You Can Leave Your Hat On
The Ballad of Mambo John Treanor
Rarely does a musician have the privilege of attending his own Antone's tribute, which, particularly during the club's anniversary week, is typically reserved for the dead or incarcerated. "Mambo" John Treanor is neither, but he is battling cancer. Chemotherapy has taken a heavy toll on the lean, athletic local drummer.
Treanor no longer takes the mile-a-day swim that has been his ritual since 1976. He also can't play the washboard anymore, since it chafes areas of his chest where doctors have removed tumors. When he isn't driving to and from Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, a nurse visits his house daily to change his morphine patches and monitor an intravenous antibiotic pump. And yet, not only did he attend Antone's "Salute to Mambo" last week, he played it. Twice: first with the Resentments, then again with the Vanguards.
"Spiritually, to play a gig is irreplaceable," says the 48-year-old Treanor. "It's my church. People turn to spiritual things at times like this, I've turned to music. It's where I find my inspiration, surrender, purpose, and love. It's what I have to give and where I can give back to the people I love. It's the most pure thing I know.
"This thing that I do with these players, the musical conversations we have, they all see it. They're looking right into your soul. You surrender to them, and they love you for it. And it keeps you alive. I come home feeling much better than when I left."
Treanor's myriad bandmates down through the years have long described his attitude and playing as infectious. They, too, feel better after being onstage with him.
"When he's playing, he's not sick at all," says the Resentments' Stephen Bruton.
"There's part of me that says, 'How can he be sick? Listen to that,'" offers fellow Resentment Jon Dee Graham. "That he's onstage killing is an easy hook for me to hang my denial on."
Judging from Treanor's playing, reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the drummer's colleagues maintain that cancer hasn't diminished his abilities in the least. His sense of adventure, precision, and attention to detail are perfectly intact, according to them. No doubt that's the reason Antone's "Salute to Mambo" resembled neither traditional tribute nor wake, as much as it did just another gig. At Antone's, if you weren't looking closely, there were no telltale signs of Treanor's illness.
Actually, for many in attendance, the most remarkable part of the evening was probably that Treanor showed up not wearing one of his trademark roadkill hats. Then again, it's safe to say no one came merely to see one of his homemade rabbit, cat, or skunk caps. They came because Mambo John Treanor may be Austin's most universally popular musician casual clubgoers don't know by name. They came to Antone's offering support and seeking inspiration.
That, after all, is how Treanor's colleagues describe his playing -- "inspirational." As dramatic as it sounds, Robert "Beto" Skiles, Treanor's bandmate since 1976, compares the drummer's seemingly endless supply of onstage energy to something supernatural.
"He'll walk in looking too frail to play, but when he sits behind the drums, everything changes," says Skiles. "Whatever ignites him comes from somewhere other than his body. It's a total mystery, but to be in the presence of that kind of energy is what all musicians want. He still delivers the moment.
"And to see that his body is no longer supporting the moment and that the moment seems to be supporting itself, gives you a feeling that you're in the presence of something different altogether. It makes your hair stand on end."
Conversation, not cancer, is the heart of Mambo John Treanor's story. It's what makes him the kind of drummer to whom Antone's pays tribute. It's also what's landed him on four Austin City Limits tapings and in the pages of Mickey Hart's Planet Drum. It's what's designated him an instant collaborator who's never been at a loss for a gig.
"My strength and uniqueness is the conversational style of my playing," explains Treanor. "Somebody plays something, you imitate it, then they answer you. I thrive on being radically into that conversation within the context of keeping the groove and holding the song together. It's easier said than done."
What's easier said than done is applying that conversational approach to genres other than jazz. During the Seventies, Treanor explored traditional and experimental jazz in 47 Times Its Own Weight and Mambo's Combo, before seguing into salsa with Beto y los Fairlanes and rock & roll with the Vanguards. In between, he backed dozens of singer-songwriters, played blues, R&B, and reggae, on both drums and washboard. Treanor says there's not much difference between filling in at a recent Skunks reunion or playing with Abra Moore and Toni Price. Music is music, drums are drums.
"The conversation might be in French with a jazz group, and in German with a singer-songwriter," says Treanor. "Musically, I'm able to speak a bunch of those different languages. The fact that I love all these different genres makes me inclined to understand them better. I've been turned on just as much by making roots rock as by writing and performing jazz."
