Barbara Bush: RIP A First Lady/Mother of Grace, Love, Grit & Welcome

Barbara Bush is dead. It’s hard to believe. She was always sort of older, sort of elegant, sort of the perfect grandmother or mentor young people deserved. But she was in many ways so much more.  She is the kind of woman women strive to be, even when they don’t know it barraged by Madison Avenue insecurity and Hallmark tropes of “good mothers.”

Barbara Bush is the last of a certain kind. A true lady. She understood graciousness in the moment made everyone more, just as she recognized love was the truest lubricant for life.

In a world of big weddings and catfight – or quickie – divorces, she maintained a worldclass romance with George H.W. Bush that swept seven decades, two different Presidential waves, raising children, striking out to settle in Texas with her husband, enjoying grand- and great grandchildren,  and growing old. There was never a question of the love, nor the commitment to family; she did it the same way she drew breath, completely and without ever having to think about it.

Because a woman like Barbara Bush, you don’t need to think. You work from the heart, and the loving thing somehow seems to happen. It’s why when her husband was President and the news media would be raking him over the coals, everyone seemed to love the First Lady.  He joked she was “the most popular woman in the world,” and wasn’t jokingly juxtaposing.

She was exactly the mother/friend/aunt/teacher/grandma you’d  tell your problems. She would listen until you finished, nodding her head or making eye contact to make you feel less whatever was balling you up, then she’d think for a moment and offer some insight, some story about a similar experience, or perhaps just the affirmation, “I’m sure you’re going to figure this out” or “I know it’s going to be alright.”

You believed her, because you knew she knew things, done things. And had she. Not that she did showed out about it. But leaving her home in Rye, New York – and her college education at exclusive Smith College -- with a dashing pilot who became her life’s great partner to help him stake a claim in the Texas oil business would be a crazy notion for almost anyone in mid-20th century America. From her place in “society,” it was crazy. Yet that’s just what she did.

Mrs. Bush was strong, too. They didn’t call her “the Enforcer” for no reason. She raised three spirited boys, gave them security and a sense of chasing their own worlds to the edge of their dreams. When they got in trouble – as our second Bush President did – she stood with them, helped them pick up the pieces and hold their own families together.

Always without flinching. Usually in a Shetland wool cardigan, partially buttoned, hair just so. She was not glamorous like Jackie Kennedy, but she had that same sense of how one behaves: voice low, eyes direct, heart open to others (even if there were things you were never going to share).

They both loved literacy, the arts and encouraging others. They were both sphinxlike, and careful about what was revealed. Charm was once described to me as learning more about the other than you tell, making people smile and perhaps laugh while doing it, and always finding common ground in the process.

In a world of MILFs and hot wives, Barbara Bush was more and better. Solid. Genuine. Real. She was a matriarch, the kind of woman who is the cornerstone of big adventures, memories that matter and the steadying force for people chasing impossible things. Think about that: President. Twice. Not just her husband, but her son.

As much of a sacrifice as public life can be, she never shunned her duty, always showed up in her gown at state dinners, looking every bit the empress she actually was. But to see her extended hand, whether a dignitary, a veteran, or a child, there was never a sense of who she was. That same electric common touch that erased differences Princess Di had, only Barbara Bush was no young beauty with small children. No, she was a grown woman who’d seen life, progress, disappointment – and she wore it all with a stunning peacefulness.

 

In a world of faster, harder, more, First Lady Bush represented the swan as mother, then grandmother. Unruffled, welcoming, she was as adept with school children as families stricken, world leaders, the kind of good ole boys who were part of her life in Texas and the old family coziness that existed in places like the Bush family’s Kennebunkport, Maine stronghold.

 It’s a gift: that ability to meet people where they live, to understand how to entertain with comfort over flash, to create environments that’re inviting and understated, yet somehow stylish. Like Lilly Pulitzer, Barbara Bush understood the pleasures of family, friends, lots of children running through, dogs of all sizes and a home filled with laughter; more than titles, the privileges, it was about a sanctuary for the people she loved.

And like Lilly, love was a big part of it. Love, from that giving, unconditional place that seems rare in a world of Tinder, hooking up, friends with benefits, me-mine and the absence of loyalty in the pursuit of one’s place in the world. The smile with the crinkles at the edge of her eyes said everything about who she was, how she saw the world and what she left in her wake.

 I am lucky enough to have grown up in a matriarchal world where women like Barbara Bush existed. From my own grandmothers, who were so different except for their fierce love for the people in their lives; Helen Walker, who came in twice a week to help out and make sure I knew I was loved; Jeannie in the locker room who watched over me like a hawk, even picking the black suit for my mother’s funeral saying, with a note that said, “She’d prefer the Velvet”; Sue Whiting and Ann Upchurch of the Women’s Western Golf Association who marshaled so many young girls traveling without parents into college golf and life; my best friend Kathie’s mother who used to sneak cigarettes behind their store, and wink at me not to tell the girls; Joyce Reingold, who gave me my first job straight out of college and remained a friend throughout my journey through life; Marybelle Matousek, who insisted I play in women’s tournaments when I was a child, taking up for me when the notion of ability to win became a problem.

Grand dames without airs, they were a special breed. Long on poise, short on tolerance for pettiness, they ruled their worlds without so much as wrinkling their brow. Occassionally, arching one, but never losing their temper. Or if they did…

My father, a golf historian, was quite taken with Barbara Bush. Having the opportunity to interview the President – “Did you know his W is for Walker, as in the Walker Cup?” he would always ask – it was the former First Lady who truly tickled his fancy. “She reminds me so much of the ladies back home, and there is so much love coming from her. It’s just fantastic.”

I didn’t hear the news that Mrs. Bush had passed when it broke. I was in my last lecture class for the semester, teaching music criticism to college juniors and seniors waiting for the year to be over. A beautiful day, they were enthused about everything, including the machinations of what makes a great feature.

Encouraging them to get off the straight boilerplate of facts, to try to summarize those things and get to the essence of the subject quickly, I offered, “What things mean, how they fit in the world around them, that’s where the good stuff is. Show me who this artist is, why she matters…”

Then I got in the car, trees just succumbing to the pressures of buds wanting to open. It was sunny, and beautiful, and a perfect temperature. Like I always do, I called my best friend Kathie, and said, “What’s going on?”

Kathie Oh! started talking about Barbara Bush, telling all these stories, and I couldn’t figure out why. I knew she was sick, that she’d opted to not seek further treatment the day before. But, surely, she wasn’t gone this soon?

“No, she died,” Kathie said. “She’s gone.”

We both fell silent. “Another gone,” I finally said.

“Yeah, it’s like the end of an era. Those kind of women are dying out.”

We were both quiet again. Then Kathie picked up what she’d been saying before I’d asked. “You know the thing I loved best about her? We have a friend who knows them, and they’d had lunch with the President not long ago. Our friend asked about doing something, and George Bush said, ‘No, I have to be getting back. After all these years, you know how much Barbara still loves holding my hand.”

After all these years, she still loved holding his hand.

Simple stuff. Truly. Basic. Profound. In a world where Kardashians get Ferraris for giving birth, all Barbara Bush wanted was to hold the love of her life’s hand.

May we all be so blessed with that kind of love. Barbara Bush would’ve wanted that for all of us, I’m sure. And in the not so distant future, who knows? She will, no doubt, be holding her beloved’s hand all over again. Loves that endure beyond the ages must also transcend our mortal coil.

