THE SHERIFF RIDES OFF INTO THE SUNSET
The Boston music scene was dealt a shuddering blow on Tuesday morning when word spread, as is the current norm, via social media of the unexpected passing of local producer and Q Division Studios founder, Mike Denneen. He had apparently been dealing with a longtime illness that he kept mostly to himself, making his passing even more shocking.
That was how I felt: shocked. Absolutely “sucker-punched on the subway” confused. Because Mike Denneen was my friend.
I am not a musician and as such will never share the same bond with Denneen that so many in our shared community - according to Facebook we had over 100 mutual friends - enjoyed from having created something with him. However, that gave me a unique perspective on him, and he helped me in ways that I wish now I could have thanked him for then.
When I began chasing a dream of writing about music in Boston I was as green as they come. I had not worked in college radio and didn’t write for my college paper. The only journalistic experience I had was working one collegiate winter break for my hometown paper taking high school sports results over the phone. I wrote exactly one bylined article for the Attleboro Sun Chronicle.
Yet, somehow through guile and hustle I was able to assimilate into Boston’s vibrant and legendary music scene. I will always remember the first time that I met Denneen because it was the first time I’d ever been in a recording studio. I felt like a kid who’d been invited to see where the toys were made. Everything about it fascinated me.
It was that year that I attended my first Q Division Holiday Party.
Anyone who has ever attended this absolute essential of the Boston music holiday calendar likely remembers their first time. Every mover and shaker in town, young and old, is there and amidst the often raucous revelry there was always Denneen. Regal and refined, like a kindly king in his castle, always checking on his guests. I will always remember my feeling the first time I attended, that I’d been accepted.
I got to know Denneen a little better when writing a story about recording studios in Boston for a local magazine. He told me of his start with his business partner and former Milton Academy classmate, Jon Lupfer, and of the origins of the studio’s name (Q Division was the branch of the British Secret Service to which James Bond reported). I learned that he had been at Yale at the same time as Fort Apache’s Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade and was amazed that so much of the talent behind putting Boston on the national map was all matriculating at an Ivy League school at the same time!
Eventually I moved to Highland Avenue, just down the street from the outskirts of Davis Square where Q Division is located. That is when I really got to know Denneen. I’d park my car in the Q lot on my regular visits to Davis and always pop into say hello. I can so clearly recall his Seinfeld-esque greeting of me whenever I swung by his desk and he reacted as Jerry did to Newman. “Hello... Kielty.”
We’d often have a quick chat; talking about music of course, but also the Red Sox and Celtics, I know he’d love to see how these young Celtics are going to turn out. And, he’d fill me on his “girls,” his incredibly cool, funny and talented wife, Jen Trynin, and their daughter, Grace, of whom he was infinitely proud. It was always enjoyable and light-hearted and again made me feel so grateful for my community. Writers are by nature insecure and many - present company included - use humor as a defense mechanism. Denneen had an intellectual sense of humor as dry as any Bond martini and making him laugh was a validation on many levels.
I also got to see him do what he did best and that was make music with people.
I recall seeing him sit down behind the keys during an evening ending jam at an early Earful event at the Kendall Cafe. Earful is the innovative series started by Denneen, Trynin and some literary friends that combines music and fiction and which was recently resurrected at Watertown’s Mosesian Center for the Arts where he was active. In this early version he instinctively guided a pick-up band of aces and amateurs, vividly illustrating to me for the first time to where his nickname, “The Sheriff,” had originated.
Watching Denneen - and the rest of the incredibly talented Q Division team - at work in the studio was an education in itself. I always felt like I was seeing where the magic was captured while becoming friendly with the people who were meticulously hunting it down. Denneen was comfortable educating a non-musician which was remarkably generous and undoubtedly made me better when I was writing about a thing I love, a thing that he so wonderfully made. For that I am very grateful.
I made note as I reflected on this passing that I am now at the point in my life where there are undoubtedly more funerals in my future than weddings, a sad realization. That may also account for my shock at this particular loss. Q Division has always been filled with the kind of youthful joy that was reminiscent of a wedding. Perhaps that’s why I could never imagine one of the founders of this great thing ever requiring a funeral.
Even now, I still can’t.
Postscript: Fenway Park organist, Josh Kantor, played songs that Mike Denneen produced between innings at the July 11th, 2018 Red Sox game against the Texas Rangers. We are all familiar with #BostonStrong but that is #BostonClass on both the giving and receiving ends of a remarkable tribute to a true diehard Sox fan. I later discovered the marquee at a legendary Boston club, The Paradise, also paid respect. Remarkably fitting.