ZAK HAS PASSED - REMEMBER HIS LIFE - x.
On DEC 13th, at approx. 6:30 PM
Joseph Bernard Zak passed away at the St. Lukes hospital in his hometown of New York City.
He was 80 years old.
Widely regarded as the oldest punk rocker ever, he often preferred the title:
“Most Prolific Songwriter in the History of the World”.
And believe it or not, that statement was most likely not an exaggeration. Zak wrote approximately 30,000 – 40,000 original song lyrics. The exact number may be never known. Even those of us in his punk rock band, TEAM SPIDER lost track after he copyrighted the first 20,000 or so. Collected in his aptly titled “ZAK OPUS”. Being Team Spider’s vocalist and guitarist, I recently found myself having to haul over 40 boxes of lyrics out of ZAK’s old apartment. If asked how many songs were in there, I can only describe the quantity as somewhere between “back breaking,” and “spine crushing.”
The exact details of ZAK’s life were always a bit of a mystery. Even to those of us closest to him. What we do know is that baby Zak was born in 1926, somewhere in upstate New York, near Albany. He never knew his parents and appears to have been primarily raised by Franciscan priests. Zak thought the way of the cloth would be the way for him, and he studied feverishly to become a priest himself. Along the way he became an expert on religious texts and several languages, including the original Latin language in which the Christian Brothers’ documents were written and in which they were read during mass
It was ultimately his sharp tongue and knowledge of Latin that got him expelled from the brotherhood, just shy of taking his final vows. Towards the end of his endoctranation, Zak was leading a mass alongside a high ranking priest. Rather than recite the texts he knew so well, he broke from script, saying “beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing” while motioning to the exhaulted priest. A move lost on most of the parishioners listening to the Latin language Mass, but an act of defiance not lost on the target of his remarks, or his superiors.
As Zak recalls, he was given a 24 hours to “get out of town.”
So, without many choices, Zak ended up in the Navy, serving in the Pacific during World War 2. Although he was concerned he may never return from sea, Zak observed that “The good lord apparently had other plans for me.”
Those plans were for Zak to become a teacher and mentor at a home for delinquent boys. Zak identified with the young troublemakers and spent his days and nights trying to help guide and be a friend to those who needed one. He made it his daily mission to steer these young men in positive directions despite the tough hands they may have been dealt. With WW2 having come to an end, both the nation’s prosperity and these young men’s bright futures appeared to be just on the horizon.
During his 13 years of shaping young men’s hearts and minds, Zak had been composing musical lyrics. Eventually he felt it was time leave the boy’s home and head to Nashville to try his hand as a professional lyricist. In his spare time, he composed over 200 biographical lyrics about a young man named Elvis Presley, whom Zak thought to be an “amazing talent , with a great future.” Although Zak’s lyrics were received well by the scores of Nashville musicians, no one could figure out how to commercially produce a piece, that appeared to be about as lengthy as the King’s life thus far.
Undaunted, Zak continued writing lyrics, passing them to every Nashville based or travelling performer that caught his eye. Even composing lyrics for U.S. Presidents, whether they requested “official national songs” or not. Then one night, a raging fire took Zak’s Nashville home, and with it, all of his lyrics. He decided “the good lord wanted me out of Nashville.”
Armed only with his wit, and a new found distaste for unattended candles, he headed to the town whose official lyric forever challenges: “If-you-can–make-it-there…” New York City.
To support his fervent lyric writing, Zak took many, as he described them, “odd” jobs. The more time they left for writing, the better. He ended up finding himself w/ several security and night watchmen jobs. Due to his honorable ways and strong work ethic, Zak was often promoted to a Commander or Captain level. Unfortunately for the security biz, Zak had little interest in climbing rank and viewed it all just as a means to support his writing. At one point, in true early punk D.I.Y. spirit, he even formed his own small record label, releasing a vinyl run of a song he composed that he thought should see the light of day. Fortunately it did sell, but being not attached to material items, Zak sold every single copy and none of records from the pressing seem to be in active circulation today. Although his band mates and fans still flip through the old vinyl bins hoping one day to find an original Zak Records release.
Some time in his 50’s, Zak landed a job as a doorman for a fancy hotel. Some might have said it appeared to be a step down from his previous jobs, where he was the supervisor of scores of men. But Zak, being an independent spirit, preferred the solitary duties and responsibilities of a doorman. Plus, the job came with a perk; staff housing for the entire length of his life. So Zak packed up and moved into the Empire Hotel on Columbus circle, right across from the Metropolitan Opera and the Julliard School of music. For years he worked his doorman duties, cheerfully greeting guests of the city, while keeping guard against the unsavory types that he was so skilled at unveiling. Zak often crafted custom poems and lyrics for the travelers whom he would come to meet during their New York stays.