                                                www.HollyGleason.com

Lonely & Gone: Troy Gentry Finds The Sky Too Soon

Nobody loved -- or lived -- life more than than Troy Gentry. Half of 1999 CMA Duo of the Year Montgomery Gentry, he was wild-eyed and willing to try anything; the duo's hard-charging country was meant for Saturday nights after a grueling week of physical work. No fear, great fun, always immersed in the moment, the father, husband, friend, showman died in a helicopter crash at 50.
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Las Vegas, Hear Me Crying

Las Vegas.

There are no words. I’m not even sure prayers, as I feel so raw and empty from all of it. Even growing up with pretty strong exposure to mental health care issues, I’m having a hard time even finding a frayed thread to hang onto.

Like Columbine…

like the slaughter in the Colorado movie theater…

like Sandy Hook…

like the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Cincinnati, Indiana…
like sleepy Chardon, Ohio…
like, like, like, like, like…
there is no explanation that begins to start explaining. No right words, no origination place to truly come to a start of “how.”


In a year that’s already been marked by much sadness, much indignation, much loss, much unthinkable tragedy, 22,000 people go to a country concert – and fifty are dead, two hundred injured. To have a fun night out? To throw your fist toward the sky, lean into a song and feel the freedom of what music does? 
There are no words.

How many times have I been clustered about a stage at Mandalay Bay? Or any number of places out in the wide open, out where people crowd together on an infield, an endzone? Watching the music, throwing myself over to what songs can do – heal, inspire incite dreams and serotonin. Music is a way to face the world, to be lifted up, to forget what pulls us under.

Now this? More than 50 dead. More than 400 injured. The numbers keep growing. Shot down from above, without a chance in the world. Not that a chance should even enter into it. Not like this, not there. Not for 22,000 people who came out on a Sunday night to have one last rush of songs and fun before their weekend closed.

There are no words.

 

Or reasons.

Stephen Paddock, 64, Semi-retired. Owned two small planes. Getting a divorce. Had a girlfriend. Sent his mother cookies. Liked burritos. It’s all out there, courtesy of the worldwide web. Google, and click, search, find. Piles and piles of facts.

 

So much to know: where he’s worked, what kinds of guns were in the room, how many. What property he’s owned. What was paid, what price it sold for. The fact he mad no military background, no political affiliation, no religious affiliation. “Just a guy hanging out,” his brother said.

Where are the words?

Eight or ten long range weapons. The thirty-second floor – a perfect overview of a bunch of people getting ready for the week or letting go of the weekend. “Night Train,”  “Hicktown,” “The Way I  Know,” “Amarillo Sky,” “Laughed Until We Cried,” “Gonna Know We Were Here,” “Tattoos on This Town,” “Big Green Tractor,” “She’s Country,” “Dirty Road Anthem,” all songs for working people for whom their life is enough. No violence, no disruption, no hate being sown.

 

And so. More than 50 lives are done. More than 500 injured, the new reports are saying.
There are no words.

In a world that loves recrimination, where Amendments and agendas tangle, pull, rub us raw, larger questions rise. The nation was built on the Second Amendment. NRA Country is part of how so many acts market their records, speak “to the base.”  Where do we draw the line?

 

I am haunted by a late night conversation with Eddie Montgomery, a man whose own life has been riddled with more tragedies than any one man should face, at the bar at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas over a decade ago. Him explaining to a city girl about country boys and guns:  “You respect them, Miss Holly. You know what they can do, and you treat them according to it. You keep’em up, or locked. You make sure your kids understand that they can kill, and they’re not toys. And when they’re old enough to hunt, you let them understand that, too.”

 

It echoed a conversation another ten years prior with Richard Young from the Kentucky Headhunters, an avid hunter who explained thinning herds keeps animals from starving to death during the winter. It seemed a less cruel way to avoid what might be inevitable. I didn’t know then.

 

Right now, I don’t know, either.

I can see the bumperstickers: When you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.
I think about all the people I know who hunt – from Mr. Morton with his ducks when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade to Gary LeVox from Rascal Flatts. I know they’re not the problem, as it sets this morning.

And I know I do not know, beyond something has to change. Beyond turning away, beyond saying “it’s not my world,” beyond “this is an aberration.”


It’s funny, every time Country Radio Seminar would come around – and the vinyl NRA Country signs would go up along the big glass breezeway to the exhibit hall, my stomach would churn. I’d stand and stare and wonder, “What price marketing?” and “Do they understand how far this reaches, what all they’re really endorsing?”

It was never my place to say, and no one asked me. But standing here I wonder, as someone who evokes eye rolls and clenched teeth with all my annoying questions, where is the line? How honest do we want to be about the tremendous velocity of the world in which we live, our increasing numbness to other people’s states of heart and mind and the cruelty that passes for how we often treat each other?
I do not know. I do… not… know.
Except today in Las Vegas, 58 people, the number rises again, will not see another day… and the concentric rings of people who loved them, worked with them, shared families or children or laughs with them now have a hole torn in the fabric of their lives.
Except today in Las Vegas, 515+ people will have to begin recovering from profound injuries to their bodies. But also, their sense of safety in the world, their sense of how the live and work and breathe.

Except today in Vegas, 22,000 people will have varying amounts of trauma, of horrors, of things they can’t explain. Their sleep may be disrupted with cold sweats and flying awake, or nightmares they can’t pull themselves out of. Their life may be punctuated by shaking uncontrollably without knowing what triggered it, or losing their sense of place and time, or flashbacks from out of nowhere, but many of them will have landmines in their lives they don’t see coming,.

A few may be okay.  Just fine, absolutely perfect in spite of what they saw or heard. Grateful they got through it. Those are the blessed ones with no propensity for PTSD.  Or survivors’ guilt. God bless them.
And then there are the rest of us, who ride those highways, hang out backstage at those events. We know it’s not the norm. It doesn’t happen often, which is why I can’t turn away.  Because it did.

It’s more than our innocence. That was lost in Paris when the Bataclan was rushed, when that slaughter happened. It’s more than our whistling by the graveyard at this point, the club killing in Orlando showed that it can happen here.
Beyond unthinkable, it is. It just is.
Seeing the shooter, hearing his brother talk about him, my heart hurts. He looks like just another guy down the street: a nice older man who’d go to Spring Training games, maybe hold down a stool at the local bar talking life’n’sports with the other regulars, who’d take his grandkids to Chuck E Cheese – or in this case, out for burritos.

There are no words. Beyond – today -- telling someone you love much you care.

www.hollygleason.com

Ooooh, Child: Valerie Carter's Stone's Throw To Heaven


It was the cutest hat. Slouchy and short brimmed, close to the head like a cloche, but limper. There was a ribbon band, rumpled and all the way around the crown, with some antique-looking flowers – possibly pansies, possibly posies -- pinned just above the temple behind the eye that was cast in shadow.

It was ragamuffin chic, slightly waifish, slightly bohemian, definitely post-hippie. The mousey brown hair hung straight – and the eyes, knowing a bit too much, looked straight into me. Or possibly straight out, as the poster hung above the racks of 8-tracks, that were hung behind locked glass sliders in the suburban strip mall record store.

7 March 2017

 

Rickie Lee Jones may or may not have happened yet, but there was a sense that with Linda Ronstadt ascending – and Emmylou Harris also rising as the hippie princess of hillbilly music by way of Laurel Canyon – eclectic girls were about to be “in favor.” Bonnie Raitt, who’d captured my imagination with “Angel from Montgomery,” was her own continent, one draped in the blues, just as Joni Mitchell was an émigré from folk and Carole King had moved beyond the tundra of Tin Pan Ally,

 

Valerie Carter was cute as bug. Like an earthier, yet more worldly and sophisticated version of the groovy babysitters I idolized. She seemed beyond running off with the Children of God religious sect, or getting busted bringing a lid of grass back from Mexico, or even just having the misfortune of a bad acid trip at the Rapid Transit platform under the Terminal Tower. This was a sophisticated kind of squalor for sure.

