The Stranger

john-kilzer-axOne of the things I miss most of Memphis is John Kilzer. Memphis is missing him today, too. After a life larger than life, John found a way to die yesterday in an out of state rehab center tangled one last time in the poison that was his demon since he learned drinking from his railroad father at nine.

Every Memphian has a Kilzer story. I lived there long enough to have some myself, but probably not the best ones. Elvis helped recruit him to play for the Tigers. Teenie Hodges, who played with Al Greene, taught him to play guitar in a trade for his season tickets.

I met John in his more religious phase, when we were both condemned to the weirdly long process of gaining ordination in the United Methodist Church. I was under suspicion because I was a Baptist; John because of his past drinking. We both relapsed eventually. Perhaps my greatest honors was that he told his wife Stacy that he had met his match. He had not, but I found in him the voice of the Leading Causes of Life and a guide into Memphis. A legit scholar, John read everything and walked every day with a lyrist’s mind seeing the whole spectrum, purple to orange, deep shadow and hilarity. All one.

John was the musician intellect who helped create the Life of Leaders along with Scott Morris and TC. Built on the leading causes of life, the experience was for clergy and lay leaders to help them find their place in their own life, including all that bio-medicine could illuminate. That’s about 10% of what you need, which is where the life logic picks up and that John tuned us toward. He and TC toned the experience beyond medicine toward the light of Jung, especially the part about finding a second life, continually emergent. But no happy talk; emergent is not certain. Possible, but nobody gets out alive.

Some–not all–do live before they die. John did. He let me listen to some of the raw cuts that eventually turned into his album Seven as he was finding his musical voice again. All his addictions were tangled into the musical talent that took him so high and then low. So he was feeling his way to how to sing and preach, too. It is that a musician gets better after finding Jesus. They normally turn sweet, dumb and dishonest. John was still getting better. He dropped a new album in January, Scars, which was maybe his best music since Red Blue Jeans in 88. Pull up his whole library on Spotify and savor.

I cried this morning when I listened to The Stranger, off his album Seven: “I’m not one for higher thinking, I’m not one to bend the truth. But when I was sinking, that Man made me move. Stranger, what do I owe you for lifting such a load? Pass it on, brother, to one beside the road.”

John did that until he just could not do it one more time. Nobody, not even John, can save themselves.

I’m sorry beyond all words for John’s death. But so grateful for the life, now that we can see it complete.

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About garygunderson

Vice President, Faith Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders and Religion and the Heath of the Public. Secretary, Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group).
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