My phone had developed a nasty habit of delivering nothing but bad news of late, so I was avoiding it. Attaching myself to it in order to stay “informed” was starting to have a noticeably ill effect on my state of mind.
I’d been in my yard last week, playing guitar, listening to music and doing my best to keep my head together, while our city, our country and our world seemed to be collapsing around us, every tweet revealing a new horror. I wanted to hide.
So I’d missed a flurry of texts and phone calls telling me that Bruce Moser – veteran rock promotions man, tireless musical advocate and dear friend – had suffered a heart attack and died. He was 69.
My voicemail was full, inbox flooded, as one emotional message after another told a truth I didn’t want to hear.
The first I clicked on was from Willie Nile. He sounded absolutely devastated.
“Jeff, it’s Willie. It’s about 2:15. I just heard that Moser died an hour ago at ECMC. I’m heartbroken. He introduced us, man. At that Springsteen show. He’s why we’re friends. Call me, buddy.”
“He introduced us.”
How many people in Buffalo and beyond could say the same thing about Moser? My guess is, everyone who knew him well met some of their best friends through the man.
He was the center of our musical solar system here.
Suddenly, that center was gone. Moser seemed to have taken gravity with him when he passed. In an instant, it all came untethered. Nothing felt right.
I knew of Bruce’s legend long before I became friends with him, dating to the early ’90s, when my band the Tails opened for one of the acts Bruce was working, the Irish group An Emotional Fish. I knew about Could Be Wild Promotions, the company he started with partner Doug Dombrowski in the late ’70s. The two worked records to radio stations, and in the process, helped to break acts across the Northeast, and in some cases, beyond.
It wasn’t until 2000, when I was playing guitar with Terry Sullivan and the Dollywatchers, that I finally got the official introduction, however. That band rehearsed in the Could Be Wild offices on Elmwood Avenue in the evenings, and one afternoon while we were picking up some equipment for a gig, Sullivan, who’d worked with Moser extensively for many years, said, “Come on upstairs and meet Bruce and Doug.”
I was a bit intimidated, but Moser put me at ease fairly quickly by telling me he’d clipped a few pieces I’d written about U2 in the ’90s, while I was working for a local alternative weekly, as well as the independent ‘zine “Rockstar.”
“Could be, good stuff,” he said, in lingo I’d come to recognize over the next two decades. (Moser always answered the phone with the enthused bark that was his trademark: “Could be!”)
Then came the smirk I’d learn to love. “Record reviews don’t really sell records, though,” he told me that day, for the first of many times.
We became close quickly. I started hanging around the Could Be Wild offices several days a week. Bruce would gush about past and present projects he was passionate about, walk me through his virtual museum of rock history, gesture at the many signed gold and platinum albums commemorating past successes adorning the office walls, his scrapbook of concert ticket stubs, photos, memorabilia and enthused scribblings always nearby for reference, and a pile of promo copies of new releases reliably at hand and generously on offer.
I watched him work the phones. We’d invariably end up eating pizza and talking about U2, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who we both considered to be a goddess. Sometimes I’d sit with Dombrowski and talk politics. (Bruce had no time for that. He would just get frustrated and wave his hand dismissively, as if to suggest such discussions were circular and pointless.)
Soon, I became friends with Bruce’s wife, Mary, too. She was the sugar to his saltiness. My god, did they love each other. It was obvious, and infectious, and often highly entertaining to observe. They shared that love with my whole family. My son, Declan, loved them both and was close to them from a young age. My wife felt the same.
We went to an awful lot of shows together. Springsteen, Bob Dylan, U2, Paul McCartney, the Tragically Hip, often traveling outside of Buffalo to catch multiple dates on their tours. As any Moser confidante will attest, hanging with Bruce meant he’d do his best to get you backstage, to meet the band, to gift you with treatment that made you feel special.
Often, I’d shy away from these offers, or at least try to, dreading being “one of those guys,” hanging backstage in awe of some rock star and eyeing up the band’s hospitality beers like a parched interloper. Eventually, however, Moser broke me down, and I met some artists I truly admired – Steven Van Zandt, Gord Downie and the guys in the Tragically Hip, and the Tea Party, all of whom turned out to be incredibly cool and down to earth people. Every one of them loved Bruce.
