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The Crazy Legend of Slowhand Jack
On May 29, 2015, Cleveland lost one of its greatest musical treasures. This is the story of his life, or at least the legend he shared every chance he got.
Once in a lifetime, this world spits out a profoundly unique specimen of humanity, one who is so individually beautiful, so pure—and yet unrefined—that there simply cannot be another remotely like him. Or, as Hunter S. Thompson once put it, "One of God’s own prototypes: some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die."
One of these glorious beasts of a man was Jack Labgold, better known around the Cleveland area as Slowhand Jack. A slightly wobbly man who shredded on guitar like Jimmy Page, his hair was long and untamed, his laugh insane and infectious, the tales he'd tell nothing short of legendary.
By the time he died on May 29, 2015, at 62, he had cemented a legacy in the Cleveland rock world as an intense, prolific songwriter and guitar maestro. He even starred in a movie and had cameo roles in several other films.
When given the chance, Jack would tell crazy stories about his encounters with myriad luminaries, from Eric Clapton and Britney Spears to Bill Clinton and the Pope. Whether or not these stories were 100% accurate never really mattered, as Jack told them with such animated conviction; life was better assuming these things had really happened.
These anecdotes made Slowhand Jack epic in his own eyes, as well as to those of us lucky enough to spend time in his presence.
What we can prove about Jack Labgold is pretty simple: he was born on September 13, 1952 to Elise and Marvin Labgold. He was raised in the Cleveland area, attended Willowick High School, and took classes at Kent State University. He moved to Los Angeles in the mid 70's, where he lived most of his adult life.
Then in 2007, Jack resurfaced in Lakewood, Ohio, as a self-proclaimed rock god, with a trove of stories to explain the past few decades.
He recorded six albums with Jib Machine Records by the time he died, played several concerts, appeared as a recurring guest on the "Jib Nation" radio show, played the lead role in the indie film The Prophet of Lake Erie, and did cameo roles in a few other local films.
"Jack was a mad genius," says John "Charlie" Templeman, co-founder and president of Jib Machine Records. "He always came to the studio and knew exactly what he wanted. He knew the structure he wanted for the song, knew the tempo and instrumentation it should include, and he was always prepared from a performance and lyric standpoint. Aside from his obvious quirks, he was a professional in the studio, and he had a clear vision of what he wanted for each song. Fortunately, I was able to translate that for him, and put down the best possible versions we could to tape.
"Ultimately, we took a chance on him because we really had nothing to lose...other than credibility; there were some people who didn't 'get it' and thought we lost our minds). In hindsight, I'm very glad we did, because it allowed him to fulfill his dream and enjoy the last few years of his life. That is why I started the label in the first place- to not only brand and distribute my music, but the music of artists who people otherwise might never hear of."
This was how Jack first came to my attention. James Neyman of WLFK Productions was shooting a promo video for Jib Machine, and sent me a clip of Jack talking about how he wanted to be in our next movie.
As many of these things go, it started with us joking about writing a quick scene, just to have him crucified like Jesus, which Jack seemed to think was hilarious. This small idea quickly spiraled out of control; before we knew it, we were planning a short film starring Jack as a vagrant musician who tries to save the city of Cleveland from the total destruction that would result if the Cargill salt mines collapsed beneath Lake Erie.
To be totally honest, when I first met Jack at Jib Machine to talk about the script, I wasn't sure what to make of him. He was clearly a little "off," but how much of this was him toying with his audience?
Then we watched some playback of footage from his Wack Pack pitch video to the Howard Stern show, and I saw that Jack was in total control of his performance. As he watched the monitor, he made sure he had gotten all of his lines out and looked around to ensure that we were all chuckling at the right moments.
It was then that I realized Jack was defining his own legend, on his own terms. Sure, he was a little wacky, but then again, so are all of the interesting people in this world.
