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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, March 30, 2022 – If it were possible to be a legend while remaining relatively unknown, that would be John Swenson who passed away last weekend. Swenson was 71.

Knowing John as I did, my surmise is he likely would prefer this unique blend of anonymity and great respected accomplishment.

Swenson did things his way for the love of doing them–he, his wife Barbara, brother Eddie, and longtime friend Mack, who followed him everywhere, from McSorley’s Old Ale House in Manhattan on St. Patrick’s Day to Saratoga Springs on Travers Day.

To anyone privileged to know him, he was a literary music giant and extraordinary sports writer, from Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens to Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, from the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village downtown NYC to uptown Tipitina’s in New Orleans.

For the uninitiated, John was an editor at Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and Offbeat magazines among other notable music publications. He’s written biographies spanning Bill Haley to The Who to the Eagles, as well as Rolling Stone’s Record Guide with legendary Dave Marsh, as well as Rolling Stone’s Jazz and Blues Album Guide.

The HRI audience might recall the name of a sports writer who covered the New York Rangers for 30 years for Rolling Stone and the Associated Press, as a racing columnist and handicapper at the New York Post, and later covered the Fair Grounds race meet for Daily Racing Form.

Swenson lived a life that others could only conjure in dreams.

One of his enduring loves was the city or New Orleans. The following italics section was written in a preview to his book, New Atlantis, a blend of humanity and natural catastrophe that helps inform American history. Swenson used his passion for music to tell a Katrina story, a tragedy that didn’t need to be as horrific as it was:

“Working for little money and in spite of having lost their own homes and possessions to Katrina, New Orleans’s most gifted musicians–including such figures as Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, “Trombone Shorty” and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux–are fighting back against a tidal wave of problems…

“the depletion of the wetlands south of the city, the violence that [once] made New Orleans the murder capital of the U.S., waning tourism, and the continuing calamity in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, known in New Orleans as the “Federal Flood.”

Former racing colleague and HRI columnist Mark Berner recalled by phone the night ‘Swen” literally fell asleep on his feet at Tipitina’s, collapsed  on his ankle, was helped from the club by family and friends, including Radiators’ bassist Reggie Scanlan, and onto a bench outside the venue where he continued sleeping.

Then there was the night that Swenson helped put me to sleep at New York’s legendary Roseland ballroom. One night after the races, we met the wives and some friends to see one of our favorite bands, The Radiators. But first came dinner across the street at the Russian Samovar.

Long before the era when flavored whiskies became commonplace, after dinner we returned to the bar and John suggested I sample some of the many flavored Vodkas. Can’t recall what they were, or how many shots were consumed. Based on what happened later, there were lots.

We went to Roseland and were dancing in the crowd when a friendly stranger walked over to the group, handed one of us a twisted blunt with the caveat “be careful, it’s a little strong.” Indeed it was as minutes later I walked over to steady myself against a railing connected to two columns.

The next thing I remember was looking up at a Roseland employee standing over me asking if I was OK. Toni was relieved I was still breathing. The attendant suggested I remain on the deck, pull up a wall, and rest for a while.

Upon awakening a second time, the entire room was empty save for Toni, Swen, and Barbara. I was fine and drove the Swenson’s home to Brooklyn, much later than originally planned.

Another vivid memory is of Saratoga when John, Eddie and Mack converged on their favorite spot–encamped under a grandstand staircase hard by the escalator.

The only times they emerged were to take what Ellis Boyd Redding, “Red,” refreshment breaks, that and trips to the betting windows. At night, dinner, of course, followed by more partying.

I marveled at John’s stamina and gusto for life, the love of many friends and music luminaries, respect of his fellow turf writers all the while, at least in my presence, never raising his voice in anger, only whispered cutting sarcasm. His mold cannot be duplicated.

Gifted with dramatic timing, he passed on Sunday after a courageous decade-long battle with the leading cause of death in America. Sunday was closing day of the Fair Grounds 2021-22 race meet.

Concluding with the end of the preview: Packed with indelible portraits of individual artists, informed by Swenson’s encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s unique and varied music scene–which includes jazz, R&B, brass band, rock, and hip hop–New Atlantis is a stirring chronicle of the valiant efforts to preserve the culture that gives New Orleans its grace and magic.

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4 Responses

  1. John and I spoke often near the end. His mind was sharp but his body was unwilling. He was at peace. I’ll miss my dear friend, racetrack buddy, concert +1 a thousand times, hockey pal and so much more. He not only lived his bucket list, everyone who read his copy lived it. As he said the last time we spoke, so long dear friend.

  2. Thanks for sharing more insights about Swen, no question he was a special guy, a man’s man.

    I know you were close, sorry for your loss, Marko…

  3. Notes like these make us aware of the few,rare,men-s men, Burt Lancaster style, who liked horseracing ,rock n roll And Hockey ?! People whose presence remind you of bon vivants who just happen to fly over our lives and made us wish that we were part of * IT *,whatever it is or was. After they leave us behind,we regrettably wish that we should have tried to be more like them in whatever they enjoyed being alive by Doing and not just being a Spectator of life ,which is a present,dormant trait among too many of us in any generation,no matter the age. Never knew or remember his name but I knew several types like him. They never leave our Admiration for them. Was he at the NY Post before Piesen and the Australian guy ? Anyway, * Feel your pain* ,as I think about some other indelible characters of my past.. Raise my elbow to them !

  4. Love the spirit of your reply JG and the sentiment expressed within.

    If I remember correctly, both, while JP was then and afterward; can’t swear to that.

    Love your participant/spectator reference.

    I once clipped from — maybe it was Vanity Fair — a small-sized cartoon dipping a quill pen into ink houses inside an open brain, the caption reading “how vain it is to sit down and write when one has not stood up to live.”

    Quite obviously, that image never left my mind, as in ain’t that the truth?

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