 

I pinched that ten dollar bill from Christmas or the Honor Roll or whatever my grandmother had pressed it upon me, and looked up. I didn’t know what sepia was then, only thought it was an old black and white from long ago that somehow held the image of a modern girl who’d distilled flapper ennui, free love innocence and Willa Cather and John Steinbeck’s post-Dust Bowl starkly gaunt forbearance.

I’d had my heart set on something else, but the hat got me. As did her utterly guileless knowing. Whatever it was, I wanted in. I just hoped it didn’t suck.

***


Fender Rhodes, literally electric keyboards in cases the size of writing desks, have this velvety bell tone to them. A few descending chords, passing notes littered between, a rising brass section, and a voice caressing the words, “Oooh, child, things are gonna get easier…” I melted right into the dust and shellac’ed  hardwood floor of our airless attic.

How did this woman I’d never met, never heard of get it so completely. A family rife with strife, we were anything but a Norman Rockwell portrait – and I was anything but the classic bright shiny high achiever that I’d learned to show the world. Though I achieved and shone, what roiled beneath the surface – doubt, anxiety, concern for and about those around me – was a powerful churning.

 

And in one verse of a song made popular by The Five Stairsteps, I felt like things could get better. A weightless seemed to lift up from my carcass, drifting soft and without gravity. No imperative or directive, no empiric evidence given, just the caress of that voice promising that this, too, shall pass was the agency of my condition.

 

Valerie Carter had that gift: she could make you believe impossible things with a tone that was somewhere between ridiculously expensive satin and the lushest sink-into-it velvet. Her soprano, like the embodiment of afternoon or first morning sunlight, glistened in your ears, somehow moved beneath your neural centers like a glider on a balmy, still night.

Even more wondrous were all the phases Just A Stone’s Throw passed through. Aural pictures painted against economical playing – the almost Tom Waits’ free noir of the well-past closing time’s wash-out “Back to Blue Some More,” the churning gospel soul of the title track, the faltering reggae undertow of “Ringing Doorbells in the Rain,” the raw hillbilly yearn of “Face of Appalachia,” not to mention the Earth, Wind + Fire-backed blue-eyed funk of “City Lights.”

 

Rumor had it – cause once I knew, I started hoovering up any scrap of information I could find – she was Lowell George’s girl. Little Feat’s “Fat Man in the Bath Tub,” with a proclivity for overalls and a musical gumbo that could sweat the Crescent City’s grisgris with the fringe of country and the undulation of rhythm & blues understood hybrid vigor. Carter’s rare instrument, her tone but also her ability to turn emotions inside out, was suited to it all.

 

Before I was a music critic, I didn’t bother with the delineations, just the way the music made me feel. Stone’s Throw made me real in a hopeful way, my hunger for knowing, tasting, feeling many things more rational than merely the product lacking focus from my dyslexia. The songs dipped into so many veins and wells of emotions, it suited my not-quite-teenage hormonal swings like a second skin.

 

And that girl on the cover? That was the me I’d be in a perfect world… without a uniform, expectations, a limited budget, my mother harping, the ghosts behind my eyes. She was cool, and funky, and hip, and somehow just shabby enough to not be an uptight rich girl at Beachwood Place, the expensive mall with a real Saks Fifth Avenue in a suburb near our modest brick home.


She had cooler friends, too. Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat’s Lowell George and Billy Payne, James Taylor. Earth, Wind & Fire! Lots of names I knew from the back of the records, people I spent hours with – and felt like I had relationships with based on the songs they wrote or sang. They scraped at what my mundane existence was made of, and somehow made my heart flicker with a desire that seemed more.

Even the boy she loved – that damned “Cowboy Angel” – seemed like the kinda romantic foil I could understand. As a harmonica bled out and her voice opened up on the long syllables, the note struck wide and full, strong without overpowering, she was a real girl wanting an actual, if elusive, boy.

Frustrated by the prep school boys who just seemed dumb, caught up in things that just didn’t  seem important, this “Cowboy Angel” was the accessible answer to the guy Bonnie Raitt was pining for in “Angel To Montgomery.” What I didn’t understand in the moment: Carter’s angel was in close proximity, Raitt’s cowboy had grown mythic – and smaller than a horizon spec -- over time.

It’s all perspective, but you don’t know that when you’re young, on fire and waiting for your destiny to begin. Instead, you sigh into your pillow, listen to your records on eternal repeat and mainline all those emotions you can only access by listening to the words smeared across rock, pop, r&b and even new wave melodies.

 My ultimate genuflection to Valerie Carter came later that summer. On Running on Empty, Jackson Browne’s paean to roadlife – something as a competitive golfer I knew a little more about than the garden variety middle schooler – she co-wrote “Love Needs A Heart.” A secret handshake of a song, it spoke volumes to the states of self-inflicted human bondage that come with always being gone, never being around people you can truly trust and, especially, being shattered by those you do.

 

Rather than one more rootless rolling stone song, the high messiah of the way long gone countenance, this was a song of reckoning and the price paid – or even extracted – for the life, but also the damage already incurred. That’s what nobody tells you when you’re acting brave, sucking it up, shaking it off, pretending it’s for the best: all of that face saving for one’s dignity comes with a cost.

 

And you know that it’s Carter who tempers Browne and George. Only a woman would profess,
“Proud and alone, cold as a stone
I’m afraid to believe the things I feel
I can cry with the best, I can laugh with the rest
But I’m never sure when it’s real…”

 

That’s some powerful vertigo. But also exactly how it happens. You pave over your embarrassment, your hurt, your anger at the disbelief of what just happened -- and you stop trusting what you know, being able to honor those emotions that are right there.

 

With a piano part any serviceable seventh grader could play, Jackson Browne rues and confesses his personal treason. It’s the tale of leaving when he confesses he’s broken this woman’s heart, and in that first verse, it feels like what a thousand other guilt douching songs sound like.

But then it turns, the stakes add up. Maybe a man could’ve written what comes next, but quite possibly not. As the second verse bottoms out, the revelation dawns.

“Love won’t come near me, she don’t even hear me

She walks by my vacancy sign
Love needs a heart, trusting and blind
I wish that heart was mine…”

By the time Valerie Carter – opening Browne’s tour to good notices and obvious fertile creative winds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxBAYr9p4kI) – co-wrote “Love Needs A Heart,” plenty must have happened. The sylph urchin had been banged around a bit by life, or “the life,” and now was counting up her scrapes and bruises, weighing the risks and considering the damage. Not to mention the ultimate truth: once you know, you can’t not know.

 

And so, Valerie Carter put her heart in a song she didn’t sing. She carried on, like singers do, the music too potent a force to let go.  Once you make your way in or through songs, there rarely is another path to travel.

 

Wild Child, the next record, bore witness to it. A tight cropped head shot – echoing Diana Ross’ Diana­ – was sleek, slick, technically gorgeous, somehow clinically detached. This gamine was haute everything, Scavullo-esque in her high forehead and higher cheekbones, but her eyes had enough of the dilation, you had to wonder what other highs she might be sailing, what numbing strategies she’d devised.