I made a point to confer with him while writing the screenplay to The Prophet of Lake Erie, to ensure that his character was one he could truly embrace. I spent hours and days working with him on his lines, tweaking the script with his input. The result was a triumph: Jack was better prepared and grounded for his role than some of the "professional" actors in the cast, and nailed pretty much every scene he was in. When the film premiered at the Ohio Independent Film Festival in 2011, the audience went wild for Slowhand Jack.
Then there was his own legend.
Most of the following can be verified only through video footage of Jack for a documentary project that, unfortunately, will likely never be completed, since he died before it could be finished. Luckily, a lot of this footage is available online, which means it MUST be real, right?
Jack fell in love with music as a wee lad in Northeast Ohio. "I first picked up a guitar when I was 5 years old," Jack said, "living in Little Italy. My mother told me that she bought me a toy guitar, and I was imitating Elvis." Turned onto music by The Beatles, Jack became obsessed with rock & roll, enamored with greats like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. He emulated his idols, learning how to play guitar by going over and over their songs until he played them like a natural reflex.
The Rolling Stones were definitely among the upper echelon for Jack. As fate would have it, Jack became friends with the Stones’ lead singer along the way. "Yeah, I know Mick Jagger personally."
It should be noted that most of Jack's encounters—including their original meeting--took place in a hospital (though he never got around to explaining why he was hospitalized).
"I'm in the hospital," said Jack. "All of the sudden, this cool dude comes in, with shoulder-length hair. The first thing that he says is, 'Hi, I'm Mick Jagger. Excuse me, Jack, I have to get my methadone shot.' He goes to the nursing station, and they inject him with methadone, because he's coming down from heroin. That's the only way he's coming down.
"Mick Jagger's a genius, musically, and as a person. He's never going to OD. He took all the drugs!
"Anyway, he came in and stayed for a week, and we became good friends. The dude burns about 15 pounds when he's on stage. I watched him down a 16-inch submarine sandwich in 10 minutes! He could outrace a thoroughbred!"
Jack had recorded himself playing Eric Clapton's "Cocaine," and he gave a copy to Jagger. "I believe my version is better than Clapton's. Now, Mick wouldn't tell anybody they were great...but he said I was good, and I was going to make a lot of money from it."
This sentiment apparently made its way to Clapton, who was so threatened that he hopped on a plane to confront Jack. "He was kind of jealous," Jack said, "because I played better on that song than he did!
"Look, don't get me wrong. Eric Clapton's a great blues guitarist and vocalist. But I was a better guitarist on 'Cocaine.'
"So, I'm sitting in my apartment in Lakewood, on a hot, summer day. All of the sudden I hear, 'Jack Labgold! Come out with your Stratocaster!'
"So I grab my guitar, come out, walk to the bus stop. They're waiting for me with his trademark black and white Eric Clapton Stratocaster. They named a guitar after him! They might end up making one after me, who knows.
"So he's playing, he has his beard, he has his glasses, hiding the brown, sad eyes of Eric Clapton. He's playing these Eric Clapton blues numbers...and I pick up on them, and I go into 'Sunshine of Your Love' by Cream. HAHA!" Jack laughs like a madman. "I'm playing his music, goofing on him!
"I was really into it. I played such a performance, for 45 minutes, I think I lost 5 or 10 pounds. I put everything into it. We were both going back and forth. He's about 20 feet away from me, on the other side of the bus stop.
"After a half anhour, he quits! He puts his guitar down, he quits, and walks away. I'm still playing! I'm so hyped up and into it, I keep on playing for another 15 minutes! He quit and went home."
That's when Jack claimed his crown. "This was a duel between Slowhand Eric Clapton and Slowhand Jack Labgold! Slowhand Jack Labgold WON, because Eric Clapton quit! Slowhand Jack Labgold kept on playing! I took the title 'Slowhand' away from Eric Clapton, and I've been calling myself Slowhand Jack Labgold ever since."
Naturally, Jack also knew Britney Spears. "So, I'm in the hospital, and none other than Ms. Britney Spears walks in. Absolutely! I recognized her just like that," snapping his finger for emphasis. "But I didn't say anything, because she wanted me to believe she was a student at Lakeland Community College. But then later, she told me who she was, and that she was playing a gig in Toronto.
