Aurora's Wake: On Dege Legg's death and final act

Man in a black hat with a beard holding a single flower.
Photo by Travis Gauthier

Editor's Note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you are in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

When the texts and phone calls and social media spread on Friday, March 8, with the news that Dege Legg, aka Brother Dege, was dead, the collective anguish and cries of grief were magnified by one horrific, irreversible truth, the worst-kept secret in town, a fact that was left out of local news reports:

Dege took his own life.

Unfathomable. Not Dege. Not one of the most selfless dudes in Lafayette, not the guy who spun magic out of dust, triumph out of heartbreak. Not the guy who worked years for St. Joseph Shelter for Men, forever reaching out to the less fortunate.

In the outpouring of tributes posted online, there was one emphatic and empathetic thread — Dege always showed up for others. Story after story of Dege taking time to talk to and listen to complete strangers, often befriending them and encouraging them through whatever hardships they faced. Waitresses, entrepreneurs, meteorologists, poets, chefs, oilfield workers, college students — all testified to his kindness and benevolence.

Many only discovered sometime later that they’d been hanging out with the Lafayette guy who had risen from hardscrabble beginnings to dual acclaimed literary and musical careers, most famously for having his song “Too Old to Die Young” chosen by director Quentin Tarantino for inclusion in Oscar-winning 2012 film Django Unchained.

The timing of his death felt bizarre and macabre. Dege was poised for a fresh round of critical acclaim: He had a showcase gig lined up at music-business epicenter SXSW, a full European tour booked for the summer, and after a six-year wait, his new album, Aurora, was released Friday, March 15, ultimately the day before his memorial.

Anyone whose life has been touched by suicide knows the cycle of recrimination, regret, and survivor’s guilt that follows. What signals did I miss? How didn’t I know? Why didn’t I do more?

Personally, that meant retracing three decades of professional and personal friendship.

Fuzzy image of a band performing in a dive bar a long time ago
Santeria thrashed with an in-your-face punk intensity that was a far cry from Acadiana’s Cajun waltzes or zydeco chank-a-chank. Photo by Travis Gauthier

I first met Dege in the early ’90s through my wife, Cindy, who was an entertainment attorney in New Orleans in another lifetime. She had done some legal publishing work for a relatively unknown new Lafayette band named Santeria, I was writing for New Orleans’ OffBeat music magazine, and I tagged along one night to hear her new client.

The gig was at notorious dive bar/laundromat Checkpoint Charlie, and nary a soul in the place cared about Santeria or paid the band much attention. But they thrashed away regardless with an in-your-face punk intensity that was a far cry from Acadiana’s Cajun waltzes or zydeco chank-a-chank. Dege was the band’s visionary, hypnotic frontman.

I was suitably impressed and dubbed Santeria a Louisiana band-to-watch in national music-biz broadsheet Billboard magazine. That sparked some correspondence with Dege, and I kept tabs on him while writing for OffBeat and Gambit Weekly.

The apocalyptic, mystical strain running through his music was no act. When I moved to Lafayette in 2003 to edit and write for The Independent, we talked and visited more frequently — and at times I feared for his safety. With his guerilla DIY ethos hatched as an ’80s kid building illegal skate ramps and devouring fringe zines, Dege hatched one gonzo project after another. He lived in and filmed music videos in the seediest motel in town. Commandeered remote cornfields and obsessed over crop circles. Documented his fixation with UFOs and chemtrails. Jerry-rigged a dobro with fireworks. To say he lived life firmly on the edge would be an understatement.

Santeria eventually broke up, a decade or so after I met him, but Dege soldiered on with similarly intriguing projects. When he founded Black Bayou Construkt, he proudly emblazoned the band’s logo on its touring van and painted it, of course, black. Nothing brightened my day more than seeing Dege rumbling around, say, in the Johnston Street Albertsons parking lot in this nocturnal warhorse straight out of Mad Max. A particularly apt touch: He also painted “Black Bayou Ministries” on the door, signaling his double life as a rock ’n’ roll preacher and minister to the downtrodden.

Then, in the most unlikely of scenarios, Dege applied for the listings editor position at The Independent. Pre-social media especially, this was the least glamorous of jobs: calling nightclubs and restaurants for their entertainment bookings, fact-checking spellings, etc., and pestering your editor to get your own bylines. Dege, however, worshiped the written word and loved wrestling with the deepest existential questions; one of his oft-overlooked achievements is his B.A. in philosophy from LSU, and he was a voracious reader, devouring Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Charles Bukowski alike. (One of our last text threads landed on eviscerating Tarantula, Bob Dylan’s infamous ’60s-fueled poetry collection.)

