I got the call almost a week ago, early in the morning, the sunlight just starting to poke around the towering skyscrapers. When I saw the call was from Fernando, being that early, when he lives out in Los Angeles, I answered with just three words:
“F*^k. Dude. Who?”
“John Tovar man.”
“No way man… Seriously?”
“Yeah man…. Heart attack.”
“Jeez. Dude. F*^k.”
“Only 65 man.”
“Hold on. What?”
“Yeah man. He was 65 years old.”
“Jesus. Dude how is that possible?”
“We gotta get you healthy brother.”
“Nice segue. Dick. But I’m only 63.”
“So we have time for at least 4 or 5 more albums. Hahaha…!”
“Dude, seriously, i really thought John was older than that…”
“Yeah man,” he sighed.
“God this is so sad. John is a huge part of everything we accomplished man. Even hooking the two of us up together! You know…..”
“Oh yeah! That’s right! I know how much he meant to you bro. I called you first.”
“I appreciate that man. Yeah… he was the man. And now… jeez… It’s the end of an era.”
Our conversation continued a little longer. After we hung up, I quickly sank into this deep depression. And mourning. The reality was settling in… the memories starting to leak in from the walls and ceiling… the finality of it. Truly the end of an era…. For so many of us, and in so many ways.
The saddest news of this past week, the most heartbreaking, Tina Turner notwithstanding, won’t mean a thing to most people around the world. In fact for most people who even live in Miami or South Florida, the home and stomping grounds of longtime music manager John Tovar, it won’t mean much to them either.
For anyone in the music industry on the other hand, no matter where they live, it’s devastatingly sad news. Especially for those of us in the music industry AND from Miami.
A sad quiet stillness dominated my days after i got that call. It continued into each successive day since. All week. I’m guessing it’s been that way for pretty much everyone that knew him. I still haven’t called anyone. I havent wanted to talk about it. Didn’t want to write about it. Not yet. Didn’t want to see the rush of folks trying to be the first to post it to social media or say something pithy or profound.
John would’ve hated that himself. Frankly I wish we all would have made the time to say it to his face or hell, even over the phone, when he was alive. This is a regret I’ll have for the rest of my life.
At some point though, sooner than later, i knew I’d have to let it out, release the grief and the sorrow and, more importantly, celebrate the man who was a local legend for 40+ years, and nationally…, the best thing you could say about someone in the business: they always took his calls.
John Tovar was a huge part of my life, personally and professionally, as he was to so many artists and music business folk from the South Florida music scene. During different eras, it seemed like the whole scene was balancing on his shoulders.
For longtime readers of these Transcendence Diaries, you know him as The Big Man In Black. Or oftentimes just The Big Man. Someone I’ve written about extensively. Now you know. It was and always will be John Tovar.
The man entered our lives when we were still teenagers. And he continued to be there for over 30 years. God those years have flown by, haven’t they… Those initial years, in the beginning, when we were just kids playing in bars long before we were old enough to get into those bars. Still feels like yesterday in certain ways.
To many music lovers, they may not know the name, but they know the music he was responsible for bringing to the world — most notably just in terms of cash box or coverage, The Mavericks and Marilyn Manson. Just like those artists do, we all owe John a huge debt of gratitude. Especially considering that that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of artists that we all know and love who HE introduced us to.
That’s one of the many things that made John such a standout person. He was responsible for escorting hundreds of notable artists to the finish line. Many you’d know of. Others you wouldn’t. From there it was up to them what they did with it, what we all did with it.
I’ve heard people say that Tovar, which is what everybody called him back in the day, was at the right place at the right time. But I’ve always thought that was bullshit. Plenty of others were in those exact “right places at the right times” and they never had the impact John Tovar had on the scene. Nor the success for so many artists.
With John it was more than that. He happened to have great ears, an impeccable eye for talent, and this relentless thirst for justice, in an industry that never cared for such a thing as justice. For John Tovar it was a mission.
John recognized talent immediately. And he would do anything he could to fight and claw his way to the top to make sure that talent got heard and got the justice they deserved. By getting them as far up the ladder as he could. This is another aspect of the man that made him one of the greats. In an industry where there are very few of those.
If you signed with Tovar, you knew he would do everything he could for you. We, and when I say “we” here I’m referring to our first band, Broken Spectacles, signed with John in our late teens. We had worked hard for it, because by the time we came on the scene, John Tovar was already a legend.
At least to us he was, back then. He was physically large, in every measure. Long black hair that was always seemingly more greasy than it needed to be, black mustache and goatee, black jeans, black button down shirt or T-shirt, big black boots and a black sports coat. And compared to our short little lanky frames, usually wearing nothing but boxer shorts and T-shirts, he was a physically huge presence.