He found much time to focus on his beloved work, deep within the world of words.
In his off time, Zak spent countless hours at the Julliard library, translating ancient plays from Greek, Latin, or any of the other languages he spoke fluently, to his native English. All in the hope that the works would be able to reach a new and wider audience. During this time he could often be found befriending and amusing the talented Julliard music students who, thinking they would head to the library to finish some work, often found themselves leaving with the knowledge that they had much more work to do. Sometimes, that work consisting of direct assignments from Zak.
Zak eventually collaborated with a professor/composer at Julliard on a piece that was performed at the end of the year for the entire school. Again, all copies of this “lyrical symphony” appear to be lost to time, due to Zak’s lack of material possessions, but what a night it must have been.
Upon reaching retirement age, Zak settled into his private room at the Empire Hotel for possibly his most creative period yet. Each day he busied himself writing, re-writing, photocopying, and then copywriting, his lyrics. Each month he would send his packets, each often containing hundreds of lyrics, to the Library of Congress.
It was during one of his many trips to a local “mom and pop” photo copy shop near the Empire Hotel that Zak would meet his long time collaborator: Xris Spider, aka, me. My best friend Les and I were in that fateful photocopy shop using a machine that printed small quantities of professional looking business cards, for as little as 5 dollars. This was very handy for the many cons that a young Xris and Les had crafted during their down and out days in a basement squat on the Lower East Side. During a different period of his life, Zak may have protected himself and others from these apparent ruffians. Maybe it was his earliest days as a “teacher of delinquent boys” that attracted Zak to these desheveled 20 somethings. Who can say for sure, maybe it was the guitars on their backs, or quite possibly it was the smilely face logo that stated “jesus loves you” printed on the business cards that were spewing into their hands from the machine. How was Zak to know that the logo was used in jest, and the cards were in fact being used to promote the new timeslot for their irreverent public access show? A necessary promotion after being kicked out of their previous timeslot for “Sabatoging other people’s shows.” Most famously, an alleged psychic advisor who would broadcast live from the neighboring studio at the same time as Team Spider’s live broadcasts.
Well, whatever it was that inspired Zak, soon he was telling them that they “Look like they need a lyricist!” And, that he was just the man for the job.
Now, young Xris and Les, were quite used to dealing with lunatics, and thought Zak seemed like a harmless enough character. They assumed Zak was probably just an old man ranting about whatever popped up in his senile mind. They may have been right about the lunacy, and most definitely the ranting, but they were wrong about the harmlessness and/or senility. Zak had a razor sharp wit, and extensive knowledge of politics, religion, and human relations, all filtered through the wisdom of his years.
The “New York City Phone Book”-sized stack of lyrics the photocopy clerk handed back to Zak, showed he was anything but faking being a prolific lyricist.
So, a youthful version of myself, handed Zak the first of the business cards that had come out of the machine, and said “If you want to perform some lyrics with us, come to the Manhattan Cable Building on this day and time. Our band is called Team Spider, we do a lot of strange stuff and perform live music on TV, you can do something if you like.”
Satisfied, Zak headed off, and the young Xris and Les assumed, that was probably the last they’d ever see of the crazy old lyricist.
They were wrong.
Zak showed up on the night described, lyric packet in hands, ready to “Jump in.”
Which may explain why I, thumbing through Zak’s pages, pulled out a song entitled,”Jump on the lyric.”
-if you want to sing a beautiful sound,
-come join the music
-If you want to swing a beautiful sound,
-come join the music
-Jump, Jump, Jump on the lyric
-Join, Join, come Join the music.
Curiously, the lo tech Atari 2600 video game images that the band projected behind themselves during musical segments, came in right on cue showing footage of a game called Q-Bert. The game features a furry little character who really does nothing more than just “jump jump jump” around. It all came together poetically.
Of course, once again, Xris and Les assumed this might be the last they’d see of the old man. But Zak showed up for the next show, and the next show, and every show after. Whenever Team Spider had a concert, whether it was a dirty illegal squat, a urine stained punk club like CBGB’s, or even a warehouse party miles out of state, Zak would show up, with a fresh batch of lyrics each time.
Zak would cram in vans with squatter punks, scrunch in the back of our “Smashed on every side” VW Golf hatchback. He would even fly on a jet plane if the gig was far enough away. Which was something noteworthy in that Zak had never flown before in his life, save for a 10 minute crop duster ride he paid a nickel for in the 1930’s. After which he had decided “That was enough for me.” But for Team Spider, he entered the world of jet travel, climbing aboard his first airliner at close to the age of 80.
