It is with a heavy heart that I announce that Joe “Jem” Despagni had passed away on Tuesday May 29, 2018 in his sleep.
Joe was not only an excellent luthier, he was a brilliantly creative, funny, considerate, and generous person. He was also perhaps my very best friend in this life. When we go through a loss like this, there’s an opportunity for the divine to shine through and I’ve been thinking about him constantly lately and as my mind and heart are filled with so many precious memories of our friendship, I feel great love and appreciation for him and the life we had together, and the amazing person he was. And of course, there’s the great pangs of loss. He will be profoundly missed by those who loved him.
Some of you may know about my relationship with Joe and a bit about him, but here’s a little more.
I remember Joe Despagni being in my life as long as I can remember remembering. We lived a block away from each other and it seems like we were always in each other life.
I’m still processing the loss and as I do I’m flooded with memories of our life together and I would like to share a few.
All the kids that grew up on my street were relatively well behaved, never got into trouble, never really did things we were not supposed to do, played sports, Monopoly, Risk, listened to music, etc. We were basically very simple. But two streets over was a completely different group of kids. They were good spirited but considered “greasers”, heavy metal rock and rollers, bikers, trouble makers, drinkers, smokers and drug takers. I split my time between the two groups and fit in well but was still a bit of a misfit in both groups. Joe was absolutely part of the greaser group and though he and I spent the most time together on our own, we would also hang out with our rocker friends and do things with them that greasy golden memories were made of.
Joe had a brother Rob and a sister Carmela. They were younger, and I really liked them. We were like family in a way. Joe’s Mom and Dad were good people. They were pure Long Island Italian as my family was and his Mom was such the sweetie. She would cook for us occasionally. His Dad was funny and warm and good to us kids. Coming from an Italian family I understand how the household dynamics work. From an outsider’s point of view, it could look as though there was a lot of bickering going on inside the home, but in reality, that’s just the way we communicated. The love in these Italian families runs deep and strong.
Joe owned the first guitar I ever played, a Hagstrom III and we would gather in his basement and take turns trying to figure it out.
Joe and I spent most of our time together from the age of 12 to the time I left for Berklee college when I was 18.
There’s no way to quantify the impact we had on each other’s lives.
It’s a blessing to have a friend that you completely and utterly feel comfortable with, that you can share anything with because they understand you and don’t criticize you for anything. I’m fortunate in that I have had many friends like this in my youth and my life, but in those most formative teenage years, Joe was the closest.
Through those years we grew together and made all those discoveries you make as an adolescent such as, music, girls, cars, bikes, drugs, life, independence, etc. Joe and I would have deep talks about everything. There was nothing we couldn’t say to each other. I have recordings of some of it. He was always kind, considerate and generous with even the simple things he had, and we were laughing most of the time. It felt like we both had a totally bizarre sense of humor that only the two of us understood.
When I started to practice the guitar hours and hours in my bedroom, (age 13) Joe was there. Sometimes he would hang out while I practiced. Many hours were spent in the dark of the room playing chords for each other and telling the stories that those chords told us. Whenever I discovered a new riff on the guitar I was so excited to show it to Joe. We were both fascinated with what I could come up with after all the hours I was practicing, even if it was a rip off of a Hendrix lick.
The first time I ever heard anybody use the word “shred” associated with a guitar was from Joe after we had discovered the first riff I could play that sounded fast and “shreddy”. We used the term constantly after that. Perhaps it’s possible that he was the first to coin that phrase?
We discovered new music together, went to concerts and once we were old enough to get away with fake id (14 perhaps, the drinking age was 18 at the time) we started going to funky rock and roll dump bars on Long Island with our group of greaser friends. We would try not to miss going to shows by some of the Long Island elite bands when they played such as Twisted Sister, Zebra, Rat Race Choir, The Good Rats, etc.
Our group of rocker friends liked partying, getting into trouble, hooking up with girls, smoking weed, (mostly cut with oregano) starting fights, riding motorbikes and just finding mischief whenever they could. This was in great contrast to the social activities of the “cleaner” group of kids that lived on my street… BIG contrast.