Despite my initial concern that Dege was ill-suited for a 9-5 job, he immediately brought all his intellectual gifts to the gig and hatched endless story ideas. For his first cover story for the paper, he embedded himself in a secret homeless camp across the Simcoe railroad tracks. After earning its residents’ trust, they told him their stories, and even allowed our staff photographer to take unvarnished portraits. It was an unflinching and heartbreaking piece and earned first place in that year’s Louisiana Press Association Awards.

That opened the floodgates to numerous memorable articles and further recognition for Dege. Truth be told, he had already been writing prolifically on his own before landing at the paper. One of his projects was an early blog titled Cablog, where he documented the cavalcade of mind-bending fares — dangerous, absurd, hilarious, poignant — that he picked up while desperately trying to earn money by driving the graveyard shift for Lafayette’s Yellow Cab. We combed through entries, culled a greatest-hits collection of sorts, and that cover story shone a light on a side of Lafayette that’s too often invisible.

Working together on those projects meant we’d hang out socially on occasion or inevitably run into each other elsewhere with our shared interests and social circles. One night, Cindy and I ran into Dege at a show Downtown, and afterwards we gave him a ride home. From the backseat with absolute earnestness, he asked us: What is the secret to staying together and maintaining a long-term relationship?

He met our answers with a wistful admission that he thought he was a hard partner to love. Summoning relentless creativity and hustling and writing and recording and playing and booking and emailing and phoning and texting and posting and packing and then departing for gonzo tours of endless one-nighters crammed into a van with your bandmates isn’t a recipe for domestic bliss. (Any touring musician will tell you that once those first youthful tours are over, the road grinds out monotonous drives, broken transmissions, and often-suspect lodging.)

When Dege launched his solo music career and the acclaim and the notoriety of “Too Old to Die Young” arrived, there was the additional new challenge to transform into his alter-ego Brother Dege, the badass renegade slide-guitar gunslinger from your favorite Western who pulled no punches and took no prisoners.

But if you knew Dege and he trusted you, he didn’t hide his darker corners and lurking sadness. He told you about his abusive father and rough childhood. You heard about his filial obligation to his mother for trying to keep the peace and protect her children. You knew he took medication. In recent years — we’re 56 years old — we entered that station in life where taking care of an elderly parent becomes a priority and necessity. Our mothers are at the same assisted-living facility, and his mom’s Alzheimer’s weighed heavily on him. We rarely talked about it — and why would I worry about him, because this was … Dege. The dude with the broadest shoulders who could carry the heaviest weight. The dude who could and had faced down anything.

Especially in recent years, one of Dege’s biggest goals was buying a house. A house represented stability, a foothold, a brick-and-mortar symbol of his professional accomplishments. And just maybe, a house would also offer the kind of stability and sanctuary attractive to a long-term romantic partner. A house, a spouse, a family. That triumvirate was perhaps the ultimate victory of overcoming his childhood trauma.

Last autumn, he bought a house in Bendel Gardens.

Man in a white tank top looking over his shoulder while at the wheel of a car
Cablog, an anthology of Dege Legg's musings of his time as a cab driver, put him in the literary spotlight. Photo by Travis Gauthier

In 2020, UL Press acquired the book rights to Cablog and published it to glowing domestic reviews. A French edition was published, too. Dege also poured himself into recording an audiobook version, pairing it with his dreamlike celestial score. In October 2022, The Acadiana Center for the Arts booked Dege for a Cablog: Live! performance, with the first half of the set devoted to Dege solo, reading and doing spoken-word pieces from the book, while the second set featured his full band, the Brethren, backing him for a music set spanning his career.

After the house lights went down to a pitch-black stage, the curtains opened to the roar of an engine and two headlights beaming out into the audience. Cue a yellow cab driving out to center stage, and Dege stepped out from behind the wheel. The crowd roared its appreciation, and that set the tone for a show for the ages. I’ve never seen Dege so assured and in command of his artistic gifts, weaving dark humor and poignant vignettes in the first half, while apologizing to the more genteel AcA season-ticket holders for his profanity and stories about crack cocaine and the Less Pay Motel.

The second half was a musical tour de force. Dege and The Brethren had clearly fused into a simpatico unit, harnessing Dege’s punk-infused energy with methodical, pounding arrangements. He also previewed newer Aurora-destined songs like “Where the Black Flowers Grow,” a number of which were written during the isolation of COVID.

