For several hours on April 28, 2005, I thought I had caused the end of a Westport institution. A fledgling music editor and relative newcomer to town, I had just printed a column about Ron Rooks‘ decision to close the Music Exchange.
In the column, I described Rooks’ off-kilter behavior — the can of beer in his hand, his slurred speech, his “lolling” eyes — and I mentioned how he’d spent time in jail, too. I was pretty brutal in expressing my wonder at how Rooks had managed to keep his business going for so long (26 years), and I expressed doubt about his ability to continue. I underestimated him. More on that later.
He called me the day after my column came out, leaving three messages before I got to work in the morning. He was pissed. He told me that my story had gotten him evicted and that he was definitely going to have to shut down. When I heard that, my guts sank and burned into a pile of ash in the seat of my pants.
Rooks threatened to have his friends in the music industry run me out of town. He claimed I was supposed to have come by for another interview (I had done two) but had stood him up. He said he was in a conundrum, that I had caused it, and that “if we cannot get out of this conundrum, then I am coming after your [pause] conundrum.”
I was pretty scared. Here was the voice of Old Beloved Eccentric Westport saying I’d screwed him and he would kick my ass.
Then I called his landlord and found out that Rooks was nowhere near eviction. Oh, Ron. You kidder. I called him, and we made relative peace, though I had to run corrections because of two errors in the story.
The days passed — summer to fall, fall to winter — the store in Westport closed. It was followed not long after by the closing of neighbor Recycled Sounds (“The Sounds of Silence,” March 30) Unbeknownst to mourners of both stores, Rooks had fallen off a ladder around Christmastime and hit his head, but he decided to stay in the record business. In the spring, he set up shop in the West Bottoms, and his longtime customers followed him like rats after the Pied Piper.
That store was where he died Monday, August 28. Rooks reportedly choked to death while alone in the office that night.
The news trickled through the community, and by the next day’s afternoon, talk of Rooks was on the lips of just about every drinker (and there were many) at Dave’s Stagecoach Inn. As I eased into a gin and tonic, I felt glad that I had gotten up the courage to make peace with Rooks one day at his West Bottoms store.
When I talked to him that day last May, our history of contentiousness had faded away (“Back in the Groove,” May 18). Over the next hour, he talked about his plans for the store, his Christmas accident, his history as a meter reader for the city, his friendship with Steve Berlin from Los Lobos, and just about anything else that crossed his mind. He was friendly as hell, but he didn’t look too good. He limped, and one of his arms had lost a lot of strength and control.
It was no secret that he had a history of not taking care of himself. But Rooks had kept up what really counted: his friendships. That’s evident in the dozens of messages the Pitch has received asking us to join in mourning his death and celebrating his memory.
Visitation will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, September 8, at the Muehlbach Funeral Home at 6800 Troost. The party’s the next day, with bands, food and booze at the Uptown Theater’s Valentine Room.
“Ron had his demons, but underneath he was a really good guy,” says Nancy, his wife of 33 years. “He had a quirky sense of humor and an adventuresome nature, and what speaks for it is how many people knew him and liked him and loved him.”
The day I talked to Nancy, she had been out with her son, Kelsyn, shopping for an acoustic guitar — to hold her husband’s ashes.
It’s a fitting urn for a guy who knew more about music than God.