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The Life and Death of a Mere Mortal

On Nine One One, while the whole of America was in fear and shock from those true believers diving our own commercial airlines into our skyscrapers, Kegan was unable to get his tracheotomy suctioned and he couldn’t breathe. The lack of oxygen caused him to have a heart attack and he was gone before José came out of the Seven-Eleven with the batteries. Not one television reporter noticed that September 11 was the day Larry Kegan returned to his God.
If he could have stood up he would have been six feet tall, and he wasn’t any wider than a beer truck. It always looked like the wheelchair had two flat tires and he was riding on the rims because of all that weight. Larry hated being overweight, and was not heavy until late in life when his organs went more and more haywire and they had to keep adding machines to keep him alive. He never saw anything wrong with himself, just some bad luck and a broken body. He used to say, “If I was on my feet I would never be fat.” So his friends became extensions of his arms and legs and tried to stay out of the way.

Kegan never brought up his Dylan connection except if you knew. Sometimes he’d mention Bob with a grin. He’d always put an emphatic spin on Bob. He’d open his eyes real wide, look dead at you, slowly shake his head, and smile like that cat outta Alice in Wonderland. The tone of his voice and smile said he was telling some kind of secret, important, outside joke. I never saw anyone put so much English on a name.
Larry knew he was mortal and that quads don’t tend to live as long. He would always say, “If I can just make it one more year...” “One more year” was his mantra.
Geno LaFond wrote and played the guitar with him, always said "we," also traveled on tour with "Bob," was with Larry a long time, but Larry always took most of the spotlight. They traveled and toured once to several times a year for fifteen years. " Sometimes I would fly out and meet up with them, hang for a few days and then fly home," Geno says. "Larry would go for weeks sometimes and different people would meet up with them and help him. First time for me was 1975 — the Rolling Thunder Tour — Incredible!!"
The name of Kegan's and Geno's band, The Mere Mortals, came up when Geno first met Bob. "Larry and I laughed that even Bob was mortal, although maybe we were a bit more so."
When The Mere Mortals played, Kegan avoided saying Bob’s name. Instead he’d say, “Here’s a song by a friend of mine.”
On the wall over Larry’s bed there were snapshots: “Bob”, Kegan, and Louis Kemp at 13 and again at 50, three boyhood buddies who kept in contact their whole lives. There was a snapshot of Kegan and Muddy Waters. And of course the photo of Kegan with Geno, and Leaning on the top of the dresser there was The Bridge Concert poster featuring Neil Young, Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, Cheech Marin, and The Mere Mortals. (Neil Young throws The Bridge Concert every year to raise money for the school his two disabled kids attend.) The Mere Mortals had played that one a couple of times, as they had played front act for "Bob," Neil Young, and a who's who of some of the biggest names in music.
He traveled in hip circles from his era: Scarlet Rivera, Kinky Friedman, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kris Kristofferson, Rick Danko, Jackson Browne, and local blues and folkie players such as Willie Murphy, Paul Metsa, and Larry Long.
It’s like the old joke where the Pope comes out with Kegan at St. Peter’s Square, huge crowds cheering. Somebody pulls your coat and asks, “Who’s the guy with Larry Kegan?”
One time he was on stage at the Hannukah festival in a packed Union Square in San Francisco, with Sammy Kahn and Country Joe McDonald [Country Joe and the Fish]. There was a huge, mahogany, two-story menorah that Bill Graham had donated to the city, and the Rabbi was in a cherry picker bucket, lighting the candles. Geno looked over. Larry had stopped singing. The plug had fallen out of the hole in his throat; his jaw was moving, but nothing was coming out. Geno reached over and jammed it back in. Kegan didn't miss a beat. People's eyes lit up, and they gasped at what they had just seen.
When somebody dies — especially shortly afterward — they are usually deified. Wasn't it Mark Twain (maybe it was Garrison Keillor) who said, "They say such nice things about you at your funeral. What a shame to know I'm going to miss mine by only a few days."
So, let's get real. Larry was a hip, talented guy, but only a Mere Mortal with all the failings that come with the territory. Take for example this: if you're a high quad, like Larry was, you've got to get someone to brush your teeth, feed you, wipe your ass or it don't get done. Let's say it nicely: Larry was skillful at "motivating" people. He was among the best at playing the players. It wasn't always fun being on the receiving end of Kegan's motivations, but that's how he got his nose scratched
Kegan and Marty Keller were trying to market a film script, written from their unpublished book, Some Get The ’Chair: A Memoir of Sex, Disability and Rock ’n’ Roll. Knowing Kegan, Marty did most of the work. (“Some Get The ’Chair” is also a song by Kegan and LaFond.) It covers the sex resort Kegan started in Mexico for disabled Vietnam Vets—with Kegan shown as the Willem Defoe character in Born on The Fourth of July. It covers the SAR, the sexual attitude reassessment program for disability now required at medical schools across the country, which was founded by Kegan with Dr. Ted Cole. It covers Kegan and Dylan as kids. .
But, things were changing. Kegan and Geno were not tied to each other as they had been for years. Kegan always took the spotlight, but Geno wanted more recognition and Kegan resented that. Kegan’s living situation changed a few years ago when he and Carol, bought a house together. He was not as “accessible” to his pals. She gave him something to live for and encouraged him to take better care of himself. He focused on Carol. He stopped saying “One more year,” stopped taking so many risks
toward the end, Kegan had a few bouts in the hospital intensive care unit. One time I went to the hospital and he didn't want me to leave but he couldn't stay awake for a whole sentence. I left after an hour. Larry wasn't feeling all that well, toward the end.
There was strain between Geno and Kegan that never erupted. I’d hear nasty behind-the-back comments from Kegan. About 3 A.M. one morning after he died, I got a call from Carol, saying it had been about a song, “Just Because of Your Kiss”. Kegan had tried to finish writing it with Geno and Tom Greenwald, but here the stories diverge. He did finish it with Dennis Morgan, a Nashville songwriter originally from Sleepy Eye (“Sleepin’ Single in a Double Bed”). To me, it looked like Dennis, a songwriter with a wall full of gold records, finished it. Larry finally agreed that Geno and Tom had a part of the song, and it ended up that Dennis got half ownership while Larry, Tom, and Geno split the other half. That incident put a strain on Geno and Larry’s 30-year friendship. The fact that Larry loved a woman and shared a house with her—pushing 60, he was starting to settle down—and that Geno wanted more recognition meant they needed to renegotiate their relationship. What would have happened is anybody’s guess because Larry died first.

