Following Through On A Calling: The John Tabacco Story

John Tabacco

John Tabacco © 2019


I was born in February, 1961. By 1962 music started to peak my interest. I remember stumbling up to the black and white TV set in the kitchen every time this cheesy Wrigley Spearmint Gum commercial came on.


Sure, there was that cute, bendy little elf (just a bunch of simple stills) that made me smile but the real treat was the accompanying song. It made me happy. The woman who sang the song sounded happy. If this is what happiness is, I wanted more. And then it was over in a minute. Huh? I’d proceed to trip over a scary leaf or something and cry. Life’s ups and downs learned at such a young age. A year or two passed. I found myself downstairs where my father kept his hi-fi system. Or what was considered hi-fi. An analog Pioneer amp / radio tuner, two mysterious sand insulated Wharfdale speakers and a three speed Garrade diamond needle turntable that always played the records slightly slower than intended. I didn’t care, nor would I realize this until years later.

Everything I did at that time was strictly feel. When my father was at work I’d ask my mom to play some music. She’d scan through the limited record collection and put on Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” or the soundtrack to Mary Poppins or a Puccini opera or a scratchy 45 (a single) from the 1950’s. All good stuff, but the vinyl that intrigued me the most were these ultra stereophonic records that were more or less used to test out the audio equipment. I loved how the bongos switched from speaker to speaker. It was magic and no one questioned it.  By the age of six I was jumping around to The Monkees, overtaken by The Beatles and couldn’t keep my eyes off that sexy album cover from the Tijuana Brass LP Whipped Cream.

Elementary school and beyond meant that at 2:00PM I was going back home to listen to some ear food. I was hooked. When I was nine I already had my dad scratch out the ”F” word on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band record and I started to understand the power of lyrics. Wrapped around music – a dangerous thing.  Not to mention the suggestively creative artwork found in The Beatles’ book, Illustrated Lyrics Vol. 1 & 2. Consequently, I drew a lot of twisted objects that looked like something out of Grays Anatomy, wrote a bunch of bizarre, absurd stories, while seriously focusing on little league baseball (big 1969 Met fan). But as far as music, all I could do was sing in tune, keep time on the furniture (which eventually lead to a proper drum set) and fumble through on the clarinet. I had no idea how to write music. Total mystery.

Fact #1:

My father did not condone my pursuit of creating music and art but he knew there was nothing he could say that would stop me. He always looked at my lifestyle with pity ( I never made much money or had any form of health insurance) and confusion (I never took any drugs or connected myself with a significant other yet lived in environments with a lot of musician friends). That is until a few days before he died of a heart attack at age 77. The last time I talked to him he was not happy about the oncoming cold weather and as I shook us his hand goodbye he said to me, “I guess if you’re happy with what you are doing, then you’re doing the right thing.”  He basically gave me his blessing.  Something I never thought I’d hear. And that was it. Who was the teacher?

Fact #2:

Some people hear their calling at a young age, some after they are already established in a more regimented job market and some hear it when they retire. For me, I heard it when I was fourteen in 1975 right in the middle of listening to Frank Zappa’s mini rock opera, “Billy The Mountain.” I literally heard a booming voice in my head say, “JOHN TABACCO, THIS IS WHAT YOU WILL DO FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE,” I took that to mean “music, ”since I was not interested in anything else other than cutting and pasting together intricate absurd collages or daydreaming about some girl in school.

And so it was I continued to find solace and deep meaning in vinyl records mostly by the following artists: The big four: The Beatles (together and separately), Frank Zappa (surrogate father figure),Steely Dan, and The Firesign Theatre. Along the way, Monty Python, Elton John, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Captain Beefheart, Brian Wilson, Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky, Martin Mull, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and a myriad of others.  In high school I learned music theory but was never a stand out musician (though I developed a fairly good grasp of the drums) and as stated before I could always sing. In fact, the first time I ever sang in front of an audience the microphone did not work and I just belted it out while the band continued to play on. This was an embarrassing moment to say the least, and not a confidence booster.

Nonetheless, that event did not deter my musical focus and it wasn’t until I was eighteen that I actually figured out how to write a song. Up until that time I was wrapped around notating theoretical rhythmic dots on staff paper that never hit the airwaves.  In 1979 I bought a reel to reel tape recorder (The Akai GX 4000-D) and that opened a lot of creative doors. For the first time (other than a few crude attempts using 2 cassette recorders – bouncing the music from one machine to another) I could try out multi layered ideas for songs and have the music played back with some reasonable amount of audio fidelity. This process allowed me to play my ideas to another human to see if what I came up with made any sense at all. Apparently it did and throughout collage I honed my recording and music making skills.

Here is an example of an early piece I recorded in my bedroom:

“Chamelon Luck”

By 1987 my skills were worthy enough to nail a job in a professional recording studio known as Backdoor Studios, in Huntington Station.

