Two Flutes and One to Wail

Wed 12/24/08 at 12:47 am

Many of you know by now that at approximately 1:20 a.m. the morning of Sunday, November 23, 2008, David Moses Jassy, a black rap musician from Sweden, brutally murdered my beloved brother John. According to eye-witness accounts, as my brother crossed the street, a white SUV crossed the line delineating the crosswalk. Apparently, John slapped his hands on the hood of the car. In response, Jassy exited the rental SUV, hit him in the face, and, as John bent down to retrieve his glasses, kicked him in the head. Despite efforts on the part of witnesses, including an off-duty police officer, to restrain him, Jassy broke free, got back in the vehicle, and drove over my brother’s body as he fled the scene. EMTs arrived within four minutes of the first 911 call. John had no vitals at that time. Even so, he was intubated, given CPR, and so forth. He was pronounced dead at the hospital at 1:52. More about this senseless tragedy, along with memories, photos, and music may be found at

John and I were 18 months apart. My younger sister Mary Beth came along 6 years after I did. Our Mother’s death from breast cancer at the ages of 16, 15, and 9, respectively, formed a bond among the three of us that strengthened over time. One of the many things we shared was a love of music. Whenever we were together, a word or phrase would cause one of us to start singing, and the other two would chime in. We knew a song for almost any word. For instance, one of us would use “sunshine” in conversation and soon would be heard, “we sang in the sunshine, you know we laughed every day . . .” We were “on the road again,” or on “the long and winding road.” We never “let the sun catch [us] crying.” We did our “crying in the rain.”

John and I lived together (with a few other friends) in St. Paul for about a year while I attended the University of Minnesota. It was the hey-day of the Selby-Dale restoration. Our gang was well-known at the Commodore Hotel where F. Scott and Zelda lived while he wrote This Side of Paradise. One night John orchestrated a Lutheran Church basement potluck to be held in the magnificent Art Deco bar. Everyone who had escaped from the surrounding small towns and made it to the “Big City” brought their favorite childhood casserole and Jello dishes, washed down with martinis and other cocktails. Scandalous.

We also frequented the Oak Room Bar which was a couple blocks down from the Commodore on the Southwest corner of Selby and Western. This area of the city was still very much in a state of transition. The regulars would be lined up outside by 8:00 a.m. waiting for the doors to open. Many would still be there when we arrived around 8:00 p.m. Cutty Sark was the bar scotch (60 cents a shot). The jukebox played standards like “Mac the Knife” and “Three Coins in a Fountain.”

I moved to New Mexico in 1978, and for the next 30 years ours was primarily a long-distance relationship. I made it back to the Midwest at least once a year. After John moved to New York, he and I nearly always managed an annual Minneapolis rendezvous with Sister Mary. In addition, I tried to make it to Manhattan at least once a year. For many of his years there, John had a fabulous 18th floor, one-bedroom apartment on West 14th between 5th and 6th facing dead onto Midtown and the Empire State Building. We used to come in from a late dinner and sit on his sofa (my bed) and make derisive comments about the tourists who pointed their cameras into the night, flashing away in the surrounding darkness.

In 1993, for John’s 40th birthday, his then-partner Jim drove John to a cattery in Connecticut where they picked out a Cornish Rex kitten with the registered name of Beaconwood Desert Chief. As they drove back into the City down 7th Avenue, John spotted an old painted sign on the side of a building that read “Jensen Lewis Awning Company.” And the kitten had his everyday name, “Jensen!”

Jensen was fairly feral in those days. He didn’t mind being petted, but forget about holding him. Any attempt to do so would be met by a fierce struggle that ended with him leaping out of one’s arms and running for cover. He was, however, extremely fond of playing fetch with his little toy mice. John would throw one and Jensen would go careening full speed after it and pounce on his prey. He would then pick it up in his mouth, walk over to my brother, and deposit the mouse in front of him for another throw. He never tired of this activity. Given his penchant for fetch, I sometimes refer to him as “dog-kitty.”

Rexes have a need to communicate their presence often and loudly — especially in the early hours of the morning. For that reason, the kitchen served as Jensen’s bedroom, and a blanket atop the refrigerator as his bed. I still remember stumbling into the kitchen to start the coffee, and there would be Jensen — staring down at me from his perch.

John and Jensen lived contently in Manhattan for several years, but in 1997, circumstances made it difficult for John to keep him, and John asked if he could come live with me. I readily assented, and so one day, he and Jensen boarded a plane for Albuquerque. I met them at the airport. I will never forget the moment Jensen’s Kennel Kab finally emerged through the flaps of the oversized luggage conveyor belt. He was wide-awake, lying on his refrigerator blanket. Jensen has lived with me for over 10 years. Even so, if you knew my brother at all, you knew about Jensen. Jensen is/was the love of our respective lives.

John and I had a few “must dos” in New York. If he was playing somewhere, I, of course, would hang out and listen whenever I could. One night at the Omni, Judy Collins came in for dinner. John and I conferred as to which song he should play. We settled on “Michael from Mountains” by Joni Mitchell that Judy covered on her Wildflowers album. As she left, she walked over to John and thanked him, both for playing the song, and reminding her how much she liked the song. He told her his sister had suggested he play it. She replied, “Well, then, thank your sister.”

