Hometown Heroes: Bruce John On Using Music To Make A Difference – Hartford Courant
Oh, the rock and roll memories Bruce John has. Driving down Route 6 in his Porsche, Muddy Waters riding shotgun. Eating lunch with Arlo Guthrie and his band and laughing so hard that milk came out of his nose. Calling Bonnie Raitt to do a show (a guaranteed sellout) so they could pay the mortgage on their nightclub, The Shaboo Inn. Walking upstairs after a Ramones concert to find that Joey Ramone had written in large letters on the bathroom wall: “Joey Ramone pissed here.”
From the early ’70s to the early ’80s, John and his friend David Foster owned the Shaboo Inn, a converted silk mill on Conantville Road behind where the Eastbrook Mall is now.
For John, who was 20 when he and Foster bought the venue, it was a true rock and roll lifestyle, a non-stop party with fast cars, drugs and alcohol and above all, the music. The great blues masters all came to Shaboo â Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, B.B. King. Dire Straits played there. Aerosmith played “Dream On” for the first time there. The Police, when nobody ever heard of them. The Cars. The Talking Heads.
Through most of it, John was in the throes of a cocaine addiction. Now, he said, he is making up for lost time.
He has been sober since Jan. 25, 1988. And through music and his musical connections, John has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various Willimantic charities, including the Covenant Soup Kitchen, the Windham Region No Freeze Project and WAIM (Willimantic Area Interfaith Ministry).
“I always felt that I wasted my time by being a coke addict,” said John, 66, of Storrs. “It takes so much time and effort to find cocaine every day. I made a pact that I was going to live two days in one. That’s kind of how I do it. I get up very early and I go to bed kind of late. I always try to do something for other people because I didn’t do a lot when I was strung out all those years, other than hedonistic experiences.”
“That’s kind of what motivates me to go. I changed my life. I changed how I operated from day to day. I don’t think I changed myself inside. I’m just kind of making up for lost time.”
And it’s still all about the music. John, who knows at least 400 songs, plays his guitar five or six nights a week at various venues. He organizes a fundraiser, in which he and his band The Bandoleros play, the last dozen or so years in January at the Elks Club in Willimantic to pay the rent for the No Freeze Project. He and his wife started the Bread Box Theater, a folk music venue in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (where the soup kitchen is), which raises money for the soup kitchen.
“He’s just been incredibly supportive,” said Leigh Duffy, executive director of the No Freeze Project, which has received more than $65,000 from John’s fundraiser over the last dozen years. “He’s a philanthropist â he allows us to use his good name to raise money and is actively involved in the process. If he sees an opportunity to help us, he will do it. He’s a very generous, loving man.”
“There aren’t enough kind words to say about Bruce,” said Kimberly Clark, executive director of the soup kitchen. “He’s a giver. He takes care of just about every non-profit in the area. He’s always there for the community. I don’t even think he even understands how important he is to the community.”
John and Foster are currently organizing a Shaboo Reunion June 24 in Jillson Square in Willimantic to help pay the mortgage for the soup kitchen. The Temptations, NRBQ, and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band are some of the headliners.
Shades of the Blues Brothers?
“Yeah, we’re on a mission from God,” John said, laughing. “That’s how we feel. It’s such a feel-good thing. [Foster] and I were kidding â Shaboo, in its day, it was a rough place. There was a lot of stuff going on there. In the 35 years we’ve been closed, we’ve been able to clean up the image by doing all this charity work.”
John first hit the stage at age 8 when he lip-synched “Blue Suede Shoes” in elementary school. He started playing guitar at age 11 and was in his first band, Brian and the Countdowns, by the time he was 14, playing at frat parties and at the UConn Student Union.
“That was a good band,” said John, who graduated in 1969 from E.O. Smith High School. “I was 14 years old, drinking beer with college kids, singing ‘What’d I Say.’ It was quite a way to grow up.
“After that, I was in a band called The Nostalgic Tuba. We were the house band at Ray’s Roller Rink in Coventry. Right out of high school. We were getting good money. We traveled all over New England to play.”
He was 20 and Foster was 19 when they opened the Shaboo. They had no money and they weren’t old enough to sign for a loan or put their name on any papers so their older brothers signed for them and were part owners of the club. They worked hard and soon, the venue, which held 1,000 people, became the place to be for blues and rock and roll, five nights a week. They made a lot of money. They spent a lot of money.
“I was a good kid,” John said. “I was the president of the student council at E.O. Smith. I was a real jock. Three years on the basketball team, three years on the soccer team. But there was always another side to me â we always smoked weed, even in high school, and drank. I didn’t even drink that much at Shaboo until the end. I really got into cocaine.
“All those years at Shaboo â my job was to procure drugs for the bands. I was good at it. I’m a salesman. After that, it got ugly. I sold out and all the money I got from selling out, I owed to the coke dealers, plus some. I got $50,000. I owed the coke dealers $80,000. I had my father’s restaurant for a year. I snorted that. I lost that. I was pretty down and out. Then my little sister died. I had a 3-year-old daughter. I had a bad marriage. I went on a six-day bender. I woke up and said, ‘No more.’ I went and got therapy. I had tried like eight different times to kick it. I couldn’t. Jan. 25, 1988. I stopped. Never touched it again. Never had a drink or any coke again.”
The Shaboo closed in 1982 and burned down after that. But its legacy lives on. John often runs into people who tell him they met their wife there or got engaged there or simply wonder how they ever made it home from there.