2020 Grateful 22: Gutbai, Johnny P

COVID played havoc with my birthday week. I’ve so lost my sense of time that I got a start when KG asked me what I’d planned for the big occasion. I’d forgotten it was happening. I didn’t want to do anything in particular. For me, it was just another day. Then a mate from Chennai messaged me to wish me well and to send photos of the celebration. I told him I wasn’t doing anything. He told me to get out there and do something because he wanted photographs. I needed that prod.

I met some friends for drinks. Had lunch and dinner out, and ended my week with a wine tasting on Badacsony hill where I finally got to taste the local speciality, Kéknyelű. It only grows in this part of Hungary. The name translates to blue stalk because the stem of the vine leaves turn a bluey purple as the grapes ripen.

That morning, before we left, I’d had a message from a mate in California telling me that her hubby, my good mate John-Neale Patton, was in intensive care. He’d woken that morning and said “Good morning, I love you”, without his usual vigour. Something was wrong. Hours later they found out that something was very wrong.

 

On the way to Badacsony, I told my friends about him. About him growing up in Papua New Guinea, the son of missionary parents. That he spent his childhood in a loincloth may well explain his adult love for superhero costumes. Johnny didn’t give a royal fudge for what anyone thought of him and I loved that about him. He was impossible to embarrass. He brushed shoulders with many famous names in Hollywood when he was script doctoring and would talk about those people as if they were Joe Bloggs and Nellie Nextdoor – and to him, they were. He had no pretensions. There was no side to him. What you saw was what you got.

We met when I was bartending in California. He was a regular. I came on shift one Friday night at 9 pm to see on the news that there’d been a shooting in the ‘hood. I commented that I’d just walked past that corner on my way in. He was horrified that I was walking to work via the backstreets. I told him it was grand; the boys in their bandanas who hung out on the corners were very friendly. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d shake his head in despair. From then on, himself and Steve Sorrow took it in turns to pick me up and drop me off each Friday night. He looked out for me.

Steve and Johnny – photo courtesy of Marie Lineen

When my brother came to visit, we’d arranged to meet Johnny after work in a pub on Hermosa beach. It was a fine day so Tom decided to walk the six or so miles from Torrance. Ten minutes into his walk, a cop car pulled alongside him and asked him what he was doing. He said he was visiting his sister and was on his way to Hermosa to meet her and a mate. How was he to know that walking in LA simply isn’t done? Once they were happy that he was one of their own and not up to no good, they said they’d send a car by every now and then to make sure he was okay. And they did When he got to the pub, Johnny asked him how he’d gotten there. ‘I walked,’ he said. Not quite the answer Johnny was expecting and I was raging I’d missed the chance to see him speechless.

Johnny took me to my first LA wedding. Seven bridesmaids all dressed in black. Outside the church, I saw some lads huddled around one of the groomsmen. I asked him what they were up to. He told me that yer man had opened a book on how long the marriage would last. I was gobsmacked. I was so innocent back in those days, coming from a country where getting married meant getting married for life. He said he’d give them a year.

He sang lead vocals in a band called Tokio Rose back in the day. Music and movies, that was his gig. Once he wanted an Irish voice on a track saying just one word. I can’t for the life of me remember what the word was, not that I didn’t say it a hundred times. He took me down to a recording studio and tried repeatedly to count me in but try as he might I was always a beat too late. I drove him demented that day and it was like it was yesterday.

Last year, on a CA/AZ catch-up road trip, we stayed at the Jungle Island Manor in Torrance and got to meet Suzanne, the love of his life. They’d been childhood sweethearts in PNG and had reunited a few years back. We spent a fab weekend with them, ticking off my list of American must-eats (I even did the Malteaser-Milk Dud test), and spending time playing board games, singing, and telling stories. We also got to meet some of the critter clan, a family of racoons who’d moved in and felt well at home. Ordinary wasn’t something that figured highly in Johnny’s life.  It was good to catch up after all those years. The last time we’d spent any time of note together had been with my BFF Lori on a mad drive from LA to San Diego and a wild weekend of partying. That wasn’t today or yesterday. But after 26 years, nothing had changed other than that we’d gotten older. And isn’t that the way it is, with good mates. No matter how much time has passed since ye last got together, it’s like picking up on yesterday’s conversation.

Johnny had recently joined the ranks of British nobility. I’d planned to take him to task on this as I’d figured him more for an Irish chieftain than a British baron. But that’s a conversation I’ll have to wait to have.

 

When we got back from Badacsony, I messaged Suzanne for an update to hear that Johnny had fought a good fight but he was wanted elsewhere.

Somewhere in the universe John-Neale Patton is surfing on a “normal” length hard surfboard (not that 8 ft soft board he used for the last decade or so); fencing with Errol Flynn; writing screenplays, short stories, songs, lyrical poetry, and other forms of storytelling; partying with friends he hasn’t seen in ages; playing some Aussie Rules Football (he will be ruck rover of course); creating films; watching horror movies (and not having to cover my eyes in the creepy parts); feeding and playing with critters; hiding his tears during a romantic comedy; pranking others on every possible occasion; and holding the crowd enthralled as he rocks out on stage. And at the point where others think he’s about to say something incredibly insightful, he will instead grin and say “Blah! Blah! Blah!”. He may not be with us in person moving forward, but his presence has made an indelible impact on each of us. Here’s to you, baby – thanks for sharing the last years of your life [in this world] with me. You have my love always.

My birthday week has always been a bittersweet celebration. My BFF Lori, who died some years ago – her birthday was just a couple of days before mine. This year it’s even more so. But next year, I’m sure that two of the loveliest people I know will be toasting my health in heaven and despairing of whatever it is I’m doing. I so wish Johnny had had the chance to come visit me here in Hungary, to see me in my element as I saw him in his. He had a massive heart and an unbridled capacity to love. RIP, my friend, go wreak havoc up there and show them how it’s done. I’m grateful that our paths crossed and for the reminder that we should live every day as if it is our last, because someday when we least expect it, it could well be. Mi laikim yu tru.

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  1. […] good mate Johnny P died recently and yeah, it’s hit me hard. We shared a love for the late Rod McKuen. One of his poems still […]

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