WHIPPING POST: MEMORIES OF A JAM WITH JEFF HEALEY AND JOE ROCKMAN

Monday July 27, 1998

It was approaching midnight in Amsterdam.
            The vast sea of humanity flooding through the city’s narrow cobblestone roads had long since ebbed away, save for the seven shadowy figures straying beneath the dim street lamps lighting the way toward the Maloe Melo, a Dutch blues bar rumoured to exist along a canal on the Lijnbaansgracht.

“Are we anywhere near the red light district?” asked Joe Rockman, bassist of the Jeff Healey Band, who had performed before a packed house at the Paradiso, only a few hours earlier.
            “No,” I offered. “There are no such tourist traps to be found around here – no red lights anywhere. We have officially wandered off of the beaten path. Why… do… you… ask?”
            Joe grinned, laughed and said: “Nevermind. No particular reason…”
            Phillip Smith, my good friend and travel partner, kidded: “You know, Joe, if you’re that starved for entertainment, I can strip down right here and give you a show in the middle of the street!!”
            “Oh, God. No!!!” Jeff Healey playfully protested, briefly humming the melody of the David Rose Orchestra’s “The Stripper”. “I don’t want to see that!!” A chorus of laughter erupted, all of us joining in with Philip Sayce — the band’s young rhythm guitarist — and the three ladies who’d accompanied us on the trek from the Paradiso. “Don’t worry, Jeff,” Smith said, laughing mischievously. “You can touch!!”

The din of laughter died abruptly: Jeff Healey sprang into the middle of the empty street, turning to yell into the distance: “HELLO… I KNOW THAT YOU’VE BEEN FOLLOWING US SINCE WE LEFT THE CLUB. I WOULD REALLY APPRECIATE IT IF YOU SIMPLY TURNED AROUND AND WENT HOME!!”

Everyone looked at each other, exchanging puzzled expressions.
            “Following us?” one of the women wondered out loud. As if on cue, a distant clatter erupted, this sudden and unexpected noise directing our eyes a few hundred feet behind us, where a figure slowly emerged out from behind a beige building. “I’m sorry,” a deep male voice hollered out to Jeff in reply, before turning away. “I meant no harm.”
            With that said Jeff turned around, resuming the walk toward the Maloe Melo as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. I looked around the group, observing the incredulous expressions written on everyone’s faces, all of us seeming to ask the exact same question without pronouncing the words: “How could he have known?”

***

During his lifetime a lot of writers expended oceans worth of ink describing Jeff Healey as the prodigious guitarist who played without the benefit of sight. Lost in so many of these profiles was the fathomless scope of the man’s vision.
            If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve already made a personal connection with Jeff Healey through his music.
            In literal terms, no other guitarist in history played the guitar like him — placing it square across his lap and playing it with both hands; he could wring notes from the instrument that other guitarists couldn’t even begin to imagine. And he drew from a bottomless well of influences: though known mainly for his blues and rock influences, Jeff knew enough about country music to fill the Grand Ole Opry, blew a mean trumpet and derived endless pleasure from listening to his collection of vintage 78 rpm jazz records – he literally owned thousands of them.

How many people could simply run their fingertips along the grooves of a record and tell you, without looking: what song it was? Who performed it? Who wrote it? Who produced it? What label it was on? And what year it was released?
            Jeff could. I sat down with him on few different occasions when he visited Monster Records — a Toronto record store owned by his good friend, Roger Costa – to take inventory of the collection of 78s he sold and traded through the store. Asked to assist Jeff by writing down the details of his inventory, I watched with disbelief as he effortlessly traced his fingers along the grooves on the shellac and described each record. (If I’d asked him, I’m sure Jeff could have told me what the bassist on the session had to eat for lunch that day!!)

I’d first witnessed the power of Jeff Healey at the Cineplex, in the movie Road House: for me, he stole the film, portraying a modern day rock and roll Tiresias (the blind prophet of Greek myth) warning Patrick Swayze’s warrior bouncer of potential peril before leading the house band through his buzz saw renditions of classic blues numbers.
            Not long afterward, in 1989, my friend Paul Love and I saw the Jeff Healey Band perform at the Ontario Place Forum.
            From the back of the bandstand, I witnessed a homecoming gig that saw Jeff riding high, playing every possible combination of riffs and notes out of that guitar you could ever envision: conjuring up the heavy blues spirit of Jimi Hendrix in one moment, the deft and soulful touch of B.B. King in the next.

“If I have one musical wish in my life” I said to myself, by way of prayer, “it’s that, just once, I want to get onstage and belt out a song with Jeff Healey”.

***

Fade out on 1989; fade in on the Maloe Melo, Amsterdam’s “Home of the Blus”, that summer evening in 1998.
            Returning from the front bar with a pint of Guinness, I took a seat at the table the party had procured in the back room (where the club’s intimate postage stamp-sized stage was located) only to discover that Jeff and Joe’s seats happened to be empty. “How could I lose track of them in such a tiny club?” I wondered. Phillip Smith immediately picked up on my puzzled expression, pointing toward the stage – I could see Jeff sitting behind the drum kit, Joe Rockman cradling a bass beside him.

Rory, the English pianist pacing the house band, called out for Buddy Guy’s “Five Long Years”. Jeff counted it in with a few rim shots. As the slow-burning blues number unfolded, I thought about all of the strange coincidences that had led me to that table:

In 1994, only a few weeks after moving to Toronto, I was assisting Conan Tobias — production manager of the Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper — when I noticed a copy of the Jeff Healey Band’s fan club newsletter sitting on his desk.
            Conan informed me that he worked for the band, said that he was in charge of the newsletter. A few weeks later, he invited me out their concert, introduced me to everyone backstage. (Coincidentally, Conan’s aunt had lived above my mother — in a tiny Oshawa apartment — shortly after I was born).
            Around this same time, the Jeff Healey Band announced that they’d signed on to manage Lilith, a young band from Oshawa featuring Colin Crawford (bassist) and Lonny Knapp (guitar). I’d met Colin and Lonny a few summers prior, had played baseball with them one afternoon when they were in a band with Kevin Komatsu, a drummer and close friend of mine.

