I am sorry to say that I bring bad tidings this week: Geno Haggerty, trombonist/singer/jugist/bon vivant of the famed Provincetown Jug Band, died last Thursday (March 28th) at the age of 64, as a result of complications that set in after an operation was performed to un-block the arteries supplying blood to his legs. It’s easy to speculate that he would’ve appreciated the ironic timing of his departure, just prior to one holiday celebrating a resurrection (Easter) and another celebrating general silliness (April Fool’s Day), and lending nice symmetry to a life that began on Halloween in 1937.
Among others, he was close to his sister, Janet Duggan (whom he called “Jazz”), who took care of him once his legs failed about a year ago, following heart surgery. (His last performance with the Jug Band was at the Portugese Festival in P’town in June of 2001.) She says that shortly before he died, after a long period when he was literally too sick to talk, he suddenly yanked the ventilator device out of his lung and, apropos of nothing in particular, delivered a loud, spirited version of “God Bless America.” She says that he always whistled at birds and talked to foxes (and that they responded in kind) -and that he was always patriotic.
Geno was not so much a musician’s musician as a person’s person -or maybe a legend’s legend, part rascal, part philosopher. I did not know him well (though we met on a few occasions), but I was always in awe of (perhaps only one of) his central accomplishment(s), which was a long-standing gig the Jug Band used to do at the Surf Club in Provincetown, where Geno played seven nights a week every summer for about twenty-five years (1967 through 1992, according to bandmate Tim Dickey.) Seven nights a week! Are you kidding? No one does that -that’s insane! Tim estimates that Geno -a founding member -must’ve played the Surf Club about 4500 times (including the weekends he did through the rest of the nineties.) If you got frequent flyer miles for playing there, Geno could’ve wintered on Jupiter. And this was not a dainty 2-short-sets-and- home-by-10 kind of gig, either -this was sock out the hits for three, four, five fatso noisy sets a night, every night for months at a time -no nights off! In effect, this made this the Ben Hur of all summer resort gigs. I don’t know how they did it, and I sort of have the feeling that without Geno, they wouldn’t have.
In addition to his musical talents, Geno was the master of ceremonies, a task which he relished and at which he excelled. Under his stewardship, the band reveled in corny by-play and boisterous singalongs, further enhanced by a ceiling covered wall to wall with silly hats, ready to be employed at a moment’s notice by band and patrons alike -a tradition that sadly passed a few years ago when the club was boringly remodeled.
Other prominent PJB members under those hats from time to time were guitarist Joe Bones, bassist Ed Sheriden, and keyboardist Dan Moore. The latter estimates that he “broke more piano strings playing the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” with Geno than any other song with anyone.” Sheriden says that Haggerty “said the things others would barely admit to thinking, and lived a life that stood as an inspiration to windmill chasers of all ages.”
The band had (and has) many fans, from far and wide, some of whom were rabid enough to try to keep up with their ridiculous schedule. One such fan, Dick Dorr of Wellfleet, related the following: “Weird things just seemed to befall Geno, and he appeared to embrace every one of them -good and bad -as a possible source of material for his “rap” on stage. After he fell and smashed his knee at the Truro Dump Dance a few years ago, I volunteered to take him to the hospital. In his typically gruff affectation of independent indestructibility, he stated that he just wanted to go home. ‘The two of us reached the house on Standish Street in Provincetown where he’d rented a couple of rooms, and realized we’d have to negotiate about 75 feet of back yard to reach his door. Now, Geno was a load -far too much for me to carry; and he wasn’t even in shape to hop on one foot. Spying four picnic benches in the yard, he said, “String those together and watch.” ‘Soon the four benches were placed end-to-end, in serpentine fashion among the gardens and trash barrels. Geno straddled the last one and proceeded to hitch his body along until he reached the next one, etc. When he’d finish with one bench, I’d run around and place it at the front of the lineup until we reached his door and he could struggle inside. ‘The most vibrant recollection of this episode was that, as Geno careened along the benches, he alternated between loud groans and equally loud laughter. “Boy, this’ll be good for 15 minutes at the Surf Club,” he croaked during one laughing spasm. I mean, this guy was really hurting; it later turned out the knee had been badly fractured. Yet, his immediate instinct was to translate the situation into a funny vignette that he could later use to entertain.”
There will be a celebration of his life in the form of a memorial service/party at the Surf Club this Sunday, April 7th.
Yup -we’ll miss him.