DAVE WENGER, MUSICIAN 1973-2006
Brilliant young bandleader influenced a who's who of Canadian indie rock but followed the tragic path of a hopelessly addicted drunk
Special to The Globe and Mail
MONTREAL -- Dave Wenger's music came forth from his innards in bursts, freaking out audiences and influencing peers with buckshot doses of intricate, guttural noise. His conduct at once attracted and repelled friends and he lived his life to the tune of his own excesses. Literally dozens of Canadian bands owe their existence to his volatile genius, including Wolf Parade, Hot Hot Heat, Frog Eyes, Black Mountain and Frankie Sparo.
He came into the world wailing and kicking in Ottawa. His parents Howie and Jan Wenger, both university teachers, moved the family to Victoria when Dave was a boy. At 11, he rented his first guitar from Victoria's Long and McQuade music shop. "Play the low notes, they rattle my bones," his grandfather said to him. He learned by making note of each sound as his fingers moved over the fretboard, eventually stringing them together into fierce, complicated arrangements that were both beautiful and ugly.
In high school, he fronted a band called Moral Decay, hiding the remarkable intricacies of his guitar under layers of feedback and noise. From behind a mess of dyed black hair, he would sit in band class and berate the teacher for being an ignorant fool. He wandered Victoria's streets at night when the city was fast asleep, drinking beer on Gordon Head beach or coffee at Quan Valdez, one of the few places in the city that stayed open late enough to accommodate him. His friends were as inspired by his music as they were saddened by the misery he inflicted upon himself.
Dave Wenger was a hulking, handsome 6-foot-2 mass of imagination and recklessness whose sore throat of a voice reflected the sum total of his vices. He drank, smoked, picked fights and otherwise lived masochistically hard, but with enough humour and lasciviousness that people either forgave him or laughed right alongside.
"He never would have gotten away with half of it if he wasn't so handsome," says his friend and former roommate, Nadia Moss. His parents, who loved him too much to stand in his way, watched with hope and unease as he burgeoned into a full-blown anti-hero. Whenever he left they'd hug him twice, just in case.
In 1995, Mr. Wenger and his band M Blanket introduced punk rock to Duncan, B.C., a logging town of about 5,000 just north of Victoria. M Blanket enthralled the audience, mostly a bunch of Duncan kids who didn't quite fit in. Dan Boeckner, who today is lead singer of the Montreal-based band Wolf Parade, says the show was "one of the most formative experiences in my life." M Blanket, though, did not exist for long. Mr. Wenger met Emily Bauslaugh, the love of his life, and they conspired with drummer Jonah Fortune and saxophonist Johnny Pollard to form the magnificently wretched Daddy's Hands.
The band, whose somewhat queasy name Mr. Wenger gleefully ripped off from a Holly Dunn country song, played ragged, disjointed, jarring rock music for the better part of a decade. Mr. Wenger would get onstage wearing tights, a dress and a pair of diving flippers, his voice compressed and distorted through the gas mask he sometimes wore. "We tried to make things as ridiculous as possible," says Mr. Fortune. "We were constantly giddy, and always trying to amuse ourselves." They played all around Vancouver Island and in Vancouver, to where Mr. Wenger moved in 1998.
In 1999, sick from a breakup with Emily and tired of Vancouver's drug-addled state -- he despised drugs -- Mr. Wenger left semi-permanently for Montreal. He had visited the city before and was charmed by its dysfunction. Here, he drank and wrote songs constantly, and Daddy's Hands quickly became the bizarre phenomenon it was in Vancouver and Victoria. Mr. Wenger had a certain disdain for anyone who listened to him, and he would often stop, or punch his keyboard, midway through a song. No one, least of all his audience, could ever possibly understand the genius of his work.
"He was the worst self-saboteur I've ever known," says Chad Jones, who is otherwise known as Frankie Sparo. "It's frustrating because of all the people I know who play music, if he had wanted that, it was so there for the taking for him. He was just brilliant."
One night at the Biftek, a legendary Montreal dive, Mr. Wenger watched bemusedly as a Montreal media type prattled on about herself to a table of mostly bored onlookers. At one point, he poured his nearly full glass of beer over the woman's head, then laughed when she clawed his face and made it bleed. He often antagonized strangers just to see what would happen. Sometimes it was even funny.
"He could do stuff that bordered on violent, definitely not apropos," Mr. Jonessays. "To pour a beer over someone's head at the right moment, do you also have to be the ass who does the most boorish thing at the wrong time?"
In 2002, Emily Bauslaugh died tragically in her Montreal apartment. Although the pair had broken up more times than anyone could count, friends say her death helped unravel the rest of Mr. Wenger's life. The thresholds he had erected for himself, as low as they might be, disappeared completely. His drinking spun out of control and his antics grew progressively more tiresome. The only thing that didn't suffer was his music: He never stopped writing new songs, and would sometimes apologize for them being so gloomy all of a sudden. His friends were confused: His songs had always been gloomy.
He spent the last few years shuttling among Victoria, Vancouver and Montreal. He returned to Montreal last summer to finish recording what would prove to be Daddy's Hands' last record. Mr. Wenger was upbeat, and for good reason: the songs on the forthcoming Welcome Kings album strike a balance between his signature morbidity and the underlying musicality it too often overshadowed. With a bit of polish, a few of the tracks could even be hit singles. But he hated polish.
He returned to Victoria late in the summer, only to be lured back to Montreal in the fall. "I'm going back to the city that I love, and that loves me back," he wrote in an e-mail to his father.
Early one Thursday morning last month, he was walking along St-Laurent Street in Montreal. The street was slick with rain, and he wore only black. A car struck him just north of Rachel Street, and didn't stop.
The sum total of Dave Wenger's earthly belongings fit into a small duffle bag. His brother Matthew collected the bag, along with a red Ibanez guitar and a Korg keyboard that had somehow withstood years of Wenger aggression, shortly after the accident, which remains unresolved.
"I waited for that call for 12 years, but I didn't think he would go like that," Matthew Wenger says. "There were a number of different ways he could have gone, and we could go on blaming ourselves. This way, there is no blame."
Dave Wenger, musician, born in Ottawa on June 30, 1973. He died in a hit-and-run accident at about 3 a.m. on Nov. 23, 2006.
He is survived by his parents Jan and Howie Wenger, his brother Matthew and his sister Sonja. He also leaves his son, Nathaniel James, and several nephews and nieces.