Dave Werner, the unofficial poet laureate of Maplewood, died on October 21, 2022 of heart complications. He was 68 and he growls over my shoulder as I write this.
“The RFT? The rag that called [name redacted] songwriter of the year?” he told me.
There is a short silence.
“Well, I’m going to shut up.”
He’s spoken to me a lot since he died, and I imagine I’m not the only one. Those of us who knew him became accustomed to gruff outbursts about St. Louis musicians, reality TV shows, the US government, and just about every other topic imaginable. Since he died, he has only become more opinionated.
“You’re getting too cute with this,” he said over my shoulder. “Just tell it like it is.”
As usual, he scores a point.
Dave Werner, born David Thompson, was the son of Jack and Dee Werner.
Dee was a talented musician and prolific songwriter, and she introduced her children to music from an early age. His gift was clearly passed on.
Dave had 11 siblings and there was never much money in the Werner household. Dave frequently told anecdotes about his difficult early years, and they sounded like something out of a cartoon: for example, he once received used shoes that had previously belonged to a chimpanzee named Mr. Moke. This infamous story of “monkey shoes” inspired the name of the vocal harmony group we both played in, the Chimps.
For most of his life, Dave lived and worked in Maplewood, taking odd jobs as a contractor. He found a professional niche as a window installer. He had a daughter, Julia, and was a loving and devoted father.
Among friends, he talked about Julia at every opportunity, beaming with pride when talking about her creativity, humor and intelligence. It was about the only time Dave couldn’t think of anything negative to say.
For years you could find Dave at open mic parties all over town. He was sitting at the bar drinking a Red Bull or a soda and growling at whoever was on stage.
If you sat down and talked to him, there was a good chance he would offend you within the first five minutes of the conversation – if it lasted that long.
For better or for worse, Dave was brutally honest. This gave him a mixed reputation within the St. Louis music community. Ask questions about Dave and you’ll hear stories:
“He told me I was too fat for my voice.”
“He told me that none of my songs made sense.”
“This guy is an asshole.”
In other words, Dave had no filter. And the people closest to him were not always spared; even the compliments came with some baggage.
“Dee [Werner]Chris [Schraw]Dave and my wife Judy [Stein] and I used to sing together,” says Eric Stein, who runs Focal Point in Maplewood. “At the end of something, we would usually look to Dave for judgment. If he said, ‘Well, it didn’t suck too bad”, we knew that we had totally succeeded.”
Dave’s commitment to honesty wasn’t always a bad thing. He loved his friends and family deeply, and he found creative ways to show his affection.
One December, Dave left me a voicemail.
“Hey, mate, I have an idea. Christmas carols. Call me back.”
Dave’s idea: Our friend Jesse Irwin welcomed his first child that year. Dave, Fred Friction and I were heading to Jesse’s house dressed as three wise men, bringing gifts to anoint the child – a packet of hot dogs (a substitute for incense), Stag beer (gold) and Merb (myrrh) sweets.
Dave practiced a true commitment to his people and his art. For years, he hosted a songwriters night at Focal Point, where he spotlighted artists he believed were worth the audience’s time. He played in several bands, including the Griner Brothers, formed with the late Dave Hagerty, and the Chimps, our trio with Jesse Irwin. We played semi-annual shows, almost always at Focal Point.
We played our last show on February 15, 2019, a Valentine’s Day themed showcase. For the show, we promised to provide the audience with chocolate covered bananas, the only aphrodisiac worthy of a monkey.
We suggested slicing the bananas, then sticking a toothpick in each slice. Dave wouldn’t hear of it.
“No no, Nope“, he said. “If it’s not full bananas, it’s bullshit!”
That’s how Dave spent the morning of the show: dipping whole bananas in chocolate, then hanging them on a clothesline to dry. The audience wouldn’t have cared if we hadn’t nailed our gimmick, but Dave did.
Everything good and bad about Dave Werner is still right there with us. He left behind hours of recordings with songs about love, loss and hardship, sung in a tender baritone that could rise to a high falsetto voice without sounding strained or forced.
He wrote many songs using only his bass for accompaniment – a fretless four-string, which most likely sits in a Maplewood pawnshop at the moment (Dave regularly pawned and unlocked his instruments when work was slowing down). When he played the guitar, he played it like a bass, strumming intricate backing lines and pounding the top strings, which gave his performances an unusual but thoroughly enjoyable rattling sound.
His musical talent was outstanding, but his writing was better. The lyrics don’t always work when separated from the music, but Dave wrote words that might stand on their own.
Here is one of my favorite lines, which appears at the end of a song called “Hagerty”. The song is about his late bandmate, Dave Hagerty, and it perfectly sums up the unspoken wish everyone has when they’re grieving:
If Hagerty comes while we play this song
We’ll buy him a whiskey, and he’ll play the game
And we’ll never mention when he was gone,
And we’ll play our guitars until morning
His song “Past It” is about aging, with Dave’s signature candour:
My only son grew up
She found herself a job and a man,
It’s hard to feel useful, but I’m doing the best I can
There are hundreds of other verses that deserve attention. Look up some of his stuff from the Chimps or the Griner Brothers Band, and you’ll find plenty of examples.
As you listen, you’ll hear Dave’s honesty, heartache, and depth of creativity. You don’t have to dig a lot; it’s all there, on the surface.
Dave Werner was one of St. Louis’ greatest songwriters. He will be missed, but he’s not going anywhere right now. Music keeps you going, at least for a while, and Dave was totally invested in his songs.
I lean back to let Dave read the end of this article. He pulls out a stained pair of reading glasses, squints at the screen for a few seconds, and turns away.
“If it was better, it would be good,” says Dave. “Let’s play some music.
An informal celebration of the life of Dave Werner will be held at Focal Point at 2720 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood on Saturday, November 19 from 1-4 p.m. Head over to stlchimps.bandcamp.com to hear his voice once again.