Home Page |
Photo Album |
Joel's Art |
Joel's Music |
Video Tribute - by Richard Corey | Elegy - by Geoffrey O'Brien | Remembrances and Reflections | Sponsors | Contact
Remembrances and Reflections
your recollections of Joel here.
Joel M. Shaw
Father George Aguilera
Joel was a very kind human being. I found him to be very open and accommodating. One example is when he and Harriet played at our parish Midnight Mass. Those who have worked with Church/Temple choirs know that most church musicians, and we are no exception, find it very challenging to work with other musicians. Joel's ability to blend in made for a beautiful Mass. His talent to improvise touched many.
November 13, 2004
The first time I ever laid eyes on Joel was when I was a freshman at Bard College in 1990. (Imagine in your mind a disjointed version of college students playing “Take the A Train.”) One evening I was walking past the old chapel on campus that served as the rehearsal space for the Bard Jazz jam class, and in the middle of all of the honking and banging going on (anyone could just show up and play) I saw this cat behind the piano. He looked like a real character, wearing a Fedora, with a half consumed beer on top of the piano, struggling to keep everyone else in playing the same chords at the same time in the same time signature. After a few choruses, he all of a sudden jumped behind an empty drum kit kept on playing. Anyone who knew Joel can recognize this scene: the way he was transformed when music was being performed or played. He became energized, insightful, inspired, electrifying. I wondered to myself after wandering out into the night “who was that guy?” As you no doubt suspect, I was soon to find out.
I was introduced to Joel by a mutual friend who knew that I was a harmonica player and music enthusiast. (Imagine Joel singing the Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers classic “Ragged but Right’ with the vibrato in his voice that only he could get away with). We had a few other students, along with me and Joel. Why did we form this group? Not exactly by popular demand, we played because we loved the music. Joel taught us the songs. He was the bandleader and teacher. I think Joel and I identified with each other because according to him at least it was rare for someone to be interested in old music and musicians who had long since died. He saw that in me. I still have the tapes of music that we played and the tapes he made of the songs we learned. What a variety of styles and flavors: Slim Harpo “I’m Gonna Miss You (Like the Devil),” Louis Jordan “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t,” Tampa Red “Let Me Play With Your Poodle,” even Jo Mama’s “Have You Ever Been To Pittsburgh?” Joel had such an extensive library of records (it had to be records, “Charles, the only good music is on vinyl”), he would turn you on to something he knew you would like, something that would expand your knowledge of a subject. Of all of the music that I listen to today, a huge percentage comes directly from Joel, or indirectly, in that you learn about one musician, or album, or song, and that leads in turn to other, newer discoveries. Joel could play seemingly any instrument,; guitar, bass, mandolin, you name it. We played a gig where he duck walked with his guitar out the exit to the hall, out into the night. What a showman!
I knew Joel well both before and after he became ill. The first time I visited him at his parent’s house in Red Hook, I was apprehensive about seeing him, because I knew how sick he had been. I didn’t know if he had been beaten down by months of near fatal illness. My main memory of that day was watching how energetic and inspired he became when a certain record was played, describing by memory all of the musicians on the disc and playing air-piano accompaniment to demonstrate the technique used. I knew then that his mind and spirit were there, stronger than ever, even if his body wasn’t yet all the way back.
It was a pleasure to watch Joel’s newfound interest in visual images blossom into an art form. I was there for the early, experimental stage. He used to work a lot at Kopy Kat’s in Red Hook, making Zeroxes of images from old books, photos and other sources. He was probably the best customer the owner had. (Joel described him as “a man of few words…and even fewer ideas.) Not many people realize that Joel’s art was inspired to a large extent by book of photos he had from the 1910’s of ships passing through the Panama Canal. The photos were hand tinted, with fantastic colors. I see echoes of that soft, diffused coloring in almost all of Joel’s work. In fact, some of his earliest experiments were coloring photos that he had taken.
Of course, music and visual arts were not the only pursuits Joel had. At one point we built a miniature puppet theater, complete with a rococo background that was torn from a book and Zeroxed, then hand –tinted. Joel hated damaging the old book, as there was no other way to fit it onto the copy machine, but sighed and concluded it was worth it for the sake of art. When we were building the tiny stage, we snuck into the Bard College workshop and cut the plywood for the floor on the band saw. I told Joel I knew how to use the machine, but it was a lie, I just didn’t want to let him down. We started to cut the piece, but in my inexperience I knocked the band off the track while the saw was running and it started to make a high pitched screeching wail as the blade tore itself apart. We shut off the power, got the wood untangled, and ran out of the building at full speed, stopping only to break out in convulsive laughter after we were out of danger. Maybe it was wrong, but looking back it was worth it for the sake of art.
Another project we worked on was a video movie tentatively titled “The Further Crimes of Dr. Sununu.” As you may have surmised intuitively, Joel cast himself as the evil, conniving title character. Our friend Charlie Putnam was his archrival bad-guy. I was the henchman who went back and forth between the two. At least that was the overall concept as it was explained to me. After video recording extensive improvised scenes, some at the ruins of Edith Wharton’s house in Rhinecliff, I asked Joel what the plot was. His answer was classic: “the point is there is no point. And it’s going to go on and on until everyone figures out that there is no point.” I wonder what ever happened to that footage.
