ArtsWatch guest post: Pavane for a dead prince

Remembering Portland classical music store owner David Wood


David Wood 1954-2012. Photo: Novie Beth Ragan Gad.

Sheet music store owner David Wood, well-known on the Oregon classical music scene, died last week. Friends will hold a wake in his memory this Saturday. Portland pianist Maria Choban knew Wood for almost three decades and wrote this remembrance. The title refers to a work by one of Wood’s favorite composers, Maurice Ravel.

We’re sitting side by side on David’s couch, I’m belting out the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” and David is screaming and giggling “STOP!!!!”  Apparently we’re in the middle of playing a game of who can out-gross the other more with the vilest song ever written.  We’ve just returned from dinner so we’re very tanked, and we’ve had our after-dinner cigarette – David being very generous with his stash because I’m in a perennial state of quitting.  To hear David’s giggle is one of the most joyful experiences on this planet. To never hear it again brings tears to my eyes. David doesn’t laugh heartily; he giggles unabashedly like a doll whose stomach you press and it emits a series of rhythmic happy baby gurgles. His giggle makes me laugh harder and pretty soon we’re unable to breathe, doubled over on the couch, slapping each other to make us STOP!!!  I’m not sure what started it. Often we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. We may have been talking about tragic lives – Karen Carpenter’s certainly qualifies – when one of us breaks out into a totally inappropriate tangent.

David Wood died Monday, August 13. He was 57 years old.  (“Too fast to live, too young to die, Bye-Bye” — Eagles, “James Dean.”)  With Michael Sagun, he co-owned Sheet Music Service long located on Portland’s North Park Blocks, and was in charge of the instrumental department, housing one of the greatest collections of trumpet literature (because David played professionally and taught), brass quintet literature (because David played in Metropolitan and Pioneer Brass Quintets), concert band scores (because David believed in supporting music in public education and having scores available for perusal was essential to band directors).

My 28-year friendship and platonic love affair with David Wood continues, even though the motherfucker moved to another universe last Monday. With this man I have shared the darkest and/or most humiliating parts of myself.  With this man it has felt like we’re just having a natural back-and-forth conversation. When I felt like I totally failed as a pianist, having quit music for the fourth or fifth time, humiliated by my own inability to stick to it, David hauled me off to a bar and plied me with alcohol and stories of his own setbacks until I was at least able to smile, and then together we planned my work schedule at the store so that I could still maintain health-insurance coverage, come in later, and spend the morning hours practicing piano.  Whatever magic he worked stuck.  I have continued to make a life in music since then.

David epitomized a rock & roll lifestyle. (“Your liver pays dearly now for youthful magic moments” – Cake). I’m not saying it contributed to his early death. . . . . yes I am.  But it also contributed to his ability to be so totally accepting of others’ foibles that if a friend was willing to risk opening up to him, David had a way of hunting through his Rolodex of experiences to find something similar that would allow him to put shit in perspective so that we could both laugh and accept our humiliating experiences with grace and humor.  Rollicking, laugh-’til-we-can’t-breathe-and-start-slapping-each-other humor.

I worked for David at Sheet Music Service in the 1980s, fighting toe-to-toe with him over work issues such as why we still needed to carry the “Dozen A Day” series (an old but in my opinion still useful piano method book). I am thankful he had an egalitarian attitude about such differences rather than a boss-servant outlook. I saw first-hand his visionary outlook coupled with stubbornness, totally consumed by his vision, unable to take in another perspective when he pushed Sheet Music Service into the computer age long before others made the move. We were so cutting-edge that we had to input data manually. We cataloged hundreds of thousands of titles: titles, composers, publishers, publisher numbers, dates, copies in inventory. Not even Hal Leonard, the largest music publishing conglomerate, then made its catalog universally accessible. David was adamant. This was as important as customer service and there was no tolerance of slacking on either end. Rationally explaining that doing all this manual inputting defied the laws of time and physics to David was. . .well. . . futile.

