For Our Buddy John Jennings on his Birthday(I never got around to formally reading this at our friend’s Memorial Service 1 year ago today):
OK, then..it would appear--somewhat reasonably--that the vast majority of the good folks here today would consider themselves "middle-aged".
Those who subscribe to the tenets in pre-conceived dispositions of "ageism" would probably impose the particular year middle-age begins…whether it be 30, 40…50....
My mother-in-law is presently 92 years old. What she would consider to be her middle-aged years I don't know. I do know that when she relates stories from her younger years she does not begin "back when I was middle-aged".
My son demurely mumbled to me somewhen around his 33rd birthday that he "doesn't feel very young anymore".
I once attended the funeral of a wonderful woman who had died at the age of 101. Ripe, old? I suppose those adjectives are fair.
In light of the loss of my Father as a child and my Mother as a young adult, I declared to my companion that the occasion of her funeral after 101 years was somewhat refreshing since she had “made it to the finish line”: lived a long and multitudinous life. A joyful occasion, really!
My friend quickly countered, “No it’s not. She didn’t want to die!”
The point that most of us would gladly take life over no life at any point within a life. John and I chronically invoked the famous scene from Unforgiven wherein the blubbering young cowboy posse initiate is shakily confronting the emotional aftermath of his first killing.
Clint Eastwood says, "It's a hell of a thing killing a man: take away all he’s got and all he’s gonna have” to which the kid says, " yeah but I guess he had it coming, huh?"
"We've all have it coming, kid”, utters Clint.
At some point in our lives we look up to notice that we've been lucky enough to be around long enough and work at one type of thing along with a small group of people. And within that relatively cozy group, we’ve made life-long and cherished friends.
Weeks, months, years, decades pass and bonds are formed. Each unique. Some stronger or weaker than the last or next, a course with peaks and valleys as we forge ahead like a plow horse until the day you realize that you've known a particular soul for longer than most others in your life, you've spent more time with that person than you with your own nuclear family before you flew from the nest toward adulthood.
And with these souls, if things went so rightly, you managed to create and accomplish some mightily profound feats. You’ve healed, entertained, taught, learned, served and earned your worth as you together gained and sustained.
I firmly believe that all of our years here are formative ones.
Those hours add up and—lo and behold—you have a true brother or sister. They know you—and you know them— extremely well. Sometimes it feels too well!
The things you done, the places you've been, the experiences you’ve shared…together…realtime…over a long time. That history. Is anything more precious?
At one point during one of our many late night powwows (in our 20s and 30s— the fires were usually stoked by any number of mind altering substances, and in our 40s and 50s they were stoked with experience, jaded retrospect and hard-fought wisdom. The latter being every bit as—no make that more—intoxicating then the former) John confessed and professed a deep and abiding commitment : "Jon, I've known you since you were 19 years old and we are now in our 40s”. Regardless of what you may have ever said to me, about me or done to me and whatever I have ever said about or done to you, well…(taking a long thoughtful John pause) we're still here and I am highly rewarded with this relationship. Man, I am all in until the end of the line.”
It's interesting to me that John and I very seldom spoke in any sort of granular detail about what we did within the context of shows, recording sessions and such.
But we certainly talked about most all else.
John loved bandying on about any art whatsoever. His polymathic intellect new no bounds, and that made it especially difficult for the unsuspecting and quixotically reluctant new acquaintance to escape the compelling clutches of John's charmingly amiable, expertly convincing, informative, elucidative and engaging manner. John was pretty danged irresistible.
On a tour flight to Boulder, Colorado John was seated next to an attractive(ly) off duty flight attendant. He chatted her up for the entire way, as usual, and by the time we had landed John had not only made a new friend but had garnered an invitation for himself and a few of us others to meet her and her pilot husband for a late morning & early afternoon training session in a full-scale FAA grade 747 flight simulator. The ones in which the guys up front did their training.
