‘Tis Better To Have Loved and Lost: Michael Guerette 1960-2011

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Cabaret, Culture, Entertainment, Music, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Uncategorized

Back in the glorious heyday of the legendary Greenwich Village supper club The Five Oaks, the only element in greater abundance than the kitchen’s signature Southeastern fare was the catalog of songs featuring lyrics by Dawn Hampton and music by Robert ‘Bobby’ Peaco. Such numbers as “New Orleans Louisiana Blues,” “I Rode That Train to Sorryville,” “That’s How the Ball Bounces” and the pair’s titular homage to the club, “The Five Oaks,” were sung regularly over the course of an evening by such singers/service staff as Aaron Lee Battle, Debra Anderson and Dan Onzo, besides Hampton and Peaco themselves and a hearty smattering of the club’s regular patrons. One of their rare and particularly haunting ballads, however, was “Bring Back the Spring,” which would always invite an appropriate silencing hush over the noisy dinner crowd with its plaintive opening strain, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all…” And all who were there unanimously agreed that it was never sung better than by Michael Guerette, a pixie-ish gentleman diminutive of height but tremendous of personality and charisma, who had also worked at the Oaks for quite some time as a singing waiter. It was, therefore, a shock to so very many when, on August 12th, the body of a hiker was found dead on the Appalachian Trail in Maine and the person in question turned out to be none other than Guerette, aged fifty-one, whose cause of death has officially remained unexplained. Indeed, what is most unusual is the fact that Guerette, a native of Maine who for the last several years had chosen to reside in the Fire Island enclave of Cherry Grove and display his gift for all things floral as a renowned landscaper and florist, had been a nature lover and avid hiker for the majority of his life, and had trekked the treacherous Appalachian several times before.

Steven Lowenthal, a fixture on the downtown scene as a singer-pianist and accompanist at the Five Oaks and other locales, was stunned by the news. “He was a naturally consummate performer,” says Lowenthal,  “and great at everything he did. Michael was someone whose beauty and depth intimidated me even as we joked around, and so I was not aggressive in trying to know him, although we enjoyed each others’ company over many years. I can’t even remember which songs he sang with me, except for ‘Pass Me By’ , but I assure you they were all good! My first impression of Michael,” he continues, “was a bar customer who looked like an extra from the movie Fanny, which was filmed on location in Marseille. My last impression is of an even more gorgeous man, who sure knew how to stock an delightful garden boutique, out in Cherry Grove. I don’t remember which years he worked at  the Oaks exactly, but approximately from 1981 for quite some time.” Aaron Lee Battle agrees. “I remember that he was a lovely man, with a pure and beautiful voice, and I do think that he sang Hampton and Peaco’s ‘Bring Back the Spring’ the best it was ever sung,” he says. “I always wish I had that beauty and control in my voice. I didn’t work with him at the Oaks because I believe he had stopped working there then, but I do remember spending time with him and Bobby Peaco. And seeing him in Cherry Grove many years later. and feeling that he was happy and loving life. It gave me joy!”

Singer-pianist/composer Peaco, who heard the news while recently appearing in performance on the Greek island of Mykonos, arguably knew Guerette better than anybody and was absolutely bewildered to learn of this tragic demise. “Michael was my first lover,’ he says.  “We met in college at University of New Hampshire, and moved to New York together in 1981. He actually moved a few months before me, because he had taken a bus from New Hampshire to New York, to audition for the original Merrily We Roll Along and got a callback. Didn’t get the show, but was encouraged to leave school and move to New York City. I finished the semester, and then joined him. He had gotten a job at the Five Oaks because a year before, we had a vacation in New York City and went there and loved it. The first time either one of us sang publicly in New York was on that trip (and Marie Blake scared us to death). But he started hanging out there when he moved, and got a job. I got a job there shortly after I moved, as a busboy and service bartender. Before I got the job, he was bartending one night for a show there that Dawn Hampton was doing, and told me I should come see her. Which I did, and was enchanted, as was everyone. So Michael is the reason Dawn & I first met. He sang ‘Bring Back the Spring’ beautifully, and sang it at the MAC Awards one year, which must have been late ’80s or early ’90s. We had long since broken up, but always remained friends, and in the late 80’s we were roommates again for a year or two, in the Village.” He finishes, “There’s so much more I could say, but most of it is really personal. I hadn’t seen him in several years, but he was never far away in my thoughts.”

