American Scrapbook #1: John and Jonah

Photos and Text: John Ilmoniemi

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the OPC American Scrapbook Series. This series encapsulates real stories of love, loss, and lived experiences through photography. If you have a story to tell please email us at hello@opcdigital.com .

Jonah and Celeste in Fort Lauderdale, 1990

I first met Jonah in 1990 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida while I was attending the Art Institute. I was picking up his sister Celeste, who I had met the night before at a party, for an attempted date. Jonah just came along and hopped in the back seat. Regardless, the three of us went out to explore some abandoned buildings nearby, that’s where I took these photographs. As a kind of shy and introverted person, I was really drawn to their rambunctious laughter and goofy antics. Jonah did a noteworthy Goofy impression. They genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and it was clear their love was openly strong. I can still smell sandalwood and patchouli.

Shortly after, Jonah showed me his stack of composition books, the old line-filled notebooks with that black and white squiggle pattern, filled with his handwritten poetry and violent doodles. I had played guitar in several bands since I was 15 and he really wanted to sing in a band. I picked out a few poems that spoke to me, showed him some guitar bits that might fit, and he sang over them. Somehow, writing music with Jonah happened very easily. We did try out a few different drummers and bass players but, just could not find the right fit.

For some reason we decided to move to Key West. Within the first few days we found James, a skater into punk rock who played bass. Jonah renamed him Fleetwood on account of his large feet resembling Cadillacs. Found a ripping drummer named Robin, who also played in a Grateful Dead cover band, and surfer extraordinaire Jeff Biege on second guitar. We managed to talk a NY guy, Alexander, who ran a pizza place called Alexander’s Psychedelicatessen, into letting us practice in the stock room after hours. Most of the live music that was going on in Key West at the time (1991-92) consisted of solo acoustic acts and low key cover bands so our own mix of hardcore and metal tuned down to C got us small but packed shows that were ridiculously fun, sweaty, mosh pits with crowd riding. After about a year of doing that, we felt we needed to find a bigger scene. An opportunity to stay at my fathers house in Fishkill NY. So we moved on it.

It was there that we started Worm Drive, with Jef Fergason on bass, Mike Townsend on drums, and Jonah’s brother Noah on keyboards. Noah would later front kick ass punk band, The DC Swindlers. We played quite a few shows around NY, including a mini east coast tour that brought us down to KeyWest and back. After which David Robinowitz took over on bass and Michael Albrecht joined on second guitar. On December 11, 1993 we played at The Chance Theatre in Poughkeepsie, NY opening for hardcore band Dissolve. It was the biggest show we had ever played with around 800 people in attendance. That would also be our last show due to financial struggles within the band and our location in Fishkill at the time had come to an end, as the house was being sold.

About 3 years later, in 1996, Jonah and I would try another shot at Worm Drive. This time with Matt Byrne on drums, who later would play with Hate Breed. That was probably our best attempt at the band musically. For some reason we were having trouble finding a bass player and it just fizzled out. Looking back on it now, we could have easily played shows without a bass player, especially being tuned down to C and Matt’s drumming more than covered the rhythm section. We did record a 4 track EP but the mixing and mastering was never quite finished. I still tell myself I will get to it eventually. I believe he would have liked that to happen. Sadly, the time and money necessary to complete such a project, recorded on long outdated A-DAT format, seems unlikely at this point.

Jonah moved to Nags Head Beach, NC in an attempt to escape his heroin addiction which seems to have plagued him since he first tried it in NY were he lived briefly as a teenager in the 1980’s. He didn’t do it while we were together working on music, it seemed that it was something he did in between music projects. Perhaps self -medicating the frustrations that brought about in himself, I can only speculate now.

Cut to September 2020, I was attempting to cull through boxes I have been carrying around for years, I found reel to reel tapes from Worm Drive band practices and two master tapes from demos we made, and the VHS recording of that Chance show from 1993, and a VHS of band practice from 1996 with Matt on drums. I finally got that Chance show digitized and uploaded to YouTube in November, after which I got a long awaited call from Jonah’s brother Noah who I had been trying to reach for some time. He told me Jonah had passed away December 7, 2016 from cirrhosis of the liver. It’s thought to be brought on by combining excessive alcohol abuse while taking suboxone, a drug used for opioid addiction, a lethal combination. Truly heartbreaking news.