Stephen Bruton concurs.
"He's a real jazz guy in that he's not a jazz snob," posits Bruton. "For real jazzers, nothing is beneath them or primitive. He's selfless, there to play for the song."
Bruton, along with Jon Dee Graham and Scrappy Jud Newcomb, have conversed with Treanor for four years of Sundays at the Saxon Pub. The Resentments don't rehearse, but they cover plenty of ground -- from singer-songwriter fare to rock, country, and blues.
"If you listen to what he does, it's amazing," exclaims Graham. "If I'm singing about a cold wind blowing, he'll use a shaker at just the right moment or comment with a subtle brushstroke when I make a river reference."
"If you stagger a vocal line, he'll stagger a drum fill," says Newcomb. "It's both educational and extraordinarily fun to play with him."
What most players describe as particularly extraordinary is what Graham has come to call the "The Gimp-Leg Beat." Treanor says it's best associated with Delta blues, zydeco, and other second-line rhythms.
"It's solid, but will jump around in different places," says local bluesman Guy Forsyth of the groove. "It's the pattern and feel you can't get from a drum machine. It's really an internal thing that's hard to intellectualize, but that's why Mambo is Mambo. For him, music really is a spiritual path, not an intellectual pursuit. It's not a learned thing, it's energy and spirit."
In 1953, John Treanor, whose absentee father was nearly 30 years older than his mother, was born John Alter in San Antonio. Neither his mother nor his grandmother was Catholic, but when the family moved to the city's south side in the late Fifties, they had two choices on where to send their second-grader: a public school that lay across a busy intersection or a Catholic school just down the road. They chose the latter, and Father Treanor, a Catholic priest, wound up choosing Ms. Alter.
Stepson of a Preacher Man
"He seemed witty and funny and liked mom a lot," says Treanor. "Pretty soon, he liked her a whole lot."
A Catholic priest marrying a parishioner was scandalous enough to force relocation, so young John spent most of elementary school in Southern California before his stepfather landed back in Central Texas with a teaching position at Seguin's Texas Lutheran College. By that time, the boy had begun playing drums for the school band, applying what he learned watching his mother play organ in church.
"I'd always spent a lot of time watching my mother's choir rehearsals," he says. "Hearing them take that music apart and put it back together harmonically was tremendous ear training, even if I didn't know it."
In high school, Treanor stepped up his interest in music and became the school's star drummer, anchoring both the marching and jazz bands. The school even built Treanor a platform in the stands for football games so he could perform half-time solos.
"I played these big, double-bass solos because that's what all the rock & roll shows had," he says. "It's probably the reason I didn't get tossed out of school. The quarterback was the kid that could get in a lot of trouble but stay in school because they couldn't afford to lose the game. I was the quarterback of the band."
That said, Treanor never ignored his schoolwork thanks to the Vietnam War.
"If you failed out of school, you were dead," he says matter of factly. "The draft was great motivation."
Treanor was also playing with the Delphi Oracle, a psychedelic rock band he founded with a childhood pal he'd later play with in Austin, Spencer Starnes. With a homemade light show, original, jam-oriented material, and a handful of Cream and Spirit covers, the Delphi Oracle played local proms and clubs, while touring regionally on weekends.
Recognizing the improvisational jazz aesthetic behind Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Treanor moved to Austin in 1971 and enrolled in UT's jazz program, where he met other young players like Mike Mordecai, Mitch Watkins, and Beto Skiles. By 1974, Treanor was leading 47 Times Its Own Weight, a free jazz group with a moniker that played off the purported absorption rate of Rolaids. "We're a heavy group" became the group's slogan.
The quintet, featuring a rotating cast including Skiles, played its own compositions and selections by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderly. Their reputation for improvisation forged a strong cult following that led to a number of residencies and dozens of Armadillo gigs opening for everyone from Frank Zappa to Jerry Jeff Walker.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was a regular at the band's gigs and eventually wound up at Treanor's house for a jazz tutorial, where the pair listened to Miles Davis and Joe Henderson records together. Treanor was only a few credits shy of his theory degree when he dropped out of UT to concentrate on music full-time.
