Greg Rozycki basically told me I was full of you know what. After reading his letter, I could only conclude he was right.
It was a letter to the editor, I being the editor.
Greg was a friend but that made no difference. As Oscar Wilde said, “friends stab you in the front.” And that’s what Greg did, so to speak. He figured I needed setting straight, friendship or not.
It was the mid-’80s. We had a music column in the Sunday paper I was editing. It was written by my first cousin Don Strubeck, which may seem like a conflict of interest except Don was not paid. He worked for two reasons: his love of music and the occasional free concert ticket.
That’s how the column began, actually. Don loved singer Janis Ian, who was famous for having the hit single “Society’s Child” in the ‘60s when she was only 14 years old. I loved her too. Her song “At Seventeen,” which came out in 1975, is one of my all-time favorites. The lyrics are heart wrenching.
Well, Don heard Janis Ian was going to perform in Scranton and he wanted to meet her. So I wrote a letter claiming he was on assignment to do a newspaper article and, much to my surprise and Don’s, it worked. I published the story more on moral principle than local news value and that launched Don’s column. He wrote it for a good four or five years.
He never missed a deadline except for this one time when he was going on vacation and asked if it would be OK if he skipped a week. It was fine with me, but as I began to put the paper together I got this bright idea I would jump in and write his column for him, with an editor’s note, of course, that it was I filling in. Didn’t want Don getting blamed for what I might write and that turned out to be a good thing.
For the record, Don played the guitar and sang from the time he was 5 years old. I clearly remember him sitting on a hassock in my grandmother’s living room on Sunday afternoons strumming his acoustic and singing “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. I hated those Sunday afternoons.
That’s because I was jealous. I like music but cannot sing a lick. My uncle used to say I “couldn’t carry a tune on a shovel.” And he was right. I sing a bad Happy Birthday.
But that didn’t stop me when it came to writing Don’s column. And I did it with authority, I might add. I proclaimed in my opinion “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones was the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song of all time.
And that got Greg Rozycki’s goat.
Greg, like Don, knew music.
I met Greg when he played in a band with my high school friend, Joe Leone. It doesn’t take much to get Joe to sing the praises of Greg. He did so just a couple of weeks ago when we went to see the band ZZ Top at Penn’s Peak. I knew Greg could sing. I also knew he taught himself to play drums and later keyboards, but Joe said he was even more impressive than that.
“Greg had perfect pitch,” Joe said. “He could hear a song once and he’d know every note, every chord. He’d actually sing the lead guitar part to me.”
Turned out Greg could write, too. He not only put me in my place but did it eloquently.
“Satisfaction” by the Stones? Please. Anyone who knows anything about rock ‘n’ roll, Greg wrote, knows the greatest song of all time is “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. Which reveals why I am writing this today. As soon as I heard of Chuck Berry’s death on March 18, I thought of Greg. I’ve associated one with the other for more than 30 years.
“Every guitar player worthy of holding a pick has the riff of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in his bag of tricks,” Greg wrote.
As I said, the guy had a way with words.
When, about a year later, Don Strubeck grew tired of the weekly grind of writing a column the first and only person I called to replace him was Greg Rozycki. I couldn’t offer Greg a salary but he said he’d do it if we would pay for a new record album each week for him to review and a subscription to Billboard magazine. It took some doing, but I got the publisher to spring for an account at the record store. I didn’t dare ask about the Billboard subscription. Instead, I bought one myself each Saturday morning at the newsstand and dropped it off at Greg’s house. He never knew it came out of my own pocket.
Greg wrote the column for a couple of years and, believe me, it itself could have appeared in Billboard. It was the best written piece in the paper.
Greg bowed out gracefully when he believed his stint had run its course and I understood. But, man, how I missed his writing.
Greg’s life came to an untimely end just a few years later. He was in his early 40s. The sting eventually gave way to fond memories, as such things usually do, and the death of Chuck Berry conjured up thoughts not of Greg’s demise, but of his letter to the editor which we both laughed about many times. Particularly a year or so afterwards when Rolling Stone printed its first list of Top 500 Songs of All Time and number one was “Satisfaction.”
You can’t make up stuff like that.
Number one on Rolling Stone’s latest list, by the way, is “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.
“Satisfaction” is number two and “Johnny B. Goode” seven.
I still think Greg had it right.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.