A life well lived and an exceptional death

Author, musician died in the same way he lived: exceptionally

JACKSON, Wyo. – John Byrne Cooke died, and that’s too bad for the written word. He was a writer, and a good one. He was a musician, too, and as he died he was surrounded by the music of his friends.

The son of Alistair Cooke, the long-time host of “Masterpiece Theater,” Cooke lived in Jackson Hole, where he had moved in 1982 after bucking hay bales one summer on a nearby ranch.

John Byrne Cook

The Jackson Hole News&Guide explains that he  had grown up in New York City listening obsessively to Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Burl Ives. Later, studying romance languages at Harvard, he joined a band as a guitar player and singer. That led to engagements at a famous folk club in Cambridge, where he began photographing Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and other emerging stars on the folk circuit, which in turn put him at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. That’s where he first heard Janis Joplin.

“I was just drop-jawed from astonishment at this woman’s vocal power,” he told an interviewer many years later. He became her road manager and, in 1970, was the person who found her dead of an overdose in her hotel room in Los Angeles.

His writing had great span. One of his books, “Snowblind Moon,” was a novel framed in the mountain man era of the northern Rockies. He also wrote about his work with Janis Joplin. One of the members of her back-up band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, had this to say: “Most, most important you get Janis right, and I can feel her and she is alive when I read your book.”

He also wrote book reviews for the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide says he was a regular as a musician in Jackson Hole, performing in the house band at the Stagecoach, a bar.

For his own passing, musician friends gathered around his hospital bed as he died of cancer, playing his favorite songs. He went out as they sang “Love at the Five and Dime.” Then they played “I Shall be Released.”


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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