New Heathens

Warren Jackson Hearne

I couldn't believe last night that the haunted, mustachioed man in the suit and dusty hat singing baleful elegies about death was Warren Jackson Hearne, the skinny, friendly, offbeat kid who I grew up a block away from, but hadn't seen in a decade.

It's cool to see somebody you know come into his own and remind you of things you'd forgotten.

Warren and I met at as fourth graders at Prescott Elementary School in Missoula, Montana. At first I thought he was a dweeby weirdo, and I'm sure he thought I was a hotheaded nerd. But he lived on Wylie Street and I lived just a block away on Raymond Street, and we both knew this really twisted kid who I'll just call "Ralph." (Completely unrelated: if anybody knows what David Walters is up to these days, I'd love to know.) The three of us would shoot magpies with BB guns in the woodsy area that separated Warren's block and mine.

It wasn't until we were sophomores at Hellgate High School that I started to sense Warren had something else going on. He grew his hair long and straight and sometimes at lunch would sit outside strumming a guitar. His bedroom had guitar amps and a drum kit, plus a record player. At some point or another everybody in a Hellgate band ended up jamming at Warren's house. He even loaned me his blonde, 1952 telecaster and Fender amp so I could play it at the senior talent show. Warren was the first guy to get me to take my Rolling Stones mix tapes out of my walkman and check out classic punk rock like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones.

"Punk is just dirty rock 'n' roll," Warren told me. It opened my eyes. Or ears, rather.

I have a tendency in my memories to only see good stuff. Somehow the bad stuff, the sad stuff, the dark stuff, fades. I gave Warren a copy of Hello Disaster and he gave me a DVD of himself. On the flipside of the case is a mini-biography of Warren and it mentions his music evoking "pale-faced, avalanche-murdered friends of the past."

It hit me. Percy.

Percy was in our 7th grade class at Rattlesnake Middle School. He took a hike one early winter Saturday to look at elk on Mount Jumbo, the big hill on the east side of town that forms half of the Hellgate Canyon. Percy got caught in an avalanche and died. He was the first person I ever knew that died. To this day I can still remember talking to him in class on that Friday, neither of us knowing his 12-year lifespan was down to its last 16 hours. I also remember his open casket funeral, classmates wailing, weeping and shaking, looking down into the coffin and thinking, "That's not Percy."

Then Warren reminded me of another kid in our class named Nate. I used to fish with him and have slumber parties at his house. He died in an avalanche too, in the Mission Mountains. "What about the other Nate?," Warren asked. (There were three of us with the same name in our class.) He's dead too, I remembered. He shot himself in the heart. With a rifle. In front of his dad. To make a point. (I'm the only Nate left.) He lived just up the hill from Joe, my neighbor and sometimes baseball and fishing buddy. He shot himself too.

"Death you're so cold, you're so cold," Warren sang last night. His voice was broody and deep. His fingers plucked an eerie jangle from his guitar.

"Whatever happened to that guy 'Ralph?'" I asked.

"Oh THAT guy," Warren said. "I remember in high school he would break into girls' gym lockers and smell their panties. Once two girls cornered me and threatened to beat me up if I didn't tell them he was the one doing it. I did. I wasn't going to get beat up for Ralph. Another time I caught Ralph and my brother in the woods behind the house tearing out pages from the bible and smoking grass. I don't mean marijuana. Somebody just mowed their lawn. He would roll the clippings up in those bible pages and they would just burn right to his face while he coughed. In high school he and I would go up by the llama farm and shoot guns. The owner said he'd pay us a dollar for every gopher we shot, because they dug holes and his lamas would step in them and twist their legs. We didn't shoot any, though. They were too squirrelly. But I found out Ralph liked to kill cats."

"What's he doing now?" I said.

"The last I saw him he was mopping the floor at Denny's," Warren said. "He said he was going to join the military. He said he wanted to kill people."

Warren moved to Texas ten years ago and that was the last I saw him. I heard his name in New York from two fantastic women, who can often be found on either side of the taps at theĀ 11th Street Bar. They're from Texas and they knew Warren there (proving that geography and population notwithstanding, New York, Texas and Montana are small places.) One of them told me about Warren's gig in my neighborhood last night. He has another one Wednesday at Piano's.

When I think back on growing up most of what I see are family, friends, trout, great teachers and school band. But there were bad things too. I was right in fourth grade when I sensed there was something a little different about Warren. While everybody all around only seemed to see good stuff, he knew the other side. Now he has put it into his music. Today he travels around the country, telling those ghost stories with his songs.

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  1. Wow. Reading this and I got to the line about “pale-faced, avalanche-murdered friends of the past” and it hit me like a punch to the gut. The whole thing with Percy was so jarring. I remember thinking the same thing when I saw him in his casket. Weird how you forget about things like that for so long and yet when someone brings it up you still get a visceral, emotional reaction. Glad you got to see Warren, though. Hope all is well for you in the Big City.

  2. Hey Crystal, great to hear from you. It’s wild to know you remember Percy’s funeral so vividly too, and that you had the same reaction as me. I hadn’t thought about Percy for years until I saw Warren last night. Hope you’re doing great. Thanks for being in touch. Love.

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