Bob Moss, Utah artist and banjoista extraordinaire, touched a lot of lives in his 58 years. I got to know some of the 150 friends and fans who crowded Bob’s wake last month. An odd lot (and location) if there ever was one—friends from grade school and high school, teahouses and street corners; a California record producer, fellow musicians, and well-spoken Mormon relatives (with good and abundant homebaked cookies). The memories they shared sketched a heartfelt, playful, principled man who danced a jig to the steady beat of his very own hand-decorated drum. The Visual Art Institute’s walls held maybe 30 of his meticulously executed carved, be-glittered, decoupaged “outsider” creations. On one wall rolled videos of Bob playing banjo and guitar and singing.
I heard Bob play six or seven years ago during open studio night at the old Poor Yorick collective when it was still located on 700 South. Bob was picking his battered banjo in a cul-de-sac between the studios —entertaining the crowds with music as strange and wonder-full as the art on the walls.
Thinking back, I realized I’d heard Bob several times before—me always in a vague, lost “that’s not the way that song goes, but I think I like it” moment, as I took in the art. Around the same time, I became aware of his enigmatic, elfish-looking wood-burned screeds illustrated with magazine and newspaper clippings gathered from other times and places.
I purchased one of his notorious Valentine’s boxes—pictures of Frankenstein and his bride and other ghouls and their sweethearts, surrounded by “Be my Valentine” in both English and the Brigham Young Deseret alphabet that Bob favored. Inside the box is a bigger-than-life-sized, red rubber heart. I tried, several times, to give the box to Greta for Valentine’s Day but she was not receptive. “Lurid,” she said. Sometimes humor and romance can be dicey business. Maybe this is why Bob wasn’t married.
The last two years of his life, Bob lived in an apartment above my studio. Almost every Saturday afternoon I would hear strains of his banjo drifting down from the ceiling. Ever so often music from his collection of old records would replace the banjo concerts. Some days there’d be a double bill. The last time I heard Bob play was a week before he died—around the day his old cat Minnow died.
Saturday afternoons will never be quite the same for me. In my imagination, Bob’s banjo will be playing a counterpoint to the opera my dad used to play on the radio every Saturday as I was growing up.
They’re common enough words, but “I wish I’d known him better.” I wish his wake had happened before the fact of his passing, so I could have asked him about “The Tales of Nahman of Bratslav,” a book he loved, and his affection for the mystical children’s author George MacDonald. We could have hung out on the porch and discussed the Mahabharata, which he was rereading at the time of his death. I would have known that he had an upcoming recording session in California, and that he’d just sold a painting from his show at the Beehive Tea Room.
Bob passed away in his sleep of natural causes —though it may be no coincidence that he left us during one of the Wasatch Front’s world-class bad air weeks. He was at his parents’ house in Bountiful, where he’d been caring for his invalid father.
As one of his longtime friends encouraged us, “Take Bob forward and live.” No, I won’t take up the banjo. But I get the point. This was a man who loved life, and made the most of it. I’m willing to take on that one.
John deJong is the associate publisher of CATALYST and a pretty eclectic guy in his own right.