I spent hours upon hours with Joel cruising around Red Hook, listening to music, having far-out conversations in his Pontiac. One time, on the way back from Charlie Putnam’s house, smoke started pouring out of the dashboard: the car was on fire! We scrambled to grab anything liquid to put out the blaze. So we looked at each other, shrugged, and poured three cans of Golden Anniversary Beer into the dashboard vents, then we ran to a nearby house and got water from a hose. It turned out the fire was started by a pile of dry leaves that were jammed in behind the motor. I wonder how long that stale beer was stuck in those vents.
I used to go to a lot of gigs with Joel. If you got him in a room with other musicians, he would explode to life. They were the people he identified with. No one could get a word in edgewise. God forbid if you had to get his attention for some pressing reason, like if the venue was closing, or the car was being towed etc. Just to see him so enthusiastic was fantastic. Another unique characteristic was that Joel was incapable of being inactive for even one second. If for some reason he had to wait for someone or something, he wouldn’t just sit in a chair fidgeting and looking at his watch as most people would do. No matter whose house he was in or where he was, he would either look for the liquor cabinet, or find some passage in a book or magazine that was hilarious when he read it aloud, or the criticize the record collection, or start playing some random instrument, or turn on the TV and criticize the clothes people were wearing.
Joel O’Brien is someone I will never forget. I can’t. I will probably spend the rest of my life fully investigating and following all of the threads and exhausting all of the possibilities of what he taught me. I once explained to someone who had asked me how a 50 year -old man could be my best friend in college, that Joel was “hard on me. He challenges me.” What I meant by that was that I was afraid to say anything in his presence that was less than intelligent, or anything that was inconsistent, hypocritical, or worst of all half-thought out. That is the most lasting gift Joel gave me; hardly a day passes in which I don’t think about him, or ask myself “what would Bishop think about that? The thought always brings me a smile.
October 17, 2004
I didn't realize Bishop passed away until I found your website. It's a wonderful tribute to a very talented person.
I worked with Bishop just a couple of times, both in recent years. I actually just knew him as an excellent pianist and was not aware of what
an accomplished drummer he was. I also had no idea what an extremely talented artist he was as well. What a truly creative person.
My main memory of him was a gig I called him for in December 2000 in Poughkeepsie at a small room called the Cubbyhole Coffeehouse. It was
Bishop and myself, with Eddie Diehl adding his usual great guitar work. Bishop sounded great and was a lot of fun to be around.
My deepest condolences to Bishop's family and friends.
May 24, 2005
BYE BYE BLACKBIRD
In the Jewish Tradition you are told to stop mourning a person after a year, I respect and understand the sensibility of that tradition.
Its a year today that Joel is gone.
I wanted to do something, so I am finally submitting this to the website
I am writing about Joel's death, more for myself than anyone.
There is still an opening in what we call one’s Heart still raw and new and unfamiliar to me, the other openings have closed a bit and I've become used to them, but this space which is Joel I feel everyday.
It is still hard for me to talk or write without being emotional, after over 20 years of love and friendship, my sense of loss can feel overwhelming.
Richard and Eva got us together, and Joel proceeded to "Court me" Bish being a true romantic he would kiss a women's hand when introduced. What he saw in me, I still don't understand, I was just out of an abusive controlling relationship wanted to have fun. "Who the drummer" I remember thinking he was a bit odd isn't he, but quickly I fell to his charm, his energy, his warm heart, his intelligence and honesty. Fell hard and fast.
We moved into Richard's divided art studio, things were good, lots of work around for him and a tight circle of new friends for me to meet interesting talented positive mostly all Musicians. I had to learn, but I was in no position to know what the hell Joel was talking about in such passionate terms, riffs, changes, bridges, chord changes, monster players. Swinging music, music that was tasty, "Fuck you Bird or Fuck you Dizz" I would hear from another room when he was listening and discovered something he hadn't heard before or just so into the playing he needed to respond. He never stopped, he could talk and listen to music longer than anyone I have ever met, he could recognize players in just a few notes, tell you the band members of any band from a trio to an orchestra in any particular year, talk about the arrangements, Incredible. He would talk to me about music even when I feel asleep, as if somehow his words and his passion would still seep in. And then one day, I just got it, I understood what it was about, the pure pleasure of listening, recognizing, choosing, understanding, opening up, believing in where your spirit can take you, and this believing has helped to be the person I am, the rules apply not only to Music but to Life. Joel taught me, and I still find myself following his rules and his tastes. I always thought he should of had his own radio show, Phil Schapp eat your heart out, you probably couldn't get him off the air.
Joel was stubborn as a mule, gentle as a lamb, a lover, romantic, a great story teller, a comic sometimes quite biting if he didn't like you, he used to make me laugh, not by telling funny stories, but all the "Joelisms" the things that came into his head, he just said. You either got him, or you didn't, either way was fine for him, he wasn't backing down or changing for anyone. I loved that he was demonstrative towards his friends, hugs, kisses, 2 handed shakes, pats on back, when he loved you well he just loved you and you knew it. When I told our mutual friend Raji about losing Joel, he said, "There's nobody to call me Doctor anymore," and who else in this day and age could get away calling a woman a broad? There were different rules that applied to JOB, there had to be you couldn't really compare him to anyone.
We both thought we were born in the wrong era.
