And in the wee Village hours one day as Jack and Richie were meandering to the subway back to Queens, a Cadillac pulled up and the window rolled down and inside was Jimi Hendrix and a couple of beautiful women. Hendrix looked out at Jack and said, “Hey, man, you come back
and jam tomorrow again, hear?”

—Thomas E. Kennedy, from his essay, “Jack and Me”

Jack and Me


A Tribute to Jack O’Brien, Rock Guitarist (1952-88)
by Thomas E. Kennedy

Aside from the sessions work and garage tapes, Jack only made one record, HAMMER (San Francisco, SD 203, 1970). It was well received critically, but made little money despite a vigorous east-west coast Fillmore launch during which the Hammer group opened for names like Eric Clapton, Miles Davis, Fleetwood Mac, Procol Harum, Leon Russell, Cat Stevens, and Traffic with Steve Winwood, who were also under the management of Premier Talent Associates.

The Hammer work ran from 1969-71, with Jack on lead guitar, Norman Landsberg on keyboards, John DeRoberts doing vocals, Richie McBride on bass, and John Guerin on drums. (Ken Janick played drums on one number, “Charity Taylor,” and Andy Newmark took over the skins on Hammer’s extensive tour.) Jack was seventeen when they got together, a natural talent on guitar who played by ear.

Back in 1958, when I was fourteen, my father bought me an old twenty-dollar acoustic to encourage my musical aspirations, fired by my attendance at two of Alan Freed’s rock & roll galas at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. There I’d had the privilege of hearing live performances by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many other early RnR greats. I had been trying to learn to play the thing, strumming what I hoped were the right chords to accompany my own shaky vocals of “Kansas City” and Arthur Crudrup’s classic, “That’s All Right, Mama,” but I was hopeless. I took half a year’s lessons, but I could barely learn to keep the thing in tune.

Jack was my nephew, only eight years younger than I. One day when Jack was about seven or eight, he asked if he could borrow my guitar which had been gathering dust for a while, along with my rock and roll dreams. Jack took down that guitar and started picking out the melodies of some of the Broadway show tunes my parents played on their Webcor Hi Fi — especially “My Favorite Things.” Just like that. I couldn’t believe it. I told him to keep the thing. I felt as though I had some music in me, but there seemed no way of letting it free.

Clearly, though, Jack had found his axe. He had the guitar with him all day, as though it were a part of him. No matter what he did, he walked around picking out tunes, strumming chords. I swear, I saw him on the jakes one day, the axe across his thighs. He was a natural. He played constantly, and it was clear he had found his work. My father sent him for lessons with my old teacher, Mr. Mungo, on 82nd Street in Jackson Heights. Mungo started everyone out playing “The Carnival of Venice,” plink plunk, but he and Jack never saw eye to eye. Mungo, who had assured me I had the natural hands of a guitarist, concluded that Jack lacked the discipline to be a musician; he would shout at him, “No no no no! A ‘G’ iss alvays a ‘G’!” Clearly, Jack was better at teaching himself.

When he was eleven, in 1963, he began playing his guitar along with my first Beatles album, and he played along with them on Ed Sullivan. By the time he was twelve, he had joined a rock band with older kids (along with his best buddy from school, bass player Richie McBride) and by fourteen, he knew his way around Greenwich Village. By about 1966, he was jamming there with the best at Steve Paul’s Scene and elsewhere — Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, B.B. King. After Jack, at fourteen or so, ripped out a screaming solo on his plugged-in hardbody in an after-hours club, The Beeb paid him the compliment of going, “Ye-ah!

And in the wee Village hours one day as Jack and Richie were meandering to the subway back to Queens, a Cadillac pulled up and the window rolled down and inside was Jimi Hendrix and a couple of beautiful women. Hendrix looked out at Jack and said, “Hey, man, you come back and jam tomorrow again, hear?”

Then Jack got into a thing called the Rock Flow in the East Village, some kind of rock happening with twirling lights and electronic fog, organized by a guy named Harvey Kramer. I was living in Alphabet City at the time, between Avenues A and B on 3rd Street in the East Village, and Jack spent a lot of time at my pad. I worked at an offset printing company on East Broadway at the time, and one day when I got home from work, a buddy of Jack’s, Frank Heller, who was artistically inclined, had graffitied my walls with caricatures of the Pope and other notable leaders we did not like. I had a choice between throwing him out or laughing and decided instead to give him carte blanche to do the whole studio apartment.

