Sunday, October 25, 2009
Current mood: sad
It's been two days and it feels like two months. My brain can't really process that a random series of molecular events on Thursday night pulled my dear friend from this realm. Johnny was one of the most sincerely loving human beings on this earth.
Secondarily, he was a master practitioner of his instrument and a supremely creative artist. Those of us who have had the thrill of making music with him know that the likes of John Gilmore (he really preferred "John" to "Johnny") will not pass this way again. At his best, his playing was like liquid, like glass, like thunder and rain, like ballet. When the music was happening it just rolled, flowed, and weaved -- carrying everyone along. "Traveling music," as Darrell Rose would say. Leroi Moore simply called it magic. Gilley had the magic touch.
Never superficial or phony, John made connections with people. He found the beautiful within a person and latched onto that. He wanted to know you. He reached people to the core. The last few weeks he'd call and ask me to take him to see my father, who is suffering from dementia. I filtered the request though all sorts of rational thoughts -- "Dad won't remember him," "the situation will be awkward," "should I even bring this up with Mom?" Etc. It had probably been ten years since they had seen each other. Turns out Dad was crushed. He remembered. He kept me on the phone longer than usual, struggling persistently to get out his heartfelt sentiments and feelings of sadness. I bring up this personal anecdote only to illustrate something extraordinarily powerful about our friend: the force of his loving personality cut through a decade of memory and cognitive dysfunction in a 90 year-old man. Mom confessed that Johnny (sorry, man -- I seem to need to call you that) was her favorite of my friends.
He saw people -- really saw them. He loved my family -- as I type this I'm dreading the return of my eldest daughter from a backpacking trip. She's known him since infancy. He loved her so much. I could tell he was proud of my kids. Recently, I played him a video of my youngest performing on guitar -- I will treasure the memory of him hunching over my laptop grinning ear to ear, laughing with joy.
Unlike most musicians I know, Johnny never talked about himself, his accomplishments or his supersized helping of talent. I've known him now for coming on 26 years and I don't think I ever heard a self-promoting word from him. He'd tell road stories and he'd tell of some of the friendships he'd make with great musicians the world over, but he was not prideful. He knew he was a badass and he didn't need to say it. His family says he never talked about his career -- he always talked about family. You couldn't share a few minutes with the man without hearing about his parents, his siblings; his nieces, nephews, and cousins. And they always followed the entreaty as to the welfare of your own family. Even if you had spoken to him two days earlier.
He developed relationships with your music in the same way he established personal connections -- he sought the core of it. Once he found it, once he understood what it was all about, he became fierce friends with it. He wasn't above mistreating it or taking it for granted, but sometimes -- often when you least expected -- he'd bestow upon it a field of tulips. The metaphor, unsurprisingly, evokes Van Gogh. And come to think of it, John was a sort of a Van Gogh drummer. Imagine the energy, color, movement, and emotional force of a VG tulip field; that pretty much sums up John's music.
I'm thinking of all the people touched by Johnny and the list is endless. I've talked to people I haven't seen or heard from in over twenty years, and I'm thinking of more and more I want to reconnect with. I ask myself, "does so-and-so know," "how can I find X to let him/her know?" I'm supposed to remember how to play the piano tonight at a memorial event -- the crowd is going to burst the venue, I'm sure. Before I do that, Houston and I have to go to a memorial for the mother of another musician friend. I can't help but wonder if Johnny knew she passed. He'd be so sad -- and he'd be there, for sure. "Gotta pay my respects, Mike," he'd say. That guy never missed a funeral. Never missed a call on a holiday. Never missed a chance to send a card. Postcards from the road, birthday cards, notes left on the door with a foil-wrapped gift of freshly cooked fishcakes. Always written with a calligrapher's penmanship.
For the last year or so, he had been playing in church -- several churches -- and he was so excited about it. It was renewing to him, a chance in a way for a fresh musical start. He would call and talk about the experiences he was having playing in church and would get so excited and the conversation would build with anticipation for a new phase of his life. There's a wonderful local organization -- the Music Resource Center -- that is built in an old church. Johnny wanted to take me in there to record pipe organ/drum duets. "Mike, it's there, just waiting for us." And like the visit to my father, I put it off, figuring we'd find a way to make it happen at a time when I was less busy. Meanwhile he's slipped through some strange fissure in the fabric of the universe.
Anna Gilmore, his beloved mom (RIP), and Curtis Gilmore, Sr., his wise and steady father were always so proud of their son. John's joined her now -- that particular circle is completed as one is broken with his father. But it's really all one circle anyhow. It just sucks to be separated.
If I may paraphrase the words of advice Warren Zevon gave to David Letterman shortly before his death:
Enjoy every fishcake.
I love you, John.