P. Gregory Springer
The Champaign-Urbana News Gazette Weekend
May 12, 1989
Part of being young is the feeling of being indestructible. Josh Gottheil, who died last month after a two-year battle against leukemia, probably understood that he wouldn’t live forever. But he never stopped working to bring the music he loved to the world around him. Rock and roll would carry on.
The punk movement—simultaneously cynical and realist and suicidal and idealistic—tried in a frenzy to wipe out the commercialism and mass media hallucination which blurred life’s realities, even unpleasant ones like death. There were bands named Dead Kennedys, Dead Milkmen, the prototype Dead Boys, and Gottheil’s local band, Dead Relatives.
When he was only a sophomore in high school, Gottheil became a drummer for the short-lived band, but he was no angry punk. He heard the message in the music and he set out, ambitious at a tender age, to deliver it to the community.
At 17, he already had promoted dozens of concerts for teens in community centers and church foundations. He was the least pushy music promoter I ever met, enticing me to see at least one political rock and folk concert through his complete, quiet reticence.
“His eyes would light up and he’d talk fast and you couldn’t help being excited about the band or record he’d discovered, too.”
It was the music that spoke to and through him. At one concert he arranged, I watched Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked get their introductions to the area. And I saw Josh, standing by the door at Mabel’s, anxious to see that the message and the feeling came across.
His bands rarely disappointed.
Among the many other national bands he brought to Champaign’s clubs were Living Colour, They Might Be Giants, Soul Asylum, Throwing Muses, Jane’s Addiction, Dead Milkmen, Husker Du, Let’s Active, Timbuk 3, Ministry, and the Pixies.
“The scene wouldn’t be what it was today without Josh,” said Chris Corpora, an area rock promoter of Trashcan Productions. “He didn’t look the part and he risked his own money. About four years ago he started teen nights when there was a lull in the scene. I don’t want to deify him, but he had an incredible will, poise, and the wherewithal to get contracts signed and do things he probably shouldn’t have been able to do. When I was 15, I couldn’t even read a contract.”
Even in the hard-core punk scene, Josh maintained a romantic side, often bringing roses for the girls in his favorite bands, notably Throwing Muses and the Pixies.
“He was always in love with every girl in a band,” said Katy Stack, one of many people who considered Josh a best friend.
“He made friends with the Pixies and we flew to California to see them play in San Francisco,” Stack said. ‘They invited him on stage to sing.”
For a couple of summers, he worked at the desk at Crystal Lake Pool, announcing the adult swim and checking in bags. After high school, he took some college classes in philosophy and math at Parkland and at the UI, where his father, Fred, is a professor of economics. When he got sick, “it didn’t look like he needed to go to college,” according to Stack. “He was real busy doing all the music and he always had a lot of money. He was the only 16-year-old that had $2,000 in his checking account.”
Another friend, Shara Gingold, actually wrote a book about her crush on Josh.
“He was two years older. The book is called ‘I Love You, Josh. Do You Even Know I Exist?’,” said Gingold, who lives in Urbana. “I think that it was (the fact that) he was very understanding and caring. We’d meet to play tennis and then we’d just sit and hit the tennis ball against the wall and talk about everything.”
Last year, his health started to improve. He gained weight. He was working at Record Swap, surrounding himself in music during the day for the concerts he promoted at night. He had teamed with Chicago promoter Tony Polous, established a limited partnership called Concert One Productions, rented an office in Chicago’s Mercantile Building, and developed the financing for big arena shows.
“Josh was destined to be huge,” said Polous from the Chicago office. “He was the most effective, easy-going person I ever met. It’s not hard to master being pushy and strong. Josh mastered being effective in an unassuming way.
“When he had to go back to the hospital, he never let on how sick he was. Every day I’d call him and he’d ask about what this manager was doing or that agent and he’d make decisions. We never really talked about his health. I never thought he was going to die. I think about him every day.”
Despite his illness, Josh moved to Chicago last fall to be immersed in the music business.
“It was a chance, a break, an exciting thing to do. The world was his to conquer,” said Fred Gottheil from his UI office. “I remember going up to visit and spend the night. The wind was howling, but he was so proud of the apartment. He was designing tickets on his computer, telling me (about) all the bands he had booked, his new ideas, bubbling with enthusiasm for the possibilities. The move was exhilarating for him. He called home quite frequently, but (Chicago) was where he had to be.”
Said former Champaign-Urbana DJ Charlie ‘The Quaker” Edwards, who shared the Chicago apartment, “He had a real vitality, youth, and infectiousness. His eyes would light up and he’d talk fast and you couldn’t help being excited about the band or record he’d discovered, too. Even though there was almost 20 years age difference between us, we’d listen to albums and talk about the bands and share a mutual excitement.
“He was a really good, serious businessman. Much better than I could have been, always dealing with five shows at once. He really loved it, too. He just loved the music.”
“Definitely, there are people who are into (punk) because it is a fad,” Gottheil said three years ago. “But for the people who really believe in it, it won’t die for them.”
Josh Gottheil died April 4 at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, three months short of his 20th birthday. There was a turn-away crowd for his funeral on April 7 at the Sinai Temple in Champaign. Because he did so much to bring a new attitude about music in this area, one of the bands he helped find national prominence, Throwing Muses, has donated its performance at a benefit concert this Sunday at Mabel’s, with proceeds going to the Josh Gottheil Memorial Fund for Lymphoma Research.