It was an outpouring typically reserved for the passing of beloved heads of state, or maybe a religious figure. But I suppose in Burlington, that’s exactly what it was: the loss of a saint.
On Saturday, December 28, people from nearly every walk of Burlington life gathered on the top block of Church Street to mourn the passing and celebrate the life of Andy “A-Dog” Williams who had died two days earlier after a yearlong fight against leukemia. It was just about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed.
If you are connected to Burlington in any way, you know that the DJ’s death struck a profound chord within the community. For one thing, at 38, he was far too young to leave us. It was never a fair fight, though Williams would have been the last to say so. As his longtime girlfriend, Josie Furchgott Sourdiffe, told me in a recent phone call, throughout his illness Andy never complained or sought sympathy.
“He would have had every right to say, ‘Why me?’” she said. “But he never, ever did.”
That’s just how he was wired.
I met Andy shortly after I started working at Seven Days in 2007. In 2008, his Burlington apartment was destroyed in a fire. Save for a couple of boxes of sneakers and some records, he lost virtually everything he owned. Andy came down to the 7D offices to talk about it. Or so I thought.
We sat outside on a bench. We spoke for maybe five minutes about the fire and an upcoming benefit concert. We spent the next hour talking about music and our families. Before he left, he handed me a stack of remixes he had made. I still have them.
It was a special gesture to me. But if you knew him, even just a little as I did, the gesture was hardly unusual. As I would come to find out, Andy was notoriously generous with gifts, whether it was mixtapes for fans, promo gear for the dudes at the record shop from parties he played or, best of all, a smile and nod from behind the turntables for, well, just about everyone. He was luminous like that.
When he was diagnosed with leukemia in December 2012, even knowing how grave his disease was, Andy seemed to convey a sense that he would beat it. How could he not? This was a man who came from virtually nothing, a skinny kid raised by a single mother in a lily-white, blue-collar Vermont town who made himself into one of the finest and most respected DJs in Vermont, if not the entire country. Ask around, it’s true.
It’s hard to comprehend just how long those odds were. Maybe about as insurmountable as the chances of finding a bone-marrow donor who matched his multi-ethnic genetic makeup. But Andy beat those odds, too — twice, in fact, as two matching donors were found in the span of a week. We always thought he’d find a way to beat cancer, too. Because how could he not?
About a week before he passed away, Andy’s doctors at the Dana Farber Institute in Boston informed him that complications from his bone-marrow-transplant surgery — including infections and a lung fungus — had progressed beyond the point of treatment. The fight was over.
Told he had mere days to live, Andy looked each of his doctors in the eye and said a remarkable thing: Thank you.
“He shook their hands and thanked them for all they had done,” said Josie. “Who does that?”
Andy passed away early on the morning of Thursday, December 26, at the Furchgott Sourdiffe home in Lincoln, Vt. It was uncertain whether he could even make the trip home from Boston. But again, Andy defied the odds. He hung on long enough for his closest friends to visit him on his deathbed and say good-bye. He died peacefully, and, said Josie, “He was surrounded by love.”
In Burlington, Andy’s passing spurred a phenomenon. For days, the Facebook and Twitter feeds of Burlingtonians near and far were filled with pictures and music and videos of and for DJ A-Dog. In the Queen City, the number of posts mourning Andy’s death likely outpaced those about Nelson Mandela’s passing weeks before.
And so we gathered on a chilly night in late December. Contrary to one media report, there were not “dozens” of us. There were not hundreds. The mass of people huddled together, futilely trying to keep our candles lit against the breeze at the top block of Church Street, easily numbered more than 1,000. We listened as Josie bravely addressed the crowd, choking back tears and thanking us for being there — as if we’d be anywhere else. We listened as Luis Calderin, an old friend and musical colleague who had helped spearhead numerous benefit shows under the Friends for A-Dog banner, informed us that Mayor Weinberger had proclaimed August 30, 2014, to be Andy Williams Day in Burlington. Then someone busted out the boom box.
Led by our hip-hop pied piper, we walked down the Marketplace, slowly and en masse. But it was hardly somber. Shouts of “AAAA-Dog!” could be heard for blocks in any direction. As we passed Red Square, DJ A-Dog’s home away from home, cheers went up as beats flooded from the empty bar into the street.
We were told that the procession would continue down Main Street. And it did. Rather than navigate icy sidewalks, we spilled into the street, walking 10 and 12 abreast and gleefully disrupting traffic as we made our way down the hill. The front of the procession stopped briefly at the ECHO Center on the waterfront. When I looked back, a line of flickering lights could be seen stretching to the Skinny Pancake, behind the Burlington Bay Market, past Main Street Landing and up Main Street, where it disappeared from view, but still continued for blocks.
We convened at the waterfront skate park. After placing our candles in a snowbank outside the entrance, we filed into the park by the ramps. A hot-air lantern was lit and released, barely squeezing through a set of power lines before floating into the overcast sky and disappearing in the clouds. Then another took flight.
What followed was a series of eulogies to a fallen friend, stories from fellow DJs, snowboarders, skaters and neighbors that were by turns touching, hilarious and heartbreaking. Later that night, tributes abounded in and around Burlington. Fattie B. and crew reprised their roles rapping with the Grippo Funk Band at Nectar’s. There was a quiet moment at a rock show at the Monkey House in which Dino Bravo front man Matt Perry asked us to raise a glass. There were undoubtedly countless other smaller and more private benedictions throughout the Queen City and beyond that night.
When someone dies, we tend to emphasize the departed’s best qualities — their easy smile, their selfless generosity, their vibrant spirit. It’s a coping mechanism. By choosing to focus on and magnify those aspects of someone’s personality, we remember people as we want them to be, even when that’s not exactly true. No one is a saint, right? But if ever someone came close to sainthood in Burlington, it would have to be Andy Williams.
It’s hard to overstate just how remarkable a human being he was, how broad was his reach. It’s equally hard to grasp how much he will be missed, how much he gave to our small community and how much better off we are for having known him.
We love you, Andy. Rest in peace.
A peek at what was on my iPod, turntable, eight-track player, etc., this week.
DJ A-Dog, You Thought U Nu-Funk
DJ A-Dog, Trapped in VT
DJ A-Dog X Pirate Films, Bottom Line
VT Union, The VT Union Is Dead
VT Union, The Return
Aaron Almanza: Just to be clear, Kiel is one kick ass mamajamma, you should totally make his day.