This essay, titled John & Mary, Notes & Harmony, appears in Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology.
Our story begins with a chance meeting in Buffalo at Nietzsche’s. It was a winter Sunday afternoon in 1988 and both of our groups were scheduled to play together. Mary’s group was the Lexington String Trio, playing a collection of classical string pieces unamplified in a barroom setting. My band was the Billups, playing mostly original new wave tunes.
Mary played viola. I played bass. We started talking and hanging out. The cellist in the trio, whom I knew a bit, kept telling me Mary wasn’t only a classical musician, but also had a great voice, and after a few weeks, I asked her to sing something for me. She took my guitar and played a beautiful rendition of the Acadian Ballad, “Un Canadien Errant,” entirely in French.
My mind was made up. Here was an artistic opportunity that only comes once in a lifetime.
* * *
I was a founding member of 10,000 Maniacs. We formed on Labor Day of 1981 and I departed in the summer of 1986 to move to Buffalo and to begin a normal life away from the constant touring and pressure. After being in a group for many years in which collaboration was the key to our success, I wasn’t sure if I would ever and another artistic partner whose talents would dovetail with mine.
[blocktext align=”right”]Here was an artistic opportunity that only comes once in a lifetime.[/blocktext]Then I met Mary.
Mary and I started composing songs straight away and we performed in Buffalo to rather enthusiastic responses. Mary and I played together in Toronto, Pittsburgh, Albany, Rochester, and Nashville, and many other places.
We connected with Dan Griffin, an old friend from my 10,000 Maniacs days, whose faith and vision led to a recording contract with Rykodisc as well as a publishing deal with a division of MCA Nashville. We recorded our first album, Victory Garden, with Robert Buck and Jerome Augustyniak at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem. It was released in 1991.
Two years later, we followed with The Weedkiller’s Daughter and basically hit the road. We played everywhere we could: New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, all over. We toured with Warren Zevon and opened for Richie Havens, Laura Nyro, Robyn Hitchcock, The Bank, Alex Chilton, Tom Rush, The Roches, Jules Shear, and Chris Isaak, among others.
We were invited on the final Natalie Merchant tour with my old group 10,000 Maniacs, and in 1990 we went all over the country as well as did a three-show residence at London’s Town and Country. After Natalie’s departure, Mary and I were invited to join the group proper and we got a record deal immediately with Geffen Records.
The 1997 release, Love Among the Ruins, fostered the hit single, “More than This,” a cover version of Roxy Music’s 1982 song. That led to TV interviews and another tour and we even played three United Service Organization shows in Bahrain and Kuwait.
We’re still playing with 10,000 Maniacs, recording last year’s Twice Told Tales and the band just released a live album, Playing Favorites. The band is celebrating its thirty-fifth year in 2016.
All these years later, Mary and I are still enjoying the fruits of that initial encounter on a snowy Buffalo Sunday late in the last century.
Buffalo has a magnetism that pulls me.
I think it is in part a pull from the great bodies of water that flows powerfully around the city. There is the constant flow of the Niagara River and the roar of the water crashing over Niagara Falls and the great Lake Erie itself; both at times are stormy and peaceful, which invigorates me and inspires my music. I am especially drawn to the power of Niagara Falls, a place of energy and restless creativity, a place that straddles two countries and where the genius of Nikola Tesla gave birth to the first hydroelectric plant, empowering the city with great energy and light. It was that energy that sent Buffalo into the spotlight of economic stardom, the remnants of which are still apparent in the historic architectural structures that still stand today.
[blocktext align=”right”]Buffalo has a magnetism
that pulls me.[/blocktext]Buffalo’s old buildings have energy and tell stories. When I first came to Buffalo from Fredonia in my early twenties, I couldn’t afford a car, so I walked a lot. I found the buildings and the quality with which they were built and the lush greenery around them uplifting. I frequented estate sales and vintage stores and felt a sense of gratitude to people who came before me and who left such marvelous, well-loved marks of their lives for me to stumble upon and find inspiring. As an artist, it’s essential to be in a place that touches you and feeds your thoughts. Buffalo has always done that for me and in a way, my years here have been a kind of romance.
