Bill Ritchey, 1954-2019

Photo by Anarres Project for Alternative Futures

“Everybody’s doin’ somethin’

I heard it in a dream

But when there’s too much of nothing

It just makes a fella mean”

–Bob Dylan

Story by Pete Shaw

September 10, 2019

Epigraphs, I suppose, should have some meaning regarding the text that follows them. And I also suppose that with an artist like Bob Dylan, one can find many meanings and bend them to one’s will and words. That seems fitting even if I am not sure why I chose those precise words. But in general, I understand their purpose.

A few hours ago, I found out my Friend and Comrade Bill Ritchey had passed back on September 1 at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. He was 64, too soon gone.

I first met Bill in 2012 at one of the organizing meetings for supporting the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) grain handlers who were in contract negotiations with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. He and I were involved in the media group, and Bill was figuring out what contacts we had in various outlets across the country. I remember him saying he knew someone at the New York Times and would contact him. The Times is a heavy hitter, and I got a chuckle out of this unassuming person noting he would handle this as easily as he might take up heating up a kettle of water for a cup of tea. And it quickly became clear to me that this was a person whose Friendship was worth gaining.

Somehow or another I found out Bill was a big Bob Dylan fan. To call myself that would be a huge understatement. When Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes were released, it seemed a good idea to get a copy to Bill as soon as possible. I did so, bringing them to his hands at Food Front where he worked. He was excited in that Bill way: eyes twinkling, and his voice getting a slight lift to its otherwise calm tone and slight quaver. “I can’t wait.” We talked about the music which prior to its official release had been one of the most popular bootlegs in music history, and he was game for listening to the whole ball of wax–or rather zeroes and ones–of what for both of us was some of our favorite music.

For four months, Dylan and most of the members of The Band met at Big Pink, the house in West Saugerties rented by Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel, and recorded all sorts of songs, some originals–such as “Too Much of Nothing” from which the epigraph is taken–and some covers. Much of the music was just an exercise in tossing around ideas that drew on the influences of these musicians who have crafted much of the soundtrack of my life. Recorded on a consumer reel to reel in Big Pink’s basement, the songs were at most meant to be demos for other artists to consider. But the spirit of them, after the amphetamine and other drugs fueled world tour that they had been on came to an end when Dylan got into a motorcycle crash, was all about the serious business of finding artistic paths very different from that whirlwind tour and enjoying the trip in good company. It is a reminder that, as some critic wrote, community implies good times, and good times are where you find them. In that music they created in the Summer and Autumn of 1967, Bill and I found them.

The next day Bill and I had this email exchange:

Bill: “hey! i started my cd player and began listening to the basement tapes! i love them, thanks so much!


Me: “I cannot be held responsible for you not leaving your abode for the next two weeks. They are so sweet. I don’t think I could ever grow tired of Richard Manuel’s piano playing.


Bill: “thanks again, i’m sure this will be with me for years.


And for almost five of them it was.

On another visit, when there were some goings-on at Food Front–strife between management and employees–Bill told me that a few of his fellow workers had come to him asking how they could fight management. “First thing,” he said he told them, “would be to take a political science course.” A person of bigger pictures.

But of course he also understood the current, smaller one. I soon received this message: “food front: union we won! 11- 64, the MF’s spent more on their union bustin lawyer in one day than a cashier makes in a month and they still lost.


And now I am seeing in my mind the last time I saw Bill, at an anti-fascist rally a couple of summers ago. As usual, he had on a helmet because he had biked to the rally. He told me again how much he enjoyed The Basement Tapes, and then said that he might soon be moving to New York. We bid each other wishes for a safe day, and good luck for brighter futures. 

I am not sure if he went to New York. I do know that I did not miss him, or at least I did not miss him too much. He was a Good and Decent and Kind and Friendly person who cared about people, and as I type, I am uncertain about whether, now, I miss him. I will miss seeing him around, of course, and I likely do not have to tell you that after I get through lying to myself that I will miss him dearly, forever.

But those beautiful qualities that composed him–attributes that others of greater fortune than me knew at a greater depth than I did–will endure. They are meant to be embraced, cherished, and enjoyed, even in the absence of those who lived them, by those of us who continue on.

See Bill speaking on Imagination and Social Change: The Creativity of Occupy:

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