"I didn't need paper from UT to jam with Roscoe Beck," observes Treanor.
Maybe not, but Beck says it helped if local bassists trying to keep up with Treanor had a degree.
"He had a precision that nobody else had," says Beck, who played in the era's other leading local jazz group, Passenger. "He had mastered polyrhythmic aspects to his playing that nobody else had. He could turn the beat around on you like nobody's business. You'd be playing along, and all of a sudden he'd be playing 180 degrees on the other side of you. Eight bars later, he'd click out of it like someone had flicked a switch. It was downright exciting."
By the mid-Seventies, Treanor had picked up a nickname as a response to traditional jazz's shift toward what he considered sterile fusion.
"I was tired of the intellectual approach and tired of trying to impress a crowd with how fast we could start and stop," remembers Treanor. "I told friends I wanted to be a natural street player, something like Bongo Joe, a guy I saw in San Antonio in the Fifties that played oil drums. I wanted to sound as organic as him. I told people, 'You can call me Mambo Johnny.' It was a joke until somebody printed it."
Before long, Mambo's Combo, a quintet featuring Mitch Watkins, Kyle Brock, and Rob Lockheart, began playing Treanor's original songs -- music inspired by his favorite band, the jazz fusion group Weather Report. As unique as the band was, more unique, say Watkins and Beck, was that Treanor was writing all the material.
"He was the only drummer I can think of that was writing," says Beck, who helped Treanor land a gig touring with Robben Ford in 1979. "His writing was on par with anybody else's writing at that time."
"It was total musicianship," agrees Watkins, who later recorded Treanor compositions for his own solo albums. "He's written some really beautiful material outside of his drumming. He's always been more than just a timekeeper."
Although Treanor was still playing jazz with Tomas Ramirez's Jazzmanian Devil, by the end of 47 Times and Mambo's Combo, Skiles and Treanor had begun shifting toward more salsa-influenced material. They founded Beto y los Fairlanes, the popular world-music outfit that became the foundation of Liberty Lunch.
Pushing the boundaries of salsa, los Fairlanes influenced a decade's worth of young players. Elias Haslanger reports having seen the group regularly as a toddler, while former Scratch Acid and Ministry drummer Rey Washam says he stopped playing for two months after witnessing Treanor at one particularly fiery gig in 1976.
The Fairlanes are still together today, Treanor's only absence coming in 1979 when he toured with Robben Ford. While Beck and Watkins agree Treanor had the talent to turn the Ford gig into more touring work -- or session opportunities in New York and Los Angeles -- the drummer says he was more than happy to promptly return home.
"Had I been intent on staying in Los Angeles, arguably a more opportune place, I suppose I could have made it work," he admits. "But I didn't want it bad enough to live on a shoestring and try to find other gigs ... Ultimately, I think my connection to the lake and land drew me back. I love being able to go to Barton Springs and bike. My career may have suffered, but I'd have rather been at the lake."
During the Eighties, Treanor divided his time between playing as many as 10 gigs a week, windsurfing professionally, and hanging around Barton Springs. It's not a terribly well-kept secret that Treanor lived so comfortably in large part, because he was "moving weed."
In fact, by the late Eighties, he and roommate Derek O'Brien had begun cultivating large fields of marijuana, leading to their 1989 arrest for growing 796 plants.
"It pays to pay attention to what you're doing," says Treanor. "There were certain mistakes made on the farm that caused us to get busted. We missed their surveillance, because I wasn't concentrating enough. I had too many things going and made some bad administrative decisions out there that caused it to go down. Beyond the 'what ifs,' which are numerous, it was a wake-up call that you always need to concentrate and dedicate yourself fully. You can't make a half-ass job of anything, particularly if what you're doing is illegal."
Federal drug busts rarely present themselves at opportune times, but Treanor says this one's timing was particularly poor. With his interests shifting more toward R&B and rock, he'd been searching for a rock-oriented project that didn't feature jazz players. After seeing the Vanguards at the Black Cat in 1989, he joined the band the next day, convinced it was exactly the project he was looking for. With prison looming, he needed to work quickly; the Vanguards wound up cutting two albums, playing more than 200 gigs, and taping an episode of TNN's Texas Connection in less than two years.
