If you're going to do something incredibly stupid, do it with a good friend, okay?
That might seem to be an inapt way to remember my dear friend John DiGiovanni, who left this mortal coil early on the morning of September 14, but that's what happened a few minutes after I snapped this photograph of him in the Badlands of South Dakota in August of 1974. Actually, a few minutes before I snapped this photograph, we had ingested a mind altering substance, all the better to enjoy exploring the labyrinth of layered rock formations, buttes and soaring pinnacles that give the Badlands their intimidating name.
What we had not done was check the weather, a requisite when trekking off the beaten track, which we did repeatedly that summer on our westward-ho odyssey (which included scaling a 12,400 foot mountain in Colorado) and would have been easy to do from our sun-drenched vantage point at the edge of the Badlands, a breathtaking view of hundreds of miles of prairie grasslands stretching south and well into Nebraska. Had we done so, we would have noticed a line of ominously dark gray cumulonimbus thunderstorm clouds barreling our way.
Going into the endless maze of box canyons in the face of an impending storm was . . . well, incredibly stupid.
Our incredibly stupid selves had hiked a good distance off the road and into a dry wash. I recall wondering in my altered state if we'd turn a corner and stumble upon a stegosaurus with her young. Or a Tyrannosaurus rex or one of the other dinosaurs that roamed the Badlands tens of millions of years ago. That thought -- and the sunlight -- evaporated with the first crack of thunder, which was followed within seconds by raindrops. Which was followed within a few more seconds by a torrential downpour that left us proverbially dazed and confused and the formerly red-orange sky a putrid purple.
We were soon up to our ankles and then some in churning rainwater as the dry wash in which we found ourselves became a raging torrent. How we found our way back to my VW bus, muddy, soaked and chastened, is a never-to-be-solved mystery, but the skies did soon clear and we were rewarded with a gorgeous double rainbow.
|SNAKEGRINDER (1974) (JONATHAN TAYLOR PHOTO)
I had known John for about a year at that point and was greatly admiring of his chops as the drummer and percussionist for Snakegrinder and the Shredded Field Mice.
Snakegrinder, for whom I designed a poster or two and occasionally helped lug their equipment to and from gigs (damn you, Dave Bennett, your Kustom organ and Leslie cabinet!) practiced in the basement of Steve and Kathy Roberts' apartment in the house of video pioneer Ed "Stretch" Wesolowski. This was catty corner to my rowhouse on Wilbur Street, which was working on its image as a Newark, Delaware hippie enclave as Snakegrinder was working on its image as a cult band. (Translation: Great music but few paying gigs, although 40 years on they have becoming wildly popular among collectors of obscure vinyl psychedelia in far flung places like Norway and Japan. Go figure.)
John needed a place to stay and I had a spare room, and so commenced my 45-year friendship with this self effacing and enormously talented man with a 1,000-watt smile. We ended up lining my basement walls with sound absorbent egg crates and John would practice for hours -- day in and day out. While being in the same house with a drummer with a serious woodshed ethic would seem to be as crazy as hiking into that box canyon with a storm bearing down on us, I loved hearing John run through his practice drills and freer form explorations as he broadened his palette from rock to include jazz (Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra were influences) and Eastern drumming and percussion (ditto Mickey Hart's Diga Rhythm Devils and Ravi Shankar's ensembles).
There was life after Snakegrinder, which dissolved in 1975.
John and Dave joined a Mexican circus, John on drums and Dave on tuba. There followed extensive gigging with, among other bands and innumerable guest appearances, the Sin City Band, Garry Cogdell and the Complainers, Old Soul, Bluestone, Live at the Fillmore, the Dinkendo Family Band, Stackabones, his own jazz band Kombu Combo, and most recently the mashup cover band Steal Your Peach.
He also was a drum and percussion teacher and recording engineer and producer at Marsh Road Studios.
George Wolkind, former Snakegrinder lead singer and co-founder and president of the Delaware Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame, presented John with a Rock Hall induction medal last month.
|COURTESY OF JEFFREY F. QUATTRO
While "Johnny Digs" spread his wings far beyond jazz, it remained his great love, and we shared and he exemplified the view that too much jazz is played for musicians and not the rest of us.
Even though jazz is more popular than ever (the late great John Coltrane had a chart-topping record earlier this summer, an album I gifted John and he loved) and there are jazz venues, there also are a lot of empty seats.
Very few musicians of any kind, and especially jazzos, are able to make the leap from having to work day jobs to being able to devote themselves to playing full time. That has less to do with talent, which John had in spades, than luck. John was no exception, and he became a master electrician -- and a damned good one -- to supplement his meager musical income.
John had the qualities that make a great drummer and percussionist. (Listen to his solo on "Sweet Clifford" at the 2008 Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington, Delaware. And with Kombu Combo doing Horace Silver's "Filthy McNasty" in 2009.)
First of all, as obvious as this may seem, John knew how to listen. He could be athletic on the kit, but "felt" the music and had a great touch. His sense of time and meter was impeccable, his technical vocabulary rich and deep, and he could set up wonderful rhythmic dialogues with the rest of a band. (This helps explain why we had the same favorite Grateful Dead song -- "Eyes of the World" -- which I and many of John's friends are playing in tribute to him.)
Most importantly to me, the spaces between the beats were as important to John as the beats themselves. Or as Miles Davis famously put it, "It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play."
John DiGiovanni's life informed his drumming and his drumming informed his life. He touched so many people in life and was so extraordinarily courageous as he faced the end of his own life.
He will be missed.