John’s first words to me when we met that day in an art class at
And thus began a friendship that lasted more than 50 years.
The basis for our friendship was show business. We both wanted to be in it. We had to be in it. It was the only way. We weren’t athletes, we weren’t brainy students, we weren’t tough guys. We went into show business for the same reason guys like us still do. To get girls. We were, after all, Daydream Believers trying to impress the Homecoming Queen.
We formed a duo and put together a comedy act. It’s instructive that I now cannot for the life of me remember one joke we ever did. It’s very possible we didn’t have any. What I do remember is, John would imitate Ed Sullivan and I’d imitate Gene Krupa on my huge set of drums. Then John would imitate Elvis. And I’d imitate Gene Krupa. On my huge set of drums. What gigs we got were always accepted on the basis of whether we would be able to lug my huge set of drums there. I think that’s why John very quickly became a single. He got tired of carrying drums. Many years later, after the Kingston Trio days, when John formed a duo with another partner, Buffy Ford, I was the drummer. There we were -- three of us lugging my drums all over the country.
Our high school act lasted just long enough for us to appear on Gene Norman’s Campus Club TV show on Channel 9 in
We did a lot of sitting around in those days plotting our escape from
John bought his very first guitar at a pawn shop for a quarter. True. Twenty-five cents. It had no strings. In one of our performances at a high school assembly, Pat DeCarlo threw a fifty-cent piece at us onstage and put a hole right through John’s guitar. John figured he’d doubled his original investment and bought a real guitar with strings. He learned to play it while sitting outside his house in his ’52 Chevy. He couldn’t play in the house because his father couldn’t stand the noise. John’s father, also named John, was a very odd man who had a strange difficulty articulating. His admonition about not playing guitar in the house went something like, “Neddy mind de wham-de-bam.”
John also, around this time, began to cultivate that wonderfully varied series of friendships that continued all his life. Hanging around
John and I almost parted company early on because of a running argument we had over who was the better singer, Elvis or Frank Sinatra. We never settled the question and the arguments would invariably end in angry silence. If we’d been paying attention to Sister Wenceslaus in art class, we would have realized it was like arguing who was a better painter, Picasso or Pollock.
But our friendship endured. I remember John saying to me once, “You know, we’ve been friends for so long...one of these days one of us will probably bury the other one.” We thought about that for a minute then laughed. We were still young and we fully intended to live forever.
Laughter was the glue for our friendship. We always found something to laugh about even if no one else knew what we thought was so damn funny. That got us in trouble in high school, it got us in trouble with the women in our life, it even got us kicked out of a movie once for laughing too hard at “Mr. Hulot’s
Movies served as our other glue. We saw them all...James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” was us. We don’t know how he knew our secret minds but he did. And Brando! In “The Wild Ones” somebody asked him, “What are you rebelling against.” Brando said, “What have ya got?” What have you got indeed? We both idolized John F. Kennedy. John marched with Martin Luther King and campaigned with Bobby Kennedy. In no time they were all killed and so was our youth.
I went off to college at
In the meantime, John set out to learn to play another instrument with strings. The banjo. Not easy. In fact, the closest John ever came to death as a young man was when he was teaching himself to play the 5 string in a house in
We never had an onstage partnership after those early days, but we did have opportunities to work together. John and I wrote a song for a Trio album which is generally considered to be the worst song they ever recorded but I bought a sports car with the money. Later John wrote a song – a terrific song -- for a movie I wrote. Insomniacs can still see it almost any night on the Western Channel. When I was a comic I got to open Trio concerts once in a while and Frank Werber hired me as their road manager.
Their previous road manager, Joe Gannon, gave me some advice on how to deal with the guys. He said, “Always carry shoes and socks in the Trio wardrobe bag along with slacks and striped shirts because Bobby is liable to show up barefoot. And, never lie to Nick because he’ll know. I don’t know how, but he always does.” That was true, which I found out once when I tried to tell Nick that
John used to quote a flippant remark of mine onstage. “If there’s anything more boring than one man and one guitar it’s one woman and one guitar.” It’s a difficult admission but I’m not sure John was ever totally convinced that I truly appreciated what he did. I was a jazz musician, after all. More than that, don’t forget, I was a Junior and he was only a Sophomore. But I am here to tell you that I did know he was a genius and I marveled at his talent. I remain in awe of his great reverence for words and what the right ones in the right order can produce. And how he did it! What a novelist needs ten chapters to say, or me as a screenwriter, 100 pages...John could do in ten lines. And they rhymed! Think of “Pirates of
I am certain that before too long John’s work will be recognized as major American poetry. And since it’s impossible for me to pick from his many lyrics something to leave you with today, I’ll quote another great American poet, Allen Ginsberg who wrote, “I write poetry because I want to talk to people and I want to be alone.” And he also said, “I write poetry because I sing when I’m lonesome.”
There’s an end to John’s songs now. And now we’re all a little more lonesome.