I can’t write a regular obituary in this case, because I was just too close to Geoff Douville, 48-year-old guitarist for Egg Yolk Jubilee, who died last Saturday. An irreplaceable friend, Geoff represented most everything I love about New Orleans.
Early last Wednesday, I’d texted his bandmates, asking the status on Geoff’s battle with a rare form of cancer. He’d fought for his life for over a year, and seemed to be winning for a while, but after the cancer got the upper hand, he took a road trip to a special hospital in Houston, Texas. “I bet that was the worst part, being in Houston,” I didn’t get the chance to joke to him, because this week Geoff returned home to New Orleans, to pass away in his sweet little house in Gentilly.
I was surprised to receive texts back from Egg Yolk, inviting me to come with them to visit Geoff Wednesday night. Geoff and I were as close as busy adults could be, but in my previous experience with friends dying of cancer, at a certain point the ranks are closed, and visitation limited to only relatives. And bandmates. I was honored to be included, but still spent the whole day steeped in dread; I didn’t want to see Geoff that way. The terrible image of a gaunt and suffering friend can become the primary one you remember when they are gone. Geoff was so bright and alive, I did not want him eclipsed, in my mind, by his suffering.
I first met Geoff when I lived across the street from CC’s coffee shop on Esplanade in 2001. We just sort of gravitated to each other, both of us artists, both guitarists, both of us cynical but with a great love of people and life. Back before we really knew each other, I remember telling Geoff—an accomplished videographer—about a music video I’d filmed but couldn’t finish. Everyone talks shit about New Orleans transplants nowadays (as if that’s not what the city’s always partially been made of) but Geoff, who was born here and graduated from Archbishop Rummel High School, immediately invited me to his house, and for some reason spent over six hours editing my whole video project, without asking for anything in return. I think I bought him some beer.
As I got to know Geoff, I found out that he almost never let any friend want for anything if he could help it: When a mutual buddy lost his front teeth in an accident, Geoff immediately offered a benefit concert. When another friend’s band lost their guitarist, Geoff immediately stepped in, despite there being no money in the gig. His example taught me that I needed to be that way too, if I was to ever call myself a New Orleanian.
I went on to write a lot about New Orleans, often in a very opinionated manner that earned me a lot of shut-up-you’re-not-from-here type criticism, but what the haters didn’t know was that I ran almost everything by Geoff. He was whip smart, facts-based, and “from here” like a motherfucker, and so I’d offer to buy him drinks in exchange for advice (silly, since we’d meet at Lost Love Lounge, which he owned from 2009 to 2016). Geoff would gladly suggest how I should think about the important local issues that I wanted to write about–whether that was post-Katrina gentrification, or racist radio duo Walton and Johnson–and tell me who I needed to interview. And if my finished product passed Douville’s smell test, then no one else could shake my confidence.
As such, I felt an obligation to suck it up and go say goodbye to him Wednesday, though I was told Geoff would be heavily sedated, probably unconscious.
I’d twice before visited Geoff’s house in Gentilly, when he invited me on the It’s a Good Life Babe podcast he recorded with Joel Jackson. My fears of being part of a sad, too-intimate scene dissipated when EYJ drummer Keith Hajjar and I rolled up to Geoff’s house to find at least 20 people standing outside the house, drinking and smiling and only slightly sobbing. “It’s meant to be a joyous occasion,” Egg Yolk multi-instrumentalist Paul Grass told me, despite not looking too happy himself.
When Geoff’s car finally arrived from Houston, the growing crowd of well-wishers walked a couple blocks away to give the hospice workers space and quiet while shifting Geoff to his own bed in the back of his house. Standing on the nighttime corner, the whiskey and dark jokes flowed freely. Humorous cynicism runs deep with this crew, as is apparent in EYJ’s music, such as Geoff’s final composition, “Sex Robots” where a sex doll—the narrator—ordered off the internet instead grinds its master into meat pies that it then sells to the victims’ friends.
Geoff would’ve loved us making terrible jokes about his death. “This is worse for New Orleans than when Gene’s closed,” I told Hajjar. People often mistake joking about things for making light of them, but Geoff knew how therapeutic and downright important deep jokes can be. In a life where I often feel misunderstood, Geoff always got me, and my bad jokes, and my sometimes harsh opinions. He didn’t love me in spite of those things, but because of them. Geoff was one of the few people I knew well who never misunderstood me, or took away the benefit of the doubt for even one moment. He loved me despite my dislike of the NFL/Saints, even. Around here, that’s real love.
By the time we returned to the front yard of Geoff’s house, a couple dozen more people had joined the group. It was turning into a real party–so much so, that Geoff’s friend David Lindberg felt the need to stand on the front porch and announce in a loud, shaky voice, “We are going to start letting in groups of four or five to go back and see Geoff. People who have known him the longest—like those of us who went to high school with him—are going to go first, and everyone else will go in based on how long you’ve known Geoff…”
I had only been to these kinds of New Orleans parties after the person had died. This was pretty special, everyone getting together to say goodbye to his face.
A hush fell over the party when Geoff’s elderly parents, Joan and Robert Jourdan Douville, came out of the house and crossed the yard on the way to their car. His mother stopped and gave a short speech of appreciation to Geoff’s friends, and it made me want to cry, thinking how hard it must be to outlive your child.
I also felt terrible for Geoff’s wife, Traci Birch. They’d just married not long ago. The last time I saw Traci, Geoff was still trying to woo her: both avid cyclists, they had ridden their bikes all the way from New Orleans to Irish Bayou, where Geoff had asked me to meet them in my boat. There, he and his intended threw their bikes into my boat, and I motored them across Lake Pontchartrain to Fountainbleau State Park, where they would camp for the night. As they exited my boat at the park, Geoff reached back and stuffed some money in my hand—a $20 tip or something, I figured. I felt a little guilty, because Geoff never took any money from me for his extensive favors, but since I had kids and he didn’t, I stuffed it in my pocket. Only later did I reach in my pocket to find he’d given me over $100.
That only added to my vision of Geoff as angelic. Coincidentally, the other people I know who’ve died of cancer like this were also angelic figures. “It definitely seems true that only the good die young,” I joked to Paul Grass at the party. “Hopefully I am a shitty enough person that this won’t happen to me…”
Having only known Geoff for 18 years, I laid back in the cut with Quintron, actor Chris Lane, and a few other friends who aren’t from here. When finally it seemed safe for me to approach the house, I found myself entering Geoff’s room with Quintron, and Geoff’s brothers from Egg Yolk Jubilee: Grass, Hajjar, Eric Belletto (trumpet), Mike Hogan (bass) and Mac McCann (trombone).
It goes without saying that Geoff didn’t look good. Still, my dread lifted when I realized there was no way this depleted vision of Geoff could ever replace the incredibly positive one he’d spent so much time and effort giving me over the course of our long, beautiful friendship. It felt genuinely great to touch him (on previous visits, though Geoff seemed healthy, the doctors told us not to touch him for fear of germs) and to tell him I loved him, and to admit to him, “You did far more for me than I could ever do for you.”
What I mean to say by all this, is that Geoff Douville was a great man, survived by a huge legion of people who loved him, appreciated his uniqueness, and who will never stop missing him.