Quick story #1:

The only 9-5 job I ever had was a three year stint at a local rent-a-car franchise called Pam Rent-A Car. The job allowed me to make enough money to upgrade my Akai reel to reel to an 8 track recording system where you could make some decent sounding demos. All hail the “Tascam 38” eight track reel to reel and it’s accompanying M40 mixing console. The same equipment The Eurythmics used to cut their hit “Sweet Dreams”.

Here are two an examples:

“I’ll Plant The Bug”


Anyway, on July 14th, 1986 after a rather unpleasant conversation I had with my boss, I told him flat out, “I quit!”  Boy, that felt exhilarating and scary to do (if you haven’t already, you should try it some time). That night I decided to re-organize my bedroom (actual place I recorded) and whilst in this state of cleansing I came across a pink “Post It” with some writing on it. The note read: “Stop pulling it. Your grandmother is spitting up Orange Fanta and she’s run out of lavender toilet paper.”  My high school friend and multi talented musician Chris Pati who I hadn’t been in contact with for over six years wrote it.  For some reason he dated the post it : July 14th, 1986. I showed it to my sister who immediately recognized this as sign and for the next couple of months she bugged me to call up Chris to find out what he was up to.

In the beginning of January, 1987 I did just that. Suffice to say the phone conversation was as if we picked up where we left off. Chris was running a professional 24 track recording studio in Huntington Station and we set a time for me to come by.  On some fateful cold January evening, I showed up at Chris’ facility (Backdoor Studios). He arrived a bit late but eagerly welcomed me into his recording lair. It was very exciting to see this big 24 track machine he worked with accompanied with a mixing console that seemed to go on forever. I nervously played him some of the songs I recorded on my semi pro equipment and he was actually impressed.

I knew, leaving to head back to my home, that my life would change right there and then. And it did. The next day Chris called me. His assistant engineer all of a sudden had to move and he was wondering if I would be interested in taking his place. No brainer. Quickly, I found myself fully immersed in the commercial music world, making some money engineering, producing, sleeping on the studio couch and meeting all these amazing artists. Studios came and went but all the while, I still found myself creating songs and art in tandem. Basically, documenting my obscure life on magnetic tape and later onto visual digital platforms. Why? I’m still not sure, but circumstances have allowed me to do so. Go with it.

Here are a few graphics I produced from my book “Farben Fosfeen Digital Visuals”:

In my travels I’ve met a lot of talented songwriters and I formed teams with them. The co-writing aspect always appealed to me as it extended my musical vocabulary with which to create and it kept the writing fresh. Their influence would allow me to look at ideas I came up with on my own and run it through their filter. Hence my label : ƒ/x Records.  Because of that, I don’t think my catalog gets too redundant. If anything co-writing adds to the intricate conceptual continuity that runs throughout each CD. Since I have had control over most aspects of the music (certainly the art) you could theoretically take any of my pieces from any time period and create a fairly cohesive album. My voice obviously has changed over the years but the general feel of what I do is fairly consistent.

The most important thing I’ve learned from this kind of introspective life is that everything is connected. People and events fall right on cue. Many times there are pre-occurrences that are almost like echoes of the future.

Quick Story #2:

Singer, songwriter and my co-host on Clam Radio

Susan DeVita and I placed a song we wrote, “Look At Me,” in a movie called What Happened Last Night. It was a wonderful feeling knowing our song actually found its way into an outside artistic project. We went to the premiere. Before we got out of the car we were discussing Susan’s grandfather who had passed away. He was a guitarist who played with the likes of inventor-musician Les Paul back in the forties. Susan said that he would have been proud to see the ”DeVita” name up on the big screen. Somehow her grandfather’s favorite phrase “A horse’s ass,” crept up into our conversation several times. We didn’t think much of it.  Anyway, we sat down in the theater, popcorn in hand and the movie plays.

About fifteen minutes in, one of the lead character starts referring to the other’s boyfriend as, “A horse’s ass,”  Now, she doesn’t just say this one time in the scene. She says it five or six times (the phrase being deliberately emphasized with each line). Of course, “A horse’s ass” is not an esoteric thing to say but coming out a young person’s mouth in such a contemporary movie at that particular time? Well, we took it as a sign. And the sign said we are in the right place. We are doing exactly what we should be doing.  These connections probably happen in everyone’s lives. They are either meaningless or they are clues as to what your life path is all about. I tend to opt for the latter.  Of course, I don’t always understand the connections at first but usually their meaning is made known to me within a reasonable amount of time.

These synchronicities validate (in my mind at least) that what I am doing is the right thing and there is no need to second-guess. I’ve always trusted that. The voice I heard back in 1975 was no accident. It was probably me in the future.  Choosing the life of an artist is not practical and frankly improbable (I’m not financially well off and never have been) but somehow I get just what I need. Always have. And this creative, self-motivated life has been mostly enjoyable if not existentially ironic. Where it leads, “It’s Anybody’s Guess”

but, I’ll do it so long as circumstances allow me.


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