With relish, Frank accepted the invitation and when I came home next day there was not a blank spot on wall or ceiling. The plaster was acrawl with Fritz the Cats and hairy Crumb-like characters and Crumb-like huge-bosomed women. In the bathroom, Pete the Plumber’s Plungo strutted along the walls along with a parade of jolly coppers, and on the back of the closet door Pope John XXIIIrd gave his blessing to a cannabis plant.

The pad became mildly famous. Total strangers would ring my bell and ask if this was the place with the murals and could they come in and look. I only regret that I never photographed the joint. What I did was run out on my lease in the dead of night in February ’67, headed for San Francisco and the Summer of Love which had not yet been named but was already, unbeknownst to me, dead.

Meanwhile, Jack had picked up a manager, Shelly Finkel, who years later would promote Mike Tyson on a world tour. Shelly introduced Jack to the guys who would become Hammer — all but the bass player, Richie McBride, who was an old schoolmate and close friend of Jack’s and who would become a cherished friend of mine, too.

Before then, before Hammer, back around 1964, Jack and I had started writing songs together in the basement we shared. Jack played a tune for me, a dreamy bossa nova type melody that I loved. “I wrote that for you,” he said. “It has all the notes and chords that always make you feel good. Why don’t you write some words for it.”

He was, like, twelve. I was twenty, just out of the Army, and my confidence after that experience was not high. He played the song again, and the melody snaked its way into my bank of words and some of them started sticking to it.

Rapturous
Autumnal
Waters
Are flowing past
Island
Is calling
The mind
Freefall
Falling fast

Soft kiss
Of dusk mist
The summer
A sea wisp …

Hardly blues or acid rock, surly Stones or happy Beatles or Simon & G, but the thing was we did it together, and it was music, Jack’s music was mixing with my words and somehow letting the music out of me, freeing it. Jack found a way for me to join the music. I was already trying to write fiction at the time, but writing fiction is lonely work; writing words for Jack’s music was not lonely. It was a communion. It was joyous.

Some time passed.

In San Francisco, I discovered that the Summer of Love had indeed ended before being named — I trace its precocious conclusion to the East Village event which the East Village Other had headlined as “Groovy is Dead” — a hippie coke pusher named Groovy and a coffee heiress named Ehler had their skulls crushed by cinder blocks in an East Village tenement basement by two angry dudes.

In San Francisco, someone broke into our car and stole a locked attaché case in which I kept the bulk of my journals and all the stories I had written to date. Not a great loss, but I would have liked to see the expression on the junky-thief’s face when he broke the case open to claim the treasure within!

I hitchhiked back to New York, got a job as a clerk in a tiny import-export firm on Nassau Street, and rented a basement apartment from a Columbian family on Britton Avenue in Elmhurst where Jack came to stay with me. By then he had a new acoustic, a good one, and he was always playing it. He could play anything people asked him to play. But he also had acquired a couple of electric guitars — a Gretsch and a ’63 Gibson Les Paul, black with white trim and gold pick-ups, rumored to have been owned at one time by Dylan. On that Les Paul axe, Jack enjoyed playing a parody of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s TV ad for Robert Hall’s Clothing store:

Oh the values
Go up up up
And the prices
Go down down down
Robert Hall’s this season
Will show you the reason:
Low overhead.
Low overhead.

Jack O’Brien, lead guitarist of Hammer (original photo by David Hoff, adapted by Clare MacQueen

Jack O’Brien, lead guitarist of Hammer
(original photo by David Hoff, adapted by Clare MacQueen)

Jack had also acquired an enormous amp that, when he hooked it up and cranked it up, produced explosive riffs and screeching feedback play that inspired my mild-mannered and kindly Columbian landlord to enquire if I wished to be released from my lease.

I recall coming home from work one day and hearing, from about a block away as I climbed up out of the Elmhurst Avenue subway station, some very very loud music. The music got even louder the closer I got to home. Finally, outside my door, the sound was deafening, the door vibrating as I inserted my key in the lock. I climbed down the stairs to the basement to find the little apartment packed with teeny-boppers male and female, maybe fifty of them, all ringed around Jack who sat on his enormous amp in the center of the floor and played. I stood on the bottom step of the stairs, my mouth dropped open, and a young girl glanced at me.

“Who are you?” she demanded — the implication being clear, What’s an old dude like you doing here?

Near apoplectic, I rasped, “I! Live here!”

