I honestly can’t fully believe this is true, given all that I know about Geoff Gunderman from being his friends and hearing his music all of these years, but he said it on his deathbed, so maybe.
By way of background, I really can’t add much to all of what has already been said about Geoff the last few days. He was the leading poet and singer-songwriter of our generation; I don’t think many people would argue with that, although we’ll probably debate forever over where he fits next to the Dylans, the Guthries, the Springsteens, and the like.
Having sat and listened to him from the time he was hypnotizing small audiences in coffeehouses and cafes in and around Kansas City, I can’t tell you how surreal it was to see him the first time staring out at me from an album cover, that unforgettable photo of him and his girlfriend Delia holding hands and staring into the future together on a balcony with the skyline of Los Angeles in the background.
That album, “Geoff Gunderman is Here, Too,” changed his life and launched a career that changed a lot of lives with the way he captured raw emotion in words and music.
From coffeehouses and cafes, he moved to auditoriums in small towns and then big cities, and then arenas when the auditoriums began selling out so fast that thousands couldn’t get in.
I know he never felt especially comfortable in an arena.
“The songs are supposed to be one to one, me talking to you, you know?” he told me once. “How do I have an intimate conversation with 35,000 people?”
He didn’t realize that he was doing that anyway, through his songs – having an intimate conversation not with thousands but with millions of people.
I remember the first time I heard “I’m Here, Too,” that incredible statement, a generational anthem wrapped in a catchy tune, coming out of the radio at me. I was lucky enough to be there when they told him the song hit No. 1 on Billboard, and the happy stunned look on his face.
The first words out of his mouth were, “I gotta tell Delia,” come to think of it.
Geoff adored Delia, and she adored him. There was like an aura around them when they were together. One of the biggest shocks of my life was when he told me she was getting married, and not to him.
I hadn’t seen him for a while – this was five years or so after he made it big, and we were catching up – and when I asked him how Delia was, it was just, “Oh, we broke up about a year ago, she’s marrying a cool dude from Austin.” This was before the internet, where you can look up anyone remotely famous and learn their life story up to the minute, so it caught me by surprise.
“What happened?!” I asked.
“You know how it is, we drifted away from each other,” he said, but I could tell from his eyes that he didn’t really believe that. “We’re still really close, and she’s really happy with this guy.”
And they did stay close for the rest of her life. She and Hank had three kids, but the two of them spent a lot of time with Geoff, and they almost seemed to be closer friends than when they’d been an item.
Meanwhile Geoff was churning out albums and playing in arenas – he seemed relieved when he wasn’t as hot anymore and he could move back to smaller venues – and collecting Grammys and other awards up the ying-yang. He wasn’t as lucky with romance as Delia had been – his fourth marriage, to Sarah, was the one that finally stuck.
It hit him hard when Delia and Hank went down in that plane.
He snuck in the back of the church after the funeral had begun, and he left right as it finished, so that he wouldn’t disrupt the service by being there.
His album after she died was the darkest and most mournful of his career. He sank into a depression so deep it took Sarah a long time to pull him out.
And then the years went by and took Sarah, too, and he’d been sick and alone for so long that I could pretty much figure that when I visited him a couple of months ago, it would be the last time.
“Geoff, you look terrible,” I said to him as a joke, but it was true.
“Now there’s a case of the possum calling the raccoon a furball,” he said, as only he could say it.
I think we talked for more than an hour across his kitchen table over beers, reminiscing and laughing about old times. There was an incident involving a groupie, a cop, a plastic flamingo and the two of us that never failed to crack him up – although it wasn’t really funny until later – and this time he laughed so hard that he started coughing uncontrollably to the point where I was worried.
“I’ll be all right,” he said as he got his breath back, but I honestly didn’t think he would be.
It was a little while after that when he got real serious all of a sudden.
“Louis, I have to tell you something nobody else ever knew, not even Sarah,” he said, and I knew he was serious because he never called me anything other than “Lou” or “Dumb you-know-what.”
