Maria McKee Remembers Drummer Don Heffington: ‘Steady, Warm, Constant — Like a Backbeat in My Heart’

The singer-songwriter recalls their camraderie in the band Lone Justice and beyond, saying Heffington belongs with Hal Blaine and Jim Keltner as "the third in the triumvirate of America’s greatest traditional pop-rock drummers."

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Geffen Records

Drummer Don Heffington died Wednesday at age 70. He is best remembered by most music fans as a member of  Lone Justice from 1983-86, along with Maria McKee, Ryan Hedgecock, Marvin Etzioni and (as a part-timer) Benmont Tench. But Heffington’s legacy before and long after that stint includes recording or touring with dozens or  hundreds of estimable artists, from Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan to Lucinda Williams. (Read our obituary of Heffington here.)

Variety invited McKee to write about her journey with Heffington, in and after Lone Justice. Her thoughts about the convivial personality and rock-solid rhythms of her late friend:

“McKEE!” I can hear Heff’s voice perfectly in my head as I type this. His warm chuckle, calling me from the road. With Lucinda, or sharing a hotel room with Van Dyke in Germany somewhere.

He was always attentive to the twists and turns my life afforded. Like when I gave up music for almost a decade to work on independent films with my husband Jim. (Heff was there at every screening.) Or when I came out as Queer a few years ago and Jim and I repurposed our marriage to one of platonic partnership. “Heff, I used to be bi, but now I’m gay.” “Well, I’ll be darned.” Not a hint of reproach, just the warm chuckle. I could always picture his face when I heard that chuckle.

He had one of the most handsome smiles I’d ever seen. When I told my lifelong friend Danielle of his passing, of course she was heartbroken. But she couldn’t refrain from saying it: “He was sooo HANDsome!” She was also relieved to hear that Marvin and I were talking again, as they are like brother and sister. Who knows why Marvin and I drift in and out. None of that matters anymore. I’m glad I can call him anytime now.

We are bludgeoned. It’s good to hang on to one another as we try to see through eyelids, heavy with subcutaneous blood and stumble to steady ourselves.

When I told Benmont the news, all he could reply was, “I am empty.” Who knows how we got to this age? The age where a guy who was like a dapper big brother to me in his early thirties dies quietly at home attended by his grandchildren.  But wait. Wasn’t he just on stage? Didn’t I see him sing a gig at McCabe’s not that long ago? When exactly was that? When we saw the Velvet Underground reunite in Berlin? When we performed at the PinkPop festival in the Netherlands, in the rain, followed by — who was it — Echo and the Bunnymen? The Cure? Both?

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Don Heffington, photographed by his daughter, Laura Laura Heffington

I wonder now how a trio of scrappy post-punk, rockabilly (me and Ryan) and new wave (Marvin) brats got lucky enough to score a class act like Don Heffington for a drummer. He was flawless. As we plucked and banged our instruments like scrappy garage-bound delinquents, he grounded us with finesse, maturity and a Wattsian “thwack.”

I complain a bit about Lone Justice now and then, as the low-key impact we had still resonates enough to frustrate me as I wonder if I will forever be remembered for yodeling in a fake hillbilly accent, as I have subsequently made chamber-pop record after chamber-pop record hoping to hit that “from roots-rock to art-rock stride” that my hero Scott Walker put down the pavement for. But the only album I’ve ever been a part of that made the Pazz & Jop top 20 was the Lone Justice debut. I guess we made a mark, all right, as much as I am loathe to admit it.

It’s not surprising at all that Heff went on to become the drummer’s drummer that defined his career. I think it started with Bob, who scooped him when he and Ron Wood came by the LJ sessions to record the song Bob had written for the band. They played all night through the morning because of Don. Because he was that good.

Along with Keltner and Hal Blaine, for me Heff was the third in a triumvirate of America’s greatest traditional pop-rock drummers. I believe to my heart that is how he will be remembered.

That’s for later, but right now I’d give anything to sit down and ask Heff a million questions about his childhood. Growing up in old L.A. His wildly eccentric and magical mama. About that time he bought the first Velvet Underground album when he was a teen and it affected and disturbed him so, he had to hide it under the bed for a while. I was always in awe of his tales like this.

Radiating his inimitable, bebop wisdom and focused, post-beat California curatorial perception, Heff helped to teach me about the complex power and wonder of art. Steady, warm, constant. Like a backbeat in my heart.