Over the course of a long career, Dennis Sheehan became known to U2 band-mates as Saint Dennis of Dublin. He was, to quote the Irish supergroup’s lead singer Bono, “a legend in the industry, and a legend within the band.”
It was Bono who announced Sheehan’s death some months back at a Los Angeles hotel in the midst of the band’s Innocence + Experience tour.
“We’ve lost a family member – we’re still taking it in. He is irreplaceable,” wrote the esteemed vocalist on U2’s website.
Sheehan’s job was entirely behind the scenes – logistics, transportation, set up, sound checks, always with one eye on the clock. From all accounts, he did it with precision, grace, and the utmost reliability.
Though staggered by his sudden death from an apparent heart attack, U2 members decided that the 68 year-old would want the show to go on, and they returned to the stage at the Los Angeles Forum that night. Bolstered by prayers shared backstage, they opened as they had the previous night, but with a poignant photo montage upon the show’s big screen. A few songs in, Bono spoke of Sheehan’s 33 years with the band, saying they were all “extended family.” He dedicated several songs to Sheehan that night, and later, announced that the entire tour, scheduled to run until November, would be performed en homage to their departed friend.
Rolling Stone magazine marveled at the intimacy Bono brought to the sold-out venue when speaking of the loss.
“He actually lived the dignity that our music aspires to,” said the iconic front-man. “You fight with your friends. You love your friends. It’s kind of a dysfunctional family in U2… but actually quite functional in other ways because we look after each other.”
Sheehan shared the same sense of family in an interview for a U2 website.
“This entire band and organization are artists first, but they are also tremendous individuals. Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam seem like brothers in a way.”
Born in England of Irish immigrant parents, Sheehan spent his childhood in Dungarvan on Ireland’s south coast, before attending English school and touring with his own band as a teenager. At 19, he left the stage and took his first job as a roadie, embarking on a career that would, in 2008, earn him a Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award. For much of the 1970s he worked for Led Zeppelin, widely considered one of the most commercially successful and influential bands in rock and roll history. In 1982 he was hired by U2 as they prepared to release their third album, War.
Britain’s The Independent credited Sheehan with bringing a logistical, level-headed approach to Led Zeppelin, a band renowned as much for its excesses as for its music.
Zeppelin’s singer Robert Plant shared his sentiments in a statement to the Los Angeles Times shortly after Sheehan’s passing; “Dennis travelled with me as we approached the end game of Led Zeppelin, his charm and humor a beacon in the meltdown of the late 70s.”
The band broke up following the death of its binge-drinking drummer, John Bonham, and Plant further recalled Sheehan’s presence and support during the weeks and months that followed.
“He ironed my green flares with a straight face and helped me reacquaint with the gift of speech every morning. I loved him like the impish brother that he was.”
Ironically, Sheehan’s career could have ended much earlier; in 1972, while working with Scottish band Stone the Crows, guitarist Les Harvey was electrocuted on a wet stage in Wales while Sheehan, who was frantically pulling plugs, was jolted off a table.
Throughout his years, Sheehan maintained a reputation that ran somewhat counter to the rock and roll stereotype.
“I never drank until I was 30, I never did drugs and I was always honest,” he shared in a 2008 interview. “I think people knew my history, and knew I was straight, and that I had a sense of responsibility. I always got the job done, regardless.”