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Remembering Ronnie Montrose

An Unexpected Friendship

by Jason Warburg

Like a math problem I could never quite solve, my teenage years were filled with more variables than constants. Through the changes—and occasional outright chaos—one of the constants was my passion for music. And one of the constants I measured that passion by was Ronnie Montrose.

Five years after it came out, that first eponymous album (Montrose, Warner Brothers, 1973) was a staple of my high school years, one of those rare albums that every single member of our group of compadres—Geoff, Tor, Neil, Jason C., Mike, Khal, Andy (RIP)—would always say yes to giving another spin. Songs like “Rock The Nation” and “Bad Motor Scooter” and “Rock Candy” and “Make It Last” were the soundtrack to our 16- and 17-year-old lives. When Ronnie’s first solo album Open Fire came out in 1978, we embraced it completely, different as it was from anything he’d done before. The same held true when he formed the futuristic Gamma in 1979; he was an adventurer after our own hearts. 

Three of the highlights from my teenage concert-going days featured Ronnie. First was original Montrose vocalist Sammy Hagar’s New Year’s Eve show at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1978, at which Ronnie joined the rest of the original Montrose lineup on stage for the third encore, closing out the night with a thundering run at “Rock Candy.” And then there was the literal last waltz of my high school days, a pair of Gamma shows in San Francisco in September 1980, at the Old Waldorf and then again the next day on Justin Herman Plaza. I was right up front for both, with Tor at one and Mike at the other. Two weeks later I was off to college.

All this stuff about the music, though, is really just the preamble. (If it’s music reviews you want, read up: it’s all there.) Today, the day I learned of Ronnie Montrose’s passing, I want to talk about the man I came to know not as a legendary guitarist who practically invented American hard rock, but as my friend Ronnie.

After high school, as the years passed, I would occasionally revisit Montrose, Open Fire, and the rest, but my life revolved more around family and work and less around music during those years (and after all, it was the 80s… talk about a musical desert). I still loved the classics, but Montrose seemed like part of my past, not my future.

Then in 1998, a few months after I started writing reviews for the Daily Vault, I wrote my first Ronnie review, of Open Fire. I waxed pretty rhapsodic about it (opening line: “The worst thing I can say about guitarist Ronnie Montrose's moody, inventive 1978 solo debut is that it's too damn short”), and when I was done, I did an Internet search that turned up an e-mail address for the man himself. On a whim, I e-mailed him a link to the review, with a brief cover note. I figured there was about a one percent chance I’d ever hear back. I mean, it was RONNIE MONTROSE, rock guitar god, idol of my youth. No way he’s going to write back to some random punk like me (even if I was 35 by then).

Within two or three days he e-mailed me back, friendly and appreciative. It was the beginning of a conversation that continued for 14 years.

The e-mail correspondence continued, and I did this interview with the man a couple of months later. That’s when we really got to know each other. I understood quickly why Ronnie’s musical situation never seemed stable. He was an explorer at heart, a restless soul who was constantly driven to follow his muse wherever it might take him. He was also unbending, never one to compromise and always confident in his decisions. Anyone who couldn’t follow his lead—and then follow it again, when he inevitably changed course—wasn’t going to last long. It wasn’t personal; it was just how he was built.

One of my favorite anecdotes from that interview was Ronnie talking about how he related to fans, how sometimes when he would meet them, they’d be drunk or flustered and just kind of say “You rock, dude!” and then back away. And he was cool with that, but he also liked it when the conversations went deeper. He liked connecting with people, and the guitar was his bridge to get the conversation started.

I got to witness this phenomenon firsthand soon afterwards when Ronnie, who was set to play a show at the Boardwalk in Sacramento, invited me to come to sound check. I brought along a friend who played guitar himself (I can’t play a lick), and we watched the man get everything just right for a good half hour before he ambled off stage and down the steps to greet us. We spent ten minutes or so chatting. After he departed I looked over at my friend, a guy I would describe as not easily impressed. He just stared at me like he couldn’t believe what had just happened, until three words finally tumbled out: “Ronnie Montrose. Fuck.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The following summer I somehow convinced my ever-tolerant wife Karen that we should time our southwest vacation with the kids around a show Ronnie was playing at the Texas Station casino in Las Vegas. We caught the end of sound check and hung out with Ronnie afterwards taking pictures. While we hung out, Ronnie invited us to watch the night’s show from backstage. My older son Josh and I sat on a low riser directly behind the front-of-stage speakers, ten feet from Ronnie while he played his heart out, smiling and waving at us—an incredible thrill.

A couple of years later, Ronnie decided to hire a vocalist and start playing the old Montrose tunes again for the first time in years. I wrote this equally rhapsodic review of a show I went to in Petaluma on that first time back out playing the Montrose classics. It remains one of my favorite shows I’ve ever been to, for two reasons that have nothing to do with the music he played. That was the night I reconnected with a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years (hey, Tor), and after the show, when I went up to say hi, Ronnie immediately broke through the crowd clustered around him and wrapped me in a bear hug.

In 2004 or so, Ronnie invited me to come to his house for a Super Bowl party.  “Bring the kids!” he said in his usual declarative way, halfway between invitation and command. My daughter Sarah and younger son Eric spent halftime in his home studio, noodling around on his guitars while we chatted. They loved it and both took guitar lessons for a couple of years afterwards. The guy they took lessons from had previously taken lessons himself from Jerry Jennings, whose most recent album Shortcut To The Center was produced by Ronnie. All that joy and passion for the guitar, all connected back to Ronnie.

In the ensuing years we’d e-mail and chat on the phone a couple of times a year without fail. Sometimes the talk would grow deeply personal. Like a lot of passionate artists, there were things in Ronnie’s past that troubled him and drove him. He was a private person in a lot of ways, sometimes seeming almost unknowable, but then he’d come right out and share these incredibly revealing, sometimes painful moments from his life—which inspired me to do the same. Whatever you got from Ronnie—whatever he chose to share of himself with you—it was real. It was genuine. You could always count on that.

A few years ago Ronnie dropped out of sight for a long stretch, stopped playing out, stopped answering e-mails. Through this period I sent him a brief note every few months, asking how he was doing, sharing a little about what I was up to, keeping the lines open for whenever he was ready to talk. Finally, as he was wont to do, he called me up out of the blue. Explained that he’d been sick and out of touch, but he was doing better now. We ended up talking for almost an hour. Ronnie was the fourth person I’ve been close to who’s battled prostate cancer, so we had a lot to talk about—life, death, love, family, art. We covered it all, and then some.

We had to. I only saw him once more, catching a show live when he played Santa Cruz last year. I was up in front again and when our eyes met he gave his usual smile and nod and kept right on ripping it up. When the show ended it was late and I skipped the after-show, much to my regret. But that’s okay. We’d already said all we needed to say to one another.

When you read the obits and tributes this week, most likely you’ll read some of my words. I wrote Ronnie’s last three or four professional bios for him, gratis, including the one up on his site right now. It was an honor.

Rest in peace, my friend. It still blows my mind sometimes that I got to call you that. But I did, and I’ll never forget you, the talks we had, the brotherhood that you made it easy to feel. You rock, dude.

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