“Sonny California,” Jack Smiles whispered as he nodded toward a group of guys and girls who’d just walked into Cooper’s Pub in downtown Pittston. He repeated it louder and more deliberately when his wife Diane indicated she didn’t hear him. “Son-nee,” he said directly into her face. “Cal-i-FOR-nee-uh.”

I knew Jack wasn’t talking about the weather in Los Angeles. He didn’t want us to miss the famed guitarist from the bands “The 8th Street Bridge” and “The Great Rock Scare,” but from the reverence in his voice, he might as well have been pointing out Paul McCartney. And I strained to get a glimpse of him as though Sonny indeed were Paul McCartney.

Sonny California was, and still is, John Gonska, a musician who deserved every bit of the respect Jack sent his way. For about 20 years, he and his bandmates were the hottest thing in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Sonny’s appearance was no surprise. His old buddy Bill Space was playing with partner Karl Metzger in his new duo, “The Great Rock Pair” (see what he did there?), and that’s what brought all of us to Cooper’s. It was the night of the Pittston St. Patrick’s Parade six years ago, and although I was dead tired after a day that started with the parade that morning, I didn’t want to miss it. Like John Gonska, Bill Space is a local music legend.

The last time I had seen Bill play was long after those halcyon days of The Bridge and The Scare. It was the mid ’90s and he was playing in a wedding band, of all things, and when my daughter dragged me out onto the floor to do “The Chicken Dance,” he noticed me and said into the mic, “This is Steppenwolf’s version, Eddie.”

Steppenwolf, named after a Herman Hesse novel, was a rock band of the late ’60s. Old-timers like me remember their songs “Born to be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” which Space surely played back in the day. But “The Chicken Dance”? I don’t think so.

The night at Cooper’s was memorable and not just because Space and Metzger were spectacular. It was memorable because Bill Space made an announcement that he was getting the band back together, The 8th Street Bridge, to be exact. They were to reunite for one performance on April 30, 2016, at the River Street Jazz Café. How big a deal was that performance? Well, dozens of fans were turned away at the door so as not to violate the fire code for capacity. Many of them waited in the parking lot an hour or more hoping someone might leave early thus allowing them to get in. No one did.

Citing health reasons, John Gonska did not play that night. Bill Space performed a few more times with Karl Metzger, and when he did, I made it my business to be there. But also citing health reasons, he too eventually set his guitar aside. “I’m 73,” he told a reporter recently. “Who do you know in their 70s who doesn’t have health problems?”

Nevertheless, Gonska and Space are digging deep and coming together again, this time for a Great Rock Scare reunion with Jim Luksh on bass and Steve Camasso on drums. They originally planned to do one show on Saturday, May 21, again at The River Street Jazz Café, but when it sold out in five days, they added a second performance the following day, May 22. Some tickets are still available for that one at riverstreetjazzcafe.com.

In a phone conversation Monday evening, Bill said fans of the Scare can expect the high standard of musicianship they remember from the early days. Unlike the 8th Street Bridge reunion, for which he said, “we had maybe three rehearsals,” the four guys who will play in May have been rehearsing steadily at Rock Street Music since December. He said they expect nothing less of themselves than what Bill terms the “exactitude” instilled in him by the Bridge’s founder, the late Butch Mattei. Exactitude meaning perfection. “That’s how the Great Rock Scare approached every song,” Bill said, “and that’s how we are approaching them today.”

Bill admits rehearsing six months for only two performances seems a bit much and that’s why the band has also committed to appear at the Plymouth Kielbasa Festival, The Noxen Rattlesnake Roundup, at which the Scare once had been a fixture, and at The Pittston Tomato Festival in August.

I didn’t know John Gonska six years ago when he walked into Cooper’s, but we have since met and have had several meaningful conversations. Which means at any of the upcoming events, don’t be surprised if I‘m the one who points and whispers, “Sonny California.”

Providing, of course, Jack Smiles doesn’t beat me to it.

Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.

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