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John Byrne Cooke died on September 3, 2017 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He was 76. Two weeks before he died, John saw his third in a lifetime of total solar eclipses which says a lot about the man: He had habit of being there to witness some of the grooviest cosmically significant events of his age.
John was Janis Joplin’s manager and friend; he was there with Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan. He hung with John Perry Barlow - a lyricist for The Grateful Dead - on Barlow’s ranch in Wyoming. John touched those rabble-rousers, he made love to those radicals and poets. He played music with them, made art out of their lives. He took their photographs and caught them on film. He saw some of the greatest minds of his generation blown. He stayed up all night, high as a kite, but he didn’t crash and burn.
John was a conduit, not a catalyst. He was a traditionalist, a craftsman, an instrumentalist, not a destroyer. John Byrne Cooke loved order.
Which is the knot that can’t be untied about the man: He was methodical to the point of neurotic. Change and transition terrified him. Yet he helped to dismantle the world order into which he’d been born-- and of which he was deeply proud in many ways -- because above all, John was fair.
John was the only son of the famous journalist/media personality, Alistair Cooke. Among achievements too legion to name, Alistair, an English immigrant to the United States, wrote and broadcast "Letter From America" for the British Broadcasting Corporation forever. He was Chief American Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and host of Masterpiece Theatre for a couple of decades. Alistair had the demeanor of a Scottish Deerhound which is to say, impeccably bred and utterly charming unless you’re a deer.
John’s mother was Ruth Emerson Cooke, great grand-niece of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
John was afforded every privilege – North Country and Putney for schools and summers at Emerson’s Bayside Farm in Southold Long Island, access to the greatest minds in all the fancy clubs. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in 1962 with a BA in Romance Languages. White, male, over-educated at an elitist institution with a degree that can’t be reasonably described as utilitarian, John went on to rage – albeit with excruciating gallantry, and a sensitivity that cost him dearly, wounding and strengthening him in some way - against the machine that had brought him that privilege.
His name won’t be remembered the way Janis’s will, of course. But to the degree that any mortal could, he did everything to keep the show on the road – her show, and the shows that came after her. Rock and Roll, honkytonk, Blues, Jazz and Bluegrass, he was all in there. A playing member of the Charles River Valley Boys, accomplished writer, filmmaker, actor and photographer, well past his fifties. If it was good, John was listening, a part of the awe, tuned in like a bat to the classical, the traditional, the foundation in even the most roaring Rock and Roll riff. It’s heartening, and instructive that John did what terrified him, even death, without ever losing sight of the fact that everything, everything was, and remains, pretty far out.
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