John Anderson, my friend and co-worker at Bamboo, passed away from ALS this week. I’ve thought about it a lot — hell, I’ve thought about it a lot since I found out he even had ALS — and while I struggled even talking to him about it, or talking about it with anyone at all, I know he’d want me to write something. I know that, because John always wanted me, and seemingly everyone he worked with, to write something. Something funny, something helpful… just something. He always told us he’d take care of the rest, and I hope he does that here for me now.
As anyone who knew him could tell you, someone in my position obviously can’t write the definitive tribute to John. He did too much, and lived too much, and since he was a half a generation or so ahead of me, it often seemed like he had done a lot of it while I was probably still doing earth science homework, or trying to make my high school basketball team.
All I can do is tell you is what made him special to me, as a random, fairly introverted twenty-something he worked with for a couple of years, and who he made a permanent impression on.
John was the first real editor I’d ever worked with, and he was really f——ing good at it. Like, almost intimidatingly good at it. He was a fantastic writer, even-keeled, patient, motivated, and incredibly supportive of writers and contributors in an almost unbelievably genuine way; he sucked the cynicism out of the room like some kind of Bruce Springsteen-loving human air filter. Writing for John as he and Dooley and Gaitten improbably built a successful online community out of essentially nothing was incredibly rewarding for me, mostly because it made him so damn happy.
He was also very likely the classiest guy I’ve ever worked with; the equivalent of your one friend you grow up with who never says anything bad about your other friends because he’s just a better person than you are. I loved having that friend, and I loved having John as a co-worker for the same reason. I’ve always tried to rise above bickering, sniping, and the other stuff that tears apart teams from the inside, but I don’t always succeed. Having John sitting across the hall, quietly, cheerfully busting his ass to make everyone that much more successful gave me something to shoot for, and still does. To me, he’s the gold standard for teammates.
When I joined him on Bamboo’s Marketing team sometime in ’09 or ’10 (I forget), he quickly became our group’s moral compass. I’m not kidding — we were in marketing, after all, and always under pressure to generate results through potentially dubious means. Eventually, we started just looking at John after every idea; if he frowned, we’d bag it. If he laughed… well, game on.
The toughest price I pay for being a fairly introverted, borderline anti-social person is that I miss out on truly getting to know certain people in my life who would have been well worth the effort. John was one of those people. I knew him, but I didn’t know him, and he wasn’t the kind of guy to force you to do it.
Not once, literally, did John ever “bother” me. He never stopped by to yammer about his pet issue, or bitch about something going on at work, or at home. When I saw him (and I saw him a lot) it was almost always for one of three reasons :
- he really and truly needed help getting something important done, or he wanted to do something nice for someone
- he was excited — legitimately excited, almost like a little kid — about something I just wrote
- he had something to tell me about a band he thought I might like, or knew that I loved
I will, like many people who knew him, probably always associate John with great music. At some point, I wore a Bouncing Souls shirt to work, which was practically a secret handshake to someone like him. Once he found out that I was a Gaslight Anthem fan, it was all over — I was in the punk-rock singer-songwriter secret society, of which John was apparently the president. He burned me a copy of Gaslight’s new record once, months before it was even released. I don’t know how he had it, or where he got it, but I didn’t even have to ask him for it. He just brought it to my desk, and said “you’re really going to like this.” In fact, the strongest reaction I think I ever saw from him was when he found out I was in a band, and I sent him our demo.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before???”, he asked, completely wide-eyed. “This is awesome!!! I can help you!!!”
Turns out, my random new friend from work ran an amazingly detailed, meticulously researched mailing list about the local music & club scene, that tons of cool people actually read. He wrote unspeakably kind things about us in it, which I can only assume he believed, because he was so freaking honest about everything else we talked about.
No lie, I think that of all the concerts I attended from 2009 to 2013, about 75% were recommendations from John, including the incredible Revival Tour, which he practically begged me to experience in person. (He was right.) Great shows were the only thing I ever saw crack his professionalism — the most distracted I ever saw him at work was when we once had a serious meeting with our new-ish CEO scheduled at the same time he knew he’d need to be slamming “refresh” over and over on the Ticketmaster site. We inexplicably managed to arrange having the meeting in the room where John sat, and I’ll never forget him looking across the room at me, smiling and nodding as he got the tickets in the middle of the meeting, like a teenager who snuck a 12-pack past his Dad. Best conference call ever.
Some of the gigs he told me about weren’t even listed. I have no idea how he knew about that Gaslight/Dave Hause show at the U Street Music Club, or how he got us tickets; but there I was, with the happiest wife in the world, singing along as John ran, friends-in-tow, into the borderline pit forming at the front of the stage.
“How old is Anderson?”, asked my wife, clearly impressed.
I scrunched up my face and thought for a second.
“I honestly have no idea.”
Unsurprisingly, John dealt with ALS the way he did everything else in life, at least when I knew him — with humor, class, determination, and incredible perspective and love. I’ve never been so glad to have Facebook than when I would open it and see what book he was plowing through now, what badass lifelong dream he was accomplishing, which indescribably enormous hero he was meeting, or inspiring, today.
But that wasn’t the way John was just because he got sick, or at least that’s not what it ever felt like to me. He had already been traveling the world for Bamboo when I got asked to go to Vietnam (and to leave North America for the first time in my life) in 2011. I was pretty terrified, but I chose to do it in no small part because John told me — as bright-eyed and excited as he was when he learned I had a band, or that the Loved Ones might be getting back together — that “you just have to do it”. It wasn’t so much that he told me to do it. It was that he told me to do it like it really mattered, and when you’re 28 and working with a guy like Anderson, you listen when something matters to him.
John probably had a thousand better friends than me, maybe just in the span of my lifetime. People who really did know him, people who are posting amazing pictures online of him from house parties in the 90s with no shirt on, goofing around and being someone I’ll never really get to know, no matter how awesome it would have been.
But life is made up of a lot of different relationships; some big, some small. We know what John meant to the big relationships in his life. All I can tell you — and I think it’s worth saying — is that he aced the small ones, too.
Thanks for everything, John. I won’t forget it.