Thursday, July 29, 2010

JOHN CALLAHAN - Completely Immobile at 59

If you called up John Callahan and got his phone message, you heard: "This is John. I'm a little too depressed to take your call today. Please leave your message at the gunshot."

Callahan, who died July 24th, was a quadriplegic cartoonist, a cross between Sam Gross and Gary Larson…prone toward both "tasteless" cartooning and comical shock just for the fun of being weird.

His particular form of quadriplegia, due to a drunken car accident at age 21, was paralysis from the waist down and weakened use of his arms. He was able to draw only by putting both his semi-lifeless hands together. This resulted in a punkish style that almost seemed intentional, since his cartoon anthologies turned up at a time when Peter Bagge and many others were deliberately mimicking grade-school level drawing, and even The New Yorker was getting edgy via Roz Chast and Jack Ziegler.

Facially, John looked like a cross between Paul Krassner and Warren Zevon. As one might expect, the internal complications from quadriplegia, as well as external sores and infections, were bound to shorten his life, and so he passed on at 59. Unlike indie music quad Vic Chesnutt (also paralyzed below the waist due to a car accident) his end was not a suicide, though his songs often touched on that subject.

A few years ago, John ventured into Chesnutt territory for his indie album "Purple Winos in the Rain." Since even Chesnutt, who did a lot of touring, and had been a professional musician for years, wasn't selling big amounts of CD's in this era of penury and piracy, Callahan's album was no hit. It wasn't reviewed in the major mags, wasn't known to the average music lover (since most don't spend a lot of time auditioning obscurities at CDBaby or eMusic). Even some Callahan fans didn't know of it, unless they were dedicated enough to visit his website. The best tracks are surprisingly gentle in their seriousness, including the Zevonesque "Touch Me Where I Can Feel." After a Portland concert, Bob Dylan made himself available to meet John…not sure if Bob was a fan of the cartooning or the music, or just felt charitable toward someone his entourage felt he should meet.

Callahan's lack of musical success didn't matter much, financially at least. Once living in public housing, he did pretty well syndicating his cartoons, publishing compilations in paperback, and scoring some bucks with cable TV animation based on his drawings, including "Pelswick" and "Quads!"

A documentary was made on him a few years ago, and it made sure to include recitations of angry letters sent to him or his publisher. The irony was that much of the protests came from people unaware of Callahan's handicap. They invariably included an indignant line that the tasteless cartoonist would not be so quick to make fun of the handicapped if he too had to live his life in a wheelchair. Callahan, however, was one of the "equal opportunity offenders," who also pushed buttons with gags about Catholics, blacks, dogs and women (mentioned here, in no particular order). It had to be rather pleasing for John that well into the 21st Century, and with Dwayne Tinsley, R. Crumb and Gary Larson already out there, along with thousands of cartoons published in Hustler, Screw and the National Lampoon (as well as a zillion comic books and indie zines), people were still writing in, offended by his work.

Your download…the rather gentle "Lost in the City," where John's simple lyric and melody is tastefully augmented by minimal backing by professional musicians (John himself could barely strum a ukelele and spit rudimentary harmonica). The extra few minutes at the end are from "Suicide in the Fall." While his songs were often somber, they were also often optimistic. While they might touch on the sad or the pathetic, like some of Zevon's tunes, they seldom involved pity. The full CD of "Purple Winos in the Rain" has a lot of surprises and rewards, including a guest appearance by Tom Waits.

JOHN CALLAHAN Lost in the City-Suicide in the Fall Instant download, no pop-ups pop-unders, porn links or wait time.


Vicki A. said...

I was googling for a specific cartoon and saw a link to this obit. It was news to me that Callahan had died. Thank you for the song download. I knew him as a cartoonist but was unaware of his music. What a likable voice!

Aaron Ford said...

Thanks for a great article on a talented man who didn't let his handicap keep him down or define him!