Isn't It a Wonderful Life

A Tucson punk prince has left us, but Howard Salmon remains in our dusty desert hearts

It's not as if we haven't been here before, mourning the loss of a great Tucson talent and life, but it was obvious standing in the long line waiting to enter the already crowded sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El on Sunday, Aug. 11, that Howard Salmon's life is a legacy that goes beyond his punk rock drumming days or even the visual art he created most of his adult years.

After a nearly two-year battle with brain cancer, his second battle against the disease, the painter, teacher, comic lover and artist, philosopher and mischievous punk drummer, died in the early morning of Thursday, Aug. 7 at the age of 52.

When we first announced that Howie's brain cancer returned, it was October 2012 and he had made his grim diagnosis public with a status on Facebook that the brain tumor was aggressive and his doctor had given him three months.

Three months. Howie kicked that one and we had Howie around almost two years. During Sunday's funeral, those who spoke, family and friends, made it clear that during that time Howie continued to paint and draw, and even during the most difficult days, continued to live—beautifully.

One example mentioned during the service is that Howie had three gallery shows this summer, including one at the Tucson Jewish Community Center that just came down on Wednesday, Aug. 13.

Howie's rabbi, Samuel Cohon, said during the funeral service that up until two weeks before his death, his friend and fellow musician continued to paint, even when it was a struggle to get out of bed. Howie was only forced to stop painting when he lost use of his hands, Cohon said.

It's those hands that Cohon brought up during the funeral service. "When you shook Howie's hand his strength was obvious. It made sense why he was such a powerful drummer and never seemed to tire," Cohon said.

On the bima at Temple Emanu-El, a drum kit stood as if waiting for Howie to show up as part of Avanim, the Jewish rock band started by Cohon and the late Steve Schulman. Salmon, a member of Temple Emmanu-El, played drums with the group for years, playing at different venues and in the congregation for holidays and the Shabbat Rocks night, a popular family sabbath service.

During the funeral service, Cohon mentioned the drum kit on the bima was actually Salmon's drum kit—a used kit his parents bought him from the Chicago Music Store when Salmon was 12 years old, intended to help their son focus his creative energy and stay out of trouble.

While Salmon was known for his drumming skills in his congregation, as well as being an active member in Torah study and teaching a class on Jewish art, there was another world in which Salmon was equally important—first, the 1980's Tucson punk rock scene as the drummer for several bands, including the well-loved Phantom Limbs; and second as a prolific painter and art teacher.

Cohon remarked during the funeral that it had been a particularly hard year for him and the congregation—having to bury Schulman, who passed away 10 months ago, and now Howie. Cohon told the Weekly he first met Howie around 2000 at a Fourth of July party. Schulman recognized him and asked him if he was interested in joining Avanim.

He joined, and became a vital part of the community, he said.

"I feel lucky I got to know him. He was very philosophical. He was so involved in the congregation, attending services regularly and being part of the Torah study group to even the ritual washing of the dead," he shared.

That congregational life proved to be important for Howie, especially after the tragic car accident in 2004 that killed his young daughter Susann. Cohon said it was particularly difficult for Howie to perform during Purim or Chanukah, when there were young children in synagogue. But he did, and people like Cohon, Schulman and others helped him get through it "one step at a time."

Composer and filmmaker Daniel Buckley told the Weekly he first met Howie when the drummer/painter was about 10 years old at a family Thanksgiving. What stood out then to Buckley was Howie's "personality and impish sense of humor." Buckley worked at the Record Bar store, so they shared this love of music.

Three or four years later, after first meeting the young Howie, Buckley said he saw him drumming for a punk band in a local club. Howie's parents, Sydney and Joan, were sitting in the bar.

Buckley remembered that Howie was playing with a minimal kit and his chair was really low, "like a low-rider drum kit. And he was banging the fuck out of those drums."

Howie's punk music scene fanzine, Slit, was the first zine Buckley ever saw in Tucson. In the early '80s, Howie documented the local punk scene and bands in interviews and comics. The arts newspaper, Newsreal, which Buckley contributed, also started running Howie's Slit interviews and stories.

