Signs Of The Times

Driven by an ob­ses­sion and a de­vo­tion to mu­sic John Bren­nan has amassed a huge col­lec­tion of rock-star sig­na­tures. He talks to Clas­sic Rock about 40 years of pa­tience and seiz­ing the mo­ment.

Classic Rock - - Contents -

John Bren­nan has amassed a huge col­lec­tion of rock-star sig­na­tures. He tells us about 40 years of pa­tience and seiz­ing the mo­ment.

It’s late one night in Man­hat­tan in 1985, and Mick Jag­ger is try­ing, and fail­ing, to hail a cab. Dark­ness fell long ago, and in a way unimag­in­able to­day, the Rolling Stone is on the street alone. He paces to the cor­ner and back, not un­duly con­cerned, even as New York’s night-denizens si­dle up want­ing au­to­graphs or cash. Fi­nally, Jag­ger turns to the only face he recog­nises, the only one who’s al­ways here out­side the stu­dio, and is now, uniquely, of­fer­ing to help. “Okay, let’s do it,” he de­cides, jump­ing into John Bren­nan’s car. The rock star and rock’s most re­lent­less au­to­graph hunter are go­ing for a ride.

“It’s al­most as clear now as it was then,” Bren­nan says. “We were on 48th street. My friend sat in the back seat, Mick was in the pas­sen­ger seat and I drove to his place. And he was com­fort­able with us, be­cause he had al­ready seen us pretty much ev­ery­where. I’m in space. It was in­sane. I’m look­ing at Mick with­out star­ing, and we’re talk­ing about U2, Spring­steen and Char­lie. At the lights, a guy looks over, then back, like, what did I just see? And then we got to his house he said: ‘Good night, guys,’ and went in.”

Bren­nan once lived for such rare in­ti­ma­cies, push­ing him­self past the usual fans’ re­la­tion­ship with stars. At New York record stores they called him the Dude, and Cap­tain Sneaks among the tight com­mu­nity of fel­low collectors. A strap­ping New Eng­lan­der far from the nerdy vis­ual stereo­type for such ac­tiv­i­ties, he amassed thou­sands of au­to­graphs, usu­ally with ac­com­pa­ny­ing pho­tos, in a strange sort of ca­reer which lasted un­til self­ies and pro­duc­tion-line mee­tand-greets put a stop to his world.

Bren­nan has sur­faced as a pub­lic fig­ure him­self in 2018, as he starts to sell some of a col­lec­tion which time and rock stars’ deaths is ren­der­ing ever more valu­able.

“If there’s one thing that would put me on the brink of in­san­ity,” an ex­as­per­ated Dave Grohl scrib­bled af­ter Nir­vana’s 1993 New Year’s Eve

MTV show, “it would def­i­nitely be sign­ing au­to­graphs all day long.” Iron­i­cally, that in­scrip­tion in­creased the value of a photo signed by all the mem­bers of Nir­vana, its $14,323 price tag eclips­ing even a Bob Dy­lan-signed copy of The Free­wheelin’ Bob Dy­lan, a set of Grate­ful Dead sig­na­tures and a Stones-signed gui­tar in a land­mark auc­tion in May.

Lu­cra­tive as it is, though, this is the side-prod­uct of an ob­ses­sion. As Bren­nan thinks back to other en­coun­ters with the Stones on long-gone New York nights, he casts au­to­graph-hunt­ing in a nos­tal­gic, bo­hemian glow.

“When the Stones were record­ing, I would see them all the time,” he re­calls. “They would go in at ten or eleven at night. The garbage men are com­ing in the mid­dle of the night. Peo­ple are clos­ing the restau­rants and com­ing the next lunchtime to open them, and the Stones are still in there record­ing. And we’re not mov­ing. There re­ally was noth­ing else. Here we are with the Stones, and no­body else knows. Nowa­days, some­one would tweet it and peo­ple would come in their hun­dreds.”

Shel­ton, Con­necti­cut is the sort of Amer­i­can small town that fu­ture rock stars yearn to es­cape from. The Bren­nans had lived there for gen­er­a­tions. But in 1975, mu­sic set 11-year-old John on his own, more ad­ven­tur­ous path.

“When I found out about rock’n’roll with Kiss and Led Zep­pelin, it ex­ploded in my head and opened up ev­ery­thing for me,” he ex­plains. “It was ex­tremely elec­tric. In those days it wasn’t so easy to find out about things. It was like I’d dis­cov­ered a se­cret.”