Always true to his heart and uncomfortable with a lot of the outside world. Never knew how to market himself and cash in on his talent. I know it hurt him deeply when friends didn't think of him for choice gigs, he was so sensitive about loyalty, It would be a passing question "why didn't that mother Fuqua call me" and then he would let it go, but I know it hurt him. Years later when I announced I was interested in Brazilian and Latin music, it all started again he would produce Vinyl and tapes and books, movies, making sure I heard the purist and the best of the sound. When did he learn so much, how did he remember it all?
The O'Briens were my second family, spent so much time at the old farmhouse in Red Hook, listened at the dinner table with 4 booming male voices and Kaalii trying to out-talk each other trying to make their point, I couldn't even begin to keep up, and so I embraced Maggie’s calmness and sensibilities, we were silent partners and I treasured her kindness and her gentle nature. When Maggie passed at home Joel told me he snipped a lock of her hair. It hit me so hard, I understood how much he loved her. So many Holidays spent together, summers by the pond, floating relaxing, a lot of laughing and carrying on, really good times.
We were together as a couple around 7 years, it was the reality and toll of drug abuse that broke us up not a lack of love. It’s hard to understand, but even through the drug days, we took care of each other, we loved each other, tried to fight it together but we shared the same disease. When it was bad I'd spend a good part of my time waiting for him to get home from a gig, or the streets knowing he was either high or intoxicated or just bloody beat. I would go nuts convinced something had happened, but he always managed to come home, a little worse for wear maybe, confused to why I had been out of my mind with worry and concern. He didn't think about it, he was living it and for a long time he did manage to side-step anything Bad that crossed his way, like he was being protected by a wonderful force.
A beautiful Angel that loved him and tipped her wings in his direction to kept him safe.
We split up when we were living in hated Astoria Queens, things were so bad, we were both working, but all our funds were spent on drugs, we were out of control, no way out except to separate. I went to live with an insane woman on Rivington St where they sold drugs right outside my door, I was alone coping drugs on the streets, in my neighborhood, or 110th St. Joel was back in Red Hook a bit more protected by sheer miles. After being kicked out of the apt by Crazy Joanne, back to my parents where I really started to clean up, I would still go into town to cop on Saturdays, or during lunch time at work, but I knew I was going to make it. I moved in with my dearest friend Beth who is still my comrade and sister, I finally had the support I needed and things finally started to get better, I was clean for the first time in years, Joel was also clean, but the shit hit the fan when he went to Italy. He had been sick before he left, going to different doctors (the bastards) and getting antibiotics that were useless. And he was involved with Louise.
When he came back from being hospitalized in Italy, the Angel appeared and a Doctor was found who diagnosed him with TB and Meningitis.
My God he was so sick, I used to sit in the hospital room, he didn't even know me, he weighed nothing, and had a tube draining fluid from his half shaven head, its hard to Image, I would come home and dread the phone ringing in case it was Joe's voice telling me he didn't make it, but you know what, he did make it and came back stronger and more passionate than ever, started his artwork and continued to work as a musician switching to Piano, writing Music and singing. How beautiful his touch was on the piano, how real his easygoing voice, his choice of music to play distinctly his own.
I still had that recovery in my head when he told me he had cancer, I thought he could beat it somehow, like the last time when I thought he would I would lose him. I even made myself believe he was still well enough to spend a couple of weeks in NY with me, so we could spend time together and he could hold court in my flat, play music invite friends. whatever the fuck pleased him really. Whenever he came to stay with me, the first thing he did was go to my record cabinet, pull out 5 or 6 albums he hadn't heard for a while put one on the turntable and then he could be start relaxing and be at home. I wanted him to come home so badly, so did Joe Berger Geoff and Kaalii, back to New York, where we could take care of him. There was no bloody time. I'd like to think the Beautiful Angel was still with him, to help him and guide him.
Joe Berger was there right after Last Sessions was recorded along with other friends and family who recognized the urgency and wanted to be there to support and surround Bish with love and respect. I kept to my denial, it was too soon after experiencing and living thru my Moms battle with Cancer. I shielded myself with the miles of distance, talked much on the phone, but after hanging up, recognized the weariness and unsteadiness in his voice. For years I'd call or we would see each other and I would ask, "How you doing honey" and his response would be, "Im dying", always had to be high drama, but not this time, I would fall to pieces after speaking with him, I understood somewhere in my heart that there was no hope. I think when the sessions were complete he chose to leave this earth, tired of pain and struggle and the general population. People can do that you know, let go of life when they have had enough.
The memories of the bad times melt away, it’s the good times that stand out and should, there were certainly plenty of them, our love so rich it comes once in a lifetime.
If the spirit prevails (and he would argue with that) then Bishop is surely in his element, jiving, playing music, arguing with the Masters, the Monster Players, the Innovators, and Thinkers. He surely belongs with them.
I miss him everyday!!! Fuck you Bishop, I will always love you.
IF THEY ASKED ME, I COULD WRITE A BOOK
ABOUT THE WAY YOU WALK AND WHISPER AND LOOK"
The first part of my written story about Joel was born from grief and loss, now I just want to write to jog my memory and to remember thru written words. Joel gave me the book "Why Sinatra Matters" by Pete Hamill written soon after Frank died. It’s a small book Hamill simply writing about a friend and a person who he cared about and well, mattered in this world. That’s all I want to come across here, Bishop mattered, left us too soon, was an amazingly special person.
