I’m tired of talk of myself, you too probably. So I’ll make a short detour to other subjects. I keep mentioning my friends in this narrative, but to the reader they are only shadowy names. So I’ll take the time now to give each one a longer or shorter ‘vignette’, a French term for a brief biography, or sketch of a person, not in any order of importance to me but as fancy suggests. She is my muse.
John Fyzer: (Fizz head at our poker table), Bones and I first met at the Plough in early 1978. He had his guitar in hand and we invited him upstairs to play. I remember him back then surprising us with an amazing repertoire of hundreds of songs, well played and sung in his raspy voice. He’d written a dozen original songs, good ones, which we all greatly admired.
He was about ten years older than us. It was hard to tell because his face was wrinkled and weathered. He’d spent years on the road, something between a travelling musician and a vagabond. He had red hair, long and curly, just starting to go gray on his sideburns. He had all the freckles of a red head and deep wrinkles under his eyes, (as if he’d missed out on many nights of sleep), a froggy voice, scrawny in stature and size, and that probably due, (once you heard his life story) to years of malnutrition. He reminded me, in retrospect, of an aged Willie Nelson, with almost equal talent when we first met him.
He was friendly, talkative, full of stories and generous with what little he had, never asking for anything. He was a main character at our poker games, loved them, as we loved his participation, often bringing a pocket full of change he made by singing in the streets with open guitar case. Except for the month-long stint of working construction for Robert Malone (the job Jim got us) this was his only source of money. I never knew him to have his own place. He was always crashing on somebodies’ floor. Bones had an old, green Ford truck, all beat up, with a camper top. He parked it in front of my garage apartment and John slept in it many nights when he had nowhere else to go, most nights. He used my bathroom almost as much as I did for those months. He was a true bohemian.
He had a southern accent and was similar in musical style to Willie Nelson. Before we first met him in 78 he’d traveled across the country, singing his way, and in Denver he’d been offered a contract, (his songs were that good) and given a ten thousand dollars advance to record them for some label. But he blew it on cocaine with the musicians who were to accompany him and the record was never made.
Now, in 1983, five years later, living on the streets, he was often taken in and nursed by young, hippy-like women for weeks at a time. His repertoire was sadly diminished, and his health failing. But his guitar playing and singing the songs he still remembered was good, even impressive. He performed them many times at my parties. He was always a welcome guest.
But I recall vividly when we first met him and had him sitting on our couch above the Plough in early 78, he always had his guitar in hand, and with ten other people sitting or standing around, after we treated him to a few lines of speed, there wasn’t a single song, however obscure, that anyone could mention in that room, in some stray remark, that he didn’t know. As soon as he heard the title he’d play it through, right away, to everyone’s amazement.
The year and a half on Woolsey street was the period of our closest acquaintance. I call it that because we were very different beings. He was a friend whom I’d do all I could to help, but different in so many ways from the rest of us he was an anomaly, even to Steve and Bones. No one could fathom his character or follow his thinking in the same way we all shared ours and grew to know each other in our late-night talks in our little circle.
By December of 1983, when I moved in with Chuck on Carleton street, we saw less and less of him. He quit coming to the new location of the poker games.
“Tuesday Jan. 24th, 1984. A leisurely, sunny day. I sat with John Fyzer on the campus steps for an hour today. He’s been walking the streets for want of lodgings and has been in a sort of artistic delirium. He showed me some incomprehensible jottings of mystic, symbolic words and phrases, dark, prophet-like declarations, almost a religious mania, in a frustrated attempt to understand his condition, grasping at straws. Sweat poured off him as he sang me a tune, living off coffee and donuts and cigarettes. I know no one who has gone further in casting himself in the role of bohemian artist, who rejects all comfort for this role. Even his health must be ruined soon, ‘et quidquid Musis obtulit, ex sanitate perpensit, et nunc, nullis opibus remannentibus, nil nisi deliramenta effundet”.
The last sentence I wrote in my notebook in Latin, as a thing so sad to contemplate it needed to be masked. It translates ‘whatever he took from the Muses he paid for from his sanity, and now nothing remains, nothing but ravings’.
I saw him a few times after this and in a better state (one night at Bones’ in May of 85 and once at my apartment in Piedmont in 1986) but rarely. I heard later that he moved to Santa Cruz where some young woman took him in. I moved there three years later but never saw him on the streets, the main drags, where he would have been playing for pocket change. ‘Sic evanescit’. (In such a way he disappeared).
I’m sure he’s been dead many years now. He was close to it then, 35 years ago. He didn’t ruin his health by drug abuse. He might have, if he’d had the money and the fame, which he came close to. He declined before our eyes by a total negligence of the necessities of life, like eating or sleeping in a bed. Bones took care of him during the two years I spent in Canada (1980–1982). I helped him in some things from the summer of 1982 to the winter of 1983. But no one could give him advice, even at our weekly poker games. He was in a dream world of his lost music and bohemian end, living on coffee and junk food from the coins he made singing on the streets of Berkeley. He’d come by my place sometimes and I don’t ever remember offering him a meal, only beers and lines, joining the rest of our party crew, strumming and singing songs.
The reason I mention young hippy-like girls taking care of him in the end, after we’d pretty much abandoned him, (not by our actions but by his ever fewer visits to us) was because on that day, sitting with him for an hour on the steps of the Student Center, where he had a few dollars in coins in his open guitar case from playing songs all day long, he told me of this girl who had adopted him, letting him stay with her and feeding him. I wondered at this, why some girl twenty years younger would have anything to do with him. He was decrepit, dirty, smelly and not too coherent in speech, with only a few songs he could still remember, a scarecrow of the man we once knew, maybe 90 pounds at most. What did she see in him?
As I was sitting there with him, just about to go, she came up. And sure enough she was wearing a long, colorful skirt and a light-blue, old, jeans jacket and had come to take him to her place and feed him. She was happy to see me there and he introduced me as a long-time, dear friend. She smiled at me and complimented him on the few dollars of change he’d made in his case, then off they went.
For all I’ve berated women’s intellects in these pages, there’s one thing I can’t understand in their motivations, or their reasoning, but I see it in their actions and it puts them on a higher plane than us in compassion, a nobler plane which must have some joy in it that we can’t conceive. I’ll call it pure motherhood. We took care of him as long as we could, until his dereliction even disgusted us, his only friends. Then younger women came along, total strangers, and took up the torch. She helped him pack his guitar, helped him stand up, and with her arm around his waist walked him slowly to her place, off into the sunset.
I just typed his name in google and lo and behold I find a website he made with live recordings he made some twenty years ago, looking healthier, happier and sounding as good on the guitar as he was when we first met him in 78. What a miracle of survival. He might easily be alive today at age 77. I'm glad he defeated all my gloomier meditations as he was a good friend. I hope so. Check out his website, donate even.