BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOS AND VARIOUS MEMORABILIA COURTESY OF JAS OLBRECHT
Flying to Toronto to interview The Rolling Stones? Playing hoops with a young Eddie Van Halen? Hanging out on Santana’s tour bus for a week? Writing a book with Jimi Hendrix’s father?
Meet James “Jas” Obrecht, a Washtenaw Community College instructor who’s been there, done all that.
Obrecht has been teaching creative writing for six years. But his long and winding road to Ann Arbor makes for a pretty good read.
His resume reads like any music journalist’s dream; he’s written for Guitar Player, Rolling Stone, Fret’s Magazine, Mojo and Living Blue’s Magazine. He’s also written scores of music-related books.
“I’m passionate about music,” Obrecht said. “I probably have 150,000 songs on a hard drive. I know music better than I know anything, except my family.”
Obrecht’s Eddie Van Halen story makes students sit up and pay attention — which is why it’s one of the first things he tells his classes.
As a writer for Guitar Player magazine, Obrecht was sent out to interview Canadian musician Pat Travers at a music festival. As rock musicians sometimes do, Travers sent him away. So Obrecht stayed backstage and played basketball – with Van Halen.
Sure, many people have interviewed Eddie Van Halen — but Obrecht was the first.
“Eddie liked that story so much he called me up sometime later and said, ‘hey man, if you put me on the cover, I’ll tell you all my playing secrets,’” Obrecht said. That cover story sold the most copies in Guitar Player history. Obrecht worked at the magazine from 1978-1998.
Obrecht, 57, was born in Detroit and spent his childhood in Allen Park near the giant Uniroyal tire on I-94. Growing up, he knew he didn’t want to be an auto worker like his father.
“Back then, people in my neighborhood almost all went into the auto industry, and I knew I didn’t want to do that,” Obrecht said. “I really didn’t want to go there. I had two things going for me. I started playing guitar in eighth grade and secondly, when I was in grade school people discovered I could write pretty well.”
In fact, his writing ability was mistaken for plagiarism by his teacher. That teacher became a mentor to Obrecht, and they still keep in touch today.
“I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t good with the ladies yet, but for someone to single me out as a writer meant a lot to me,” Obrecht said. “At that moment, I thought ‘you know what? I think I want to do this. This is for me.’”
Obrecht’s nickname Jas (pronounced ‘jazz’) originated while he was in graduate school at Ohio University, where he graduated in 1976. Changing his byline from James to Jas was good for his career.
“I was sending out all this stuff to get published and everything I wrote was getting rejected. I stapled all the rejection letters on the wall of my room, which is a bad idea. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody — it’s depressing,” Obrecht said. As soon as he started using Jas, the rejection letters stopped. “It turned out to be really lucky and unusual and I kept it.”
Obrecht said that moving from a street in Detroit where several murders had occurred to sunny California was a “real adjustment” for him.
“I was hanging out with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane within two or three days,” Obrecht said. “It was really strange.”
It might’ve been easy for Obrecht to get caught up in that old cliché – sex, drugs and rock and roll. But he didn’t.
“For me, the work always came first,” Obrecht said. “That’s why I survived. Many of those around me fell to the wayside, all the people I started out with got lost in drugs and sex and craziness. For me it was always the byline, always the interviews.”
These days, Obrecht still writes, but you’re more likely to see his work in British or Japanese magazines, which he prefers because U.S. magazines demand shorter articles to have more space for advertisements.
“Used to be you’d interview U2 and they’d let you have a couple thousand words. Now they want you to interview U2 and write it in 300 words,” Obrecht said.
And so, after 20 years, Obrecht left Guitar Player, but not before receiving four writing-related awards, including Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Journalism at the 1997 W.C. Handy Awards.
“I was burned out. I mean, I interviewed all my heroes multiple times. You interview Van Halen six or seven times and you feel like it’s time for somebody else to do it,” Obrecht said. “Plus music was changing in a way that I didn’t enjoy as much. I didn’t care about Britney Spears, and I didn’t care about the boy bands.”
Another factor in his decision was his daughter Ava, who’s now 14 and, Obrecht says, a multi-talented musician, writer and photographer.
Obrecht was on tour with Carlos Santana when his wife, Michelle, called to tell him that Ava had taken her first steps. A member of Santana’s band could relate, telling Obrecht about many milestones missed — first words, first steps and many birthdays, and how it was the life of a touring musician.
“I always deeply admired the fact that John Lennon spent the last five years of his life at home with his son, Sean, and I use that as a model,” Obrecht said, noting that he’s been able to be home for his daughter since she was two years old. “I consider that quite an accomplishment.”
Obrecht moved back to Michigan in 2000 to be editor-in-chief for the All Media Guide’s online music magazine, which lost funding soon after. He now lives near Dexter.
Without a steady job, Obrecht spent his days at home, writing. Although his wife kept telling him he needed to be out among people, he resisted, until the answer came to him, via a dream, that he should teach. Obrecht taught classes before at Ohio University and the University of Mississippi.
Obrecht likes WCC partly because of the diversity in students here.
“Everybody’s here to get ahead, to better their lives. And I know how to do that through writing,” Obrecht said. “I’m a living, breathing example of it.”
Obrecht said he loves what he does and he goes to class every day with a smile on his face. He also takes his job seriously.
“As a teacher you should be in the job of inspiring people. That’s what we’re here for, to inspire people to be their best, to transform themselves.”
WCC students are definitely Obrecht fans. Some have even taken his classes multiple times.
“He inspires you to write,” said Roma Ziarnko, 67, of Ann Arbor. “When I come out of his class, I feel like going right out and writing something.” Ziarnko has taken Obrecht’s class three times.
“I’ll take his classes as long as they will let me,” Ziarnko said. “If I couldn’t take one, I’d just feel devastated.”
“He seems like he’s more than a teacher; he’s a friend,” said Carol Schauer, 68, of Ann Arbor. He cares about his students and he wants them to be the best that they can be, not because he’s a teacher but just because he really cares.” Schauer’s a five-time student.
Ziarnko knows first-hand how much Obrecht cares about his students. While taking his class last winter, she became ill and had to be hospitalized. She didn’t tell Obrecht, but he found out anyway.
“I missed one class, or two, and the next thing I knew, he was in the hospital visiting me!” Ziarnko said. “I’ll never forget that.”
When he takes time away from his basement office, Obrecht likes to garden and play horseshoes. Actually, he doesn’t even need to leave his office to do the former — peppermint plants grow outside his window, allowing him to grab a few sprigs when letting his cats Rosa and Tony Miyamoto in and out.
In addition to working at WCC, Obrecht still has stories in magazines, and he’s still writing books. He owns a record company, Avabella, and a publishing company, Avabella Press. In addition, Obrecht teaches state employees to write in a simpler fashion so their communications can be better understood.
“I’d rather work on a lot of different projects than deal with one place that could fire you in a heartbeat because the economy’s bad. I can’t have that happen, I have family,” Obrecht said. “So I try to do lots of things. It makes life more fun.”
Obrecht’s earlier years were full of fun and excitement, and he admits he’s been pretty lucky.
“It’s more of a younger man’s game, that lifestyle. It’s fun to do when you’re 20, 30, 40, but when you’re getting older it’s not as appealing as it used to be,” Obrecht said. “You’ve seen it all, and you’ve done it all. The musicians feel the same way.”
In fact, if you want to know about how rock legends feel about most any subject, ask Obrecht. He’d know.