"I was in the hospital for about six weeks, and she came there every day, entertaining me and other patients. She insisted on Cocoa Puff for breakfast every day!" He follows this up with his trademark bellowing laugh, that plays like its own 10-second song. "HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"
Jack's stories didn't just involve musicians. There was the time when he ran into Charlton Heston, "and he keeps saying, 'the Ten Commandments! The Ten Commandments!' over and over again! And I said, 'I'm not going to get into an argument with Moses about the Ten Commandments.'"
Slowhand Jack also came to know a handful of politicians over the years.
"I'm in the hospital," he'd say, "and George Bush Sr. walks in with his beloved wife, the former first lady. This was when George W. Bush was President.
"And I told them this joke: there's two Bushes. They drank so much Busch beer, they had another Bush. That Bush drank so much Busch beer...he fucked up the economy for 20 years!"
Jack was so deeply interested in politics that he tried to get nominated as the Democratic candidate for President in 2004. "I go to this big political meeting downtown. At the meeting, onstage is Dennis Kucinich, Mayor Jane Campbell, everybody in Cleveland that's important.
"I had short hair, I dressed up in a suit, I was very presentable, because I wanted to be a Presidential candidate.
"During the middle of the meeting, I stood up, because I knew everybody would take my picture. Sure enough, they started taking my picture. Flashbulbs are going off.
"I'm standing there, when all of the sudden in the back of me, I heard this voice, in an Arkansas Southern accent, real forceful, saying, 'would you PLEASE sit down?!'
"I look, and it's none other than our former President Bill Clinton! So I sat down real fast.
"I waited until the meeting was over. I had a tapestry in my hand that was a present for Mayor Campbell. It's a tapestry of Jesus. When the meeting was over, I get up, and go towards the stage, to present this tapestry to Mayor Campbell. All of the sudden, Cleveland Police come up to Slowhand Jack. They go, 'that's enough, man. That's enough! You're going out of here!'
"So, they take me out of the place, and put me in cuffs. I still have the tapestry, so I go, 'listen, this is a gift for Mayor Campbell! Or else I want $25 for it.'
"They said, 'no, man, you're not gonna get no $25 for it.' Then they put me in the car, and drive me off. So, that's how that scene went."
For all the celebrity stories he'd share, meeting the Pope was his most treasured experience. He'd begin the story by pointing out, "This is the most important man I ever met in my whole life.
"I'm in the hospital, and I'm walking down the hallway. I see this man in priest's clothes. I go up to him and say, 'are you visiting?' He says, 'yes,' and I start talking to him.
"I was wearing a necklace with a cross, and he asked if I wanted him to bless the cross. I go, 'of course!' So he takes it off of me, blesses it, and puts it back on me. Then he gave me a picture, and it says 'Pope John Paul II' on it, with him in his whole Pope uniform!
"I put the picture away in my pocket, and we start walking down the hallway, talking. When you're in a Pope's presence, you walk very carefully. He was traveling incognito; there was nobody with him, just him and me.
"We talked for about two hours. I asked him questions about the Church, how he felt about certain issues. We had a nice chat.
"Then, I started getting tired. I really couldn't stay up any longer, because they already gave me my bedtime meds. So he starts walking with me, back towards my room. When we got to my room, he stopped...and I asked him a question: 'Do you think I'm going to go to Heaven, or Hell?'
"His answer was, 'It all depends on if you lived a good, Christian life.' And with that answer, I go back to my room, and I go to sleep."
On the evening of Thursday, May 28, 2015, Slowhand Jack Labgold went to sleep in his own bed, in his own bedroom, at a house he shared with friends in Lakewood. He passed away in his sleep.
Whether or not his life was Christian enough to earn a spot in Heaven is up to Jack and God. But if the impact he left on those of us lucky enough to call him a friend is any indicator, then Jack is surely rocking out next to the Almighty, telling the angels his crazy tales, and making everybody laugh their asses and wings off.