Back in the '60s, five scruffy San Jose high school students came together to rock out in a garage tucked away on Revere Avenue. One of the kids, John "Sean" Byrne, had recently emigrated from Ireland, and his bandmates thought the accent made him sound cool. Little did they know that 40 years later they'd be credited with creating a punk-psychedelic-garage classic, "Psychotic Reaction." It was named one of the 500 most influential songs in the history of rock, a song that lives on today on YouTube.
That Irish kid went on to become a punk-rock pioneer as the lead singer of the '60s San Jose garage band known as the Count Five. Byrne died Monday in a San Jose hospital after a long battle with cirrhosis, his family confirmed Wednesday. He was 61.
"That was one of the most pivotal songs in rock history," said Dan Orloff, co-founder of San Jose Rocks, an organization that researches and celebrates the South Bay's role in rock 'n' roll history. "If San Jose had a sound, they created it."
Even in the age of YouTube, the Count Five continues to resonate in pop culture. Beloved as a one-hit wonder, Count Five was one of the first groundbreaking bands to come out of San Jose. The Pioneer High School alums' hit not only became emblematic of a period in time, it also climbed all the way to No. 5 on the pop charts in 1966. From their wild, untamed sound to their outlandish Dracula-style capes (hence their name), the Count Five — which included Byrne, John "Mouse" Michalski, Ken Ellner, Roy Chaney and Craig "Butch" Atkinson — had a style all their own.
"They were iconic," as rock historian Jud Cost puts it. "They were on the cusp of two eras. They were the Everyman's version of garage rock, the thumping, cave-man drumbeat music that was popular in the '60s, crossed with psychedelia, the trippy, drug-fueled music that separates you from humdrum reality, that was popular in the '70s. It was a teenager's take on the Yardbirds."
Rock aficionados have dubbed the band one of the first "proto-punk" pioneers. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland sports a Count Five plaque in its "One-Hit Wonder" exhibit. The tune also has been showcased on the video game "Battlefield Vietnam," on movie soundtracks from "Drugstore Cowboy" to "Less Than Zero," and in concert by Tom Petty, not to mention by random fans on YouTube.
In its heyday, Count Five shared stages with megastars from the Beach Boys and the Temptations to the Doors. The band also played on both of Dick Clark's TV showcases, "Where the Action Is" and "American Bandstand." The Count Five was part of the inaugural class of the San Jose Rocks Hall of Fame in 2006, and Byrne performed with the band at the induction ceremony.
"The big cities used to get all the glory," Cost notes. "In those days people thought a punk band from San Jose couldn't cut the ice. But there was some great stuff done here whether San Francisco knew it or not."
"The Count Five was the first band to put San Jose on the map back in 1966,'' agrees Orloff, who can still remember exactly where he was the first time he heard "Psychotic Reaction" as a 12-year-old boy in Daly City. "They took what was coming from the British and put a San Jose twist to it. It's such a haunting song. You know the song immediately in the first note. A lot of people call them a one-hit wonder, but I call it a one-note wonder."
Byrne's life story was almost as dramatic as his music. He came to San Jose from Dublin at 14, after his mother died, but he remained an Irishman at heart forever.
"He was a stubborn old Irishman to the end," his daughter Tina Byrne said Wednesday. "He was always a rebel. He was growing his hair long even after people stopped doing that. He always had the dark sunglasses. He was very cool."
He always had a gift for music. His daughters say he had the uncanny ability to make any instrument sing, even without lessons.
"Aerosmith called him a rock 'n' roll legend," said Tina Byrne, who is planning on finishing her father's autobiography, "The '60s From the Inside," which he was toiling away on until the end.
Like so many musicians, Byrne's music was his lifeblood long after it stopped paying the bills. He ended up working as an accountant for Montgomery Ward, but when that company went under, he lost his job and his optimism. It was his music that kept him going.
"His music touched so many," his daughter Ellen Wise said. "It gave them light in dark times and made them smile."
Byrne fought a battle with his health for years. A drinking problem led to cirrhosis of the liver. The condition left him partially blind and having to use a walker.
Despite his ailing health, Byrne continued to make music until the end. Daughter Tina was also helping him work on an album titled "Facing Reality,'' which fused rock and hip-hop. He never had a chance to finish, so Tina is hoping to get it out there to keep her father's legacy alive.
The service for John Byrne will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday Dec. 27 at Mission Memorial Foothills, 30 Kirk Ave, San Jose. (408) 347-0985.
JOHN "SEAN" BYRNE
Born: Nov. 16, 1947, in Dublin, Ireland.
Died: Dec. 15, 2008, in San Jose.
Survived by: His wife, Dagmar Byrne of San Jose; three daughters, Tina Byrne of San Jose, Ellen Wise of Kennewick, Wash., and Heidi Byrne of San Jose; one son, John Byrne Jr. of San Jose; and numerous grandchildren.
Services: A viewing for John Byrne will be held at 10 a.m., followed by a service at noon, on Saturday Dec. 27 at Mission Memorial Foothills, 30 Kirk Ave, San Jose. (408) 347-0985.
Memorial fund: Donations to the John Byrne Memorial Fund, to help the family with medical and other expenses, may be made to Box 5415, San Jose, CA 95150.
Note: The Post Office has returned some donations. Please re-send your donation if it was mistakenly returned. For questions, please call John Byrne's daughter Tina at (408) 656-3300.