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obituary

Asa Brebner, at 65; guitarist/songwriter in Boston bands and alone

Mr. Brebner, in 2006.
Mr. Brebner, in 2006.

Asa Brebner’s story was one of pure, stubborn dedication. For decades he banged his head against the music-business wall with mixed results, yet emerged time after time with another creative burst of songs whose quality left many peers in disbelief.

“Why would I bother to quit? I would just be doing it again next week,” the Cambridge-based Mr. Brebner told the Globe in 1989. “You have to enjoy it, because it’s a tough gig. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there’s almost no rhyme or reason why bands get signed.”

He tasted fame early with Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, whose “Roadrunner” has been proposed as the official rock song of Massachusetts, and then with Robin Lane & the Chartbusters, whose video for “When Things Go Wrong” was a mainstay in the early days of MTV.

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But then the Chartbusters broke up, thrusting Mr. Brebner into a turbulent, up-and-down solo career during which the singer/guitarist became a mainly local club legend. He was known for an astonishing range of music, from roots-rock and punk to R&B and gospel, along with an edgy, Jack Kerouac-meets-Charles Bukowski wit that “did not suffer fools gladly,” said longtime bandmate John Pfister.

Mr. Brebner, who also excelled in eccentric, folklore-influenced visual art — he had exhibits at the Paradise and the Middle East — kept creating right up to his death on March 9 of a heart attack at age 65 at his country home in Littleton, N.H., according to Loreen Ray of Cambridge, his longtime girlfriend.

“He was beaten down, but he kept trying,” said Ray, who is the mother of their twin 7-year-old boys, Django and Bowdie. “He had been unapologetically drinking lately, but he was excited about some new projects.”

She added that he had even started swimming at a local YMCA a few times a week.

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Mr. Brebner died at the kitchen table, where he was making pencil illustrations for “Revenge,” which he had described as an “autobiographical fiction” novel. He had planned to self-publish the recently completed the book.

His musical life had been on an upswing, including reunions with Robin Lane & the Chartbusters for two sold-out shows at the Burren in Somerville recently and with the Family Jewels, an R&B/doo-wop group in which he shared vocal duties with fellow club veteran Fred Griffeth. His own group, Asa Brebner & the Naked I’s, also had been playing frequently.

“I recently went through a few years of depression and a hand injury that is sort of a phantom. I almost stopped playing entirely because of it,” Mr. Brebner had posted on Facebook. “But I’m back from the darkness and I’m going to make the effort to play out.”

Yet, he also acknowledged that “it’s sort of like ‘Groundhog Day’ for us late middle-age or senior types. We have to get in the back of the line. I’ve been around playing in this town forever, but people who are new as managers or bookers may never have even known that you existed,” he wrote in one of his many, no-holds-barred Facebook posts.

A Marblehead native, Mr. Brebner was born in 1953, the only child of the writers Winston Brebner and Ardell Cogswell. In the 1950s, Winston wrote the novel “Doubting Thomas,” which garnered admiring reviews.

Asa attended a progressive Quaker school before taking off at 17 to hitchhike through South America, where he was picked up by police and sent to prison for drug smuggling.

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“Yes, I did a year in a South American jail and insane asylum (which was to assure an Ecuadorian judge that I was undergoing ‘aversion treatment’ to marijuana),” Mr. Brebner later told the Music Museum of New England. “This was supposed to be like the treatment Alex got in ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ but I didn’t end up getting it and I was released after a year in jail.”

Mr. Brebner, who also created some cartoons for the pro-marijuana magazine High Times, soon joined Mickey Clean & the Mezz, one of the first bands to play in Kenmore Square, in 1974, at the Rathskeller, better known as the Rat. He followed that with stints in Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers and Robin Lane & the Chartbusters.

“He was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type,” Lane recalled after Mr. Brebner died. “When he drank, he’d be terrible and I didn’t go near him, but we all still loved him.”

She added that Mr. Brebner “loved the adulation” of their early success and “should have been more well-known in many ways.”

Mr. Brebner’s solo career started in 1986 with Asa Brebner & the Idle Hands, whose first album was “Prayers of a Snowball in Hell.” Across six albums, he wrote music that included serious love songs such as “Roses I Never Bought You” and rocking, comic favorites such as “The Flame Had a Poodle” and “Babes in the Bar,” about a “College Johnny” who strikes out in bars at closing time.

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“There was a raw quality in his playing that carried off to other things in his life. He was a big-hearted cynic,” said Tim Jackson, the drummer for the Chartbusters who is helping to organize a celebration of Mr. Brebner’s life, which will be announced.

Also helping organize the gathering is Pat Wallace, who performed with Mr. Brebner for years and lived in the downstairs apartment in Mr. Brebner’s two-family house in Porter Square.

Wallace said that he and Mr. Brebner had a “laughter-based friendship,” and that Mr. Brebner was an excellent father to his twin boys, engaging in nightly pillow fights with them.

No service is planned for Mr. Brebner, whose immediate survivors are Loreen Ray and their two sons.

“Asa was very playful and magical with those boys,” Ray said.

The boys, Mr. Brebner said on Facebook, “are so full of life. They are full of ‘victory.’ I love them so much, without a trace of irony.”

Mr. Brebner also read philosophy, said Griffeth, his partner in the Family Jewels.

“We once went on vacation to Vieques with a bunch of people including Asa,” Griffeth said.

He recalled that while “the rest of us were relaxing on the beach reading trash novels,” Mr. Brebner was reading “In Search of the Miraculous,” by the Russian-born esotericist P.D. Ouspensky. “Suddenly Asa disappeared for a while and came back with some feathers and bones. He had been to a voodoo ritual down a back alley somewhere. He was always in search of authenticity.”

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For many years, Mr. Brebner staged the Brebstock rock festival at a 200-acre New Hampshire farm bequeathed to him by his parents. He had recently struck a deal with the local municipal government to have it remain as conservation land.

Many Boston musicians would travel there to stay in tents and perform at a building on the property he called “Gepetto’s Barn,” surrounded by old furniture and vinyl records.

Mr. Brebner’s longtime friend Peter Wolf, of the J. Geils Band, spoke for many last week when he tweeted that Mr. Brebner was a “multi-talented artist, family man and real-deal rock ’n’ roller. Many a night we raved and ranted at the moon.”

“Asa always spoke his mind,” said Andrea Gillis, another longtime friend and former bandmate. “But he lived for inspiration.”


Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse.com.