He was just as imposing in his manner. He was generally a quiet dude if you didn’t know him. And if he didn’t know you, he didn’t care nor pretend to. He didn’t see you in a club and flash you a smile. As so many tend to do. Most of the time he wore a kind of grimace, as if he were bothered by something. It’s funny looking back at it now. But back then, it was just intimidating as hell.
You couldn’t help but notice him everywhere you went that was musically bent. Because he was everywhere. Always looking for talent. Or because he needed his nightly fix of good music.
In the beginning we would see Tovar out and about. He was one of the few somebodies in that little scene. We continued to play out every chance we got.
Then suddenly he started showing up at every show. “Look… guys, we love what you’re doing… Eddie and Matt, this two headed monster thing you guys have…. We want to work with you. What can we do?” he said over a 3 to 4 plate meal at Dennys that filled half his side of the table. He spoke these words alongside his partner back then, Rich Ulloa. A legend in his own right.
This was a big moment. Signing with Tovar or Rich was a rare occurrence back then… they were just getting their engine warmed up for what was to come. Signing with these guys was a right of passage of the Miami music scene that every artist aspired to…. It put you on the map. Said something about you.
It wasn’t just that John could possibly get you somewhere, get you that big break you’d been dreaming about since you were in diapers. It was way more than that. At least to us. Something way more important.
John knew music. Good music. Great music. At a time when the only way to even access good music was on Sunday nights on Matt Pinfield’s 120 Minutes on MTV. Hair Metal or boy bands were what dominated popular music. For a while there it seemed like good music was dead and would never return.
Of course as we all know now, a small group of guys and gals from out in the Pacific Northwest changed all that. Someone called it “Grunge” and it quickly became co-opted, over played and over-powered by big money and commerce. But it did the trick. It got us all out of the hair metal rut we were stuck in.
None of this mattered to John. Not in the big picture. Because he still believed in great music. You could talk about the last 80 years of great music with him all night and into the next day. He knew it all. And if you just sat and listened, you learned a lot from the man.
But it was more than that if you were a still-unknown up and comer. Because John knew all the great music, and dug all the great music, and didn’t mind stating loudly and unequivocally how shitty the modern music of the day was, working with him had this effect of making you start to believe that maybe you had a chance of one day being great too. Not rich or popular or famous. He never talked about those things. But you could be great. At making music. And to a lot of us that’s all we cared about.
More than that. Deeper than that. Bands like us were constantly being courted back then, but with a bunch of casually-said and tricky little caveats. They wanted to turn us into a kind of quasi “rock-n-roll boy band” in those first few years.
Or they wanted us to keep writing the songs, keep singing the songs and keep fronting the band, but “just have older, better, more experienced musicians play the instruments on the tracks.” Or they’d want only one of us to stand in the middle and sing all the songs.
These caveats were countless and endless. If we would only make these small changes, platinum records were guaranteed. But John never once wanted to change a thing. And when he heard these stories, he would become palpably angry on our behalf. “Eddie Eddie Eddie. These guys are so full of shit… they wouldn’t know good music if it….”
It was precisely because of this, his integrity, his commitment to authenticity, that artists of all ages and musical genres wanted to impress him, wanted to please him, wanted to blow his mind. And frankly John wasn’t known for being the friendliest guy around. Kind of the polar opposite of it really. He was downright grouchy if things weren’t going his way.
So if you did a good show and had John smiling ear to ear ten to fifteen minutes afterwards, it meant a lot.
We started working with John and Rich pretty quickly after hitting the scene. The two of them set up a few showcases for us, major label execs flying down all the time. I’ll never forget that first one. Nor the many that came after. Because being so young and dumb, we believed we were “too damn good to “showcase” for anyone”.
So we continuously proceeded to sabotage every showcase these two generous men set up for us for a good year or two. To put it bluntly, we were unappreciative little monsters. John and Rich, eventually just John, flew down every big-time record label exec who had a name in the industry. And we just kept deliberately screwing around, to prove to the world that we were “too good to have to showcase for anyone”. Not kidding.
We’d drop acid a few hours before the shows, or play 20 minute versions of “Heard it through the grapevine” or “Stella Blue”, or get so drunk we could barely play or fall off the stage, or sometimes just yell at the record label execs till they got up and left the table.
We obviously didn’t get any of those deals. But that didn’t stop us. We continued to pound away, growing up a little bit, growing in size and scope and staff members. Becoming as much an organization as we were a band.
The reason i recount these stories and this phase of the band is because it illustrates something really profound, important and beautiful about John Tovar.
Even after all of that, after everything we put him through by being such ungrateful little assholes, we hooked back up with Tovar again and again and again. He wasn’t just a manager. He was a mentor, an advisor, an advocate, a cheerleader… a resource, in reality more of a secret weapon. He was also a friend. And he never gave up on us.
