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Second Coming: The Story of David Bixby - Part 3

This is the conclusion of a three-part series re-introducing folk musician Dave Bixby to the city that he left 40 years ago.
Bixby at The DAAC

Bixby at The DAAC /Hunter Bridwell

Underwriting support from:
Bixby at The DAAC

Bixby at The DAAC /Hunter Bridwell

Bixby at The DAAC

Bixby at The DAAC /Hunter Bridwell


This is part three in a three-part series re-introducing folk musician Dave Bixby to the city that he left 40 years ago. He performed last Friday at The Division Avenue Arts Collective (115 S. Division) in downtown Grand Rapids and on Monday at The Strutt in Kalamazoo. Be sure to read part I and part II first.

Forty years ago David Bixby said “goodbye" to West Michigan and made his way south, heading for Alabama.  He was being sent there to draw more young people into a homegrown religious cult.  That cult - called interchangeably The Movement or The Group - was founded in Grand Rapids by the charismatic Don DeGraaf in 1968.  By 1972 the FBI, local police and parents were putting pressure on DeGraaf as he tightened his grip on a small group of teens and twentysomethings, controlling their lives and their money. 

This trip south started David Bixby wandering for the next four decades, settling for stretches in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington state and points in between. He would return to his hometown only twice in those forty years: once immediately after he was forced to leave The Group in 1976 and once again in 2000 to perform cover tunes for a reunion of old Rockford High School friends. Until this past weekend.

Bixby's third visit to Grand Rapids in forty years was due to circumstances unimaginable to him even just a few years ago: he was back to play the songs he thought no one would ever remember, songs that made him the official troubadour for The Group. There were only a few hundred men and women who had listened to his music when it first came out, some of whom joined The Group. Bixby questioned if even they would want to hear these songs again. A few days before his performance Bixby admitted to me that, “Some of them were probably following me and I have a little bit of guilt about that. I influenced a lot of people to come into this thing."

The David Bixby who took the stage on June 24th was not the same person who reached out to troubled teens in the late '60s with songs of desperate hope. This David Bixby chatted up the 50 or so people in attendance like they were snowbirds in a resort bar. For those familiar with David Bixby's life this is no surprise, since splitting with The Group he has become a musical entertainer, covering other musicians' songs in tourist destinations across the American West. But the audience at the Division Avenue Arts Collective was not sitting patiently to hear David Bixby the entertainer: the gregarious background musician of countless sunlit beaches. They were there to hear Dave Bixby, the loner psych folk legend, member of a mysterious local religious cult. A long lost son of Grand Rapids.

The reason Bixby catered his musical life to tourists and the songs they want to hear is simple, "tourists have money" he explains to me. In The Group, all money was Don's money so Bixby was pushed out with nothing to his name. He needed work and he was a musician. Simple as that. Yet, even more difficult than finding work, was finding himself after his years with The Group.

"I think everybody had to go through a little bit of hell. We were programmed, we were God’s elect (and then) we were fall-away.  Christianity pulls that card too, you know, back-sliders. It leaves you broken, there’s a lot of depression."

Those who remained with DeGraaf after the purge of The Group in 1976, learned that being "God's elect" wasn't a picnic either. A select group followed DeGraaf to a ski lodge in Eagle’s Nest, New Mexico in 1977;  the men were told to remain celibate while the women bore DeGraaf's children. “It was basically Don’s harem,” Bixby tells me.  But DeGraaf himself was hardly ever there. According to a series of articles in The Grand Rapids Press published from October 19-23, 1980, only a select few knew of his whereabouts and he was almost impossible to find. "From time to time clues turn up - a traffic ticket in Las Vegas, his plane is spotted in Colorado - but none of them has led to his doorstep."

According to Bixby, The Group disintegrated not long after the Grand Rapids Press articles. The walls were already crumbling when he was hired by the parents of  some remaining members to reach out to their children. He recalls:

“I had some parents that wanted me to help get their kids out, so I went up to the ski lodge and I didn’t really confront them, but to them it was confronting. I just had to bring the news that there was a plane ticket waiting for them and this thing’s over. Most of them were ready to leave but they didn’t go with me, that was my plan to go in and get them. They just wanted to take care of business and they went home on their own.  They just needed someone who was there to say ‘this no longer works, you need to make some decisions for yourself and quit being sheep.”

