Festival All-Star: Nick Alvarado, aka Pumpkin
The first thing I noticed about Nick was his gigantic hands. They were otherworldly large and white and puffy and not even human. I say this because when I met Nick, he was actually dressed up as a clown, or in this case specifically, a “Ray Ray.”
The Ray Rays were a duo of dancing figures that would perform as part of the 25+ piece tribal electronic ensemble The Mutaytor. Back in 2004, The Mutaytor was blowing minds, and Nick and I were the “new kids” in the band. I was the turntablist, and Nick was one of the visuals artists, and in this case, a Ray Ray. So he had big hands, a big head, and once he took off the costume, an even bigger sense of humor.
Nick couldn’t have been more than 23 at the time but as his mother Jackie related to me recently, he had wanted to be a clown since he was 12. In fact, he was into anything fun, entertaining or frivolous, including a near obsession with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. By the time Nick joined The Mutaytor as a visual artist, he was not only an extremely talented and charismatic visual performer but a budding DJ who was calling himself “Nick the Neck.”
Over the next few years he slowly worked his way from his bedroom, to house parties, to warehouse parties, campouts, hideouts, and anywhere else people would let him play. As humble as could be, he would often have to be reminded by friends to ask for even things like gas money. But as many friends relate, he was always very clear about playing only the music he loved. Because many events and promoters prefer palatable, mainstream sounds, Nick created a new persona to play the stuff that was his own vision: Pumpkin.
Which is why when I ran back into him in 2010 I had no idea that “Pumpkin” was my old friend Nick. But after one listen to Pumpkin, or one glance at him on the stage with a funny hat, big glasses and an even bigger smile, and there was no doubt that this purpose-born clown named Nick Alvarado was on the stage playing as someone called “Pumpkin.”
It was this deep connection to his roots in cirque culture – and to the scruffy, DIY, creative communities – that made Pumpkin so special. Nick knew that if he played exactly what was in his heart, that there was a core group of people, however small, he could touch. And as time went on, he continued to stick to his guns and that core of people spread like a virus until little Nick had grown into one massive Pumpkin.
This really became apparent at Sea of Dreams NYE 2012, when we booked him to close the second stage and he had the entire building in front of him when the lights went on. Instead of sheepishly walking from the stage to pee or get a drink, Nick walked out in front of the stage. To my astonishment, he then did some pantomiming and chants and other silliness to make sure the magic continued just a bit longer.
As a touring DJ for 20 years, I know how hard it is to struggle with what you want vs. what everyone else expect. Every DJ wishes they could to play what’s in their hearts but few have the courage and determination to actually do so. The Pumpkin persona allowed Nick the space to do this, and because of his immense talent and force of personality, it was Pumpkin, (the esoteric remixer), not Nick the Neck, (the techno slinger) that captured the hearts of so many people. As Buck Down, a fellow Mutaytor-member recently remarked, “Nick was the most sincere DJ I have ever seen.”
Witnessing Nick’s incredible courage, and his willingness to do what I myself had tried and often failed to do as a DJ led me to pledge to do anything I could to help him. We booked him every possible opportunity, including the last five New Years Eves, silent disco performances at Ocean Beach, Treasure Island Music Festival , and a half-dozen club shows culminating in his closing set after Goldfish at Mezzanine this past Friday night.
On Friday, Nick had technical issues and could barely play his set due to all of the well-wishers wanting to pat his back or shake his hand. And yet he managed to absolutely rock the club 'til the lights came on. Afterwards he stuck around and shook more hands until everyone was satisfied. Nick has played so many houses, bedrooms, garages, lofts, backyards, beaches, festivals, and clubs, that everyone in the club felt they knew him intimately. This is a rare, rare talent, because Nick was a rare human being.
My favorite Pumpkin performance was not a big set on a big stage, but rather a small benefit show we produced this past October in memory of another fallen friend, Jon Horvath of Fort Knox Five. When news of Jon’s passing broke, I was devastated, having lost one of my best friends and one of the most important musical forces in my life. We soon set out to produce a benefit concert to support his family and I put the word out to my DJ friends. Nick was the first to respond. He and Jon were close friends as well, and they'd even performed together during many tours and shows.
Losing Jon hit Nick as hard as anyone and his closing set on October 1, 2015 at Public Works was one of the most beautiful, uncompromising and meaningful musical performances that I have ever witnessed. After an evening of great music, slideshows and heartfelt remembrances, Nick’s DJ set seemed to coalesce every emotion in the room into the healing power of dance. Nick’s music was the perfect antidote to the tragedy of our loss.
And so now I wonder, who will stand up to heal us this time?
I got a glimpse of the answer this past Monday at Nick’s unofficial San Francisco memorial service (seen in the lead video). At a small outdoor temple in Hayes Valley, more than 100 people assembled to salute Nick’s memory. Candles were lit, music played, and everyone had a chance to speak about what Nick meant to them. His parents and siblings participated via Skype and there was a palpable feeling of his presence in the air. So many times, we heard stories like, “I met Nick at X festival and we had X adventure and became great friends…. Only later did I find out he was Pumpkin.”
This really touches the core of what a humble, open-hearted and joyful human being Nick was. But the answer to my question comes from another story I heard again and again.
“I was always afraid to be the person I really wanted to be, and Nick’s talent, humility and courage inspired me to become the person I am."
This story is it. This is the vital one. Because in it, we answer that question I so sadly posed:
“Who will be there to stand up and heal us this time?”
All of US.
Nick inspired all of us to find the strength to be exactly the person we always wished we could be. To drop everything unnecessary and dedicate ourselves to our dreams, come hell or high water, or bad sound systems, or dust storms or acorn barrages.
Nick leaves us behind with a simple, humble, and profound statement: YOU CAN DO THIS.
And you can do it with a smile. With compassion. With genuine concern for others. With a steadfast dedication to our artistic vision.
It can be done, and it will be done. We know this because Pumpkin did it and he inspired us to believe in ourselves.