His killed me as a pre-punk boy. Like some free-reed instrument, it glowed more than pushed, transmitting a longing I couldn't yet name. Was the sweetest on KWFM radio in Tucson in the mid '70s.
That voice sidled up swimmingly next to his male-peer stars, like the velvet country-rock throats of John Dawson (New Riders of The Purple Sage) and Jackson Browne, especially on the song of isolation "The Story," a tune filled of songwriterly flourishes, raw violin and a foreshadowing narrative so great it transcended any potentialities as a formal radio song, yet there it was on free-form KWFM, regularly: He said you'd be lost, boy/You'll be broken/There'll be times you'll be chokin'/On all the things you're gonna see.
Bob Meighan's voice has come full circle and I can ascribe his songs to familiars time-stamped to adolescence, hiding from my parents in my big brother Barry's bedroom on Tucson's eastside, the window crammed with the sad suburban evening, KWFM radio on. Barry off at his first dishwashing job at The Pawnbroker bar-restaurant, hearing the Bob Meighan Band live, and he'd return home woozy, telling of an insanely packed house of Meighan fans, how he thought the band "total rock stars" and gushing of what lives they must lead. Only years later did I realize I was listening to the same band on the radio, at the same time.
Beyond that era's context, Meighan's tunes still sway on emotional levels. How circles of life are built on resilience of great songs.
It is easy to see how The Bob Meighan Band landed their major-label recording contract with Capitol Records, signed right out of The Pawnbroker on Tanque Verde Road. First, John "Johnny D" Dixon, then a Capitol sales rep (now an Arizona music historian), forwarded Meighan's Tucson-recorded indie album The Dancer to the label's A&R department. They were convinced when they heard Meighan, saw the packed Pawnbroker houses, the mad Tucson Citizen press, learned of heavy local airplay (KWFM and Phoenix' KDKB), that they'd resonate emotionally in a national and international consciousness.
The record deal, helmed not by some company upstart, but by seasoned label men Rupert Perry and John Palladino. Palladino, a golden-eared record producer, mixer and studio innovator, was the first engineer Capitol ever hired (in 1949), and later named A&R chief, who spent 33 years at the label. His mixing, editing and production work, from Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole to McCartney and The Band, and so many more, helped shape the entire pop spectrum, the '50 through the '70s. The world would sound different if Palladino hadn't existed. Perry and Palladino loved The Bob Meighan Band.
In those pre-internet days, signing to a major label was all-in, the only way to take your music to the masses, the one chance to butterfly your wildest dreams. Didn't hurt Meighan sported pop-star looks.
"Capitol was full of iconic people and iconic recording studios," Meighan says today, "and for a guy in my position it was as big an opportunity as anyone could hope for."
Meighan worked it as hard as anyone, and later, as much emotional and physical suffering saw his music fade, he miraculously reinvented himself in a difficult career.
* * *
Even as I boy I knew The Eagles a slick sham, but they opened doors for truer electric-pop stoner cowboys, and The Meighan Band fit loosely into the era's country rock, that mostly California sound whose roots trace back to Bakersfield and Buck Owens, and Gene Clark's Missouri bluegrass youth, and The Dillards. Soon, the disciples of that sound became foundations—from The Byrds and Mike Nesmith's Monkee country sides, to the Beau Brummels, Flying Burrito Brothers and even The Band. Out of the '60s and into the early Grateful Dead country-rock landed the New Riders, from Buffalo Springfield rose Poco, there was Gene and Gram Parsons, and a countrified Laurel Canyon jangle, which was integral to the southwest sound.
The Old Pueblo had its own regional saloon sonics. In short, the dusty trail picked up in the '40s and '50s, on swinging traditions of many like Tommy Wiggins' Arizona Rhythm Riders and Dean Armstrong, who gigged at drunken, bloody bars like the Open Door on Benson Highway, they were Tucson radio and TV stars. By the early '70s, Tucson boasted the winning honky tonk of The Dusty Chaps (who also signed to Capitol), the shit-kicking Chuck Wagon and the Wheels, The Air Brothers, Summerdog, The Bob Meighan Band, all of whom more or less brought their own insights and references to the aural cross-pollination.