 

I remember hearing Wild Child on the stereo at Record Theater, played – as all in-store play was – to entice the customers to lay down their hard-earned dollars. It was shapeless soft rock/jazz lite stuff, perfect for chilled Chablis and Virginia Slims’ uber thin cigarettes crowd. Perfect for the richer Mommies. Technically perfect, more than a little cold, the fire and raw passion that dripped from her notes was gone – much like the disco precision that was rising all around the suburbs, chasing a thrill and a high that was never truly there, even with your nose stuffed with cocaine.

 

I didn’t buy that record, didn’t hide my disappointment. Didn’t know what to say, or even why it mattered. I doubled down on Stone’s Throw, knowing sometimes one record that holds so much is worth more than a wheelbarrow of careers from the REO Speedwagons, Styxs, Rushs and Deep Purples.

 

And I got on with living, with trying to figure out why and how. Not just to survive, but what happens next, where shall the road take me when it’s finally time to take me away. Sometimes we make deals with ourselves to make the best of where we are. Sometimes we get vertigo or just lose our way. Sometimes our hearts break in ways we can’t even explain, don’t always know or understand -- and the world doesn’t care – so you soldier on.

 

Valerie Carter was a brave soldier in the realm of song and reason, romance and how it goes. She’d paid her money, took the ride, shimmered so brightly, she’d still turn up on records like Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence, and remained James Taylor’s favorite female back-up vocalist.

Mostly, though, she disappeared. To Florida. To relative obscurity, occasionally circling back for the music, but mostly, staying out of harm’s way.

 

When the news hit that she’d passed from this world, Taylor’s socials carried in part this remembrance, “…Valerie was an old soul and as deep as a well. Her voice came from her life and her life was a steep, rocky road. I believe that we can hear it, whenever the music is that crucial, when the song is saving someone’s life….”

 

Saving someone’s life. Oooh, child. Never mind the latter day scrapes with law enforcement, with courts of law, with Taylor himself paying for your out-of-state in-patient treatment and coming to your drug court graduation. Forget all the disappointments and promises made along the way nobody bothered to fulfill.

We can’t know the things that go unspoken or unseen. We can only hope that free, she is a shaft of light as pretty as those high notes she’d twirl around on, sparkle like the naughty twinkle in her eye. Sometimes freedom isn’t until the next life – and sad as we all are, maybe that’s the truth to hang onto.

George Michael: I Want Your Sex... & Faith; Another Passes As Christmas Dawns

They were adorable. George Michael with the greatest hair since Farrah Fawcett Major’s backswept wave of honey gold, and cheek bones that crested as plateaus of desire on a face of pure Dionysus. Andrew Ridgeley, his by no means slouch of a wing man, more plausible for the average girls sighing and screaming, reduced to swampy panties and utter hysteria at the waft of the Brit duo known as Wham! UK.

Squeaky clean, perfectly PG. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was pure bubble gum with a whole milk chaser. “Careless Whisper,” the angsty whispered ballad, suggested betrayal, but how? Who could be so reckless with either of these boys with the gilded tans, the pearly white teeth, the seemingly perfect manners.

As MTV was establishing dominance, Wham! was a panacea that worked for everyone – the little girls who understood the rush of hormones, the women who breathed in the young buck musk and pined for that youthful erotica, the parents who felt they were safe quarry for their daughters and the concert promoters, who made the pair’s first – and ultimately only American tour – a stadium-sized proposition.

Heck, George Michael even dated that paragon of chastity Brooke Shields, a woman whose virtue – in spite of supermodel status and controversial films roles – rivaled iconic ‘50s good girl Sandra Dee. You don’t get much more wholesome, and yet…

For all the “good boy” patina of Wham!, there was an undercurrent of erogenous intent that was palpable. Too good looking, too breathless, too somehow unsettled; the bruised heart of “Careless Whisper” with the swelling sax and churning melody was a bit too fraught to be more boy band fodder.

Originally coming from the realm of rap, I remember talking with the guys from Whodini on the first Swatch Watch Fresh Fest about the UK darlings that merged pop and soul. The Thomas Dolby-produced “Magic’s Wand” trio knew all about the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” duo; they had toured together and talked collaboration. There was some real and some street on the cute boys from England, no matter how many day-glo t-shirts, perfect blow drys and shapeless linen blazers they sported. 

And then it was over. Rumbles and stray shards of gossip. Egos and credit-grabbing, conflicting notions of who, what and why; like so many ragingly successful acts before, the tension and outside influences won. Seemingly tragic, yet ultimately, the notion that perhaps the glorious looking Michael did have a musical bent a la Michael Jackson and Prince, something steeped in deep soul, filled with melody that wrapped around your ears and hung on.

When “Faith” dropped, the quick beats and the sweep you up vocal that brought a taut line between desire and fidelity, Michael was undeniable. If the new romantic wave that brought Duran Duran, ABC, Culture Club and the Thompson Twins in on a tide of videogenics and synthesizers – and the accompanying “Faith” clip absolutely beef-caked the dark haired songwriting – Faith was a testament to swooping soul, revved up rhythms and languishing desire stretched across ballads with candle wax poured for emphasis.

That slow burn permeated the steamy “Father Figure,” a noir sort of dance song as much “West Side Story” dramatics as it was breathy come on/fidelity pledge. Slightly anonymous, slightly driven by the rhythm of a beating heart, Michael played a cab driver in the accompanying video without ever prissying it up for the camera. Just a regular working stiff with a 5 o’clock shadow and hours to go until he sleeps; but oh when he gets there…

All of this to sift through the rubble of what was. The news that George Michael was dead crashed our Christmas dinner via friends dropping by for thick slices of bouche du Noel, one more pop culture depth charge with unintended consequences. Because with all the loss this year – Bowie, Prince, Leon Russell, Guy Clark amongst many – enough is enough, and at 53, George Michael is way too young.

George Michael, the beautiful amatory, had passed into ether. After a series of stumbles and falls from grace – the Beverly Hills’ men’s room arrest for soliciting sex, the confession to being gay on CNN, the several arrests for drug use, the notorious law suit with Sony US that may’ve stunted his career – it’s hard to remember the price of trying to follow one’s muse and integrity.

Instead we have that hunk who knew how to thread iconics, to balance the come on and the reassurance with his quarry. When Michael was still ambiguous about his own preferences, “I Want Your Sex” was lobbed on pop radio with a force that made it ubiquitous. The horn’n’guitar slashed middle chunk was Bootsy Collins/George Clinton light, as the lyric empowered the listener to give in to their hedonistic desires.

For a guy who once made desire an innocent commodity, he was no decriminalizing whatever got you through the night. Never afraid to be the beefcake, he raised the stakes for everyone listening out in radioland or watching on MTV: find your passion, feed your bliss, let your freak flag fly.

Like Madonna, George Michael was working the boundaries of what was acceptable. So damned good looking, he could get away with unthinkable things – girls in merry widows’n’garters shot strictly for their bottom – and make most people crave more. One had to wonder what all the seemingly polite songwriter craved, too, because that kind of hungry isn’t something conjured as a matter of exercise.

 Somewhere in the flyover, I smiled while I watched the deliciousness. The gorgeous on display, the throb that slowed down rhythms elicited, the blatant, almost voyeuristic way the camera moved across this body, that beautiful face. If hot girls had been flaunting their charm for years, Michael decriminalized a non-muscle-bound swagger that was confident, but looking for satiation.

Whether he was or wasn’t, who cared? He brought it – no matter who you were. Omnisexual in terms of his draw, everyone with sight would have to want him. Like Tom Ford, when he took over Gucci, Michael understood the sex-positive nature of lush, body scraping designs – second skins that melt and move with you.