Soon I was using a hand-truck to transport my books and other belongings from the basement apartment to a beautiful old one-room studio on 83rd Street in Jackson Heights — one large room with high ceilings, high windows that looked out onto the back courtyard, a kitchen, and a fire escape up which I could escape to the roof on summer afternoons for a session on tar beach or in the evening to cool off. Jack, who now lived in the opposite wing with his mother — we could signal each other through our kitchen windows — would sometimes join me up on the roof with his acoustic.

For some reason I had developed a habit of doing a balancing act around the ledging — and I was not even aware that Jim Morrison was doing the same thing on the other side of the country in LA. By the grace of whatever power in the universe controls the balancing abilities of beery youth, I never plunged six stories down to the concrete below.

Jack was playing other stuff then, too, stuff I had never heard before, complex music, some kind of fusion of rock and jazz, that he practiced constantly. It was all in his head — he didn’t use sheet music — some of it was his own, some Norman Landsberg’s, the keyboard guy he was working with, a classically trained and enormously talented musician.

One morning, after a very bad night, I woke to some hard rock chords blasting from Jack’s amp, chords and wha wha. My older brother, Jerry, was there, too, crapped out. We had shared an enormous quantity of beer the night before. In the morning, Jerry jolted up on his mattress at the sound of Jack’s deep, resonating, reverberating chords and solo lines and said, “Man, I got the hangover horns. This noise is killing me!” He grabbed his stuff and was gone.

Jack kept playing while I sat on the edge of the bed, cradling my pulsing skull, and little by little, I began to hear a melody line insinuating itself between the clangor of the chords. It was a hard, barking melody, and it croaked words at me, words of guilt and shame and drunkenness:

Mornin’ sun
Scratchin’ my eyes!
Woman’s mouth
Jammin’ my head!
Don’t tell me I spent
The groceries and rent.
Just leave, leave me alone,
I know what I done.
Let me be,
Oh can’t you see,
These hangover horns
Are killin’ me …

We kept going, refueled, and as Jack and I worked further on “Hangover Horns,” he put his cigarette in between the tuning knobs on his guitar and said to me, “Are you aware you wrote most of that melody?”

“How could I write a melody. I can’t even sing.”

“No, but you wrote the melody. You picked it out from the chords.”

We worked on another of his, “Charity Taylor,” polished some lines, added some stanzas, worked out a bridge. We worked late, slept late and woke to work again. It seemed to me, this went on for weeks, months. It was work, but not work. It was joy. We hammered them out, a song every two or three days, then partied a while until a new song started, sometimes deep into the night. We wrote “The Spring Song,” “Pearlie Lou,” “It’s a Day,” “Say You Will,” “Fort Worth Lament” (inspired by a blistering couple of weeks I spent there one August), “Fill In,” “A Little Crazy Song” …

And then one day Shelly Finkel came by to tell Jack he had a contract for Hammer with San Francisco records and a song-writing contract with Bill Graham. Jack was seventeen. The only recordings he’d ever done were a few amateur garage tapes. I remember one particularly that he had titled “My Cigarette’s My Only Friend” — great stuff, but rough, just Jack and his guitar, but to me, in retrospect, it was like listening to John Coltrane grab a theme and travel on it until he reached the end of the known world and started back, to see if he could find that theme again — the way I once heard the poet David Daniel describe his method of writing poetry. I still have that garage tape somewhere — as far as I recall, it was just Jack on guitar and Frank Heller, the graffiti artist, on drums.

But now Jack had a contract. He was moving. One evening, the phone rang when I was there in his mother’s apartment with him, and we were writing a song. I heard him talking for a while, then say, “No, thanks a lot, but I can’t. My uncle and I are working. Thanks, no, I can’t.”

“Who was that?” I asked after he hung up.

“Jeff Beck.”

“What’d he want?”

“He wanted me to come over to his hotel in Manhattan.”

“You said no to Jeff fucking Beck!?”

“Let’s finish these songs.”

I figured my days were numbered. I was no musician. Jack was in the big time now. I was strictly amateur, couldn’t carry a tune in my hat if I ever had a hat. All I had were a few words.

But Jack took me with him. He even released the musician locked inside me. Every so often as we worked on a song, he would stop suddenly and say, “You know, you just created that melody line?”

“Bullshit.”

“You did.”

He used three of my songs on the album, invited me out to San Francisco and put me up in the motel in San Mateo where the Hammer guys stayed while they were recording at Pacific Studios. Dave Rubinson (later to produce, inter alia, the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now and the remastered version of the Doors’ “The End”) produced and Fred Catero (engineer, inter alia, for the group Chicago and some of Bob Dylan’s albums) engineered, while Shelly Finkel organized — including a contract for me with Bill Graham and got me into the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers (ASCAP) with what, for me, was a fat advance and a Popular Panel Award of a few bucks more.