It made total sense, this sort of encounter, and John’s associates would see this type of thing again and again:
A stranger, a friend of a friend at a party, a bandmate, a travel mate…hearing perhaps the voice first…gentle, genteel, that of a broadcast announcer who may always make it home to read the bed time story to the kids. His voice was velvety, lyrical, laced with experience, compassion and empathy. Perhaps prior to that, or concurrently…she’d see the eyes. John’s eyes were extremely easy on the eyes. And they were extremely intelligent eyes, and that—coupled with his overall demeanor and sympathetic ear—were indeed windows into an exceptionally beautiful soul.
He had that woman at “how ARE you?”, and the following Tuesday John and a few others were at the controls, trying not to crash.
John would later glowingly report on the splendid field trip, how he was rather impressed with himself to be the only one in the group to NOT crash the simulated jumbo jet.
In an interview with Bill Holland, John states that in his younger years, one of his less than admirable behavioral traits was that “he could be manipulative”.
I’m venturing to guess that was born from an early life discovery of his spellbinding way with people. We all know that many folks found themselves wanting to impress John, longing to please John, as doing so rendered them pleased with themselves.
John somehow managed on many occasions to show, and/or share that he was indeed pleased with—well, proud of— himself, and he did that in a becoming way. It was undeniably evident and, hell, you had to agree with him.
Yes, John was more than aware that he was extraordinary, with the self-assuredness of a phobic person who time and again has rediscovered his more than adequate tools for survival: a multitude of natural abilities and gifts,…intellect, compassion, hard fought and heartfelt worth…
We all know John was one of those rare individuals to whom the skill for tasks difficult and tenuous for others would come relatively easy.
It was John's way to somehow manage a disarming humility, fronted with a winkingly disingenuous modesty when he would remark that guitar playing was something that came "pretty easily" to him.
He must've been aware just how much that could piss off at least a dozen other guitar players we know, yeah?
John knew—and would privately share— which other players amazed him or “gave him a run for his money”. You all know who you are. Maybe not. I’ll tell yaz later. He probably told you already. John would say, “I don’t want to talk out of school” pretty frequently.
John knew how to do a lot of things and knew how to do them well without a whole lot of help from others. It was because of this that, when the rare situation arose wherein John asked for your help, it would certainly bolster your confidence, up your seeming (“conscious and unconscious”) aptitude and your self-esteem, for we all knew of his prickly discernment of everything practical, artistic or just plain trivial, how fussy he could be.
We all know that horn players can be bawdy, string players may be meekly sensitive, drummers can be crude, bass players smooth—always get the girls, piano players are somewhat snobby and aloof, but guitar players… by and large are…a fussy lot.
And John was fussier than most.
He wasn't always outspoken about his opinions of things, no wait…yes, he usually was…but that was usually when within small groups of people and definitely when it was just the two of you chatting.
Here's the thing – John would matter-of-factly state this—he was good at "getting" people... that is to say: he was a great judge of people... he could pick up what made you tick and do it pretty damn quick, enough to make you sick…figure out your trick, make you feel like such a d***.
He “could think faster than you could ever run, run, run…”
That could be a bit nerve-racking sometimes.
John could dish. For the most part his dishing was about music and art – let's just say music, because he was first to disclaim with a global "what do I know?… however" of literature or movies. but being a musician songwriter – brilliant songwriter – and a record producer, he felt he had the license to spill some acid for the benefit of a brighter more evolved scene on folks’ behalf from time to time.
Politics, current affairs…NOW we’re rocking’. John would chronically contextualize his sociological points with “let’s not worry about me…my politics are so left of left of left, they are OFF the table the radar is on…"
As an artist, that license is extremely healthy: the exchange (sometimes heated) of ideas, beliefs, concerns and consternations that apply to our communal belief that in our artistic endeavors we should primarily focus on creating something that matters. As an artist he felt that and strongly. As a producer, he was primarily concerned with the piece, that the track, the project on which you were working well, was “working”. He excelled at that.
There was a calm and sure-handed approach to all his projects, which fostered a reassuring and angst free (for the most part) collaboration with many songwriters and artists. There was something about John that, if you allowed it to work, and didn’t fight it, could make you feel verrrry good about yourself. And that’s verrrry good, when recording yourrrr record.
