On Sunday, October 4, inside the Salvation Army church, we said goodbye to Jon Guthrie. And I want to talk about that but first I want to talk about saying hello to him.
I first met Jon when he was around 11 years old. This would have been around 1994 or so. I was working at Wuxtry Records in downtown Athens and Jon’s dad, the estimable Michael Guthrie, was a friend of the owners and would pop around regularly to hang fliers and talk records. He would often have his son, Jon, with him. Soon after this time Michael moved his classic/rare guitar and music lesson business downtown. First, he was catty-corner across from Wuxtry, upstairs above Paul Thomas’s old location of Spend Money Here (on Clayton Street near the now-former Cookies & Company) and then just a few doors down from Wuxtry. At this time, he was coming by the store every day. Again, almost always with Jon in tow.
I’m not quite sure why, but it never struck me as particularly odd that Jon was never in school during the day. I just never thought about it. As was the case, Jon suffered from a severe form of Attention Deficit Disorder that, even as recently as the mid-1990’s, was woefully misunderstood. He had been in the public schools a bit but was now being home schooled. In retrospect, it seems such a gift that he was able to spend so much time with his dad during the crucial adolescent phase. They weren’t inseparable because Mike was an ogre but because they were actually friends and got along well. They also dug a lot of the same music. And each could talk about records for hours.
Needless to say, we all got along great.
Jon started working at Wuxtry, maybe 10 or 15 hours a week, when he was around 14 or 15. I’m sad to say I had absolutely no grasp on how overwhelming and frustrating his ADD was for him. I occasionally got irritated with him when I would ask him to do tasks that seemed very simple to me. For example, one time all I wanted him to do was make a black mark across the top of several boxes of comic books so as to indicate their discount status. He got about halfway through a single box. I had no idea that it took an enormous effort on his part to sit still in one place and do a single task over and over. If only…
He was already playing guitar and bass by this point and his skill level was incredible. He didn’t so much “play” his instruments as he commanded and persuaded them. Nothing about his playing was forced, even at an early age. It seemed to come very naturally to him and it was the only time I’d ever seem him really composed and calm.
My favorite memories of Jon from this time are when we would talk about records. Jon had such an incredibly wide musical palate. He loved The Small Faces and The Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd and 10cc, The Jam and Happy Mondays. Ok, yeah, a lot of his tastes ran to the Anglophile side of things but, even so, he never stayed within a single genre.
And he would follow the individual members of bands into their solo careers to an almost absurd degree. He was the only person I ever knew that bought Godley & Creme records because he honestly liked them and was fascinated by their keyboard tones. This was the aspect of him I admired the most. He was a true individual in a town that prides itself on individuality but, just like every other scene, can also be constricting, trendy and dismissive.
I stopped working at Wuxtry in 2001 and would only see Jon very intermittently over the next few years. I remember being struck by his appearance once around 2006 or so, though. His previously slightly chubby build had slimmed down; he had gotten a few tattoos and had plugs in his ear lobes. He still had his sweet-kid grin, though, and his kind eyes. I think a lot of folks will remember is smile for a long time. It really was something else.
His punk bands would play semi-regularly at The Caledonia where I was working (and still do) so I would see him fairly often over the last few years of his life. I bought shoes at sunglasses from him at Kum’s Fashions a few times in the past year. My favorite memories of him playing music remain those of when he played with his dad and uncle in the Michael Guthrie Band.
When the news came down on Monday, September 27 that Jon was missing I tried my best to get as much information to as many people as possible so we could all keep an eye out for him. A group of his friends (and some family) formed a search party and it was his friends that found him out off Beaverdam Road where his car had left the road the previous Saturday night. I can’t help but think Jon, while not wanting anyone to be hurt or saddened, would have been comforted knowing that it was his friends and family that got to him first. These are the people hurt the most by his passing.
They helped carry him through his life and they would be the ones to make sure he got home.
The Salvation Army was at overflow capacity. The sanctuary had filled early and the crowd, easily surpassing 300 or more, was packed into a back room and hallway.
I’m not going to say much about the actual service because that seems a breach, to me.
But I will tell you this part: after all the friends had spoken, after his parents had said their public eulogies and the final prayer was prayed we were instructed not to leave.
That when Michael and Herb Guthrie, Geoff Guthrie and another fellow I don’t know went up to the alter, strapped on Jon’s guitars (Herb got behind the drums) and instructed all of Jon’s musician friends to join them onstage. I had no idea they were going to play. I thought the instruments onstage were just supposed to be a visual tribute to Jon. Then, at full concert volume, the Michael Guthrie Band blasted through “Johnny B. Goode” while everyone shouted, sang along and wept openly. Memorial services always have a sense of decorum about them and it can be hard for people to cry at them. Folks always stifle tears and choke back emotions because they don’t want to make any noise. When the band played, though, it was as if they were saying, “It’s OK. Make some noise. Celebrate Jon’s life.” In a very real way, we received permission to weep openly and loudly.
And that made all the difference.
He was the first “Athens kid” I ever knew; the first I saw grow up. I was already 23 years old when we met but by the time he was an adult we could easily be called peers.
All the anecdotes above tell only part of my experience with Jon Guthrie. There are other stories I could dig up but why? A whole lot of other people have more stories than I do. They could probably tell them better, too.
I know that I’ll miss, Jon and that I’m sad he’s no longer here. I know that Athens is a poorer town without him. I also know that he loved this town, its music, and people. In the end, I’m just very happy to be able to say that Jon Guthrie was my friend.
And, for me, that’s enough.
(Michael and Jon Guthrie, Liverpool, England, 2005)