R.I.P., John and Steve

The Tucson music community mourns the death of two under-the-radar greats

John Milner and Steven Garb were not household names within the Tucson music scene. Milner, in fact, might have joked that he was barely a household name within his own home.

Neither was ever written about in these pages, yet the acknowledgement of their deaths--two radically different stories, although they occurred within days of each other--demands our attention.

John Milner was a good old boy from the South. His personality was as big as his thick Mississippi drawl, and it either won you over, or sent you running for cover. Either way, he offered no apologies.

John was also a drinker--something else he never hid or made excuses for. His death, on Dec. 14, came after a year-long battle with liver disease. While it would be easy to reflect on the regrets or actions of a lifestyle that cut his life short at 63, that would be missing the point.

Larry Armstrong of CopperMoon knew John for the past five years. "We met at a Mary Buckley party, playing old country songs. I invited him to sit in at our (monthly) gig at Nimbus, and he just never left."

Milner played terrific acoustic leads for CopperMoon and their relatively small but enthusiastic following. He added harmonies with a voice so big that it barely needed a microphone.

"I had never run into anybody who just enjoyed playing and singing as much as he did," said Armstrong. Most of his singing and playing was done at parties and informal jams, "where he'd be the first one to open the (guitar) case and the last one to close it."

In an obituary written by Milner's wife, Nancy, we learned this good old boy from the South had a degree in aeronautical engineering, and was a Navy pilot, flight instructor and Vietnam vet. While this was obviously a huge part of his life, it speaks volumes that the part of himself he chose to share was his music and his heart.

"John was always engaged in conversation. He could and would talk to anybody," recalls Armstrong. "I never saw a nasty bone in his body."

The passing of drummer Steven Garb on Dec. 17 was as shocking as it was sudden. At 58, Garb was a model of early middle-age health. (Results from an autopsy are still pending.) He adhered to a strict workout regimen, lifting weights and jogging six days a week. It was universally agreed that he was buff.

Steve was a drummer for hire, and like so many of Tucson's most talented musicians, he often flew under the radar, playing resort gigs and casuals, and with makeshift bands put together for parties or limited gigs. "Steve was obviously passionate about playing music," according to multi-instrumentalist and occasional bandmate AmoChip Dabney, "so much so that he would practice six days a week, whether he had a gig or not. He was the consummate professional, always ready, always prepared."

In contrast to Milner, Garb was often perceived as a loner, yet that is far from who he was. According to an e-mail from Dabney's wife, Erin, "I was always struck by Steve's welcoming smile and great spirit in performing. His sense of humor and appreciation for many different musical styles created a truly unique performance and motivated others. His upbeat, contagious enthusiasm will be missed."

Amo adds via e-mail, "To those who didn't know him, Steve Garb was one of the best drummers in Tucson. ... From his session days in New York City to the last eight years performing with Sticky White Chocolate, The Les Baxter Factor, The Amosphere and The Wayback Machine, Steve was a first-call, go-to guy who was always prepared, pleasant to deal with, knowledgeable and unfailingly on time."

Milner and Garb may not go down as giants within the larger local scene, but to those who were fortunate to have known them, they are forever enshrined as Hall of Famers, both as players and people.

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