I feel quite comfortable talking about Frank and Bishop in the same way, the rat pack could have easily had another member, but more than that, the devotion to music and entertaining and forgive me please for using this adage "the man and his music" "I did it my way" you have to admit it describes Bishop as well.
There is no sequence to the story, just thoughts and feelings
They say you search for a man like your father, this thought comes up after seeing my 93 year old father, Daniel last week an extraordinary man similar to Bish in many ways. His ability to amuse and be by himself, still interested in reading and learning, strong willed and confident in his knowledge and beliefs. My father’s memory astounds me he can quote from books read years ago, movies seen ages ago, history lost to most of us.
I was with my friend Raji and we couldn't remember who pushed a boulder up the mountain in Greek Mythology, I called my father "Sisyphus" he said without thinking and proceeded to tell me the whole story. Very much like Joel, you couldn't get a just a simple answer. If you asked Joel who wrote a song, or who played with who, you would have to hear everything including everything about the question a simple answer wasn't enough.
It has to do with a passion both men possess, and like each other not limited to one subject. Analytical in different ways, my father a master mechanic, can take anything tangible apart and put it back together, sometimes improving on the final product. He also still plays violin and can transcribe music just by listening. Joel also took things apart and put them back together more with the Energy of thought but with the same care and concern. My father is still a teacher as Joel was up to the end, so much shifting tumbling and playing in their heads, the need to share thoughts and ideas, and the true desire to never stop learning.
Days I new as happy sweet
Olden days Golden days
Days of Mad Romance and Love
Then Youth was mine, Then Truth was Mine
Join us be in flame and live
Then Soothe was mine
Sad am I Glad am I
For today Im thinking of
Why did I choose you what did I see in you
I saw the heart you hide so well
I saw a quiet girl who had a gentle way
A way that caught me in its glowing spell
Why did I want you what could you offer me
A love to last a lifetime through
And when I lost my heart so many years ago
I lost it lovingly and willingly to you
If I had to choose again I would still choose you
From Charlie Haden “The Art of Song”
In one of our conversations in the last few months of his life, I told Bish I didn’t understand why he loved me so much, what he saw in me, I felt so ordinary that he would or should have chosen someone more special, and he sent me “The Art of Song which has Joe Henderson singing “ Why did I choose you “
This whole CD is so incredibly personal for me, Its both joyous and painful for me to listen to. I almost see the songs as Joels Journey and sensibilities about what was going on his life when he first started having to face his illness. The Music is somber, introspective the melodies hauntingly beautiful, some cuts with Haden’s Quartet West some cuts with a chamber orchestra The last cut is of Haden singing Wayfaring Stranger which is a spiritual song from the 1800’s
I am a poor wayfaring stranger a wonderin’ thru this world of woe
and there’s no sickness toil or danger in that bright world to which I go
Im going home to see my father I’m going there no more to roam
I only going over Jordan I’m only going over home
I know dark clouds will gather round me I know my way is rough and steep
but golden fields lay out before me where memory deems their vigils keep
Im going home to see my mother she said shed meet me when I come
Im only going over Jordan Im going over home
I don’t think anyone will know what the fuck I’m talking about.
I cant separate Joel from Music because well because I cant. I still haven’t been able to listen to the final Sessions, or any other recordings of him singing or playing. They say time heals but really all time does is put a band aid over an open wound, we protect ourselves with that. And if you let the band aid come off, the pain and loss and anger is still exactly the same, I could still cry myself to sleep if I didn’t keep it on.
Why am I so emotional again, why am I feeling so torn apart at not having Bish around. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just acknowledging the fact that he grace comes to me all the bloody time, I find myself having conversations with him in my mind, I find myself using his expressions, having his sensibilities, almost carrying on our relationship, in my thoughts. And they say time heals, bullshit time heals nothing it’s a defense mechanism, you go on with your life sure, you have to but that’s about it.
I have long had a kind of obsession with the words and lyrics to “Amazing Grace”
And the question of what Grace is and I guess Im looking for my own personal answer. Thinking about Joel and feeling his spirit so so deep in me is a part of Grace to me, it’s keeping alive something beautiful and special in your heart.
Joel was drummer to both James Taylor and Carole King, playing in their bands and on their records. He was the drummer on Carole King's hit singles, "It's Too Late" and "Sweet Season". He also drummed and recorded in my band the Glitterhouse, Robbie Dupree's band, the Stryders and with Danny Kortchmar in Jo Mama with Ralph Schuckett, the King Bees with John John McDuffy, and the Flying Machine with James Taylor
Joel's drumming could be found on other records as well. People like Jackie Lomax on Apple Records with George Harrison producing and John Stewart with Lou Adler producing. James Cotten with me and Todd Rundgren producing.
Joel wasn't just a rock drummer. He was an accomplished jazz drummer and pianist. He could also play jazz vibes, tenor and alto sax and flute. I kid you not. And he was a real jazz player. He knew all the old bebop songs and could solo as authentically as anyone.
Joel was always teaching and preaching jazz. And he could play authentic bluegrass guitar, and mandolin. And he could sing all the old Appalachian songs. Authentically. Weird, huh? And he loved to teach and preach about all kinds of music. Joel wasn't just a great musician, he was a great teacher...
Joel O'Brien went to, hopefully, a better place Thursday morning, Sept. 9th, 2004. He was suffering heavily from the pain of cancer and now the pain is gone. I'll miss him much. I'm glad I got to speak to him a few times on the phone these last weeks and let him know how much I've loved him over the years.
