MusicMusic Features

Athens Remembers Craig Lieske


Craig Lieske

In the few days since Craig Lieske passed, reportedly from an aneurysm, on Friday, Jan. 19, some of the most telling things said have been from those who knew him the least. Nearly invariably, these oral tributes have been along the lines of “I didn’t know him that well, but I was always impressed by his knowledge/generosity/friendliness.” The point of mentioning this, of course, is that if our Craig was so unassumingly able to touch those who barely knew him, how much more was his presence felt among those who were closest to him?

I first met Craig in the mid-1990s. He’d moved to Athens in 1984 and graduated from Clarke Central High School. Our first conversations were about—what else?—Athens music history. A couple of years later he founded Garbage Island, and that’s when I really got to know him. (Hell, the band rehearsed in my living room.) I never got to perform with him, though, until we were serendipitously paired up to perform at one of the 40 Watt’s “Face/Off” events in September of 2008. By this time, Craig had known heavy, life-altering loss, and had battled his own demons for a long while. But he was about to enter one of his brightest periods.

By all accounts, Craig was at his best the past few years. His road gig with the Drive-By Truckers was a way for him to work to the best of his ability in an area where he could truly excel, and also to be with close friends every day. He was in a wonderfully loving relationship with his girlfriend, Melinda Cook, and those of us who had known him for a long time had never seen him happier or more content. He was, it seemed, at peace.

There is no set of words that can sum up Craig’s life. No list of achievements to neatly tie up loose ends; no list of friends by which to measure his worth. We each have our own story that we wrote with him, and as we pay tribute this week, let’s listen to each other. Let’s hear each other’s tales, laugh and cry and hug and, above all, listen.

Let’s remember how significantly a person can be touched by even the tiniest of our kindnesses. And then, let’s be kind. Let’s all be more like Craig.

Gordon Lamb

I specifically remember one of our first shows at the 40 Watt, where the France had the bright idea of erecting a curtain to hang in front of the stage to hide us from the crowd. We made this gigantic monstrosity out of PVC pipe and bedsheets, and it could not have been more annoying. To add to the obnoxious factor, we didn’t tell the club or sound guys we were doing it until 10 minutes before we went on. Without protest, Craig helped us put it up. Then, as this thing came crashing down in the middle of the first song, taking out microphones and completely covering everything, Craig came running out on stage and pulled it apart around us so we could continue playing. After the show, he could have easily chewed us out and banned our early-20s-naive-moronic asses from the club. Instead, I remember him coming straight up to me as soon as we finished playing and saying, “You guys are idiots,” with a huge smile. At the time, the gravity of how rad that moment was lost on me. R.I.P. to a truly wonderful human.

-DJ Hammond

Craig Lieske was, and is, and awesome dude. We haunted the same bars for years, and it was an honor to get to know him. He had a toughness and tolerance for the long hours and late nights of that scene that I could never, ever match, and he always had a kind word for me. I feel like the west end of Washington Street might up and blow away without him there to hold it down.

-Andy Rusk

Lately I’ve been thinking of the idea that we’re all external hard drives for each other. When one pathway is a bit hazy, call on a friend to set things clear. Craig Lieske was a fellow wanderer, wonderer, and a very reliable arbiter of Athenian pursuits, and of the wider world (which he traveled so you wouldn’t have to): someone I looked to as a measure of our progress, personally and communally… I played music with him in many configurations, from a big band to an intimate one-on-one. We laughed about art and tried to laugh about politics. Craig endured the painful death of his wife Janet. He found love anew with Melinda; our hearts break for her. He invited me to take a load off at Avid, any time. “Seriously,” he said, “come over during your break. We’ll discuss things.” I did, but not often enough. I love you, Craig.

-Killick Hinds

When I found out, I immediately wanted to listen to him play. Thinking about him rocking around in his chair, hovering over his guitar, shredding, making a beautiful ruckus, laughing out loud. I am thankful to Sloan [Simpson] for recording so many of his shows and so much of his laughter… it’s all in there. In the corners. Such magic stuff.

-Heather McIntosh

There is a hole in Athens’ heart that could only be filled by Craig. That “throw his back” laugh will forever make me smile, and his genuine presence will never be forgotten. Here’s to you, Craig. We love you.

-Chance Bracewell

I always appreciated his blunt honesty, hilarious wit and love for a very wide range of music. I could mention some Brahms thing and he would be aware of it, or that I thought I might have detected a tape edit somewhere on Monk’s Brilliant Corners album, and his eyes would light up suddenly as he would respond: “Really? You think that’s edited?” Bereft of cynicism, full of curiosity. I also enjoyed watching him shred at the Georgia Theatre on his guitar in a duet with an equally fine drummer whose name unfortunately escapes me. I always think of him when I hear tracks from Interstellar Space because of that, and I sincerely hope he is out there in Heaven right now, grooving on Saturn, Jupiter, Joy and Peace.

