Columnist Debra Bradley Ruder remembers John Clark

  • Guitarist John Clark on fire at Norey’s in Newport, R.I., in 2015. MARK STRAIT

  • Dynamite Johnny in action with Guy DeVito, from left, Billy Klock and John Clark at the Blue Plate Lounge in Holden two years ago. MARK STRAIT

  • John Clark, front right, performs at Norey’s in Newport, R.I., with Guy DeVito, left,  and Billy Klock on drums. MARK STRAIT

  • At left, John Clark, right, plays with Paul Conz in 1973.

  • Guitarist John Clark played in numerous bands from western Massachusetts to Boston during a long career.   MARK STRAIT

  • At an Elevators show in the Valley in early 1980, guitarist John Clark demonstrates his skill and passion. DONN YOUNG

  • At far left, John Clark, bending at center front, in this publicity shot of The Elevators, circa 1980.

  • Dynamite Johnny rocks Theodores’ in 2014 with, from left, Billy Klock on drums, Guy DeVito on bass, John Clark on guitar and Matt Ingellis on harmonica.  MARK STRAIT

Published: 7/4/2017 10:23:39 PM

My days as a cub reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in the early 1980s were exhilarating: Tracking down sources. Covering everything from fires to floods to City Hall. Cranking out copy on deadline. The pace was intense, and the breaking news unpredictable.

One thing I could always count on, though, was Monday night at Sheehan’s. The now-closed bar on Pleasant Street hosted a fantastic ’60s cover band, The Soc Hops, downstairs each week. I would spend hours dancing with friends — especially fellow reporter Colleen Fitzpatrick — until the music stopped around 1 a.m. The space was cramped and bare bones, but no matter. What mattered was the band, fronted by John Clark on guitar and vocals. He was an amazing guitarist, but he was also kind, generous, and thoughtful, and we struck up a friendship.

Regrettably, John and I lost touch over the years, but I always wondered how he was doing. So I was heartbroken to learn that John was hit by a car and killed while crossing a street in the South End of Boston on Memorial Day, May 29. He was 64 and had just picked up takeout Indian food for his family. The tragic accident stunned and devastated everyone who knew him.

John was an exceptional musician. He played guitar in numerous bands over the years from western Massachusetts to Boston and blew people away with his fire and energy, his ability to play virtually anything, and his prolific songwriting.

“He was the best guitarist I’ve ever heard in my life,” recalls Matt Ingellis of Amherst, who played harmonica with John’s newest funk-blues-rock band, Dynamite Johnny. “I used to stop and watch him when we were on stage. I got goose bumps. He had his own explosive style.”

“Nobody played guitar like John,” says Mark Strait of Worcester, whose friendship with John began in Amherst in the mid-1970s. John may have seemed shy, “but he’d get on stage, and it just came roaring out of him.” Another admirer calls him “a force of nature.”

Musicians gravitated to John because of his talent, sense of humor, and quiet charisma. “He was so much fun to be around,” says one friend. His nickname, “Sparko,” made sense because, as another friend points out, “he was warm and upbeat and everybody loved him.”

John, a humble man in a world of large egos, encouraged other musicians to pursue their craft. Ingellis describes how John took him under his wing after they met eight years ago “and made me the player I am today. I was in way over my head.” The pair became fast friends, spoke daily, and played regular gigs with Dynamite Johnny—which often included renowned local drummer Billy Klock. John regularly invited fellow musicians to sit in for a few songs because, Ingellis says, “He enjoyed making other people sound good.”

Longtime friend Paul Conz, now retired and living in Southampton, agrees. He had given up drumming for years, and John urged him to get back into it. “Every time I saw him he said, ‘You gotta play a few songs.’ He made me feel confident. Whenever I played with John, I would feel like a king because everything sounded so good.”