Joel did get to complete some recording of new songs with a great jazz band at his house right before he passed.
And right now he's explaining to God the importance of Charlie Parker, the Stax/Volt rhythm section and Fellini's early films.
Joel was like a father, brother and teacher/mentor to me, all at once. And he was a humble human being, who held ill will toward no one. In a sleazy, ego driven business like the music business, Joel was without ego, and sleazed out on no one. He was a pure soul with a good heart.
Though I haven't been close to Joel for many years (though I always tried to stay in touch), in my early years, ages 16 to 22 or 23....... Joel and I were very close. And he always taught me much about music and life in his role as life's teacher.
I was lucky to get him to join the Glitterhouse (my band) after the Flying Machine broke up. And I was extremely lucky that I got to meet so many amazing musicians because he introduced me to them. Folks like Danny Kooch, James Taylor, Ralph Schuckett, Carole King, John John McDuffy, Richard Corey and Professor Irwin Corey..... and his Woodstock gang of musicians including Robbie Dupree and Josh Schneider.
Joel "Bishop" O'Brien was one of the more amazing musicians I've worked with and been friends with. He's from my home town, Great Neck, but many years older than me, I only met Joel after we'd both moved to NYC from Long Island. He was with NYC's hottest band at the time, "The King Bees". Joel became a friend, musical mentor and teacher.
When Joel and Kooch (Danny Kortchmar) left the King Bees and formed a new group called "The Flying Machine" with a 17 year old James Taylor, I became an unofficial mascot for the band. I got to go to rehearsals, hung out almost nightly at their gig at the Night Owl in Greenwich Village and attended many post gig get togethers at Joel's house on Charles Street, where Bish aka the Bishop (Joel's nickname) held court on all things musical.
In addition to being a great drummer, Joel was also an amazing jazz pianist, jazz flute and alto saxophone player and a great singer and acoustic guitarist of old country and C & W songs. No kidding. Joel was a walking encyclopedia of music. When the Flying Machine broke up, Joel joined my band, "The Glitterhouse" and we recorded the album "Colorblind," produced by Bob Crewe. Joel then joined James Taylor in England, where he played drums on Jame's first album (for the Beatle's Apple records). And Joel got to record with Paul McCartney and George Harrison on various Apple projects including Jackie Lomax's first Apple album. Joel then played drums on the James Cotten Blues album that I produced with Todd Rundgren.
Moving to LA, Joel began working with Carole King on her solo albums, including "Tapestry" where Joel played drums on most of the album and on her hit single, "It's Too Late". Forming "Jo Mama" with Danny Kooch and Ralph Schuckett, Joel recorded two albums for Atlantic with them and together they toured with, backed up live, and continued to record with James Taylor and Carole King. Joel's influences on the music scene in general and James Taylor and Carole King specifically was profound. Always teaching and preaching about various types of music (mostly jazz and various American Roots music) Joel's influence was as a teacher as well as a musician.
As close friends thru the 60's and the 70's, Joel was an always loyal friend and mentor. We've stayed in touch over the years as Joel went on to play and record with many artists over the years. Joel had become a fulltime jazz pianist/singer during his last years, gigging on both coasts.
Bishop was a magical leprechaun. No doubt.
I remember the first time I met his band the Flying Machine (thru the Bish). It was 1966/67 in the basement of the Albert Hotel and Joel/Bishop had been telling me about his new band, the Flying Machine. I was a big Danny Kooch/Joel O'brien fan by this time. I had religiously bought all their band, The King Bees, singles as they came out, and my high school rock band had one of their songs "What She Does To Me" as its big closing number.
I remember having to walk thru various dingy basement rooms and hallways complete with puddles of water on the floor when I got to a room where those guys had a set-up with a small drum set and small amps. It was just the Flying Machine and me. My mind was definitely blown that day. Joel, laying it down on the skins and Danny Kooch (Kortchmar) playing and singing like the monster I always knew he was. And that skinny, stringbean kid, a 17 year old James Taylor.....boy, could he sing. And with his long hair, he looked a bit like Jesus, I thought maybe this was the second coming. What a band. After that day, I spent as much time as I could hanging out and listening to the Flying Machine. I'd go listen to them play til midnite at the Nite Owl and then walk with Joel and James back to Joel's 6th floor walk-up apartment on Charles Street.
Joel had an endless supply of records new and old, and would play them for James and me until dawn. He'd explain each part and how the musicians decided to play what they played. Joel was an expert on all styles of music. From Jazz to Bluegrass to Blues to Rock and R & B Joel knew and could play it all.
And Bish kept me under his wing like student/son/sidekick. I was always welcome to hang with the Bish. And the Bishop always had my complete respect. I'll miss him badly.
September 12, 2004
Joel bishop O'Brien, the drummer in my first 3 bands, died in early Sept. He was a huge influence on me and many others during his life, and will be sorely missed by the many people that loved him.
Although Joel played drums in our bands, he was a wonderful piano player and interpreter of jazz standards, but that only scratches the surface of what he was about.
Joel had a vast knowledge of early American music as well as jazz, r&b, blues and rock &roll. He also was stunningly articulate and provided me (and many other of his friends) with an education about Italian cinema, American movies and literature. Hanging out with Joel was my college.
The stuff I learned from him has informed my music and my life since.