Even though he had a wonderful voice, John sang rarely and reluctantly. For 30 years I begged him to sing. Finally, during what turned out to be my last visit to Manhattan, John both played and sang at the Ada Restaurant. The night I went to hear him, he pulled the microphone close and announced that the next song was for his sister Kris. He then serenaded me with a beautifully phrased version of the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You.” Needless to say, I dissolved into a puddle of tears.

No matter what time of year, on Sundays we’d walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and have either lunch or breakfast in Brooklyn. At least once during each visit, we’d have dinner at Joe Allen’s. We’d sit at the bar, and John would treat himself to a cheeseburger and fries. I liked the red beans and rice with andouille sausage. Two of my most prized possessions are the Joe Allen Christmas presents given out each year to regular patrons. John gave me the t-shirt and wine bottle coaster. (Sorry, Deborah.)

One year my visit overlapped the Thanksgiving weekend. John took me to see the Metropolitan Museum’s Christmas tree adorned with 18th-century Neapolitan angels and cherubs and other crèche figures. Exquisite. That may have also been the year he and I attended his favorite holiday event, “Lessons and Carols” at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue. Angelic voices intermingled with the muffled rumble of the subway trains rushing below.

On the morning of 9/11, John was on the roof of an apartment complex near Columbia having his morning cigarettes and coffee. One of the planes flew directly over his head and on down the island. Shortly thereafter, John wrote a beautiful anthem,“Who Could Know.

At the very least, John was an economic victim of 9/11. In times of economic distress, live music is one of the first cuts. To make matters worse, his “day job” was as a travel agent. The agency he worked for eventually closed its doors. He struggled valiantly, but in 2004, it became clear he simply had to leave his beloved Manhattan. In September, he started driving with a friend from the east coast about the same time I started driving north from New Mexico. We converged at Sister Mary’s house in Burnsville, Minnesota, the southernmost suburb of Minneapolis.

We both loved road trips. The initial plan was to check out possible piano venues in D.C. and do some touring along the way. We were excited about visiting, among other locations, Gettysburg and Savannah. Essentially, we planned to turn right at D.C. and end up in Miami where he hoped to find piano work. Once we met up in Minneapolis, however, we reevaluated the situation. John thought he might like to come on to Albuquerque with me instead. And so we did, by a somewhat circuitous route. I had earlier managed to travel old Route 66 from Springfield, Missouri to Albuquerque. We decided we could use the opportunity to tour the first leg, starting at Adams Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago. So we went east before we went west. On the way to Albuquerque, we rode to the top of the St. Louis Arch and touched the nose on Abraham Lincoln’s bust for luck.

John enjoyed his months in Albuquerque. During that time, I experienced my first major COPD exacerbation and emergency room transport. After my hospitalization, he moved in with me and my partner Darcy, so that someone would be home during the day should I require assistance. He and I had many good times while he was on “Kris Watch.” At the time, in addition to Jensen, our “farm” consisted of three other cats (Sophie, Shobo, and Simon) and two rescued greyhounds, Dante and B’mer. John and Dante fell in love. The two of them were inseparable. John would take both hounds on long walks almost every day. On the way out he would let them wander and sniff, but on the way back, he would march them home, one on either side. It was a sight to behold.

In 2005, an employment opportunity took John to Los Angeles. Though he left behind Jensen, Dante, and me, his former partner, now best friend, Jim a/k/a “Chonga” lived in Silver Lake. I made three trips to LA, and John came back to Albuquerque twice on the train. His first train trip coincided with a Sister Mary visit. It was the last time the three of us were together.

For the past two years, my brother and I either talked to each other or exchanged voice mails every day. Last February, I could tell he was feeling kind of low, so I jumped in my tangerine pearl PT Cruiser and drove out to LA for a visit. I timed it so I would be there for his Sunday night “John Osnes and Friends” at The Piano Bar. He had some wonderful singers who were there most Sundays, but it was also set up so that anyone who wanted to sing was welcome. For the first, and now only, time, John played and I sang “Imagine” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” I also cajoled him into riding the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier.

In the past few weeks I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or read from folks offering condolences, “I don’t know what to say.” That’s just it; there is nothing that can be said. What happened is unspeakable. In a different sense of the word, the more I read and tinker with the above, I realize it tells you some things about John and me, but it doesn’t really “say” much. Perhaps someday I will find words to tell you about my brother, and our relationship, and what he meant to me.

One thing I will say is that many of you are unaware that for most of John’s life, his was a struggle simply to survive. The reason most of you were unaware of this struggle is that he managed to survive (and, yes, often to the consternation of his family and friends) on his own terms.

Finally, when someone dies people often remark that a light has gone out in the universe. In John’s case, I’m with Don McLean. The early hours of Sunday, November 23, 2008 mark, for me, “the day the music died.” The rest is silence.

next post: “New Year”
previous post: Beware of Tricksters

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