“There is no doubt I loved the guy and his strength of heart,” Geno says. “What a character he was. But he was not a saint. None of us are.” Larry Kegan was not a saint, but he was truly loved. That doesn’t mean he was easy. He’d look at me seeking conciliation. He’d say, “We know, we’re BOTH difficult.” I met him while I was researching When Billy Broke His Head [WBBHH], a documentary. I started going over to Kegan’s to see what the disability territory looked like when you’d been here a while. He must have been in his early 40s back then, had the diving accident when he was 16. Life in a chair had lost its dewy newness for Larry.
There’s a scene near the beginning of of WBBHH that starts with Kegan in bed, and Alfonso, his attendant-caretaker-pal, dressing him for the day. Alfonso lifts him out of bed and throws him—ka-bam!—into his chair. Kegan was a big boy, remember. The startlingly loud sound of Kegan hitting that chair is a slap to the audience, reminding them that this isn’t the cute-cute, special-special, safe TV image of disability you’re always shown. Larry Kegan gave us that gift. He didn't fake it, as so many people had tried to do; instead he let us shoot him at his most helpless. A lot of people wouldn't have done it; a lot of people did refuse to do it. That sequence where he gave us access to unpretty Larry was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Louis.
. OK to here
A lot of people have chosen not to see me as disabled, including family members. The National Brain Injury Foundation calls brain damage “the hidden disability” because it’s difficult to see and so few people recognize it. One boyhood chum who doesn’t acknowledge my disability said, “I don’t think Larry Kegan would think you’re disabled.” So I asked Larry if he agreed. Kegan laughed and said, “No, you’re in the club.”

Larry and I had learned to trust each other in the 16 or 17 years since we met—both of us fighting it all the way. In the decades that I’ve been disabled there are only a couple people I’ve been able to be so direct and non-rhetorical with. We talked about sex and relationships—plenty raw and private stuff; about art, music, and movies. We both got our master’s degrees from the same Speech Communication Department at the University. He embraced Orthodox Judaism and became a Lubavitcher toward the end of his life and tried to pull me in. (I couldn’t make that scene. Larry was a praying Jew; I’m a lox-and-brisket Jew.) For the last few years we’d talk on the phone almost every day, sometimes a couple times a day. The phone would ring and I’d hear his hello and say, “Who is this?” faking naivete. “Your brother! This is your BROTHER!” he’d answer forcefully. “How ya doin’?” I’d ask. Often as not he’d come back, “Not as good as you.”

After When Billy Broke His Head..., I must have passed Larry’s test and he gave me solid emotional support and shared himself. He’d have himself driven over to my house and we’d sit in his van drinking Arabic coffee and listening to rock or blues on the cassette player because I’d never been able to afford a ramp into the house. During the summer sometimes we’d sit in my backyard. We were brother gimps. Larry and I both knew what it feels like to be treated as The Other—and less than. He’d talk about how somebody would speak to his attendant, or the person who was with him, over the top of his head and never look at him. So he’d say to them, “I can’t walk, but I CAN TALK.”

At Larry’s funeral Dick Cohn remembered being in Mexico, when they were going to some Mayan ruins where no whites beside archaeologists had ever been. The locals stared at this big guy being carried off the boat in a wheelchair; couldn’t believe it. But that was Larry. One time in Mexico, Dick Cohn and Geno stood Kegan up, threw his arms over their shoulders, and just stood there. Kegan’s legs shook as three buddies stood around that jungle campfire. Larry said, “Man. I can’t tell you how good this feels.” His friends held him up for as long as they could, the ache in their muscles reminding them that he couldn’t stand, couldn’t walk, and any moment it’s back in the chair forever. Still, the three of them stood—stood!—near the fire shaking their fists at that bully disability. On the beach in Belize, Dick and Geno got an old inner tube from a truck tire, blew it up, and dragged him through the sand to the warm water of the Caribbean. They yanked his arms through the inner tube, put a snorkel and mask over his face, and floated him out into the clear blue and then just tipped him up like a duck and let him breathe under water as they floated around the bay. He’d grunt when he wanted to surface, the three friends laughing about what a wonderful thing life is.