 It seemed, in the late ‘80s, like another galaxy had exploded with the brooding Greek songwriter. If he understood major chords and bright melodies, how to make a beat pop, rush or lean in, swirl desire like ice in a drink, the world – not just America – was guzzling it down. Faith was inescapable; the title track giving way to “Father Figure,” “I Want Your Sex” becoming the raison d’etre for a world crawling from the first wave of AIDS sobriety to reclaim their joy.

 If “One More Try” suggested an elegiac Elton John ballad and “Kissing A Fool” felt like a torch ballad that was equal parts Dean Martin and  Sara Vaughan, the album was a carnival of beats and grooves that suggested the phases of a lycra bound aerobics class sweating to utter perfection. “Hand To Mouth” percolated, “Look at Your Hands” swagger with sweltering sax punctuations and “Monkey” took its staccato dance punch from bits of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” Bowie’s most brazen Let’s Dance pieces and a bit of Cameo funk whiplash.

 The foment and churn took all the excess of Studio 54 and distilled it into a post new wave gasp and release. Who didn’t wanna get laid? And suddenly this caramel colored beauty with the great butt – which he had no compunction about shaking for the camera – and great mind – these were smart songs about the greatest frontier since Eve handed Adam that apple – emerged unapologetic and wide-open celebrating not just coupling, but being coupled.

Whatever may happen later, in this moment, George Michael made sex almost safe, something you, me, everyone must have. The collective panting could be heard any time his videos were on MTV. Staid ladies would whisper, rent boys would wink and the pretty girls would throw their hands up as they howled along with the songs on the radio or in the club.

Then came the high concept, grainy black and white “Freedom! ‘90” video. Exhausted by being the beefcake bulls eye of the new decade, Michael tapped David Fincher to vamp on the celebrated British Vogue cover that featured the five definitive supermodels of the era: Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington.

The result was even more libidinous and pulse quickening than Michael’s previous work. As the women mouthed lyrics to the verses, strutting, rolling in the sheets, soaking in a large enough for two bath, coming in and out of the frames, the implicit fantasy was overpowering – and the underlying convergence of sex*music*fashion was intoxicating, all were one, one was all. 

And if Michael was pushing away from being objectified, the man wasn’t eschewing sex, want or coital bliss in any way, shape or form. With a snake-hipped rhythm, as much Brazil as Nile Rodgers’ Chic, the song suggested the ultimate erotic thrust was freedom – to go, but also to stay.

At least, on the surface. But the man who tagged his “I Want Your Sex” video with a lipstick fuschia “Explore Monogamy” was always working three layers beneath the surface. If you plugged into the lyric or the iconography, “Freedom” suggested a man still looking for the climax, but unwilling to be the donkey to pin your fantasies to.

Between setting fire to the “Faith” leather jacket – hung deep in an almost empty closet – that cheekily proclaimed “Rocker’s Revenge,” or blowing up the “Faith” jukebox and signature guitar, Michael was serving notice. Listen closer – but why? with those glorious women and the rock steady dancefloor beat – you would hear the declaration of “clothes don’t make the man” in the chorus, the protestation of “living the fantasy/we won the race, got out of the place/ went home and got a brand new face/ for the boys at MTV” were clearer than anyone might have plugged into.

In the moment, many assumed the song addressed the dissolution of his musical partnership with Ridgley. But maybe it ran far deeper. The rest of Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 was very much a work focused on betrayals, the empty nature of fame, the bankruptcy of hooking up. Did we know that at the time? Or were we all so punchdrunk on the fizzy goodness of the endorphins this music gave us?

 Certainly there were other hits. “Cowboys & Angels” was a more sophistipop, humid and sweeping, something for Ibizia or the Riviera. “Soul Free” suggested Digable Planets, but with that sweeping pop still near the surface, the falsetto utter surrender to carnal pleasure. Even the big orchestral pop of Prejudice’s opening “Praying for Time” – ripe with social commentary to temper whatever follow -- suggested Michael needed more.

 Maybe we should’ve known there was trouble in paradise. Maybe in the growing media invasiveness, it was only a matter of time before the cage match of fame crashed into the increasing gotcha reality of the way we consume our heroes. Or maybe the quickening cycle of obsess and cast off was to blame.

Beyond that lung busting duet with Elton John on the elder’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” or the Aretha Franklin-teaming “I Knew You Were Waiting,” Michael’s star faded. Still huge in the Far East, still a dance floor king in South America and Europe, America was more intrigued by that bathroom bust – and barely registering the ongoing drug problems in the UK.

 Perhaps it was the battle with Sony. While malfeasance happens (and there are those who allege Michael was right), they are also the distribution system; ultimately the ones defining and driving the marketing when you’re on a global juggernaut. Turn them against you, watch your star grow cold and fall from the sky.

In some ways, being arrested for soliciting sex gave him the freedom he’d sung for. Out and free to live the life he wanted, Michael also reached towards the sun of music that was more evolved, more adult. If Older wasn’t a blockbuster, he sampled Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” on “Fastlove, Pt. 1” and offered a velvety pulp fiction flare to the title track, boite-tempered trumpet bleating in the recesses, cocktail piano rising and brushes hitting the cymbals and high hat with a raindrop plop of perfection.

 Michael’s voice, which always conveyed a whiff of ache, somehow smoothed, strengthened. If the winsome young man had reluctance and a slight bruising, this was something settled and confident. The invitation, once fraught with urgency, was now seductive. But most of us – myself included – missed it. 

And that’s the shame of fame. When it’s at its apex, inescapable to the point of nausea, often no one recovers. Rare is the Madonna or Elton John, who navigate the turns and manage to maintain some form of intrigue. But they are both creature of design, image, dare I say marketing? And they’ve both had an uncanny knack for aligning with strong business people – Guy Oseary for Madge, David Geffen for Elton – at the critical juncture where their expiration date should have been passed.

 When fame burns out, there is the lifestyle that one has become used to. Can you afford it? Or must that fall away? And if you can negotiate the fiscal reality, what about the mocking of media, who delight in your foibles? the lack of the raving cheers that have met your various endeavors?

 Yes, there was James Corden’s original “Carpool Karaoke.” A riff to set-up his piece of “Comic Relief” that poked a sharp stick in the eye of the obvious, talking about the whole gay reality of which Michael was so much a face for. Beyond the all-out sing-along moments that would become a design key for Madonna, Michelle Obama, Gwen Stefani and so many others, there was that twinge of the unspoken – and the notion that perhaps it’s never truly okay in some rooms.


For George Michael, who actually served time for his last pot bust, he met every moment like a gentleman. Telling the British press there was a karmic reality to the short jail term, he never lost his dignity, always – in public – maintained that higher elevation.

 But what or who he was when he was alone remains – for most of us – a mystery. No doubt, he had great times, lived a life that made sense for who he was: a gay man of certain beauty, aging and facing a changing world, a world where his music is more nostalgia, but indelible in ways most never achieve.

 Having lost Prince, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, songwriter Andrew Dorff most recently, this is another unthinkable loss in a year of too much and too many.

 Fifty-three is so young. No doubt in the coming days, every miniscule detail of his last several months will be combed over, will be sorted and read like tea leaves. Was it drugs? A broken heart? A heart that malfunctioned? His own hand? Some other misadventure?

 The statement said he passed peacefully, no signs of trouble is all we have. No doubt there is more. But in this TMZ world in which we live, does it matter? He’s gone. Maybe that’s all we need to know. Maybe that, and the freedom that comes from turning the music up way too loud, screaming along at the top of our lungs, wiggling like a noodle or hotstepping like the catwalk is our natural domain is all that we need to remember this life that for a few years burned so bright and so hot.