Drag­ging his par­ents to see The Song Re­mains

The Same and ac­tu­ally watch­ing Led Zep­pelin re­in­forced his de­vo­tion to Jimmy Page in par­tic­u­lar. Bren­nan played gui­tar, but “didn’t have the pa­tience” to try to em­u­late his he­roes. In­stead, like most of us, he found a rock role in “the bench po­si­tion”. “First I col­lected records, then slept out for con­cert tick­ets,” he re­calls. “I had to get one step closer.”

A chance en­counter with the B-52s on a 1979 fam­ily hol­i­day got him his first au­to­graphs. “Then I started try­ing to meet bands, and traded with peo­ple for au­to­graphs which I found out were not gen­uine. That added to the al­lure, and the idea that I have to go out and get my record signed. Wher­ever I’d go, I would carry my records. I’d lis­ten to Van Halen and want to play gui­tar, but that was my out­let: to get my al­bums signed by my favourite artists.”

May’s auc­tion tak­ings sug­gest this was a pre­scient de­sire. Back then it was unique. “I was alone a lot,” he says, “be­cause I was go­ing for bands that peo­ple who just col­lect au­to­graphs weren’t even think­ing about. The orig­i­nal com­mu­nity of au­to­graph seek­ers was formed in the mid-80s in the heart of Man­hat­tan. Some came from col­lect­ing sports au­to­graphs, some from tak­ing pic­tures. I came from fol­low­ing the band.”

The 150-mile round trip from sleepy Shel­ton to New York be­came his daily hob­by­ist’s com­mute. The Scor­pi­ons’ tour man­ager got him to drive the band to their gig on the 1982 Black­out tour, then Van Halen’s 1984 tour re­in­forced the rush. “Once I got to New York and was in the mid­dle of the ex­cite­ment, I’d go home to school, and come right back,” Bren­nan says. “Once I had found the city, I never left. It was a cur­rent I couldn’t get out of. It was what I loved, and once I got there I never turned around.”

“I was com­pletely mo­ti­vated by mu­sic. Most celebri­ties just see peo­ple who want to meet them for other rea­sons.”

John Bren­nan

Is ‘ad­dic­tion’ too strong a word?

“Ex­treme fo­cus,” he first sug­gests. “Yeah, ad­dic­tion – sure. It was mostly healthy. It cer­tainly kept me fo­cused, and out of trou­ble. As a fifteen, six­teen, sev­en­teen-year-old it gave me I guess you could say skills to set goals, and plan. And you have to learn how to con­tain your ex­cite­ment. Artists steer away from that.”

His in­no­cent in­ten­tions helped.

“I was com­pletely mo­ti­vated by mu­sic. Most celebri­ties just see peo­ple who want to meet them for other rea­sons. With me it was al­ways go­ing to be some dis­cus­sion with them about al­bums. I was an open book.”

The lobby of the Parker Meridian ho­tel be­came Bren­nan’s sec­ond home in the 80s, as it was to many of rock’s MTV stars.

“Ev­ery way you turned there was some­thing go­ing on,” he says with en­thu­si­asm.

“Ev­ery­body was there.” Wait­ing for Van

Halen, he’d watch Du­ran Du­ran pur­sued by scream­ing girls, Aero­smith check in to carouse. Step­ping through the look­ing glass to their world’s edge, it was ev­ery­thing he’d hoped.

“In those days there was still a lot of par­ty­ing,” he con­firms, “and young bands out in night­clubs all night long. It was New York City be­fore it ‘mod­ernised’. It was a twen­ty­four-hour thing. It was wild, and I was young.”

The mys­tery of such an all-con­sum­ing life­style is: how on earth did he do it – how could a full­time au­to­graph hunter sur­vive?

“I went to col­lege,” he says of his re­luc­tant down time. “And I had oc­ca­sional re­la­tion­ships, which all suf­fered be­cause, you know. I was dat­ing my hobby, and try­ing to date girls at the same time. I was al­ways look­ing for records, and go­ing to shows. It re­ally was all I cared about. It com­pletely elim­i­nated high school or col­lege frat par­ties. There were a few friends. I took one who was a Steely

Dan fan along with me to meet Don­ald Fa­gen, and an­other to meet Mick Jag­ger. But this was it.”

Could he hold down a job?

“No sig­nif­i­cant jobs. Be­cause even­tu­ally U2’s com­ing into town or some­thing. As I got older I started sell­ing records and stuff in mag­a­zines. Then when I grad­u­ated col­lege, do I find some­thing else to do? But I didn’t know any­thing else the way I knew this. There was noth­ing else.”

