Remembering Nick Amster: A Rock ’n’ Roll Spirit Who Led a Legendary Life

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JOHN PETKOVIC
  • John Petkovic
I didn’t know Nick Amster well, but every time I met the man, I was struck by just how warm and sincere he was. “Do you like the Velvet Underground. No, do you really like the Velvet Underground?” he asked me once at the Rock Hall where we had gathered for a donation of a guitar that belonged to the late, great Robert Lockwood Jr. When I answered in the affirmative, he reached into his pocket and handed me a CD containing a rare live recording. That gesture spoke volumes to how much he loved music and how much he loved sharing music with others.

Generous to a fault, Amster, a patron of the arts, ardently supported the local music scene. He regularly attended concerts and even made monetary donations, most notably to the Beachland Ballroom.



His enthusiasm for the arts was unrivaled.

Local musician John Petkovic knew Amster well. His band Death of Samantha played at Amster’s wedding, and Petkovic has maintained a close friendship with Amster all these years. He’s penned this heartfelt tribute to the man that so many of us will miss.



***

“Gimme more, gimme more. More, more, more. I want more.”

Nick Amster screamed like a madman as he waved his arms in the air, his intense eyes piercing the lethargy in the recording studio as he summoned one last burst of energy.

It was 6 a.m., and everyone seemed ready to cash out after plowing through the all-night jam session. All I could think about was laying down on the floor, Les Paul in hand, and crashing.

Not Nick, who rattled and rambled streams of lyrics he had written on stacks of paper or summoned from his wild, unfiltered consciousness. He howled commands that ultimately became part of the lyrics. When it came to music, it was anything-goes, and he was endlessly driven in pursuing it.

Nick passed on Sunday after a long, often grueling battle with heart disease. He was 71. He died at his desk, where he wrote his lyrics and listened to music. He believed in the power of song. He loved and lived for this stuff.

He finished every correspondence with “Yours in music” and believed in its power – not just when it came to him, but to the community as a whole.
He purchased tickets to concerts for friends and strangers alike – a fan of music was a friend to Nick. He helped musicians in need, regardless of their stature – from reaching into his pockets to give cash to a struggling acoustic-guitar strummer playing to an empty room to paying for the funeral and tombstone for Cleveland blues legend Glenn Schwartz. He took joy in knowing that Schwartz is buried across from Alan Freed in Lakeview Cemetery.

He stepped in to purchase a stake in the Beachland Ballroom in 2012 and, as co-owner, helped the Cleveland club bridge tough times. His last act was pay for a new roof for the Beachland.

“Hey, the roof was in bad shape, and I didn’t want to see people getting wet when it rained,” he joked, during the last conversation I had with him. “I’m doing it for the music. Hey, where else you gonna see a band like Television play Cleveland?”

That final conversation was like so many with Nick. It went four hours, deep into the morning. His conversations, like his approach to music, were rambling affairs. Yes, we talked about music, but also Thomas Pynchon, the economy, politics, movies. Then, back to music, movies, more music and then back to movies.

There were also stories. Nick was an attentive, compassionate listener, but could be a spieler who started on the main road and would proceed to take a hundred detours — which was fine by me, because Nick told the best stories because his life read like fiction, even when it was verite.

Born in Wooster into an esteemed family of means, Nick was sent to New England to attend a boarding school. He was destined to be an academic, maybe a lawyer or a doctor or a businessman — but not if Nick had anything to do with it.

By 1965, the 16-year-old took off for New York City, and he never went back. He got a job as a janitor, found an apartment and proceeded to hang out in the beat and folk scenes. He befriended poet Alan Ginsberg and experimental filmmaker, artist and music archivist Harry Smith. He played drums in the Fugs and started a lifelong friendship with poet and Fugs member Ed Sanders.

“His parents had to hire a detective to find him and they brought him back to Wooster,” says his wife Sarah Jane Buck. “That was Nick — he would do anything or go anywhere for music.”

Nick returned to Wooster to finish high school and went attend Oberlin College. But rock 'n’ roll kept on calling him.

As a result, he chartered a musical mystery tour that took him to Cleveland to see countless bands, including legendary shows by the Velvet Underground at LaCave. Then, he hit Woodstock in 1969 and New York in the 1970s, where he lived at the storied Chelsea Hotel. If you listen closely, you can hear him talking in the background of the Velvet Underground album, Live at Max’s Kansas City. Then, on to Kingston, Jamaica where he recorded with members of the reggae greats, the Wailers.

Then, back to Wooster, where he met his wife-to-be in 1979, while she was attending Wooster College.