I’ll never forget those crazy days in the motel, jumping drunk into the motel pool, the sweet young groupies — much too young for me, alas; at twenty-six I felt like a greybeard compared to all these teenagers. The groupies were there for the young musicians, like Richie McBride who had black shining hair down to the base of his spine. Jack was not interested in the girls. He was faithful to his young wife.

I had been invited to write words for a melody that Norman Landsberg had created, working title “Tuane” (pronounced “Two On”). I loved the piece, and listening to the music, which was already on tape without words, I sketched out a few lines:

Tuane!
Took my love and now you’re gone.
Tuane!
Left me here, you movin’ on.
Why! You left me here to cry!

But then one day Johnny De went into a sound box, and Fred Catero put on the finished instrumental tape, and Johnny put on his earphones and started to scat. As I recall, he did it all in one piece, no breaks, and it was an amazing performance. The hair on my arms lifted as we all listened, slack-mouthed, through to the last blasting note. It was a piece of genius. Just scat. No words necessary. Johnny had used his voice as the fabulous instrument it is.

One of the running jokes during those weeks in San Mateo and Pacific Studios was built on the first line of my song “Sad Song, Happy Song” which goes, “It’s not a sad song/Or a happy song…” Fred or Dave or one of the group members might ask a question like, “How’s your steak, Richie?” and Richie would say, “It’s not a bad steak, or a crappy steak…” Or, “How’s that book you’re reading?” ”It’s not a bad book, or a sappy book…” And so on, through a whole string of variations.

My role in the whole procedure at Pacific Studios was marginal to the extreme, but the way I was accepted by the group members and the studio professionals meant a great deal to me. I loved writing song lyrics, a world Jack had opened to me, and sometimes I wish I had parlayed my contract with Bill Graham into something more, stayed in San Francisco that time around and worked the connections that Hammer had opened to me.

At the time, I was writing on a three-year grant from CCNY’s Goodman Fund for a novel-in-progress. When the Pacific Studio sessions were over, I took my grant money and my ASCAP money and my Popular Panel money and moved out to a commune in the desert to spend a futile few months of blistering 1970 Stockton summer heat, completing a novel that was a piece of junk. The editor at New American Library who had encouraged me to write it on a recommendation from Theodore Solotaroff, then Editor of the legendary New American Review, passed me on with my unruly manuscript to an agent who showed me through a revolving door back out to Fifth Avenue.

I had to rethink my life. I moved back to Queens. Jack came back from San Mateo to wait for the release of HAMMER. We kept writing songs. It seems to me we wrote a hundred songs together, though to date now, nearly forty years later, I have only been able to locate around twenty of them, the lyrics for all of which I’ve sent to Richie and Norman who are currently working with them.

HAMMER was released. Jack toured with the group. Fillmore East. Fillmore West, all across the U.S. and around Canada. But despite critical success, HAMMER did not win another contract.

Jack and Richie Fontana formed a new group, Wormwood Scrubs, with Richie on drums, Danny Sicardi (aka Danny McGary) on bass, and Michael Harrington as lead singer. (Unfortunately, Harrington passed away from heart problems on January 31, 1984 — he was only 29.)

Richie Fontana says, “I feel that working with Jack elevated my musical ability to another level. He was so great and we had a great relationship. I’m so thankful for that.”

As Wormwood Scrubs, the four wrote a lot of material, and came very close to a record deal at the time (1973-74). Although they did not make a record, Wormwood Scrubs is remembered as an excellent band by many who heard them play live, with shared influences from British Blues and Pop, the Beatles, Jeff Beck, and others, which were reflected in their sound.

I tried writing songs with a couple of other local musicians, but my heart was not in it. I needed to get away. In 1974, I moved to Europe where, in Copenhagen, I discovered that HAMMER had been remaindered. Maybe it had been remaindered elsewhere as well, but it seemed a supreme irony to discover all those beautiful albums with the Visconti cover, with Jack slim and beautiful and barefoot on the back cover with his group-mates, the enormously talented Norman Landsberg and John DeRoberts and Richie McBride, even my own name there on three of the cuts and the special thanks Jack had added in the liner notes for me, his uncle, whom he’d taken along on the ride out of the sheer generosity of his heart and whom he had taught to release the music locked inside, to write melodies even.