Bob Meighan's tunes, the hooks and melancholy turns, suggest giant hits, would-be classic-rock staples now. But history's requirement for pitch-perfect timing is a bitch, count the tragedies in wake. Meighan's two Capitol albums all but vanished, and criminally have never been reissued, nor available to stream. One must hunt down original vinyl copies.
* * *
Via phone, Meighan's voice still sounds boyish, familiar, yet there is every reason it shouldn't, but think of it. His blend of breathy soul and marketable sweetness could once sell songs to a listener in a way few Arizona voices could—like those gifted with commercial and vocal transcendence (and luck) to move millions, including, of course, Linda Ronstadt, or Gin Blossoms' Robin Wilson, Stevie Nicks, the Alice Cooper ballads. Meighan should've been on the honey-voxed huge-seller list.
But it is decades removed from the KWFM hits, and now Meighan is laid up in bed in his Glendale, Arizona home. A hang with Meighan is out, he's semi-bedridden, good for maybe 25 minutes of conversation until fatigue overtakes him, though our second conversation lasted 70 minutes. If he's too weak to continue, he'll suddenly apologize before signing off.
In recent years he began to develop in an advanced way ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig's disease, the neurodegenerative disorder that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, and is eventually fatal. The disease grips Meighan by the throat, invades his every movement, from speaking, chewing and swallowing to walking and breathing. He can't stand up for long, can't walk far.
"Part of the left side of my body is kinda paralyzed," he says, in a quiet, even tone. "I spend a lot of time just coping with the effects. Beyond that I spend my time reading. If I do too much, I get a lot of muscular pain. Other than that, I am very weak. It really takes your muscles and your coordination. Every movement you took for granted before is suddenly off the chart. There's not much else you can do about it."
He lives at home; his daughter and a friend help him, and the time will come when he can't live alone. A grace hums below the surface as he talks of his condition and where he is—Zen-like acceptance sans bitterness, it-is-what-it-is pragmatisms often bookended in laughter. He expresses himself in clear ways, obviously a very intelligent man. As a writer I am in awe of his ability to take the complexities of his experiences and sculpt them into unpretentious and thoughtful articulations.
Meighan can no longer play guitar or sing, the ALS got so bad he stopped for good around 2018 after nearly six decades, and one can only imagine the solitary, private suffering there, the loss of a lifeline, any spirit-crushing terrors. If he does suffer such, he barely reveals it, saying, "I'm not somebody who lives very much in the past. I gotta take what's coming to me one day at a time." Prefers instead to thank and appreciate anyone who still cares about his music.
Yet his memories bloom.
* * *
Meighan's history of giant associations dates to his Glendale High School days, in a band Just-Us, with high-school girl Lynda Carter, later a superstar as TV's "Wonder Woman." Meighan had to ask Carter's mother for permission for her to sing in the band, like some kid-band folk-rock nuptial. The group played a few years, up to an eight-piece that featured stand-up bass, flute, clarinet and marimbas and Meighan, one of three acoustic guitarists. They'd gig at a Pizza Hut in Tempe, and area teen shows.
Meighan's folky-pop "I Hear The Music," off the sole Just-Us single, released in '68 on the microscopic Phoenix label W.J. Enterprises, got added to rotation on Phoenix Top 40 radio's KRIZ-AM. He'd hear it during high-school lunch, and "it was a big deal."
Meighan grew up in Glendale, then a farming community outside Phoenix, which he misses—the cotton fields, the hunting and fishing, baseball, a sort of country life he had as a boy. He's an only child born to older parents; his mother bore him in her early 40s, rare in 1951.
His dad was more "outdoorsy, blue-collar," a guy of unconditional love, who played semi-pro baseball and managed his son's little-league team to championships. His mother the opposite, a tough-to-please intellectual whose high standards meant relentless disappointment in her son. But he got the music from her, she was a pianist and a school teacher, whose work involved using music to help second-language children learn to speak English. "It was a gift to have that. What I mainly got from her was the understanding that you could play music for people and it had a positive effect on your life and their life in general. I had a different exposure to music than a lot of my peers, due to my mother." The unusual sensitivity Meighan learned to harness later in song perhaps partially rose from a depression he began suffering young, the parental mixed-messaging, and a habit of endless hours spent dropping the needle on records.
