Cancer Claims Echo Park Musician Joe Bass; Public Memorial to Be Held Sunday

Joe Bass with 3½-year-old granddaughter SimonneEXPAND
Joe Bass with 3½-year-old granddaughter Simonne
Courtesy of Brette Howard

Joe Skyward, veteran musician, Short Stop bartender and adored Echo Park mainstay, died on Saturday, March 26, at the age of 57 after a difficult battle with cancer. Surrounded by his wife, children, sisters, mother and a few close friends, Skyward, better known as Joe Bass, passed away at the USC Norris Cancer Center, while music from his favorite band Yes filled the hospital room.

Born Joe Howard, in 1995 he changed his last name to Skyward, a mashup of his last name and his children’s mother’s maiden name.

Skyward’s family described him as a “life force to be reckoned with” who never held back emotion and lived life on his own terms. “He was one of the most positive and hopeful people I knew, and the kindest,” Skyward’s wife, Chris Pellegrino, wrote in an email to the Weekly. “He was loving and he was loved.” (Full disclosure: I knew Joe Skyward personally through my husband and our Echo Park businesses.)

About two years ago, Skyward was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but by that time it had already metastasized and spread to his skeletal and lymphatic systems. He fought hard, undergoing chemotherapy and hormone treatments and switching to a raw/vegan diet. 

After Skyward's diagnosis, he and Pellegrino married at a small ceremony in Pioneertown, surrounded by their families and about 60 friends. The two had been dating since 2003 and joked that they were already common-law married, but decided to go through with an official wedding anyway. The couple built a life together in Echo Park, walking to dinners at Taix, frequenting Echo Park Lake and lying on blankets in Elysian Park to soak up the sun and people-watch. In fact, Pellegrino said, Skyward loved everything about Echo Park, from the architecture and the history, to the walkability, the people and even the coyotes and skunks that lurked around the neighborhood.

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Skyward himself was a treasured piece of the Echo Park community. Although a proud Indians fan (he grew up in Cleveland), Skyward had a soft spot for the Dodgers, as he worked for 13 years at the Short Stop, a bastion of Dodger fandom. Skyward’s “Short Stop family” described him as the bar’s manager, bartender, decorator, mastermind and mascot.

"He was the man of many hats,” said Skyward’s longtime co-worker and friend Dennis Paniagua.

On the opening day of each baseball season, Skyward would show up for work at 7 a.m. to decorate the bar, where he’d remain well into the evening, slinging drinks, charming guests and making every fan feel welcome. Season ticket holders regularly requested him, Skyward’s co-workers said, as it wouldn’t be opening day without Joe.

When he wasn’t managing the crush of Dodger fans in Echo Park, Skyward spent four to five months a year in Costa Rica, in a house he lovingly built “tailored to his unique personality,” his son Jaxin told the Weekly. "The property is on the very edge of the town and sits right next to a small river,” Jaxin said. “His address was 'Skyward, 200 meters from the store next to the river.'  Truly off the grid. No phones, no Internet.”

Skyward’s enduring passion — in addition to his family — was music. He started playing at the age of 13, when he began noodling around on an old nylon string guitar before switching to the bass, the instrument from which he got his nickname. Skyward was self-taught, and what he lacked in technical chops he made up for with a "great ear," he once wrote on his website. He opted to hone his skills through experience and touring, although he did attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music for a semester before deciding jazz wasn’t for him, according to his daughter, Brette Howard.

“Music was his religion. It was his life,” she added via email. “Through it he gained a level of consciousness I think many today will never reach.”

Throughout Skyward’s career, he played with The Posies, The Walkabouts, Sky Cries Mary and Sunny Day Real Estate, while also working as a session musician and doing some producing. He even created his own solo record in 1999, featuring Brette on five songs (and a secret track), as well as Jaxin, who reads his homework at the end of “Once of the Earth.” In fact, Skyward and his daughter had almost finished mixing the first song on his new album, Skyward 2, when he died.

Skyward’s music and memory will be honored at “The Joe’n Away Tour,” a public memorial for the musician, to be held at Echoplex on Sunday, April 10. From 1 to 5 p.m. friends and family will gather to swap stories about Skyward, watch a slideshow of photos from his life and listen to a diverse playlist of the jams he loved. There will be time for people to get up onstage and speak, sharing an anecdote or a song.

Skyward was cremated on Monday wearing all of his favorite clothes, including a Cleveland Browns cap, “crazy” tie-dyed pants, a pair of vintage L.A. Eyeworks glasses and his daily staple, a white V-neck T-shirt, Pellegrino wrote.

When David Bowie died, Pellegrino heard a saying: If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as Bowie. “I thought how great that is, and well, corny as it may sound, that's how I feel about Joe,” Pellegrino wrote. “I am so lucky. And I am so lucky to be part of the family and friends as well.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Skyward died April 2; he died March 26.

Cancer Claims Echo Park Musician Joe Bass; Public Memorial to Be Held Sunday

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