The Whisky Tasting Club

Rest in peace Dave Kilner

 You don’t expect to hear about the death of an old friend while reading a national magazine but that’s how this weekend I heard of the death of Dave Kilner. 

Somewhat ironically I had been reading the tributes feature to legendary rock vocalist Ronnie James Dio in Classic Rock magazine when an interview with Def Leppard frontman caught my eye. And there it was: “That this interview takes place in Elliott’s home city Sheffield before the group play at a benefit concert for the late Radio Hallam DJ Dave Kilner..” it said.

Bang. Just like that. Dead at 48.

Obviously I was no longer close to Dave or I’d have known months ago of his passing. I lost touch with him, and indeed Sheffield, when I left the city more than 20 years ago. But back in the mid 80s Dave was a good friend and an inspiration. I was the music critic on the Sheffield Star, he was the breakfast DJ on Radio Hallam. We were very different: I was all lanky long hair and scruffy denim and leather, he was bleached blonde hair and naff 80s silk jackets. But we had two big things in common: a love of rock music and Sheffield United (actually I’m a Leicester fan but lived in the shadow of Bramall Lane and rarely missed a Blades game at that time).

In the mid 80s Sheffield was on fire musically, and Dave was the enthusiastic siren caller at the centre of it. He would champion any local act and was a regular judge for the Sheffield Star’s Battle of the Bands which I ran. I loved his enthusiasm and boundless energy. A door linked The Star to Radio Hallam and I loved the days when he would burst in to the newspaper offices first thing in the morning and beckon me over to the radio station to hear a new single he had been sent. He’d chat away and fiddle with coffee and milk while the hourly news was being read, seemingly oblivious to the seconds ticking away. Then with a second to spare he’s swivel in his seat, flick a switch and launch in to some radio trivia in his trademark Smashie and Nicey  voice, never once missing his cue.

I remember vividly the day when he called me through and played me Def Leppard’s new single Animal, the first release from what would be the band’s mega-seller Hysteria, and the excitement and pride at the realisation that the band was about to become the biggest on the planet.Over the next couple of years I was given access to the band because of Dave and it was he who facilitated one of the best stories of my news reporting days, one that I have repeated a thousand times since because it shows what great blokes Def Leppard are.

It’s hard to imagine now just how big Def Leppard were in the mid 80s. In America they easily filled football stadiums and were mobbed wherever they went. Hysteria just about sums it up. But in Britain they were accused of selling out, and they faced unfair criticism at home. When they announced a big UK tour beginning and ending in Sheffield, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

The day before the first show Dave rang me up and told me that a lifelong American Def Leppard fan had contacted him to talk about the band. A blue collar worker from Detroit,  she had saved all her money to travel to Sheffield as a pilgrimage, unaware that the band were playing live. Could I get her a ticket, asked Dave? So I rang the public relations company and told them that I would do a story on the girl, whose name I think was Cynthia, and her love of the band. They said they would sort a ticket out and told me to bring her down to the sound check at the City Hall the following afternoon.

There’s no diplomatic way to say this, but Cynthia was no slinky blonde teenage groupie. This is relevant to the story because had she been a stunner, what happened next would wouldn’t have been surprising.

Cynthia was beside herself with excitement. Not only was she going to see the band live in their home city but she was going to have access to a soundcheck. And sure enough, the band were in full flow in the empty venue when we arrived. As soon as he saw us singer Joe Elliott signalled to the band to stop playing. He went to the side of the stage, picked up a bunch of flowers and presented them to a dumb-struck Cynthia.

“Welcome to Sheffield,” he said, and handed over the flowers, a ticket and a backstage pass for the show.

I didn’t go backstage that night but the next day Cynthia called to say that not only had she met the band but they had invited  her to travel to the next date with them.  For whatever reason the girlfriends of the band had taken to her and she was adopted as a sort of mascot. The long and short of it is that not only did Cynthia attend every show on that tour as an official guest of the band, but she hooked up with them when they toured the stadiums of America, giving up her job and living her dream. Many months later  she wrote me one of the nicest letters I’ve ever received, thanking me for my part in her story. But all the credit should go to Def Leppard, whose generosity went way, way beyond the norm and was motivated by nothing more than kindness.

It says much about Dave Kilner – and come to think of it Def Leppard – that the band was prepared to play at a memorial benefit for him. He was a special guy and I’m devastated to hear of his death at 48 – the same age as me – and my belated condolences go out to his wife and daughters.

At the risk of sounding morbid, I’ve been thinking a lot about death this year. A number of people on the peripheries of my life have died this year, and although my father is still alive, he’s lost to Alzheimer’s and might as well be dead. In Kentucky I spoke to Jimmy Russell, who spoke movingly about Parker Noe who died a few years back,  and he told me that he realised that he he would probably never see the whiskey he was laying down now put in to bottles.

And then on the last night I was there I went to the Maker’s Mark bar in Louisville with Beam whiskey professor Bernie Lubbers, Steve Camisa, who used to work for Buffalo Trace and is now in events management, and Susan Dallas from the Kentucky Tourism Bureau. Bernie ordered three Old Grand Dad 114 Proofs for us and the waiter went to get us some water.

A minute later Susan alerted us to the fact that our waiter had fallen over and seemed to be drunk.

“Probably had a heart attack when we ordered three Old Grand Dads,” quipped Bernie.

As the minutes passed, though, it became clear the waiter was in trouble. Paramedics arrived and tried to revive him, but without success. By the time they wheeled him out of the restaurant he had turned blue was almost certainly already dead.

The manager told us that he had complained of chest pains before but hadn’t been able to afford medical help. He was in his 30s and had two young children. And the day before he died a Democrat had lost Edward Kennedy’s seat because of a protest vote against President Obama’s universal health care Bill.

All of which gives you a sense of perspective. Or as Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins would put it: “Too much f…ing perspective.”

I was going to write this blog on Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die, which in a weird sort of way fits in with the theme of this blog, but I’ll keep that for another time.

Inexplicably and indefensibly Mr Buxton has omitted George T Stagg and Weller from his list. This is a bit like leaving Chelsea and Manchester United off your list of good Premiership football clubs. This weekend I poured a large Stagg and drank to the memory of Dave Kilner and Ronnie James Dio. Platinum pass whiskey for two platinum class guys.

Not too old to rock and roll, but too young to die.

Way, way too young to die.

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