I Learned Most Every Good Thing From John Richard

uncle john 1978

(non-instagrammed actual and authentic old school photo from Summer 1978)

On this day, seven years ago, my Uncle John left this Earth and went Home. This day has become thick with celebrations and memorials as the years have gone on. One of my best pals, my A&R man, coach, peer, and partner in crime Moshe celebrates his birthday today. Another pal Don Campbell remembers his dad on this date, the date of Don Campbell Sr.’s passing. The exact date of my Uncle John’s passing is also the date of my sister Marie’s wedding to my brother-in-law Tim.

This date, that very day by no coincidence, is also the date of the worst sickness I have ever experienced in my life. The early morning hours as Uncle John was preparing to leave this place, I was up, my body keeping vigil with the worst wrenching stomach pains and sickness I have ever experienced in my life. Those hours were spent in a daze limply moving between the couch and bathroom floor, a whole entire United States between us and I with no idea as to what was transpiring.

I believe it was sometime around 6am that the phone rang, splitting the silence of my suffering like a bolt. I knew exactly what the call was about.

My  mother, entering the living room to figure out what was going on, saw me draped over the couch like a rag. “Your Uncle John died last night,” she said.

“I know,” I replied.

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Remembering John Richard.

(read at his memorial service on Miacomet Beach Easter Weekend 2007)

My first memories of my life had my Uncle John present. When I was 4, before had a brother of my own, John was there, filling many roles: older brother, friend, and Uncle. Inquisitive and impressionable, my life was forever altered by my wild and free Uncle John.

Uncle John was my first real exposure to an adult that wasn’t my parent. Of course, I use the term adult loosely, as he was roughly 19 years old at the time, living with my mom, dad and I and working at the McDonalds. They gave him a uniform, and at that time, I didn’t think there was anything cooler than my Uncle and his cool McD’s job.

Uncle John lived for music, and he conveyed this love to me immediately and profoundly. He had one of the first model “Walkman” cassette players that was as big as a shoebox. Being that it was 1979, the music du jour was Aerosmith and Jethro Tull. I don’t think my parents were very impressed that, at that young age, I knew most, if not all of the words to Aqualung. As a stamp or some sort of testament to the change that happened in me from this experience, I proudly wore a 3/4 length jersey with Aerosmith puffy silver lettering, which was pretty damn hip for a Preacher’s kid.

This was also the height of disco, and upon my urging, Uncle John helped me learn all of the posed dance moves from the gatefold LP of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Thanks to my Uncle John, I must have been the most worldly kid in South Paris, Maine.

Shortly after my brother was born, we moved to Iowa and away from Uncle John. This seemed strange to me, as he had always been there, for the first bunch of my years on the Earth. While there were visits, it never seemed like enough. Years later, when we were going to move to Nantucket, the only consolation for me leaving my friends was that we would be closer to him. He immediately resumed his role as the absolute biggest influence in my life.

Uncle John was an entertainer, a talented, diverse and respected performing artist that was comfortable in theater, choruses, solos, and of course, barbershop quartets. He acted in and directed several theater productions, and I went to almost every one. I first understood the thrill of performance seeing him on stage. If I felt this giddy and excited seeing him on stage, I could only imagine how he felt. I had to have that in my life, and that became my focus.

Some of my happiest memories from this time in my life are going to see Dad and Uncle John’s barbershop quartet, Willie and the Wailers. They performed on cruise ships coming to Nantucket in the summer, and I always considered it to be a privilege to board the big ship with them and see their performances. Of course, Dad and Uncle John would always draw attention to me, but I loved it. Years later, after I had embraced my own destiny as a performer, Uncle John was unable to make a gig, and I was asked to take his place. There was no greater honor than to be able to, after years of singing along, have the opportunity to sing his parts in his absence. I still hear those songs in my head, in perfect four part harmony , complete with shtick and between-song banter. “bachelor days we’ll then recall, we’ll then recall… so, goodbye, farewell, so long forever…”

John was fanatical about the music of Joni Mitchell. I’ll never forget him sitting me down in front of the “Shadows and Light” Live concert video as he enthusiastically introduced every song and band member to me. His love for Joni was unmistakable, and infectious. Her music became my favorite, too, and remains that way to this day.

Music isn’t all that I have to thank Uncle John for. Our Richard cooking gene is much like the force in “Star Wars” and as Yoda would say Uncle John was “strong in the force.” My dad once asked Uncle John to prepare a luncheon meal for the Ladies Union Circle group from the Church, and Uncle John in turn asked me to help. He endeavored to make fettucine alfredo with shrimp… the most delicious and undoubtedly fattening alfredo sauce with no recipe. This was astonishing to me… that he could do something this good without following instructions at all and barely breaking a sweat. It seemed to be a fully incorporated extension of his performance talents. The elegance of it all was memorable, and it was then that I realized I had to learn how to cook. As a direct result of this little lunch, I became obsessed with cooking the way most guys my age were obsessed with sports statistics, and began to read cookbooks like novels.