-Brent Cash

A few years ago, I was smack in the middle of a very long tour, and was feeling very homesick on a day off in Boise. I rounded a corner on a stroll downtown, and very nearly ran smack into one Mr. Craig Lieske. (DBT had a day off, too.) Anyway, I can count the times that I’ve ever been that glad to see someone. It was if the spirit of Athens appeared to me when I needed it most. I’ll miss you so much, buddy. Hope to run into you unexpectedly again someday.

-Dottie Alexander

When I was still ‘on the scene’ in Athens, I was lucky enough to have many wonderful chance encounters and conversations with Craig. It always seemed to me that his goal in our talks was to encourage me and make me feel good about myself. He always focused our talks on me and not himself, even when I really had nothing much to say and he was the one who had the truly interesting life, with all of his musical projects, etc. At the end of the evening, when I went home and laid my head on the pillow, it was his kind words and infectious smile that I would remember. I came to think of him as the angel in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. That’s how I remember him, and I miss him badly. I loved Craig and hope to see him again someday. Thank God for Craig Lieske.

-Chip Shirley

Craig and I graduated from Clarke Central together, and it was many years later at Flicker that we recognized each other. He always spoke to me, asking me how I was—genuinely friendly. A few weeks ago, we stood outside Low Yo Yo and I shared some sad news about my life. He was very empathetic, and told me about a similar loss he’d experienced. That moment has stayed with me since. A hardworking, kind man who took time to be truly present with whomever he was talking to. Peace to your family, Craig.

-Amy West

When I moved to Athens in the mid-’90s, Craig Lieske was one of the first people I played music with. I was bowled over by his intuitive musicianship, unique guitar sound and the effortlessness of his improvisational playing. His approach to guitar was much like his personality: humble but self-assured, self-contained but welcoming to collaboration, grounded but capable of soaring to great heights… When I came back to town in 2007, I was happy to see him standing on that familiar patch of concrete between Flicker and the 40 Watt—it was as if our conversation had never paused. Craig was always enthusiastic about his projects… He spoke of each new project with the same infectious energy and creativity. Notably, he always followed up by asking what was new or on the horizon with me, and that same enthusiasm and sense of support was there as I spoke. I’ll miss so much about him: his humor and dry wit, his playing and his generous spirit. I am truly grateful and privileged to have had a friend and musical collaborator like Craig for this all-too-brief time. 

-John Barner

The first time I met Craig, he threw me out of the 40 Watt Club during a DBT soundcheck for taking a few too many pictures. We have been best friends ever since. Gonna miss you, brother.

-Michael Doherty

Wasn’t the manager of the big rock club supposed to be a jerk? Wasn’t the local John Zorn freak supposed to be a snob? Wasn’t the improv maestro supposed to be alienating? Craig Lieske drove, like a bull, in direct opposition to all of these stereotypes. As manager of the 40 Watt for many years, he lorded over his minions as a benevolent dictator, quick with a rib-jabbing joke and even quicker with an explosive cackle. If he saw one of his employees in a standoff, he was immediately standing shoulder-to-shoulder in support of whoever was wearing the 40 Watt t-shirt: I have literally seen this so many times. His obsessions with music and literature drove him to bring more people into his circle with endless recommendations—a big and important deal for the countless J.V. weirdos who entered his sphere of influence. His musical taste ran towards the wild, but his work actually had a generosity of sonic spirit; even when it was abrasive, it was absorbing. That’s because Craig Lieske was, at his core, a kind and bighearted man. He was an outsized dude and a beautiful person. Thank you, Craig, for teaching us to defy expectations.

-Jeff Tobias

Craig stopped by one day. He brought several boxes of cassettes. He was trying to reduce the stockpile he had collected, and I was a beneficiary. I was honored he’d think of me. Listening to those cassettes was pretty much like having a conversation with Craig: a Pogues album, followed by Marc Ribot and then side one of a Bulgarian folk album. My son Jay and I would laugh at the combinations. But the music was great. We used to listen to Miles, Coltrane, Frisell. I loaned him an Adrian Legg CD. He brought it back, pissed. He said it discouraged him from learning to play guitar. I had never seen him pissed. I promptly traded the CD. If Lieske rejected it, it had to be evil.

I took Jay to his first show in a bar to see Craig play with one of his side projects. Jay was 15 years old, and after the show he had a new hero. The freedom and honesty of the performance really drew him to Craig. Craig was always wonderful with Jay. Always… Craig and I were also baseball fans. We hated the DH and the American League. We played Strat-O-Matic together a few times (I couldn’t believe he stayed still long enough for a complete game.) We plotted to start a baseball band, and agreed to name it Slugnutty. I wrote all kinds of lyrics, but it never made it off the ground. (He was uncomfortable with the whole verse/chorus thing.) I accepted that in Craig. It would not have been Craig [otherwise].

When I went through my Christian phase, I sat down to have coffee with Craig and to evangelize him. He summed things up pretty good. “Flanery, are you telling me Coltrane wasn’t spiritual?” I had to swallow my self-righteousness. He put life in a proper frame for me. This transition he’s making also puts life in that proper frame. I truly believe he’s diggin’ the next dimension… I can’t say I’ll miss him, because its like he’s in the music. Hear him?

