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By Roy Kasten
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Jamie Foehner loved many things fiercely and passionately, but one of his longest-standing obsessions was with the music of Elvis Costello.
"Try convincing a sixteen-year-old in 1986 that just got turned on to thrash metal — and this new band Metallica — that [Elvis Costello's] Blood & Chocolate is the greatest album of all time," recalls Greg Rozeboom, who had met Foehner the year before. "But when Foehner was determined that you would hear something, you would, by God, be exposed to it. Blood & Chocolate was pretty well burned into my cortex by the end of high school."
Foehner's music evangelism permeated his personality, but it was only one facet of what made the 38-year-old, who died Monday, March 23, special. Friends speak of everything from his literal thirst for lemonade and love of historical figures to his fondness for sports and extreme fear of spiders. Foehner was a mentor and de facto uncle to his friends' children, and he had a childlike streak himself: The entertainment complex Dave & Buster's was a favorite destination.
Once a year Foehner would break out a spot-on Carol Channing impression when singing to his best friend, Sandy Olive, on her birthday. The inseparable pair cohosted Lemmons' twice-weekly trivia event, one of the most popular trivia destinations in town.
"He lived for Wednesdays and Thursdays, he loved it so, so much," Olive says. "He could never understand when I was getting burned out and needed a break, because it made him so happy."
Lemmons, a south-side pizza joint/bar/rock club, became Foehner's home after he started working there in 2002. He always sat just inside the door reading a book — a position next to the jukebox, which he rescued from its classic-rock purgatory. ("He wasn't good with a hammer, but programming music into the jukebox was a talent, a joy," says ex-manager Abbie Schmitt.) He had again taken over the task of booking bands at the club, a job he adored despite its stresses.
"He wanted Lemmons to be successful, and he wanted it to be known as a cool place for bands to come," Olive says. "He wanted the bands to come to Lemmons; he wanted them to want to come to Lemmons."
It's a testament to his efforts that the local musicians and promoters who dealt with him speak of his integrity and kindness. "He always treated the bands I've been in with respect and fairness," says Scott Lasser of the 75s, "which is kind of rare in his line of business."
Foehner spent most of his life in St. Louis, growing up in west county. His aunt, Debbie Jones, says he inherited his steel-trap memory from a great-grandmother. His grandfather also read to him constantly; unsurprisingly, Foehner became a precocious wordsmith who was reading at a ninth-grade level as a third-grader. "Jamie often got into trouble in school because he was reading a book instead of studying," Jones says. "Teachers got angry, but hated to tell him not to read."
Rozeboom remembers Foehner infuriating teachers for other reasons. "You wouldn't be surprised at how often he was in the principal's office for some offense or other," he says. "If there was a line to be crossed, or a wisecrack to be made in a tense moment, he absolutely could not stop himself from doing it."
Foehner parlayed this love of comedy into a two-year stint at Chicago's prestigious improv theater, Second City, where he studied with Phil Hartman and Nia Vardalos. After moving back to St. Louis, he cofounded the comedy troupe Brand X. The group performed "an angry show, kind of a mean show," says cofounder Ray Brewer, a style rooted in the intense, love-hate relationships between its members.
"[Jamie and I] knew each other so well, but we totally loved each other," Brewer says. "But we could have killed each other, too. It was definitely a brother relationship. He tried to kill me in Texas, with a car. I was running for my life! He chased me for about 50 yards. We definitely laughed about it later."
Laughter also helped Foehner deal with health issues. He had a stroke in 2002, which damaged his eyesight and left him unable to drive — a cherished pastime he missed terribly, according to Olive. Kidney problems Foehner developed as a teenager had worsened in recent years, and he had an exhausting procedure called hemodialysis five hours a day, three days a week. He was hospitalized frequently, something he hated.
Still, Foehner was extremely private about his health.
"He went through a lot of pain all the time, and I often asked him how he handled it," Jones says. "He never told me, just shook his head and changed the subject."
Adds Olive: "His doctors were always shocked that he was living such a normal life. [They] told him, 'You'll be walking around, just minding your own business, and your heart will stop. And that's how you'll die.' Nobody wants to hear that, but that's exactly what happened."
Still, Olive takes solace that Foehner was actually at his beloved club, and not in the hospital, when his heart gave out. In hindsight, she even wonders if he held on so he could attend Triviavaganza, a ten-round mega-event at Lemmons the day before his death.