struggling. Marc Eliot, who had met Blue in the early-Sixties Village days, had also relocated to L.A., and he would regularly find Blue in the kitchen of his home in the mornings, chowing down on Eliot’s leftovers. “I’d wake up and David would be eating everything in my refrigerator, saying, ‘Hey, who made this chicken — it’s great!’” Eliot says. “I couldn’t get rid of him. He had nothing else to do.”
Starting with his early days in the Village, Blue had been attracted to other artistic endeavors, and with his music career stalled, Blue now pursued the acting craft in earnest. “He was looking for success any way he could find it,” says Morris, “and acting would have satisfied that.” In 1976, Wenders cast Blue in a bit role as an art collector in The American Friend, a noir adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel that starred Dennis Hopper. Three years later, Blue briefly appeared as an FBI agent in The Ordeal of Patty Hearst, a TV movie about the kidnapped heiress. Blue didn’t receive much notice for his work, but it was a start.
Certainly anyone who waded through Dylan’s 1978 surrealistic, Rolling Thunder–filmed movie Renaldo and Clara came away remembering Blue. Wearing sunglasses and smoking, Blue is accorded a lengthy segment reminiscing about his arrival in Greenwich Village and spending time with the Gaslight beats and Dylan, all while playing a determined game of pinball. “That showed a lot of him,” says Blakley. “He was Mister Cool.” The footage — which Ramblin’ Jack Elliott calls ” the only scene in that whole film that makes any sense” — also captured an affable onscreen charm that made an acting career seem like a natural. Blue can also be spotted in various scenes in last year’s Martin Scorsese–directed Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.
Neil Young recruited Blue for the role of a milkman in Human Highway, his oddball ensemble film, which began filming in 1978. “I asked Neil why he’d cast David and he said that he was very close with Bob Dylan,” recalls veteran actor Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story), who also appeared in the movie. “That probably had a lot to do with it.”
Tamblyn wasn’t familiar with Blue or his music. But Tamblyn was impressed how someone as seemingly gentle as Blue could morph on camera. “He was such a sweet guy, but he became a prick right away!” Tamblyn marvels. “I thought, ‘Wow, he’s a natural.’” Tamblyn was also taken with Blue’s dancing skills during the otherwise clumsy cast finale. “Dennis Hopper didn’t know his left foot from his right, but David learned so quick and fast,” Tamblyn says. “It was this awkward group of people dancing, except for David.”
But Blue was also reminded how much the musical tides were shifting during the making of Human Highway, which also featured an Ohio New Wave band called Devo. Devo were also managed by Elliot Roberts, and one day, Blue, Roberts, and Devo’s Jerry Casale found themselves in Roberts’ office. To Casale, Blue looked like a movie star, and his “sculpted face and commanding presence and better-fitting blue jeans and polished boots” were a marked contrast to Casale’s Doc Martens, slim-pegged black pants, and what he calls a “Gary Numan–esque New Wave haircut.”
Casale began explaining his group’s theory of de-evolution of the human race. Roberts thought it was hilarious, but Blue gave the impression that he didn’t know quite what to make of Casale’s concept, and Casale watched as Blue increasingly sank into a worn-out arm chair. “A bit later, he rose up, shook my hand, and said, ‘Nice meeting you,’” Casale recalls. “I think he left trying to understand why Elliot decided to manage us and why Neil Young had told him he liked Devo.” Another new era in music was dawning, but this one promised to leave Blue even further behind.
In another example of Blue’s unfortunate timing, Human Highway would not premiere until about six months after his death.
By late 1979, with his albums not selling and his record deal history, Blue was in desperate need of money and work. Other than occasional royalties from the Eagles’ version of “Outlaw Man,” he seemed perpetually broke. The Leonard Cohen Show, a stage production featuring Cohen’s songs and using excerpts from his novels and poems, was about to open in Montreal and needed a star. Seeking to help his friend, Cohen (who knew full well that both men shared the same last name) recommended Blue, who landed the job. (Blue once introduced “Troubadour Song,” from Nice Baby and the Angel, as “a portrait of Leonard Cohen”: “I am the poet who sings of love/I am the man who cries never enough/My bed is broken, my god forsaken.”)
During rehearsals, Cohen introduced Blue to his friend Nesya Shapiro, a twentysomething Montreal native who had already begun her career as a film director and director of photography. To her, Blue was a scruffy and seemingly down-and-out actor from L.A. He also seemed vaguely unhealthy, which wasn’t surprising. Playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who met Blue in the Sixties, remembered Blue handing out “animal tranquilizers” at a Dylan party in the Sixties. Spending time with him the following decade on the Rolling Thunder Revue, Shepard wrote that Blue “always gives the impression he’s trying to repair his health but never quite gets on top of it.” Drinking and drugging were inescapable parts of the Seventies L.A. lifestyle, and Blue was not immune: Felder says Blue introduced him to cocaine, and during his later years in L.A., Blue had begun using heroin.