-Tim Flanery

Craig was the best—always very supportive of everything Thunderchief has ever done, even when we were too drunk to remember doing it. He supported everything we did in bands before Thunderchief, as well. We will miss him greatly. LONG LIVE ROCK N ROLL.

-Tyler Embler

Very sad to read this news from Athens today. Craig Lieske was cool guy with a unique approach to music. We randomly bumped into him in front of the Georgia Theater during a visit to town last month—he had an armful of vinyl and a few funny stories about Eastern European wedding bands. The experimental and improv shows he conducted were among the weirdest performances I saw during my time in Athens. He’ll be missed.

-T. Ballard Lesemann

I didn’t know Craig beyond the merch stand at Drive-By Truckers shows, but he was always a sheer delight to hang out and shoot the shit with when they played around Wilmington, Raleigh and Carrboro, NC. He will be very sorely missed. My heart goes out to all of his many friends and family.

-Jonathan Lee

Aaaaaahhhhhhhhh, Craig Lieske. So many good times shared, and so many good things to say about this man. It will require some discipline to keep it brief, but I’m gonna try.

I met Craig in 1997 at the 40 Watt Club. Our instant connection point was music. He had such genuine curiousity in music of all different kinds. This led him to be one of the most well-rounded music aficionados (though he would probably diapprove of me using that word) that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Our conversations to this end were like spiderwebs spanning and connecting eras and genres and musicians that always ended with me writing down things he’d tell me I had to check out. We rapidly and effortlessly found many other things we had in common. We began playing music together in 1998. Improvisational guitar jams were the favored flavor at that time; we used them as the impetus to develop other material. It was always very natural, playful, easy and fun.

We started working together at the 40 Watt in early 1999. We worked together until I left and moved to France in late 2006. I remember lots of good times chewing through some of the dull nights at the door with creative conversations about anything and everything. Personal, speculative, or downright twisted. Sprawling laugh fests full of embellishment spawned from the words of the Creative Loafing police blotter, for example. He always had a sharp and wicked wit and I always enjoyed provoking it.

In 2001, while living at the Ultramod Compound, I had this vision of a Sunday afternoon “Improv Salon” in the living room. Craig was instantly all about it. It started with Craig (guitar), myself (guitar, synth, boombox as sampler, percussion) Jeramy Lamanno (drums, keyboard) Tony Evans (sax, sampler, vocal madness) and Steve Scarborough (bass). In early 2002 (February, I believe), my then-roommate Gordon Lamb (aka G. Gordon Lamby/The Lambinator) asked us to play on a bill he was organizing at the Ultramod. We weren’t so sure. He reassured us by saying, “Just play like you play in the living room. It’ll be great.”

We did it. It was free and wild and psychedelic and evil and balls-deep with sinister feedback. In other words: perfect. This was the first show we did together as Garbage Island. It was totally improvised, as all the Island’s music has been for the last 11 years. So, anyone seeking to air grievances about the unleashing of this noisy songless ramshackle monstrosity on the Athens scene (which is so rooted in the craft of songwriting) can blame Gordon Lamb directly.

In my mind, it’s poetically full-circle that the last time I saw Craig was at the 40 Watt Club on Jan. 3, 2013 to play together in Garbage Island with so many of our cool and talented friends.

From 15+ years of friendship and music-making with Craig, I am pleased to express without hesitation that he was very simply one of those great, honest, enlightened individuals that you want to be around and who make life worth living.

There is a big black hole inside me now, the exact depths and dimensions of Craig himself; it is swirling and churning and trying to fill itself. I’m confident it will remain this way indefinitely because, for me, there is no substitute. This emptiness is compounded by the brutal out-of-the-blueness of his death. He will always be my friend and hold a close place of high esteem and respect as a true freak in the best sense of the word.

Onward and outward, my friend. Don’t look back. But, if you do (from wherever it is atheists like us look back from), be sure to notice all the really cool people whose lives you touched, who love and miss what you were dealing out off-the-cuff at high volumes.

I offer all of my sympathies and best wishes to the Lieske family, Craig’s girlfriend Melinda, friends and fellow musicians, and all the other folks I know are hurting like me right now.

-Mark Kaczmarek

I moved to Athens in late 1999, so I guess that means I knew Craig for about 13 years, more or less, because I’m pretty sure I met him soon after I arrived. He believed in my band, Baghouse, enough to invite us to play one of his famous birthday shows at the 40 Watt. It was the one and only time we’d play there, but thankfully not the last time I’d share the stage with the one and only Craig Lieske.
Without Craig’s knack for putting things and people together, I don’t know if I would ever have had the pleasure of being part of a conducted improvisation on stage and in the studio, improvising while blindfolded, performing at The Stone in NYC, or even if I’d be in my current project, The HEAP. (Craig helped Bryan and I put that lineup together.) Though others were instrumental in making each of those things happen, at this time I want to give Craig the credit that he is due.