 Today, Boxing Day as I finish writing, I think that I shall turn the music up, find the beats that move my bottom, bounce around and laugh. If there is a lesson from this wretched year, we never know when our time is coming. It’s a given, but somehow it is more urgent than ever – and I want to feel all the ecstasy I can.

 It doesn’t mean being stupid, overindulging or putting myself at risk. It means, as Aunt Mame proclaimed, “Life is a banquet, and most of poor-sons-of-bitches are starving to death,” and as Scarlett O’Hara declared, “I shall never go hungry again!”

Go find someone you love, call up a friend you’ve not spoken to, have the small indulgence, go for a run and feel the energy, strength and life pumping through your body, flirt wit that guy or that girl, your wife or your boyfriend just ‘cause. And absolutely, turn up the music and dance – George Michael’s music was absolutely like that, just like it developed into something more ruminative so you could take that rapture even deeper.

Leon Russell: Song for You... and Me... and Gone

I was wearing brand new Prada velvet maryjanes, with saddle leather straps, and a big velvet men’s cut shirt from back in the late ‘80s when I was first in LA, trying to be a baby rock critic of merit. The shirt was one of the few nice things I owned, and Icherished it; sliding into it with banged up jeans and forest green cowboy boots, a little bit of luxe boheme splendor for a girl living on a lotta ramen.

Seems somehow right to be dressed like that to get a text that read, “Is Leon Russell someone you can write one of your passionate tributes to?” Reading it, figuring this was a pro-active editor, looking to stay ahead of the bodystack the last couple years has turned into, I replied, “Yes, why? He hasn’t died?”

But, of course, he had. Hand in the air, I asked for and paid the check, purse flying to my shoulder, soles to the sidewalk. Leon Russell, always sort of fragile, always incandescent like a candle flame. He was never quite a hippie, nor a gypsy, nor a field preacher, yet somehow he embodied all, and so much more. 

Men like Leon don’t really die, maybe shimmer a bit and fade a touch. But dead? C’est impossible. Except the Google Seach confirms – even Fox News says so. And once again, here I am, dizzy from the loss, torn from the moments and music surrendered to the sky.

 

I can’t even remember the first time I saw him, probably on the great equalizer of humanity, music and social consciousness – and my father’s favorite – “The Johnny Cash Show.” All I know is my mother snarled, as only she could, “He looks high…” at the tv set in their bedroom – and I truly thought Santa Claus had truly made good on that summer of love promise to “Tune in, Turn On & Drop Out.” 

There he was at a shiny black grand piano, silvery cascades of hair pouring down like white waters, eyes behind mirrored aviator shades as his hands kept rolling and pumping over the keys like some kind of baker making kolaches or other kneaded and twisted delight. He had a voice like an old dog lifted in protest, though there was a zestiness to it, too: you wanted to taste what he knew. And I was far too young to even imagine.

But I wanted; oh yes, I wanted to know.

 

Leon Russell invaded my school car, too. The disembodied voice, wrung out and twisting, floated over the vinyl bench seats. The jaunty “Tight Rope,” all carny and “hey, y’all, watch this” and the arpeggiated “For You,” which pledged of loving someone “beyond this space and time” – and because it was Cleveland, the rock & roll capitol of the world, yes, Russell’s version spun on the rock station in defense of the man who wrote the Carpenters’ inescapable rendition on every pop, ac and elevator music station on the dial.

 

There was “This Masquerade” for George Benson, “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker, “Superstar” for the Carpenters. And there were the conversations my hippie babies would have about Mad Dogs & Englishmen, miscegenation (I couldn’t spell it, so I couldn’t look it up back then) and Mary Russell, about Concerts for Bangladesh, records with Willie Nelson and being a genius.

 

I still thought he looked like Naughty Santa, too much fun and treats and music. I didn’t know about the years in Los Angeles, working with Phil Spector or producing Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Nor was I aware that it was Russell’s Shelter Records, partnered with the producer Denny Cordell, that was soon to toss the terse raw rock/punk Tom Petty and the fist-in-your-face “Refugee” into my world. And I didn’t care. Just knowing someone like him existed was plenty.

 

It was during my tenure as a freelancer in the mid-80s working the country and black music beats for The Miami Herald that the competitive paper’s Jon Marlowe called me to meet him in the stairwell. Stringy white hair, motocross jacket when no one wore such things, The Miami News’ sole critic’d cackle and tell me what I was missing; treating me like a colleague, though I was mostly starry-eyed kid.

 

“You have to pay attention to Leon Russell,” he advised. “As important as Dr. John for mainstreaming that New Orleans shuffle, but a much wider hoop – he’s gospel, and rock and roll, and soul. And he doesn’t flinch or pander. They can’t make him commit to a box, so they act like he’s some bit of fringe of an Indian jacket. You dig in, you’ll see.”

So out to the Hialeah swapmeet I went. Nickels and quarters and dimes. A few bucks could fill in the gaps back then, bad cassettes and slightly blemished vinyl. But the content was there, and man, “Stranger In A Strange Land” was an existential question that suited my own no-man’s-land existence; “Roll Away The Stone” took the metaphysical promises of my Catholic Easter and sowed them with a fiery promise, the spongy striphouse piano “Roller Derby” rubbed the undercarriage of the seemingly innocent enough – all of them bolstered by a peacock feather fan of brash female background singers, equal parts streetwalking working girl and street smart seraph. Divine and dirty, glorious and porous all at once.

If I got The Band – and the power of “Cripple Creek” and Music From Big Pink… If I thought I was figuring out C&W’s bastard Byrds/Burrito’s children Sweetheart of the Rodeo and The Gilded Palace of Sin… If I believed in the mellifluous tone of the steel guitar rising off those Poco records… Then this was the grittier, funk on the roots cornerstone to whatever those other acts were scratching away it.

 

It’s the reason Eric Clapton, the Stones, Dylan embraced his musical touch – and Jerry Lee Lewis took a young Russell and his pals out as his back-up band on a two month tour. To have the kinetic charge to serve as the Killer’s band, you gotta know the inside out from the ground up.

And so, I had my own kinda sphinx: behind mirror’ed shades, in crisp white suits, playing hillbilly music under the nom du chanson Hank Thompson and wearing a top hat or Stetson like some kind of real world crown. When I felt down, his records were like tapping a vein; Leon Russell & the Shelter People offered a soundtrack for a dreamer’s diaspora. Promises of home and redemption, songs of raw ache and utter brio, guitar notes twisting and piano thump-thumping like a strong heart taking pleasure, it wrung out my own young angst and hung it on the line to dry in the bright light of the sun.

 

But Leon Russell, like so many of the ones who came before, seemed elusive. Like the scent of Nag Champa, it is in the air, but impossible to touch: sweet, spicy, sense-piquing, yet ever ephemeral. Leon Russell always in the back hallways and fire escapes of my life and times in LA, when FAX machines were super-high tech and Tower Records was almost a city block of sheer heaven.


You don’t meet men like Leon Russell. Tulsa-born and Tulsa-tied, visionaries don’t exist among mere mortals, so just the notion is plenty as life whips by – and stacks up at your door like so much chord wood for the winter.

Until ex-fiancee #4 said “Let’s go to dinner, let’s go to 12th & Porter…”

He had that naughty twinkle in his eyes, the one that always promised too much fun and plain adventure. I probably put on something velvet with my banged up Levis, probably pulled on cowboy boots of some sort, wiping my mouth with whatever bright pink lipstick I was favoring then.

