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.

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