John Ciambotti

John Ciambotti There is no easy way to receive bad or shocking news but there seems to be something especially cruel and abrupt about electronic mail. It is the modern equivalent of the curt bereavement notices of the telegraphic era. So it was that I read of the sudden passing of my friend, John Ciambotti. He was a wonderful bass-player, songwriter, some-time manager, record producer and all around great guy. The fact that he had also latterly thrived in his second vocation as a chiropractor and in holistic medicine meant that he could jokingly claim to be “the Real Dr. John”. All of which makes his absence seem all the more unlikely. The rest of the day was given to conversations on the phone and messages shooting back and forth between friends who shared even more musical time with John and in those whose lives and careers he had played an important part. The news first arrived from Alex Call, chief vocalist and one of the several talented songwriters in John’s former band, Clover. Some of those reading this will know that Clover were the Marin County group, who were persuaded to take up residency in England by our former managers and Stiff Records founders, Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson. Despite all grand schemes and good intentions, the London scene of 1976 might have been the worst place for a band of relatively longhaired, highly capable American musicians to suddenly pitch up. Clover’s early 70s albums on the Fantasy label, “Clover” and “Forty-Niner” were very rare and fine but only appreciated by a tiny group of admirers. I had finally found “Forty-Niner” in a Wandsworth second-hand store, just a vinyl disc without a sleeve. I played it until I knew every note in the grooves. The relocation of the band to Headley Grange – a rat-infested, English country house and former rehearsal haunt of both Led Zeppelin and Bad Company – did nothing to change the band’s fortunes but proved to be greatly to my advantage. Newly signed to Stiff Records, more as a songwriter than a recording artist, I soon found myself working with players whose records I had previously hunted down in those cut-out bins. Once it was decided that more than one session should take place, I was introduced to the full line-up of Clover instrumentalists: guitarist and pedal steel player, John McFee, keyboard player, Sean Hopper, drummer, Mickey Shine and on bass, the most outgoing and wickedly-humoured of the outfit, bassist, Johnny Ciambotti. Musicians often speak with shorthand references before songs are fully remembered. I think it might have been John who first said, without out any apparent malice, “Let’s do that one that sounds like The Byrds”, referring to “(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes”, while a novice songwriter was busy trying to cover his tracks. Given my almost complete lack of studio experience and the cult status of Clover, it was pretty intimidating to ask for changes in the arrangements but it is not as if we had the resources to belabour anything in the recording process. “My Aim Is True” was recorded in a total of six, four-hour sessions, yielding the original 12-track sequence and three completed outtakes. It transformed me from someone who recorded his songs in a bedroom to a pop singer with an odd name, who had the chance to appear on television and radio, perform on club and theatre stages and eventually make his way in the world. The recordings with Clover were the first thing that most people heard with my new name attached and whatever naiveté I now detect in my own performances, their impact and the debt I owe to the players, is undeniable. Although, I had seen Johnny at gigs over the years – he introduced me to Lucinda Williams in the mid-80s, when they were working together – and while his colleague, John McFee also appeared on the albums, “Almost Blue” and “The Delivery Man”, I never really expected to be in a room again with the band, Clover. Just three years ago – and some thirty years after our last recording session - our mutual friends, Austin and Lesley Delone had asked us to play a show in benefit of the Richie Delone Housing Fund, to assist those, such as their son, Richard, who have Prader-Willi Syndrome, a very rare and immensely challenging genetic disorder. I’m not given much to nostalgia but this event seemed a fine reason to reconvene as much of the “My Aim Is True” line-up as could be assembled. Legal reasons meant that Clover had not even been credited on the “My Aim Is True” sleeve, nor had we ever made any public appearances. In advance, I suppose I thought it might be a lark to perform the songs in recorded sequence and not have it be a complete indulgence, as it served some more worthwhile purpose. I was completely unprepared for