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Steve Vai pays emotional tribute to friend Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto

Steve Vai will release Vai/Gash, an album of music written in the ’90s for a project with Johnny ‘Gash’ Sombrotto that was ultimately shelved in 1998 when vocalist Gash died in a motorcycle accident. Steve Vai today talks about Gash, who “would have absolutely been the greatest rock lead singer you would ever want to know,” how Gash survived third-degree burns over 60% of his body in an accident in 1977 and how the pair bonded over a love of motorcycles.

“This record was written and recorded in somewhat of a stream of consciousness in 1991 within perhaps a 2-week period,” Steve Vai said. It was written “as an answer to my desire to have a particular kind of music to listen to when I was riding my Harley Davison Motorcycle with my friends. It’s reminiscent of a certain type of rock music I enjoyed as a teenager in the 1970s. These recordings sat on the shelf for over 30 years and are being released now in 2023.”

Johnny 'Gash' Sombrotto  and Steve Vai
Johnny Gash Sombrotto and Steve Vai

Vai met Johnny Sombrotto through a mutual friend, Mark Cimino, and they bonded over biker culture, and Vai chose the name ‘Gash’ as a nickname. “I’ve observed many people interacting with him on our numerous motorcycle road trips and other adventures,” Vai says. “At first sight, many people could be taken by his bald head, scarred neck and burnt-off ear. Looking as he did and riding a Harley, it was easy to assume he was perhaps a tough, menacing biker with a nefarious attitude, but after engaging with him for even a minute, his charm and magnetic charisma had them laughing in their shoes and completely enjoying his uplifting presence.

“He endeared people with his wit, warmth, and sparkle. John hit it off instantly with the most unlikely of people of every age, colour, size, political or sexual persuasion. He was non-superficial and never judged people. This allowed his engaging personality and intoxicating charm to draw you in. Under all those scars was a bold and fearlessly warm heart that can be seen in his disarming and big soft blue eyes.”

Johnny 'Gash' Sombrotto
Johnny Gash Sombrotto

Gash was born in Queens, New York and as a youth, was an avid motorcycle enthusiast. In 1977 at the age of 21, he endured a serious accident that caused his body to catch fire while plunging 30 feet onto a barbed wire fence.

The doctors told his family that he had third-degree burns over 60% of his body and that if he even survived, there was a strong possibility that he would lose his right arm and left leg. While in the Burn Unit, he endured excruciating pain, especially when given the intense daily cycle of hot baths for his burns. He soldiered on, and after a month, he was finally discharged from the hospital. Luckily, no limbs were amputated.

He was, however, left with a partial left ear and layers of skin grafts over his neck, arms, legs, and entire chest. The stories he told about his recovery and the excruciating pain involved were crushingly gut-wrenching. But he survived and eventually thrived again. He made his way out to Los Angeles in 1982 and got right back up on his motorcycle.

Setve Vai and Johnny 'Gash' Sombrotto
Setve Vai and Johnny Gash Sombrotto

Vai had demoed some biker-type songs, and he says that something inside of him wanted to get Gash in the studio to see how he would sound singing them. “Nothing could have prepared me for the voice that came out of his mouth,” Vai says. “I had to think, of course, he sounds like that because that’s him, confident, authentic, fearless but with a light-hearted intention. This was the voice I wanted to hear wailing over these slamming rock tracks. I was stunned.

“Around that timeframe, I was also starting to launch work on Sex And Religion and was hoping to eventually record more than the eight songs I had laid down with John for an alternative project, but that was proven impossible. On 7 September 1998, two days after my father had passed away, the phone rang, and it was John’s beloved girlfriend, Nancy. Her voice was quaking, and I somehow knew what she was going to tell me. ‘John was in a bike accident and was killed’.”

Steve Vai - Vai/Gash
Steve Vai VaiGash

Finally, after more than three decades, Vai is ready to share the project with the world. “He would have absolutely been the greatest rock lead singer you would ever want to know,” Vai says. “All the elements were in place, but he was gone. Disheartened, I put the entire project on the shelf and listened to it at least once a year for the past 30 years, especially around the anniversary of his passing. Then recently, something compelled me to want to put it out now.

“I wish you would have had a chance to get to know John. I believe you would have loved him just as we all did. For now, he is In The Wind.”

Vai/Gasg will be released via Favored Nations / Mascot Label Group on 27 January 2023 on CD and Digital, with a vinyl release set for 24 February 2023. For more details visit https://lnk.to/VaiGash.

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