As Healey hit the snare drum, counting off Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “I’m Cryin’”, I recalled the first day I’d walked into Monster Records, recalled co-owner Roger Costa explaining that the collection of 78 rpm records below the framed photograph of the Jeff Healey Band’s See the Light LP cover were all actually items from Jeff’s personal collection. Roger and Jeff were close friends, he explained. A few weeks later, as I loitered inside the store, a taxi pulled up in front and Jeff Healey stepped out. Roger asked if I minded assisting Jeff by sitting with him to write down the inventory…

By the summer of 1998, after an ill-fated relationship had imploded, I sold everything I owned and left Canada to travel Europe. The plan was that there’d be no plan: I’d survive out there by hustling gigs in local bars and cafés, by playing my acoustic guitar and singing in the streets. My friend Phillip Smith, a professional photographer who’d recently bid adieu to his own studio and had experienced many sea changes in his own life, joined me, embracing the insanity of the idea.
            Before I left for Amsterdam, Conan Tobias mentioned that the Jeff Healey Band would be touring Europe that summer – should Phillip and I find ourselves in the same city, I should contact him back in Toronto, he suggested, saying that he’d throw me on the guest list.

By my third week in Amsterdam, I’d become so consumed with all of the cultural shifts that I’d all but forgotten about Conan’s invitation when a fellow traveler from New Zealand enthused to Phillip and I that the Jeff Healey Band were coming in to perform at the Paradiso the following Monday.

After the second number ended and the applause died down, Rory turned to address Jeff over the microphone. “Say Jeff…” he asked, timidly. “How about getting up here and singing – or playing the guitar – for a tune?”
            “No,” Jeff said, matter-of-factly, explaining that he was tired, that he’d played guitar and sung at the Paradiso for over two hours, was enjoying his time bashing behind the kit and would drum for one or two more tunes.
            “You have to get up there and sing a song while Jeff is drumming!” encouraged Phillip. The band lurched into a twelve-bar freeform jam. Phillip listened impatiently while I explained that I couldn’t just jump onstage to inject myself into the jam — I’d ask Rory if I could sing when the song was finished. When the final chord resolved, I did just that, approaching Rory to see if I could get up to sing a number. As Rory and I discussed the logistics, Joe Rockman assisted Jeff out from behind the kit – his time onstage obviously over.

“Let’s all hear it for the great Jeff Healey on drums!!” Rory urged, the crowd erupting. “In just a few minutes, we’re going to get Jonah Ward up here to sing for us…”
            As Joe Rockman led him offstage, Jeff turned toward me. “You’re going to sing, Jonah?” “Yes, Jeff,” I confirmed. “Or so I’ve been told”.
            “Would you mind if I played the guitar with you?” he asked.

The call went out for a chair and a guitar. Within minutes, the owner of a Gibson Les Paul Custom proudly presented it to Jeff. “What are we playing?” asked Jeff, plugging it in. “Whipping Post!!” I hollered.
            Joe Rockman recklessly tore into the hypnotic bass intro of the Allman Brothers’ standard as I seized the microphone. Healey came screaming in after a few bars, combining all of the fire of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts harmonized guitars in one breath, alternately pushing the rhythm and soaring through harmonized lead lines. Rory conjured up the spirit of Gregg Allman’s organ parts as the rest of the band soon entered the fray and I began to wail out lyrics about a man spurned as though my life depended on it (because it did!).
Jeff’s fevered playing pitched the crowd into a complete frenzy – standing there beside him, it literally felt as though the stage was moving at an accelerated rate of speed, as though we were all standing in the cockpit of a jet about to launch skyward.
            Between verses, I stood over him as he played, transfixed as I watched his fingers race along those steel strings like spiders crawling on a burning web. That moment will always be frozen in amber for me – the crowd roaring, flashbulbs going off as Jeff stretched out his solo, making it all look so effortless as he casually turned to me to ask “Are you going to start singing again, Jonah??”
            Laughing, I assured him that I was in no hurry – after all, I had the best view in the house. “I don’t think there’s one person in that crowd who is losing their mind because of the fact that I’m holding this microphone in my hands, Jeff!”

After the song crashed to a close — after that blissfully brief heavy blues eternity — we all had a few drinks back at the table, talked and listened while Philip Sayce performed a set. Soon, we were joined by a Dutch airline pilot who sheepishly confessed that he’d always secretly longed to play electric blues guitar and would trade places with Jeff in a heartbeat – as I recall, Jeff asked if he could join him in the cockpit one day.
            Phillip and I hung out briefly with Jeff and Joe the next day, an off-day for the band, exchanging our accounts of the night before. Within a week, I joined a Dutch band named Guinnevere on a brief Irish tour.

Almost fifteen years later, Jur, the owner of the Maloe Melo, posted pictures of the jam on to his Facebook account. Through the “magic” of the internet, the images were brought to the attention of Roger Costa, who now oversees this website celebrating the life of Jeff Healey.
            Even now, it’s difficult for me to refer to Jeff Healey in the past tense. He’s still here. His spirit lives on through his music. This man was so far ahead of his time that it will take the world decades to realize the supreme talent he possessed, not only as an artist and musician but as a man whose generosity of spirit elevated everyone around him.

Jonah Ward

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