incredible wave of emotion that came over me when I found myself in a room with Johnny, Sean and John. Whatever other adventures I have enjoyed in the succeeding years, none of it could have happened without that first step, when I was effectively a student and they were the masters. After the greetings and embraces, I strapped on my guitar on started “Welcome to the Working Week”. It sounded just as it should. Pete Thomas was deputizing for drummer, Mickey Shine, who had become a painter in central California. I asked Pete the count off the second number, “Miracle Man”. That couldn’t possibly be the tempo… His metronome must have been set incorrectly… But no, it really was this slow. Time may have altered all our appearances slightly but the sound was instantly recognizable. Any doubt one might have had about, “Dr. John” no longer being a full-time player, was quickly put away. Johnny had always established this great rolling motion when the music was moving the right way, with the player and his instrument making one big wheel and there it was again, after thirty years. The pace of music and life certainly picked up after the Attractions and I took these songs out on the road in 1977 but once I trusted that Pete Thomas had really noted Mickey Shine’s original tempi correctly, a groovier, more swinging version of songs like “Sneaky Feelings” and “Blame It On Cain” started to emerge. The show was a joy to play. Bonnie Raitt - who had been at one of the Attractions first London club shows in 1977 – was once again leading the cheering. We played to two houses in one evening and people’s generosity towards the event was extremely impressive. “My Aim Is True” doesn’t last but 30 minutes, so I played some acoustic songs from the same period, the trio of outtakes and we ended with two Clover songs, “Mr. Moon” and “Love Is Gone”, both from that album without a sleeve. The next morning, I got a thank you note from Alex Call – Clover’s lead singer and therefore like his harmonica-playing colleague, Huey Lewis, unemployed on my album. Alex is a resident in Nashville and had heard overnight about us playing two of his songs. Yesterday afternoon is was Alex who wrote to me to let me know of Johnny’s passing. And so the calls went back and forward between other friends and colleagues; Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams and after flying home from New York to Vancouver, I placed a call to Nick Lowe. I felt sure the news would have reached London but I also knew he would understand the good fortune and blessing that we once shared in having a cohort like Johnny, especially when the way ahead was uncertain and unknown. Rationally, it is all in the process of life to lose friends before their time but perhaps because music can deliver such a sense of being alive, it becomes hard to accept the absence of a vibrant spirit. John Ciambotti and I only ever shared the stage on three evenings. The most recent of these was that “My Aim Is True” show at Great American Music Hall in 2007. Prior to that you have to go back to a couple of nights in 1978, when Johnny was drafted to deputize in the Attractions for Bruce Thomas, who had injured his hand in a bizarre juggling accident. It was the very start of our third U.S. tour. That was to be our second trip around America of that year and it was only April. Johnny not only joined us for our first two Mid-Western dates but also found himself captured in newsreel footage as we and Rockpile travelled together with a “20/20” camera crew lead by future tabloid news anchor, Geraldo Rivera. Looking at the footage now could either make you laugh or cry, it’s hard to tell. In the late ‘70s, the Attractions and I were hardly ever mistaken for rock and roll musicians, given that we had short haircuts and thrift-store threads. At least two of us might have been seminarians. Meanwhile, Johnny had this longer, perfectly-coiffed, West Coast hairstyle, a red leather bomber jacket, mirrored aviators and snakeskin boots, a look that can now be found in a many a magazine spread, as the styles of past decades comes back into fashion. I think we probably teased him about being such a dude but it was a look none of us could have carried off with any aplomb, any more that we would have risked treading the planks as a trio. Geraldo is still up there on some dire network, twirling his pantomime villain moustache, scaring up some bogus indignation and I’m going out on the road in a couple of weeks and will mostly likely find a place in the show for a couple of songs that I wouldn’t have at my disposal if Johnny and his colleagues hadn’t been around to originally lay them down. Wherever John is right now, I hope it is peaceful. My thoughts and love go to his family and friends. They aren’t any more like him.