I was born in the sixties, in Springfield, Missouri. The younger part of my childhood was spent there and in Kansas. I describe it thusly: Like many children of heartland Suburbia during the 70’s, I had no inkling that my country was smack dab in the middle of its longest war. I knew about kites, swimming holes, tadpoles, picnics, Big-wheels, Ultra Man, Mr. Rogers, baseball cards, the Moon-landing, and my grandparents’ farm in the country. I didn’t know about Viet Nam, political protests, Kent State, or Watergate. I did however learn about race, poverty & segregation when my school had an exchange program with another school from Kansas City. Also, my dad used to take me down to the YMCA to play basketball. Though my parents never talked politics (Mom=democrat/Dad=republican) there was one thing they agreed on: teach the kids by example, to treat people well, and that racism is a fraud.
I was born “John Shipe,” but my mom re-married early, and my name was changed to “Schwartzman.” By the time I was 9, my family was in the S.F. Bay Area. At 12, I tried to learn guitar. It didn’t take. Baseball and soccer came more easily than transcribed versions of “On Top of Old Smokey.” (However, I did learn the intro to Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” and the wicked riff from “Play that Funky Music.”)
We soon moved to the Portland area (Oregon). More baseball, more soccer & basketball. Finally, at age 17, I got a classical guitar for Christmas. (I was a Yes fan, so I thought a classical guitar would send me on the path to mastering pretentious British Art-rock.) At first, all I learned was a bunch of Church tunes. Then, for a high school English project (Lord of the Flies), I accompanied my friend Matt Emlen on his “Evil Nature of Mankind Blues.” It was my first blues solo. I shredded…cheddar. In May of that year, I played “Wild Thing” for Stephanie Tromley at the Prom Queen ceremony–with Matt, my friend Tod Kelly, and Mike Walker who would later join me in college forming bands like Mission District and The Renegade Saints.
In College, at the University of Oregon in Eugene–home of Ken Kesey–I read a lot of books by dead white males, took a lot of creative writing courses, and formed a band called The Couch Potatoes with Warren Dexter (whom I had known since I was 13). We played The Doors, Eric Clapton, Z.Z. Top, Beatles, et cetera et cetera. I sucked miserable ass, and so did Warren, but with great passion! Our first drummer, Matt Reynolds, was awfully skillful. (He would later do stints with both Mission District and The Renegade Saints.) Our second drummer, Doug Nary was good too. (I heard a rumor that he played on tour with Kenny G–probably backed him up on the classic smooth jazz hit, “The Note.”)