He enrolled at ASU, bailed because, he jokes, "I was probably majoring in mescaline." But it was the music. His band Beaugart worked Tempe's developing music scene.
In '72 Meighan traveled to Vermont to hang with radio DJ and journalist pal Steve Zind, a soothing retreat to swim rivers, play solo gigs and hatch the idea of The Bob Meighan Band. Zind's a literate guy who influenced Meighan's reading habits, and Meighan was a reader, a big Faulkner fan among others, and it showed in his songs. He penned "The Story" there.
Meighan, and later Zind, returned to Phoenix, and by '73 The Bob Meighan Band had risen from Beaugart's ashes, a rare rock 'n' roll-band chemistry featuring Meighan's boyhood bud Dick Furlow on bass, just back from decorated Nam duty, fiddler Rodney Bryce, and drummer Milt Miller. Keyboardist Rich Howard soon joined. Meighan began songwriting in earnest, mixing personal experience, yearnings, and subtle outsider observations.
The group toured (and camped) the southwest in an old school bus they'd purchased, and help arrived from Doug Clark, a guy who once booked Beaugart college shows, but who now ran premier Phoenix venue Celebrity Theatre. Clark played a caring manager's role (one Meighan could not fill later) and the band played the Celebrity often, fanbase-ballooning opportunities supporting everyone from Jerry Riopelle to Boz Scaggs to Nicolette Larson. One night, Meighan's parents came to see the band open for Boston, and mom awarded son with an embrace, the first from her since he was a small child.
Compared to the much larger Phoenix, Tucson then had the pungent weed smoke, ubiquitous cowboy hats and sandaled feet, and more disparate and inspired music, it tallied more venues. So around '74 Meighan talked the band into moving south.
"Immediately our fortunes changed, financially and popularity-wise." Meighan laughs, "but it probably had more to do with the amount of drinking that was going on in Tucson. Our combination of folk and rock 'n' roll approach to things, a lot of finger-picking, wasn't really happening in Tucson. There were some great bands there, The Dusty Chaps for one. What was good about it was they were willing to play us on the radio."
Meighan's pal Zind came along. Zind found part-time work at KWFM and Phoenix New Times, and had band responsibilities, mainly dealing with club owners.
The band shacked up in a desert house on Tucson's westside, the foot of Tucson Mountains, where band keyboardist Howard lived underground in a tiny backyard bomb shelter. They played Choo-Choo's and Stumble Inn but struck club gold at The Pawnbroker. Credit Pawnbroker manager Lisa Maher there; she named them house band, which saw their Tucson popularity soar.
To play five nights, four sets each, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., the band played telling covers—from The Band, Little Feat, Jackson Browne to more obscure country and folkish sides by fave Gene Clark, Ray Price and Paul Siebel. "If you're gonna do a cover," Meighan laughs, "do one no one else is doing, which sort of defeats the purpose."
Myriad Pawnbroker nights honed the band and Meighan's frontman role. Zind recalls, "You could see his emotional connection to the music, and between songs he could be very funny. Also, the band was very eclectic. It played acoustic numbers and raucous rock 'n' roll, country standards and stuff that had jam-band elements. And it was really The Pawnbroker that enabled Bob to establish himself as a songwriter. ... Playing quiet songs like 'Nicely Done' or 'We Tried' was hard to pull off at the Stumble Inn."
* * *
Meighan remembers Tucson's association with in-the-open drug money then, marijuana-smuggler's cash, "so a lot of those people were at the bars, and so consequently there were a lot of bars. When the cocaine arrived, it was considerably more debauched, for one thing. I'd been in Tucson about two years by the time the cocaine started showing up. The guys who were formerly marijuana smugglers became cocaine dealers and it took a turn for the unpleasant."
"There was definitely a party atmosphere at The Pawnbroker and other Tucson clubs in that era and we were all swept up in that beyond a point that was prudent," Zind recalls. "But I don't recall any instances in Tucson where it detracted from a performance or caused tension between band members."