I love Buffalo for its hidden beauty, but also for its generosity: it’s given me a place to live where I can afford my rent without working all the time or without working in jobs unconnected to music. It’s given me the time to create music and think about making music and devote to touring my music. When I moved here in the 1980s, the city had a bohemian, anything-goes attitude. I paid $110 a month for a two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a house on Norwood I shared with a friend. Today, the rents are higher, but artists can still manage them or they can find an old house that’s affordable to renovate.
I also love Buffalo for its stark seasons, which compel me to pay attention to time. My music and career, too, has had seasons. I’ve played classical, new wave, jazz, and sung standards and torch songs. I’m currently working on putting W.B. Yeats’ poetry to music.
I’ve played in many of Buffalo’s venues and went from subbing on viola in the Buffalo Philharmonic to a few years later, having the Philharmonic accompany 10,000 Maniacs as special guests. I went from sitting in the back of the viola section to standing at the front as lead singer. I’ve played small venues with a handful of listeners to a few stadiums of 50,000. I was invited to play at the Kennedy Center for President Bill Clinton’s second inaugural ball. I’ve also collaborated with the Irish Classical Theater for pieces where I wrote, played, and sang music during plays.
Meeting John in 1988 changed my life.
John and I have opposite energy that creates a magnetism between us. He came out of the punk movement, but has an appreciation for British folk rock and reggae. John is a social person and likes to stay out late and he remembers names and dates. I’m a-stream-of-conscious thinker and writer and my background is in classical viola and folk music. I like to be in quiet peaceful places and I remember emotions and feelings. Melodies come to me easily and often I pull melodies from John’s chordal structures. Our love of folk music and poetry brought us together and our music comes from our conversations.
As I have grown up as a musician, I’ve seen Buffalo grow up. The city went from being a misfit sort of place to being on the cusp of becoming a destination. Yet, it’s still authentic. It’s still exquisitely livable. It gives me wide berth for experimentation and collaboration, which is necessary because the rock-and-roll world has always been unregulated. There is recklessness in terms of business practices, but also in terms of lifestyle that can be tough. There is a sense of making it, of having a reputation, fans and success, but beneath it all, you always struggle. The arts are always about struggle because as you grow as an artist, you outgrow where you were before. Buffalo has always afforded me a soft landing.
When I was younger, I felt I had to leave Buffalo to explore other places and test myself with other people. In my thirties, after living happily in Buffalo for years, I moved as far west as possible — Santa Monica, California, right at the mouth of the roaring Pacific. I had a love affair with the land, but still felt the pull of Lake Erie and Buffalo.
Sometimes it takes a while before you can say you are home. Maybe that’s also because you need to be at home with yourself first.
That’s where I think I am now, in Buffalo, my hometown.
Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology has been hailed as “absolutely one of the best books about Buffalo, ever” by the Buffalo News.
John Lombardo was an original member of 10,000 Maniacs, and has been performing with Mary Ramsey since 1989. He grew up in Jamestown and went to Southwestern High School, got a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Geneseo and a master’s degree from the University at Buffalo. He couldn’t play any instruments until he was twenty. He lives in the Delaware Park district.
Mary Ramsey has been the lead singer/songwriter/violist for the alt/rock band 10,000 Maniacs since 1996. In 2006, she and John Lombardo formed the Buffalo-based band John & Mary and the Valkyries. In 1997, Mary sang lead on 10,000 Maniac’s Top Forty hit “More Than This.” Mary and 10,000 Maniacs have toured extensively throughout the U.S and globally and are actively touring now. Mary has worked and recorded with The Goo Goo Dolls, Billy Bragg, Alex Chilton, Jules Shear, Natalie Merchant and Ani DiFranco. She received a bachelor’s of music from SUNY Fredonia. She lives on the West Side.