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At a benefit gathering held at the Cajun House last week, local concert producer Mick Treadwell held court, his normally jovial tone wavering with emotion. "A lot of people took care of John. A lot of people cared. That was the amazing part. We all knew he was going to die," Treadwell said. Calleo's heart had been twice its normal size, and his blood pressure had plunged so low his kidneys eventually failed. But to the end, Calleo had refused to give up a fast-living lifestyle that had made him something of a legend in the local music community. (By the end of the gathering held last week to raise money for Calleo's surviving 8-year-old daughter, Kayleigh, I felt like I was the only guy in town who didn't know him personally.)
Perpetually stuck in life's fifth gear, Calleo burned through a life of chemical addictions until he seemed to fade away all at once, spending his final days in hospice care. He was only 37.
"He had a demon on his shoulder," said Treadwell. "He was addicted to all that he did. Truly without question, if he didn't have that demon on his shoulder, he would have been hugely successful."
But the sad, cautionary tale of alcohol and cocaine abuse, at least so far, doesn't faze the man's royal army of friends. They freakin' loved John Calleo. Two different fund-raising events were arranged in short order to benefit Kayleigh. The first was a $10-a-pop wake at the Cajun House last Monday, at which Calleo buddies Redfield and Greenhaven performed. Then on April 9 came a bigger blowout at Nita's Hideaway – big shots like Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, Alice Cooper, Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers and the Pistoleros all performed, and Journey, Scottsdale-bred Stevie Nicks and others donated items for auction.
The money will all go into an educational trust fund for the little girl, who is keenly aware of the loss of her dad, according to close friends.
Calleo, who started his career as a runner for local promotional powerhouse Evening Star Productions, worked intimately with top-selling touring musicians as they passed through town. Because he worked closely with Evening Star boss Danny Zelisko, and Treadwell, who often works with Evening Star, he became an intimate of their intimates. And almost always, he'd crack the jokes and be the life of the afterparty. Calleo was in a prime position to make cool friends, and he made them seamlessly.
"As part of his pleasing other people, he'd join in the party," says Treadwell, who remembers crazier days when crew members would tear down hotel wall mirrors and use them as runways for coke inhalation.
But it was more meaningful than that, says Zelisko. "What can you say, he was a nice guy," he says. "Some people go through the motions of doing jobs like being a production assistant or being a road manager, and some people genuinely like the people they work with."
By all accounts, Calleo was a funny, funny dude. Stories flowed like the Bass ale during the Cajun House wake. Calleo would claim to be snagging beers for the boss when the boss was hundreds of miles out of town. He'd get thrown out of a club for silly behavior, then keep reentering, over and over again. He'd steal the KFC from Snoop Dogg, getting the rapper to chase after "that cracker" who "just stole my bucket of KFC." (Just picture that for a moment; pretty damn hilarious, huh?) He'd get fired for random capers -- but would find his way back to the tent for laughs and good times within days. "I fired him twice," laughed John Dixon, longtime Valley music biz insider and historian.
Calleo, apparently, was more than just a court jester, though. According to Treadwell, he was also the guy who listened when the other over-fried jerk-offs in the room wouldn't, whose loyalty was unconditional.
"He invested. He spent his time investing time, energy and personality into befriending people," says the mentor. At a loss for how to describe Calleo's effect on people, Treadwell then merely said, "His Web site says it all."
Treadwell set up johncalleo.com in Calleo's final days to give his friend something to do as he lay withering away in bed. He could read goodbyes, recall good laughs and interact with his family.
But in looking over the amassed correspondence, it's clear that the thing took on a transcendence. Promoters, musicians, estranged relatives, friends of friends of friends who didn't even know him, and even Kayleigh posted notes.
From promoter Bill Silva, one of the folks Calleo conversely won over and annoyed in his professional odyssey: "Hey Cal, it's Bill Graham here, I need you down at the Fillmore North right away. Yeah, Jimi and Janis need some more Jack Daniel's and they're looking for something called angel dust, said the angels would have it in the medicine cabinet."
Dave Mustaine, himself a fighter against addiction, weighs in with real poignancy: "I know that you are a good man and I hope that you have asked Jesus into your heart while you still can so I will see you in heaven."
Matt Strangwayes of Greenhaven, a friend and neighbor, reflects on Calleo's nonpretentiousness: "You relied on a basic set of principles that you applied to all situations: 1. Smile and nod, no matter the bullshit you are hearing. 2. Know where the beer is. 3. Know where the beer is."
And then there's Kayleigh – it comes from her mother's e-mail, but in its innocence you suspect she typed it herself: "Hey dad I know I just saw you today when you passed away but I thought I would E-mail you just to tell you I love you because I know you can hear me so I just sent you it oh also I [remember] all the good times we had together like the time when we went to the baseball game that was soooooooooo! Fun."
Messages like that warm a broken heart, which may be the most perfect way to summarize the story of John Calleo. "He was one of our soldiers," summarized Treadwell. "You've got to look after your own."
Even when, in most cases, that never happens so publicly. It touches me deeply.
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