The band sounded like a brotherhood. Made sense, the nightly standing-room-only shows enabled the guys to earn a living on music in Tucson. In '75, they recorded The Dancer for little money at Tucson's esteemed Lee Furr's Recording Studio, produced by that studio's Jim Bastin and released on his Bandolier Records. When Capitol inked them, they'd added secret-weapon Phoenix guitarist-singer David Dodt as a sixth member, returned to Lee Furr's to re-record most of their debut and changed the cover for national release in '76.
Meighan chum Jerry Riopelle, the huge-in-Arizona Capitol solo artist, producer (and former staff songwriter at Phil Spector's Phillies label), co-produced.
"So it was a little different," Meighan says. "Some preferred the earlier one. It gave me a lot of practice because I was not a seasoned recording studio guy by any means." (The sextet made Tucson history that October, playing a radio and TV simulcast show on KZAZ-TV and KWFM.)reveal a literary backbone, allegory and complicated human emotions summarized in sing-song form, not unlike Gin Blossoms songwriter Doug Hopkins, who later perfected similar feats.
The psych, prog, jazz, R&B and funk influences simmer beneath surfaces of country-rock jangle, which all rear on "City Streets," and the self-mocking title song. Album centerpieces include "The Story" and "Crazy Waltz," the latter a Dodt-sung Meighan tune, a stranger-in-a-strange-land lullaby built on piano runs and gentle acoustics. Meighan's most beautiful song is the tender, droning "Nicely Done," where the acceptance-of-loss narrative ties fittingly on the final devastating line (Nicely done, you took her away). Floating on Meighan's airy tenor, it's a songwriting masterstroke, so effective as to be timeless, would be the best song on any Lord Huron album now.
So the band relocated to L. A. to be near label action, signed a song publishing deal, and holed up at a house in the hills above Encino at the end of a long, steep driveway. "For a lot of us," Meighan says, "the move was a kind of shock; I mean, we went from playing six nights a week to none, though we did some roadwork out of L.A. There was nothing to do at night." Meighan caught Gene Clark at the Troubadour "and he was so drunk he couldn't play. It was really sad."
Palladino was the group's ticket in L.A. "He went out of his way for us, showed us his L.A."
The Dancer earned airplay around the county, places like New York's WNEW, sandwiched between Ted Nugent's Free For All and Stills and Young's Long May You Run. It creamed Arizona radio. Didn't chart yet sold enough to keep Capitol happy.
Months later work began on the big-budget second album, entitled (Me'hun), "because my name was getting slaughtered everywhere." Co-produced by Palladino, Meighan and one Ed Black, a pedal-steel legend from Phoenix who featured in Linda Ronstadt's band, appeared on her massive '70s albums. Guest musicians included a who's-who of L.A. at the time. Tracked in the infamous Studio A in the Hollywood Capitol Records building, the big orchestra room made famous by Sinatra, which had Meighan gobsmacked: "It took me awhile to figure out what was happening."
The album's piano, pedal steel and horns show a slickness on par with Ronstadt's same-year Simple Dreams. A commercial enterprise with less narrative and loose-limbed songs than the first. The sad "Emergency," the country-rock pop "For Who" highlighted, and much could've been covered by Ronstadt or any of the '70s California mellow mafia. Meighan dug the Average White Band and The Band's Rock of Ages with the Allen Toussaint horn arrangements, musical pin-drops that seeped into his tunes, especially on "White Lies."
A pop-out cover of John Fogerty's "Almost Saturday Night" is the most accessible entry to Meighan's sound. It's been well-covered—from Ricky Nelson to Dave Edmonds—but Meighan's take trumps them, his voice and intent bestows an inescapable pitch. Meighan chose it for the album's first single, yet it received so little airplay he was shocked. He'd hear it on L.A. radio and remembers the label's radio-promotion people thinking it was a fluke. Hardly a favorable sign; million-sellers Bob Welch and Little River Band took label priority when (Me'hun) hit racks in autumn '77.
Band reconfiguration saw losses and gains, before and after (Me'hun), including Dodt, who split to start his own. Seasoned guitar-hero Richie Cavanaugh, late of Tucson's Air Brothers, who had guested on (Me'hun), moved to L.A. to replace Dodt.
