Beat Surrender

The Zen life and sad death of local drummer Jon Norwood

Maybe you heard. Most likely you didn't. Jon Norwood, the original drummer for local glam-poppers the Beat Angels, died last month. It was cancer. He was 43. In life, Norwood, whose quick smile and easy manner gave him an enigmatic, pixielike quality, was, pound for pound, the best rock 'n' pop drummer in the Valley. In death, his passing prompts disquieting questions on the vagaries of rock 'n' roll as a career choice.

To watch Jon Norwood onstage was to be wowed. He had rock-solid timing, which not all drummers possess, and a clear sense of showmanship, which even fewer musicians want to perfect.

"The guy was just a great drummer," says Anthony Castillo, a former Valley musician now leading the L.A. band Slow Motorcade. Castillo remembers the first time he saw Norwood onstage. It was 1980, and Norwood's power-pop trio, the Phones, was playing a small club in east Phoenix. "Jon had this huge five-piece kit," Castillo says, "and he's spinning sticks and doing rolls and making all these facial expressions, just unbelievable shit. He had great meter and hit hard and all that, but it was his flair. He was captivating. Your eyes would naturally follow over to him."

Norwood, a graduate of Cortez High School, took up drums as a teenager. He'd had a rough childhood, culminating in a family falling-out that led him to live in his VW van his final year in high school. He'd drive to a friend's house early in the morning, use the shower, then head off to school. Such an upbringing may have led to issues of abandonment that would haunt him in later years, but it also introduced life-expanding opportunities. When Norwood was 15, for example, he went to Woodstock with his older sister, who drove the pair across country. Norwood's most memorable moment of the muddy festival was coming home sick with dysentery.

After high school, Norwood honed his drumming skills in various '70s touring bands, acts with names like Tightrope, that bashed out near-perfect covers of Who and Zeppelin songs. When New Wave hit, Norwood cut his hair and conquered punky-pop with the Phones, before taking a break from music and moving to the Bay Area, where he earned numerous scholarships and eventually got a degree in Video and Performance at the San Francisco Art Institute. By 1986, Norwood was back into music, having moved to Los Angeles for a stint with Gentleman Afterdark, a Tucson band that originally included current Beat Angel front man Brian Smith and Winston Watson, the drummer Norwood replaced. Watson, who went on to play with Bob Dylan and is now with the local band Low/Watts, left Gentleman Afterdark prior to the band's relocation to L.A. in search of a record deal that never happened.

Norwood was back in Phoenix by the early '90s, recording a few demos and mostly taking care of family matters, including a house he'd inherited from his father. Soon thereafter, he offered a room to Smith, who was back from L.A. and otherwise homeless after a failed marriage and a lost band. The two roommates then got together with guitarist Michael Brooks, and the Beat Angels were born. Not that Norwood was entirely gung ho about the project.

"We had to talk him into it," Smith remembers. "He just wanted to record songs in his studio and work around the house. He was a very Zen kind of guy."

Smith says Norwood finally "saw the light" after a number of informal practice sessions. "He just really loved to play. And we got a lot better, too, which encouraged him."

The Beat Angels would continue to get better, becoming one of the Valley's more tuneful and visual rock acts. But Norwood's life made a sharp turn for the worse in the spring of 1995. It happened in late May, when Norwood, who'd studied martial arts for more than 20 years, was days away from taking time off to finally earn his black belt at a northern Arizona karate camp. Smith remembers the exact moment everything changed.

"He started to piss blood. The very morning it happened I heard about it. I could hear him in the bathroom saying, 'What the fuck.' Jon was into karate and sometimes he'd get hit at practice, he'd have these bruises on his body, so he thought it may have been that and kind of just let it go."

The symptoms went away after a week, but then returned. Tests confirmed the worst.

"When he came back and said they found cancer cells in his kidney, nobody said a word," Smith says. "We didn't know what to say. You could tell the wind completely went out of his sails. All we could do was be there for him."

How much the band was there for Norwood might be up for debate. Job stability in a rock 'n' roll band is notoriously tenuous, but Norwood's days as a Beat Angel were as good as over with the doctor's diagnosis.

"It was a complete and utter nightmare," Smith says. "We were really worried about him. He wasn't himself. And what made it all worse was that things were going really well for us. But we ended up missing a lot of gigs and had to push back the recording of our album for months because Jon was going for these treatments in San Francisco."

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