The Day the Music Died
I was in 8th grade when I met Jon. He was introduced to me by a friend in my band. Another friend told me how he’d first taken notice of the new kid; in Chemistry class, the teacher was asking if students wanted to hear their current term grades. Jon’s turn came – and with a smirking certitude, he answered “heh, sure.” Answer: F. Jonny knew, Jonny giggled. It was a somewhat giddy, almost half-crazed, low-key “fuck it all” giggle. No malice, no snark, no embarrassment, no nervousness, maybe some way off hint of cockiness. It didn’t matter – didn’t even register; to Jon it was silly, absurd, worth a laugh. The new guy confirmed no fucks would be given. In short order, we became friends.
Time takes hold, it defeats intentions. I hadn’t spoken to Jon in a couple years since he was last in town. He’d built a life in the Virgin Islands – which just made sense, and we’d only talked a handful of times over the last 10 years. It was always on the fly. Each time a little more distance, almost 20 years after we first met. We stayed in touch, often through his older brother, Steve also being a seminal influence to me in his own way.
Then, last Friday night – Jon called me. All of a sudden it was like no time had passed – like we still lived just a few streets away back in Briargate. We spoke for over an hour. The old days, music, the things we somehow survived –and the new days, jobs, families, time. Same old Jonny, and same old me – from out of nowhere here was my old friend. Afterwards I looked up hotels in St. Thomas, calculating what vacation time I’d have leftover come summer after some other scheduled trips. This became more important.
Jon and I talked about how it had been too long.
Early Saturday afternoon, my brother called then came over to my house. He told me he got a call from Steve.
Jon had drowned.
He was trying to save another person’s life as 12 foot waves hit a small tourist boat in a bad cove. He was 34.
Halloween 1994, we showed up at Denny’s as was the near-nightly ritual. French Fries and ranch dressing, coffee or Coke or Sprite. I dressed up like Charlie Babbitt, Jon as Rain Man. His mannerisms were spot on, my sunglasses were perfect, and the night manager bought us dinner. Other times if we had a few bucks, we’d go downtown to Jose Muldoon’s. On New Year’s Eve 1995, about 15 of us got together for a half formal evening at a place then called the Mirage– I think I made some speech about good friends; it was Jon who was the glue that brought everyone there.
I remember going up to Denver’s “Rock Island” Club with Jon and several others a few times. We always took the back way, driving up Highway 83 instead of the Interstate – and drove like bats out of hell. It didn’t matter. We were fearless in those moments. We’d all go and dance like fools.
The summer before he’d taken his parents’ old beater car – slated to be his anyway (a mid-80s VW Jetta called “the Skate”) – out for a joyride. He couldn’t wait for his license, and after all, so what. His Mom and Stepdad went off the deep end as parents will do worrying Jon was turning out to be the bad kid. That gave him a one way ticket back to Texas to stay with his Dad for the summer. He wasn’t fazed – and ended up getting his Dad’s gorgeous Nissan 240Z. He put in Boston Acoustic speakers and a removable face CD player. So it worked out – easy.
Jon took risks but wasn’t reckless; it sometimes felt like he was holding back, but nothing seemed to get to him. There were some times he pushed too hard – like when he was racing another buddy on the road behind Denny’s one night. The road wasn’t well lit, and he totaled that Nissan 240Z into the back of a parked 18-wheel flatbed. I remember driving with his stepdad to the hospital. Jon was concussed and his knee was badly swollen. He didn’t care. That car had been built up by him as his everything. When that was gone, he turned to music.
We connected on music – me from my drums and varied taste in genres, him with whatever instrument he picked up and his own wide-span eclecticisms. In those years, most of us were in bands. The local amateur scene consisted of a mass of interchangeable, talented friends, all of us jamming with each other at some point. While I’d been hooked on Nirvana, the Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains (and late 80s Wax-Trax Industrial care of my older brother), he finally convinced me to stop evading Pearl Jam, to listen to the Prodigy, and even some Crash Test Dummies and bands like The The. He could play the harmonica part to “Slow Emotion Replay” without a hitch. Same went for him on guitar – he was more the rhythm player than lead – saxophone, and even some piano. He could play covers easily enough, but had a steadier hand at writing his own material.
Jonny was always a heartbreaker – every woman in a room knew where he was. This isn’t pedestal building, rose-tinting embellishment borne from sudden loss. His pictures today look nearly the same. Six foot, Texas tan, lean muscled, easy demeanor, aw-shucks drawl. Jon knew he had “it,” of course – or more accurately, was aware of it.