"Then he started playing with the Phantom Limbs. That band was the perfect band, because Jefferson (Keenan) was probably one of the greatest rock 'n' roll writers this city had ever seen," Buckley said. "Howie played, never getting in the way of those words, with just the right rhythm ..."

Like many from that scene, Buckley lost track of Howie as he delved into art. Howie graduated with a philosophy degree then back into school for accounting. But when that didn't seem the right fit, he went back to school to get an MFA in art.

"Then all of a sudden I found myself on a Tucson Pima Arts Council panel with Alfred Quiroz. Howie was up for a prize," Buckley said. "Alfred went to the bat for him and I spoke about what I knew of him previously and we talked the panel into getting him the award. It was huge to him back then."

Buckley said what he loved about Howie was his sense of humor, and talking to him about art, life and music. "He had an interesting personality and take on everything that had happened back in '80s. ... He was a deep thinker. ... He was a significant character and at the same time a very humble character who thought of himself as a footnote, but he was more than that. Those who loved him for who he was and what he did understand."

"Tucson has always been a town that has bred eccentric, wonderful people," he said. "We're blessed that this is an incubator for deluxe weirdness."

Tucson artist Gene Hall told the Weekly that he first met Howie in the early '80s when Hall worked at Zip Records from 1981 to 1985. "He used to come in there a lot and talk to employees and since I used to see all the local bands, I knew him initially as a drummer and I enjoyed his comics, especially his punk comics of the scene."

As time went by, Hall said he lost contact with Howie and then reconnected with him around 2009. By then both of them were artists, and they talked a lot of about art.

"One thing I'll always remember is how he was very much interested more in what I was doing then telling me what he was doing. It was always inspiring talking with him and interacting with him," Hall said.

"There was this intensity about him. He was a mischievous impish guy. He always had the look of the boy next door, but there was always something more going on. I wish I could have done more. I didn't know how he was doing, so when I first heard he was gone it came as a shock. I didn't feel like it was a good way to say goodbye. But I know that's the way it goes."

Hall said he hopes that someone organizes a retrospective of Howie's work, from the punk music scene to his Jewish related work and fine art.

Jim Parks' earliest memories of Howie was of him selling the Slit fanzine outside Tumbleweeds during Phantom Limbs' shows. Parks started the Tucson 1980's punk band the Phantom Limbs with Keenan and Andrea Curtis, and in 1981 they needed a new drummer. Parks said it was Keenan who asked Howie to join and he played with the band from 1981 to 1983.

"For some reason he really like the Phantom Limbs," Parks said, adding that Howie did all sorts of cartoons for the fanzine of the band. "He was always at shows, and was very likeable, energetic and really seemed to enjoy being part of this burgeoning music scene."

In post-Phantom Limbs life, Parks said he'd see Howie around town, usually at Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea, a hangout they both liked. They'd visit during different phases of Howie's life. "I remember when he went to get a degree in accounting, and his reasoning then was that 'I just want to do something normal.' ... that didn't last."

Parks said he remembered going to an art show of Howie's called Painting Through Grief, that showed a series of his friend's work after Howie's daughter's death. "His daughter' death may have really affected him in a way that he saw that art was an answer to his grief. The work then was very dark art work but also very impressive."

Parks said during Howie's funeral, he particularly enjoyed hearing stories that showed how his friend found a sense of belonging in the Jewish community as well as the arts community. And how people described his friend was particularly fitting—what some may have described as intense conversations on life and art.

"In that I felt a kindred spirit that we could talk and go off in different tangents. He could be argumentative sometimes, but he was a no bullshit kind of guy. Say when I said something that could be thought of as Pollyanna, he'd call me out on it. 'That's bullshit,' and then I'd think about it and go 'Yeah, you're right.' He was blunt but at the same time what Rabbi Cohon said was true, he was also sensitive about hurting people's feelings."

While Howie may have been more interested in what other folks were doing or humble, Parks said it's important that Tucson remember what a positive influence he's had on the city's music scene, as a musician, as an artist and a journalist.

"Tucson was cooler and more interesting because of him in his participation and his journalism," Parks said.

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