Joel was also a wonderful artist, who used collage and graphics to create art that was instantly recognizable as his. He had a unique style in everything he did, the way he dressed, his hipster lingo. He probably influenced everyone he ever had a conversation with.
I hope people will get to hear his later music, when he finally came into his own as a jazz pianist and vocalist. His music is what he was: sly, witty soulful, cool, smart, funky,.........hip.
I'll miss him for the rest of my life.”
Received the CD yesterday... Boy did it make me feel melancholy...
I new Joel thru my daughter Melanie when she was a student at Bard... We
immediately had a cosmic connection... He knew I had a degree from Berklee
College though had not played in years. Joel's love and enthusiasm was
contagious...It was a honor and pleasure to know him... I do miss him
terribly however with the CD and his art his spirit lives on and that makes
Joel M. Shaw
Dear Harriet and Friends,
I hope you are coping with Joel's absence, and that it's in some way bearable. How fragile and short life is! How easy it is to forget our friends and colleagues amidst the hurry-scurry huff 'n' puff drama that everyday life has become. Today, work and family commitments prevented me from joining you, but I wanted to share some thoughts about Joel and what he means to me. Please forgive the digressions. I tend towards self indulgence with word processors.
Bishop and I roomed together on several tours of the US and England. We were drinking buddies, and we talked endlessly, but Joel rarely talked about himself.
As I think about it, I knew very little about him-- his childhood, family or his feelings. It wasn't his style to reveal his inner life.
Joel was an ageless, world-wise hipster. I, at the time a fledgling bohemian, couldn't connect him with my mundane image of family life, just as I couldn't imagine Miles having parents, or Jimi Hendrix, or Frank Zappa. Cool people didn't have parents. They weren't cursed with the ill-fated, inescapable irritant, that I viewed parents to be. No, Joel O'Brien had
skipped childbirth and childhood. He had simply materialized one night in The Blue Note, humbly and surreptitiously, in some weird cosmic Immaculate Conception.
With a cigarette in one hand, the New York Times in the other, drum sticks jutting from a back pocket, and a double shot of Canadian Whiskey on the bar. Bathed in bebop and spewing esoterica. Which I, being of college age but not college material, hungrily inhaled, consumed, and which consumed me. I was a ripe, hungry pupil and Joel was, well, the best teacher I can recall. Thrilled and impassioned by his subject matter, he shared it, eagerly and gleefully. He unveiled a universe of music and culture I never knew existed. Like all good teachers, he made me more curious. Made me want to hear more and see more. To know more.
When I heard he was ill, I phoned Bishop. After our twenty year estrangement I was nervous and self-conscious. I felt compelled to be cheerful, positive, and supportive-- to say the right thing.
His voice, with just the first two words-- "Hey, Cuz," had such great warmth and affection, with no judgement and no need, that I, by comparison, felt uptight, banal and disconnected. I realized, that I, at times, had judged, even dissed him, and had never acknowledged his warmth, affection and acceptance. In my self-involved, drugged out youth I'd been pretty much oblivious to that kind of thing. The last time I'd seen him was on 6th Ave and 12th Street in front of Ray's Pizza. I was in a big hurry, late for I forget what, and we hadn't really connected. So now, we made a date for my visit, but he said, almost sheepishly, that there was one problem he was concerned about. My mind raced. Was he contagious? Was he in a plastic bubble? Would I need to disrobe and have my body sterilized and have to wear a mask and gloves? Was he so disfigured by his illness that he'd be embarrassed by my revulsion?
Then he said, "We have cats and I know you're allergic, so you should take a pill before you come." The fact that Joel, suffering with the pain of a terrible illness, with little time left, with the events and regrets, the memories and attachments, the people he'd loved and married, the stuff he never got to do, the stuff he shouldn't have done-- all this all up in his face-- How did he remember such an insignificant detail about me, whom he hadn't seen or heard a peep from in twenty years? I think that in one short phone conversation, Joel set in motion a chain of thoughts and feelings that changed, not only the way I saw him, but myself, my family, and, really, everything. I'm still not sure why.
It's not the fact that he was dying. Being in my line of work (or maybe it's my choice of friends, or just our times) a lot of my people have died. Some from fate. Some from old age. Some by their own hand. Some were killed by the life they lived, or "chose", if you look at it from today's popular psycho-spiritual-metaphysical-12 Step-Oprah- Dr Phil viewpoint. At times I've been asked or attempted to eulogize these departed, but could never find any words, really. I'd tearfully mutter "I love you" or "I miss you", but I couldn't summon, much less convey, my deep feelings for the person. This is the first time, ever, that, not only do the words come easily, but I can't stop talking!
Joel O'Brien wasn't just a great musician, an amazing talent, or an artist, although he was all those things. He was more than just a musical mentor, an astute social critic, or a snappy dresser. Though he was all those things. More than just a junkie. Although sometimes he was a junkie. Joel O'Brien was an institution. A way of life. A point of view. A piece of history. An era. A connection with a world that no longer exists. I never thought of him as "old school", but by today's standards of hipness, I guess he was. Because he wasn't trendy. He didn't adhere to anyone else's standards. And he didn't change his mind every few weeks about what was and wasn't cool. I mean how many beboppers do you know with reverence and respect for Appalachian hillbilly music? How many hillbillies listen to Thelonious Monk?
