A Band Of Friends: John Finbury’s ’70 Journey Of Music

The recent and ongoing construction of the Music and Campus Center has given many time to reflect on the music programs at Middlesex. While it is true that music programs at MX have never had a home worthy of its talent, most recently residing in the refurbished phone booths in the basement of the Warburg Library, music has always been a thriving and much-loved entity on campus. Just ask John Finbury, class of 1970, who notes that music “was a very important feature of my Middlesex experience. Learning to play an instrument, making music, playing music with others, trying to get good and sound good collectively, working together inventing parts, playing live, these all became the animating engines of my life.”

John’s love of music at Middlesex began with the band he played in called Ten Foot Clearance. He played the drums alongside Matt Carleback ‘69, Bill Browning ‘69, Coleman Hoyt ‘70, and Steve Ohler ‘70. The band not only performed on the Terry Room stage, but also, in the summer of ‘69 lived at Matt’s house in Chappaqua, New York playing at fancy parties, at yacht clubs, and at The Bitter End in The Village. Of this time John says, “I think we made more money and friends that summer than I did over the next 10 years.”

In true Middlesex form however, John was not simply a musician and a student athlete. Indeed, he was the editor of the Middlesex literary magazine, The Ikon. In a forward thinking moment that was also “shamelessly opportunistic,” John turned the magazine into a multimedia presentation, using part of the budget to produce the band’s record. The complete record was distributed with The Ikon that year to the entire school and is, as John jokingly puts it, “a valuable collector’s item.” Aptly, the band members won the Thoreau Prize for Music at graduation that year.

After graduation, John attended Middlebury College for two years, before studying abroad in Paris with  Middlesex grads, Gordon Rathbun ‘70 and Steven Zinsser’s ‘71 older brother, David. There, he took his love of music to the next level, going to movies, museums, and blues bars. John frequently attended the performances of blues pianist and singer Memphis Slim throughout the year of 1972. This experience fueled John’s desire to study music and piano at the Longy School of Music, while attending Boston University, where he eventually completed his bachelor’s degree. In 1979, John composed a jazz soundtrack for “Portraits from the 2 O’Clock Lounge,” a TV documentary about Boston’s legendary “Combat Zone” nightclub. Most of his rock and R&B songs were purchased by Fervor Records.

His musical journey continued, and by 1980, John was running The Salem Theatre, a one-screen, 900-seat movie theatre in Salem, Massachusetts. He soon transformed the theatre into a concert hall that came to host such greats as B.B King, Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson, T. Bone Burnett, REM, Eric Burton, The Animals, and the Pat Metheny Group. John notes that “it was a great run, but it was, shall we say, financially unstable.” Therefore, in 1983 John enrolled in law school at Northeastern. In 1988 he joined his family practice in Haverhill, Massachusetts with his father and brother, Dan Finbury ‘72. This transition did not temper his practice and love of music: “I have been practicing law and piano ever since.” Indeed, John has been writing songs for 35 years.

Most recently, in 2014, John began composing and recording a Brazilian Jazz and Bossa Nova album, which was released in 2015 (www.cdbaby.com/cd/johnfinbury2) and five songs were nominated for the 2015 American Songwriting Awards.

John’s success and hard work is obvious. In light of the fact that John has come in contact with amazing artists and noteworthy names over the years, it is humbling and yet, not so surprising of a Middlesex alum, that when asked who inspired him, John mentions his classmate, Matt Carlebach ‘69. In his own words he writes,

“Matt was especially inspirational to me. He was a fine musician and an incredible person. Matt had cystic fibrosis and was always sick and coughing; and yet, here he was when I knew him, 18-19 years old, accomplished on his instrument, the super cool Hammond B-3 organ, playing his butt off every day, serious about the band and making music well. Matt was funny, talented, and kind. Here was a young man who was the embodiment of someone overcoming obstacles, with grace and good humor. Matt got the raw health deal and nevertheless, he made the most out of his time. Having played with Matt, I had drunk the proverbial Kool-Aide, and I have been on some kind of musical journey ever since. I think about Matt (who died in 1977) frequently.”

And just like that John demonstrates that though life can take you in all sorts of directions, your inspiration may come from fellow Zebras who helped you find your promise.