"I was growing more than a little frustrated with a lot of what I was doing and when I finally fell in with players that were as serious I was, I had to leave," laments Treanor. "We could have capitalized on the TV show and probably earned a deal. To lose the music just when I was realizing again how important it was killed me.
"I was terrified and angry. I went from being a happy-go-lucky guy to having to piss in a bottle and answer questions about where I've been all the time. It was good practice for what I'm going through now."
After three months in the Hays County Jail, Treanor was looking forward to actual prison. Sadly, the Federal Prison Camp in El Reno, Oklahoma, did not count a music room among its recreational diversions. From the time he pled guilty in 1990 until his April 1991 transfer to El Reno, Treanor had planned on spending his two-and-a-half-year sentence in the music room, writing and keeping up his chops.
The Snake Man
"I asked about the music room, and they laughed at me," he recalls. "They crushed my survival plan the very day I got there."
As it winds up, the Level 6 prison at the center of El Reno had a music room. Treanor might have become one of the first inmates to break his way into prison had he not been "sold into slavery as a landscaper."
"It think they put me on landscape detail to fuck with me," chuckles Treanor, who revels in the irony of being busted for cultivating a greenhouse, only to end up doing the same for the federal government. "What they didn't count on was that I love athletics and to be outside. I loved the gardening. Half the time I was away from fences and walls. The wind blowing through the trees and the huge sky were amazing. I had plenty of time to think."
Not surprisingly, Treanor says he spent much of his time thinking about music and the opportunities he was missing in Austin. He'd made himself a rubboard and was able to pick his way through a few songs on guitar, but neither made up for the lack of a real drum kit. Instead of playing, he turned to writing.
The aptly titled "There's Nothing Like a Lawnmower to Set the Mind in Motion" served as Treanor's acceptance speech for the Writer's League of Texas Violet Crown Book Awards in 1992. Treanor's work-in-progress collections of essays and correspondence from prison, Power of Love and The Life of Dead Animals, earned a special citation. While both contained thoughtful reflections on both love and politics, many of the most memorable pieces feature Treanor's transition into "Snake Man," an unpredictable, mojo-wieldin' character he created as both an act of showmanship and a defensive measure.
Snake Man's trademark, hats fashioned from roadkill, actually grew out of his life on the outside. About a year before he was incarcerated, Treanor and the Vanguards played a Mardi Gras gig where they wore costumes and surrounded themselves with candles and altars. They wound up liking the shtick enough to carry it into their regular act.
"If I'd see a dead owl, I'd stop and cut off its wings and use it for the altar," explains Treanor. "I thought it made for a scary kind of 'Who Do You Love?' mojo. That time before prison was ugly and horrifying ... terrible despair unlike anything I knew. I found a way to express that by having this ugly shit onstage -- by turning something dead and ugly into something beautiful. That's what the mojo meant to me."
In prison, mojo meant power. Every time his landscaping detail collected garbage along Route 66, Treanor added roadkill to his hat. Teaching himself taxidermy, he enlisted guards to help him secure sulfuric acid for tanning hides, while other inmates helped him steal salt from water-softening bags. Even the warden got into the act; he instructed guards to allow Treanor to break dress code and eventually began showing off Treanor on prison tours.
"It made people smile, inmates and staff alike," says Treanor. "I was surrounded by smiles, and wherever I went, it made people happy. And you're so surrounded by unhappiness in there. There was mojo in it. It made my life better. It gave me the sense that I could go and be a unique individual wherever I landed.
"But jail definitely bent me. I don't want to say I carry the scars, but in effect, that whole period of my life left me running around wearing dead animals on my head. That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gone through it.
"It also did made me see that music was much more important than I thought it was. To have fallen in with the Vanguards, players who took it so seriously and never played half-ass shit just to get paid meant everything. The fact that I was losing the music for two years made me realize just how important it was."
Post-release, Treanor became instantly recognizable around Austin for dual trademarks: those roadkill hats and his washboard. Like the hats, the latter dates back to just before he went to prison. In the fall of 1989, for no other reason than to try something new, Treanor bought a washboard, and characteristically, immersed himself in the business of mastering it.
