Sunday, December 04, 2016

A "Rock" Of Ages

"There is a path, no simple highway
 Between the dawn and the dark of night
 And if you go, no one may follow
 That path is for your steps alone."
Freewheelin 1975

   This is a verse from the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia tune "Ripple." I've heard this song broken out at different poignant life moments. Funerals, weddings, graduations, openings, closings etc. My best buddy, band mate, road co pilot...Rock.....passed away in a Connecticut hospice yesterday. Liver complications and post cancer problems were the main culprits. From all accounts he faded away peacefully in his sleep. It's been a tough road. As his friend/brother I can say he brought it on himself. He seemed like he was working towards this end. If his liver was a cartoon it'd have a big wide mouth on it screaming STOP!!! And so it goes......
  I met Rock when I moved from Plainfield, NJ to Piscataway, NJ. in 1966. Age thirteen. I was already in a Plainfield band but distance dictated a new road. My neighbor, Ronnie, got a set of drums and put me on to a guitar player who lived down the road. Rock. I remember sitting in Rock's bedroom watching him play some surf instrumentals. This was a far cry from the British Invasion stuff I'd been playing. He had a Stratocaster copy and didn't miss a note. I was impressed. We grabbed Mike to play bass and George, a local lady killer to sing and front and The Plague was born. We settled into a cross between The Beach Boys and The Yardbirds winning an audition for our first gig at mine and Ron's junior HS, Conackamack, conveniently located around the corner from our houses. Ronnie and I were standing outside the school that Friday afternoon when Rock finally appeared over the hill frantically pushing a wheelbarrow containing our PA/guitar system, a Univox amp Rock's mother bought that supported two guitars and two mics. Decked out in high roll and Beatle boots, as we were, he was a sight to behold.
  Band battles, local parties and dances followed but the plague came to a close as high school began. Rock disappeared into a girlfriend and only made sporadic appearances. Once he appeared at my house on a Saturday afternoon to borrow my English Leather Lime. Remember that stuff?  I told him he could have some but the bottle had to stay as I needed it also. He wasn't happy with that. After a visit to the bathroom he left in kind of a huff. I had a brief suspicion and went up to check my English Leather and there was the box right where it should be. That night I was heading out and went for the lime. The box was weirdly light because the BOTTLE WAS GONE!!!!! In that moment I may have been capable of murder. But by the time I saw Rock again I was calmed down and had come to appreciate the slick move. Bravo. Rock was an only child and  we'd run into him at the weirdest times; movies, baseball games, and he'd usually be alone. I didn't really get that till later on when he mentioned how he envied us all having siblings and got used to doing things alone. He was always a popular guy but was just as comfortable alone as he was in a crowd. I guess.
  He was always surprising me. Like when he played Romeo in a High School production, English accent and all. In later years he could always bring the house down with the "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks" monologue. He also became a defensive end for the Immaculata HS football team. He wasn't big but he was quick. One of my proudest moments was during a neighborhood football game when I outran Rock for a touchdown. I guess I was really on and he was a little off. He said, "Ya got me on that one." First and last time. But I remember it like it was yesterday.  
  Fast forward to our early 20s. Rock reappeared as a single man as guitars were broken out and the Plague was reborn. His mom, Fran, again sprung for a PA system and practice space in their basement.  Lots of beer, homemade wine via Rock's dad, Harry, different aromatic substances and music, music, music. The Plague was now The Wichita Straw Band and eventually Freewheelin'. Rock and I survived a road trip to Denver in his MG Midget and a VW trip to Tucson with two other pals. He got a VW Camper and gigs were on. Some personnel changes as guys took different paths and Freewheelin' had a pretty good run on the 70's NJ club scene. We opened up for Blackfoot, a raucous Native American band at The Final Exam, where we were warned to not be too good and don't play over our time. These guys were scary. But at the end of the night they invited us onto their bus for a helluva party into the wee hours.  We opened up for Sauce at the Strand Theater in Plainfield; the same theater where Rock and I had double dated when we were fourteen. Full circle.  Lots of miles, gigs, Grateful Dead concerts, recording, chasing women.....sometimes catching them.....sometimes running from them..... and eventually sharing a band house in the hills of Hunterdon County.
  I was proud  to be asked to be Rock's best man but he soon felt the call to leave music and join the real world. He was a born salesman and eventually owned his own company. Just as we all figured he would. My father used to say, "That guy could sell ice to an Eskimo." He was Eddie Haskell....but likeable......without the nasty Haskelly stuff. A sincerity shone through. He had a beautiful daughter Christine, from his first marriage and two boys, Tim and Adam, from his second. He'd also been doing some gigs with Adam who sounds just like him. I visited him in a Hartford hospital on Thanksgiving Day and  got to see him enjoying his new granddaughter. I had a little alone time with him and got to tell him I loved him. He responded in kind, I gave him a kiss on the cheek and left. I think those long business lunches and road time contributed to the problems I mentioned earlier....and yesterday he said good bye. His wife Donna has been through it. A real trouper and a wonderful partner.
  So many stories left out. The sit down lawn mower. Playing and joining in bar brawls. Being invited to practice on his first wife's family's property and how that turned out. Not good. Bad dates. Good dates. Hitch hiking adventures. Chases in the snow from irate drivers who's just been pelted with snowballs. Cuttin' out on the check. (not proud of that) Cuttin' out on each other. An infamous Piscataway tradition. Break downs at 3 o' clock in the morning on a winter highway.
  Rock had a good heart. He was always cool. Even after I dropped his Gibson SG and the neck snapped he wouldn't let me pay to have it fixed. As he'd always say, "Hey...shit happens."  We didn't talk as much as his career rolled but I still would get that occasional message or text that would start with, "Remember that time".....Remember that guy"....."Who was the guitar player that night"....."Who did that song".... and on and on. And when he was in the neighborhood on a sales visit there was always time for a long lunch at a favorite haunt. Man, did we laugh! I asked him to be an usher at my wedding during one of those lunches. (my  brother got the best man spot) In his Rock way he said, "Yeah, I guess I can suit up one more time."
  He was a pretty good rhythm guitar player, a good singer, a very good banjo player and an excellent front man. "Don't forget folks, the more you drink, the better we sound." "This is an old Chinese song we'd like to do called tun ing." Just a couple classics. But most importantly, he was my friend.  There's a hole in my life, my....our.... hearts, that will eventually be filled by lots of good memories. But for now....just a hole. In the words of the late great Jimi Hendrix, a quote that Rock, and I, liked to summon up every now and then, "If I don't see you in this life, I'll see you in the next. And don't be late."         Peace..........
National Hotel 2004