I left that night thinking about how special it must have felt for him, a crowning moment crackling with the hometown validation he’d grinded toward for decades. To now share that same stage as icons like BeauSoleil and Los Lobos, to bask in multiple standing encores from a sold-out hometown crowd, and do it all on his own unwavering artistic terms? Isn’t that what any artist or creative individual dreams of achieving?

I thought of that gig when Cindy and I bumped into him before one of BeauSoleil’s 50th anniversary shows at the AcA earlier this year. We’d ducked into a packed Vestal for a pre-show drink. Dege was there, looking sharp dressed in black and sporting horn-rimmed glasses, holding court with a steady stream of friends and well-wishers. We exchanged hugs, and he gave me his signature drawled Hey, mannnn greeting. The restaurant had no open tables or bar seats, time was short, and we didn’t get to visit. It was the last time we saw him.

On Wednesday, March 6, Dege had an extended visit with one of his longtime best friends, dropping off a copy of his new album. Dege seemed distant, off, and down — a fact he acknowledged when called on it. He left after visiting for a couple hours, but his friend accompanied Dege to his truck, encouraging him and reminding him of this fresh chapter ahead of him: We make art, man! We bring people an unexpected moment of happiness they’ve never experienced before, and you’re about to launch this new album! You’ll always be remembered for creating something immortal!

Before he drove off, Dege replied, “Yeah, but I want to be remembered for more than that.”

Man in a black hat and coat hovers his hands above a bouquet of flowers
Besides the questions and heartbreak, we’re now left with the final act: Aurora. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Besides the questions and heartbreak, we’re now left with the final act: Aurora. Prophecy Productions, his new record label, released a statement that they were proceeding with the album release to honor Dege’s legacy. It’s now officially out in the world and the ether,  available for purchase locally and on streaming platforms. 

Let me say this first, in solely my music-critic role: It’s a brilliant album, easily his best. The stompers — “Where the Black Flowers Grow,” “Turn of the Screw,” and “Loser’s Blues” — are the zenith of Dege’s slide-guitar and dobro swamp crunch, propelled by thunderous tribal drums and howling choruses.

The real surprise, however, are stylistic departures “The Devil You Know” and “The Longing.” A spare, piano-driven ballad, “The Devil You Know” contains an unexpected mournful pedal steel, as if Dege was somehow channeling Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry.” (I am not kidding when I say that a Chris Stapleton cover would be a surefire hit.) Aurora is also split in two halves like an old-school LP, with both sides opening with mysterious thematic instrumentals that sound like Duane Allman’s beatific “Little Martha” beamed down from space.

However, separating the art from the artist remains a tricky proposition. The unavoidable question remains: How is it remotely possible to listen to Aurora and disassociate from Dege dying by his own hand?

That question gets even harder when you review the official media materials of Aurora. Back in October 2023, Dege did the advance promotional photo sessions for the album at a local Lafayette studio. Instead of the shotguns and muskets he brought for previous Folk Songs of the American Longhair sessions, this time he brought a small pistol. In some of the photographs, there’s a red rose in the barrel of the pistol, evoking the iconic images of the ’60s Vietnam protests. You don’t want to see the other ones.

Around the same time, Prophecy Records hired a writer to interview Dege for a press kit and get quotes from him about the album’s songs. It turned out to be one of his final interviews.

“It definitely deals with love, psychosis, and the dysfunctions that get repeated within these relationships and patterns of myself,” he said. “I thought of it as an ouroboros — which is a snake that eats its own tail.”

Regarding “The Devil You Know,” Dege commented, “At this point in my life, I don’t like to be alone, so it’s an uncomfortable place for me — I feel crazy,” he said. “Sounds pathetic, I know. But I’m happiest when I’m connecting with another human being or creating art for therapeutic reasons like the giant sand mandala in the video [for ‘Devil You Know’].”

Aurora’s final track is the 11-minute meditative opus “The Longing,” with its lyric refrain of “I can’t live for one day / All the time and the space / So many things, I can’t change … In the longing.” The song’s extended atmospheric outro features rain sounds, distant thunder, crying seagulls — Dege loved the beach and the ocean — and the slowly fading ringing of church bells.

Whether it’s an audio quilt of some of his favorite sounds and places and memories, or the soundscape of some future serenity that he was reaching for, we’ll never know. Still, it’s nearly impossible to hear it as anything but a farewell and benediction. For his family, friends, lovers, bandmates, peers, fans and admirers, that’s the hardest part. It shouldn’t have ended this way.

E-mail Scott Jordan at [email protected]. Portions of this essay originally appeared in his foreword to Dege’s Cablog book, available from UL Press.