More People Should Really Know About: John Kilzer

Some songs get their hooks into you, and that’s true of John Kilzer’s ‘Sleeping in the Rain‘, an unfolding set of stories about addictions and a glance at the back stories that each substance abuser proffers when asked about their self-destructive behaviour: “a girl come in with tracks on her arms / shaking like a tambourine / I said “Honey why you do yourself like that?” / And she stared dead straight at me / She said “I don’t run junk ‘cos I want to / I just run junk for the pain / and this horse keeps me warm at night – while I’m sleeping in the rain“.” It’s a song about understanding and it comes from a place of knoweldge – Kilzer struggled for years with alcohol addiction. And it’s a song that I’ve been listening to for years, it came on a cover disc, Unherd-50 from Rock’n’Reel (now the snappier RnR). I also have Kilzer’s album ‘Scars‘, which he released after sobering up and becoming a church minister working with those with addiction issues.  It’s a story we like, isn’t it? The troubled troubadour who turns their life around and starts making music of note again: John Kilzer was on Geffen in the late 1980s and released two albums on that label (‘Memory In The Making‘ and ‘Busman’s Holiday‘) and in the 1990s became more of a song supplier – Rosanne Cash, for example, recorded a couple of his songs.

Well, life isn’t like that always. After listening to ‘Sleeping in the Rain‘ once more, the thought crossed my mind that I should really get the album ‘Hide Away‘ that it came from, and also see what had come out since ‘Scars’…and that was how I discovered that John Kilzer had committed suicide by hanging some four years ago, not so long after releasing ‘Scars.

This feature isn’t going to be an obituary though, just a belated marking of the passing of someone who was a better than average songwriter, had a distinctive voice literally and lyrically, and who, at least for a time, was able to communicate around painful topics. You might anticipate with his background that he’d be preachy – but his allusions to religion were often ambiguous, and not obviously the work of a minister.

I have no idea what finally pushed him to end his life – reporting suggests that after two decades he was struggling with his alcohol addiction once more, and his final act was made in a rehab facility.  A simple analysis is likely to throw up all sorts of guesses around an inability to show himself the compassion he showed to others, but I didn’t know the guy, so it’s both impossible and trite to say.  But judged solely on his music it was a damn shame.  As he sang:

So before you go to casting stones
take a good look in your heart
And be thankful that you have a home
And pray for those lost souls in the dark
‘Cos God loves them more than you’ll ever know
‘Cos all they have is him
And his heart is with the losers
He don’t care who wins
And he loves them ‘cos he wants to
And he loves them through the pain
And he keeps them warm at night
While he’s sleeping in the rain.

About Jonathan Aird 2746 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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Alan Peatfield

Excellent shout Jonathan. I fell lucky when I took a chance on “Memory in the Making” shortly after it was released (what??!! over 35 years ago!). Fab album as an intro. One of the many attributes was the standard of musicianship. The playing was strong, vibrant and confident; just listen to “Dream Queen” …. or any of the others for that matter. Thanks for highlighting him.

david chalfen

My fave column on AUK as it’s so good at unearthing new gems that are totally new names to me. Youtube videos indicate that musically he was in great form in his final year.

Erwin

Thanks for this. ‚Hide away‘ is a fantastic album with great guitar work from Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Steve Selvidge, son of legendary Memphis songwriter Sid Selvidge. ‚Hide away‘ has that Memphis feel between Countrysoul, RnB and rock in its all-killer-no-filler songs. And ‚Scars‘ isn‘t bad either…
Greetings from Germany!