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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Featured Stories

Farewell to Frank Kocher, One of the Troubadour’s Finest

by Mike AlvarezMarch 2022

Frank Kocher in 2009.

We at the San Diego Troubadour lost a beloved and valued member of our family just as the holiday season was getting underway. Frank Kocher was a frequent contributor of stories and reviews that were well-regarded for being insightful and well-researched. The subjects of his articles had often expressed their gratitude for his thorough and thoughtful writing. His vast knowledge of music and popular culture gave him the unique capacity to place local artists into a larger context that extended far beyond our region and current era. His listening habits over a lifetime linked many seemingly disparate genres into a cultural continuum. Frank was far more concerned with artistic merit than he was with arbitrarily drawn lines among categories. He had a special place in his heart for blues and rock, but his ear was also open to country, acoustic folk, jazz, fusion, progressive rock… it just had to be “good.” He knew what he liked when he heard it and he could articulate the reasons why with intelligence and passion. When he took on the role of critic, he did so with a gentleman’s sensibility, more often emphasizing the strengths and positive aspects of a work he was reviewing. His opinions and criticisms were delivered with an even-handed, fair approach that could be backed up by his well-informed and wide-ranging listening palate. Troubadour publisher Liz Abbott is generous with her praise for Kocher’s work as well as his work ethic. He always displayed an enthusiasm for story assignments and never turned down work, even if it was requested with very short notice. And his output never disappointed. Sharp-eyed Troubadour readers who caught his name in a story’s byline could be assured of a written piece that would be thoughtful, well-researched, and, most important, very readable. Frank wrote to inform and entertain, not to impress. Yet in so doing, he managed to impress anyway.
My first inkling of the sad news was a social media posting by a mutual friend, which led me to seek out further information. His son Jonny had written a very moving tribute to Frank in which he shared that his father had been ill for a while. “Although we will miss him deeply, we are relieved that he is no longer suffering.” Heartbreaking words indeed. When I spoke with Jonny recently, he noted that while his father had a long history of dealing with a number of serious medical issues, “he always bounced back.” I had the pleasure of getting to know Frank over a period of about 20 years and can attest to that resiliency. For a good number of those years he was actually my boss! We worked in a state government office and, at some point in my career, I was assigned to his team. At first glance he might come across as a little low key and distant, but once he warmed up to you he would eagerly opine about a wide array of topics. Aside from music he loved astronomy, movies, science fiction, and popular culture. He hinted at a very firm stance on political matters, though good sense and office policies kept those kinds of conversations somewhat vague and obtuse. Nevertheless, he made no secret about his participation in protests against the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s, characterizing his political views as “radical.”

Playing his guitar in 1985.

He was born in San Diego and lived in Arizona for part of his life, while his father helped build the Interstate 8 freeway. He attended San Diego State University (although his son says it may have been called San Diego State College during the time he attended), graduating with a degree in political science. Sometimes he would reminisce about the various jobs he held down over the years, including managing a Jack-in-the-Box or driving a truck at ridiculous speeds to keep to a delivery schedule between San Diego and Los Angeles. As a young person in the ’60s and ’70s, he would candidly associate these experiences with the best of the era’s rock music along with all of its trappings. All of them, if you catch my drift. Nevertheless, when I worked with him he took his role as an office manager quite seriously and made the effort to maintain a professional distance from those under his supervision. The occasional glimpse into the man himself helped to make long days of staring at computers and doing paperwork a bit more pleasant. The hint of a smile or even an outright chuckle from him spoke volumes. Sure, there were times when we employees called him just about every name in the book, but that was mostly under our breath and it was just business. We all knew he was one of the good guys whose main goal was to always do the right thing. We didn’t always make it easy for him, either. Over time we did become aware that he was coping with a number of health issues, but he persevered. His work ethic and iron will got him through situations that might have justified calling it a day, yet he soldiered on. He often had towel in hand but refused to throw it in.

Frank with his two young sons, Jonny and Tom, 1987

As dedicated as he was to his career, it must be said that his family was the most important thing in his life. On the occasions where I saw him with his wife Marcia, he seemed to be a wholly different person. He smiled a lot more and his spirit seemed so much lighter. Jonny confirms that his dad loved her deeply and always treated her with respect. A very touching moment was revealed in his written tribute: “…when I asked him for any advice on raising a family, he said ‘find mom.’” Even though he downplayed his own efforts, it’s easy to see that Frank worked hard at being a good husband and father, as he passed on his work ethic and sense of humanity to his sons. “He didn’t spoil us but we never did without.” Over the years the family would enjoy road trips to many National Parks all across the country. While Frank hated to fly, he found other ways to experience the many natural sights around the country with his wife and sons. Jonny credits his father with giving him a love of nature and science as well as an enjoyment of playing the guitar, though he confesses that he doesn’t pick up the instrument as often as his dad did. I can recall a number of times when Frank would talk animatedly about driving out to the mountains on cold, clear nights in search of an unpolluted spot to view planets, nebulae, and galaxies with his family. He was a member of the San Diego Amateur Astronomer’s Association and was the proud owner of seven telescopes. Not only do his sons share some of his passions, they have also established themselves as accomplished professionals. Jonny is an energy engineer and climate policy researcher while his older brother Thomas is a medical doctor.

