Danny DeGennaro’s life told in book by former NJ attorney general

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It was a difficult time for John Farmer. It was 1993 and his wife, Gail, 40, had died suddenly. He was stricken with grief.

“A very difficult time in my life,” he said.

He took a leave of absence from his job as an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey. He took long walks from his home in Lambertville, NJ, crossing the bridge over the Delaware River to New Hope.

“I just try to process things,” he said.

The town was full of bars with live music. He walked past the Ringside Pub and regained his life.

“I heard that guitar and I’ll never forget it,” he said.

It was soulful, blues rock.

“I thought it was a recording,” he said.

He walked in, no cover charge. On stage was Danny DeGennaro, a guitarist, singer and songwriter from Levittown.

“Danny’s playing, and his voice, it was remarkable. I felt like I was hearing one of the greatest musicians of all time,” he said.

He took his place. DeGennaro’s music had an instant healing effect that even today he can’t quite describe.

“It was the first happy moment I’d had in a while,” he said. “It made me realize there was still beauty in the world.”

The group had equally talented musicians, such as TJ Tindall, who had been Bonnie Raitt’s guitarist.

Farmer has become a Ringside regular.

“He woke me up,” he said.

And then the band was gone, no longer appearing at the Ringside.

The years have passed. Farmer’s successful legal career continued. Dean of Rutgers Law School in Newark. Attorney General under Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Even governor of New Jersey for 90 minutes due to a fluke in Jersey state law during a messy leadership change.

He remarried. One night he was in New Hope, on his way to the Logan Inn with his wife, Beth, when he heard the music again.

“This guitar was unmistakable. And I said to my wife: ‘It’s him!’ »

John Farmer at the Danny DeGennaro memorial at Bucks County Community College's Hicks Art Center in Newtown, Pa. Farmer, a prominent New Jersey jurist, was a fan of the Levittown musician who was murdered in 2011. He wrote a book about DeGennaro's la life and times,

DeGennaro was playing alone, acoustic. It looked as tired as Route 13 after a hard winter. Farmer approached him.

“I said, I know you won’t remember me, but I saw you at the Ringside Pub. And he said, Ringside? In Florida? No, I said, here in New Hope. He said he thought he remembered.

“He appeared broken and he confirmed that his health was poor. He told me he was trying to revive his career and that he and TJ Tindall were trying to do something together.

“I said, listen, you really helped me at a tough time in my life, and if there’s anything I can do for you, I’d be happy to do it,” he said. declared.

Farmer and DeGennaro planned to reunite after Christmas that year, 2011. Farmer texted and left messages, but DeGennaro never responded. In January 2012, he looked it up online.

“A headline came out, ‘Bucks County Musician Killed.'”

DeGennaro, 56, had been murdered days after Christmas when he was ambushed by two men who had conspired with others to rob him from his Levittown home in Crabtree Hollow.

“I was stunned,” Farmer said. “Why did it happen? People say, ‘Things happen for a reason.’ No, they don’t. It happened for no reason. How do you explain his life, the beauty of his music, his effect on people, and then snatch everything from him in an instant?

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Farmer, now director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, tries to explain that in his book, “Way Too Fast,” about DeGennaro’s life, due out April 23.

He interviewed a hundred people, from family to close friends, to musicians who played with Danny, to Bucks Count DA Matt Weintraub, who prosecuted DeGennaro’s killers.

He learned two things. DeGennaro was a child prodigy and his life coincided with the cultural touchstones of the baby boomer era.

“He grew up in Levittown, the iconic American suburb,” Farmer said. “And he loved growing up there. The children had all this freedom to roam, at the same time they were sheltered from the problems of the world.

Danny got his first guitar in 1964, after The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. He took lessons, but he was a natural.

“He was wired for music,” he said.

After:Danny De Gennaro Foundation

At age 11, he got his first newspaper article in the Trenton Times. His father, Jack, a crane operator at U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works in Falls, realized his son’s talent and worked to cultivate it.

“He saw how people reacted when Danny was playing,” he said.

Jack DeGennaro formed a band, The Excaliburs, with fellow Fairless Ronnie Garrison, from Bristol. Danny was lead guitar.

“Here, at 12, he was playing in a multiracial band, in Trenton, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, when American cities were burning,” Farmer said.

Farmer found that at this time the local live rock music scene in Levittown and Lower Bucks County was robust, perfect for a budding star.

“It rivaled anything on the Jersey Shore,” he said.

But bad things happened. In 1970, when Danny was 15, he smoked weed for the first time. At 17, he tried heroin.

“It became a lifelong struggle,” Farmer said.

His drug ordeals appeared in his songs, such as “Way Too Fast” in which he describes the trip from Levittown to Trenton to meet his dealer:

“I went to see my man on the outskirts of town/I still have to walk the bridge/I’m going to find out, I’m going to hunt him down/I think he’s my best friend.”

And more explicitly in “I Was Not There”: “Ten thousand miles of road dust can’t cover the scars I put on my arms.”

He graduated from Pennsbury High School in 1973, a time Farmer describes as the last big wave of hiring at Fairless Works.

“Six years later, all of his friends were fired and (Fairless) was closing,” he said.

The place that gave so many Levittown kids a solid middle-class life was a ghost. Among those who lost his job at Fairless was Danny’s father, Jack.

DeGennaro’s song “Walk Away” is from the perspective of a licensed Fairless metalworker:

“I’ve been cast aside, thrown away / Where do I hide when people say, ‘Walk away’.”

He spent the 1980s and 1990s playing with bands like Kingfish, writing songs, recording albums and playing with big leaguers like Bo Diddley, Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band, The Hooters and with members of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Billy Squier’s band. .

He performed for record producer Clive Davis, but Davis accepted. The recording industry was changing. Signing unproven acts was too risky for the record industry’s bean counters.

“It was during a time when Clive Davis was more interested in stealing successful artists from other labels, rather than investing in new talent,” Farmer said.

Moving to Florida, DeGennaro led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ home band, but was fired when he got into a fight with a friend of the team owner.

“The rest of the band said, ‘You can’t fire Danny – he is The group. You just fired the racehorse,” he said.

So why didn’t Danny DeGennaro go big?

FILE IMAGE - Well-known local guitarist Danny DeGennaro.  .................................................. ............Bill Johnson 02/05/2005

It wasn’t drugs and it wasn’t lack of talent, Farmer said. It was an ambivalence about fame. He was skeptical of a life lived for fame and money. He was reluctant to walk away from anything and everyone he knew and loved in Bucks County.

“He loved Levittown, but he also hated it,” Farmer said. “He was gone for a long time, but he always came home to the people he loved. He loved his friends. He really loved his parents.

DeGennaro spent the last decade of his life caring for his mother and father.

“A lot of great art is made in those kinds of unresolved conflicts that people have within themselves. And that was his conflict,” Farmer said. “TJ Tindall told me you can’t rate Danny on terms that weren’t his terms. Being famous and having lots of money isn’t what got him up in the morning. He was not like Madonna or Mick Jagger.

DeGennaro loved being a Levittown guy who never charged anyone a cover to see him play.

“He liked to play music for his friends,” he said, “and he did it on his terms, and it was good music.”

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Columnist JD Mullane can be reached at 215-945-5745 or jmullane@couriertimes.com.

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