Seeing that very first debut show of the Mavericks was a revelation for all who witnessed it. A masterpiece of a moment. It’s all anyone could talk about that week. Just like seeing The Goods or Nil Lara or Diane Ward and Voidville or Natural Causes or Amanda Green for the first time.
What a lot of people outside the music business wouldn’t know is that John and Rich took a huge gamble on this Mavericks venture.
See, the guys in The Mavericks had already been in the Miami music scene for years, working out of various other popular bands. Which meant that they were “older”. In reality they probably weren’t more than 25-26. But trying to promote a band that “old” was a death wish. Yet John and Rich did it anyway. And it was a grand slam for both of them.
John Tovar was extremely generous in that way. He didn’t let on to it very often, especially not in public, but he had a huge heart. After Broken Spectacles broke up we all went out on our own. I quickly ended up in New York, sleeping on whoever’s couch i could find and living on one McDonald’s cheeseburger a day for months.
Why? Because John was headed there for some meetings and told me to get my ass up there, he’d pay for it if that was needed (it was), and he’d shop me to some execs when he could on his downtime. That’s how Acoustic In New York came to be. He finally got me the deal that had been so elusive for so many years. We got to the point of recording a full length album on the record label’s dime, but in the end, the release date kept getting pushed back. Eventually indefinitely.
This happens to artists all the time. In fact it happened to several of us from the scene that very year. The stories were sad. And hilarious.
You’d think that would’ve stopped John at that point. Working with me at least. But Tovar was loyal. To a fault sometimes. He was coming from a different era. Back when relationships in the business mattered, when they were cherished. But the business had changed. And he hated that.
Just to prove a point or because he really was the coolest guy from the business side in the music industry, about two years later, John called me and said something to the effect of “So Mr. Ed…. what’s this I hear about you recording a new album in a bunch of different languages? And calling yourself “the ambassador”?” He laughed. Heartily.
“Well you know… just trying to keep things interesting man”, I replied.
“And you’ve got… what’s her name… Uhhh… you know… Mrs Trophy Wife….”
“Yes. Now she has a beautiful voice Eddie.”
“Yeah she does. She’s awesome. And I’m telling you John… it gives things a really different sound with her…It’s special.”
“Well Mr Ambassador, you know I’ve got to hear it.”
We were doing the new album, Rise and Shine, at Cliff Rawnsley’s place, Sunflower Studios. John was working with Richard Clarvit by then, both of who had a tremendous effect, and influence, on us over the next few years.
Richard had no problem informing me that I was far too old to be still making music. I was 28. For the record, Richard was being helpful. It was the first of years worth of valuable advice. He suggested I go into management or something else behind the scenes to “reflect my new maturity”. But I wasn’t ready for it.
And Tovar wasn’t hearing it. Didn’t give it a second thought. Or even a first. He never cared about age. Or how old an artist was. Or better put, he may have cared, but he never mentioned it to me. He felt like it was something the music business would grow out of. And he was right. Just ahead of his time, as with so many things.
[As an aside, just because every time I remember it, I laugh. I called Zach Ziskin to vent about all this new talk I was hearing about me being “too old” to make music. I’ll never forget it. Zach says, “dude just remember the two rules. One, you’re always 28 years old. No matter many years pass. And two, if someone asks, you’re always either in the studio working on a new album or on tour.”]
Tovar and I signed yet another agreement with each other, A very different kind of deal. With different goals.
We all realized that John had collected a ton of knowledge about the business and how it operated. What was success? Was it getting a record deal? Well obviously not, as many of us proved four years earlier where we all got deals, recorded albums and never got to see them get released.
Success was in reality a collection of successful achievements, hit records, large fan bases, great album reviews, great press, massive radio airplay, etc. With a label or without one.
This time John was signing on to be a Consultant. In all facets of our career and the business. To help us achieve those goals. And in time, we did. One by one we checked off most of those boxes. And we couldn’t have done any of it without John Tovar. He was the difference maker.
And we were just one out of many many others he did the same things for. How he found the time or the energy, no one knows… But the man was unstoppable once he put his mind to something, once he went after seeking justice for an artist he believed deserved success. The man was a legend because his actions were legendary.
Looking back over the last 5-6 days, the thing I oddly keep remembering the most about John Tovar, out of all these years, decades, that have passed, is those Saturdays or Sundays where we’d have to speak real quick about something related to business and we’d end up talking for hours about the history of great music and the great artists who made it.
Because in the end it was more just coincidence that I was an artist and he was an artist manager. What both of us really were, more than anything else, were obsessed music fans. And there was nothing more enjoyable than just sitting around for hours talking to John about music