Last Saturday was Dax Díaz Day in Puerto Rico. Unofficially, sure, but that’s not important to the crowd that gathered at Casa de Cultura Ruth Hernández Torres, a cultural center in the San Juan municipality of Rio Piedras. Two years after his passing, family, friends, and fans celebrated the late musician with a grand requiem of discussions, memories, and a beautiful, bittersweet performance of his incredible debut album — finally released that day.
At 35 years old, his was an especially untimely departure. The Puerto Rico native had returned from living in the States only a few years before, but had already earned a dedicated, ever-growing following. His brand of folk is sort of uncategorizable, though you can count the Gun Club and his massive collection of very old and obscure 78s from all over the world as the bulk of its bedrock.
I should admit now that I knew Dax. I was a fan, and he was a friend, and I miss him. Call me biased if you wish, but it really felt (and still feels) like everyone loved him. And Dax was so incredibly talented. It was a colossal loss for the island’s independent music community.
The void left is undeniably massive, though there is some relief in the posthumous full-length, So Long. But it wasn’t easy to complete.
Dax had been in the process of recording at Casa Fantasmes, the Santurce studio and practice space helmed by Mario Negrón González, Darío Morales-Collazo, Juan A. Arroyo, Daniel Sierra, and Gabi Sifre. The independent realm was well aware it was in progress; they were waiting for it.
“We always we knew that we were going to finish it,” Negrón says. “It was more of a question of when we were going to finish it.”
Picking up where they’d left off, as anyone can imagine, was difficult. A lot of the work was already done: Dax had contributed all the instrumentals he’d wanted, as well bassist Cristian Zayas, plus Daniel Sierra on drums. The songs were mostly mixed and arranged, but only three of the tracks contained finished vocals.
“We [had] mixed the songs first because [Dax] thought it was going to be easier to have the songs mixed, then bring in the vocals, having them approved,” Negrón explains. “So he took a couple weeks to finish the lyrics. We were due to reconvene — I mean, we were hanging out every day, but we weren’t working together the last two weeks.”
“It brought really good memories and I saw the beauty of what was being done.”
During that break is when Dax suddenly passed.
“He was very meticulous, and he had pieces and pieces of rewritten lyrics on his wall when he passed away,” Negrón says. “Final and not-so-final, and then he’d have the same song written three or four times on different pieces of paper with different end rhymes, and he’d choose the final one. And that’s when he passed away.”
The Casa Fantasmes crew then began the process of piecing together old demos for vocals. Jorge Mundo of garage punk band Los Vigilantes had recorded Dax at his home studio, El Dorado. The takes were clean, Negrón says, and “incredibly helpful.”
Bassist Cristian Zayas also contributed personal recordings.
“I had to research my own tape cassettes from recordings I had with him and things like that, to spot some lyrics or something good that could come out of it. That was really, really tough,” he recalls. “That was the hardest thing to do…hearing takes from the studio, like Dax using his microphone, ‘Is it on, is it on?’”
Zayas had been present, along with Dax, during the pre-vocals mixing of the album. Helping at this stage, though, was emotionally overwhelming.
The best we can hope for is to find healthy ways of processing, of celebrating that person.
“I just couldn’t be there, so I kind of split, and I didn’t go back until I don’t know when, I didn’t really come back,” he says. “It was too tough for me at the time. I didn’t contribute to anything after we recorded and mixed; I just gave my tapes and that’s it. And maybe I went to a [listening session], like to hear what’s going on, and that’s it, but I didn’t spend countless hours listening to all the tapes like Danny and Mario and Darío did. I couldn’t do that.”
The album had to be mixed again after the inclusion of vocals recorded outside Casa Fantasmes. Still, despite his absence, Negrón assures that So Long is exactly as Dax wanted it — save for the inclusion of his brother, Phillippe Vence, who is also a musician. But his addition to two songs, “Hace Mucho” and “Barroom,” likely would have bowled him over.
“If Dax had heard his brother’s performance, he would have preferred his brother’s performance to what he could have done himself,” Negrón laughs. “That’s the way he thought about Phillippe – as such a great musician and singer.”
Collaborating with Phillippe was an emotional boost to the project, too. His involvement inspired him to keep going, Negrón says, and helped him to become more comfortable with the process.
“It brought really good memories and I saw the beauty of what was being done,” he says.
After the studio sessions wrapped around November 2014, there was, of course, still work to be done. Morales-Collazo, along with Dax’s brother, oversaw the artistic aspects of two album covers with the help of graphic designer Massielle Asencio. One features a photo taken by Ferdy Valls; the other, a painting gifted to Dax by artist Maria Pagan. Both include a poster-size live shot by Stephanie Segarra. There’s a sticker of Dax too, also on the disc itself — a little self-portrait doodle.
“He was really close to Maria, and they collaborated on a bunch of songs and spend a lot of time together,” Negrón says. “Phillippe had a dream of Dax telling him that’s what he wanted on the cover because he wanted to celebrate his friend’s artwork.”
It took some time to perfect the covers, but that’s not why So Long was unveiled just now, in February 2016. Casa Fantasmes guided the family in sending off the record to be pressed on 180-gram vinyl, but, like a lot of pressing plants of late, they were backed up with orders.
While they waited, plans for the February 6 memorial event began to take shape.
When a loved one leaves this mortal coil, there’s no emotional end-of-the-road.
Discussions about his musical archiving (see some of that for yourself here) and personal stories served as an emotional segue into what was a devastatingly touching show. A performance by Diente Perro, a local skate punk act, was followed by Phillippe on lead vocals and guitar and backed by Zayas, Negrón, Sierra and Juan Antonio Arroyo.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t stay long. I listened for a bit during the opening talk, then left when I started crying. When the music started, I returned, only to leave again pretty quickly with foggy glasses and smeared makeup. I thought about how Dax had wanted to tour the world. I imagined how hard it must have been for everyone involved in this. It must have been difficult for his brother performing, and the rest of his family as well – seeing this masterpiece come to fruition. I just couldn’t handle it, and the lump in my throat is back now as I write this.
Nobody side-eyed me for walking out, as far as I could tell. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Communal grieving isn’t for everyone; that was part of why everything was arranged the way it was, and why it was free. A few days before the event, Negrón explained this.
“Nobody’s forced to go to anything, nobody’s forced to stay,” he said. “If they want, if they just want to see the concert…if they want to learn more about the artist and his music archiving and learn something biographical about Dax, and something important about the world that we live in, then they can do that. You’re not bound to any sort of rules of how you have to do this. You don’t have to spend any money to get there…it’s nothing that’s looking to generate a profit or generate a buzz, it’s just something that’s here for everybody because that’s what he wanted. He wanted a record that was available for people.”
When a loved one leaves this mortal coil, there’s no emotional end-of-the-road. The hurt never goes away completely. The best we can hope for is to find healthy ways of processing, of celebrating that person — even if it’s painful.
“The physical part of the whole thing of having the album – that’s the goal, and unfortunately the main character, el protagonista, of all of it is not here,” Zayas laments. “It’s really weird. In 2014 when it happened, it was terrible, and now we all feel better about it. All these rehearsals and all that…we don’t feel that heavy anymore, ’cause we were really heavy. Now that the album is in our hands, in a few days a lot of people are going to have them, and on Sunday they’re going to wake up and put the album on and listen to it. That, to me, is closure.”
Update 2/12/2016, 4:00 p.m.: A previous version of this article did not include Daniel Sierra as a performer during the Feb. 6 Dax Diaz Day event. The post has been updated to reflect his participation.