A few days after that phone call, I dug through my archived negatives and scanned these photos of Jonah, Celeste, and myself in Ft. Lauderdale. The original prints were long gone and I had not seen these photos since. He really was like a brother to me through all the different apartments, practice spaces, road trips, shows, parties, half assed tours, etc etc. Last spoke with him on the phone somewhere around Spring of 2016.

A super late RIP Jonah.

Jonah and John, 1990
Jonah and Celeste, 1990

Tue, Apr 5, 2005, 1:36 AM
Subject: Worm drive lives in the hearts of the intense!!!!P.M.A.

JoNaH is alive and well in North Carolina. It’s been a minute since we last spoke. The weather has been nice lately. Today reached 70 degrees, I was working outside in a t-shirt. It feels good to be at the beach. Do you think you could send me a copy of your new music? I would like to check out what sort of mayhem you are creating up there in the N.Y.C.
Celeste and I played a show at this club called Neptunes. It went really well. I couldn’t get over all the compliments we got together as a band. I got a really decent copy of a bootleg video that was recorded at the show. I will send you a copy in the mail over the next couple of days. Well I got a lot of shit to do tonight but you have a great evening. Oh yeah I almost forgot I couldnt figure out how to get access to the artichoke web site but I’ll keep trying, also check out Noahs last c.d. he recorded with the swindlers, it’s called (The mourning after) and it is the tightest shit I’ve heard from any band in the last year, really fuckin intense changes and Noah fuckin kills it on the mic maybe one of my favorite albumns of the last 5 Years! Well gotta go, the lady of the house awaits her love slave!!!!!!!PEACE!!!!!!

Jonah and Celeste, 1990

Sun, Mar 27, 2005, 7:31 PM

WAZZUUUPPPP, I just read your email. I’m stoked that you’re getting the music tight bro. I feel honored that you would think of me for the part. I would love to hear what you’ve got going on. I’ve been playing as much as possible lately. The bands called Nine Violent Days. We actually just played a show at this club down here called GAG. Celeste really kicks it on the bass. The only weak point in the band would have to be our drummer. He has only been playing for about two years and both Celeste and I play better than he does. Unfortunately there is a lack of good drummers on this beach that aren’t already involved in a band. Thank god the winter is almost over cause I’m about to pull my hair out. The beach is great about seven months out of the year but you would not believe how nasty the ocean is in the winter. The wind blows a near constant North East wind which brings down all that lovely weather that you got up there in the true north. It’s not bad when temps about 35 but when you put a constant 30 mph northeast wind on that and then add a humidity level averaging 75 percent It cuts to the bone. Especially if you have to frame houses that are right on the beach. The weather is getting nicer now though and we had our first 70 degree day the other day. Man I would love it if you and your band could come down and do a show at the Pitt this summer. A Lot of great bands play there every year (Clutch, Murphy’s Law, Cracker, Agnostic Front, ect.ect.) If you guys came down I could put you up for a couple days plus the club pays for a hotel for the bands to get to play. Ask Jimmy from Murphys. He hangs out with us every time they play here. And believe me when I tell you that the girls down here would blow your mind! I was wondering if you still had any material from Worm Drive. I’ve been telling my girl about the old days and it’s kind of hard to explain the level that we took that band to. If you still got that video we did at the Chance I would gladly send you whatever amount of $$ it would take to put whatever you got on tape or cd or dvd. I miss those days an awful lot. At least we did it huh? Well I should be going but I wish you the best of luck with your band man, if anyone can do it you can man I got all the faith in the world that youre band could be the next Queens of the stone age. You seem to have that drive. Give me a call sometime and drop your digits on me. My #is xxx-xxx-9609 call me some time bro and let’s catch up.

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