I said to him, “What? You look like you’ve seen a dead ghost.”
He got all teary-eyed, and he looked down, and he looked up at the ceiling and said, “I’m a fraud.”
“What are you talking,” I said. “You’re the most real person I’ve ever known.”
“I can’t write worth a damn,” he said. “I never wrote a lick worth hearing in my life.”
“Oh, come on, Geoff,” I said, knowing that artist types go through depression but thinking this was just stupid. “You’ve wrote some of the best songs anyone ever heard in their lives.”
“I didn’t write those songs!” he shouted, and it was pain more than the beer shouting. “Delia did.”
I looked at him and laughed. I did. But he was dead serious.
“What do you mean? Like, Delia inspired all those great songs you wrote? I always figured that, but –”
“No, she wrote them. Every line, every note,” he said. “OK, maybe I changed a couple words and a little bit of melody, but Delia wrote the songs. I just sang them.”
“Why are you even saying this, Geoff? You sound crazy.”
“She didn’t want all the attention. She hated the being-famous thing, it terrified her,” he said. “She told me she wanted to write – she had so much to say! – but she wanted someone else to have the credit. I always told her she was nuts but she insisted, and the songs were too good. We went around and around over this for years, but she made me swear, swear that I’d never tell anyone they were hers. Why do you think I never did interviews? I’m not a hermit, I just couldn’t stand lying. I lied every time I got up there and let people believe I was this genius songwriter.”
“You had to write the songs. You’ve put out a half-dozen albums since she and Hank died. Good albums, great albums.”
“That’s how many great songs she wrote,” he said. “I had a backlog. Still do. I could whip out four albums without breaking into her stuff that’s not so great, and even the so-so stuff is damn better than anything I ever wrote.”
“So how did this supposedly work?”
“She’d type up the words and music and destroy the pages in her own handwriting, and I’d pay her the royalties labeled ‘consultant fee.’ You can look that up, and the bean counters will tell you how many times they told me I was paying her too much for consulting. That’s because she was really the songwriter.”
“You must have written some of it …”
“Oh, sure.” He named two or three songs in his catalog. They were the crappy ones, the ones where the critics said even a genius is going to have a dud every once in a while. “All of the good stuff is Delia. She was the most beautiful soul and greatest songwriter I’ll ever know.”
“Why didn’t you say all this after she died?”
“I should have, but she always said never tell, not even if she died first,” he said bitterly. “She said so many people believe in Geoff Gunderman that it would mess up too many minds.”
I worked on Geoff for half an hour, trying to get him to admit he was joshing me. He wouldn’t budge. And he made me promise never to tell, too.
That was the last night I ever saw Geoff. It wasn’t long after that when, well, you know what happened. I never knew a better soul, and I will miss him until the day I die.
Do I believe him? I guess so, he sure seemed to be telling the truth. And I know people will feel betrayed, or else they just won’t believe me and drag me into the mud for saying this.
But I have to give credit where credit is due. Geoff Gunderman said he was a fraud and that Delia Cooper is really the greatest songwriter of our generation. I think I believe him. She deserves to be recognized for it, and the world deserves to know the truth. Doesn’t it?
Oh, hell. Maybe I shouldn’t even send this article. Let the world remember Geoff as the great entertainer. He sure sang those songs that are etched in all our hearts. The feeling of the words and the music, that was real. He was the one who brought the songs to life. And you can see the love and hope in Geoff and Delia’s faces on that album cover. They’ll always be intertwined in the legend together no matter what.
Shouldn’t she get the credit, though? If it’s true – and I really started to believe it is true – then Delia is the real genius behind the great Geoff Gunderman, and she deserves to have the world know that. I honestly believe that Geoff was obeying her last wishes, but sometimes a person’s last wishes are wrong, you know?
So that’s what Geoff said. Take it as you want. I’m going to go have a beer and toast the two of them, together somewhere in the next life and maybe having a laugh at all this.
I bet it’s sweet music.