Taking His Lumps
"It's percussion, but I approach it differently," says Treanor, who uses his thumbs to make a different sound than his fingers. "With both hands, I have four sounds I can make, whereas most players have two. It's like heel-and-toe tap dancing."
It's also much easier to carry to gigs than a full drum kit, so it became the perfect accessory for a drummer hell-bent on seeing all the music he'd missed while incarcerated. If Treanor was eager to head to Antone's or the Continental Club and jam before, he was twice as likely to upon his release. When players talk about what makes Treanor a different breed of musician, they point to the fact that he sidles up to the stage purely for experience, not money.
"Mambo understands that to have somebody different sit in and offer his caliber of interplay is a real creative spark," says Guy Forsyth. "To be open to that all the time is everything."
"What's amazing is that everything he does on the drums, he can do on the washboard," says Newcomb, who shares stages with Treanor in both Toni Price's band and the Resentments. "When he sits in on the washboard, he becomes the drummer. And the drummer is happy to have him there to play off. The groove immediately and invariably gets deeper."
Treanor is also the first drummer other drummers often recommend when they can't make a gig; six years ago, it was Brannen Temple who encouraged Stephen Bruton to call Treanor when touring prevented him from making gigs. Bruton not only used him for his own shows, he also invited him to record with the Resentments.
Later, Bruton booked Treanor for Kris Kristofferson's October 1999 tour.
"I hired him because it would swing without Kris knowing anything was going on," Bruton says. "And they wound up two peas from the same pod. If you could have heard them yapping about existential bullshit, the legal system, and William Blake, you'd have died laughing."
To hear Treanor tell it, the Kristofferson tour is clearly one of his career highlights. It's also when he started to think his health might be terribly amiss. Three years earlier, he'd had a growth removed from his tongue. Doctors declared it non-cancerous, but warned it might be a precursor to cancer. They instructed him to return for a biopsy if it reappeared.
"It was really bad during the Kristofferson tour, but I was waiting to see the doctor," Treanor recounts. "I waited until my dentist got worried enough to send me back to the doctor. It was like mistakes on the farm -- ignore them, you're gonna get busted."
After being diagnosed in December 1999, it took only until the following April for cancer to spread to his lymph glands. After surgery on his neck and radiation therapy, he bought himself a new windsurfer as a gift for "enduring hell." He sailed it twice before the lump reappeared and required another operation. After each recovery period, Treanor continued playing and swimming, but only two days after the stitches from the second surgery were removed, he began detecting lumps on his chest.
In the months since, he's been dealing with chemotherapy, an experimental program where his blood is heated, infection, pain, and recent news that there are nodes in his lungs.
"At some point, you become your own doctor," reveals Treanor, "checking out programs and treatment methods any way you can. It's hard to hold down gigs and be an oncologist in your spare time."
Only in the past few months has Treanor's gig schedule been reduced significantly. Even so, he's still playing with both Doak Short and Toni Price at the Continental Club's Tuesday hippie hour, and also with the Resentments each Sunday. He has no plans to quit.
"I'd be so much worse off without playing," he says. "The worst part of cancer? The worst part is I'm scared to die. Right under that is staying home when I could be playing gigs. There have been times through this that I've had to err on the side of taking it easy. And it's tough to turn down playing. It's contrary to every fiber of my being."
Bruton says he knew what that fiber was made of long before Treanor's diagnosis. It's the pursuit of "the moment," the moment where players converse and hairs stand on end. It's the moment where music and spirit collide.
"When you're onstage and you look back there at him, you see this thing the lifers do, they play like there's no tomorrow ... literally," says Bruton. "Stevie Ray Vaughan did that, whether he was sitting around his house picking a guitar or onstage. I look back at Mambo, even before cancer, and he's going for that moment. That he's doing it every week in the face of this spirit-breaking disease, and that it hasn't broken his spirit one bit says everything.
"Mambo boils everything down to the essence," continues Bruton. "The way he lives and the way he plays are the same thing. He's always reaching for the moment. That's the guy people love and respect. That's the guy people are inspired by.
"That's the story, not the hat."
Beto y los Fairlanes, featuring Mambo John Treanor, help Symphony Square celebrate its 25th anniversary Wednesday, July 25, 6pm, at Symphony Square, 11th and Red River.