David loved music. Not money, not status.  And this is why Sheet Music Service was the store that it was. Eclectic with music bought from estates around the world and culled for store inventory. Expansive, especially after Music Masters (previously Kalmus) came back to play in the publishing industry and released a ton of cool odd literature at bargain prices with which we filled the store. He hired people who shared his love and curiosity of music literature in their field – mine was piano and chamber music. Then he’d give us free rein to purchase for inventory whatever the hell we wanted. SMS had breadth, but more than that, it had depth. If you wanted this year’s batch of the guaranteed-to-sell, commonplace piano teacher’s standard literature, you went to one of the other music stores in town. If you wanted a Celtic dance score you could only hum a couple of measures to, you came to SMS and hummed them for Danny, the guru in that department.

David’s nose for scouting and hiring talent like Danny is one thing that made his store so valuable. He wooed me to SMS from Portland’s Classical Millennium record store with a pay rate 50% higher than what I was making there. CM’s founder/owner, Don MacLeod, another of my favorite maverick cowboy entrepreneurs, asked me what it would take to keep me at CM.  I flippantly answered “What David’s paying me and a Cuisinart.” He said “DONE!”  I laughed. I told David, who without batting an eye said, “I’ll double that.”

We founded a store band — in the words of co-worker Steve Conrow, “the greatest concept band that never was!”  We called it Scratch ‘n Sniff.  Four SMS employees came together on instruments we’d never played:  David picked up electric bass; Steve Conrow, electric guitar; Dot Rust, lead vocals – and me, drums.  All of us accomplished musicians on our classical primary instruments, all of us with a wide and varied interest and love of rock & roll.  But about the only thing we really had going for us as a band was an instinct for the rock & roll lifestyle—ingesting more shit than any four people should have without an ambulance involved.  We were so awful that in the house where we practiced in the basement, in one of the most gang and drug infested areas of Portland, we’d hear shouts outside pleading for us to SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!!!!!  Portland’s Produce Row restaurant told David they’d book us if we promised to do the gig as the first rehearsal on our never-before-tried instruments.  We declined. None of us needed to add to the fiasco genre once called “No Wave.”

David Wood and Reuben Snyder

My own parents, who love David and miss him as much as I do, summed it up beautifully: “This is a man who lived life on his own terms, who knew the limitations of his body and chose to exceed them, who bubbled with vivacity and humor and intelligence and curiosity.” He found Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle” for my mom who could only describe the song, not even hum even part of it, “Arivederci Roma” in score form for my father who does not read music but wanted to own a copy of one of his favorite songs. David fit right in with my family when together we hosted an orphans Thanksgiving bash for many many years (always inviting my orphaned family). He was insatiable in providing a music store too big for the community because his own tastes were as enormous as his heart. Just ask every stray he took in, human and animal, me included, and helped us heal and gave us a permanent place in that enormous heart.

In the words of the heroin-addled poet/songwriter Jim Carroll, one of David’s heroes:

“And David I miss you more than all the others,
And I salute you, brother.”

Friends of David Wood will host a wake in his honor at 3 pm Saturday, August 25th, at Wood’s home, 4005 SE Ivon St. in Portland.

2 Responses.

  1. Stephanie Kramer says:

    I’m forever grateful to you for recommending me for a job at SMS 17 years ago. David Wood was a great boss. I didn’t understand or appreciate him as much then as I do now, but I look back on those years fondly, and really enjoyed reading this tribute and memory of your experiences with him.

  2. Cathy Cameron (Hamner) says:

    Brett Campbell,
    thank you for writing that wonderful tribute to David. I hadn’t seen David in many years, but recently we talked a few times on the phone, and it was wonderful to hear that voice, and yes, that giggle, again. I remember the “British Invasion” look he sported in that younger photo, and I was one of the southern UNC girls who was wowed with his “exotic” New Jersey accent. I got to ride on the back of his motorcycle and visit NYC with him. His “bad boy” combined with “sweet boy” was irresistible. RIP David Wood.

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