Dexter Romweber


By Laurie Paolicelli

Photo by Salt Lake UnderGround, SLUG Magazine.

Musical legend and Chapel Hill icon Dexter Romweber died last week. He was only fifty-seven years old, which is young to be gone. And yet, like many artists who shared their creative lives with all of us, his life feels bigger than that — vaster. Long before he became the famous Dexter, appearing on David Letterman and MTV, he was the brilliantly infamous Dexter, a Chapel Hill kid with a guitar and a voice that wouldn’t stop. He had a band in middle school called the Kamikazes. In the early 80’s he could be seen walking down the 100 block of Franklin Street with an acoustic guitar slung behind his back on a strap, stopping beneath a streetlamp to belt out a tune. Are you lonesome tonight?You would hear him long before you saw him, because his voice could fill up this whole town. He was our own strolling minstrel with an Elvis Presley flair, rockabilly and punk from the get-go; he even had a sneer and the animated hair to go with it. But more than anything else he had the spirit of a man who let himself be possessed by his art, which was, in general, music; specifically, though, it was rock-and-roll of the purest sort.

Coming of age in Chapel Hill and Carrboro he would play The Cave, Local 506, Cat’s Cradle, the ArtsCenter, but also wherever he happened to be at the moment. At the Dexter-friendly and warmly remembered Hardback Café and Bookstore, he would drop in for an impromptu concert in the fiction section — crooning — fearless as Woody Guthrie. His song sung, he would push through the glass doors and disappear into the dark. Of such moments magic is made.

On Facebook and Instagram and X, social media outlets that have become a graveyard for our grief, posts are brimming with tales of Dexter as a musician, a man, a brother, a friend, beginning with the saddest one of all: the announcement of his death by Romweber’s family. “It is our sad duty to inform the world that our beloved youngest brother John Michael Romweber II — you know him as Dexter — died at home on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. He was 57 years old . . . ”

From there it’s one stricken voice after another.

Dexter and Sara Romweber.

Romweber’s most lasting contribution to the history of rock-and-roll is the band formed in 1983, with Chris “Crow” Smith, the guitar/drums duo called the Flat Duo Jets. It was just the two of them — Chris on drums, Dexter on guitar — but their sound was so big just the two of them was enough. Sharing the screen and stage with other underground icons like R.E.M., Iggy Pop, and the B-52s, the Flat Duo Jets are no footnote. The sound they created was unique and went on to inspire Neko Case, Cat Power, and Jack White, who put together a duo of his own called the White Stripes.

“He wasn’t a Rock N’ Roll musician,” White writes of Romweber, “he WAS Rock N’ Roll inside and out, without even having to try, he couldn’t help himself. People toss that around a lot, but in Dex’s case it was actually true. To call him Punk would be like calling the Great Pyramid a sandcastle. He was one of my favorite people I’ve ever known and one of my most cherished influences. They don’t make them like Dex anymore.”

After the Jets disbanded in the late 90s, Dexter played in a variety of guises, most famously, perhaps, the Dex Romweber Duo, with his sister Sara Romweber, a musical powerhouse in her own right and who predeceased him by five years. As a largely solo act, he allowed himself to explore everything from rockabilly to Chopin-inspired piano compositions.

Rock against Glioblastoma in memory of Sara Romweber at Cats’s Cradle last November.

All told, Dexter Romweber recorded nearly two dozen LPs. His most recent album was “Good Thing Goin’,” released in 2023 and dedicated to his late sister Sara. But there is much more to him than even this prodigious output. He’s an original, unique to the world. And this is where he made his home.

Good Thing Goin album by Dex Romweber.

From where we stand in the present, looking back at the past we’ve somehow survived, we lament the absence of so much, from diagonal parking to the Rathskeller to the Flower Ladies. Not everyone reading this now knew or ever knew of Dexter Romweber, but his absence is felt by all of us, whether we know it or not, the way everything gets just a little dimmer when a light goes out.

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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