This has taken a while to conjure up. It’s not easy to write about the loss of a person so important in your life that you find it hard to categorize his role. Mentor? Besty? Surrogate Father? I can’t even begin to put my dear friend and companion Bobby Smyth into a box.

His passing was not entirely unexpected. At 98, the days that the phone doesn’t ring with the sad news rapidly dwindle. At some point, it was going to happen.

I had convinced myself over the years that I would be ready for this day. When it finally arrived June 15, I found how foolish I was, for nothing can prepare you for this inevitability. The call itself was short and sweet from a hospice worker. True to form, Bobby never let me know that he was in hospice. The last call we had was just as routine as any other. We talked about all the fun we had, the pirates, the band and all the projects he still had on his list.

We would often laugh about how we met. Me, the 24-year-old kid in the Seafair Pirates who played banjo. He, the seasoned performer and one of the old-timers. We would take turns playing in the bars, never playing together. Then, just before the Hawaiian Tropic pageant in Grand Cayman, Cabin Boy Christopher told him and I that the captain wanted us to play a song together – one I did – on stage.

Bobby lost it. “I’m not playing with this young whippersnapper anywhere,” he said, storming off. We were rooming together, so I wondered what the next few days would be like back at the condo, as I had followed the captain’s order and did the song by myself on the stage.

It was then that we became bandmates. I still can’t tell you how. I guess we found friendship in the music first as he discovered that I loved the 60s folk era. We spent the next few hours jamming in the condo. The next day, we were inseparable. Almost everything the band does these days – including more than two dozen songs – came from that moment.

Over the next few years, others joined the band. Some, like Animal, for a lifetime. Others came and went, but even though we went our separate ways, we are all bandmates. But the core was Bobby and I, who had so much together that it should have been illegal.

If that’s all we had become – bandmates – I would have been good with it. My own father had died the year before I joined the Seafair Pirates. Without asking, Bobby eventually stepped into the role of a surrogate. We never talked about it; like many things in life it just happened over time. He was always there for me. Helping me move some many times that he said he was going to sell his pickup so I wouldn’t move anymore. He provided me with that wonderful fatherly advice that led me to become a better man and human being. About humility, empathy and compassion. He had the best sense of humor – a quirky Irish one – that always made me laugh, even when I was at my lowest of lows.

There was no age gap between us. We were both kids in a candy store when we played. We’d walk into any bar with our instruments – in pirate gear or not – set them down on the bar, and within moments someone would ask us to sing. We’d “reluctantly” say sure, and off we would go.

The record for “working the crowd” was set at the Westin Hotel at a gig the band did; five hours straight. Every time he or I would say it was time for a break we’d see the other one across the room singing to a small group of people. Of he or I would go, joining the other. Before we knew it four hours had passed in that ballroom of tuxedoed men and sequin-gowned women. Then the manager of the hotel asked us to play in the lobby as the power was still out. Off we go for another hour of magic-making.

That’s how we were together. Neither of us superior, both of us upping the other’s game, and both being there through thick and thin.

Over the years, Bobby helped me move a dozen times. He endured my string of failed relationships. When tragedy struck in our respective lives, we were there to see each other through our grief. And when I married Kat, fittingly, Bobby was my Best Man. And on that particular day, he really was the best man in the room.

My own grief comes in waves still. I know that it’s a natural part of healing and celebrating a life well lived. There’s no way to explain the impact my dear friend had on me. There’s simply not enough bandwidth on the Internet to explain it anyway. It’s days like this that I hope there is a hereafter so we get to make more music together in the eternal. I just hope he remembered his uke.

North of the Emerald City, missing my Bobby,

  • Robb