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Backstage: A Requiem for a Fallen Rocker Friend

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: An indelible influence. 

When somebody appears especially down in the dumps, an old adage finds others asking, "What's wrong? You look like you just lost your best friend!" I should know, because I recently lost my best friend. 

Although this column focuses on past musical encounters, I feel obliged to offer reflections on my pal -- my brother, really -- Rob Noble, a guy I've known for most of my life, ever since I was 17 and he was 15 and we were both attending school in the Virgin Islands. When it comes to recounting the great musical moments of my life, my friendship with Rob is first and foremost.

Rob was a rock star, at least in spirit -- a terrific guitarist and drummer who was fanatical about music and the musicians that made it. He had both the look (imagine a cross between Eddie Van Halen and the early Keith Richards) and the attitude that sets certain people apart, and while he never made it big on his own, he was a much in demand sound man in his later hometown of Nashville. His clients included the Mavericks, the Oak Ridge Boys and guitarist Andy Summers, whom he worked with in his post Police solo tours. As kids, we'd spend hours listening to the new albums of the era, Jimi Hendrix's Axis Bold As Love, Cream's Disraeli Gears, and early efforts by Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. We'd hang out, reading the latest copies of Hit Parader magazine or jam, Rob and his younger brother Matt (now a producer and songwriter who's worked with Southside Johnny, Paul Schaffer, Robin Trower and Procol Harum, among many others) playing guitars and me ineptly bashing away on drums. In fact, it was Rob who taught me to play. Although I'm right-handed and he was a lefty, I followed his lead and learned to play left-handed, which I still do to this day. 

Yet even so, Rob's greatest impact on me -- the most profound thing he ever taught me -- was his absolute irreverence. He simply didn't take anything -- or anyone -- too seriously. People who were pompous and pretentious were his most frequent targets, but he loved people who could make him laugh, either purposely or unawares. We'd crack each other up all the time, often aiming our barbs at others we think were way too impressed with themselves, but for whom we personally we just didn't care. Ironically, I was initially Rob's target, well before I even had a chance to get to know him. I was new at school, having just arrived from the far more conservative suburban environs of Dallas, Texas, and for some inexplicable reason, I figured it would be cool to refer to myself by my middle name "David" as opposed to "Lee." No sooner did Rob get wind of this then he threw out a mocking taunt. "Hey DAVE!" he sneered, teasing me for daring to change my name. "Who is that bully?" I thought. Yet somehow, soon after that we connected, and from that point on we were practically inseparable.
Consequently, I have to say in retrospect that Rob was the greatest influence ever on my attitude and outlook on life. Despite age, responsibility, job obligations and all the other accoutrements that accompany "maturity," I've never lost that philosophy that Rob taught me -- mainly, to not take myself or anyone else too seriously, to maintain a healthy sense of irreverence, and never, ever to lose my love of music and all it entails. Rock 'n' Roll rules, and thanks to Rob, in my mind it always will. 

It's rare that friends who know each other for over four decades should keep in touch all those years and reconnect like there was never any lapse of time. Despite the fact that I lived here in South Florida and Rob made his way through Fort Lauderdale, Virginia and eventually Nashville, where he eventually settled, we spoke frequently and visited with one another whenever the opportunity arose. We shared a certain shorthand that allowed us to instantly know where the other was going conversation-wise, and when we discussed our mutual memories, it seemed like they were only yesterday. 

Rob's move to Nashville worked well for him. Appearance-wise, he evolved from a big-haired rock 'n' roller into a country gentleman, and with his gray hair and wizened countenance, he began to resemble other Nashville denizens like the great Guy Clark and the late Townes Van Zandt. When Rob discovered he had a brain tumor last fall, he never gave up or resigned himself to defeat. He maintained a stalwart sense of humor and even outright optimism. I visited him last January and he was clearly not looking well, the result of radiation, chemo and the fact that he had lost much of his movement on his right side. Nevertheless, his indomitable spirit never failed him, even when an onslaught of pneumonia brought his remaining time down to mere days and hours. On his last day on earth, he woke up singing while insisting that he was preparing himself for a journey back home. As always, Rob took things in stride. 

I'm going to miss Rob more than I can ever express. But I console myself with the fact that his mettle and mindset will always inform my own. Rock on Rob -- you're here in my heart forever.

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Lee Zimmerman

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