Another turning point was when I joined the band “Rayge” at the age of perhaps 14 with some of the other rockers in our roving youth gang of a town. The band played, Zeppelin, Kiss, Bowie, Queen, Aerosmith and all that great rock music from the 70’s. We played all sorts of odd gigs like back yard parties, bars on Long Island, High school dances, parks, or anyplace that would have us. We had a built in rowdy audience in our large group of wild friends who all took part in virtually every show we ever played. Things usually seemed to really get heated up whenever we would play “Born to be Wild”. It was like a call to arms of destruction and teenage insanity whenever we played it. We would make it like 30 minutes long and it acted as a hysteria potion.
It was so great to be a teenager on Long Island in the 70’s and playing in a rock band. Joe was there with me through it all, virtually every show, every rehearsal and all our spare time. Besides fixing my guitars when they broke, he was the band’s electronic and light show mastermind. He was in charge of the light show and he and I would sneak around the neighborhood at night and “borrow” flood lights from people’s properties which he used to build a make-shift lighting truss. We would go to JC Pennies and purchase these little rocket engines for these toy rockets they sold. They actually had flash powder in them and we would sit for days and peel the outer wrapping and gather all the flash powder for these flash pots he rigged that we would use at the shows when I would do my Jimmy Page impersonation with a violin bow. I would strike the guitar with the bow and when the echo came out, Joe would hit the flash pot. One time while doing a gig in our high school gymnasium, the flash pots malfunctioned and they all went off at once and singed my eyelashes off. This was miraculous fun.
After the gig the entire gymnasium was thick with smoke and as it dissipated it left in its wake a pile of beer bottles, articles of clothing soaked in vomit, all sorts of odd debris, and a handful of passed out high school students.
When I wrote my first orchestra score, “Sweet Wind from Orange County” when I was perhaps 15 or 16 years old, Joe was there to encourage me. He even did the art work for the cover of the score.
We loved to eat… a lot. At times I weighed close to 200 pounds in high school.
Joe and I would always save a few quarters after we bought beer on the weekends to purchase a few sticks of butter. We would stash the butter in the bushes before we went out for the night because in the middle of our town was a bakery that baked their fresh bread all night. When we would show up there after the nights festivities at around 3-4am, the bakery folks would give us a few loaves of freshly baked warm Italian bread. We would retrieve the butter stash and pig out! It was amazing.
One night we got home to my house at around 4am and were pretty out of it. We were also quite hungry. I made one of my “famous” tuna melts. You mix the tuna with a ton of mayo and onions and then spread it out on a piece of bread, cover it with Velveeta cheese and melt it in the toaster oven. Pure delight, but in the morning, I asked my Mom if there was anything for lunch. She said there was a can of tuna in the cabinet. I told her Joe and I ate that last night. She said, “well, I saw it there yesterday, it’s next to the can of cat food”. That’s when I looked in the cabinet and to my surprise, the only can of anything in there was of tuna fish. Those were the best cat food cheese melts we ever had.
There were many times when I learned things from Joe that had a tremendous effect on my perspective. I remember once when his girlfriend got a car I said to him, “This is great, now you can ask her if we can borrow her car to go out to the Hamptons this weekend” and he said, “Nah, that’s her car. I’m not going to be that guy”. This seemed simple enough, but it had a huge impact on me.
I remember I purchased my first car from the singer in our group for $50. It was a Chevy Impala and had a totally blown engine and wouldn’t even start. Joe and I would just sit in it for hours at a time talking and imagining we had a real car.
Eventually I received a hand-me-down Buick LeSabre from my parents that was on its last wheels. That car became our sanctuary. We went everywhere in it. It had no heating or AC but that didn’t matter.
I believe the first place we drove to in that car was to get our first tattoos together. We started drawing these tattoos years before we got them. We would sit at the table in my kitchen and just draw. He was so much better at it than me. But we had finally decided what we wanted, and we went and got our first tattoos together.
We were really into Harleys. All the older cool guys had one. My brother Roger had an amazing chopper. Joe and I would just fantasize about owning one. Then as fate would have it, Joe was hit by a car while crossing Glen Cove Road on his bicycle. He was OK… sort of, but there was an insurance settlement that he was eligible for on his 17th birthday. When that day came Joe received the money and immediately purchased my brothers 1200cc Harley chopper.
