Guitarist Michael Belfer passed away March 20, 2022 from a series of compounding health issues. He was a friend and my bandmate in Black Lab back in the late ’90s. His unique playing and sound was an influence on players such as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Johnny Ramone. He was a seminal player in the San Francisco punk scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as a member of Palo Alto band The Sleepers along with Ricky Williams, Brian and Ron MacLeod, Tim Mooney and Paul Draper. His use of echo and reverb blended the worlds of Pink Floyd and other psychedelic bands with a punk rock aesthetic and to me, it was a style he maintained even as he lent his ideas to more mainstream genres throughout his life. He also played with experimental post-punk band Tuxedomoon.
Michael battled addiction for most of his life, although for the majority of the time we spent together he was sober and had a child-like enthusiasm for recording and touring. More than anything, Michael loved his friends and loved meeting new people. He answered every email sent to us in Black Lab and was thrilled to hang with fans after shows. His friends that would turn up were always a nutty lot and we would frequently find ourselves in hilarious and memorable situations with them in the mix. Belfer just seemed to know everybody and everybody seemed to know Belfer.
In the past few days I have reached out to our shared bandmates to chat about Michael’s passing. Some lost touch, others had falling outs that were never reconciled and for me, well, it was somewhere in between. Our relationship had its musical and personal highs and lows, but fortunately our most recent communications were positive and it felt like he was in a good place. He texted me that he wasn’t getting his Tape Op in the mail, asked about mics I liked, sent me pics of his new left handed acoustic guitar and asked after my family.
Michael introduced me to tattoo legend and artist Ed Hardy and other amazing SF artists like Chris Conn and Colin Stevens. He sat with me when I got my first tattoo. He turned me on to Talk Talk, Trans Am, and Heatmiser and got me interested in the idea of tone, sound and texture through artists like Harold Budd. We sat together and picked Daniel Lanois’ brain about making records with Brian Eno over lunches while on tour. He and Michael Urbano were early role models for sobriety, showing me that you could still be edgy and creative and not drink. He had ten more years of very different life experience than I did, and opened my eyes to a whole new world of art, music and sub-culture. He had blue Astroturf in his living room.
After a run up the west coast on a tour with Black Lab in 1997, we finished the leg in Seattle and were starting another tour in Pittsburg 36 hours later. This meant a non-stop drive to get there in time, swapping sleepers and drivers continuously. We headed straight into the night, east on Interstate 90 in our rented RV. Did I mention it was December? Somewhere in what I think was South Dakota, around seven in the morning, in an impressive blizzard, we made a stop for gas. Now, it was policy that if you got out of the vehicle you let at least one person know you were doing so. I was riding shotgun, and got out of the vehicle to use the bathroom while we fueled up. I let our driver know.
Once full of gas and free of pee we hopped in and headed back out into the storm. About an hour down the road, from the back of the RV we hear “Where’s Michael?” “Fuck!” was the next reply from our tour manager and current driver Lorin. I remember the next exit being quite a bit further down the road and then we headed back in the other direction, guessing loosely based on time where we had pulled off for gas an hour or so ago. We had two cell phones for the whole band and crew and Belfer did not have either of them.
When we finally navigated back to the truck stop we had fueled up at, there was Belfer, t-shirt, no jacket, goosebumped arms covered in his lovely patchwork of tattoos, chain to wallet, Vans, greasy smashed up hair, sooooo pissed off ranting “You motherfuckers left me on purpose!” Fuck you! You think that’s funny???” It was hard not to laugh hysterically and that laughter was a bit contagious. This of course added insult to injury and I’m pretty sure Michael didn’t speak to any of us for the next 24 hours. Years later we did however laugh heartily about it. I still smile thinking about what a fish out of water he must’ve looked like loitering around that South Dakota truck stop in the snow and imagining the look on his face when he walked out to see we had left. It’s just one of many stories of traveling extensively in vans, RV’s, buses and planes with Michael Belfer.
Michael recently wrote a book about his life called When Can I Fly? The Sleepers, Tuxedomoon & Beyond. It was well received and it felt like he was finally having a bit of success on his own terms. I hope he felt that and was proud of his accomplishments. He left us too soon, but leaves behind rich memories and a musical legacy for us to remember him by. I will miss knowing he's out there. Go well old friend.