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Peace Out: Remembering John Burton

“Life is a flicker. Burn bright as you can, while you can. Shine Light. Fly free my Brother, my friend, my bandmate, drummer and percussionist extraordinaire John Burton” – Ed Levy

By Julie Horner

Ben Lomond drummer John Burton was remembered with two public celebrations of life this winter, one at Joe’s Bar, the other at the Brookdale Lodge. According to his younger brother Bill Burton, “John suffered an extreme heart attack at Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz. He may not have sensed it, but you know how sometimes when you’re not feeling good you go to the ocean.” John was 69.

John and Bill shared the family home on Alba Road in Ben Lomond. Bill was 10 when they moved from the East Bay to Ben Lomond in 1970 when their father, William Burton, a peace activist, builder, and drummer, became the Director of the 230-acre Sequoia Center, a campground and retreat property on Alba Road. At home the brothers worked on cars, and John soon returned to the East Bay in his rebuilt Austin-Healey to finish high school and participate in the Berkeley High School Marching Band.

The Power of Music and Activism was John’s Calling

While attending UC Berkeley in 1974 John met environmental activist Barry Ziskin, and the two hosted solar-versus-nuclear programming on KPFA community radio. John graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Conservation of Natural Resources. Barry had graduated the year before and gone to work at the California Energy Commission at the State Capitol in Sacramento. Directly after university, John joined his friend on the team brainstorming California solar energy policy under the first Jerry Brown administration.

Following the call of entrepreneur and inventor, John and another California Energy Commission co-worker, Jeffrey Reiss, developed a solar chimney intended to cool homes by convection of air heated by passive solar energy. The two visionaries made the front cover of New Shelter Magazine. Bill remembers, “John and I took a trip to China together in 1983 to visit our parents right as China was opening during the Nixon administration.” Ann and William Burton had been invited to teach English in the cities, but tourists weren’t allowed to wander from city centers. John was interested in studying how the Chinese engineered their homes for passive heat exchange. “So, we got Mao [Zedong] hats and bicycles and rode in with the factory workers past the guys with the machine guns” and toured the countryside without getting caught.

John would form a band with Reiss called The Sharks. In the 80s, John formed a band called Space Debris with Ziskin, which opened for Jefferson Starship. John ran his own contracting company in the Sacramento area building passive solar “breadbox” style water heaters until 2000, when he returned to Ben Lomond to focus on the family tribe and making music. Ziskin said, “John’s been through it. He’s had more experience playing in front of crowds than anyone I have known. He dedicated his life to music.”

A True Peacemonger

John collected colorful posters from Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley protesting the Vietnam War. The Avalon Ballroom, Bill Graham Presents, The Fillmore, fantastic art on billboards and telephone poles by a guy named Mouse featuring Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, The Youngbloods, Cream, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the bands that hammered out the pulse of a generation in tumultuous times. Bill said, “John felt that over time music and art was more important than all these conflicts. The power of music and activism was John’s calling. It was deep in him.” Bill said John carried with him to any event or political protest a flag emblazoned with an image of the earth. World events were weighing heavy on his mind. “He was deeply depressed by Hamas, Putin, all these things, maybe more so than some,” Bill said, “and unfortunately you can break your heart over it.”

Love Creek with John Burton (far left) with his bandmates

John was enthusiastic about the local music scene. A member of several bands including Love Creek, The Jamissaries, Plateau Jazz Band, and session percussionist for many side projects including a new recording in collaboration with Ben Lomond’s Dr. Madd. When he wasn’t playing, he was dancing or listening to the radio. Tina Davey at KBCZ 89.3 Boulder Creek Community Radio said, “He used to email the radio station, and one of his favorite shows was called Shore to Shore on Thursday mornings with DJ Sage. We would always get a little note from him.”

Friends have called John a true peacemonger. Bill said, “One person can make a difference if you project those things; it exponentially goes out.”

Two new CDs have been released featuring John Burton on drums: Love Creek’s fall 2023 release “Redwood Grove” is available on Spotify. The Dr. Madd Show winter 2023 release “Go Ahead,” available at Streetlight Records, 939 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.


Julie Horner writes about art, music, and the local business scene in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Photo by Julie Horner: John William Burton | October, 1954 – November 19, 2023

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