At the time Joel and I became friends, I had a narrow, skewed standard of what I thought "good music" was, though I didn't know it. Basically, it went like this: There is no good white music, unless it's eastern European classical music, and that doesn't swing, and is for old people, anyway. (I couldn't reconcile that with the fact that most of my band-mates had been white, but I was in denial about that). All Blues, Bebop and Hard Bop were automatically great, even uninspired cookie cutter "commercial" jazz, if performed by black people, especially all the Hammond Organ trios recorded in Trenton, New jersey ghetto clubs. The exceptions were Ramsey Lewis, who was just too damn popular, and Ahmad Jamal, who, too me, just didn't swing, and didn't deserve all those albums and airplay, even if he did have a cool name. "West Coast" jazz was permissible, even played by whites, but not if they were successful studio musicians. Only Art Pepper and Gerry Mulligan made that cut, the former because he was in prison, the latter because he was just so undeniably cool. Dave Brubeck was Satan incarnate, the personification of evil. His only rivals for that throne were the Grateful Dead, whom I actually kinda like now, because they're so white, and so lousy, that they really do have a unique sound. Any music that becomes popular, even if it's black music, immediately decreases in value. Top forty music from any race has no value unless it's super-funky (which to me at that time meant "with a busy broken up beat, ie James Brown's "Cold Sweat" or "What is Hip" by Tower of Power, neither of which, to my knowledge, ever made the top forty). Bob Dylan, who was Miles Davis's co-reigning almighty diety, was allowed to be successful and popular, in the same way Picasso or Salvador Dali (both white) were in their field. Bill Evans and Gil Evans were allowed to be white, but only because Miles liked them. If either had ever gone Gold, they wouldn't be gettin' my $3.98. The Rolling Stones, who, being white, popular, and British, had three strikes against them, received my grace, because they had refused to be on Shindig, a prime time network show, unless they could bring along Howling Wolf. Ya had to love 'em for that. In their case, the cool factor outweighed the race factor, the popularity factor, the funk factor and the musicianship factor.
So, as my unwitting mentor, Bishop had his work cut out for him. It didn't take him long to shatter all my preconceptions. In no time, he hipped me to as diverse an array of music makers as you'll ever find anywhere. From Eddie Palmieri to The Carter Family. From Noel Coward to Buell Kazee. From Mickey Katz to Fela Ransom Kuti. All along he seasoned the mix joyfully with anecdotes, footnotes and cross references. Pointing out phrases, reciting lyrics, explaining origins and traditions, and immigration patterns. He unearthed original versions of songs of which I'd only heard the tepid British covers. He revealed British gems, like The Goon Show, largely unknown on this continent, and from whose cassetes I derive much pleasure to this day. Bishop could laud the profound nuances of a Bud Powell solo, then, minutes later, give me a fascinating, detailed dissertation on the attributes of a cheesy novelty record called "Oogum Boogum". If I'd been in college, the homework would've been to "Compare and Contrast". And I relished my homework. I spent every dime I made on records. It was not only educational, but liberating. Here was a whole new, broader, more universal, more humane set of aesthetics. Because, despite all their differences, all of these had a lot in common. They were all soulful. They were all artful. They all had a kind of innate intelligence. They all, in some way, spoke truthfully. As did my humble, if erudite professor.
I'm not even going to get into "Bishop on the Cinema", because that would fill several volumes. Suffice it to say that, post-Bishop, when watching a film or TV show, if I like it, you can be sure I know why I like it, and if I don't, I can probably give you an example of an earlier film that told the same story in a better way. At Hollywood parties (if there still is such a thing) I can reel off references to Fritz Lang, Eric Von Stroheim, Albert Zugsmith, et al. It used to be that I could name practically every mug, every cowpoke, every tipsy society matron, vagabond, crony, henchman, fallguy, con artist, sidekick, corpulent corrupt politician, pompous, prune-faced demagogue, European professor, nerd, geek, judge, jurist, storekeeper, cab driver, insane asylum nurse, or cranky old New Englander ever to grace the American screen. My memory's not so great these days, so I probably now only know, maybe half. Guess who taught me that stuff.
And Joel could be so funny, with an ironic, understated, wacky take on things, and an easy, infectious laugh. And a puck-ish penchant for mischief. He loved playing pranks. That's one of the things that distinguished him from most people I knew-- Bishop never took himself too seriously. God knows the rest of us did. On the road, like most young musicians of the day, each of us was, in turns, neurotic, depressed, resentful, competitive or pompous. Scared, angry. Lonely. Young creative types are so serious, so much of the time. Rarely, if ever, was Bishop. He could always find the humor, even the fun, in seemingly dire situations. I got to some dark, dark places on the road. Somehow, even though we never discussed those things, I would see Joel's face, and feel comforted. It wasn't that Joel was in denial, or repressed, or the class clown, or that he was hiding intimacy problems. He might have been, I don't know. Sometimes I'd pry, but I never learned the source of his "demons". No, Joel would just want to, as the English say, Get on with it.
Today, with 20-20 hindsight, I know that in many ways he was right. Nowadays, I even tell my kids that a lot. Get on with it. Teenagers' own personal pain is so goddam precious. Sometimes, no matter how bad it is (and my kids don't know from bad) you just gotta get on with it. Some of us have spent fortunes on therapy, but are we really, after it all, better? Better people? Happier people? More "well-adjusted", let's say, than Joel O'Brien was? Yes, we're all still alive and he's not. But he lived a full life. He had lots of friends. He touched, entertained, loved, taught, changed, moved a whole lot of people. To think. To question. To do good deeds. To laugh. To just... blow! To be themselves. It takes some people years, a lifetime, to learn to be true to themselves. You could accuse Joel of a lot of things, but never of Not Being Himself. That's why we loved him.