He had invited me over once to one of his many apartments he had on Nantucket for one of what would become our regular movie nights. He thought it would be great to make some cookies and, for this, he pulled out a recipe. After getting most of the way through it, we realized he was missing an ingredient or two. I fretted and was dissappointed that we would go without cookies for our movie, but Uncle John worked “off script” as they would say in theater, and managed to salvage the whole thing. They were thin, flat and had a tad too much almond, but the victory of those cookies was not lost on me at all… a major lesson learned. When the recipe fails you, improvise and serve with a smile. Your guests might not know the difference.

Everywhere Uncle John went on Nantucket, he paved the cobblestones smooth for me so that, walking behind him, I wouldn’t trip or stumble. When I wanted to work at the cool café that he used to work at, all I had to do was mention his name, and I was regaled with how everyone there loved him and I was hired immediately. When I decided that I wanted to give acting and musical theater a try, people were aware that I came from good stock, and was granted opportunities beyond my abilities.

I experienced a life changing event one Christmas when I came downstairs Christmas morning and found our sad plastic tree missing. In its place, gloriously decorated was a full, real Christmas tree, decorated to the hilt with beautiful white lights. I knew Uncle John had raised a fuss about the fake tree and must have had something to do with this. All I could do was stare, impressed that this feat had taken place while I slept. I recall LeeAnne saying ”…he doesn’t see it…” In the corner of the room was a brand new black drumset, my very first, ready and waiting for me to make some sounds. Being that they are not cheap, Uncle John had gladly chipped in. The entire neighborhood collectively recoiled in horror at my new drums, and I am not sure if they have recovered yet.

Uncle John was always willing to share from his extensive library of not-exactly-legal videotapes. He turned Travis on to the musical “The Music Man’ and Travis stayed inside and watched that damn movie every day for an entire summer. In fact, I often wonder if that’s why my brother is so pale… he missed out on all that good sunshine but he probably can sing every note from that movie. Uncle John also turned me on to classics like Rebel Without a Cause and of course, This is Spinal Tap, arguably the funniest movie ever made, period.

One thing that was so profoundly important that Uncle John shared with Travis and I is his love of Prince. The Purple One. The Artist. He was such a fan that he even dressed up as him for Halloween one year. One of his many videos was a concert of Prince’s from the ”Sign o the Times” Tour. Travis, Schuyler, and I will play one of those songs for you in a few moments. We studied that video and made private promises to ourselves that, one day, when we could do it on our own terms, we would have a band that played like that, was that funky and razor sharp, unstoppable and undeniably hot. Every time Miss Fairchild plays a show, we must recognize that Uncle John drew the plans for the band with his own hand many many years ago.

Uncle John had this massive kite called a “Tumbling Star” and he loved to fly that thing out at Altar Rock. When it was nice weather with a strong breeze, we’d go in to town for cappuccino frozen yogurt then speed out to the Rock in his old Volvo sedan, listening to Madonna on cassette. That was the best, I could listen to Madonna and not have to look over my shoulder, seeing if anyone was judging whether it was cool or not. We’d manage to get that kite high, hundreds of feet above our heads, and then pull in the line to create slack, releasing it just to see the star fall towards the ground, pulling it at the last second to save it from crashing on the ground.

When I turned 16, Uncle John thought it a fitting occasion to take me to dinner at the Tap Room. He asked for a seat in the far back, in a dark corner. He ordered his favorite bottle of champagne and proceeded to share the whole thing with me. I don’‘t think there was any better way to celebrate being 16.

Being that this is Easter weekend, I would be remiss if I did not share this. When I was young and John lived with us in South Paris, I recall one Easter that Uncle John had come over, after the Easter Bunny had made it’s visit. I proudly showed him my filled-over basket of goodies and painted eggs. I, of course, offered him one. And, I swear to God, I saw that man crack that egg open and put the whole thing in his mouth and swallow it whole. I am still traumatized by it.

It wasn’t until his homecoming a few months ago, and reflecting on these stories that I realized that virtually all of my tastes, my goals, dreams and desires were shaped by him. He managed to carve out deep lines in my life that have not been worn away by the work and worry of the world. John was brave without being boastful, gentle without being delicate, and generous without fault or consideration for himself. John was brimming with joy and optimism in his life, and considered it essential to share that with everyone around him. that perhaps is the most significant thing that we can take from him and celebrate.

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