Susan Tanner and husband Marty Boratin.
Susan Tanner and husband Marty Boratin.

Good Night, Susan Tanner

by / Apr. 26, 2017 12am EST

It is often said when a beloved person passes away that it’s hard to imagine a world without them in it. That is absolutely true of Susan Tanner, who lost her long and valiant battle with cancer on Monday, April 24.

However, if it’s hard to imagine the world without Susan, it is all but impossible to think of a Buffalo music scene without her. 

In Susan’s championing, support, and seemingly endless enthusiasm, she not only enriched the music made in and coming out of Western New York but also was our ambassador: from her constant cheerleading of our city and its wealth of talent to hosting acts from around the world with husband Marty Boratin at their makeshift rock-and-roll bed and breakfast, a place that became a fabled oasis for road-beleaguered touring artists. 

Music was part of Susan’s career for the long stretch of her life, but it was always so much more than any kind of job.

Born and raised in Western New York, Susan graduated from Eden Central and headed to Allegany College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where her love of music drew her to campus-based radio station WARC 90.3 in the 1980s heyday, when college radio was helping shape the next 20 years of popular music. Her scene of friends there included a synth-obsessed, aspiring musician from Cleveland named Trent Reznor. 

From there she headed to Philadelphia to work an advanced degree in neuroscience, but fate and the draw of rock-and-roll had other plans. She was offered an internship with Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. Records, arguably the coolest taste-making imprint on the planet at the time. From then on it was sealed: Susan Tanner was in the music business. 

From I.R.S., she ended up with a full-time job at the industry powerhouse Universal Records at just the time when alternative rock—her stock in trade—was about to take over. At Universal, Susan was central in the ascendency of a movement, flying across the world with Teenage Fanclub and minding a Seattle band called Nirvana through press conferences and promotional appearances.

By the late 1990s, the draw of home was tugging at her; with her parents still in Eden, she moved back to Western New York just in time to get on board with another unique, strong-willed, and passionate homegrown woman: Ani DiFranco. At the height of DiFranco’s and her label Righteous Babe’s success, Susan was shepherding the marketing of a unique “made in Buffalo” brand to a global audience. She remained at Righteous Babe through the launch of Babeville and into the late 2000s.  

Through her tireless work and devotion, Susan proved herself a key ingredient in the success of many projects and collaborations. There was still one big project, the greatest collaboration in Susan’s life, personally and not surprisingly also in music. 

In the 1990s, through her work at Universal, she befriended the Hawaiian-shirted record store clerk, show booker, and general music know-it-all Marty Boratin. The years of platonic friendship surprisingly blossomed into a lot more. They became the Queen City’s de facto yin-and-yang rock couple who balanced one another: He the matter-of-fact but lovable record store curmudgeon and she the exuberant, energetic, and boundlessly kind believer. They pooled their powers and passions to deepen Western New York’s live musical landscape.

They provided a country respite for touring bands at their home in Eden. In the fall of 2005, their families, the city’s music cognoscenti, and guests from around the world gathered under a giant tent on the Eden homestead for a wedding to end all: live music, lavish food and drink, and a party that went on late into the night. To this day, it’s party still bandied about as the quintessential “Susan and Marty” event.

It would be tough to scratch and not find a musician or fervent fan not touched by Susan’s generosity, advocacy, and charm. She supported local bands not just by coming out to shows—which she always did—but spreading the word to her friends and colleagues, offering marketing advice, helping connect in other cities, and so much more. She would help people, not just friends, get in to private events or sold-out shows in far-flung cities with just a phone call or email. 

In 2012, Susan was diagnosed with an aggressive, tough-to-treat form of breast cancer called TNBC. After battling through tough treatment and earning a clean bill of health, it returned within a couple years.  Of course, Susan fought it again all the way through with an unparalleled level of grace and indefatigability. She flew around the country for clinical trials, studies, and treatments, all the while still working, still helping others and still deep in the music world.

As recently as last week, though fresh from a surgery, she and Marty hosted one of their regular house concerts with Mark Eitzel—unsurprisingly an artist who she’d known and loved for the better part of three decades—and she was prepping the house and making food for the artist and attendees. In the following days, she felt tired and was admitted to the hospital. 

Susan had battled the cancer back again but sadly the chemotherapy had ravaged her organs. On Monday morning, she died.

In our polarized world, I defy you to find a polarizing opinion on Susan. She was the rarest case. It would be nearly impossible to find someone who could muster a negative word for her. The outpouring on social media since her passing is a testament. It’s the kind you only see for a star. 

Of course she was a star.

Susan Tanner was mortal, like we all are, but she had a super power: a fortified, almost superhuman mix of being genuine, diligent, kind, engaging, and positive, while still always able to tell you how she felt and with brilliance and succinct honesty. Her smile lit up a room and her hug filled you with life. 

In accordance with her wishes, Susan Tanner will be remembered not with a wake. Or a funeral. Or a sad memorial service. Instead it will be a giant party planned for the middle of May downtown in the city she loved at Asbury Hall at Babeville. You can bet there will be some good music playing.