“Yesterday we lost a good friend: Dan Kemp, aka Danny Vegas. He never yawned or said a commonplace thing.”
If you haven’t heard, Kemp — a Las Vegas-bred singer-songwriter better known as Danny Vegas — passed away this past Friday at the age of 47, less than a week before he would’ve turned 48, and that’s how his friends in the Killers chose to remember him.
The nod, which more than a few folks recognized, is to “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, specifically a passage in which the legendary beat poet points to the kind of people who pass through our lives, who are “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time,” as he puts it, and notes how they burn brightly and brilliantly, “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
Man, I can’t think of a more fitting way to memorialize Danny — at least the Danny I knew, anyway — than with those lines. Danny Vegas. What a character. He struck me as a vagabond, the precise kind of person that I suspect Kerouac was talking about in that part of the book, when we met nearly a decade ago back in Denver.
The post mentioned above from the Killers was accompanied by a photo they shared of Danny playing in front of a capacity crowd at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. There’s no date, but I’m pretty sure it was sometime around May 2007. That’s right around the time I met Danny, about six months or so after that.
He had come through my hometown with the Killers earlier that spring, and apparently, he decided to stay behind and set up shop for a while. When our orbits collided, he was cooking and serving up sandwiches in a kitchen attached to a theater owned by my buddy Scott, who was also putting him up in an apartment above the venue.
As I remember it, Danny made a dent in the Denver scene almost immediately. He left a lasting impression on countless people, myself included, without even really going out of his way. But then, that was Danny. He had a magnetic personality. He made friends and a home wherever it was that he roamed.
A ton of people loved him, as evidenced by all the heartfelt posts that popped up on Facebook when word of his passing spread. Over the weekend, a group of friends gathered at a bar in Denver where Danny was beloved and paid tribute to him. The Killers, it seems, were just his most famous friends. Still, that’s how I came to know him.
Within minutes of our first meet, the troubadour was talking me up about how he’d opened for the Killers at Red Rocks. I remember being all, like, “Uh-huh, sure, buddy. Right.” Come to find out, though, Danny was telling the truth, and he had pictures to prove it, including that one the Killers shared. Like everybody else he befriended along the way, I was intrigued by Danny, and so I took the time to get to know him. I just had to hear how this colorful character came to know the Killers crew and how, exactly, he earned his enviable opening slot — one for which about a thousand other bands surely would’ve chopped an appendage — that night.
The story wasn’t nearly as riveting as you’d think. He told me how he knew the guys from his time in Las Vegas, where one of his younger brothers played with drummer Ronnie Vannucci in a band that preceded the Killers. In the years since, of course, I learned that the outfit he was referring to back then was Romance Fantasy, a band led by his brother Rod Pardey, aka Michael Valentine (immortalized by the Killers in “The Ballad of Michael Valentine”).
His other brother Ryan, meanwhile, as you’re most likely well aware, is another well-known member of the scene, from fronting Halloween Town to managing Cafe Roma, where the Killers (who he later toured with for half a dozen years) got their start to now managing the Bunkhouse Saloon. Ryan and I became friends not too long after I moved here last year, and when I ran into him last week at the Bunkhouse, he told me about Danny, about how he was in the hospital back in Denver and how he wasn’t doing so hot and might not make it. When I called Ryan the next day for an update, that’s when he broke the bad news to me. Danny was gone. He died from liver failure. My heart sank.
Danny struggled with addiction, and I remembered a conversation he and I once had had about his music and how the band was trying to help him out. “I got the ultimatum from Vannucci. He goes, ‘We’d love to produce you and do all this, but we want you to clean up. You know, we love you, and we’re worried about you,’” Danny told me for a column I wrote for my old paper about him back in 2007. “So I’ve been clean now for a little over a year. March will be a year and a half that I’ve been clean. I don’t count the days — I just know I don’t do it anymore.”
Somewhere along the way, Danny and I lost touch. He moved on to Spokane, Washington, for a bit, I heard, and then he eventually found his way back to Denver, evidently. By then, I’d traded my hometown for his, and sadly, we never had a chance to trade notes. I wanted to tell him how much I’d fallen in love with this place and how Ryan and I had become friends, but like so many other things in life that tend to get put off, I never got around to it.
Little did I know back then that I’d wind up here in the valley all these years later, getting to a part of this great scene and writing about some of the very people that Danny had told me about. Wish I had a chance to tell him now. I think he’d get a big kick out of it. Myself, I can’t get past the fact that I was lucky enough to meet of one of Vegas’s most magnetic personalities years before I even thought of making a home here in the desert. Danny was a shooting star. Suffice to say, I never forgot about him, and from the sounds of it, he didn’t forget about me either.
Just before I left the office for the weekend, my friend Scott back home sent me a note, letting me know about Danny just in case I hadn’t heard yet. “He was always so proud of that article you wrote about him,” Scott said. “Just this past year, he brought it up to me, and every time he was at the theater, I would see him showing someone that piece.”
“You should know,” Scott added, “how much that meant to him even almost 10 years after you wrote it.”
I reread what I wrote back then as I listened to some clips I pulled up from YouTube of him playing “Candy,” his signature tune, along with footage of him playing with Albino Road Kill, the backing band he’d assembled with his friends to help him warm up for the Killers that fall at Red Rocks.
In retrospect, the closing lines of that piece seem rather poignant to me now, knowing that Danny’s last days were spent among friends in his adopted hometown. “With his nomadic tendencies,” I wrote, “it’s hard to say how long Vegas will call Denver home. But it’s a safe bet that his time here will be at least as memorable as Vegas himself has already been.”
Rest easy, Mr. Vegas. You’ll be missed.
Read more from Dave Herrera at reviewjournal.com/music. Contact Dave directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @rjmusicdh on Twitter.