John spent part of his childhood in the Midwest but attended the former Williamsburg High School, where he ran track. I don’t know when he first picked up a guitar, but John played in various local rock-funk-blues bands in the early-to-mid ’70s with names like Bloodstone, Durdy Drawers, Open Road and Home Cookin.’

He also toured with blues legend James Montgomery—a relationship that continued, with John often filling in when Montgomery needed a guitarist. Then came The Bailey Brothers, which rocked local venues like Rahar’s in Northampton and the Rusty Nail in Sunderland, then morphed in the late ‘70s into The Elevators, a new-wave band with a catchy sound compared to The Cars. The group’s Frontline album was released by Arista Records in early 1980, with two songs written by John (“Don’t Let Me Die” and “Lies”), and there were high hopes for big-time acclaim. But things didn’t work out that way. John kept making and playing music (including with The Soc Hops), raised a family in the Boston area, and then moved to Paris for almost a decade. John and his family returned in 2007.

In recent years, John reconnected with some of his old Valley pals. “I used to ask around, ‘Where’s John?’ And then all of a sudden (around 2009) he’s back,” recalls Conz. “It was wonderful. We’d try to see him every time he came out here.” Dynamite Johnny played the Three County Fairgrounds, McFadden’s Pub in Haydenville, O’s Music Bar in Sunderland, Liston’s in Worthington, and Theodores’ in Springfield—where they packed the house in April.

‘Exemplary human being’

Beyond his artistry, John is remembered for his ability to connect and make people feel important. “When John talked to people, he wasn’t looking around the room to see who else was there. He was engaged in whoever he was having a conversation with,” says Strait. “John was one of the kindest souls I have ever met.”

John Stevens, another longtime friend and musician, was touched by the way John welcomed his bass player son, Dan Stevens, into Dynamite Johnny. “The respect, generosity, praise and support John showed my son was so typical of what an amazing person John was,” the elder Stevens posted on Facebook after the tragedy.

John loved to build and fix things, whether he was designing his band’s sound and lighting systems, customizing his guitars, or helping a friend set up her new music club. “He was brilliant when it came to technology,” says Ingellis, recalling how John rigged up several home security cameras to live-stream their shows and had eight laptops for producing music.

This spring, John told David Sokol, former music editor of the Valley Advocate and co-host of the weekly “Sokol Heroes” radio program on WRSI, about his latest projects. Among them, a new album with the mystical-sounding Fierce Tibetan Gods, a Boston-based studio band including John and Greg Hawkes of The Cars.

“John had boundless energy,” Sokol says. “His music and beautiful forever-young spirit will live on forever. My life is much richer for having known him.” “Sokol Heroes” planned to honor John on
July 1.

I met Sokol and others at a memorial celebration held in June on a bucolic horse farm in Amherst. For me, the bittersweet event was a chance to understand how John’s life had unfolded. I talked and mingled with his current life partner and their 8-year-old son, along with John’s ex-wife and his two 20-something children — one of whom is a talented heavy-metal guitarist. There was live music, of course.

Among those who attended was Louis Luchini, former owner of the now-closed Rahar’s. “If I were to describe John with one word, it would be passion,” Luchini reflects. “He was passionate about his music and the people he met along the way. He was an exemplary human being. He was caring, funny, and a friend to all.”

Another was bass player Guy DeVito, who wrote on Facebook: “John was a dear friend, a kind, generous, brilliant and highly motivated inspiration to me and folks that had the good fortune to work with him. He will be missed but his spirit will continue to inspire.”

I’m grateful for having known John Clark and for the joy he brought during that intense time in my 20s, when Monday nights at Sheehan’s were a highlight of my week. Hearing “Look Through Any Window” (The Hollies), “The Letter” (The Box Tops), or any other favorite Soc Hops tunes will forever transport me back to that happy, formative time.

John was a gem. I wish I could tell him in person how much he touched my life through his kindness and music. Maybe, somehow, he knows.

Debra Bradley Ruder, a freelance writer in Newton, was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette from 1981 to 1985.

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