Up until his death yesterday, Joe Cocker lived in my same neighborhood. I use the term neighborhood loosely. It consists of a handful of dirt road and two-track residences up against the West Elk Mountains on the Utah-side of Colorado. This is no Telluride, no star-haven. It is more of a hermitage. The fact that he chose relative solitude along this broad, steepening valley a two-hour drive from the nearest puddle-jumper airport made him the first celebrity I ever liked.
I never knew Mr. Cocker personally, but with a towering volcanic rock standing between us, we at least had a shared landmark. He lived on one side with his wife in a Tudor mansion, and I was on the other with my family in a slapdash off-grid house. When I first met him on the road in the late 90s, he was under a mountainous coat and his furry, well-mannered dogs were off their leashes. I just thought he was some whiskered older guy with an accent and a pleasant hello.
I once followed him through the woods without his knowing. I realize that sounds improper, but I'd see people walking the trails so infrequently that I'd often hone my stalking skills by following them a little ways, seeing if I could figure out what they were up to. This is BLM property, public land, but it is also my back yard. Practicing quiet steps on fallen oak leaves, I got to within a hundred feet him. If he'd spotted me, I'd have waved and come over, introducing myself, and somehow explained what I was doing. But he didn't see me, and I slipped away mortified that I'd been stalking Joe Cocker.
In the winter, we'd sled down our driveway to the road. One Saturday afternoon we came tumbling to the bottom in a snowball of laughter, children plowed into each other. Standing before us was Mr. Cocker in the same mountainous coat, his dogs older and shaggier. My wife invited him up for a run. He gave us a wrinkled, kind smile and thanked us before going on.
Though I encountered Mr. Cocker a number of times, I never introduced myself. It seemed better to leave him to his quiet and his dogs, a slow, ambling pleasure I can more than appreciate.
I believe there is now another kind-hearted ghost in the world, the shade of a man walking alone up this road and into the woods, his dogs out in front sniffing the way ahead.
Rest in peace, neighbor.