This entire series of posts is a result of a letter I received from my old friend John Ware in April, 1995. In it he suggested that I write a book with him. He had, he wrote, “been in this cesspool of past shit for two years”, but felt too self-conscious about telling the story he wanted to tell. A couple of years of procrastinating over the approach followed. We finally decided to go at it by each of us telling our stories. It would be my job to put it together contrapuntally, rather like a real-life Narcissus und Goldmund set in the second half of the 20th century.
I love words like contrapuntally.
Early in ’98, after what seemed to me to be too much unseemly nagging on my part, Ware sent me about six-and-a-half or seven hours of him telling his story on audio cassette tape. I worked on this as my main occupation from the time I sold my frame shop in suburban Hamilton that August until some time that December — transcribing and editing those tapes, filling in my own story, and trying to coax John into filling in some of the holes and fleshing out some details on his side.
I never did get him to fill in those blank parts. His life moved on and his interest wandered off to other things. I was going through a few fairly grim years myself, and the project languished. I finally decided that I could tell my story best by writing about other people. Since knowing Ware did sorta change my direction, and since the initial project was his and I have all those hours of tape, even with severe editing his story here is longer than the others’. I’ll break it into three posts.
John Ware (to 1967)
Philosophers and physicists can amuse their curiosity on the subject to their hearts’ content, but I’m as comfy as an old dog in front of a fire with the idea of a random universe. For example, let’s take the last week of August, 1967: George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, was shot to death in front of an Arlington, Virginia Econ-o-wash. Lyndon B. Johnson celebrated his 59th birthday and announced that, despite the troop build-up in Vietnam, draft quotas were running at only 30,000 per month. Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” then the #1 single in the U.S., sold its millionth copy. Sgt Pepper was in its tenth week as the #1 album. I met John Ware in Claremont, California. Twiggy arrived at New York’s Kennedy Airport from London wearing a fringed, antelope-skin cultural-appropriation minihaha; a baggage handler was heard to yell, “It’s a skinny Indian!”
I’d applied to Claremont Graduate School at random, without knowing a damn thing about the place. Unlike the other grad schools that had accepted me, CGS had offered me a fellowship with a stipend. So there I was. Claremont was a pleasant little burg, even during the August smog season. It’s the easternmost town in Los Angeles County, 65 km (40 miles) or so down Interstate 10 from downtown LA. It spreads southward and downward into the Pomona Valley from the foothills of a 3050 m (10,000-ft) peak called Old Baldy, officially Mt San Antonio. Foothill Boulevard runs east-west across the north part of town, which is over 300 m (1,000 feet) above sea level. The five independent-but-associated colleges and the independent-but-associated graduate school occupy a big chunk of it.
The place I rented, at random, was the back unit of a stucco-over-concrete-block duplex surrounded tightly on two sides by a wide driveway. The closest tree was too far away to give it shade. The only door in and out of the place faced north, or uphill, across the driveway toward the side and back door of a comparatively large one-story frame house.
A few days after I started sleeping there a nice young couple, John and Linda Ware, started moving into that wood-frame house next door. They didn’t move themselves in right away. First they thoroughly cleaned it, with some help from friends. Then they completely repainted the interior, two bold colours per room.
They were a strikingly mod-looking pair (google ‘Mod [subculture]’), well-dressed in stylish clothes even for housecleaning and painting. Her hair was cut gamine style, short and close to the shape of her head — what was called a Mary Quant cut. His hair was rock-&-roll long and bushy, a dark-blonde haystack, and he sported a thick, Sgt Pepperish moustache of about the same shade. My moustache was still so wispy that I didn’t have to trim it, so I was naturally jealous. She was tallish and stylishly thin; he was shortish and wiry-looking. They looked as if they could wear each other’s clothes.
And they had the niftiest little shaggy blond dog.
While they were moving art stuff into one of their sheds out back, we met for handshakes and name-exchanging. Linda was going to attend one of the colleges. John played drums. Just then he was with something called the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. They seemed like people I could get along with. I told them if there was any way I could be of some help to them moving in, just to let me know.