Even when we weren’t together, Bruce would extend his generosity, using his seemingly limitless contacts to make unforgettable things happen. When Declan was first getting serious about music, Bruce arranged star treatment for us at an Iron Maiden show in Cleveland, where bassist Steve Harris’ daughter acted as our liaison with the band, all of whom welcomed us backstage and signed memorabilia for Declan.
Later, Bruce introduced me to Andy Curran, the Coney Hatch bassist and a member of the Rush management team. Through Bruce, I’d meet the guys in Rush, a band he knew I loved so much, and attend shows around the state and southern Ontario.
On another occasion, we spent a full day in Toronto with Steven Van Zandt, having breakfast, record shopping, joining Stevie as he conducted radio interviews, and riding around with him in his limousine. It was incredible, frankly.
He didn’t need to do any of this. He did it because it gave him such obvious pleasure to do nice things for people he cared about.
He could be a tough customer, though. He had no problem telling me when he thought something was “crap,” whether it was something I’d written about favorably that he thought unworthy of my enthusiasm, or my own music that I’d written and performed and shared with him for feedback.
When he liked what you did, it felt great. When he didn’t, it hurt. I looked up to him. I badly wanted his approval.
It took me nearly 20 years to be granted that approval on a purely musical level. When I assembled a band to perform U2’s “The Joshua Tree” album as part of the Gusto Vinyl Happy Hour series at Sportsmens Tavern last year, I was a nervous wreck, knowing how much this album meant to Bruce, and well aware he could be the harshest of critics.
But on that night, I was in luck. “That was tremendous,” he said afterward. “I didn’t think you would be able to pull it off. Could be, you did it.” Those few words from him are the most meaningful “review” I’ve ever been granted.
We had grown somewhat distant by that point, sadly. It was the very thing that brought us together – U2 – that drove a slight wedge between us. I’d been seriously disappointed in U2’s 2014 release “Songs of Innocence” and its follow-up, 2017’s “Songs of Experience.” I felt the band was trying too hard to be “relevant,” and had overcooked, overproduced and overthought its way into a corner, losing the fire and irreverence that marked its best work. I said as much in print. Bruce was not happy with me.
He mailed me every glowing review of those two albums he could get his hands on, all underlined and scribbled upon in his instantly identifiable hand, and all concluding with, “You really missed the mark this time.” When we’d talk on the phone, he’d always steer the conversation back this way. “I have to write what I believe, Mose, it’s my job,” I’d say. “You know how important that band is to me. They matter, so they need to be held to a high standard.” He wasn’t having it. He seemed to feel I’d betrayed the cause.
After Mary’s accident and subsequent medical struggles, we stayed close, but it was so hard to watch him suffer. I felt like I’d let him down at a time when he really needed to be uplifted, though that was the last thing I intended.
When Bruce fell and fractured his hip after a show he attended with friends in Hamilton, Ont., in November, he ended up recovering at a rehab facility, where he continued to deal with health issues brought on by an earlier heart attack. The pandemic meant he couldn’t receive visitors up close and personal, the way he liked it, for the past several months. This surely makes his passing all the more tragic for his daughters, Erin and Grace, who were the light of his life.
On the evening of the day Bruce passed away, I sat alone ruminating on our relationship until the sun started coming up. An uninvited song lyric would not leave my head. It was from a song by Sting, called “Ghost Story.” Bruce, no doubt, would hate this and find it pretentious. I’m sure he’ll find a way, somehow, to let me know as much, even now.
But it can’t be helped. It’s too appropriate. Bruce was a father figure to me, and when I felt I’d disappointed him, I ran away, just like a character in one of the Springsteen tunes we both loved so much. Now, I’m wishing so badly I could turn back the clock.
The song rings true, for me.
Another night in court, the same old trial/The same old questions asked, the same denial/
Why was I missing then, that whole December? I give my usual line – ‘I don’t remember’
And all these differences, a cloak I borrowed/We kept our distances/Why should it follow that …
I must have loved you?
The moon’s a fingernail, and slowly sinking/Another day begins, and now I’m thinking/
That this is indifference was my invention/When everything I did/ sought your attention
You were a compass star/You were our measure/You were a pirate’s map of buried treasure
If this is all correct, the last thing I’d expect … The prosecution rests/It’s time that I confess …
I must have loved you.
Could be I loved you, Bruce. Could be we all did.