John didn't like young bands very much. In fact, I don't think he took naturally or affectionately to youngsters much at all. When speaking of young bands that invite their friends to fill up a pub once a week, or a band of other-than-musical professionals: lawyers, doctors and dentists who throw together a band and play at the country club every now and then... John could be pretty merciless. He resented their “air time”, and he was outspoken about it.
I would say something like “ah what the hell, live and let live, live and let play” or some such shite, and John would say "no I don't agree with that because they're out there taking up air meant for the the rest of us." Somehow I didn't see this as an elitist statement, I saw it as the way John was committed himself to seeing to music and art getting the respect they deserve. If you were merely noodling on the guitar during an idle chat, there should still be a modicum of deliberation behind every half-minded lick. In other words: When it came to making music, John didn't fuck around. That's not to say he didn't have any fun, he had buckets of fun. In the studio he had a way of being so totally low-key...as many an adroit producer aspires to be--that he somehow got great performances out of folks most of the time. Laid back, praising, ENJOYING himself…enjoying others.
I think he loved being the first person to say, let’s take a break…this’ll be great…and we’d repair to the porch for chocolate and a smoke and conversation having absolutely NOTHING to do with the work at hand.
John was intense without appearing intense. When he was working.
When he wasn’t working John appeared intense. Not in a bad way, (unless really bugged “Jaking” as a close friend would say) but in a thoughtful, sometimes lofty way, as if his hyper-awareness rendered most situations and conversations to be something with which he was either familiar, or one whose aspects and concepts he’d once easily grasped, or could easily grasp again. He bored easily.
He could come off as jaded, pre-occupied, cynical, skeptical, sardonic. Also whimsical, fantastical, and oh so funny.
Just when I’d be thinking or grousing internally that John had a bit of a superiority complex, he would say something so disarming, so self-deprecating, so…humble, that I’d feel guilty for thinking he was any other way.
He was taken aback, truly…whenever I’d compliment him on his economy, sensitivity and approach to piano parts. OK, I merely praised his part, and it seemed to stop him in his tracks.
When he’d make some of the best and wittiest remarks, resulting in my wincing and tearing with laughter he’d say, "Oh my God, Jon…you’re laughing at MY joke? Damn!"
John’s ego was huge, but it was dwarfed by his enormous heart.
Being friends with John meant seeing the world through the eyes of John, and that wasn’t always an uplifting experience.
You had a much better shot at rosy-ing up your outlook by listening to Marilyn Manson, Morrissey or something, but… we all know how it was to be greeted by John: Never a "hey how are ya”, or “hi” it was more than often “(your name here) how ARE you!”
When asked how HE was doing he would glow with aplomb..”I have NO complaints.” “All the better for seeing you!”
John held fast onto pearls of wisdom, and would readily recite them.
As fussy, particular and bristly as John may seemingly be, he was an overall zealous celebrant of life and love. Love was most important in a life filled with “just details”.
John was very strong. "Strong like bull”, he would say. He was more self-reliant than most folks. He was intellectually strong, and for someone who had serious bouts with phobias and neuroses he was a remarkable exemplar of high emotional IQ. John dealt with all people in a most civilized fashion, but when holding fast to his principles, his tenacity was cement-solid. …whatever the aspects behind any contentious issue, he had thought about them a great deal.
John had strong opinions, and so do I, and it was remarkable that we remained friends in light of the fact that when we had opposed views, they were diametrically such, but those instances usually had nothing more crucial than Kubrick’s framing, Cukos ethos, Solti, Visconti or Debra Winger’s performance in Mike’s Murder.
There was the accident wherein the sky actually fell on he and Tamara. A big tree, actually.
Mere months later John would be arriving to his gig, Holiday lights coruscating on the apparatus screwed into his skull and affixed to his torso, a device ironically called a ‘halo’…and exclaim gently and firmly “I am the luckiest person I know.”