It was like we hit the jackpot. We rode EVERYWHERE around Long Island on that bike. How we survived based on the things we did is still a phenomenon to me. Joe would stand on the seat with his arms out in an iron cross and ride through town. He was the only guy we knew that would ride his Harley barefoot. One time he came riding through town with his legs stretched out over the handlebars like he was relaxing and watching tv. In his mouth hung a cigarette, in one hand a beer, and in the other a handful of bottle rockets. He would drink the beer and light the bottle rocket with his cigarette and then discharge them at his unsuspecting victims while whizzing by them on his Harley.
Although a big part of me was very rock and roll and “greaseresque”, in my heart of hearts I wanted to be a composer and a guitar player, and I wanted to further my studies by attending Berklee college of Music. This did not sit well with the band as we all had fantasies of going on to becoming a famous rock band. I just never felt that was a realistic thing because the whole idea of being that successful seemed so impossible to me. But I believe the band knew that I had different aspirations, so I was off with their blessing… I think.
I was going to miss that little town, the band and our wild group friends, but I knew I was really going to miss Joe. But I also knew it was time for me to transition.
Around the time I left for Berklee Joe started to get serious with his guitar building talents and started building guitars instead of just fixing them. We always stayed in contact and saw each other whenever we could.
When I joined David Lee Roth’s band, Joe made me a bunch of guitars, the lightning bolt guitar, swiss cheese guitar, the flame guitar, and a handful of others. His approach to making guitars was similar to his approach to other things which was insightful, bombastic, seemingly haphazard but with a creative panache that captured his personality and intentions. The guitars he made for me were best suited as stage guitars. They were bold and exotic looking in a way only he could muster.
He hand-made me the one and only original “Flame” guitar that I used quite a bit with Roth and Whitesnake. I used the guitars he made me periodically through those years. Several were stolen from a storage locker in Pasadena while I was rehearsing with Roth.
Joe called his guitars “Jems” and one of the reasons I named my signature Ibanez guitar the “Jem” was in hopes to bring some attention to him and his work. The early guitars he made me bore no real resemblance to the Jem I designed for Ibanez, but Joe was the first one I asked to put a monkey grip in one of my guitars.
He made such odd and inventive instruments. I still have some. He even made me a beautiful instrument a few years ago. Making these wild instruments was Joe’s passion and he did it with much joy and brilliance. His specialty was animated type flames. He just had a way of understanding certain things such as electronics, handy crafts, etc. He was just great at it all.
Joe was always surprising us with his inventive work but perhaps the most outstanding thing about Joe Despagni was the size of his heart. He was just a really good, fun and easy guy. He had a particular integrity that helped to fill in so many of my blanks. He was tremendously supportive of me through my entire life.
As I sit and write this I’m completely in awe at all the absolutely amazing life experiences we had, the things we did, the places we went, the secrets we shared. Only a very small amount of these adventures is written about here. We knew each other better than anyone. And though my heart is heavy I can’t be more grateful to the Universe for Joe and I having each other in this life. I’m blessed with many best friends in life, from different situations, towns, times, etc. but as mentioned, there’s something about that one person that you have through those teenage years that’s just a little different. Someone that was a blessing in your life.
If not for my relationship with Joe Despagni, Steve Vai the guitar player and the Ibanez Jem would most certainly not be as they are known today. Joe really was a game changer for me and I loved him so much, and still do. I love thinking about him and our crazy youthful days and when I do that, in a way, he’s even closer to me than when he was among us in the flesh.
Here’s to you my dear friend. Thank you for who you were and all we had.
June 1, 2018
Added: 23 July 2018
When I was growing up with Joe Despagni, there was a small group of us (maybe 3-4 at times) that were ultra close. One of those folks, a very very dear friend, had written this insightful reminiscent of Joe and she and I agreed to post it here for those who were interested in getting a little deeper view of what our good buddy Joe was about. Enjoy!
Remembering JOE DESPAGNI
The first time my mother met Joe he had come by when I wasn’t home. When I got home my mother said, “This black thing with chains came to the door asking for you?!!!” I knew it was Joe.
Joe was a great driver. Joe always stopped whatever he was doing (drinking) to drive me home so my father wouldn’t kill me. He’d be drunk but his driving was always impeccable.
We drove around a lot. SO MUCH FUN JUST DRIVING AROUND.
