by Chris Estey
I saw John Spalding for the first time playing guitar for Ninety Pound Wuss at Seattle’s historical all ages club Velvet Elvis in Pioneer Square back in the late 90s. He was a tall, handsome, blonde, sleek panther of rock and roll strength and class. His sure hands squeezed out harsh walls of noise from his instrument and then created sinuous, multi-layered melodies that were both catchy and weird. Within just a couple years, Goth-meets-hard rock meets-post-punk “arty hardcore” evolved with NPW and the more intense Botch, and soon we were all thrilling to the likes of Blood Brothers, Pretty Girls Make Graves, These Arms Are Snakes, Minus The Bear, and others. John was a contemporaneous creative inspiration for many of those bands as much as he was a brother to the people in them.
Back when I was editing a rock magazine for Tooth & Nail, John would sneak into the offices in Pioneer Square and give me ferocious back-rubs (probably because he could tell how stressed out I was due to my boss, the legendary/notorious owner of the label). We would chat in my office and then he would go out and charm the hell out of everybody else, especially the ladies. Ninety Pound Wuss was about to tour behind their third album, Short Hand Operation, which would be the last for the label. When we first met, he and I went out for a long lunch at Dome Burger and I interviewed him for the magazine. Soon he would come by periodically and we would go out to his car where he would play me his own music, which was very different from the abrasive angst of his work with Jeff Bettger, leader of NPW, and their next band, the notorious performance art-infused Raft Of Dead Monkeys. It was, well, funky and strange and yet still fully rock and roll. It was art-rock made by a sweet spirit, positive and almost searingly honest.
Flash forward to a month ago, and John, who has been suffering from terminal cancer that originated in his colon and spread to his lungs after almost uncountable rounds of chemo, got back in touch with me after a lengthy absence. He wanted to play me an album, his album, which he titled The Beautiful Truth, under the moniker LoveLand. Struggling through the joy and pain of a marriage tragically shadowed by sickness diagnosed shortly after he wed, John poured out a life full of love while experiencing extreme ontological decay. Ultimately, John did what every writer, musician, artist, and songwriter aches to do: he created a statement, a lasting mark on reality.
In songs like the gorgeous and gut-punching “Father” (about his wife Jody losing her father while he was on tour and couldn’t be there at home to comfort her), the typically (for him) loving affirmation “Girl Get Pride,” the get-high-on-the-roof-as-the-sun-rises anthem “Beautiful Girls Have Beautiful Apartments” (about hanging out with Jody when she went to art school in Boston), LoveLand’s album The Beautiful Truth has the kind of soul that indie rockers don’t even usually attempt. It reminds me of when I first heard Betty Davis, and when I was publicizing her first two albums for Light In The Attic -- this is a merger of organic rock with electronic dub, entirely unique and compositionally daring.
“I’m not afraid of anything, that’s why the album is called The Beautiful Truth, John said about the twelve song odyssey. He wrote much of the material on Raft of Dead Monkey’s only released full length Thoroughlev and now he is finally putting out a solo work that is anything but solo.
John’s beloved friends from bands Minus The Bear (singer Jake Snider), Pretty Girls Make Graves (Andrea Zollo), These Arms Are Snakes (Steve Snere and Chris Common), Botch (Dave Knudson), Morgan Henderson (ex-Blood Brothers, Past Lives), well-known recording geniuses like Matt Bayles (Pearl Jam, Mastodon, Minus The Bear, Heather Duby, Isis), Ben Verellen (Helms Alee), and Common (Minus The Bear, These Arms Are Snakes). Bayles mixed and mastered the entire album, and it was partially recorded at the legendary Litho due to the grace of its owner Stone Gossard, who blessed John with donated (and expensive) studio time.
Andrea Zollo, the vocalist from Pretty Girls Makes Graves and now the drummer for Triumph of Lethargy Skinned Alive to Death, sings on the album. She describes John’s music as “eclectic and beautiful as he is”, adding, “He is a sick guitar player! He is incredibly passionate about music and people and life, and I think that comes through in the songs. He is completely submerged. John has such an incredible uplifting energy about him, like standing next to the sun. I can feel that energy come through in his music as well. It is honest. And honesty and candor is something that he really taught me to value over the last year.”
Ben Verellen (Harkonen, Helms Alee) recalls seeing a tumultuous show John was playing when he first met him. “I’m not really sure when I first met John, but one occasion sticks out in my memory. I think sometime mid to late 90s, Raft of Dead Monkeys played a show with a band I played in, Harkonen. I remember the venue was a short-lived spot in downtown, and somebody forgot the keys that day. While all of the bands waited on the street, somebody broke in a window or something and we had the show. I remember John having a bizarre, awesome guitar style, and rocking the fuck out.”
Album catalyst and overseer Bayles puts it this way: “He is dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter and while it is serious, there are uplifting moments in the music to offset the serious side of the album.” That simple explanation leaves room for the listener to invest their heart into it, and The Beautiful Truth rewards that investment.
While John’s family and friends surrounded him this past weekend with their love and constant attention, John left this world.
And not long before his final moments, when I sat by his side at his bed in the living room, with his wonderful wife and terrier Scooter looking on, he asked how people are responding to the album, proud to have accomplished something beautiful and true, as he was put in this world to do.
If you would like to help John’s wife Jody with the vast medical expenses she has accumulated over the last several years, a fund has been set up at Bank of America (you can visit any branch). Ask for the “John D Spalding Medical Fund” and make a deposit of any amount. All funds will go to John’s family to help pay these expenses.
L-R: Joel Cuplin, Evan Morris, Andrea Zollo, John, and his brother Steve
(photo by Ken Roeder)