But Blue’s magnetism was undeniable, and he and Nesya eventually grew close. For a long period, Nesya, who was predominantly a jazz fan, had no idea Blue was a musician; he didn’t mention that aspect of his life at all. “That might have been one of the reasons he felt good with me,” she says. “I wasn’t there because, ‘Wow, he was a friend of Bob’s, man.’ I just got to know him and appreciate him on his own merits.”
His former life, the one that held such promise for success, emerged periodically and painfully. One day at a friend’s apartment, Blue unexpectedly picked up a guitar and began playing and singing. “David, you’re really very good — your voice is beautiful!” Nesya told him. “Did you ever consider doing this professionally?” Blue laughed but then began crying a little.
The Leonard Cohen Show, in which Blue sat in a fake treehouse and sang Cohen’s songs, closed in June 1980, after two months, but Blue and Nesya stayed together. The couple married months later and, that same year, began traveling back and forth from Montreal to New York, where Blue was more likely to find work. In Montreal, Blue had felt musically reborn thanks to the local chansonnier tradition of the lone poet-songwriter. Before Blue returned to New York, Cohen funded and produced a demo tape of new Blue songs, including “Wild Canadian Girl” (inspired by his marriage), “I’ll Find My Way Back to You,” and a rocker called “The Children of Rock and Roll.” “I grew up on the Rolling Stones,” was its opening line, followed tellingly by, “Time has taken its toll on the children of rock and roll.”
But since Blue had neither a manager nor a record contract, the tapes lay dormant, and acting again became more appealing. “He didn’t want the focus to be on being a musician,” Nesya says. “When he first came to New York, he wanted to be an actor, and being back on the East Coast revived that for him.” In New York, Blue experienced a sense of renewal on several encouraging levels. In late 1980, he played a washed-up rocker in Stephen Poliakoff’s play American Days, directed by Dylan friend and one-time co-writer Jacques Levy; one reviewer described Blue’s role as “a bloated, aging star who is the evening’s eerie specter of rock careers past.” He landed a role singing and dancing in an off-Broadway show, and even a bit part, Nesya says, in the daytime soap All My Children. “It was a small role, but he was hoping it would turn into a larger role,” she says. “He wasn’t remotely disdainful, and he was happy to be a day player.”
Although many of the Village’s coffeehouses and clubs were relegated to New York history — and old friends and fellow Village troubadours like Phil Ochs and Tim Hardin were dead — Blue became friends with the new, younger owners of Gerde’s Folk City, the long-standing acoustic-music hub where Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and so many others had made their reputations. There, he would hold court, get all the free drinks he wanted, and occasionally perform (sometimes making only $50 a gig). A new generation of folk singer-songwriters was also making itself known in the Village. “He was so excited about the new scene,” says Robbie Woliver, who co-owned Folk City during that era. “Maybe it gave him some hope that he could have a resurgence, too.”
Blue was particularly impressed with a relocated Illinois singer-songwriter named Shawn Colvin. About 15 years before “Sunny Came Home” won Colvin Grammys for Song and Record of the Year, Blue became her mentor, attending her Bleecker Street club shows and sometimes joining her on one of those small stages. One night he stuck a cigarette in the headstock of her guitar, which ended up burning down to a nub and leaving a permanent scar on the instrument. “He kind of took me under his wing,” she says. “He was a very supportive guy. He said I should be true to myself.” Although Colvin never heard him complain about his career, she sensed a deep melancholy about him; with his weathered face and aura, she felt he seemed much older than he was, which was roughly 40.
Blue had battled weight issues since childhood, and struck many as unduly conscious of his looks. When Blue was in California, Morris recalls, he was always on one diet or another: “He’d lose weight and put it back on, and it was always a big deal and rough for him. He had real image issues.” In New York again, his renewed focus on acting made it doubly important that he be as healthy as possible and cut back on excesses, and he began exercising more regularly. One day, his fellow Village folkie Tom Paxton, who was also then in his forties, was running in Washington Square Park; to his surprise, Blue came jogging up alongside him. Paxton hadn’t seen Blue in years but was pleased to see him in good spirits. “It was a very ‘up’ David,” he says. “He seemed happy.”