We connected on girls. He was picky, never letting them too close. I, on the other hand, had a steady girlfriend who I cared for until it hurt too much. It ended hard, and after the destructive breakup and a few other things all coming down at once, Jon had me over to sit in his basement just to chill the fuck out. We listened to Pearl Jam’s “Indifference” over and over, every note, every lyric and verse still etched into me today. He knew where I was at, he understood the comedown – how I’d hit bottom and why; how I needed to get through that low and get it out of me. He sat there with me without pretense or judgment and helped get my head back on right.
For his part he had many wannabe girlfriends, mostly crushes, but more often than not was busy pining after an ex-girlfriend from Florida. Even after that passed, no matter how great the girl, he always kept them at a distance. That was a risk not worth it to him.
Mostly, we shared a warped humor built on taking nothing (including ourselves) too seriously. We played pool in his basement on a near daily basis, ball busting and leaving no topic sacred. We built a kinship that I’ve experienced rarely then or since, something words cheapen.
Back then we played together for a little bit in my new fledgling band, but he knew the bigger fish was the band fronted by one of my brother’s friends, a guy with his own cult of personality. Jon couldn’t resist – they had local club cred from previous tries, and Jon’s talents brought them a whole new dimension. He was dynamic, and more than that he fit their quirks. They were named Soul Food – a hybrid of skater thrash and funk.
They cut an album the following spring, tried to get a real tour via a local label, but for various reasons it never built up beyond that. Within a year they’d be done. My own band broke up as our guitarist – the guy who introduced me to Jon, and who himself was truly gifted – cut the cord and went to college. So Jon and I played together once more. It wasn’t big, we made a few songs and it was good. We didn’t play gigs but we didn’t need that.
That last conversation the night before he died, friends tell me it was providence and not coincidence. I don’t know why he called me that night – just that he did. We talked about our families, his love of his girlfriend, maybe his wanting children but who knew. I told him about my baby daughter and this awe of fatherhood. He played his guitar for me – one of the songs he’d written when we played together back in after our other bands had petered out. I told him I was still playing drums, and even still had the old kit alongside my new one. I’d been playing more lately, practicing several nights a week. He missed playing together. He said when I came down there we’d jam.
My wife posted a picture on Jon’s Facebook page –it’s of the 3 of us together, out in front of our High School around May 1995. I had long hair. I’d forgotten about that picture. Jon still looks the same.
We used to laugh and say it took Jon 3 hours to get ready to hang out for 30 minutes. He was a perfectionist who put thought into every action, yet it still never seemed rehearsed. Again, he knew he had ‘it,’ but never had to milk it or force it. There was the other side of him, more calculating – yes there were risks worth taking, but he could conversely be ultra-cautious – trusting his gut to tell him when something wasn’t a sure thing. He was quick to trust, but slow to act. Everything was done, or not, in its own time – at his own pace.
Jon kept it simple, direct. He was not a person to stand and watch, not a person to be trapped in reflection or regret. There was no hesitation in his going into the water to save someone, despite the risks. This last risk was worth it to him. No scrambled thoughts, what ifs, just instinct. Jon was selfless, courteous, a person who said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ actually meaning it. He was not a tourist. He was not passing through.
He died saving someone else’s life.
In that last call, I would’ve asked him if he could still play pool with the best of them. I would’ve asked him if he remembered when his Mom came out to the garage to tell us she was pregnant with his little sister, or how we waited in the hall of the hospital when she was born. Did he remember all those shows at the Underground, and that night all our bands played together at the Bingo Hall show in front of a few hundred people? Or all those nights we went to Denny’s, or to shows of friends’ bands, or when we drove around aimlessly for the hell of it? Did he have all of these memories flooding back like I did? Am I being selfish to wonder, or did he know how much he meant to me for so long?
He talked about Tanji and feeling whole, and the love and respect he held utmost for his brother who he looked up to “as the smartest guy I’ve ever known.” He talked about how he was looking forward to seeing his little sister again soon. He talked about maybe getting a piece of a bar, and how he was studying to become a captain of his own tour boat. And the music.
What I did ask him, what I’m glad I asked him – was he okay, and was he happy?
He said yes.
Jon lived the way he needed to, how he wanted, by his own methods and through his passions. He lived within himself and never put up a front or was tied down by regret. He was not lost in past glories, but rather honored his friends and memories. He endeared himself to so many people as he was so approachable, thoughtful, humble, so inclusive and so uniquely genuine.
Over the years Jon has become like a metaphoric symbol of happiness to me, an embodiment of what it means to be free – an idea, a representation of what could be. Maybe it’s a hokey ideal – an unfair one based in my mind’s eye. Jon wasn’t perfect – he’d never even think it – he was very human, he made mistakes, sometimes the same ones. To all of us who knew Jon, who knew his crazy giggle, who knew his joyfulness – these things stay with us.
I am proud to have known him, and happy that he knew me as his friend. I will remember him forever, and miss him terribly.
We love you very much- goodbye Jon.