Jonathan Neuman lived from February 19, 1980 to June 26, 2002. As a little boy growing up in suburban New Jersey, he would fall asleep listening to Buddy Holly’s songs and dream about becoming a rock star. As a teen, he broadened his musical horizons by listening to the free form, independent radio station WFMU. Though his musical tastes would soon range from classical and early country, to the blues, he was especially in love with the early punk that sprang from New York City in the 1970s. He taught himself how to play the guitar, bass, and drums and spent many a night producing his own music in the makeshift recording studio he set up in his parents’ basement. On weekends, he performed at open mic nights at a café in Montclair, NJ and gravitated to Sidewalk Café in New York City, where the anti-folk music scene was just burgeoning. In rooms with less than a dozen or so people, he watched Daniel Johnston, Jeffrey Lewis, and The Moldy Peaches, befriending the latter band’s leader, Kimya Dawson, in the process.
When Jonathan started college in 1998 he founded the garage rock band, The Physicals. Jonathan wrote all of the music and lyrics, and as “Johnny Physical,” became the face of the band. Between 1998 and 2000, The Physicals played at Tufts University and along the East Coast of the U.S., playing on the same bill as The Recoys, Enon, and Kid Congo Powers. While his pompadour and black-rimmed glasses were a tacit nod to his childhood hero, Buddy Holly, his music reflected his major influences: The Ramones, The Stooges, T-Rex, The Velvet Underground, and The New York Dolls. The Physicals were voted the best band on the Tufts University campus and Jonathan found himself developing a small cult following.
Jonathan’s life forever changed when he was diagnosed with leukemia in October of 2000 and started treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City. In the midst of chemotherapy, he staged an acoustic event, “Johnny Physical: Plugged” for friends, family, and fellow patients. During intermittent stays in the hospital, Jonathan continued to compose and record music—frequently from his hospital bed. He developed a legion of admirers, including Ari Up! of the iconic punk band The Slits, Miss USA Kandace Krueger, and famed documentarian Albert Maysles (who interviewed Jonathan for a series he was working on for PBS).
After a year and a half of treatment, Jonathan developed a lung infection and passed away at New York Hospital. The last song he heard was Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” Like Buddy Holly, he died at the age of 22.
BY LARRY LIVERMORE
Maybe I’d grown too jaded from my years in the music business, but I’d reached a point where my eyes would glaze over the minute people told me about some “amazing” performer that I just had to see.
To be honest, that was my reaction when friends at Tufts University began raving about a fellow student who went by the name of Johnny Physical. I couldn’t leave town, they insisted, without catching this kid in action.
I had a policy of avoiding such situations whenever possible. The problem was that once you’d watched their friend (or cousin or brother or mother) perform, everyone wanted to know, “So, what did you think?”
Say something mildly complimentary and they’d never stop bugging you about when you were going to hook up a big record deal. Confess that it wasn’t quite your cup of tea, and they’d sit there looking at you as if you’d just drowned their cat.
So my plans were to steer clear of this Johnny Physical character, but that proved to be impossible. The dude was everywhere. But meeting him turned out to be a gift, a gift I treasure to this day. From the first time he came bounding into the room—he seldom entered any other way—it was clear that this guy was the real deal.
And the next stop was the recording studio, Madison Square Garden, and international superstardom? Not quite. Johnny’s talent was still too raw and inchoate to be packaged and sold; he needed a couple more years of practicing and gigging before it would become clear what sort of career he could look forward to.
He never got those years. Not too long after I met him, Johnny was diagnosed with leukemia. Instead of devoting that time to taking the world by storm, he would spend it battling for his life.
I never even saw Johnny and his band, the Physicals, do an “official” show; the ones I did see were spontaneous affairs that would burst into being in living rooms, on front porches, anywhere, really, that Johnny happened to be at the moment.
Johnny was not the sort of guy to sit around waiting for a show to happen. For him, life itself was the show, and he was onstage for every minute of it. With or without a guitar in hand—if there was one in sight, you’d be hard pressed to keep it out of his hands—Johnny had a song to sing, a story to tell, and anyone within earshot was going to hear about it.
That was something that wouldn’t change, right up to the end. No matter how sick he got, no matter how uncertain his prospects, Johnny wasn’t about to let the music die. Confined to a hospital ward, he put on shows for the staff and his fellow patients. Through all the harsh and painful treatments he underwent, he seldom stopped joking and laughing and making plans for the future.
In October of 2001, Jonathan, as I’d come to know him by then, was recovering from a bout of chemotherapy in New York. I came to visit him, and we sat outside at a sidewalk café on W. 4th Street in the Village.
Downtown the ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering. Occasionally the wind would shift and we’d catch a whiff of that unforgettable stench of burnt concrete and death that lingered over the city during those awful days.
It was cold, too cold to be sitting outdoors, and I asked Jonathan if he wouldn’t rather get a table inside.
“No, let’s stay outside. It’ll be winter soon. Who knows when we’ll get another chance?”
We sat long past midnight, talking of music, history, philosophy, and everything in between. Out of the blue, during a lull in the conversation, Jonathan said, “I wonder what it’s like to die.” Before I could answer, he added, “I guess I might find out sooner than I was expecting.” It would be the last time I ever saw him.
People who knew Jonathan often wonder what might have become of him if he’d recovered, or never gotten ill in the first place. I’ve been asked more than once if, in my “professional” opinion, he would have achieved the kind of success he so passionately aspired to.
I honestly have no idea. What I do know is that Jonathan would have been a shining star no matter what he did or where life took him. He would have brought that same joy, excitement and all-encompassing enthusiasm to anything he did.
When someone passes away, especially at an unnaturally young age, it’s tempting to mourn for what could have been instead of cherishing what was. To do so would fly in the face of everything Jonathan Neuman—aka Johnny Physical—stood for.
There’s no way of saying how far he might have gone, what sort of triumphs he might have attained, how many people he might have inspired or souls he might have touched.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter. Because to those of us privileged enough to know him during that brief, incandescent life he led, he’s already one of the immortals.
Larry Livermore is the co-founder of Lookout! Records, a former columnist for Maximum Rocknroll, and the author of Spy Rock Memories.