Joe would drop me off around the corner from my house when we were on his bike. My father hated motorcycles. It was funny! I’d walk in and my father would sometimes ask “Were you on a motorcycle? I heard a motorcycle!!” I’d tell him it was a Volkswagen. Pop never figured out how the different engines sounded, but I can still tell em apart to date!
Us in the Impala doing doughnuts in parking lots after it snowed. Joe taught me how to turn into a spin out on snow in a parking lot. Inviting kids to bumper hitch while driving down the main drag of Carle Place – sent one kid head first into a snow bank. HA
Drinking outside during the winter when we were underage, Joe would only wear one glove – on his beer-holding hand.
The layers of tee shirt, cut-off denim jacket, then black leather jacket. Joe had the quintessential biker look. BLACK BOOTS.
Joe actually tried to teach me how to drink beer in the bus parking lot at Rushmore. He was inspiring. I had trouble with the bubbles but wanted to drink with him very much.
Joe doing a beer shooter at the Beverage Barn then kind of barfing with beer foam coming out his nose. HA
Singing with Joe – lots of Zappa.
Going to Joe’s house where his sweet mom would always make us the best coffee (instant, I think, with cream) and feed us great her great cooking.
Joe so drunk and falling down that some guys wedged him between two telephone poles outside the Carvel ice cream store where I worked.
Joe and I riding on the 74 police special he bought from Roger, in the middle of winter. Me wearing my mother’s old beaver coat and old, round sunglasses. Joe in biker layers of denim and leather. Wish I had a picture of that…
Meeting up at Steve’s. Singing notes under Steve’s direction to help him with what he was composing. Going out, sans Steve, to party till like 4 am, then back to Steve’s where he’d still be playing guitar.
Ran out of gas far from home; kinda lost, like 2 am, in a creepy place, I think in front of a cemetery. Joe and Cheech went off to get gas and came back for Steve and I in a cop car. The cop was not happy to have us but agreed to drive us over to a gas station. I was scared shitless, sitting in the front seat. Joe’s in the back seat and in a very innocent voice he says something like ” Wow, I’ve never been in the back seat of a cop car before!” SO HILARIOUS. I remember the excruciation of sitting next to the cop trying not to laugh and get more trouble!
Left my denim jacket in Joe’s car one night. He returned it to me with a drawing he had made all over the back. I was kinda pissed. I still have that jacket:
Driving around, setting up, standing around at Rayge concerts with Joe. ROCK PUB (PIT). Battle of the Bands! Some weird bar at Roosevelt Field – BEEF(Y) BARN! I drank too much and ended up puking in the parking lot outside the Beefy Barn while Joe held my hair.
Sitting on amps outside bars after shows, guarding the band’s gear, waiting for Joe to show up with the van.
One time Joe completely took apart Wally Williams’ Volkswagen “Thing” in the parking lot of CPHS while the rest of us were in class. Joe was so smart but did not like going to school.
Joe riding by the front of CPHS, standing on top of his bike doing the iron cross.
Joe was kind of everywhere in Carle Place. I could always see him. HE STUCK OUT in a glorious way. Plus, since he didn’t like to go to high school much, he always seemed to be nearby waiting for us to get out.
Joe driving up in his car. Driving up on his bike, giving it a little pop of gas to make the engine growl before switching it off. So stylish and well performed – BIKER STYLE.
Joe always seemed to be around. Easy to find. Easy to see:
– Joe driving up smiling
– Joe in front of O’Hara’s smoking and holding a beer
– Joe patrolling inside and outside of bars and parties.
I SAW HIM EVERYWHERE. I could find Joe 24/7. It was cool and fortunate. I think too, he was always looking for me…
Drinking Long Island Ice Teas (first and last time) with Joe at the restaurant Marion worked at, then going to another bar somewhere on the South shore for more. So drunk. Came back to my house (parents weren’t around?), had bad sloppy sex and in the process broke my bed!
Joe talking about making guitars with such love. I remember the sparkle in his eyes, the joy in his voice, as he explained in detail how he’d set up a tank and was doing an old Florentine technique to make the marbleized paint look on guitars.
So proud when Joe sent me his JEM Guitars catalogue. So proud of his talent. Hope I still have that catalogue. Can’t find it. Shit.
Joe was so proud and in endless love with his daughter, Melissa. I think his relationship with Melissa’s mom was not working out, but he never said anything bad about her. JUST focused on how he loved Melissa.
