Remembering Michael Hahn

When I think back to my time on College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island in the late 1960s, I often think of Michael Hahn. To me he was the best of Brown, the kind of worldly, cultured and literary person I hoped to meet when I arrived on that distant campus from Dallas, Texas. It is hard for me to accept that he is gone.

Coming from Dallas, I had some fanciful notions of what the Ivy League would be like and how interesting the students would be. As it happened, my freshman dorm did not quite live up to those expectations, but the next year I found my way to a non-Animal House fraternity that included people like Michael – though in truth there was no one like Michael. He was unique: European (he wore a beret) and intellectual but also self-deprecating, gracious and funny, with a keen sense of the absurd, evidenced by his nickname “Sidney Hook,” the origins of which I cannot explain now – if I ever could.

We played music together (guitar and piano) in the fraternity lounge, sometimes with horn man Doug Gillespie, drove to Boston to see Santana and to Washington D.C. to march against the Vietnam War. We discussed music and philosophy and writing, creating a bond that would last a lifetime.

A few years after graduation, when I was breaking into print as a freelancer for the Washington Star-News and Michael was in grad school at Georgetown, we painted houses together in D.C. to help finance our budding careers. We listened to the radio all day and talked about music.

We always wanted – without much conviction (a favorite word of his) — to start a band. The closest we came might have been the weekend he flew to Dallas in the mid 70s, and the two of us played for a friend’s backyard wedding reception, in 100-degree afternoon heat. I think we got paid $100. I don’t recall the set list except that it included a song or two by Jimmy Buffett.

Later, when I had become the Dallas Times Herald’s rock critic and was sent to D.C. to check out the debut of a new stage show by the Texas boogie trio Z.Z. Top, Michael was still in Washington and available to accompany me. The two of us rode to the concert in a stretch limo provided by the the band’s publicity firm – a total hoot and improbable luxury that made us recall the nights at Brown we had driven to concerts in Boston packed into someone’s VW bug, the guys in the back seat rolling joints.

We didn’t have to search for a parking place this time; the limo driver simply cruised down a ramp at the arena, passing security guards and crowds of waving fans, finally gliding to a stop on a concrete platform backstage. Someone opened the doors for us. We hadn’t become rock stars, but just this once we had arrived at a venue in a manner befitting The Rolling Stones or The Who, in a scene we could only have imagined back at Brown. It was a moment I’ll always remember, just as I remember the excitement we felt playing music together in our humble anonymity, part of the invaluable exracurricular education we got in that non-Animal House fraternity.

Not long after that evening, we lost touch – for years. This was before email, and Michael was working for the State Dept., serving as a cultural attache in embassies around the globe. I never was sure where he was. I had moved to California, and we had both moved on to the next phase of our lives, marrying and raising families, unbeknownest to each other. Decades went by. 

But after he returned to the States, we managed to reconnect, meeting for dinner in Washington and once in Dallas in 2017 when he and Chris Dunn came to attend a multi-class reunion of their American School in Rome. I was reminded then how much he meant to me and how lucky I was to have met him during those formative years in Providence. We picked up where we left off and regularly sent each other YouTube clips of bands old and new, recalled our enchantment with John McLaughlin and Steve Winwood, the night we saw Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers at a club in DC, the enduring memories of listening to Blind Faith, the Beatles, the Stones and so many more on the turntables in our college dorm rooms clouded with ganja smoke.

After one of his medical procedures a few years ago, he emailed me: “Promise we’ll have our Sigma Nu jammin’ reunion when this is all over!” Damn. I was looking forward to that. I guess I still am.

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and other publications. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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