There were no follow-up articles from The Press and members contacted by curious amateur historians have rebuffed any questions. No one wants to talk about what happened after 1980, except for David Bixby it seems.  According to him at least those who he reached out to got home safely. “I got a call from their parents that said ‘thank you very much, they are on a plane.”  Don DeGraaf, on the other hand, remains a ghost of a figure.  No one I spoke with knows for sure what happened to him. "I heard that he died in a helicopter crash in the '80's" Bixby tells me, "but who knows."

David Bixby was himself a ghost of a figure, that is until a reporter from Los Angeles tracked him down in 2006. Now the real life Bixby sits in front of a crowd, most of whom weren't even born when he wrote the songs they love. Everyone is wondering how this is going to turn out. How exactly does a (for the most part) well adjusted man in his sixties play songs that he wrote in his troubled twenties? If you are David Bixby you treat them like cover songs. "(I was sent) the Ode to Quetzalcoatl and Harbinger recordings and I hadn’t heard them (in a long time). I had to listen to them and learn what keys I played this stuff in.  I had to go back and actually relearn it as if Dave Bixby was somebody else."

For all intents and purposes the old David Bixby is someone else. "I am not as sincere as ‘that’ David Bixby” he said in an on-air interview with WIDR radio in Kalamazoo on Monday. He has spent years in the shadow of other people's words, playing their songs. He has paid his bills, bought food and traveled on the money made covering hits from the past. Playing raw confessional music is a challenge now. "I can hide behind other people’s music, mine exposes me, it’s like a magnifying glass." Bixby says. 

Forty years ago David Bixby played in front of colleges, high school, churches with nothing more than an accoustic guitar and songs of personal destruction and renewal. That was likely what the audience was expecting.  But as David Bixby began his set last Friday he slid into the set-up he uses as a one-man-cover-band, the cockpit of a retro-jet to the sounds of his youth: three drums circled by rope lights and triggered by foot pedals on the floor, a small mixing board/ amp next to him, chimes, a harmonica and his guitar. 

He opened his set at the DAAC playfully reminiscing about drugs and how they altered the minds of his generation before breaking into a jaunty and confident version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit."   The song ends. The audience claps. As he prepares for the next song, the breeze leaves him a little.  He starts to describe how much attention this next song has gotten on Youtube and how it is now on two compilations. The room is silent as he strums his guitar and sings "Life used to be good, now look what I've done.  I've ruined my temple with drugs, my mind is stunned." This is what twenty year old Dave Bixby thought of drugs.  He wasn't at the point of playful reminiscences yet. "Left in my darkness, I've lost my mind..."

For an hour the legendary and real David Bixbys push and pull on stage. He plays six originals including "Drug Song" "Cosmic Energy" and "666" but also David Bowie's "Space Oddity" Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" and several other covers. His originals are powerful and have a new life with the creased and worn voice of a much older man. They also come out faster and more "rocking" (as Bixby describes it on stage) than the slow, deliberate way the songs were performed on the records. As he lingers longer on each word, he no longer sounds like a lost, drug bent kid because, well, he isn't. This is the oddest part of the performance; that people showed up, paid eight dollars and sat quietly in a chair to see David Bixby play serious songs about drug addiction and the healing power of god when he is at the point of laughing at himself and the drugs that he once let define him. It's a dynamic Bixby is trying to master.

The hope is that if he can master it, he can play his own music again. "If it takes, I get a second hand.  Instead of people taking (my music) from me I can make a buck and buy gas."  Is it a dream deferred?  A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can't be passed up?  David Bixby doesn't even know yet. "(Ode to) Quetzalcoatl had a life and came around and grabbed a hold of me and I’m just hanging on." He tells me excitedly.  "No way am I leading this thing." 

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