Some might say that he was your typical New York left wing bohemian intellectual beatnik musician, but they'd be lying. I new lots of those, and Joel wasn't one of them. When my parents met Joel, they said he was a "character". He was, but shit, so were they. My whole family was full of characters. But none was a true original, like Bishop. You don't see too many originals these days. Not in the music world, anyway. Nowadays it's hard to be original! We all watch TV. We're exposed to everything all the time. Most people dance to someone else's tune, and we don't even know we're doing it. Sometimes we can't even hear a tune anymore, but we be dancin', just the same! Cuz we see everybody else around us dancin'. Maybe we just need to dance. Sometimes it seems like with all our evolution and "higher consciousness", and all the changes the beatniks and hippies brought about, most people act like herd animals. Some of us just can't help it! Joel was never one of the herd, or part of any movement, or scene. He was an independent, free thinking individual, the same guy in his own bedroom, as he was in a crowd of people. He knew who he was and wasn't. He made no apologies, and had no agenda to foist upon others. He defied categories. Bishop never complained or blamed anyone else for his misfortunes, just as he never bragged about his many talents. He was a walking contradiction, but somehow, in and of no one else but Joel. He was opinionated. He was, at times, obstinate. Selfish. Self-destructive. But he was more colorful than most people. He was unforgettable.
re-connected with Joel, and saw him, weak, in pain, and pretty much resigned
to his fate. I listened to his CD's, playing piano and singing, and perused
walls of his artwork, and I was, both thrilled and saddened. He'd cultivated
and made public creative parts of himself I'd never seen. His work blew me away.
Made me laugh out loud. I heard him singing in my car and I started to shout,
Yeah, Joel! Alright! You're doin it! Bravo! That was the thrilling part. The
sad part is not that I never got to tell how much I loved him, which is true,
but that's a given at memorials. I don't feel
guilty and he and I have no unfinished business. The sadness is really just me being, in a way, selfish. It comes from realizing how much I've missed, all these years we haven't kept in touch, and how much more we could have shared, as we both grew older and, hopefully up. I think of watching the Bush-Kerry debates with Bishop. Or ragging on a reality show. Or him meeting my kids. Who knows, maybe I could have even taught him something, for a change.
Now before I go any further, you have to imagine what I'm about to say, being spoken by James Stewart or Henry Fonda. I'm not trying to be funny, and every word of it comes painfully, from my deepest places. But I also don't want to wallow in sentimentality and embarrass Joel. So if one of those guys says it, we can, if we choose to, maintain an ironic distance, and no one will be embarrassed or bummed out. Or, if we choose to buy into it, we can be as bloody sentimental as we want to be, cry in our beer, and Joel will just have to bare it. Considering what he bore in the last weeks of his life, it'll be cake. Do we understand each other? Good.
Joel has been looming large in my thoughts and in my heart for the last few weeks. And today, though I'm looking through this veil of tears, I see very clearly how Joel has left his mark on this world.
How he's made a difference. What part of him will never go away. Each of us possesses a piece of his legacy. I write music for a living-- all kinds. Lots of it is on TV. Every note of music that I write, or play contains a piece of Joel's legacy. You can hear his legacy in Danny Kortchmar's music, and because of that, in some of Don Henley's music. People every day, all over the world, hear it in Carole King's music, in James Taylor's. In Robbie DuPree's. You'll hear it in the music their children make, if they do. Anyone who's ever worked with any of these people I mention, has inherited some of it. People who never heard of, never met, couldn't give a shit about Joel O'Brien, or jazz or hillbilly music, have put it in their music and they don't even know it. In some of these people's music, it's very subtle. Maybe only those of us who know Joel and know them, even know it's there. But it's there. What I'm talking about is not drumming or piano playing. It's a point of view. An attitude. A vibe, a joke. A cloud of smoke. A walk. A way to talk. A giggle. A stumble. A snore. A horn honking. A slip on the ice. A missed opportunity. A sneer. A smirk. A sheepish grin. An erect middle finger. A half eaten bagel. A cigarette butt. It's a funny hat. It's the entire history of jazz, and it's a little kid banging on a rock with a big stick. It's primal, but it's also very sophisticated. It's been there, done that, and still don't know shit. It's gentle as Lester Young, and as furious as Archie Shepp. It's as sweet as Bill Monroe, and as nasty as a B flat 7 chord with a sharp 9. It's good taste. It's utter tastelessness. It's tradition. It's a pie in the face of tradition. It'll be passed on, from hand to hand, for a long time, to a whole lot of people. It's a part of history. Thank you for your legacy, Joel. I'm very grateful to have a piece of it, and to have had you in my life.
Now that Jimmy or Henry has finished speaking, and I'm thinking of all that's been lost, and all that's been gained, I find myself both laughing and crying at the same time. It's not easy, and it hurts.
But it also feels really good. And that, I guess, is the point.
October 17, 2004
Video Tribute - by Richard Corey
Elegy - by Geoffrey O'Brien
Remembrances and Reflections