Dan Onzo was another singing waiter at the club who worked closely with Guerette and knew him well. “How very, very sad that Michael has gone,” he says. “However,  may I say as always, he did all things with brilliance. To believe that he would go for a two-week walk along the Appalachian Trail, on his own, is in and of itself alone amazing. His singing? Well, there are no words. And as to his little flower shop in the Grove, I went there every single time, after and before getting on or off the ferry. The serenity and beauty of the setting, as well as the calmness of his demeanor, would always remind me of the joy of  my arrival. And it definitely prepared me for my departure back to the fracas of work and the bars back in the city. Although I hadn’t spoken to him within the last five years, I have thoughts of him nearly everyday, especially when I sing.” And finally, singer-pianist Charles Lindberg volunteers, “I remember when Michael was a customer at the Oaks; he was an adorable little boy who frequently wore a red bandanna. The owners of the club at the time were Jeremy Burrell and Ginger Regan, and Michael was asking about work. I remember Jeremy telling me that Ginger didn’t want to hire him because she thought he looked like a hustler.  Jeremy, on the other hand, saw through what other people saw, and went with his instincts, which was a good choice. Michael was one of the sweetest, generous, kindest, humblest people I knew. We dated for a while, and I still remember him very fondly.  Outside the bar he was the same sweet, adorable, fun loving person. He always made me feel great, and I have never had anything bad to say about him; actually, I have nothing even remotely negative and never will. He will be sorely missed.” Ergo, though many are saddened by the news of Michael Guerette’s unfortunate and untimely loss, there is comfort in the thought that he’s loaning his angelic voice to a choir on high. And in the final analysis, he’d probably be amazed that so many will always keep a place for him alive in their hearts. All sympathies to his family, friends, and those who simply had the inestimable pleasure of meeting him, for he won’t soon be forgotten.
  1. stevenL says:

    Beautiful, so tender.
    Many thanks Andrew – I think it might even have surprised Michael a little bit …
    And thank you, Charlie.

  2. Aaron Lee Battle says:

    Thank You, Andrew! Beautiful! Aaron Lee

  3. Scott Ullrich says:

    I knew Michael in college, in New Hampshire. He was the kind of person you can never ever forget. If only I’d worked harder to track him down over the past 32 years! Ah regret, my constant companion. As someone from the distant past, it was such a gift to read a little about how Michael’s life unfolded after he moved to NYC. I’m so grateful, Andrew. I remember Michael as a man whose heart was open and visible from our first meeting. While most of us cloak our hearts for protection from hurt, Michael gave you a piece of his, even before he knew you well. Peace Michael Guerette! –Scott Ullrich, Boston

  4. Pam Currie says:

    I went to high school with Michael in Portsmouth, it’s nice to know that he never strayed far from the person we all loved so much in the Drama Department. He was perhaps the gentlest person I ever met, so sweet and kind. I am glad to know he found a place in Cherry Grove that made him happy, gave him contentment and filled his life with good friends. Thanks for sharing.
    Pam Currie – Portsmouth, NH

  5. Robin Williams-Highbaugh says:

    I would like to sent my deepest sympathy to the family and friends of Michael Guerette. My son was one of the hikers[bluegrass] whom came upon Michael.I would like you all to know he was’nt alone and these young men did ever thing they could to save his life.My son keep saying to me “I tried mom,I never gave up,but we could’nt save him”.One of these young him wrote about Michael in his blog[walkingwithredoak/blog] he titled it simple “Bad day”.I thought maybe Michaels’ family and friends might want to read,it also tells all the wonderful things other hikers, that had meet Michael along the way, had to say about him. From what I have read about Michael he was a very happy and loved man.So in closing,I would like to say, even though the circumstances of how my son came in contact with Michael are to say the least uncommon,he will forever now be a part of my sons life.

    Robin – Kentucky

  6. Mark says:

    I worked on Fire Island the past two years, and I met and befriended Michael there. He seemed like a very nice guy. We sat in a bar (Island Breeze) last year and talked about the problems that our society is creating for the environment, the natural world. I had written a novel and had a few copies with me, so I presented him with a signed copy. I never knew if he ever read it. I know that he had grown somewhat disenchanted with his job on Fire island and was trying to sell his business. I hope that he has found peace.

  7. Joe says:

    I met Michael on several trips to Fire Island over the past few years. I’m not sure he really knew who I was but only that I was a familiar “flirty” face once or twice a season. We spent time talking at various bars and cafes in the neighborhood but although there seemed to be mutual attraction there always seemed some circumstance that kept us from getting closer. He became my main reason for visiting Cherry Grove. He was always such a nice charming guy and althought he never knew it, I had fallen in love with him. I only recently learned of his death. I have to admit I’m broken hearted. I laugh at myself as I remind myself that I really didn’t even know him that well and yet his passing has left a big void in my life. I think he really was that special. I doubt that I will ever return to Cherry Grove. Oh how I regret never telling him how I felt.

  8. Bill says:

    I met Michael while camping in Puerto Rico in the winter of 2010. We became quite close. He talked about his life with such openness and honesty and was all ears while I told him about mine. I would describe him as a warm, caring person that was really ‘alive’ in a way that most people aren’t. I have just learned of his death and am pretty shaken. I just left him a voice mail message the other day asking if he would be returning to PR this winter.
    Michael was a good person and will be missed.

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