Still, it was that trip to and from NYC in late 2007 when Craig and I really got to know each other as people. There’s nothing like 14 hours in a small car to really know if you can deal with a person. Craig and I shared the driving back to Athens, having left Eric Harris (Diet Rock Star’s drummer) at the Newark airport so he could make a show at Caledonia that night. Those hours behind the wheel afforded me the chance to get deep inside Craig’s exceptionally diverse music collection, which he kept close at hand on his iPod. We connected over live recordings of Thin Lizzy, as well as some Sonny Sharrock, Marc Ribot and others.

Yet what I remember most was our stop for dinner at a Golden Corral somewhere in Virginia. Craig was most certainly an example of individualism, but we probably both stood out in our own way among the patrons at the all you can eat buffet that night.  I don’t recall whose decision it was to stop there, but once we resigned ourselves to it, we did our best to immerse ourselves in the American culture that is Golden Corral—filtering the experience through a compatible sarcastic sense of humor we shared. As I think about that night now, I know if I were able to bring it up to Craig, likely over a drink at Flicker, we’d have a good laugh, and he’d recall some details I’ve forgotten.

Of all the various music projects I’ve gotten to do with Craig over the years, the one I’ll miss the most is definitely Diet Rock Star. I believe Craig came up with the name even before we were a band, but it fit perfectly. He was always coming up with names and devising projects. Our type of genre-hopping improv composition was definitely “rockstar lite.” Only Craig Lieske could perform sitting in a chair and still fall off the stage at Go Bar backwards and keep playing. Most of Athens likely missed that spectacle, because among other factors, DRS only played one show a year (more or less). This was a fact that gave Craig particular pleasure the year DRS was nominated for a Flagpole Music Award and won! I may have given the acceptance speech, but it was Craig who deserved the award.

Often Craig would tell me that he really wanted to get away from improvisation, and get into writing songs. When DRS would rehearse, he’d state this as part of the regular discussion on the way to Nuci’s. Yet in the moment, it was the spark of improvisation that would take over and ignite the particular direction Craig would take Eric and me during the performance. The chemistry would not be denied, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I know I’ll miss doing this sort thing annually, or semi-annually, with Craig and Eric more than I can express at this time. After 2012’s installment in mid-December at Little Kings, we talked about the next time, and the possibility of recording and releasing some document of it. I am grateful to have been a part of all that it was.

Farewell, my friend, farewell.

-Jeff Rieter

I first met Craig at the beginning of my tenure at Low Yo Yo Stuff in late 2000.  He was one of the most welcoming people I’d ever met in my life, and as a result of our mutual love of improvised and many other genres of music, we became friends almost immediately. He was a daily fixture in my life for five years—as the front-of-house manager at the 40 Watt, as well as one of the other founding members of Garbage Island, and also a bandmate in Desk Pussy. Of the dozens and dozens of shows we played over the years, we never had a bad time on stage together. In every show we played together, there was at least one point that his joyous cackle would cut through the sonic waves. It made me smile each and every time. He was the purest and most enthusiastic musician and music fan I have ever known. His contributions to the Athens music—and my life—scenes was invaluable. I’ve lost a brother, a musical partner, and one of the best friends I’ve ever known. I raise my glass to you, Mr. Lieske. Show eternity how to rock its ass off!

-Tony Evans

There are some people that make a kind impact on this world that when departed the world is one notch less bright and happy. I know that sounds slightly depressing but Craig, in my opinion, lit that street up with smiles without boundaries. 110 percent non-judgemental kindness. He was easy in a world that is not so easy. Walking up that sidewalk I will always remember him.

-Andy King

I met Craig in a January of 1984. When I first saw him, I thought to myself, “Who is this wild haired dude?” (Yes, it was waving wildly back then too!) I had a Neil Young shirt on, and he commented on how cool he thought Neil was. That started it. Music, music, music and more music is what we talked about that night. He was a music encyclopedia, even back then! Our friendship just took off, and it never let up. I was up in Athens during last year’s Thanksgiving holidays, and Craig, Melinda and myself all had deer bacon burgers, chili and some killer baked potatoes at their house. Right before I left that night, he gave me four Neil Young records (go figure) that we had been listening to that night. We hugged goodbye (as we normally do), and we always told each other that we loved one another. I know that may not be a man thing, but we did, and we always cherished the few times we spent together since I moved away. That’s the last time I saw my friend. I miss him terribly.

-Curt Zimmerman

The world has lost an incredible person and a stellar musician. Craig was an incredibly talented, bright, generous, articulate, kind and loving soul. His duo with Serson Brannen and his Garbage Island and Echo Canyon ensembles were as good as it gets. Craig has provided me with some of my most cherished recordings and some of the best music I’ve ever experienced. I am so blessed to have known him. Please send Peace, Love, Strength and Healing vibes to Melinda and for all Craig’s family and friends. Craig, you are loved and you will be forever missed. Happy Trails

Peace and Love,

I was so sad to see that Craig had passed away. I knew him only as a member of the community, we were not intimate friends, but he was a friendly face who would always greet me by name and share amusing reflections on whatever chaos was going on around us when we happened to cross paths. He was a good soul and I will miss seeing him about.

