Remembering John Rockwell


My friend John Rockwell passed away recently and I’m still in shock.

John and I met in the radio station at Pratt Institute, where John had started graduate school. He wandered into the station and asked if he could join. I asked if he’d done any radio before. He had. WDCR (Commercial AM) at Dartmouth College and a short stint at a station in Lebanon, NH. We hit it off immediately. We probably spent more hours in the production studio at WPIR (the Pratt station) than in class. We did actually go to school together — I was taking some graduate classes as an undergrad, and we were in a few together.

Wherever I went, John was always around. During my 10 or so years at WRSU-FM (Rutgers University), John would help out with promos for the station, and we jointly taught some classes in production there.

My first commercial radio job was at WPLJ in New York, where I ended up being Alex Bennett’s producer. Alex was the co-creator of a NY cable show called Midnight Blue, which was about to make the transition to a color, 1-hour commercial show on NY’s 2 cable franchises. Alex asked if I knew anyone who was interested in doing video. My (and John’s) friend Jim Wheelock was studying film at Pratt and was interested, but asked if I would accompany him to Alex’s apartment for a meet. We both ended up as part of Midnight Blue, and it was not long before John got pulled into the group. John had a car — an right orange Audi Fox wagon, which his folks had given him after they traded for one in (as John’s mom Phyllis termed it) “menopause beige.” (You can see where John got some of his sense of humor). John often ferried the crew and our 100-pound cases of video equipment and lights around, as thus earned the screen credit of “Transporation.” (I was several years before any of noticed that we missed a “t” there).

After Midnight Blue, I got a job at Cinema Sound, a studio and radio production company housed in a townhouse (with gargoyles and all) on West 75th Street. Not long after, Bill, the chief engineer went on vacation, and the Friday before he was due to come back, the other engineer (Hank Eberle) was fired. On the way out, Hank told me something that the Bob and Joan Franklin didn’t know — that Bill had taken another job and was not coming back. That left alone as the only engineer, with 3 5-hour year-end shows and one 2-hour one to do. I talked the Franklins into hiring John, because he and I had done so much production work together. Needless to say, they fell in love with John almost immediately. Bob (and, to a lesser extent, Joan) could be exasperating. John rolled with it a whole lot better than I did. After about 7 years, I left; John stayed on as the last surviving Cinema Sound employee until the death of Joan Franklin a few years back. (Bob Franklin died suddenly in 1980). By then, the company had very little work –  mostly small audio projects and language training work.

Over the years, John and I wrote, produced, recorded and mixed dozens of long-form (5-hour) shows and probably thousands of short-form news and feature segments. After Cinema Sound abandoned rock-oriented year-end shows, we formed Rockwell Weinstein Productions, Inc. to produce our own shows (while still working on Cinema Sound’s shows). We were asked to bid on taking over Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Continuous History of Rock and Roll” radio series. We came in second; Jimmy Fink (with whom I worked at WPLJ) got the show. (I don’t think Jimmy knows that we were in the running).

Hard at work at Cinema Sound on one of those specials (John Ogle in the middle preparing to record our script

I remember one of the years our show ran on WNEW-FM and we all gathered in Hoboken with our “sales” staff to listen to Dennis Elsas introduce the show and do the commercial breaks. Quite a thrill.

I had already started working weekend at WHTG-FM in Asbury Park (actually Tinton Falls, near Asbury), one of the pioneering alternative radio stations when I quite Cinema Sound. This led to me working more or less full-time at the station, doing much of the commercial and promo production. As usual, John came along for the ride, since much of the work wound up being done in either Cinema Sound’s studios or my home studio (a true “studio apartment” in Brooklyn). John only came down to the station a few times, but his voice was all over various promotional spots. Faye Gade (the owner of the station) was another instant fan when she met him.

After I moved to California, we continued to work on programs together for a few years. Eventually, the costs of maintaining the corporation proved to be more than we were making, so our business partnership was dissolved. We did, however, remain in touch. I wound up back in New York for one reason or another and always spent some time with John. He made a couple of trips out to San Francisco during the time I was there. This was in the era before Facebook and sharing everything online (John more than me), so there were some periods of time where we were not in touch all the time. Never mind – with real friends, it’s always “picking up where you left off” the next time you see each other.

In 2006, I moved back to the East Coast, settling across the river in Jersey City. During the years when Joan Franklin was still alive, I would frequently pop in to Cinema Sound and we’d go to lunch or dinner. When I had surgery on my hand and needed a “guide” to pick me up at the outpatient clinic, John’s only questions were “where do I need to be and when?” He dragged me home in a cab, waited for the pharmacy to fill my pain meds, and made sure I was safely at home before heading back into the city. I never got the return the favor. On the occasions where John needed to go the hospital, I was not the person he called and I usually didn’t find out about his illnesses until he was already back home.

That’s one of the things that most everyone says about John is how much he cared for everyone around him and how reluctant he was to ask for help himself. When Joan’s looney friend Ellie’s health declined, John was around to visit and help. Joan Franklin essentially became like another mother to John, and he the son that she never had. Predictably, it was John who found Joan when she contracted meningitis and was comatose in her bedroom. That illness led to series of strokes that left Joan in a vegetative state, and she died after being removed from life support. (Luckily, that horrible task fell to Joan’s accountant and executor, not John). During the year the estate was being resolved, John kept things together, took care of clients, and watched over Joan’s townhouse.

