As anyone who regularly reads this site knows, Bernie Worrell was my favorite musician.
In the summer of 2015, Bernie’s wife, Judie, posted on Facebook that they were in the process of moving to Seattle from their home in New Jersey. Unfortunately, they had boxes of Bernie’s CDs that they couldn’t afford to transport across the country. She asked fans if they were interested in making offers on those boxes before they were taken to the dump.
These were difficult words to read. Bernie Worrell, one of the most gifted musical minds in history, didn’t have the money to keep boxes of his own recordings. Two years earlier, he had to start a Kickstarter in order to raise funds for a tour van.
Like many true innovators, Worrell wasn’t enjoying a particularly comfortable life at the time. Although he had contributed to some of the richest music in history, financial success eluded him – a fact made depressingly clear in the 2005 documentary film, Stranger: Bernie Worrell On Earth.
A Bernie Worrell show was a sonic roller coaster that literally took you somewhere else as the maestro worked his magic. As each song ended, audience members (at least those truly paying attention and feeling it) were delivered back to Earth grateful to have taken the trip. Tragically, very few people knew about or appreciated this. As Bernie’s former P-Funk bandmate Bootsy Collins said in Stranger, “If you’re not watching or listening, you’ll miss him.” Most people did.
When I saw The Bernie Worrell Orchestra perform in Massachusetts a few years ago, he had to shoo away rowdy drunks bumping into his keyboard setup and rise above the hipsters who chose to talk throughout the show. Bernie deserved more than that.
Although I was very short on recreational funds at the time of Judie’s announcement due to recently buying a house, I couldn’t bear to see Bernie’s work simply thrown away like trash. I reached out to Judie and made the best offer I could - $50 for a box of 25 CDs. In my heart, I knew I was committing a moral crime, but it was all I could do then. Judie wrote back, “$50 for one box plus shipping is better than dumping them.” The box arrived at my doorstep a few days later.
A few months later, it was revealed that Bernie was battling cancer and had moved to Seattle to be closer to family and take advantage of the city’s marijuana laws. For years, I had avoided the temptation to reach out to Bernie for an interview. I respected him so much that I felt that any time he would spend on the phone with me would take him away from what was really important – making his extraordinary music. But when faced with this upsetting news and the knowledge that Bernie’s time was running out, I reached out to Judie to see if I could chat with him for a story that would hopefully bring greater attention to his plight and raise funds for his treatment. Judie accepted my request and gave me their number.
When I called, Bernie’s son answered the phone and told me that his dad was sleeping. I urged him not to bother Bernie, but he insisted that it was okay. I really had to make this worth it. What followed was one of the most beautiful conversations I’ve ever had with another human being. He left me with these words: “Be careful out there; [it's a] crazy world.” The article that resulted from this chat is one of my proudest moments as a writer, but I still can’t read it without crying.
In April 2016, good fortune put me in Seattle on the same evening that Bernie was performing a show - on his birthday, no less. The night served as the live debut of his latest project, Khu.éex', an extraordinary group of musicians mixing Funk with Native American sounds. Bernie was incredibly frail, but his soul and fingers were as amazing as always. He was nearing the end, but he was still reaching for new sounds and directions. It was the greatest Bernie Worrell performance I ever saw. I left the venue feeling like I had reached a new cosmic plane, but I was also aware that I would never see the man on stage again. It was hard to take.
Bernie died two years ago today. I’ll never get over the loss. I’m glad this box of CDs is here.
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