Thursday, May 19, 2016

John Berry: Wild Incandescence

Incandescent JB
When you start at a school in kindergarten, by eighth grade you pretty much know every single person. So when John Berry transferred in, I spotted him right away. The fact that he had orange hair spiked to a fare-thee-well and charisma that glowed even brighter didn't hurt. But he was so wildly incandescent that many of my schoolmates stayed away from the new kid. I was immediately attracted to him, though, and when I learned he also lived above 96th Street and loved music we were fully bonded. 

John's energy level was so high that I was kind of the straight man, off to the side: "John, are you sure that's a good idea?" I would sometimes ask him when he was about to do something crazy. But most of the time I just basked in the glow and helped pick up the pieces later. 

While we lived only a few blocks from each other, our environments could not have been more different. Mine was a mid-level doorman building where we had a classic NYC apartment on the 11th floor. John's father was renting a duplex loft in a unique old wood-frame building with a diner at street level. John's domain was the whole top floor (and the roof), and the whole space was packed with old stuff, some of which might have come with the place. Even so, I noticed his guitar the first time I visited. Of course, he played guitar - I should've known. 

At the time, I was coming off years of piano lessons and considering the trombone (thanks to Ska, The Specials and A Message To You, Rudy), but I knew a drummer that I thought might want to jam with John: Mike Diamond. Since they weren't friends yet, I hatched a plot to introduce them to each other at a Joe Jackson show, with The Members opening. I don't know how many phone calls it took to arrange but I got it done and we went to the concert. I made the introductions and we took our seats, John in the middle. As soon as The Members blasted into their first song, John was airborne, pogoing in his seat like a madman - as I expected. Mike, however, was taken aback. When John went to the bathroom, the future Beastie Boy leaned over to me and said: "I think this guy's insane!" I assured him that he was cool and not to worry.

Within days, John and Mike were jamming and I had decided to take up the bass. The Young Aborigines were born, so named because we were young and we associated the word "aborigine" with a primitivism that we aspired to have in our music, in addition to the influences of post-punk, disco, reggae and salsa. Listening now to the crude recordings I have, it is impossible to ignore the vitality of John's guitar, slashing at chords or picking haunted arpeggios. He liked a lot of heavy chorus pedal on his guitar, I think for the color it added to the sound. He was totally self-taught and brought the spirit of an action painter to every song.

John Berry, Mike Diamond & Me: the "original young aboriginals"
The band proceeded by fits and starts, never quite finding its place but schooling us all in how to be a group and making us a tight unit, one that we eventually invited Kate Schellenbach to join, to add "primitive" percussion. We got more serious, putting together a 45 minute set of challenging instrumental music (sometimes challenging our own instrumental technique!) that we tried to take on the road. But soon the siren call of hardcore was heard, Adam Yauch came on the scene, and the wheels of history began to inexorably turn toward Cookie Puss, Licensed To Ill, and world domination for the Beastie Boys.

John and I stayed close until I went to college and he began to drift a little, especially after he was cut loose by the Beastie Boys due to chronic lateness and heavy drinking. Frankly, I didn't think hardcore or hip hop was really for him, which was proven later by his turn to folk, country and Americana.

We lost touch until, like so many high school friends, Facebook brought us back together. He had an idea for a book about those early days and wanted to interview me, but it never happened. We finally connected at a show of his amusing and well-executed folk art, appropriately at a bar on Berry Street in Williamsburg. He was still the same John and we had a great time, playing songs from our iPods and talking about everything. But something was off. Occasionally, our conversation just...missed, derailed by non-sequitur. I couldn't tell if he was going deaf, or had had a stroke at some point, but I worried for my old friend. I was right to be concerned, as his illness was beginning to take hold. I never saw him again.

John and I spent hours and hours together, mostly playing music, seeing shows, or trying to make the Young Aborigines coalesce. One of my favorite memories had nothing to do with any of that, however, but rather took place when I invited Mike and John to come on a ski weekend in the Berkshires. We called it the "Fresh Air Fund" for Young Aborigines - not exactly politically correct, but blame it on our youth. On the way to the country, we stopped at a Four Brothers pizza restaurant and squeezed into a corner booth with my parents. While we were certainly boisterous, we managed to give our orders without incident, but when the waitress turned to go back to the kitchen, John got that light in his eyes, raised one finger, and said, "And a booty to go!" Mike and I almost died laughing. 

It was just another moment where John went just that little bit further out, past everyone's comfort zone, and into an ether of his own making. I guess he's there permanently now. So do something silly, play an out of tune guitar like you mean it, make the next person you meet your best friend, and get a taste of what it was like to be the man I called JB. While his light can never be extinguished, it's now up to us to reflect it back into the world.

JB on the mic, reading poetry
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All Photos (c) 2016 Jeremy Shatan


  1. Damn, I love this. Jeremy, as always, I'm grateful that I get to call you my friend. I am pretty sure if YOU had never had the idea to bring John and Mike together, my life would have sounded completely different. YOU started something big when you did that. I was thinking about how Adam H. gave that cool shout out to John and his Dad at the RnR HOF. I know John had to get a kick out of it but I bet that just made his Dad's łife. I'm so sad that's he's had to outlive his son and witness some heartbreaking truths but that had to be a great moment for the two of them to hear that story about themselves on TV, you know? I just picture them having a bonding moment even though I know nothing of their relationship. How could you not enjoy that? Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for this....btw, was that Joe Jackson show at the Palladium?

  3. Thanks for this....btw, was that Joe Jackson show at the Palladium?

  4. I am an old friend of Johnny B's . I watched it happen,ever so slowly,we all knew,I loved that guy. I will never forget him.

    1. Thanks for reading, Mike. He defined unforgettable.

  5. My weirdest memory of John was when a bunch of us from Fotofolio went to the Cooler. His girlfriend at the time was '5 sheets to the wind' and sat on my lap and started to flirt with me. He just looked on and laughed while I looked over at my soon-to-be girlfriend with a look of "Help!"

    1. Yes, Wayne, I can picture that! He was kind of the ringmaster of his own life at times. Maybe we were the audience, and maybe we were the acts...