“I was working in this coffee shop called Zeitgeist that Nick actually founded and played the first show at in 1965,” says Buck. “We had laid eyes on each other but didn’t speak, but we did a month later when he came to see a friend of his play. Nick tracked down my number and would leave voice messages for me and my roommate told me, ‘Some guy with an annoying hip voice keeps on leaving you voices.’ He would call me every day asking if I wanted to go to some place, some event with him — he always knew what was happening.”

Their first date, February 22, 1979, occurred appropriately enough at a screening of Diabolique — not because their date resembled the French horror film. The screening took place at the Canton Film Society, which was run by John Ewing, who would go on to become director of the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, where Nick was a regular for decades.

Even their September 12, 1992 wedding at the Ritz-Carlton Cleveland became the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend. Nick asked my band, Death of Samantha, to get up on the stage and play a few songs. It hardly seemed appropriate given the formal venue and well-heeled crowd. But Nick didn’t care. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Taylor, who was staying at the Ritz that night, did. She complained to hotel security, which proceeded to tell the band to stop with the noise.

Nick was never hierarchical when it came to music or class. For decades, he had season tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra and would regularly attend Severance Hall, but his heart was always in rock ‘n’ roll. He loved the Velvets because they broke the rules and made a wild noise. He even recorded with John Cale one night after the VU co-founder played a show in Cleveland. He followed the band throughout Europe during its 1993 reunion tour.

“Every day, Lou [Reed] would come up to me and ask me, ‘So, how did my guitar sound? Was the sound good,’” Nick once told me. “He was really worried about his guitar sound. I thought it sounded fine, but I would have to tell him something different every day just to make it interesting.”

Nick recorded with Sly & Robbie and cared for and accompanied the late bluesman Robert Lockwood on tours. He introduced the Cleveland blues legend to Keith Richards when the Rolling Stone came to town for his 1988 Talk is Cheap solo tour.

“Nick brought Lockwood and Sarah backstage and a good friend of his, Dr. Axelrod, and he introduced Dr. Axelrod to Keith and said, ‘I’d like you to meet my personal physician,’” says longtime musical collaborator Rodney Reisman. “Only Nick would do something like that.”

Reisman played drums with Nick on countless sessions. One session a few months back went late into the night, due in part to a song that seemed to go on forever.

“It went one hour and 56 minutes,” says Reisman. “He just wanted to keep on going and going and going. Luckily, he had a DAT recorder going which got the whole thing. Nick always ran a DAT because in believed that you might not get the fidelity, but you’ll capture the evening... Nick was the most unique guy I’ve ever met.”

His frizzy, curly hair was beyond unique, attracting stares and comments whenever he went out. It was as long as a wedding train — eight, 10, 12 feet long. You couldn’t really measure it because he would bundle it up in a ball and carry it around with him in his right hand.

“The last time he cut was the night before our wedding, almost 28 years ago,” says Buck. “It became a life force of its own and Nick never wanted to cut it. Anything could be significant and meaningful to him, and his hair was one of those things. He just couldn’t cut it.”

German film great Werner Herzog offered to do a documentary film, loosely title “Nick Gets a Hair Cut,” that would chronicle the growth of the hair in the event he decided to cut it. Never happened because he carried it with him to the end.

Whenever Nick went out, there was always someone stepping up to have their picture taken with him. Once, during a 2014 Bob Dylan concert at State Theatre in Playhouse Square, the line of onlookers grew around Nick. A number of people stepped up to take photos and ask him about it. Usually, Nick didn’t mind the attention. As he would often say, “This is what’s going to happen when you have hair like this.”

But after a handful of queries, I could sense that Nick was starting to get annoyed — so I stepped in and played body guard.

“Excuse me, you have to step back and give him some space,” I said. “Do you know who you that is?”

Three people started trying to guess what celebrity that might be. In many ways, he was a celebrity — not just because of the hair, but also because of the spirit he would exude.

Nick always dressed in black and could talk anything with anyone deep into the night.

He was a sweet soul and a loving, sublime friend and always making new friends because he appreciated mystery and new experiences.

He will always be Nick at Night to me. We spent countless nights talking for hours in his car or mine. It was always so hard to say goodbye to Nick — there was always another story to tell, another idea to explore.

With Nick it was always a "Long Goodbye" — and we often talked about that film, which we both loved so much. He was a Noir Czar who bounced from scene to scene with wonder and resignation, like that modern-day Philip Marlowe in the movie.

He understood the power of art to make sense of the world and make its rubbish tolerable. He finished each correspondence: "Yours in music." I don't know what else to say, but I think Nick might just quote Marlowe: “You talk too damn much, and too damn much of it is about you.” And he would laugh, with wicked glee.

He wanted more, more, more out of life, and he got it.

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