I have a friend. I’m a couple of years younger than him. He’s a semi-retired concrete contractor and we grew up in the same small town. Both of our fathers were Italian-American tradesmen. And both of us were raised in our father’s businesses. My friend’s father was a concrete contractor, and my pop was a carpenter contractor who eventually became a general contractor.
My friend, John Marsiglio is a lot more than an expert with concrete, though most would say he was a very skilled and talented cement contractor. He knows his craft and he practiced it well and successfully for years.
But Johnny’s passion has always been music. And playing the guitar. He’s been playing since junior high. And I still remember him first playing in bands at dances I went to in that same junior high. I moved away from my hometown back in the 70’s just out of college. I ended up on the west coast for over 25 years doing cartooning, illustration and comics. Johnny took over his dad’s business, but he never stopped playing rock and roll. He’s been in a band or fronted a band ever since those junior high school days.
I moved back to the small town where we were raised about 20 years ago. I ran into some old friends and through one mutual friend I became re-acquainted with Johnny once again. And now that I was back, I would occasionally catch his performances at various venues in the area..one of my favorite clubs to hear him was a tiny little social club in Biddle, PA called The Serbian Club. Things could always get wild there and he had quite a local following. Hell, he had groupies!
With his now successful construction business, Johnny was able to front the money for a number CDs for a current band called The Knobs (which was actually the second incarnation of a band he started in high school, also called The Knobs.)
It came to pass that John was producing a new CD, with original songs that he wrote (because writing and performing his OWN songs is definitely a big part of his passion), and he asked me to design the packaging for the CD. I jumped at he chance to become involved. After that first one, other CDs followed and he gave me the opportunity to design those packages too. I had a ball designing the CD packages, but I had MORE fun designing the posters for the The Knobs gigs and CD release parties…
Some CDs were fun-loving, good-time rock and roll statements, and others became reflections of the things Johnny was pondering at the time. From the growing division of the the country (featured in his CD titled The Two Americas), to coming to terms with aging and less of a road in front of us than behind us. With each CD I tried to reflect the vibe that Johnny was trying to creat musically. And with each CD I got to know my friend a little more intimately.
Anyone that knows Johnny Mars (as we affectionately call him), knows that he worked hard. The concrete business isn’t for the faint hearted. And Johnny played hard. He had fun. And people liked to drink with Johnny because, well, he’s a great drinking buddy.
He’s funny, he’s smart, and it might surprise many to now that he is also quite spiritual. We have had countless conversations about Buddhism and the nature of our being. The nature of compassion and mindfulness.
A few years ago, Johnny’s party caught up with him. We had often talked about getting older, slowing down, but there was still a no-surrender aspect to Johnny that could not be denied. He had a health threatening set back that scared the hell out of all of his friends and family. I dont want to over dramatize it, but it was one of those events that can’t help but take the wind from your sails. It was a significant setback physically. It robbed my friend of his ability to sing and play the guitar. It broke my fucking heart.
And broke a lot of other’s hearts as well.
Since the episode Johnny has been working at getting his movements and singing back. I know it’s been disheartening at times. It’s not an easy road back. But lately, my friend has been venturing out to play at open mike nights and working hard at finding his musical voice again. He never for a moment thought that he wouldn’t continue to play again. No matter how much work it took or how long it took.
I should confess that I hadn’t talked to my friend on the phone for quite a long time. We used to talk a lot more frequently, or at least see each other every couple of weeks or so. Catch up, see what was new with our families, talk about serious stuff, and not so serious stuff…talk about the magic of our grand children…
Truth was, it was hard for me to hear something different in his voice after he stated his road to recovery. I wanted to sound encouraging, but I don’t thnk I did. And over the months, it became easier to tend to my own life’s problems, and there were plenty.
Then earlier this week, I was driving around Pittsburgh taking care of chores and minor business things and I happened to grab one of my favorite Knobs CDs titled “Daydrinkin” to listen to on the road. As I drove from place to place, I listened to that CD all day. Probably more than three times I played it. The songs were of the good-time variety and Johnny’s voice was sometimes sweet sounding and sometimes raucous. Each song lifted my mood higher.
When I got home, I knew I had to call him and I did, the very next day. It was great hearing his voice again. He told me that he was playing at an open mic thing on Main Street in our town at a place called the Colonial Grille Taproom. A place well known to me. I called another mutual friend of ours ( also a musician I’ve known since high school) and we made a plan to go see Johnny tonight.
Here they are on stage at Colonial Grille Taproom.
I just got back from that gig. It was truly an experience that brought me great joy. And filled me with hope. I thought it would just be John and hisdrummer from The Knobs, but it turned out to be a Knobs reunion of sorts. The bass player who had moved to Florida just happened to be up here this week and the guitarist and drummer were there to back Johnny up. His voice sounded great. He had a great time. The crowd was a big one.
There were other musicians playing tonight, of course. Other bands, including three other wildly talented guys sitting in as the “house band” — Kenny Blake, Jimmy Hilton and Kenny “the Alabama Slammer” Smith. Their music was very, very good, and the place was packed. Surprizingly, there were even a handful of people I hadn’t see in 40 years. I wasn’t expecting the turnout or seeing those old, old friends from high school, but I’m sure that many were there to see Johnny back up on stage too.
When Johnny Mars and the Knobs took the stage and started their set I was overcome with emotion. Johnny sounded good. I knew how hard he’d been working, playing the guitar and singing. After his set he was smailing. I think it was the first time he realized that he was a LOT closer to getting back to his old form. He managed to flirt with a few dancing women up front so I know he was feeling good. I managed to hold back the tears, but I’ve still got a bit of an afterglow.
I’m happy for him. And happy I got to see him play tonight.