-Jennifer Formwalt

I am grateful to Steve Hunter. He introduced me to Craig and Melinda, and I know how much he loved him. It was after the summer of 2012 that I became really fond of them. Melinda and Craig, free-spirited, loving people, generous, creative, truly positive, beautiful inside and out, genuine, caring, honest, real, non-demanding, self-sufficient, resourceful, intelligent, fun to be around. I always think about concepts and feelings with images, and Craig is cotton, eternal light, water reflecting the clouds.

Jon Lester gave me the idea to go to Flicker at happy hour, and that was a memorable time. I went alone and found other lonely mourners that were also there for Craig. Daniel did not felt like talking, and that was OK, profound, sharing the silence that Craig left behind. But many others responded to my “Talk to me about Craig”: William, Richard, Jackson, Jim and a few more. You already know what they said. Craig encouraged them as musicians, took time and followed up with conversation, listened and encouraged all to talk about themselves, even though he had so much to say, to share, to teach. Athens will not be the same without Craig, but we hope that Melinda will be around, a lot, and that she will bring us Craig with her beautiful presence.

Listening to Craig’s Spotify’s music choices became a daily ritual that I will miss. I will also miss confusing him with Spanish-style greetings and hugs, seeing him around and specially listening to his poetry and music.

-Marta Dean

Everyone here at Wuxtry Records is mourning the passing of Craig. Some of us worked with Craig at the 40 Watt, or played music with him at some point, but also would see him as a regular customer with eclectic taste that ran deep into strange and peculiar realms. We could always rest assured that at least one copy of a new Swans or Scott Walker album would get carried out of the store via Craig’s hands, even if it meant taking in fistfuls of John Zorn-affiliated improv crap as trade-in. We will miss his lovably gruff voice cracking wise in the store, as well as his myriad musical talents, which have served to make our local music scene a little stranger. If there’s a rock and roll heaven, Craig is skronking his way through purgatory. He is sorely missed.

-Wuxtry Staff

I used to work with Craig at the 40 Watt back in ’99 or 2000. He would would talk to me about music and how hilarious our customers were, and how we were just like them sometimes. he was calming effect during crazy times. His laugh—I can still hear it in my ear to this day. He made the most sense, and then none at all. I always thought that was his genius. His smile was infectious and true. But most of all, his heart was as big as a mountain. He was the Darth Vader Hand Stamp at the 40 Watt.

-B.J. Harris

My dear friend Craig, you are a legend to me, and I have comfort in knowing that you are in Rock and Roll Heaven. To one of the greats, it was a pleasure to know you and be a part of your wonderful life. Until we meet again, buddy, we LOVE you! Please be our angel and watch over and guide the rest of us. “Let there be rock!”

-Wendy Musick

No matter what he was doing or where we were at, Craig would always make it a point to say hello with a big hug and kiss to me and my wife. He would always seemed to want to raise my spirits when I was down. I’ve always looked up to Craig; I always thought he was one of the best. Just wish I would’ve told him that. I’m gonna miss him. 

-T.J. Machado

Craig. I suppose I could say what a great guy he was, or what a brilliant improv musician he was, but this is common knowledge. I suppose I could tell a funny Craig story, like the time he rocked so hard that he fell off the stage at Go Bar and I followed suit from laughter. But everybody has at least one of those.

Craig. Where to start. I met Craig at 11:11 Teahouse in Atlanta. He was playing with my friend P.D. Wilder, improv guitarist from Austin, TX. I was doing my Subliminator set that night. We instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits, and were good friends within five minutes. We played together many times over the years in Atlanta and Athens.

While he was best known for his experimental/improv work, many don’t realize what an excellent rock guitarist he was as well. Like me, he was also a professional stage hand. He had a dark sense of humor that matched my own. Crashing at Craig’s was a regular thing when I was in Athens, and he could always pull something out of his massive music collection that I had not heard before. Our latest project was Brannen & Lieske, free improv for guitar and hang. We did a short tour in October that went very well. Studio time had been set up, and we were going to record an album as soon as he got off the road at the end of the month. We also had a microtour set up as well.

We last played together at the Watt on the third of this month. Little did I know it would be the last time. I spoke to him last Thursday and he was his usual wisecrackin’ self. And now… He was more than a friend, he was a brother. The world, in general, and Athens, in particular, are less cool places with him gone.

-Serson Brannen

There is a singular problem with Heroes: they must either die in their prime, or live long enough to inevitably fail those whom they inspire. You know who Achilles is, right? He is the ultimate Hero of Greek myth. There is a well-known legend about him, one not attested in literature, and it is as follows. Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, tells him that one day there will be moment where he must choose between a short life as a warrior, full of glory and legendary deeds, or a long, uneventful life as a farmer and family man. The short life will give him immortality after death; the long life, the unsung death of a common mortal. The punch line is, that moment never comes—Achilles was born a warrior, and they both knew it from the start.

