Sir Don has left the building

From the heart of his friend, Paul Moeler

Joshua Tree area musicians and music lovers have lost a soul mate. From his ubiquitous presence at local open mics, folks knew the white-bearded old geezer with the “hobbit” hat, bandana, and walking stick, as “Sir Don,” or “The Wizard”. Over the past five years, I grew to know Donald Crissey as one of our music community’s greatest supporters. He was a grinning curmudgeon with a heart of gold, a passionate lover of music, a twinkle-eyed raconteur with unparalleled storytelling skills, a purveyor of LOUD Hendrix-inspired electric guitar sounds, and a dear friend. On August 17th, after years of battling myriad health issues, Sir Don moved onward from his wild, colorful life to join his idols Jimi and Jeff Beck in the realm of legends, rocking on for all eternity.

Before settling in Joshua Tree, Don spent the golden era of 60’s and 70’s rock and roll living the Sunset Strip lifestyle where, among other things, he was employed as a courier, ran a guitar store, and sold model trains. He also worked backstage at clubs such as The Troubadour where he catered to and hung out with performers before and after shows. This provided him with an endless supply of stories chronicling outrageous adventures with commentary like, “Stevie Nicks still owes me $200!” (His Ray Charles green room story is epic!)

From Our Partners

I got to know Sir Don years ago while playing keys with the Cris and the Gang band Sunday afternoons at Gadi’s in Yucca Valley. It was a fun, lively locals’ scene with lots of dancing. Don would never miss a Sunday. When his leg was amputated just below the knee, but refused to let that stop him from going to wherever the live music was. Sitting in his wheelchair at the edge of the stage, he would badger us to play some REAL rock. This inevitably would prompt his friend, guitarist Bryan Zee, to switch from playing softer pop songs to something loud and outrageous, like an AC/DC tune. Don would usually respond by telling us that someday he was gonna show up with his own electric guitar and show us “how it’s done”.

Soon, Don was fitted with a prosthetic leg, and was up on crutches dancing with all the ladies. He’d continue with the good-natured heckling. The band would heckle right back, challenging him to bring in has guitar so he could school us.

Eventually, Don began hauling his electric guitar to weekly local open mics at The Palms and Joshua Tree Saloon, enticing assembled musicians to back him up so he could plug in, crank up, and crank out a feedbackladen version of a Jimi Hendrix, Cream, or Peter Green classic. It was always a loud, sloppy, chaotic blast of noise-infused performance art when Don took his turn centerstage. It was also raw, unadulterated exuberance. He was on Cloud 9 for those ten minutes on stage, and that energy created some truly magical moments.

This past year, as Don’s health deteriorated and he dealt with a weakening heart and excruciatingly painful leg infection, Don still steadfastly continued to attend open mics. Every Tuesday, he’d grit his teeth, wheel himself to his driveway, throw his guitar and wheelchair in the car, drive to Joshua Tree Saloon, unload, roll in, and sign up. When his turn came, he’d hobble up to the stage, plop onto a stool, plug in, and let loose in glorious fashion.

In July, Don was hospitalized for advanced congestive heart failure. During our regular texts and phone conversations, he would never dwell on his condition, or let on how bad his health had gotten. Instead, he spoke of how eager he was to get back to the open mic scene.

The last time I spoke with Don was two days before he passed. The previous week, he had two stents installed to address his severe heart blockage. The procedure had not been effective. He was now facing potentially risky open-heart surgery and was clearly wrestling with the reality of a gloomy prognosis. I could tell from his voice that his psyche had moved to a different plain. He slowly yet calmly said, “I’ll be at The Saloon next week for open mic!”. He paused for a moment, then confided that when he was on that open mic stage, backed by “Cris and the guys,” we were HIS band. For the first time in his life, he was the front man. He was the star. He was a guitar god. Then he told me, “Being with ‘The Gang’ that stage is heaven – the most amazing feeling in the world. It’s even better than sex”. As I said goodnight, his last words to me were, “I love you, man”.

Don understood the power of music as well as anyone I’ve ever known. He called it, “Protection from evil.” We were brothers in the belief that open mic is “church,” a place where we gather in community to socialize, testify, bear our souls, lift up each other, and spread love.

In the words of Don’s daughter, Amber O’Grady, “He left this earth after fulfilling all he had hoped to and receiving the peace of knowing his loved ones would be okay. May we carry with us all the spirit of a dreamer who believed we can reach all our hopes and dreams.”

Rock on Sir Don! I love ya, man.

Sir Don’s Celebration of Life was held at Taylor Junction in Joshua Tree on September 20th. It was, of course, an open mic turned all-out rock and roll jam where a saddened but celebratory crowd gathered. Sir Don must have been smiling. In the words of Kevin Bone, a friend, fellow musician, and Chief Operations Wizard at The Palms in Wonder Valley:

“Some people brought laughs. Others brought tears.
Some people brought cookies. Others brought beers.
But everybody ‘brought it’ last night, to honor a man who left his mark.
Keep on rocking in your free world, Sir Don.”

Photos by Paul Moeller

From Our Partners