In the meantime, Meighan could not land suitable band management, which hurt vital label and radio relationships. "We went through some famous guys. The good thing is they were unable to change us very much."
The band finally snagged sympathetic ears in Eddy Tickner, who'd co-managed The Byrds, Gram Parsons and Etta James, the guy who got Emmylou Harris signed to Reprise after Parson's death in 1973. (Tickner died at his Tucson home in 2006).
But timing is a bitch: "Tickner was great, but it was too late."
In '78, a mass audience eluded the Meighan albums, so Capitol dropped them. "It was crushing," Meighan says. "I was down for a long while."
"It was a horrible time," Cavanaugh remembers, "especially for Bob."
The band stuck around L.A. a bit longer, living off whatever Capitol advance money was left. "But in a way I felt like a failure," Meighan says.
Cavanaugh, and others, remember it this way: Capitol wanted Bob but not the band. "But Bob wouldn't have that. That's the kind of guy he was. He was loyal. I think that is a big reason why he felt as down as he did."
Meighan recalls it differently, assumes responsibility. "In my opinion, the second record had been handled badly, it never achieved the airplay the first one did. We did dates with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Tucson was one of the top shows. And when we got there, Capitol Records was blasting the airwaves with a promo from the wrong album. I pitched a fit, and that was the end of my good relationship with Capitol."
Meighan and band had to earn a living; hello Tucson and The Pawnbroker. “I almost felt embarrassed coming back,” Meighan says.
Fortunes looked up when, through Harvey Moltz, owner of Tucson’s Rainbow Guitars, Meighan met big-in-Europe singer-songwriter Véronique Sanson. Meighan, and some band members, including Cavanaugh and Furlow, were hired on to play on her 1979 Warner album 7ème in Los Angeles, alongside greats, including Stax men Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper. It is a glossy pop-rock jazz-inflected record, sung in French with melancholy overtones (Sanson was divorcing rock-star husband Stephan Stills then).
The Meighan Band got on Sanson's European tours for that record, performed the opening set, at the end of which they'd segue into Sanson's "entry music," staying on as her backing band.
"For me it was another path," Meighan says. "There was not an open door in Tucson that I could see. It was fun, but a lot of hard work. Lucky it didn't kill us."
A pair of high-profile tours totaled about nine months. They returned to Tucson with no major-label interest. A new decade dawned, and when you are down, Tucson has a way of souring those wild butterfly dreams. Meighan says, "I think we were all burned out."
"We were treading water," Cavanaugh says. "In a way we were living on the accolades of that European tour; sold-out opera houses in Geneva, all over France, sometimes a soccer field. It was hard. When we got back from Germany, we died a slow death."
* * *
Mainstream American tastes shifted, arena-rock chaff like Journey ruled and punk had shaken labels—mainstream-y offshoots Elvis Costello, Blondie and The Knack hit big. (Next band out of Tucson associated with a major label was Green on Red in '83.) Country-rock fans were aging out, the music resigning to memories, but there was Meighan's Tucson home-base and following.
He had married too and the couple had boy-girl twins (both successful in their 40s now—Meighan has five grandchildren between them) and he dabbled in entrepreneurship. In '79, Meighan partnered in a Tucson club, a two-year venture called Yanks, his was house band, and they brought in touring acts. He also partnered in a vitamin shop.
"I was used to money coming in and it wasn't. That was the beginning of the bad depression. I just had twins. Everybody has hills and valleys, but I had this long history with depression and it got bad. For a long time, everything I touched was golden."
He teamed with rock-fusionists Central Air, a short-lived force upon a new, different sound, even covered bands like Jules and the Polar Bears. A composite of that band can be heard on the 1980 live KWFM on the Air album, the "Only Living Son." (A Bob Meighan Band song can be heard on a forthcoming 3LP collection of Arizona music called Whole Enchilada.)
Meighan next formed Western Electric with Dusty Chaps' George Hawke and members of Central Air, including Ralph Gilmore, a now-mythical supergroup that had no recording output. “It was a great, short-lived, if ill-conceived band,” Gilmore says, “great songs, great harmonies, great potential. After that everyone flew the coop." (Former members of Central Air, including Gilmore and Oubre, joined The Grass Roots and recorded one album with them.)