Now, I’d seen the first WCPAEB album the year before in a DC record store not far from the university. It’d been in the bin with the head music — the record store’s head-music category included mostly anything with pretensions to psychedelia, or at least with a pseudo-psychedelic, or particularly mod or art nouveau, album cover. Theirs was a remarkably busy album cover, and in one spot had a picture of a large stone with “Help, I’m A Rock” written on it in a nice, non-psychedelic, easily readable lettering style. And, yes, there was the song, “Help, I’m a Rock” (Zappa) listed on the back. I was a devoted fan of Zappa and The Mothers at that stage, but I didn’t buy the album. I don’t know if I even heard it then, not even at our little stoned soirées over at Jerry Kleiner’s.
Anyway, on the day they actually took up residence in Claremont John came across the driveway, knocked on my screen door, and asked if he could use my phone to order his phone. Telephones were like that back then. I unhooked the latch and directed him toward my phone, which was there in the front room on my low-silhouette desk (a door on concrete blocks). He came in and took out a piece of paper with some phone numbers and other jottings to himself on it. I offered him a joint. He thanked me, but no, he didn’t smoke pot.
He started giving his particulars to the phone-company person, and then, in answer to what was clearly a question about occupation, he said, “I’m an entertainer”, smooth as you please.
I thought that bit about being an entertainer was pretty funny. My mental image of an entertainer was somebody like Frank Sinatra, or Sammy Davis Junior, or maybe Bobby Darin — somebody with a sharp tuxedo and a droopy bowtie who played in Las Vegas showrooms or Miami Beach hotels or glitzy mafia bars on the boardwalks of the South Jersey beach resorts, and John didn’t radiate that sort of selfness, that ... “And Now! Live! Direct From The Fabulous Imperial Showroom at Fabulous Caesar’s Palace In Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada!” ... sort of stuff that thrilled people like my first roommate at George Washington. John seemed like a low-bullshit (if well-dressed) beatnik type to me. After he hung up from the phone company he told me he got a laugh out of telling them that, too.
~ ~ ~
What Johnnie told me over time:
He’d been born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and grew up in Oklahoma City, which he almost always called Okie City. His father was a palaeontologist who worked as a geologist in the oil business. His mother played the piano and involved herself in Society and the Arts. Little Johnnie got piano lessons. He wanted to play boogie-woogie; his piano teacher wanted him to practise scales. The piano lessons ended. Then he started beating on household items regularly until his parents got him some drums. He was 10 or 11, and he’d sit in the basement rec room listening to Jerry Lee Lewis and Big Joe Turner and Buddy Holly on XERF out of Del Rio, Texas, banging away at his older sister’s piano and slugging away at his drums. So his parents got him a drum teacher. His drum lessons worked out about as well as his piano lessons had. The teacher was into dixieland, and Johnnie wasn’t into learning rudiments. He just wanted to rock.
His parents had pre-enrolled him in a locally high-status prep school when he was five, and in due course he went there. He got into cars before he was old enough to get a driver’s licence, and got into a little band with a trumpet player, him on drums, and a piano player named Lance Rentzel. Rentzel would later become a pro football star and the husband of a TV sex symbol before getting busted for flashing a 10-year-old girl. Ware had lots of Rentzel stories.
Through playing with Rentzel and through his tough-guy car-freak friends, he started playing drums with hardass bands and black musicians. He left the prep school and bullshitted his way into a public school that he thought was cooler on the other side of the city. His parents let him set up a rehearsal space in the garage, with a piano and amps, and even started stocking the garage refrigerator with beer, when he was still only 14. All sorts of blues and rock people of all ages and colours were going in and out, raising the neighbours’ eyebrows.
By the time he was 16, Ware fell in with Eddie Davis, who would later become famous playing the guitar as Jesse Ed Davis. Because he was playing music with Davis he also fell in with better players, and their little high school band — The Continentals — got to be good, and to people in the high schools of Oklahoma City, they were the band to get. Ware and Davis both played for a while with Conway Twitty in 1960, the summer of their tenth grade year. In the summer of 1961 he started hanging out at every one of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks’ gigs he could, picking up what chops he could from Levon Helm.
