A life with spina bifida, a love for bass guitar: The spark, the lasting spirit, of Mike Casale

May 8, 2014   Obituary

Faces Archive | Source

Syracuse.com | Original Link

by Sean Kirst

Syracuse, New York, United States —Bob Purdy met Michael Casale in Fayetteville, when they were little boys. Their families were among the first in the Brookside housing tract, where a lonely Purdy decided that he and this other kid ought to be friends.

The bond remained strong into their teen years, in the early 1960s. They both fell in love with rock, particularly the Beatles and Rolling Stones. While Casale for a time endured piano lessons, he gave his heart to a different instrument. The story goes that his dad promised him a bass guitar if Casale managed to pull straight A's at school.

His report card showed one B. No guitar.

That didn't stop him. Nothing really did. Casale became one of the most familiar and well-loved bass players in Central New York. "He was a wonderful musician, and everywhere we went, someone would know Mike and recognize him from playing out," said Sara Cesta, his companion.

They began dating at Shifty's Bar & Grill, one of their favorite stops. Amid the illness a few months ago that would claim Casale's life, Cesta recalls how a nurse in a doctor's office looked up, saw his face and said:

Don't you play guitar?

He had succeeded: His music, not his physique, defined him. Casale was born with spina bifida, a condition in which the spine never fully develops. He stood 4-foot-3, yet Purdy watched as Casale became a musician of such stature that Orleans -- a band with several national hits -- accepted an invitation to his 60th birthday party at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

"Mike was unusual. He was a character," said Purdy, who admired Casale's unspoken code. He'd endured dozens of major surgeries. He lost one of his feet and carried a colostomy bag.

Yet beginning with his teen years, Casale sought only two things:

He intended to live as typically as possible.

And he was going to play some memorable bass guitar.

"He never wanted to be put on a pedestal," said Purdy, who believes Casale was content to be recognized as a musician, not a legend.

Even if -- by any definition -- he qualified.

He died in February, at 64, after contracting pneumonia. Casale was hospitalized, but seemed to be recovering. He started talking about going home.

Irving Lyons Jr., whose "I Love the Night" CD features Casale on bass, called his friend and told him:

"Hurry up, man, I need you for a couple of gigs."

They laughed. They both said, "I love you" before getting off the phone.

Within days, his friends say, Casale died from septic shock.

To Cesta, the enormity of this never-surrender life was underlined by the endless line at Casale's wake. Wherever she goes, people say how much they miss him. Cesta cannot bring herself to dismantle the studio in their home, the place where she loved to watch Casale play bass.

She keeps thinking about his dream for his 65th birthday, how he'd hoped to put together a concert -- possibly with such performers as Kenny Loggins or Michael McDonald -- to raise money for research into spina bifida.

His connections in the music industry were deep. Bob Halligan Jr., founder of the band Ceili Rain, was among those who performed during Casale's 60th birthday party at the Dinosaur -- the show in which Casale played with Orleans.

A lifetime of success was built upon a fundamental ethic, Halligan said:

"Mike saw opportunities, not obstacles."

Casale's son Nick, 30, now of California, began absorbing that example in early childhood. "What he taught me is never to judge a book by its cover, to always give people the benefit of the doubt, to never generalize," Nick said.

He described his father as "one of the happiest dudes I ever knew," despite a lifetime of pain. After Casale's birth, the doctors told his parents their infant son would probably die within days. Casale survived. He grew up in an America years away from real awareness of the humanity of those with disabilities.

Casale, through the way he lived, opened minds.

In a 1999 interview with Dick Case of The Post-Standard, Casale recalled how an older sister, Lucy, was born with spina bifida and died at six months. His parents, he said, made all the difference in his life. It was an era in which countless children with disabilities were sent to institutions.

His mother and father, he told Case, "had the guts to raise me. They were told to leave me (at the hospital). They could have backed away; they didn't."

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Instead, as a young man, Casale found his way to a guitar.

"Everyone has their own spark, their own light, that they bring to the world," said Lance Hoppen of Orleans, speaking of his band's deep loyalty to Casale. "What's lost is gone (when someone dies) but what's more important is what's left behind, and Mike left behind this great example of a can-do spirit."

For years, Casale played bass for Bobby Green and his band, A Cut Above. Until Casale's death, he worked as a bookkeeper for Beat Street Music, a Manlius business owned by a close friend, Terry Vickery. To Casale, it was a dream job: Beat Street supplies and repairs string instruments.

"His life was an equal sign," Vickery said. "He just wanted to be treated like you or me."

Walk into Beat Street today, and Casale's cane hangs above a door, next to this sign: "Our best guy has stepped out for a while. Someone else will have to wait on you."

It would be difficult, in a single piece, to name all the musicians or bands with whom Casale performed, playing bass from his stool. Lyons said Casale, beaming, cane in hand, would often end up near the stage, "dancing with the ladies."

For almost two decades, Casale joined Gary Sprague in an act called Neighborhood Friends. The bond went back to grade school. Sprague first heard Casale's voice in a fourth-grade classroom. It came from an intercom box connected to Casale's home. At that point, he attended class by monitor, because his spina bifida made it seem impossible for the boy to be in school.

He overcame that hurdle, as he did all else. When sadness threatens to overwhelm Cesta, she has a video that captures her companion in full spirit. It shows Casale playing bass during a show. He seems transported, head and body given to the rhythm, a guy doing exactly what he was born to do.