Craig is a warrior. Always was. He is at war with Silence, with Bullshit, with Pretense. Mostly with Silence, though. He has a mania about him, one that he directs outward in the form of Noise. Sweet, sweet, Noise. His guitar playing directly mirrors his laughter: jarring, raucous, dissonant, joyful, desperate, sonorous, spastic, beautiful, unpredictable. He can create Noise and react to it at the same time, in a bizarre feedback loop that never stops. His guitar is an extension of his mind and emotions, a six-stringed sword that spits honest Noise in the face of Silence, and laughs mockingly in the presence of Bullshit (like Hercules, the other Greek Hero, Craig strangled the life out of the serpent of Pretense while still an infant). I got to play with Craig in Garbage Island for almost eight years, and I have always felt it was an honor like none other. You don’t play Music with Craig, you communicate. I was even more honored when Craig skipped his managerial duties at the 40 Watt to come see my first show with Savagist. He stood right in front, sucked up our Noise like a sponge, turned it into pure Joy, and laughed it out right back into our faces. I remember every second of that show, and if it were a movie (as it is in my head), then Craig is in every frame.

Have you been paying attention to the tenses, to the capitalizations? Gods and Heroes are immortal, so they always get capital letters. If you are immortal, you can’t die, so you get the present tense. You are always there, and it is always happening. Past tense is for puny mortals. Craig, the man, was a warrior. Craig, the man, was my good friend, and I don’t think that Craig, the man, was ever not in his prime. Thus, Craig is a Hero. He is always here, and He is always happening. He can never, ever, ever, fail us—we can only fail Him. So make some fucking Noise, and banish the loneliness of Silence. Noise isn’t Noise unless someone else hears it, and we all need each other; cut Bullshit out of your life—you don’t need it and never did; leave Pretense in the toilet where it belongs—pretentious people are assholes. Be honest and have fun. The King is dead; long live the King. Heroes Never Die.

-Steve Miller

Like many other people who are Athens transplants, when I first moved here, I felt like an outsider. Everyone seemed to know each other and everyone was so much cooler and more accomplished than I. Around the turn of the millennium, I became a music photographer and music writer. One of the first people that I met during that time was Craig Lieske. Craig was one of the first Athens veterans to make me feel like I was home. He always had my back. He always encouraged me. He made me laugh. He would sneak up on me and cause me to miss a shot on occasion, but I didn’t mind at all when he did it. At times, when my name was accidentally left off the press list at the 40 Watt, Craig would somehow magically appear: “McKay is always on the list.” He’d put his arm around me and lead me in. Other times, he’d just make eye contact from inside, and with one wave, I was through the door. I always felt like Craig was looking out for me.

I rarely get embarrassed, but I remember that every time he would introduce me to someone as his “favorite photographer,” I would come close to blushing. His praise meant that much. Craig encouraged my music as well. He always wanted my studio recordings before I’d release them, and I would make sure that he had them. I was thrilled that someone with his musical pedigree and taste enjoyed my cheesy rock and roll penchant. For many years, we talked about collaborating, and it was clearly inevitable. For years, I’d turned down doing solo acoustic shows, and Craig said that I was making a big mistake not to try it. I was just too scared to do it, if truth be told. I think he knew that.

The last time I saw Craig was at Little Kings, in late December. I was playing with The Spinoffs. He was playing just before us. During his set, I sat on the floor right in front of him and snapped my fingers beatnik style after each song. As usual, he was concerned about others, and he was worried that he was playing too long. I wanted him to keep going, and I let him know that.

During my set, Craig was standing beside the stage at the bar. At one point, I was being blocked in by some equipment. He saw that I was trying to get some mic stands out of my way while I played. He stepped up and very gently moved them out of my way with that crooked smile. To me, that was Craig. He was always clearing the way for others, no matter how large or small the obstacles may have been. He was always making sure that we were comfortable and OK. He was always encouraging. He was always a comfort.

When I finished playing that night, Craig was the first person to walk up and hug me after we finished. I told him that I was finally taking his advice and doing some solo acoustic work. He wanted to know the date, because he would be there. He then suggested that I do a co-bill with him at Flicker in early 2013. “It’ll be laid back. We’ll just have fun.” I told him that if the dates lined up, I’d do it.

My first solo show came just a few hours too late. I got the news about Craig on Friday afternoon, and I played on Saturday night. I wonder if I would’ve done it without his encouragement. I had a good time up there, but it was bittersweet. Somehow, I felt that Craig was looking out for me, and I felt safe and comfortable in that knowledge. I wanted to tell him that, of course, he had been right all along, and that I should’ve done this a long time ago.

At our last meeting, Craig and I had decided that 2013 was the year that we would finally collaborate. I cannot say how sad it makes me to know that this is as close as we’ll get. I also cannot express how happy and lucky I feel to have known Craig Lieske. I’m honored that we shared laughs, goaded each other on, shared a mutual admiration, and that our times on Earth coincided, at least for a while. Time is short. Enjoy each other while you can.