You always wind up wishing that you had done more. I pushed him (a bit) on the business front, even offering to partner up again, but John wanted to go it alone in business. I tried to set him up with software to keep his business books and helped him get the studio set up. Periodically, we’d talk and I’d mention ideas for expanding his business.

One time, way back, John and I were talking with someone, and we coined the “Rockwell Law Of Inertia.” I started out, noting that a Rockwell at rest tends to remain at rest. It takes a great deal of force to get a Rockwell into motion, but once in motion….. which prompted John to finish with “…A Rockwell in motion tends to return to rest.” That was John’s self-deprecating sense of humor (and at least had a kernel of truth, also). I was always jealous of his ability to be funny. Now, I can get a good line off now and then, mostly arising out of a situation that I’m in. But John could sit down in front of a typewriter (in the olden days) or a computer, and actually write something original and funny. Not many of us can do that.

And I suppose that’s what I may miss the most. We had so much fun together over the years and every conversation included at least a few laughs, no matter how serious the moment. He was such a big part of two-thirds of my life, it’s hard to image him not being there. I’m still finding myself hearing a song, or reading something and immediately thinking “I need to send this to John.”

Rest easy old friend.

Adventures In Health Care

Now that the Supremes have affirmed that reforming health care in the United States (at least in the manner that the sausage produced by our dyfunctional legislative process suggests) is Constitutional, it’s time to move on to actually implementing the Affordable Health Care Act and see what the result is. With his balancing on the head of a pin act, this is essentially what Chief Justice John Roberts said:  it’s a political process; the Courts ought not undo what the voters (through their elected representatives) did. The fact that the Right is disappointed and have cried about “activist judges” does not change this fact. (Interesting how suddenly not doing something is suddenly “activisism” when it’s not the result they desire.)

The cry from the right is that this “taking away our freedom.” Presumably, this means the freedom to die in the streets if you’re sick and can’t afford the costs of treatment. They opine that “decisions should be between the patient and his or her doctor.” Really. These people have obvioulsy not had much experience dealing with our broken healthcare system. I have. Recently. Very Recently. It was not pretty.

I wound up in the Emergency room of my local hospital, early on a Sunday morning, after a night of extreme pain. Now, I have good health insurance (like most Americans, through my employer), But most everyone knows never to get sick on the weekend, because it’s impossible to actually get your doctors on the phone, let alone get to see them. (Curiously, if this had happened while I was vacationing in Paris, a doctor would probably have come to my hotel room to see me — even though I’m not a French citizen. Then again, the French have what is considered the best health care in the world — no, it’s not us — and live longer and healthier lives than we do).

My local hospital happens to be a really good medical center which operates as a “charity hospital.” That is, it’s one of the places that private, for-profit hospitals send their non-critical cases when the person is uninsured and unable to pay. Many (maybe most) of the patients that morning in the ER were non-paying cases:  the working poor, the homeless, the uninsured or uninsurable. I gathered that a “paying guest” was somewhat of an oddity overall. One of the first things that happened — shortly after someone came around with a rolling computer cart to take my information — was someone informing me that my insurance had $100 co-pay for an emergency room visit, and would I be able to pay that immediately (credit cards accepted). Mind you, this was a request for payment before any medical professional had even examined me.

Later that day, I was admitted for observation, with the possibility that my condition might require surgery. Fortunately, I did not, and I was released from the hospital late in the evening of the next day. A couple of days later, my health insurance company sent me a copy of their “approval” for my admittance to the hospital. In other words, at a point where where I was facing surgery, the decision to admit me was not really up to me and the surgeon with whom I was talking — it was determined by whether some “faceless bureaucrat” back at the insurance company decided that this was (a) covered under my policy and (b) medically necessary. The approval was only for a single hospital day; additional days would require additional approval by the insurance company — not by the decisions of me and my doctor.

All this talk about decisions being “between you and your doctor” is just crap. We have a system where those decisions are made by faceless bureaucrats at the insurance company. These are, of course, bureaucrats who are not at all responsible to any of us (unlike those infamous “government bureaucrats,” which are subject to the political pressures of the electorate and elected officials). Ironically, if I had been uninsured and unable to pay, the decisions would be much more on a doctor-patient basis.

This is not my first run-in with medical insurance interfering in the doctor-patient relationship. The Affordable Health Care Act goes part of the way in addressing these issues. No more kicking people off for “using too much healthcare” — that is, being too sick. No more denyiing coverage for “pre-existing conditions.” And who knew that being a woman — even a healthy one — was a “pre-existing condition” mandating higher premium rates.

If you think that “repeat and replace” is a good idea, think again, in part because the “replace” part is “go back to the way things have been for the last 60 years.” It’s interesting when the news media interview people who have “reservations” about “Obamacare.” You always hear people talk about being worried that they can’t afford health insurance (something the ACA addresses). You never hear anyone say, “Gee, I really don’t want health insurance.” Hell, even the very wealthy have health insurance, and it’s frequently “Cadillac Plans” that have benerous coverage and benefits. And they can afford to write a check every time they get sick — but they see the benefits. (Let’s not forget that our members of Congress have generous “governement” health insurance, that new of them turn down). It’s going to take a while before we realize Ted Kennedy’s dream of everyone being secure, knowing they will have good health care when they need it, without running the risk of bankruptcy. Or dying in the street.