So proud was Joe of Steve. He would just glow talking about Steve.
Joe did good Zippo tricks. He gave me a Zippo. I still have it.
Joe chain smoked beautifully. Like a poet gangster.
Going to Jack-in-the-Box at four in the morning, all of us with our jackets on inside out and backwards to disturb the cashier, getting and eating a million “dogmeat” tacos.
Getting great hot semolina bread from the bakery next to O’Hara’s at four in the morning, stuffing loaves with sticks of butter, eating mass quantities. So fun and tasty to put on top of beer.
Joe reporting on going to jail: “It was cool – I knew so many people there!”
Joe smiling, admitting he’d lost most of his teeth to speed and fist fights.
Joe standing around so serious, so proud, watching Steve play in Rayge.
Rayge playing a CPHS dance. Drank quarts of Colt 45 in the bushes outside. Came in to Rayge playing BAD COMPANY. Me so thrilled to see my friends being a badass rock and roll BAND! Joe patrolling the scene, so proud! The fireworks went wrong and nearly blew us all up.
Joe talking about Melissa with so much love.
Joe biting a shot glass on a bet at the ROCK PUB.
Fights. Drunken fights. Me standing on top of the cigarette machine at the Rock Pub watching all below me in a big fist fight! Joe in the middle of it all.
So many fuzzy high nights following Rayge around. Joe serious about sound and lights. DRINKING SMOKING I remember the honor of being the DRINK supplier from the BAR to the BAND at the BEEFY BARN. Such power! Standing next to Joe while he adjusted the soundboard. WE RULED the bar! The world was so funny.
Battle of the Bands. Who was Rayge battling? WE ALWAYS WON as far as we were concerned.
Joe & Co. doing drunken kick line dancing to Born to be Wild. We were ROCKERS. Very anti-Disco – NO dancing – except when Born to be Wild came on. Then everybody would cut loose and go insane. THAT song was our Pledge of Allegiance.
Sitting in diners after the bars closed, eating breakfast before going home.
Joe took a lot of shit for being fat. Joe was always so kind, supportive loving towards everybody. And he never fought back when they put him down. Made me sad.
JOE HAD BEAUTIFUL EYES & BEAUTIFUL HAIR and such style – I always loved the way he looked.
His eyes sparkled and laughed a lot. His hair was mostly kept in a long black, then grey, then white braid. I occasionally braided his hair. It was beautiful.
We all developed a collective sense of humor laced with inside jokes, phrases, code that we cultivated, curated and enjoyed a lot. My sense of humor was honed talking with Joe and Steve and Cheech. ALL such smart, curious, inventive, imaginative guys. They’d almost compete to be funny. WHAT a pleasure. What great good fortune to hang out with my best friends.
I always wished I was a guy. All the females would hang out together, go together to parties and bars, where they would hook up with the guy groups. I would show up all the time with Joe/Steve/Cheech. They never seemed to notice or care that I was a weirdo girl who didn’t have much rapport with the other females. They didn’t hold my gender against me. Made me feel special to not just be T&A to those guys.
Joe and Steve and Cheech excitedly discussing some kind of guitar trick or figuring out how to play other people’s guitar licks.
We were misfits but we got away with it. I think greater CP let us be for a few reasons:
– JOE was hilarious FUN
– STEVE was a great rock guitarist
– CHEECH was stealthy and a clever troubleshooter.
Mostly though: ROGER VAI would kill anyone who touched us and ALL KNEW IT.
Steve driving an ice cream truck, Joe in the jump seat shouting “Wheelie Time!” as we bounced around the backyard of some rich chick’s house on the North shore at a CRAZY PARTY.
We were all such happy derelicts.
My father told me one day there was a kind of impromptu parade going down the street (maybe 4th of July…). Joe was in a convertible surrounded by gnarly bikers, drinking and smoking and the usual rowdy shit. Joe apparently saw my father, stopped everything and greeted him very politely in the middle of all the mayhem. Thrilled and impressed the hell out of my dad.
Many warm, comfortable time sitting in Steve’s den or bedroom. Steve with a guitar, Joe, me, Cheech and occasionally others. Talking serious, joking serious. Steve playing, us somehow very much participating with Steve’s playing.
Joe’s phrasing and intonations were beautiful and fun to listen to. He had a way of coloring in what he was saying by how he said it.
