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."
Norwood's trips to the Bay Area were for weeklong sessions at a Buddhist temple in Berkeley. There he meditated three to four times a day and drank a prescribed herbal concoction while adhering to a strict diet. The decision to go with alternative medicine instead of conventional surgery and radiation had something to do with Norwood's interest in Eastern philosophy. It had more to do with his not having medical insurance, another hidden but potent rock 'n' roll hazard. Norwood waited six months after the cancer diagnosis before finally going in for surgery.
"The reason he didn't get the surgery done sooner is because he had to find someone he could afford to do it," says friend George Maestri, a onetime Valley musician and artist who most recently worked as an animation producer on the TV cult hit South Park. Maestri says Norwood had to literally shop around to find an affordable surgeon.
"In the meantime, he went to all these herbalists, and I hate to say it but that may have been a fatal mistake. The tumor may have shrunk from walnut to pea-sized, but it was still there and it was still, apparently, very aggressive."
Dawn Kelly, a former Valley musician who now lives outside Kansas City, was one of Norwood's oldest and closest friends. She considers herself his soulmate, and she was on the phone with him every day in the final months of his life. She understands why Norwood initially opted for alternative medicine's road less traveled. "Let's face it," she says, "the cost of a cup of tea was more in line with his finances." But Kelly also sees other factors that played into Norwood's nebulous fight against the disease.
"He couldn't let go of the musical lifestyle," she says. "I mean, the smoky bars, the alcohol, the late hours--those kinds of things simply aren't beneficial for a body in need of healing. And things were not right at the house, with assorted people living there and him being stuck with the bills. The success he had with the alternative medicine made him take a more pedestrian approach to managing his health and, unfortunately, his energy was going more toward the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. The support system he needed to get healthy just wasn't there."
She adds that Norwood's accepting personality, called Zenlike by some, passive by others, also factored into his recovery. Maestri agrees: "He'd been abandoned by so many people when he was younger that he didn't want to be abandoned again. I think that's why he just couldn't say no."
Norwood finally had his kidney removed in the summer of '96, using money he'd recently acquired through an inheritance. Later, there were lesser operations to remove lesions on his bladder. Kelly says the procedures went so well that one doctor announced Norwood was, quote, "cancer free." With the clean bill of health, Norwood decided to drive to Eugene, Oregon, just before Christmas of '96 to visit his mother and sister. He also wanted to look into Oregon's progressive health-care system, which, in some cases, requires residents to pay fees as low as $10 for advanced medical services.
But somewhere south of Eugene, Norwood experienced a blackout behind the wheel. He pulled himself together, but by the time he got to his mother's house, he was suffering headaches so severe he could barely stand. The cancer was back, this time a brain tumor, which doctors quickly and successfully removed. Norwood stayed in Oregon for radiation treatments and, by the spring of '97, was feeling well enough to return to Phoenix and go back to being a Beat Angel.
This is the part where rock 'n' roll job security takes another hit. It's also where Brian Smith, by his own account, becomes a "complete asshole."
The Beat Angels had recruited drummer Frankie Hanyak from Serene Dominic's band to sit in for a while. It was a way for the otherwise drummerless Angels to fulfill prestigious slots at the legendary South by Southwest gathering in Austin, Texas, and the increasingly influential Poptopia festival in Los Angeles. Norwood, who was still in Oregon at the time, approved of the move, Smith says, adding that Norwood and Hanyak knew each other and got along well.
But, says Smith, "We knew something more permanent had to be done. Even though nobody wanted to push Jon out of the band, it was either that or break up. And I was a complete asshole about it. I was too afraid to call him. I was waiting for him to call me, and I guess he was waiting for me to call him. So we just went on without him."
The lack of communication led to Norwood making a return trip to Phoenix only to get here and figure out he was no longer a Beat Angel. Friends say he was crushed, that playing again with the band was the one thing he most looked forward to, the thing that inspired his return to town. But Maestri says the parting may have had an unintended upside.
"It was probably the best thing in the world for Jon to get away from those guys. He needed to change his mindset. The way they did it wasn't very proper, but as painful as it was, it gave Jon the push to get out of Phoenix and go back to Oregon, where his family was, where he could get centered."
Kelly agrees: "I don't believe Jon would have cut himself off from the band. He had such a sense of loyalty. He would have given the Beat Angels his last dying breath." She pauses, then adds, "Obviously, they wouldn't have done the same, as they easily showed."
Smith says he understands such sentiments. He says he's received "an earful of shit" from a couple of Norwood's friends, to which he allows, "I can't blame 'em. He was one of my best friends. He was my pal. He was there when my marriage broke up, he took me into his house. And now I tell myself, 'You kicked the guy when he was down.' It was just utter childishness, and it's something I wish I could go back and change, but there's nothing I can fucking do to change it. I never got to make amends, I have to live with it, and I do live with it, every day."
Norwood eventually got a call from Beat Angels guitarist Keith Jackson, who officially confirmed what the ousted drummer had already heard. A few months later, the band sent a card to Norwood after he'd moved back to Oregon for good. Kelly remembers that by then Norwood was sick again, fighting another brain tumor, this one inoperable.
"Jon acknowledged the band's gesture," she says, adding that he showed little outward bitterness. "He was not an ugly person before the cancer, and he didn't get that way afterward. And, anyway, he'd been working with a healing woman who was helping his mind and spirit, so by the time the card came, he was clearly not of that world anymore."
Indeed, Norwood's last days were of a world dominated by the Eastern mysticism that so fascinated him. His sister, the one who drove him to Woodstock, is now a practicing Buddhist, and she helped enlist a gathering of monks to assemble in prayer at Norwood's bedside. A Tibetan lama visiting the area was also asked to stop by the hospice, and did, promising Norwood's name would be offered in prayer at an Ashram in India.
Jon Norwood died peacefully on December 19, four days before his 44th birthday.
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