On a family cruise, 2001.

It didn’t take long for Frank to reveal his particular fondness for guitar music. He and I had many discussions about our favorite players, and he was a guitarist himself. Among his favorite artists were Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, U2, the Police, Tom Petty, the Beatles and the Who. He and I would frequently share CDs and DVDs from our respective personal collections and discuss their merits. We would also talk about the live performances we witnessed. While his concert-going days were largely behind him by the time I worked with him, he definitely was of an age that allowed him to see a lot of classic acts while I was still working my way through grade school. One memory he shared was the time Cream played at SDSU while he was a student. While working at the venue he managed to get in close proximity to the band. He expressed surprise at how physically small they were, especially Eric Clapton, who most of us would consider a larger-than-life figure due to his stature in music. However, one must keep in mind that Frank was quite a tall gentleman so a large percentage of humanity would probably strike him as “small,” Consistent with his low-key personality he tended to downplay his own musical abilities, deferring to people he considered to be more accomplished musicians. But at his retirement party, which I helped to plan, we recruited some talent amongst the office staff and put together a jam session featuring our guest of honor as the lead guitarist. The self-described “dabbler” caused quite a few jaws to drop with the fiery blues rock licks and solid rhythms he coaxed from his vintage Fender Telecaster. In the weeks following his departure from the workplace, people were still expressing astonishment at what they witnessed. During some rare time off, it appeared that good ol’ Frank had taken a side trip to the crossroads! Yet it turns out he was also religious and enjoyed playing in a church band. As he settled into retirement Frank pursued other artistic endeavors as well. While I didn’t socialize with him much, we did keep in touch via social media. One day I was delighted to see pictures of his paintings posted online. They displayed a well-considered sensibility for composition, color, and lighting, once again demonstrating the depths that flowed beneath his taciturn exterior. He was gifted with a painter’s eye as well as a bluesman’s heart. As such, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that he was following in the footsteps of both parents who were accomplished visual artists in their own right.

Jimi Ames (center) plays with the Farmers on a regular basis (with Jerry and Nathan Raney).

While speaking to Jimi Ames, a longtime musical friend, I learned that Frank had another talent that went unmentioned during the time I knew him: he was an accomplished pedal steel and lap steel guitar player! Ames had known Frank for over 30 years, and they were once members of the Durham Street Dirtbags. This group of like-minded musicians in the El Cajon area got together to make music for the sheer fun of it. Frank’s enthusiasm for playing was such that even when he was battling cancer he made the effort to show up. After Frank and Jimi’s association with the Dirtbags came to an end, the two of them decided to continue playing together in Jimi’s home studio. It was in this setting that Frank brought out his pedal steel guitar and demonstrated his prowess. According to Ames, “He knew I would let him play what he wanted to play. He was a great guitarist and a better lap steel player. When he was feeling good he was in his element!” He remembers those sessions fondly and unabashedly confesses, “When he asked me to play together I asked myself ‘how lucky can I be?’ He entertained us. He was a pretty accomplished musician.” High praise, indeed, from Ames, a man who can sometimes be seen playing harmonica on stage with the Farmers! His unabashed affection and respect for Frank is all too apparent when he states, “That dude was special in my book. I can’t even understand he’s even gone.”
The last time I saw Frank, it was a sunny afternoon at the Downtown Cafe in El Cajon a few years ago. I was getting ready to play a few songs as the accompanist to Dave Humphries before the Farmers performed a blistering headlining set. It should not have been a surprise to see him and Marcia walk in, as he was a longtime supporter of the legendary local rockers. He looked a lot happier and healthier than I remembered from our working days. The absence of stress and the freedom to pursue his interests were exactly what the doctor ordered. Retirement was good for him, and I’m gratified that he was able to enjoy it for well over a dozen years. His son shares that sentiment, adding that his dad was happy for his entire retirement. He was able to read, write, play music, and do arts and crafts. He never got bored because he stayed busy doing the things he loved. Notable among those pursuits was his stint as a music journalist for the San Diego Troubadour. He was prolific, and his enthusiasm for each and every assignment was evident in every word he wrote. I like to think that he relished having a public outlet for his insights. And I am equally certain that his efforts were well appreciated by his readers. Rest well, Frank. You are remembered and missed by all whose lives you touched.

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