Remembering John Grabski III 1978-2012
I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of the John Grabski III in the last couple of days. He finally succumbed to the cancer which had blighted his life since 2007. I never had the chance to meet John because like so many others, I only got to know him last year, when he set about fulfilling a life-long ambition of creating a rock album with his younger brother Benjamin. Having never played together in earnest and with John being subjected to near constant and often debilitating treatment for no fewer than five different forms of cancer, it seemed like a tall-order. However, as many of us discovered in the all too few months that we got to know him, John Grabski was far from an ordinary guy. He was driven by his considerable creative muse and a desire to engage his illness in the only way he saw fit – with determination, vigour and an attitude of unshakeable resilience. Nobody could have blamed John for spending what he almost certainly understood to be his last weeks and months trying to find peace and comfort in a cancer ward but evidently, it simply didn’t suit the man. Instead he jumped in a car and headed for Chicago with his teenage brother, intent on creating an audio legacy for his friends and family.
My friends and I came to know John Grabski when he posted on the message board of a recording studio called Electrical Audio. He spoke with sincerity and passion about the plans he had made for recording the album which eventually became known as The Strain. In the midst of all the horrible complications caused by his illness and spending as much time with his family and friends as possible, he worked on his music with the fervour of a man possessed. He kept everybody on the Electrical Audio forum up to date with his work and was both enthusiastic and humble. John seemed genuinely amazed that people took his music seriously, clearly unaware of his considerable abilities as a songwriter and musician. It’s incredibly sad that he only stumbled upon our little community of music geeks in his final days because it was immediately apparent to everybody that he was exactly the sort of person who we loved to have around – funny, unpretentious, dedicated and warm. When he visited Chicago, he did so as a friend and ally of a community which shared so many aspects of his personal ethos. The fact that he made such a huge impact on all of us in such a short period of time just goes to show how perfect this union was and would have continued to be.
Like I said, I never met John and short of a handful of online chats, I didn’t really know him. However, one thing I do know a little bit about is music. I can say that The Strain is easily one of the finest, most affecting records I have ever had the good fortune of hearing. Considering his situation, it can’t have been anything less than a Herculean effort to conceive and record such unrelentingly rocking music. I don’t think there are many musicians out there who could have created such incredible and distinctive music in the pink of health, let alone carrying such an enormous burden. It’s not just that John and Benjamin achieved their goal of creating an album together – it’s more that they hit it out of the park on the first swing of the bat. As a document of a good man being assailed by a merciless parasite, it’s utterly unique in the sphere of rock music. Upon hearing the music of Teeth, you’re instantly one step closer to understanding the enormous difficulty which John faced every day, for years. It’s an uncomfortable but completely riveting experience, in no small way due to the unflinching honesty of the words. Reading the thoughtful tributes paid by friends and family, words like sincerity appear over and over. This shines through John’s music like a fluorescent beacon.
I’d already started to write about The Strain when I heard the news of John’s passing. For a few hours I felt bereft of purpose, on the one hand moved to say something about the significant impact he’d made on my friends and I but also feeling that having never raised a glass with him in person, it wasn’t really my place to try to draw a line under his life. Eventually I decided that I should finish writing about the incredible record that John and Benjamin made together, simply because the world should hear about what will surely be considered by those in the know as one of the great independent rock records of our time. With characteristic humour, John was fond of repeating a phrase which served as a sort of mantra or maxim in his last months – Rock Vs Cancer: Rock Wins! It was seeing his friends post this online which inspired me to pen these admittedly inadequate words as a tribute. Teeth were a great band and The Strain is an extraordinary album. I want everybody to know that John Grabski made a beautiful record and those of us lucky enough to hear it will treasure it forever. Even under such incredible duress, when you’d expect anyone to buckle under the strain, he stared death in the face and told it to wait outside. He poured his remaining strength and passion into completing his magnum opus as a final missive of hope and defiance.
Sorry cancer, you don’t get to win. You beat a man down to his last breath but you couldn’t break him. John Grabski delivered his message to us all and we heard it loud and clear – Live large and live free. To borrow a phrase from John – Best it all.