Kids, punks, poets, and radical personalities of all sorts began to expect and look forward to seeing Zak perform at just about every event they could imagine. It did not matter whether Zak was officially on the bill or not. He would usually take the stage, and start some lyric, often ending in a chant–like version of his latest creation. He would then be seen exiting the stage w/ a huge smile on his face, leaving in his dust the event organizers who had no idea what had just happened, norless why every one in the audience was now chanting “ZAK ZAK ZAK!”
Now myself, being a bit of a documentarian, could rarely be seen without some dumpster retrieved video camera rolling away on all of the shenanigans. With VHS becoming replaced by High 8, then Mini DV, and DVD standards. I had a seemingly limitless source of big old cameras, and raw tape stock gathered by myself, Zak, and other Team Spider members who would frequently find boxes of VHS tapes outside of video stores, adult boutiques, or just in the common trash.
The results were aired each week on our public access show, aptly titled VHS or LESS. The show, pre-dated so called “reality” television, and challenged the bloated formulaic world of commercial TV. The basic concept? That Zak and Team Spider’s reality was more creative and interesting then the best fiction that the television industry could apparently imagine. VHS OR LESS was also a pre-cursor to a formula later made famous by the MTV show JACKASS. The weekly episodes usually showcased many insane, often illegal, stunts and schemes. But with out the protection of a major network like MTV, the episodes often ended with Zak and company fleeing from, clashing with, or being arrested by the New York City Police.
Eventually, after successfully irritating and alienating enough of the cable access building’s newest batch of administrators, VHS OR LES was sentenced to a 3am Monday morning timeslot. Refusing to take it in stride, Zak and company secretly turned the show into “Team Spider Television”. Under the new name, the gang would, as we put it, “squat the prime time airwaves,” where we were clearly not wanted. By changing the title, producer name, and now exclusively using home-rigged video editing equipment, we were able to once again get the staggering output of lyrics and music back on the air, to a wide audience, without ever slowing down.
So Zak, without a record label or any traditional means of distribution, releasing only on the spit and glue label they called Team Spider Records, had several underground hit songs. Ranging from his “So-un-punk, that its punk again”, love song “Know that I love You”…
-No matter that all lyrics stall
-Know that this is true
-It matters that love’s epic is true
-Know that I love you, know that I love you
to his infectious anti-Bush anthem “BUSH BUSH BUSH.” Which never failed to have people chanting along at every show…
-BUSH BUSH BUSH
-A BUM BUM BUM
-He BOMB BOMB BOMBED
The above Bush ditty, which Zak had originally titled “Bomb the Constitution”, was written in a not so distant past, when criticizing the President was more likely to score you a fist fight and/or a boycott of your records, than a record deal.
Zak also kept his ear to the local ground penning lyrics about New York City’s crack down on Right To Assembly. Most clearly evidenced by Mayor Bloomberg’s arrest of over 200 bicyclists during the Republican National Convention.
-Mayor Mike Bloomberg Hates Bikes
-Rogue Cops Support Him
-Mayor Mike Bloomberg Hates Bikes
-Bikers Report Them
-The judge has given the Okay
-The Judge has Spoken
-So make way
-Mike Bloomberg Hates Bikes!
Zak understood the wider implications of the city’s actions. That the cyclists, who gathered monthly to promote safety and recognition, were facing a danger not limited to just the cell phone talking SUV drivers. They were also victims of an attack made possible by the sleep walking politicians who were busy signing away the rights and privacies that Zak had valued for his entire life.
-My Life, Your Rights
-They slowly drift away
-Ya got that right
-This is my life, this is my right
For all of his public visibility, Zak also thoroughly enjoyed his privacy. Rarely discussing old relationships or why he never chose to marry. He lived in the Empire Hotel for 10 years with out ever letting one of his band mates up to see his room. Not a single member, not even once. “It’s a mess” Zak’d say. “Ahhh, why do you want to go up there?” Leaving us to wait for him outside, or to sneak in to the downstairs Iridium bar where his fellow cool old guy Les Paul, pushing 80 himself, held a weekly jam with visiting rockers. This led us to wonder what was hooked up to the Hotel Empire’s water supply, the fountain of youth? Our stealth skills would have to be utilized, as we’d put our guitars on our backs and sneak past the 20 dollar door fee by saying we were here to “Jam with Les.” Really waiting for Zak to wash up and bring down his latest lyrics before we all headed down to the Lower East Side.
