The lives and death of Jon Cook

Feb 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

Musician, visual artist and writer Jon Cook, an iconic child of the Highlands, was blessed with a strong heart and titanic talents. But he was besieged by addiction and bipolar disorder — a toxic cocktail of tragic flaws that would make Shakespeare blush. His complexity resonates in the mixed reviews of an elderly couple who bought a portrait of Kramer in an episode of “Seinfeld.”

“I sense great vulnerability. A man-child crying out for love, an innocent orphan in the post-modern world,” said the wife. “I detect a nobility of attitude and unwavering loyalty — much like the St. Bernard … His struggle is man’s struggle. He lifts my spirit.” The husband rebutted, “He is a loathsome, offensive brute — yet I can’t look away.”

We could barely look away as Jon lay in a coma at Norton Audubon Hospital, where I had recovered from bypass surgery exactly seven years before. He was admitted two weeks ago, after EMTs revived him at a notorious Goss Avenue residence. I’d known Jon since 1985, when his sister, Rhonda, married my best friend, Robert Alonso, a psychiatrist, who clarified what Rhonda had told me as they drove overnight from Virginia. Jon had no gag reflex and his pupils wouldn’t dilate. He wasn’t breathing on his own. He was likely brain dead — losing in overtime. A life worth living was a longshot.

A steady stream of visitors shed a steady stream of tears. The afternoon of May 9, WFPK played “Monkey Wrench” and “Car Crash Decisions,” songs from Crain, Jon’s popular math rock band. Radio host John Timmons, owner of the defunct ear X-tacy, and bloggers as far away as Tokyo were memorializing his music. A few hours later, an EEG and CT scan confirmed the morbid prognosis. The family decided what life was left would end that evening — with time for Jon’s friends to bid him a final farewell.

At his mother Peggy’s behest, I invited them to assess their needs and stay or say goodbye. Only one remained. Seeing someone die was a part of growing up several others opted to defer.

At 7:45, Jon’s ventilator was detached. He stopped breathing, but his strong heart continued to beat for about six minutes — longer than expected. At 40, he made a peaceful transition. “I’m just glad we got to see him warm instead of on a cold slab,” Peggy said. Rhonda is overwhelmed by the enormity of Jon’s legacy, which is championed online. In an eloquent eulogy, Henry “Hank” Baker wrote, “Crain’s music was huge; sometimes angry, sometimes delicate, not unlike the people who made it.” According to Clifford Allen of Tiny Mix Tapes, “Cook was instrumental in booking out-of-town bands and had already exerted an influence on the city’s punk scene by the time he finished high school.”

He graduated from the J. Graham Brown School in 1990 and attended Antioch College for two semesters. June 1991 brought a life-changing tragedy: His father, Neal, died in a house fire. In September, with an ample inheritance, he bought a home at 1221 S. Fourth St. and named it “The Rocket House” for its Victorian, cockpit-like turret. It was a mecca for musicians nationwide but its unsustainable decadence is documented in the 1994 film “Half-Cocked.” One of Jon’s co-stars, former LEO columnist Jason Noble, died of cancer last August at age 40.

Jon’s life spanned membership in bands including Rodan, Cerebellum and Experimental Pollen. He cross-pollenated with other musicians to form a unique Louisville groove.

But his manic lapses, which became more intense and expansive over time, damaged relationships. Having been born on Christmas Day and having the initials J.C. fueled delusions of grandeur. Those who best understood him forgave his trespasses. Jenna Koff, a graduate of the Savannah School of Art and Design, remembers a mensch who defined unconditional love. “I believe Jon’s soul burned so strongly and brightly that it had to make a premature exit,” she wrote in an email. “He turned the most mundane task into a great adventure … He deeply loved his friends and family, and most especially, his son, Thurston.”

Jon died of pancreatic failure. He was hospitalized with pancreatitis last March but “did not heed serious warnings to abstain from drinking,” according to a Facebook post by family friend Tim Furnish of the band Parlour.

A memorial for Jon and a benefit for his 7-year-old son will be held at Tim Faulkner Gallery, 943 Franklin St., at 5 p.m. on March 9.