In '82, Meighan joined road-band The Shake with an option to employ his name in the band moniker, but he welcomed the idea not to, though they played Meighan songs in their cover-heavy repertoire. The group gigged a regular loop of Colorado mountain towns, including a Flagstaff residency. Meighan was long drawn to mountains and pines for relief.
He'd begun performing with a bluegrass trio featuring Earl Edmonson, Peter McLaughlin, and three-part Everly Brothers harmonies. Meighan was in awe of them as pure musicians and sounds humbled to have even shared a stage. Meighan says they began playing bluegrass in the sort of hybrid way that Manassas would do it, but the trio went deeper, purer, and in 1991 they won the Best Bluegrass Band competition at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The group expanded later as The Dreadnutts. They never recorded an album.
Unchecked depression deepens and for Meighan it was unmanageable by the late 1980s. He'd moved back into his childhood home to care for his sick mother in the months leading up to her death. His dad was already gone. He sold his interest in the vitamin store, divorced from his wife, and "it all just started to fall apart. I stopped writing. The drinking was always there, maybe it got in the way at one point, but I had stopped. If I had anything I wanted to say I just didn't want to hear it."
To dig himself out, he purchased home recording gear and began to study jazz guitar with Phoenix-resident and legend Al Casey (The Wrecking Crew, Elvis Presley, etc.) around 1990. "He was teaching in this crappy little studio." Meighan manages a laugh, "I had a hard time learning and I thought it was because it was augmented 13th chord or whatever."
That was the first sign something was wrong, and the ALS went undiagnosed for years. Add that to the depression. He had no health insurance and couldn't afford a therapist, so to lay his monster depression down, he bit the bullet, went back to ASU and studied psychotherapy, at first as a complete self-care education. A year later he was interning at Banner Medical in Glendale, and a second career for Meighan rose from the depths. Six years later he had his Masters, and his internship blossomed into a career as a professional behavioral health counselor, spending days helping others; he never left Banner, stayed 22 years. He got into teaching too.
In the meantime, ALS difficulties saw his playing stop for years. "He was singing really well, as well as ever," Cavanaugh remembers. "But he had a lot of pain and it got very hard for him to play, I remember even in 1997."
In the early aughts, Phoenix label owner and songwriter Norm Pratt, a boyhood fan of Meighan, coaxed the songwriter-therapist back into music. Meighan credits Pratt with opening that door again, how it helped his outlook, and the musical relationship lasted about 16 years until Meighan could no longer play. Meighan's loyal childhood buddy and bandmate Dick Furlow joined them.
In 2003 Pratt's label Perfect Circles Records issued an Arizona songwriter comp featuring Meighan's pretty "Out From Under You." The tune works as an allegory of beating depression.
Some Meighan recognition arrived in a 2019 Arizona Music Hall of Fame induction, alongside younger bands Roger Clyne and The Peacemakers, The Pistoleros and Dead Hot Workshop.
It's rare to suffer ALS in a prolonged manner, most people die. Not Meighan. Once he was diagnosed he quickly learned how "neurologists really know little about the disease or its variants. It is all really mysterious, but as treatments and medicines for symptoms become available, people will live longer." He talks of a new one coming and adds, "I don't know if I will be here for it."
Meighan talks of his kids and grandkids who all live in the Phoenix area, and reminisces of his buddies and bandmates who are now gone, like Dick Furlow, Milt Miller and Rich Howard. "If I was still playing," he adds, a tone registering no discernible regret, "I'd love to spend time in Tucson, but, ya know, I can't leave."
When our conversations end, Meighan reattaches his head to a forced-air breathing apparatus, which, he says, is really a sophisticated version of what's used for sleep apnia. He wouldn't survive without it. Meditative, self-aware, Meighan, in turn, intellectualizes his confinement and pain to arrive at a place of peace. A bed, a book and contemplation are perfect companions, as Proust would say.
My treasures aren't easy to see, Meighan sang years ago in "The Story," that lovely, eerily foreshadowing song. Anyone with less self-awareness might likely have expired from ALS by now.
Before signing off for the night, Meighan laughs, adds in that boyish lilt, "I'm not what's known as a cooperative patient."
Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.