Lines he said come back to suddenly, out of nowhere – things he said decades ago! Too many, too deep in there to remember off the top, but I hereby commit writing them down when they show up going forward.
Joe respected the people he felt were above him with sincerity. He seemed always proud to be us and he was kind to those who fell below us in the crazy hierarchy of our teenage years. HE LOOKED SO MEAN BIKER but he was SO KIND and EMPATHIC towards all. I so admired his generosity of spirit.
One time I had a dream at around 16 years old. I was driving along the water when I was the silhouette of Joe on his bike at the end of a dock. I stopped, got out of the car and walked down the dock. There was Joe. He was really old, long white braid, kinda skeleton head. I was TERRIFIED. I asked him, “Joe what the fuck happened to you?!!” He replied, “It’s like this Vic, you get old, you get ugly, then you die”. With that, he revved the motor then drove straight off the dock.
I woke up with a START! I never forgot. HE WAS RIGHT and eventually, when his braid was white, it would remind me of that dream…
I always felt safe with Joe, no matter what kind of crazy shit we got into. HE WAS SO LOYAL. I felt sure he would protect me. DIE for me. I learned loyalty from Joe and Steve’s relationship. I’m not sure if I have ever know more loyalty, allegiance, alliance than we had between us in those days…
Joe went to visit his parents in FLA and ended up staying there and taking care of them until they died. He did it with empathy and good humor. He easily adapted to FLA, found old friends and new ones to party with – I was amazed.
He described pretty horrible care giving situations without fear, rancor or complaint. WE WOULD END UP LAUGHING no matter what was going on.
When his parents died, Joe just stayed there. FLA seemed to suit him. He/We talked about him moving to California a bunch of times but it never happened…
He would call me up and tell me of all his ups and downs and the saga of his DRINKIN SMOKIN GETTING IN TROUBLE lifestyle. Once he told me he landed in jail and was amazed at how many of his friends were there too!
Joe came to visit me in San Pablo in around 2005. It was the last time I saw him. We drank and smoked. I took him to the local biker bar. He was immediately one of them. I left to walk my dog, came back to get him. HE WAS DRUNK and with all his friends as if they had always been together.
Joe sat in my kitchen and cooked while I went to work. He made the BEST eggplant parm I have ever had. He taught me to make an oregano chicken dish. HE WAS AN EXCELLENT COOK!
Also on that visit Joe did a thing I haven’t mentioned so far which is get super DRUNK and OBNOXIOUS! He had the capacity to get relentlessly OBNOXIOUS when drunk sometimes. This time he got my BIG PIT BULL dog upset enough I became afraid. He was falling down (literally) drunk and my dog was starting to get defensive of me cuz of the way Joe was acting. I ended up locking myself and the dog in my room. NOT A GOOD MEMORY…
One time I was mad a Joe (likely for for being drunk and obnoxious to me) and turned down the opportunity to go with him to see LED ZEPPELIN at Madison Square Gardens. Aaaaaaaaahhhhh!
Joe always remembered my birthday. I think his was December 5th, but I was never any good at birthdays. One time Joe borrowed his uncle’s (?) limo, picked me up and drove me around town for my birthday. He played chauffer while I sat in the back acting rich and famous. I felt so special and important. It was a wonderful present
I thought Harleys were cool but poorly built unreliable motorcycles. Joe explained to me it wasn’t the bikes, it was the dumbass guys who took them apart all winter to “fix” them that fucked them up and made HDs unreliable. HA
It bugged me out how self-destructive Joe could be. He would hurt himself and it would piss me off. At times it seemed like the world was shitty to him and he would take it out on himself. I now notice I did/do the same thing, albeit less with liquor and more with cheese.
I think we connected as misfits. All of us: Joe, Steve, Cheech and me. WE FIT TOGETHER VERY WELL and it steeled me against the pain of being different.
I liked to draw but my father always told me I sucked at it, which made me feel horrible. In my twenties, I did a series of flower/moon drawings and gave them all away. I gave one to Joe. He told me several times how he thought it was beautiful and he would keep it forever. THAT MADE ME SO HAPPY.
We all liked being smart and derelict. Joe liked being derelict more than the rest of us…
I felt loved by Joe. He showed a lot of love easily. Generous with his heart.