At a table on the black and white squared linoleum floor, with a perfect view through the giant fishbowl front window, I saw the biggest old school Cadillac pull up. It took up the whole view, the rumble of the Detroit muscle almost rattling the glass… It was obviously old school hillbilly royalty pulling up, but here?

 From out of nowhere Sherman Halsey, the scion of the country booking Halsey Co. dynasty, whirled from out of nowhere, silky caramel hair tumbling down his shoulders like some sharp dressed Jesus. Opening the car door, he reached in and helped a gorgeous black clad arm emerge…

 My jaw was by now slack, not even completely knowing what was happening. But by now I understood, it was something – and my thrilled at the secret boyfriend looked like he’d swallowed a 100 watt bulb.

 

Blinking twice, I saw a large, sturdy yet frail man emerge. Sherman helping, taking his weight, the gentleman moved slowly, his fingers circling Halsey’s elbow. There was a halo of serious and a cloud of “holy shit” all around him.

Looking at Little Steve, as Stephen Charles Hurst was known at our house, I couldn’t find the words. Finally, an “OH… MY… God…” sorta tumbled out, knowing my ability to talk like a cloud of syllables was evaporating. “That’s, that’s…”

“Yup, Toots! It sure is,” said my very-satisfied beau. “I thought you’d get a kick out of this…”

 And then they were upon us, and my face flushed, and I felt my hand being held by a papery set of fingers, the sinews and pads very apparent. His face was so carved, so lined by life – it felt like a gypsy reading your palm in reverse. You could see the world’s wisdom in the crags and watch its best parts sparkle in his sharp as a hawk’s pupils. 


It is rare that I lose conversation, especially when it’s important. I remember the oxygen leaving the room, the temperature feeling hot, myself perhaps a little dizzy. I smiled, perhaps beamed – and I think I spoke a little bit, but am not sure. I just remember how warm and welcoming, kind and familial the elegant gentleman was. He was happy to be out, even on a cane – or was it a walker? – and knew he’d have to get his hips replaced sooner than later.

 He was recording some, trying to figure out the next moves for a creative man who might have been passed by by lesser musical beings. He spoke of Bruce Hornsby, who I knew from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2 and I believe I spoke the Virginia-based keyboardist ability to smear genres without losing the musicality. Russell seemed heartened. Men like him, you see, are meant to play.

 

Working with Sherman Halsey, my fiancée saw Russell quite a bit. He’d come with reports that the rock legend none of my friends would’ve cared about had asked about me. I’d see stardust for days; far more impressed by that than many of the more famous people I worked with. Because those who practice magic get inside you in deeper ways.

 Russell didn’t have the comeback with Hornsby that he deserved. Didn’t get the flex that found Levon Helm or Bonnie Raitt, but he just kept moving forward. No doubt a good musicians union pension – for recording with Sinatra on “Strangers In the Night,” Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, the Ronnettes, Delaney + Bonnie, Joe Cocker, the Beach Boys and beyond had added – and songwriting royalties kept his bills paid, but there was more fire to him than that.

 The Hank Thompson country albums were staunch Texas/Oklahoma honky tonk issue. The genuflecting Willie Nelson offering up a partner in crime for one slice of who he was. It didn’t matter; he kept playing. Got the hip operation, kept playing. Had other health issues, would take a break – and keep playing.

 

Yes, there was a high profile reclamation of the man who knew no other way by Elton John. For a duet record, produced by T-Bone Burnett, called The Union. A debt for the flamboyant Brit rocker/pianist, John intended to see his exalted influence into the Rock & Roll of Fame – and to have Russell’s contributions to the genre recognized. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT5aYRgmgyM)

 And so it came to pass. Inducted in 2011, Russell spoke of John rescuing him from a ditch along the side of life’s highway. But he also had bought a new tour bus, and was about to embark on making a new album with Tommy LiPuma. As I said, music men keep on playing always.

Little Steve and I drifted apart. He found an incredible woman named Shaye, and they’re so much in love, I was glad I could be a way station on his journey to her. We still talk, for what it’s worth, sharing news of Leon or Sherman, ‘til Sherman died somewhere in the blur of the last several years. Love that “exists beyond place and time,” you see, isn’t bound by things like rings or marriages – or even death.

 Lately, between the election and Leonard Cohen and the death of my own uncle, it feels like life is coming faster and faster, sadder and darker, too. I’ve not had time to pause and reflect, collect and consider – all that has been lost, all that I’ve been blessed to know, to touch, to embrace as part of my life.

Leonard Cohen, truly the ultimate ladies man. Dapper suits, hat cocked just so – and songs redolent of musk and evocation, enough to make a kid’s knees quiver. Like Russell, his gifts transcend the basics of language: he holds much in a few words, scrapes away the sludgy build-up and finds the essential emotion in melodies and imagery.

 Walking around a corner too fast, returning after lunch with Don Was, I bounced into a recording studio just a bit too fast and slightly off balance. The crease in the pewter sharkskin pants could’ve slashed my jugular – only the hand that extended, steadied me and dark cocoa irises bore into my own.

 Set right, the steadying hand extended and a low voice announced, “I’m Leonard.” I gulped. And stared. “And you are?” Again, stammering, I managed to get my name out, as Was laughed and Sweet Pea Atkinson took it in with a guttural chuckle.

 

That’s the thing about the Towers of Song, they don’t have to flex. They just need to be. The poetry of who they are permeates everything, ignites songs with the right amounts of reserve and tension or raw desire and hell-raising. For each, the way they walked or looked into your eyes was as profound as the songs they wrote.

And whether people realize who these non-attention seekers were, their songs live on. “Hallelujah” has been recorded – like Russell’s “Song for You” – well over a hundred times. Each has their cannon, each has their own special stew; but both created an image, a sonic template, even a place within the times that solidly maintained their reality.

 

“Shoot Out On The Plantation” is playing as I type this. As the nation is torn in half by what they think is unthinkable, it’s all here in this song. With the chunky funky beat, the sticks moving across the high hats and clanging on cymbals with the pace that says, “We mean business,” Russell suggests the upside down reality of it all --
“Yeah, the last one to kiss is the first to shoot/ And stabbing your friends is such a drag to boot…”

 That’s the thing about these lives, whether spotlight or not, they’re often long gone. Chasing the dream, the song, the money to pay the rent or the rush to keep on going, there is a restlessness inside creative that never truly goes out.

 If Ray Charles won a Grammy in 1993 for his version of “Song for You,” this could be anyone’s refrain who plays the game of plying music for other people to find their truth.

            I've been so many places in my life and time
            I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes
            I've acted out my life in stages, with ten thousand people watching
            But we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you

 

As a woman who’s chased the road and gently blown on the kindling fire of dreams built on stages and studios, the fragility and need is something I’ve witnessed and felt my own damn self. When it’s late and lonely, you wonder about the cost… and you hum a song, and hope that the price is worth what you’ve paid.

You know, you never know. You really can’t. The rush of when it’s working is so intense, and the emptiness of doubt and all alone can’t truly be measured. Somewhere in between, there’s a lot of boredom and the baseball cards of dreams. You flip’em over and remember how sweet it was, waiting on the next song to come up on random rotation that takes you back

 

The editor told me Russell, who’s already survived a massive cardiac event and major brain surgery, went in his sleep. He was 74, at home in Nashville. A man who loved and kept it funky, whose humanity was pervasive and reached far beyond those who knew about the Tulsa Scene, who warmed their haunted places with Carney or Americana or Leon Live.

