Remembering Amy Farris, 1968-2009
By Dave Shulman
Amy's gone now. She was in the kitchen, and poured us a couple of iced coffees in beer glasses, then set them on the coffee table in the living room at 3 a.m. She was trying on different combinations of shoes and slinky dresses, asking for my feedback in choosing a look for the next day's show, where she was premiering a song she'd co-written with Exene Cervenka.
Amy said that some shoe-dress combinations looked more sideman, some looked more frontman, and some could work either way. I didn't know much about clothes, but I tried to offer useful suggestions:
Not much help, but I think she liked the way I looked at her each time she returned to the living room from her bedroom with a new outfit, and pivoted and posed: mesmerized.
Amy was fascinating to look at -- others have pointed out how much she resembled silent movie star Clara Bow -- and easy to talk with and sit around with, which is what we mostly did. And her dachshunds, Keisha and Francis, seemed to like me sitting with them on their couch, and I was grateful for something good to be happening, for a change, to be there with Amy, drinking iced coffee with her again.
A classically trained violinist raised in Austin and blessed with perfect pitch, Amy Farris was a beautiful raw nerve, delicate and intense, a violin-family virtuoso as well as an accomplished composer, arranger and vocalist. She'd performed or recorded with Brian Wilson, Ray Price, Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison and many others, including her hero -- she'd used that word -- Exene. Now she had her own solo album out on Yep Roc, was getting studio work and teaching (she loved her students, especially the kids) and was a member in good standing of Dave Alvin's new band, the Guilty Women. Once her teen idol, Exene had become good friends with Amy, and they'd begun to write songs together, even though Exene was all the way out in Missouri. One evening I showed up as Amy was winding down a phone call with Exene. She seemed happy and excited, thanking Exene for some special something. They got off the phone, and Amy had me sit down on the couch so I could properly absorb what Exene had made for her: this beautiful collage/painting -- a small, intricate piece of art that had arrived by mail that afternoon. The artwork's focus was an old monochrome photograph, and I said something about it looking like a representation of sisterly love, big sister's gift to little sister.
We'd met on May 2, in the green room at McCabe's, where she was performing with Stan Ridgway, Dave Alvin and others as part of a two-night benefit to help pay off surgery bills for Peter Case's uninsured heart. Stan introduced us, and a few days later I got up the nerve to make contact. Amy said she wasn't really dating at this point -- too busy and too satisfied with being single -- but after finding out how much I loved Deadwood and enlisting a few of her friends to check up on me and give me their seals of approval, we began sharing dinners and movies, talking every day, spending a lot of time together. And that's how it went, through May and June. When July came, Amy left on tour with Dave Alvin and her fellow Guilty Women. We kept in touch by e-mail and Facebook, and every now and then talked on the phone. She was working hard, and it seemed to agree with her.
She confided in me about many things, and in me is where those things will remain. One thing she told me that I can say is that she felt her best -- most comfortable, she said -- in two situations: when she was onstage, performing, with the audience on her side; and when she was teaching her violin students, whose drawings adorned one of the walls of her living room. It seemed to me that everything was coming together for Amy, that she was riding the crest of something she'd created herself, and it was taking her to a better place. You never know.
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