The last time I saw Zak was just a few days before his passing. After rushing around on my bicycle to drop off the latest episode of our cable show at the MNN building, I headed up for an unexpected visit to the Kateri Assisted Living Facility on 87th street. The friendly enough place that had Zak called home for the last 5 months. My visit happened by chance to be the same day that an a’capella girl-group had arrived to perform for the seniors. The young ladies sang Christmas songs in a style popularized by the Andrews Sister back during World War Two USO tours. Within minutes, Zak was a 5th member of the singing quartet, giving the much needed deep baritone echo of “Silver Bells” after each time the angelic ladies sang the chorus. He was as loud as the four ladies put together.
The residents and singers alike had wide grins and shared much laughter as Zak worked himself into every song they put out there. He was a master stealth artist, and he his skills clearly hadn’t dulled with confinement.
Uncharacteristically, I did not have my video camera. And I now realize that I and that group of seniors had unknowingly witnessed Zak’s final live performance.
After the dinner show we headed back to Zak’s room, but not before dropping some smuggled cookies to one of his bed ridden neighbors, ( Zak appeared to be the ring master some elaborate stolen cookie ring which I never fully grasped the complexities of ). Zak was tired. Just before the impromptu cafeteria concert, he and I had spent the afternoon recording some new tunes. Although it was a rare luxury for me to own, nor less being carrying around a fancy new piece of equipment, I had brought my new laptop computer with me. Our traditional “by-any-means-necessary” approach led us to use the build in keyboard microphone as an impromptu vocal mic, allowing us to immediately record the unplanned, freshly conceived , secret hits. The results? Lo fidelity, sonically interesting, but most importantly; satisfying to Zak. Zak also penned a birthday lyric on a card for Team Spider guitarist $am, who, in possibly the widest age gap in any band’s history, was turning 21 that night.
Although Zak quickly fell asleep, I decided I wasn’t leaving without giving Zak a copy of the newly recorded songs. I stayed, mixing the new tunes, until it was pitch dark outside. Eventually I was able to burn them to a CD for him to listen to in his bedside boom box. That boom box was his single worldly possession, If you did not count his single set of clothes, yellow tablet and a pen. The boom box was a much appreciated, collective gift from the entire band. People often would ask if Zak had any family. To which I would always reply “Besides us?” I think Zak was the most frequently visited resident of the entire Kateri Facility. He most certainly had the widest age range of guests and friends they had ever seen.
So, not wanting to wake him, I left a note taped to the railing on his bed that excitedly stated: “Zak, 4 new songs! In the CD player. Push play!”
One of the final lyrics he recorded, was the aptly titled: PULLING TEETH
-It’s like pulling teeth
-Awake or asleep
-For a song we can keep
-Where can I find inspiration
-To write a new song
-Where can I find inspiration
-It’s gone too long
-It’s like pulling teeth
Just before heading out, I took, unbeknownst to me, my last look at Zak. Sleeping soundly, famously toothless, looking like a new born baby under his blankets. I exited into the night, unprepared for the cold weather that had arrived during the creative and productive hours spent in the Kateri House.
Cursing the cold wind as it cut right through my minimal layers of a T-shirt and a leather jacket, I bicycled past the ghost bikes erected for cyclists killed on the supposed sanctuary known as the West Side bike path. I did not know that just the night before, a 22 year old cyclist was mowed down on the bike path by a drunk driver. A driver, who had driven the isolated and walled in bike lane for nearly a mile before finding a victim. Another flower covered, white ghost bike memorial would be arriving soon. A young life cut too short.
Soon after, I received word about Zak’s passing.
We all can definitely take solace in the fact that Zak lived a long, long, long, productive life. 80 amazing years. Though never securing a record deal or any commercial success as measured by mainstream standards, a fulfilling and abundant life nonetheless. And now, thanks largely to the world wide “web” known as the Internet, a whole new generation of fans are finding inspiration in Zak’s punk rock words, wisdom, and ways.
Children today are born into a world where expressive outlets and distribution may be limited only by their imagination and creativity. Just as Zak personally inspired all those he met in life, his memory can act as an inspiration to all the future, untamed, prolific spirits as they venture into territories unknown and wholly uncharted. Zak’s tale will most certainly be galvanizing to the people whom society deems too old to live their dreams. He may be particularly emboldening to bands and lyricists who think that although the things they wish to say may not be popular, they are still worth saying. But ultimately, Zak’s life can inspire all people. Whether it be artists working in music, film, video, and any other future forms of media, or just someone who’s looking to make some new friends, Zak’s example can speak volumes to them. All the while simply stating, that perhaps rather than conforming to existing roles, outlets, and ideas, maybe it’s time to create some entirely new ones.
“Remember, I’ll be there for you!” -Joseph Bernard Zak.*
*The most prolific lyricist of all time.
------------------------------------------------------------written by Christopher J. Ryan
aka Xris Spider