Remembering John Herald
By Charles Lyonhart
The Woodstock Times. Late September, 2008
I was driving down Route 28 near Maverick Road the other day taking note of the changing colors of the early autumn leaves, remembering that this was the time of the year that John and I spent most of our time together.
Early autumn was a good month for us together since both our Birthdays fell close to each other in September and October. John and I always celebrated our birthdays together in a local restaurant in Woodstock for some Chinese food. Except for John picking out the chopped carrots and chopped scallions that he always told the cooks not to put in his food, but they did anyway, he loved Chinese food. John had experienced a bad case of kidney stones in his earlier years and there was a list of foods that he believed would inflict pain of his kidneys. He once told me, "man, there is no pain worse in the world than kidney stones." He was wrong. The pain that I have felt since his death is overwhelming and suffocating at times. I miss him so. Actually, there is not a day that goes by that I do not think about John both before
his untimely passing and every day after.
As John put it in a song that he wrote
called "The Bond" about our friendship a few years before his death, "sometimes you're like a mama, sometimes you're like a dad, you got me grounded like a rock, the brother that I never had." John was my brother, my mother, my father and truly the best friend I ever had. We both grew up in boarding schools, called "incorrigible children" by the public school system of New York City. Spending more time in the streets of Greenwich Village than at the homes we never had, we both understood loneliness and isolation well. This made us seek out the artists, poets and writers of the day often taking us on journeys down darkened streets that most people never experience.
The first time I met John Herald was in Woodstock at the Tinker Street Cafe, introduced by my pal Lincoln Schleifer, who was in John's band with Larry Campbell in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. The moment that we met, we both felt a deep connection of the heart and soul and we were immediately bonded together from then on. It was through our mutual pain of coping with the horrors of the world and our love of music that we forged a strong friendship through the years, speaking on the phone nearly every day for close to 20 years.
The world knows John as the consummate bluegrass performer and songwriter. I knew a different John that only a few people ever saw. I
saw a man who was much too sensitive and compassionate for the world he lived in.
A man who loved his privacy as much as he loved being out on the road gigging from town to town. One of the problems was that John did not adapt to
changing times. Seeing a
world torn with war, poverty, hunger and disease plagued John. Quite simply he cared too much until he couldn't care at all anymore.
It was difficult to watch John during the last few years of his life as he tried to live his life with dignity in spite of his poverty and health problems. He rallied like a hero against all odds and continued to play the smaller clubs and halls that did not give him the respect that he so much deserved. I genuinely felt what John was going through since I was always going through the same things that he was at the same time that he was. We discussed the dismal state of the world on a regular basis. John once told me that he wished he had been born in simpler times. "I would have liked to have been born in the 1800s," he once told me, "where there were no cars, computers and women were a whole lot different to their men." I agreed with John on
most things so that is why we probably got along so well.
“...sometimes you're like a mama, sometimes you're like a dad, you got me grounded like a rock, the brother that I never had...”
It was not a surprise to me that John never had or wanted a computer, cell phone or even a toaster. Electrical appliances baffled him. I would sometimes drive two hours up to
his home in Woodstock in the cold dead of a winter's night just to hook up an answering machine for him because he
would be damned if he could understand the instruction book that was "written to confuse those who bought them," he said. This is just one of the
things that made me love the fanatical part John that most people never knew.
John was the only man that I ever kissed on the lips every time we greeted. After I knew him for about three months one day when we met at his house he greeted me at the door with a big kiss on my lips before I could even turn my cheek. "What's the matter?" he said inquisitively, "if I love you why can't I kiss you on the mouth?" I always listened carefully to every word that John said because I knew that he was more than special. After thinking about this surprising kiss for a few seconds I told him that it was cool to do so. I thought that if we really did love each other then what
would be wrong with
us kissing on the lips? From that day on we always kissed on the lips and hugged each time we met. Even the last time I saw him, as sick as we both were, we kissed and held each other. I guess John knew more than me about when he would see me next if ever again in this world.