On December 1st, 1982, the Blues finally moved into a real apartment of their own, on Prince Street. The next morning, after he’d spent one night in their new home, Blue donned his light-blue jogging suit, said goodbye to his wife, and went out for a run. Later in the day, Nesya began cooking, but her husband never returned. “I always made dinner, and he was a good eater, my David, and he liked my food,” she says. “When he didn’t come home for dinner, I knew something was wrong.” That night, she says, she had a dream in which her husband was lying on the sidewalk in his jogging outfit, his bloodied hand reaching upward, imploring, “Nesya, find me.”
The next day, she began reaching out to his friends, who hadn’t heard from him, either. The local police were of little help at that early stage of a missing-persons report, but with the help of a doctor friend, Nesya began calling around to the local hospitals and wound up at St. Vincent’s in the Village. There, she was told that a man matching her husband’s description had arrived DOA and that his body had been sent to the city morgue. Since the morgue was closed for the weekend, she wasn’t able to see and identify the body until three days later.
As Nesya and their friends soon learned, Blue had had a massive heart attack during his second lap around Washington Square Park. (Hearing of his death, Felder remembered that Blue was a nonstop chain smoker and would “smoke to the end of the stub.”) A doctor on the scene had tried to save him, but Blue had died there in the park. Since Blue hadn’t been carrying any identification on him, no one knew who he was and no family member had been notified — a final moment of lack of recognition in a life filled with them.
“David’s death … felt like the real end, the end of all that, the Village scene.” —Marc Eliot
In Los Angeles, Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson were among those who gathered for a memorial to honor Blue. Mitchell also flew in for a New York gathering, held at the Chinese Chance bar in the Village five days after the open-casket funeral. There, she introduced Cohen, who gave a moving eulogy for his old friend: “He died running, he fell beside the square, to the street where many years before he had begun to sing, he fell in the fullest expression of vanity and discipline,” Cohen began his tribute. He went on to call Blue “the peer of any singer in this country, and he knew it, and he coveted their audiences and their power, he claimed them as his rightful due. And when he could not have them, his disappointment became so dazzling, his greed assumed such purity, his appetite such honesty, and he stretched his arm so wide, that we were all able to recognize ourselves, and we fell in love with him.” Cohen talked about how Blue’s voice and guitar had matured during his last few years — “something very deep and sweet entered, his timing became immaculate … and I was happy then, and perhaps happier now, to say that I told him that.”
At the memorial, Blue’s father told Nesya that he himself had had a heart attack in his early forties, indicating Blue’s condition may have been hereditary. (To ensure her husband didn’t overtax his body while jogging, Nesya had been on his case about getting a physical, which he kept putting off.) At one point, the silence was broken by the departed’s mother. Talking with the gathering’s other co-host, Marc Eliot, Blue’s mother proclaimed, “My David was more talented than Bob Dylan!”
For some of those who knew and worked with Blue, his loss was incalculable. “I thought David was honestly a better singer than Bob Dylan,” says Felder. “The songs were brilliant and he sang more in tune than Dylan. He had a great boisterous laugh, which was contagious. He carried a lot of positive energy. He and Dylan both wrote great songs, but some people have the luck and the charisma.” For Eliot — also a friend and biographer of Phil Ochs, who had hanged himself in 1976 — Blue’s passing was more symbolic than medical. “David’s death, more than Phil’s, felt like the real end, the end of all that, the Village scene and even the resurrection of the Village scene,” Eliot says. “Everybody realized the moment had passed.”
True to Eliot’s concerns, Blue nearly vanished from the landscape as soon as he died. Posthumously, he appeared as an actor in Uncertain Futures, a “comedy of modern manners and morality” written and directed by Nesya Blue and broadcast in Canada. (Nesya continues to work as a director and director of photography in the film business, and has recently written several series awaiting production deals, including Mutts, about a bankrupt socialite who’s forced to become a dog walker.) But Blue’s records fell out of print. He is rarely, if ever, mentioned in books on Dylan or Mitchell. A major-label compilation of his Reprise work, scheduled for around 2004, was canceled out of a lack of interest on the part of a newly installed executive. At the very least, four of his albums have recently been reissued by the London label Cherry Red.
Other friends remained haunted by memories of Blue. One night in late 1982, Andersen was at Folk City, waiting for his songwriting buddy to show up. For once, Andersen was going to stay with Blue instead of the other way around, and Blue seemed proud of the fact that he had his own place. At one point during his show, Andersen looked beyond the stage and saw Blue outside the club wearing a white suit. As Andersen recalls, “He was kind of looking in and stroking his chin and appraising, as he was wont to do.”
After his set, Andersen looked around for Blue and asked where he’d gone. “Oh, we haven’t seen him,” the bartender told Andersen. “He wasn’t here.” Andersen later learned that Blue had died earlier that day. He was finally back home.