-Chris McKay

Craig stopped by one day. He brought several boxes of cassettes. He was trying to reduce the stockpile he had collected, and I was a beneficiary. I was honored he’d think of me. Listening to those cassettes was pretty much like having a conversation with Craig: a Pogues album, followed by Marc Ribot and then side one of a Bulgarian folk album. My son Jay and I would laugh at the combinations. But the music was great. We used to listen to Miles, Coltrane, Frisell. I loaned him an Adrian Legg CD. He brought it back, pissed. He said it discouraged him from learning to play guitar. I had never seen him pissed. I promptly traded the CD. If Lieske rejected it, it had to be evil.

I took Jay to his first show in a bar (Flicker) to see Craig play with one of his side projects. Jay was 15 years old, and after the show he had a new hero. The freedom and honesty of the performance really drew him to Craig. Craig was always wonderful with Jay. Always.

I last saw him at the Godspeed show. Craig had told me many years prior that Godspeed had blown him away. Jay bought the tickets as a birthday gift. We had to see the show, because Craig had talked them up so highly. That’s how much we respected his opinion. What a wonderful gift!

Craig and I were also baseball fans. We hated the DH and the American League. We played Strat-O-Matic together a few times (I couldn’t believe he stayed still long enough for a complete game.) We plotted to start a baseball band, and agreed to name it Slugnutty. I wrote all kinds of lyrics, but it never made it off the ground. He was uncomfortable with the whole verse/chorus thing. I accepted that in Craig. It would not have been Craig [otherwise].

When I went through my “Christian phase,” I sat down to have coffee with Craig and to evangelize him. He summed things up pretty good. “Flanery, are you telling me Coltrane wasn’t spiritual?” I had to swallow my self-righteousness. He put life in a proper frame for me.

This transition he’s making also puts life in that proper frame. I truly believe he’s diggin’ the next dimension. Yeah, I think he’s absorbed in the big music. I can’t say I’ll miss him, because its like he’s in the music. Hear him?

-Tim Flanery

I have known Craig for many years, and we played together on numerous occasions. We both shared an interest in jazz/improvised music, and he turned me on to some really great artists. He was one of the smartest, funniest and most creative humans I have ever met. Recently, Craig and I had started a new project and played together several times at his place. I would drive over from Atlanta to work on new stuff with him, but more importantly, it was a chance to hang out with a good friend whose company I valued deeply. Craig, I will miss you so much. My life was made better by having you as a friend.

-Marshall Marrotte

In 1994, when The Possibilities were brand new in town, we found a house to rent on Willow Run. Craig lived right across the street, and we quickly became friends. Just a week or two ago, we were reminiscing about those days. I apologized to him for being annoying neighbors, because we would practice in that house at full volume with no consideration for anyone around. He replied, “You didn’t bother me at all! I used to love listening to y’all practice!” That’s just how Craig was. He was always so supportive of all of our musical endeavors, and anyone who knew him will have a similar story. He had a way of making you feel like you were the best at what you do. I’m extremely grateful to have shared the stage with him one last time, just two days before he passed away. We had a blast that night, and I’m glad I have that one last fond memory of him to add to many others. Thank you, Craig, for your friendship and support through all of these years. It meant a lot. We’re all gonna miss you terribly—you were one of a kind.

-Kevin Lane

My favorite memory of Craig was when Mission of Burma played the 40 Watt. All those bands came through, and Craig was ever the professional. Never looked amazed at who was playing. After the Mission of Burma show, Roger Miller came up to me to thank me and the 40 Watt for making them so welcome. He then gave me a hug. Craig came running up to me and said, “Do you know who that was?” and did a little girlie jump. He was a little starstruck, and it was so cute. Anyway, thanks for showing the love, he was a good man.

-Melissa Trice

Craig and I worked together at the 40 Watt. He was one of my favorite people in the entire world. He was my boss, my friend, my mentor. He was a shining example of how to be a really amazing person and still do it very much on your own terms. He possessed a contagious, devilish smile that would give way to his trademark Krusty-the-Clown laugh, and I will miss that for the rest of my life. I am so thankful to him for the love and support he showed me at some of the highest and lowest moments of my life.

There was a time, years ago, when I was helping Craig with a project. He was doing all this research on improv and experimental music of the ’80s, and was buying all these rare, out-of-print records off eBay. He didn’t have a turntable at the time, so I’d take the records for him and burn them to CDs. This was stuff like 40 minutes of two guys with saxophone reeds making duck call noises. Literally. The stuff drove me bonkers. He ate it up. I think he also enjoyed the fact that it drove me crazy. Maybe it affirmed something about that music that he already suspected. Anyway, I sure am glad I was able to do him a favor.

Craig was the most decent of human beings. Chock full of integrity and warm kindness, everyone that knew him agrees he was special, he was singular, he was smart and funny and cool. We’re all better for his path having crossed ours. I sure am going to miss him.