John often took me swimming and mushroom hunting. We would spend hours in the woods up by Snake Rock looking for morel mushrooms that he cooked up for us as he smiled and told me "they taste like steak and they are a delicacy and quite expensive too." He was a great cook and he made sure that we
always had a nice dinner whenever we ate at his little shack on Maverick Road.
John was one of the most thoughtful and selfish persons at the same time that I ever met. He told me once, "I am selfish. So once in a while you have to tell me if I begin to ask for too much." John always made me want to do whatever I could for him. He had a talent for making people want to help him. I was always happy to be there for him because he was always there for me.
In the summer of 2005 while I was dying from a failing liver and waiting for a transplant, I was certain that I would go before John. When John and I spoke about my liver cancer he couldn't fathom just how sick I was. He didn't want to believe that I was lossing ground and would not be here much
longer. I wanted to do so much more for him the last months of his life but I was barely alive I couldn't even help myself. I couldn't even handle phone conversations longer than a few minutes, for they tired me. John came down to my home in Warwick, where I was living at the time, a few times to visit me and I could see how sad he was when he saw me. I was not the same person I used to be due to the progression of the disease and my sickly state. "You're not looking that yellow to me and you are still very handsome," he smiled. He always knew how to try to make me feel good. I watched this talent that John had to make others feel good about themselves
in the clubs we played for many years. He brought so much pleasure to the world with his music. He was a genuine artist and performer and he knew it. It was not until after his death that I even realized how much the world loved him. The thousands of emails that friends of John's and I received and still do to this day made me realize how loved he was by the world. Unfortunately John never was aware nor realized in his life just how much he was loved and how much he meant to us all. I still shudder to think of what was going through his mind that last night.
I remember coming home from the doctor's in mid July of 2005 and hearing from our mutual friend, Diane Chetta that John had taken his life. John and I frequently spoke of suicide during our dark times over the years but I never thought that he would truly commit the act. I could barely walk myself that day I heard the sad news since my body was stricken with edema and acites, both ghastly symptoms of end stage liver disease. As sick as I was; with less than two months to live, I still hung on for what I didn't know for at the time. When I got the call from Diane and she told me that John was gone I couldn't believe it. "No, he's not! You must be mistaken!" I kept screamming at Diane into the phone. "I was supposed to die before John!" I screamed.
I lost a substantial part of myself that night: No matter how sick I was I felt even sicker than I could have imagined with John not being there to talk me through this liver transplant ordeal. I felt empty and abandoned; left here to deal with all the things that made John want to leave this world. I suppose that you could say I was in shock for some time after John's death. Maybe I am still in shock. My sadness and anger soon dissipated as I tried to turn my sorrow and pain into putting my last dying energies into planning a memorial tribute for John in Woodstock at The Bearsville Theater. With the help of our friends Brian Hollander, John Sebastian, Artie and Happy Traum, Diane Chetta, Kim Chalmers and several, others close to John, we shaped the "Thursday Committee" created to put on a memorial concert for our friend. Nobody in the group knew just how sick I was at the time. I hid my illness well, covering my yellowed jaundiced face with make up while I worked with each breath as if it were to be my last. For many months I was in a neti neti land, as a deep fog covered me. I grabbed the phone many times to call my best friend and realized when starting to dial that he would not be at the other end. All I could do was miss him and go back to sleeping and dreaming, the only way that John and I could spend time together now.
The memorial was a huge success. People still talk about it in Woodstock to this day. I have been told that there were more people at The Bearsville Theater for John's memorial that night than for any other performance that was ever there. Strange that during his last few years John couldn't even seem to get a crowd at The Colony Cafe. Brian Hollander was working with him right before John's passing completing a CD that John could sell at his shows. Somehow Brian and the Thursday Committee managed to get some promotional CD's to give out at the memorial in time. The actual CD, Just Another Bluegrass Boy, was released months after John's death and is a stunning tribute to himself. When I left the stage that night I called my ex-wife Maggie and told her, "if I die tonight, I went to heaven, playing on stage with Levon, Sebastian, Larry Packer, Larry Campbell, Chris Zaloom, George Quinn, Cindy Cashdollar," to name a few. I will never forget turning around to
see Levon playing drums on "Knocking on Heaven's Door" when I thought Dennis Cotton was backing me. I was in fact ready to die now. So if I didn't get the liver who cared? John was gone anyway. I didn't want to live in a world without John.
