Blackie Onassis, drummer of 90s rock band Urge Overkill, has died

Johnny "Blackie Onassis"  Rowan of the band Urge Overkill poses for a portrait circa 1993 in New York, New York.

John “Blackie Onassis” Rowan of Urge Overkill in 1993. (Bob Berg/Getty Images)

John Rowan, drummer for 90s Chicago rock band Urge Overkill who performed as Blackie Onassis, has died.

A spokesperson for the group confirmed his death to The Times. No cause of death was provided.

Onassis anchored Urge Overkill during their time in the alternative rock spotlight in the 1990s, playing on the band’s version of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” which was featured in “Pulp Fiction.” by Quentin Tarantino in 1994, and stay with them throughout their last major album, 1995’s “Exit the Dragon”.

Hailing from Chicago’s South Side, Rowan joined Urge Overkill, the Chicago band fronted by guitarists Nash Kato and Eddie “King” Roeser, in 1991. With Rowan on board, Urge Overkill went from practicing scuzzy neo-hardcore punk to to suave refurbished suppliers. arena rock, playing their crunchy riffs with a knowing wink while sporting medallions emblazoned with their “UO” logo. Although he was a late addition to the group, Onassis often summed up Urge Overkill’s appeal better than its founding members, such as when he described UO’s mission to Spin magazine in 1992: “We’re here to resurrect the swinging era – the late 60’s playboy life when America was a fun place The Golden Age of Vegas, Neil Diamond, Moonlight Dancing and Anton La Vey! “

Four members of a group in a semicircle, photographed at about knee level

John Rowan, left, and Urge Overkill in 1993. (Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Kato and Roeser had already made two albums for indie label Touch and Go when Rowan joined Urge Overkill. Adopting the name Blackie Onassis – he would later say, “I’m not Blackie Onassis because of my personal life, I’m Blackie Onassis because I drum in Urge. I love being Blackie Onassis; it’s like live in a musical wonderland” — the drummer quickly became a central part of Urge Overkill’s self-taught mythology. “The Supersonic Storybook”, the 1991 album that saw them gain attention outside of Chicago, featured a song called “Today Is Blackie’s Birthday”, which was not only a tribute to their new drummer, but the evidence of a keen sense of ironic humour.

Squatting in a bank building in Humboldt Park, they aptly nicknamed “the Bank” – at one point in the early 1990s all three members lived there – Urge Overkill posed as sleazy men from the 1990s. 70, an ironic pose that alienated former colleagues like sound engineer and producer Steve Albini. But the makeover began to catch the band’s attention. They befriended Liz Phair, who would later take the name of her 1993 debut album, “Exile in Guyville,” from Urge’s kiss to the Chicago punk scene, “Goodbye to Guyville,” and earned a positive review in Spin for “The Supersonic Storybook”. “The band sounds like the MC5 with Neil Diamond as the leader,” the magazine said. Soon, Urge Overkill gained new fans such as Kurt Cobain from Nirvana and Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders.

Nirvana released Urge Overkill as the opening act for their Nevermind Tour in 1991, which led to UO signing with Geffen Records in 1992. The group hired the Butcher Brothers, the hip-hop production unit that fronted the hits of Cypress Hill and Kris Kross, to produce his 1993 debut album, “Saturation.” A sparkling, over-the-top celebration of classic rock tropes, “Saturation” had an alt-rock hit in “Sister Havana,” which brought UO to the dawn of the mainstream success they craved. When ‘Pulp Fiction’ director Tarantino staged a memorable scene, in which Uma Thurman’s character accidentally overdoses on heroin, on Urge Overkill’s cover of ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Neil Diamond, the group finally had a decisive success.

The heroine began to play a major role in Rowan’s personal life around this time, an open secret in the alternative rock community. Hole drummer Patty Schemel wrote in her 2017 autobiography “Hit So Hard: A Memoir” that finding heroin in Chicago was “as easy as ordering a few bags from Urge Overkill drummer Blackie Onassis, who had a regular affair in town.” Hints of Onassis’ addiction also surfaced on “Exit the Dragon,” Urge Overkill’s dark and sprawling 1995 album. On the somber “The Mistake”, Onassis sang, “Be careful what you take, you got a lot at stake / More than you’ll ever know, beware of overdose.”

Shortly after “Exit the Dragon” was released, Rowan was arrested for heroin possession. While the charges were later dropped, Urge Overkill went into a downward spiral, which led to Roeser leaving the band in 1996. Kato tried to keep the band alive for a while but ended up releasing an album solo, “Debutante”, in 2000 instead. “Debutante” featured six co-composer credits from Blackie Onassis.

After “Debutante”, Rowan effectively disappeared from view. Kato and Roeser reformed Urge Overkill in 2004 without him. Speaking to the Chicago Reader in 2004, the duo alluded to their bandmate’s missed video shoots and concerts, as well as a revoked passport on the eve of a trip to England. At this time, Rowan was living in Los Angeles but was not in contact with Urge Overkill.

Roeser told the Reader, “I haven’t [Onassis’s] phone number. He has mine. Put it this way. He can call me if he wants. I’ve had the same number for 10 years.”

While promoting Urge Overkill’s second comeback album, “Yes,” in 2022, King said Rowan “was really like a third wheel.”

This article will be updated.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Leave a Comment