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    Remembering Gwen Avery: Great Soul, Great Singer

    Gwen Aterryvery, the amazing and powerful African-American blues singer who gave so much to the Bay Area lesbian community, died unexpectedly from complications of gall-bladder surgery on January 31 at the age of 71. So many of us older dykes saw her perform in cafes, theaters, concert halls, bookstores, house parties, community centers and churches. She contributed her unique, rollicking persona to countless benefits. Always, she moved us and made us move our bodies. She joyfully invited us to the party that was Gwen. She was like no other performer.

    Many of us were her friends. Many of us produced her gigs. Many of us had our hair cut by her. Many of us helped her when she was down, which was often. She spent a lot of time homeless in her last decade. Many of us gave her a place to stay. Many of us turned our backs when we got fed up with her. Many of us took her for granted. “Oh, Gwen Avery?  Don’t need to go see her tonight. She’s always around.” I count myself in all of the above
    categories.

    Now that she’s gone, we can see the enormity of our loss. This is what death does for us. It helps us to finally grasp the precious beauty of the people who surround us. But always too late, too late.

    Now that she’s gone, the Gwen stories are pouring out. One of my favorites is Lajuana’s. The first time she met Gwen, Lajuana was in a very bad way. And Gwen invited Lajuana to lie down and take a nap with her.

    avery-myspace

    That’s all there is to the story. A woman offers another woman, a stranger, the brief intimacy of rest and cuddling. I cannot imagine myself doing something so gentle and so spontaneous, even with a close friend. But Gwen offered her new acquaintance a nap. She was a great soul. She lived her life with an openness that made it a wild improvisation filled with startling moments of empathy and love.

    There were also moments of chaos and anger. From 2007 to 2010, I followed Gwen around, filming her life, in the service of creating a full-length documentary. Once, Gwen and I were returning from a gig in Santa Rosa. We’d stayed overnight, and when I went to ask our hosts directions to the freeway, Gwen stopped me. She knew the way.

    So, we got in the car and drove…and drove and drove, this way and that, in circles, back and forth. I begged Gwen to stop and ask for directions, but she refused, furious at me for doubting her. She yelled; I begged. We drove. I thought the only thing that would end the insanity was running out of gas. Unfortunately, we had just filled the tank. Finally, almost two hours later, we stumbled onto a freeway entrance and returned to San Francisco. That was how Gwen lived her life. She never asked for directions.

    That Santa Rosa gig was special. We had driven up so Gwen could perform at a monthly lesbian salon that Rosa and Kay held in the backyard of their home. They actually had built a little stage, and it was lovely, surrounded by greenery. Rosa had assured us that the salon had a real following. But, apparently, the following was Jewish lesbians who were all celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, that night. So there was literally no one in the audience.

    The only other performer to show was Carrie, on guitar. And then there was Rosa, on saxophone. Disaster, yes?  Disaster, No! Gwen took that little stage and sang the blues with her whole heart, Carrie and Rosa accompanying, for the whole night. The only audience was my camera.

    At one point, Carrie hesitated, seeming to think she’d made a mistake. Gwen, without breaking her stride, said, “Don’t stop,” and continued to sing. Carrie, energized by Gwen, surrendered to the singer and the song. Together, they made music, wonderful music. So what if the audience failed to materialize? Gwen sang, not for the audience, but for the love of music, because music was her best and highest self. It was a world where all emotions found their proper place, where the largeness of Gwen’s soul had room to roam, where mistakes didn’t stop you and where directions didn’t matter.

    Rest in peace, Gwennie. However much we gave you, you gave us more back. Thanks for spending time with us. We were luckier than we knew.

    There will be memorial concerts this weekend, Saturday Feb. 22 and Sunday Feb. 23, at the Main Street Station in Guerneville where Gwen used to perform. A tribute will also take place at the Montclair Women’s Cultural Arts Club in Oakland on May 3.

    To see a short (14 min.) documentary on Gwen Avery, including footage from the Santa Rosa performance, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNo1d1ZDJfU. Also, for more Gwen stories, go to my blog www.terrybaum.blogspot.com.

    Terry Baum is a playwright, actress, director, teacher and filmmaker. In 2004, she ran for U.S. Congress on the Green Party ticket and received the highest percentage of the vote of any small-party, write-in candidate for Congress in history.