September and October were rough months for me. I dreamed of meeting John every time I slept.
I was dying for sure. I had two to four months to live at best the doctor's told me without a liver transplant. I'm really not afraid of dying, most of the time. I had lost Mindy Jostyn earlier in the year and that was hard enough to get through. They say death comes in threes so I thought it was my time for sure. Each day
I answered emails from fans of John's. It seemed like the right thing to do to pass these last dark and lonely days. It was all I had strength to do. Praying each night that I would pass and meet John over yonder. I could see John with his straw hat on picking an old Martin standing by the gates of Eden. I had many conversations with John in my sickly dream stupor. The days passed by like I was descending into hell. All of my affairs were in order and I was more than ready to go. Pete Townsend's "I hope I die before I get old', was always my motto anyway.
So I did get in fact get a call for "the liver" on Christmas Day, 2005. I always thought of it as a strange gift from John arid that he had to pass on so that he could fiX things up for me with the man . upstairs. I can sometimes see him smiling down at
me and saying, "Who loves you?" He often said that to me when I was down and out.
Now when I walk the streets of Woodstock I feel as if I am walking in John's town. I see him everywhere and I hear him in all of the music. I hear him when the wind howls at night.
It has been almost three years since my liver transplant and I am a lucky man, I guess, to be alive. The world is still wild and crazy and I wonder what John would say about the state of world affairs these days. What would John say about McCain, Obama or even Palin? Many things that John and I were concerned with have come to pass.
Global warming, financial ruin, poverty, war, disease and famine are just a few of the things that have gotten so much worse since John was alive. We live in a "Moneyland" for sure. The fact that Del McCoury's band has just put out a CD called Moneyland and cover John's classic song of power and greed is no coincidence. John is smiling down.
So I moved up to the Woodstock area in the fall of 2007 and I have been here ever since. I have made many new friends and put a band together in the meantime with George Quinn, who worked with John for over two decades, Chris Zaloom, Dennis Cotton and Larry Packer. All are artists that knew, worked with and loved John. Somehow these new friendships have lightened my load a bit and have kept John alive within my heart.
I met Eeo [Stubblefield] through John. John enncouraged me to consider Eeo as my partner which eventually happened after his death. All of John's friends, some who I didn't know that well before he passed have been so kind to me. There is a bond that I have with people like Brian Hollander, George Quinn, Chris Zaloom and Judy Whitfield, to name just a few who loved John and admired his as much as I do.
I am sad though when I think that John for countless years always wanted me to move up here and I never did while he was alive. Now when I walk the streets of Woodstock I feel as if I am walking in John's town. I see him everywhere and I hear him in all of the music. I hear him when the wind howls at night. As content as I am to be living here I am just as unsettled that I will never see my friend again in this town, in this life. Through music and song John will always be alive. I am thankful to be reminded that John did walk these streets once and lives in the hearts of us alL I imagine that! see Johnin Sunflower buying pine nuts for our dinner. I envision meeting him at the music store in town buying medium gauge guitar picks. I see his ghost on Tinker Street where we used to hang out and play. I see him when I
watch Brian Hollander play his renditions of John's tunes in his Bluegrass Band. I see John and feel him most when I play music with George Quinn, Chris Zaloom, Dennis Cotton and Larry Packer. All of us bound by our love of music and our admiration for John. Most of all I see him on Maverick Road every time I drive down Route 28 and think about the countless times we had laughing and playing our guitars in his tiny shack in the woods. "Who loves you?" I hear John's voice on my car radio. "You do John", I think, "You do."
The John Herald Fund at Family of Woodstock helps musicians and artists in times of need.
To contribute to the John Herald Fund, make checks payable to "Family of Woodstock" and note the john
Herald Fund and send them to
Family of Woodstock, Inc.
PO Box 3516
Kingston, NY 12402
To obtain a copy of the CD, Just Another Bluegrass Boy, see www.JohnHerald.com.
All proceeds from the sale of the CD go to the John Herald Fund.
New CD out Fall 2019. Check back here for further details.