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In Memory of Joe “Jem” Despagni

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.

 

Steve Vai

June 1, 2018

6:57 PM

Los Angeles