-Jim Hicks

I got to know Craig Lieske working with him at the 40 Watt Club many years ago. He was kind of a harsh taskmaster, making sure everything ran smoothly, but even his sternest orders were usually softened with a joke or a smile. His whole life revolved around music, both as a fan and as a performer. He always had enthusiastic and encouraging words for me and others about our music, and he approached his own music with an openness and unhinged passion that was rare to see. I always enjoyed watching the extended noise freak outs of Garbage Island, and more recently, I caught many of his duo shows, particularly enjoying seeing him paired with John Fernandes, Jim Willingham and Jay Gonzalez. I remember talking with Craig after the show with Jay about how much more melodic it was than what he usually played, and hearing him talk about how that was something he wanted to explore more. I will miss our talks and drinks—he was a beautiful man, and a really important part of the community. I hope to see him again someday.

-Andrew Rieger

Craig Lieske and I became friends four years ago. We were at the 40 Watt, the Truckers were playing and I was raw with grief over a friend’s sudden death. Everyone knew—Flagpole had recently printed my eulogy. I remember sometime that night, Craig found me alone by the side of the stage. I was probably crying.  That’s how I picture myself that night, brown eyes streaming tears. But what I remember now was how vulnerable Craig looked as he pulled me aside, telling me he knew how it hurt to lose someone you’d thought you’d be close to the rest of your days. He’d been devastated several years before, back when he’d lost his wife. For the longest time, he told me, he felt he’d never get past her death. He told me how the grief eased, but that it took years.

I remember that night was the first I’d felt good since my friend died, that night, the one I first really talked with Craig. And it wasn’t the whole night, just the five or so minutes it took the Truckers to blast out “Puttin’ People on the Moon.”  I remember as they played how I thought of Craig’s words, how he said the desolation would eventually pass. I remember wanting the Truckers to never finish singing that song.

But what I now like best remembering is that that evening was the first that Craig and I connected, and that every time afterwards I was stoked to see Craig.  I liked seeing his bright smile lighting the 40 Watt’s shadows, liked how he’d surprise my husband Chris and I on the sidewalk outside the club. I like remembering the way his white hair shone in the marquee’s glow. I like remembering how he was such a good listener, blue eyes watching intently, asking pertinent questions in that gravelly voice. I know I am not the only one who liked how you could be in a crowd, but he could make you feel like you were the only person there.

Craig was at my other favorite haunt, Avid Bookshop, one of the last times we had a real conversation, the place where he now (then?) worked in-between tours. Velena and I spotted him through the window—he waved us in. The thing I remember best about that night is that Craig was so happy. “I thought I’d had my chance,” he told us, but he’d found a second one with Melinda—together, the two had constructed a beautiful life. He told us how excited he was to be making music, with his own project, with others. How he was looking forward to embarking with the Truckers on their upcoming tour. He told us how he loved working at Avid, how he was writing regularly, how recently he’d even sent to publishers a finished manuscript.

Like many, I thought I’d have years to know Craig Lieske like I wanted to. I’ll always regret never being able to discuss his book. But the one consolation—and I’m remembering that conversation way back, that night when Patterson sang about Mary Alice’s cancer, back when Craig and I first connected—is that Craig went out happy, heartbreaking as it is for the rest of us to live with the news.

-Deirdre Sugiuchi

I miss my friend Craig. The reality that he’s gone is just sinking in. I miss his lurching swagger, his guffaw, which often followed a brief, over-the-glasses glance to determine context or intent when in response to an inappropriate joke, and could stem from a literary reference or a fart noise. I miss the way a brief catch-up conversation could quickly touch on personal truths often left out of casual conversation. I miss his honesty. I miss his determination to see the best and pull the best out of his friends, and the way he expected the same of himself. I miss seeing him play. I miss making fun of each others’ music and then honestly examining what went good and bad in each others’ shows. Craig is the person who taught me a long time ago that conversation between musicians are more than exchanges of pleasantries or networking, but instead are honest, thoughtful dialogues based on paying attention, even when one doesn’t necessarily understand right away. He was not a bullshitter, which usually in this context means the person was an asshole. Craig was the farthest thing from an asshole. I miss Craig and am thankful to have known him, and for every single memory I have of him.  He made me a better person and this town a better place to live. Godspeed, Mr. Lieske. I hope we will meet again.

-Matt Hudgins

I met Craig on our birthday (12/30/64) in 1989. We realized we had similar interests in music and improv. I’d go see him play whenever I had a chance, and I could always count on him to come see whatever band I happened to be in at the time. We were genuinely interested in what each of us was doing. We’d discuss what we had seen or heard and try to relate it to what was going on our lives. He always gave me thoughtful comments and criticisms without any judgment or harshness that would help me see clearly. Our paths didn’t cross as often as the years went on, but whenever we did meet we would stop and reconnect. It felt like we were just continuing a long conversation as if there weren’t months or years in between. His enthusiasm was infectious and I’ll miss that most of all.

-Scott Stewart


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