John Lombardo ’74, taught himself guitar while he was a Geneseo student. Then he founded one of the most popular alternative bands of the 1980s and 1990s — and is still going strong.
During the summer between his junior and senior year at Geneseo, John Lombardo ’74 taught himself how to play the bass guitar in his bedroom in Lakewood, N.Y. When he returned to campus in the fall, he joined the band Succotash, which he preferred to call the Lakeville Rhythm Kings.
The band played songs by the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones in Radesi’s Hotel on Main Street, and the Rathskellar, a bar in the basement of Letchworth Dining Hall. “It was a good place to launch my musical career, but at the time it was a small place, and there were only a handful of places to gig at,” Lombardo says.
The world of rock music, however, opened up for Lombardo several years later when he and a group of musician friends in Jamestown, N.Y., formed the band 10,000 Maniacs in 1981. Lombardo, who had just earned a master’s degree in painting from the University at Buffalo, remembers thinking up the name after his friend had mentioned seeing the obscure horror movie “Two Thousand Maniacs.”
“I just thought it was an intriguing name,” he recalls. “I said, ‘How about that?’ and we didn’t give it much thought.”
The name “10,000 Maniacs” would later be known worldwide.
Lombardo switched from bass to rhythm guitar, and as the writer of much of the band’s early material, he became one of the group’s most prominent members. Lombardo drew on the experiences from his time at Geneseo, where he was a political science and speech communication double major and worked as a DJ at WGSU, playing more eccentric performers of the time such as David Bowie and Fairport Convention.
“10,000 Maniacs had so many different influences — we all kind of mixed them together,” says Lombardo, who was described as “one of the great tunesmiths and guitarists of our age” by Melody Maker, a now-defunct British weekly newspaper. “I think one of the reasons that we stood out was because we weren’t an obvious sound. We didn’t fall into one category,” said Lombardo.
Lombardo says 10,000 Maniacs played “folk rock with a little bit of a reggae feel to it.” Although they were a hit on college campuses and their albums climbed the charts, Lombardo left the group in 1986. After hearing a violist named Mary Ramsey perform in Buffalo, they began writing songs together as the folk-rock duo John & Mary and released four albums.
With 10,000 Maniacs based in Jamestown, however, it didn’t take long before the band brought Lombardo back into the fold in 1996, with Mary Ramsey taking over as lead singer from Natalie Merchant. They released “Love Among the Ruins” in 1997, with the cover of “More Than This,” which reached number 29 on the Billboard chart. In 2000, the group took a three-year hiatus after one of its founding members, Robert Buck died. Lombardo still played as John & Mary and the Valkyries. He rejoined 10,000 Maniacs in 2012.
Performing in clubs and concert halls around the world, 10,000 Maniacs has stayed together for 37 years. Lombardo, who is now writing songs for a new album, loves traveling to new places and meeting loyal fans at concerts. The band toured nationally in 2017 and is continuing this year.
“I think we have created a unique sound that really doesn’t sound like anything else,” Lombardo says. “We didn’t follow the flavor of the moment. We stayed true to ourselves, and I think that’s one of the things that we’re proud of.”
VIDEO: Watch Lombardo perform in Buffalo in spring 2018.