Bren­nan’s pas­sion­ate pur­suit has a dark side, em­bod­ied by au­to­graph hunt­ing’s an­tiChrist, Mark Chap­man. John Len­non dili­gently signed Chap­man’s copy of Dou­ble Fan­tasy, only to be re­paid in bul­lets hours later. This was cer­tainly on Ge­orge Har­ri­son’s mind when Bren­nan cor­nered the most elu­sive then-liv­ing Bea­tle for his sig­na­ture. “Sure, I’ll do it – so long as you don’t kill me,” the Quiet One re­sponded dryly.

“When I first started try­ing to meet peo­ple, I was blind to all of that,” Bren­nan ad­mits. “There were a lot of crazy peo­ple around for a lot of years. I was in a lot of sit­u­a­tions in crowds with peo­ple who may have set some alerts with se­cu­rity. Michael Jack­son would al­ways come out of a garage or

“The in­ter­net and eBay changed ev­ery­thing… Most young peo­ple

want self­ies in­stead.”

John Bren­nan

some­thing, but still very few artists tried to avoid crowds in those days. Now, most of them do.”

Bren­nan’s hide must have been as tough as a rhino’s. But he was fur­ther in­su­lated by gen­uine mu­si­cal de­vo­tion, which meant he had al­ready amassed ev­ery Guns N’ Roses record for po­ten­tial sign­ing, gun-shaped Par­adise City 10-inch with hol­ster sleeve and all, when they be­came per­haps his great­est ob­ses­sion.

“When I started do­ing this,” he rem­i­nisces, “Van Halen, Aero­smith and the Stones were al­ready su­per-huge. With Guns N’ Roses, I was in the rev­o­lu­tion while it was ex­plod­ing. It wasn’t like this con­trolled at­mos­phere other bands had. The first time I met Van Halen they were a ma­chine, with high-tech se­cu­rity and their own body­guards. Guns N’ Roses had some of that, but it was chaos.”

He met Slash shar­ing a cig­a­rette in Chicago, and gath­ered the rest of the orig­i­nal band’s au­to­graphs as they par­tied across Amer­ica.

“The thing I iden­ti­fied with most was Guns N’ Roses,” he says. “That clas­sic rock, dam­ag­ing gui­tar sound, and the chaos.”

Bren­nan’s mu­sic fa­nati­cism also gave him a head start on the Seat­tle scene, get­ting to know Jeff Ament and Stone Gos­sard when Mother Love Bone were a sup­port act. The 90s, though, be­gan the slow de­cline of the hobby that had been his life.

“The in­ter­net and eBay changed ev­ery­thing,” he sighs. “For au­to­graphs, eighty per cent saw it as a com­mod­ity, and were out for money. Most younger peo­ple want self­ies in­stead. Then af­ter the in­ter­net took away the sale of mu­sic, artists started sell­ing their time at meet-and-greets and pack­ages. But when you meet them, it’s all con­trolled. It’s not re­ally you and the artist, it’s busi­ness, staged.” No one has Mick Jag­ger in their car any more. Bren­nan still talks long­ingly of cru­cial David Gil­mour au­to­graphs he’s miss­ing (and sounds quite miserable when I tell him the for­mer Pink Floyd gui­tarist is a reg­u­lar at my lo­cal Brighton chip­pie). But re­ally, that life for him is done. Has any­thing re­placed it?

“San­ity,” he says im­me­di­ately. “I’ve been rais­ing a fam­ily for years.”

Bren­nan is still a mu­sic fan. And his ex­tra­or­di­nary col­lec­tion has be­come that rare thing: a fan’s legacy.

“For most of my life un­til now, I’ve re­sisted sell­ing it,” he con­sid­ers. “I got the name Sneaks be­cause I didn’t want any at­ten­tion while I was col­lect­ing. Now it’s like: what’s go­ing to hap­pen if I don’t tell my sto­ries? What’s the point?”

Mem­o­ries pre­oc­cupy him more than the pos­ses­sions that once dec­o­rated his youth­ful “man cave”: the night Bowie stepped out of the stu­dio to chat one freez­ing New York night, or a con­ver­sa­tion prised out of Dy­lan.

“So many nights of keep­ing your head up, and go­ing home with noth­ing,” he re­flects. “I had a long drive back late at night, and a long time to think about it, and I had my mu­sic on. That was the drug. The mu­sic made me come back the next day. It never would have lasted as long as it did with­out that foun­da­tion.” RR Auc­tions’ next sale from the John Bren­nan Col­lec­tion is in Novem­ber. rrauc­

Words: Nick Hasted

Bren­nan with Ed­dieVan Halen and (right) Dave Grohl.

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