When I first met John, we were both 13, living in north Barrington. We shared the same school bus stop in our wooded neighborhood, Timberlake. Our birthdays were a month apart, but he was a grade higher than me.
He had a Pioneer stereo, blacklight posters, and Pong on his basement tv. There was also a decorative mandolin hung by his parents on the hallway wall by his bedroom. We took it down, started experimenting, and the music began.
Early in high school, both of us picked up guitars and started lessons. We shared chords, compared finger exercises, bounced ideas off each other and jammed. We listened to Dylan for the poetry, blues and early rock and roll for the chops we wanted to lift, and punk for inspiration and a guiding ethos. We couldn’t wait to get out of high school, rent a space, and start rehearsing our band.
In the fall of 1978, we rented a house in McHenry, IL near the Fox River. We built a little studio in the basement with sound insulation, placed ads in the Illinois Entertainer for side players, and started bangin’ away, me playing guitar and keyboards, John playing bass. I worked in a shop in Wauconda welding pipe heaters and snow melters. John worked in a cement factory in Crystal Lake. Nights were loud, loose and raucous doing auditions, rehearsing new songs, and jamming. We called our band St. Vitus Dance.
In the summer of 1980, we moved our rehearsal space to a palette factory south down the Fox River to West Dundee. We were kicked out and re-located to a basement floor space in a small office building in Barrington, near the train station.
We continued with auditions and rehearsals, and soon started playing parties and dives. We did a mix of covers and originals in a raw, loud, rock and roll, blues style. Our technique continued to tighten, and we were bringing in better side players. We also were playing in larger, better known bars.
By the summer of 1983, we were developing musically. We performed acoustically in Milwaukee, Madison, and Minneapolis. We had purchased a multi-track tape deck, and begun experimenting with over-dubbing. John’s bass playing was rock-solid and unadorned. He had a baritone voice reminiscent of Jim Morrison. He looked great with his brown P-bass, dark beard and olive green ’60s Mustang.
The lifestyle was developing as well. We were constantly around alcohol and drugs in a time when they were tolerated, if not celebrated. We indulged to the point where it became clear to me that a recalibration of attitude towards them was necessary. It took John much longer to reach that conclusion. In part, they contributed to the deterioration of our friendship and the end of our collaboration.
By early 1984, a toxic competitiveness had crept into our musical efforts. Feeling the need for self-reinvention, I decided to take a break from our band. The idea was that I would go off and knock around Europe a bit with my acoustic, come back and we’d resume. Then we’d find a way to re-locate the band into The City, Chicago.
That summer, before I left, I’d met Stan Borys. When I returned, I focused on working with him. I found an apartment in Chicago with Vince Salerno, a sax player John and I worked with. I set up my tape deck and added a sequencer, synthesizers and drum boxes. I enjoyed not having to share the musical helm. I did not bring John and the band into The City with me. We would never count off a song again in the same band.
In the spring of 2005, I got a call out of the blue from John. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d spoke. We discussed getting together for a beer after I returned from a family trip. When I called him, his phone was disconnected. The next winter, I heard from his brother Doug that John was locked up. By spring of 2006, a year after he reached out to me, I was able to make contact with John, writing, then visiting him at Walworth County jail in Wisconsin.
John had a serious substance problem. He forged a prescription and got caught. John was fined and paroled. Later, his parole officer found out that his employer wasn’t informed about his criminal record. He was let go when his employer was told, and went on the run, having run afoul of his terms for parole. Freaked out about doing time, he lived in a stolen van, sleeping at night in empty parking lots, scrounging food where he could. He broke into a house near Lake Geneva, WI and stole a gun with the intention of killing himself. Fortunately, he was caught and couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, he had time to do.
We re-connected after he got out in May of 2008, and re-established our friendship. He worked for me as a photographer, and helped with sales calls for my business until the Great Recession did in my company. We talked about collaborating again after things settled down with the economy, but it never happened. John died of a heart attack on August 1, 2012.
Our last collaboration was ‘Johnny Thirteen’. When John was in jail, he read a poem to me over the phone, which I recorded. It was excerpted and used in the song.
John Halka was a gifted musician. He struggled with his demons, but he was a good person. We resonated on the same frequency. He was my dearest, best friend, and I miss him very much.
St. Vitus Dance
Rehearsal tapes, performance board mixes, multi-track recordings.
(These 11 songs are not yet available commercially.)