But years later as John and I walked the corridors of NIH after his second cancer surgery—one day afterward, actually—he was his usual optimistic, highly philosophical self, praising Tamara, the network of folks supporting him, his top-drawer doctors. Grateful, humble, shuttling, scuffling, hobbled, strapped, poked, and tubed…he was upbeat.
But at one point, in that way we all know of John, he stopped, turned to look me straight me in the eye with a semi-beseeching rise in one eyebrow, and said, “Don’t get me wrong. I AM aware of and appreciate the gravity of the situation.”
As much as John enjoyed spinning yarns from the old days (show business does tend to generate many entertaining, funny, interesting tales. I can’t imagine why... it’s not inhabited with many entertaining, funny, interesting people) he was anything but a backward glancer. He cared not for rehashed, post-game analysis, or even discussions of past productions. He was ever and already onto the next thing. “Way down the road”…John would say….”I’ve moved waaay past it” he would say to someone longwindedly contrite after an argument.
John liked and lived to move forward.
In the end, as I believe he was for most of his life, John was a realist. Albeit one with the intellectual and spiritual gifts enabling him to pull cheeky hope from the jaws of a most dire situation. John was a true romantic, an egoist (with one ’t’), but he did not frivolously romanticize, and I know that he cared for and about others very deeply. He respected those with heart, and he supported, encouraged, advocated for and so many times facilitated those who had something important to say.
Life was important, and it was important to John to make sure it stayed important. Dwelling, resenting or recounting the past was wasted time. He once said, “One day I’ll sit on a porch with my old chums and do the 'remember when’ thing. But for now I’m going to keep going."
We often talked about future projects—our own and others’. “We’ve always got potential”, he’d say…quickly, tersely…as smooth as John’s voice was, and as long as he may have taken in any discussion to formulate what he was about to say (you know, with his hands raised as if to say, ‘hold up…I’m devising the perfect most convincing way to make my point here’)…when he finally said it, he’d say it FAST. He was a fast talker. There was an autobahn of neurotic alacrity between his brain and his mouth. One would not delay the other.
John always had a lot on his mind, and not usually in a worrisome way. His brain was full, and so was his heart…and he was always happy and proud to give you generous pieces of both.
Bless his soul.
I hope and I pray (yes, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning demiurges and deities, I believe in that great collective energy of prayer…) at any rate, for it would make me feel better to know, that somewhere along the arduous and rutted road of John’s last journey that his brilliant mind, his gifts of wisdom, his talent for devising ways forward conspired to reward him with a clear discernible vision that made some sort of sense, offered solace, laid the warm hand of grace…calming him with the knowledge that it was alright to “move way past it”.
That it was OK to keep looking forward toward whatever is next.
John left us with so much to ponder, to enjoy, to carry and he inspired so many with so much.
Some of my favorite John sayings:
Remarking on digital manipulation of recorded performances:
This was intoned within the discussion of bars being ever lower, “It is now possible, to make a purse from a sow’s ear”
On Capital Punishment : “If you want someone dead, just be patient and you WILL get your wish.”
Missing a cue in the studio: “Sorry. I was hanging out like a kid at the 7-11 on that one.”
Relationships: “Even the best relationships are not always mutually rewarding. But all relationships must be rewarding enough to make you want to continue maintaining them.”
On touring, and spoken while sitting on opposable benches: “I love playing music, and I love all of you, don’t get me wrong…but I can think of lots of things I’d rather be doing than this right here.”
“Topiary Donkey with a Dick.”
Now for a famous jingle we'd never tire of recalling and reprising:
Bye for now!
THE SOFT SOFT DRINK
Milk’s the soft soft drink, it doesn’t burn foam or fizzle
Doesn't snap doesn’t sizzle when you want to wet your whistle
Its the soft soft drink that’s good for you it'll make your
Whole insides say ‘thanks’
Makes your teeth grow strong starts a belly celebration
And a muscle jubilation, people all across the nation
Drink the soft soft drink for a vitamin sensation
Drink the soft soft drink drink milk
soft soft drink it doesn’t shout about its flavor always on its best behavior
When its food you wanna savor
Its the soft soft drink that’s always been the favorites
It’s the soft soft drink drink milk!