Jack was a big man, 6’4”, big as a bear and gentle as a kitten. He had a brilliant mind and great talent in his hands. In fact, he was bursting with talents. After his work with Hammer, he wrote and published a few poems, and he sketched — he was incredibly good at caricatures. I have a whole portfolio of them.

Jack’s health began to fail in the mid-1980s, and he died in his sleep in 1988, not yet 36 years old. Apart from the one album, the garage tapes, and the session gigs, Jack made no other records.

The world must be full of such stories. People rich with talent who want only to give it to the world and for one reason or another are blocked from giving more than an edge of it. Like the fragment of an ancient urn found in isolation, the full vessel can only be imagined.

I knew Jack as a baby, as a boy, as a young man. He was the sweetest kid, so full of enthusiasm and so generous and so eager to exchange thoughts and ideas. He never grew old, Jack. And there is still that one album and those garage tapes to listen to and remember him by.

In 2007, surfing the Web, I found a site called Bad Cat Records which had a review of HAMMER on it. Startled, I sent them an email updating the webmaster on what had happened to some of the group since the record appeared in 1970. The site owner published my email along with my email address, and a trickle of emails started coming in from all around the world — Norway, Australia, the U.K., and different places in the U.S.

From England, a 28-year-old guy wrote to tell that he was including one of my songs in his band’s set-list. From Georgia, a woman wrote to ask if I could possibly burn a CD of HAMMER that she could give to her husband for his birthday — he remembers the group so fondly. From Indiana, a fellow wrote to recall a concert he had been to where Hammer opened for some big name group but stole the show — he has been a fan ever since.

On the basis of that I took contact with some of the group members — Richie McBride in Florida, Norman Landsberg in San Francisco. It turns out that Norman lived only a few blocks from John DeRoberts, although they had not seen one another in more than thirty years. The drummer who played most of the numbers on HAMMER, John Guerin, a legend of his own, had since passed away; but Richie and Norman got in touch with the drummer who had toured with them in 1970, Andy Newmark, who had since had considerable success, was currently touring in Europe with Brian Ferry, formerly of Roxy Music.

Plans began to take form. Now under discussion is a possible remastering and reissue of the original HAMMER album as a CD. Then Richie and Norman began to talk about a Hammer reunion, doing a club date in San Francisco, possibly recording a new album, live, and invited me to write a new song for the occasion.

That’s where the story is now. Plans. Tentative.

But there is something to learn from this. Because something is dormant does not mean that it is dead. HAMMER, which had seemed a tiny scrap of the far past, an insignificant fragment of personal history for me and a handful of others, was far from forgotten. The powerful talent and energy and creativity that had gone into the album were still alive in the wax.

At any moment it could be reborn.

Are you listening, Jack? Can you hear us?

Jack O’Brien in concert, playing his guitar,
a Gibson Les Paul Custom
“Black Beauty”
(Photo credits under research)

Jack O’Brien, lead guitarist of Hammer, in concert, playing his guitar, a Gibson Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty" (Photo credits under research)

Postscript

Kennedy has been pleased at the response from others who also knew and admired Jack. An old neighborhood friend of Jack’s was inspired to write Kennedy in response to this excerpt from the tribute:

And in the wee Village hours one day as Jack and Richie were meandering to the subway back to Queens, a Cadillac pulled up and the window rolled down and inside was Jimi Hendrix and a couple of beautiful women. Hendrix looked out at Jack and said, “Hey, man, you come back and jam tomorrow again, hear?”

As Donny O’Beirne remembers it, Jimi’s exact words were, “Hey man, you play pretty good. Why don’t you come back tomorrow night and we’ll get something going.”

O’Beirne also wrote (and gave his kind permission to be quoted here):

Thomas, thanks again for your great website and tribute to Jackie. We were friends back in the day. That night at the Generation Club when he sat in with B.B. and Jimi was one for the books. Just as magical to me were the times he’d be sitting in my basement with a cheap acoustic across his knee, playing the soundtrack from the “Old Farmer Grey” cartoons or “Good King Wenceslas.” He would play “The Sailors Hornpipe” followed by the theme from “Popeye.” Then he would play them simultaneously. We would be walking down the street when he would suddenly start dancing like a madman. Riverdance with an electrified floor! He was a monstrous talent. Thanks again.

Kennedy adds that Jack plays a couple bars of another old English Xmas song at the beginning of “Hangover Horns” before he starts to rock!