Image: john sicolo

John Sicolo (centre) welcomes a couple of young Monkeys to TJs back in 2006.

John Sicolo, or Johnny Sieco to his mates, was born in Newport south Wales to a father from the Seychelles and Welsh mother. One of eight kids, he joined the Merchant Navy soon after leaving school at the age of fifteen. He signed on as galley boy, learning the art of cooking, and quickly rose through the ranks to become the youngest Chief Steward sailing out of the Bristol Channel. During his twelve years in the Merchant Navy he circumnavigated the globe and visited many of the major port cities of the world.

When Johnny left the navy he returned to Newport and put his cooking skills to good use, opening a restaurant called the Pittsburgh Diner in 1971. Jugfuls of sangria where served with everything and slowly the food was replaced exclusively with alcohol and the place had a reputation where a good time could be had by all.

The diner became a nightclub, El Siecos, in the mid seventies. With his partner, the equally formidable, Trilby Tucker, running the club with him El Siecos became known as a rough and ready after hours drinking den.

I began regularly visiting the club around 1979 beginning what turned out to be a thirty year relationship with Johnny. A big, thick set, powerful man, he was extremely strong and he never needed to employ bouncers. Any trouble and Johnny would personally eject the culprits from the premises by appearing to tie their arms and legs behind their backs and rolling them out of the door. He seemed solid, indestructible. He even had a strict dress code and delighted in turning away well dressed business types and anyone with a tie.

What struck me was, from the outset, he remembered your name. He seemed to know everyone’s` name and took an interest in the people who visited the club. A warm welcome, good natured banter and a warning blow to the gut was par for the course and he quickly made me feel like a regular, which I duly became.

I, along with my brother Baz and some childhood friends, formed a band called The Abs around this time and began playing our own brand of fast punk with funny songs. Johnny and Trilby always took an interest in our band and when the Student`s Union (the only venue that would give us a gig) closed we approached John. He had no hesitation letting us play in his club that resembled a rock`n`roll version of the Bat  Cave .

 The deal was that we would organise the gig and he made the profit on the bar, simple. It stayed that way until the end and, when we couldn’t get a gig anywhere else, Johnny would always let us play. He always counted The Abs as one of his favourite bands and when interviewed for fanzines or newspapers would namecheck us. Unfortunately, because of his thick Newport accent, this was always interpreted as The Yaps so we unable to capitalise on the great man’s endorsement!

Around 1984 the club’s name had changed to TJ`s (Trilby and Johnny’s) and innovative promoters such as Simon Phillips of Cheap Sweaty Fun began bringing a succession of touring bands to Newport. Bands such as Hole, Nomeansno, No FX, The Lemonheads, The Offspring, Chuck Prophet, Green Day, Fugazi, Snuff, The Jesus Lizard, to name just a few, came to TJ`s. They gave us an education and Johnny provided the school. He would often stand in the middle of the mosh, like a demented, sweaty headmaster with a big grin on his face, making sure no one got hurt. If someone was becoming a little over enthusiastic they would receive a bop on the head and a look that said enjoy yourself but don’t spoil it for others. This always seems to have been taken in the way it was intended demonstrating a rare gift for communication that Johnny seemed to use so easily. He made TJ`s the safest place in town.

The bands all received the same warm welcome and benefited from Johnny’s culinary skills learnt in his navy days. He would often take bands to his house after the sound check where, along with Trilby and the kids, they would sit down to a family meal and made to feel they were in their home from home. All the while Johnny would be engaging in conversation with the band and he could talk with knowledge on an impressively wide range of subjects. After the gig, bands would often stay in his flat above the club. This was luxury for touring bands when the UK had the reputation of the least hospitable of European countries to play in.

The death of his beloved Trilby around 1995 seemed to leave him appearing a little lost but he carried on in the club among the noise and people that he loved. We became closer as the years rolled on and in 1997 my wife Wendy and I asked Johnny to be Godfather to our daughter Jess. He was chuffed to be asked but disapproved of the non religious family/rockabilly celebration / ceremony we held in our garden. “It`s what separates us from animals” he gruffed before leaving early to open the club for Muse to play that night.

When I heard we lost him I was gutted. I felt a large chunk of Newport life was gone forever and that one of the most important threads linking my past and present had snapped. John Sicolo`s funeral was held last week and over a thousand people attended, including The Mayor. Bikers followed the hearse as it stopped outside TJ`s to receive the salute from a few hundred bereft souls. At the church, Johnny`s coffin was draped in the Red Ensign and he had a Guard of Honour from old boys of the Merchant Navy who proudly carried flags and played The Last Post. Crowds were left outside in the rain as St Pauls was packed. After the ceremony, Newport City Centre came to a halt as Johnny was brought out of the church to the revving of the bikers and the sound of genuine spontaneous applause. The scene provided a feast for the eyes, ears and soul and reminded me of some of the life-changing gigs I`d seen because of the vision held by this special man who provided the venue and his own brand of philosophy.

Afterwards, the Wake was held in, where else, TJ`s. As I walked in, The Abs was being played through the PA and I felt an enormous sense of honour, pride and loss for a man who helped me and hundreds of others find a path in life.

As the future of the club hangs in the balance, it’s hard to see who could fill the giant, Johnny shaped gap that his passing has left. Time will tell.

Thank you  Johnny Sicolo. Goodnight. God Bless.

John The Rev, March 2010