He got elected Senior Class President. Family pressure meant he was going to have to go to college, which meant getting good grades. This wasn’t easy, due to him banging drums three nights a week in bars, but he got girls to help him on assignments. He wanted to go to college in the L.A. area and ended up at Pomona, one of the five independent-but-associated Claremont colleges.
Ware’s first musical friend in Claremont was a guy who played surf guitar, but that guy introduced him to Frank Zappa, who was living in nearby Cucamonga. Zappa’s weirdness really stood out in 1962. Ware liked the weirdness and started hanging out at a little recording studio Zappa had out in the orange groves. Girls hung out there, too. He took to going to Frank’s mother and father’s house every Sunday. Mrs Zappa put on a big feed for up to 15 people at a big oval table. Sweet ice tea.
Zappa’s band at the time had something of a floating membership, but he had enough drummers, and he of course played the guitar, so Ware bought a cheap bass and became the bass player. He felt himself lucky to be playing with people who had much more ability than he did, even if it wasn’t on his preferred instrument.
The following summer he went back to Okie City and he and Davis re-formed the Continentals and played a busy schedule until it was time for school again. In his sophomore year Ware went back to Zappa and got a gig playing bass, a little guitar, and some vibraphone in Zappa’s band (then called The Muthuhs) three nights a week at a restaurant Zappa’s family owned called Larry’s Eat-More. Larry’s Eat-More was famous locally for its peanut butter pizza. As far as Ware knew they only sold one peanut butter pizza ever.
Otherwise, Ware became a genuine art student, and thus involved in Claremont’s considerable arts community. After Zappa got arrested and did some time Ware formed a little band of his own to play college gigs. The Continentals re-formed the following summer, and the following year Ware started getting involved in the music scene in L.A. There were Okies there. Leon Russell. Eddie Davis was playing with Taj Mahal. And the Art Department at Pomona liked his paintings, which followed on from New York School Post-Cubist Abstract Impressionism.
Through his Oklahoma connections Ware met Bob Markley, a rich, handsome, 30-something socialite and non-practicing lawyer. Markley signed Ware on to play drums for the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, which Markley, a paedophile, was financing as a vehicle to get himself laid with underaged groupies.
Ware, meanwhile, had been accepted at an elite summer art-and-music workshop that Yale was running in rural upstate Connecticut, but on his way East he stopped off to visit a friend in New York. The friend had inherited a fortune and was into racing expensive cars with big-name drivers and pit crews. Ware spent almost as much time on the race circuit that summer as he did at Yale’s elite workshops.
In his senior year at Pomona Ware got accepted as an honors art student, which meant he just had to paint pictures. He spent most of the time playing drums for the WCPAEB, which was happening in the LA area that year.
The Pop Art Band started to fade a little bit. Then Eddie Davis called Ware and told him that Levon Helm was coming to LA. There had always been in-fighting within what became known as The Band. Dylan’s uneven reception at live performances with them bothered Helm. He was arguing all the time with Robbie Robertson, anyway. So Helm and Davis did a band. Junior Markham from Tulsa sang and played harp. Ware played bass. Sandy Konikoff played hand drums. Kenny Edwards, a bass player, played acoustic guitar and did some singing. And they had a harmonica player named Lenny. They rehearsed every day at a big house that Lenny had in Santa Monica. Lenny had a live-in teen-aged girlfriend with dark eyes and dark hair who cooked for them and rarely talked.
Ware eventually left that band to concentrate on his Senior Art Show, which was successful; he sold some paintings for absurdly high prices and got serious reviews in the LA art press.
That summer he proposed to Linda and the Pop Art Band got new legs and went on the road. He cut off his hair and got married in September, then started working as a teaching assistant at the University of California at Santa Barbara, teaching Art 101 at eight a.m. to students who had absolutely no interest in art. He was still playing with the Pop Art Band at night in the trendy clubs in Bel Air, 90 miles (145 km) from his home. Partly to keep Linda company while he was gone he bought a little cockapoo bitch puppy they named Henry.
Ware’s job at UCSB got eliminated in some budget cuts Ronald Reagan pushed through. It looked like Canada to beat the draft, but then he got a 1-Y deferment due to his nose having been broken a few times when he’d been playing Little League baseball, so they moved back to Claremont where Linda could finish her degree and John could do art and music, and they moved in next door to me.