 Somewhere, Leon’s looking down, fingers spread like sunrays as he surveys all he left behind. The grisgris and the juju is our’s to keep alive, and the songs, well, the songs are here for all to love and live inside. Funny, too, how a man who can find the magic in “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today” and “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” as well as “I Put A Spell on You” and the live combust of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” merged with “Youngblood,” would write his own elegy almost half a century ago.

 For all its need and ache, the larger truth in “Song for You” comes now. As the piano rises and falls, the lyrics open wide to hold us in their embrace now that he’s gone. Gentle catch and benediction, it seems Russell had already spelled it out… it’s just we were all too pinwheel-eye’d to believe this moment would ever come.

            I love you in a place where there's no space or time
            I love you for my life, because you're a friend of mine
            And when my life is over, remember when we were together
            We were alone and I was singing my song for you

Like all the real hippies, he didn’t fear death – or heaven. He shook his songs, plied his guitars and piano, mined the chutes of Dixie, swamp, Appalachia, Tulsa and tumbleweeds to conjure that sound that shook its tail and balmed the wild night. When America stood at a crossroad, Russell emerged saying “Why not merge it all?”

Uptopian. Idyllic. Hopeful. Impossible. It was who he was, and all that existed in his music from the very beginning. For a young man who started out Claude Russell Bridges and morphed into Leon Russell by virtue of a fake ID to play in LA clubs, it doesn’t matter… only the music, and how it lifts us up.

 For me, trying to make sense of everything, I’m gonna try to let it do that. And it’s funny, I’ve not been around Mr. Russell – except random airport gates on flights in and out of 6-1-5 – in years, but the idea that he’s gone still guts me somehow, lays me open wide. Maybe it’s for those days when I was young, and he was some kind of earthy paternal presence of us all; or maybe just like Leonard Cohen and David Gleason, there are some who seem as if their inextinguishable no matter what.

With the candles lit and day still blazing, I think I need to walk it off. Find a park or trail, touch the bark and hum just a little bit. He ain’t coming back, but perhaps in the songs, I can hold that smile and white-white hand with the knuckles protruding just a little in my soul again.

www.HollyGleason.com

Randall Knives, Desperados & Homegrown Tomatos: Guy Clark's Gone

Guy Clark was the Hemingway of the Texas expats, living beyond the confines of structural Music Row hitmaking. A Grammy-winner, painter, man in full, his songs capture pathos, small pleasures and what it means to be heroic over the course of almost a century. Today, he died. I look back on a longstanding friendship and the kind of person he was.
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I Wanna Be Your Lover: Prince Nelson Rogers Finds That Purple Reign

 

At the college radio station, the poster hung on the wall. A scrawny li’l thing with a few flaccid chest hairs, greaseball hair tumbling down as much Guido Romeo as Latino playa... naked but for a pair of skimpy bikini panties and a cross.

He watched you. Every little thing you’d do. There in that still wet shower, promises of things that should scare you behind his eyes; pleasures untold still glistening on his lips.

Prince hadn’t broken wide when Controversy found WPRK, there on Rollins’ manicured Spanish style campus on the lake. My mother came to watch me turn the radio show on one morning, alone under the library before Chris Russo my news and sports guy got there.

As the generators hummed and the equipment whirred and warmed up, I ran around flicking light switches, grabbing logs and clipboards, tearing the latest Associated Press news feed. I found her, hair teased high and wide, three platinum stripes rising out of the impossibly immobile Lady Bird Johnson ‘do, staring intently at the rumpled poster as long and as thin as he was.

Pressing the Marlboro 100 to her lips, her eyes narrowed as she dispassionately inhaled almost the entire thing. The tip burned angry red, intensifying as she sucked in. When she finally stopped drawing the burning tobacco into her lungs, she let out a plume of smoke, turned to me as I settled behind the turntables and board, preparing to put the radio station on the air.

“And what in the hell is that?” were her only words. Flat, cold, appalled.

“Welcome to another morning of broadcasting at WPRK, 91.5, Winter Park, Florida,” I said as mellifluously as possible, then read from the sign on card. I feared her ballast; I knew it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t get it, didn’t care. The image offended her for so many reasons, though sexuality had never been a problem for the woman with the heavily dented dance card.

Cold drop on “Night Shift,” the Commodores tribute to the glory days of Motown. Turn the volume up slowly. Close the pots, check the logs, find another record. Look up.

“His name is Prince Nelson Rogers. They call him Prince. From Minneapolis. Funk. Controversy...”

"He looks like a freak, no wonder there’s controversy.”

“NO,” I picked back up from the interruption. “It’s the name of his album. A lot of people think he’s offensive. He’s also a musical genius with a big pop aura. Like the black soul Todd Rundgren.”

She inhaled what was left of her cigarette, dropped it into her coffee.

“He looks like a faggot.”

And there you go.

           

Prince Rogers Nelson, like James Brown, like Stevie Wonder, like Rick James, carved deep veins of funk. Grooves you could do the laps in, beats that’d bounce you like a little kid on a trampoline. But he was a masterful musician: to hear him slash and spike strings, you understood the musical violence that melody could sustain.

My gateway drug had been rollerskates. Fat wheels, stiff leather, laced way above the ankles. When “I Wanna Be Your Lover” played, it was so juicy, so emollient, it felt like that polished hardwood floor would push you by virtue of the silky pop grooves. And the way he squeezed his voice in the end? Oh, yeah!

There were no little boys like that at any of the prep schools I went to: sensitive, melting gender, sprawling across rock and rhythm & blues and pop and funk. But Prince did it with such insouciance, such bravado, such luster, you couldn’t walk away. To me, he was everything Carly Simon sang about in that first verse of “You’re So Vain,” only wickedly talented and able to scoop me up in a few bars.

If Rick James was hard and ghetto, there was something so bohemian about the man wearing ladies clothes long before arena rockers found Fredericks of Hollywood. Looking up through that thick black shock of hair, he was a doe-eyed sylph who was all tease, then taunt, then... Well, the mind bucks.

Which was exactly the point. And while those early Prince albums were a thumb on the sore spots, a freaky sex show of “Head” and “Do Me Baby” and “Soft and Wet” and “Dirty Mind” and “Do It All Night” and “Annie Christian,” “Jack U Off,” “Sexuality” and “Private Joy,” they were as fraught because of how overt his approach. Here was a 90 pound banty rooster, often in a frilly shirts or no clothes with a band as tight as James Brown’s making no bones about pleasure, eroticism or the various forms of coitus and release.

And I loved him. Nice girl from the suburbs, plaid skirt, white cotton blouse, I couldn’t look away. Unlike my mother, he didn’t repulse me, but excite a curiosity about what happens when hormones run wild. Even if I remained a nice girl, it’s good to know what happens when you close that door...

Wasn’t that really the permission people who leaned into the erogenous charge were seeking? When the lights go down, the heat goes up, what happens next? Being nice didn’t mean being a mandrake root, and Lord knows, there was a reason Eve looked so good to Adam.

 

So I listened. I sought him out. Almost died that early morning, having just signed WVUM, the Voice of the University of Miami, onto the air – and saw 1999, a double album pleasure fest of untold delight. So new David Fleck, the MD at the time, hadn’t even pulled suggested tracks. Virgin vinyl. Mine! ALL Mine! There as day rose over the student union in Coral Gables.

Scanning the titles – for length as well as provocation, because sometimes size matters – I settled on “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” Cued it up, hugged myself tight – and opened the mic as soon as whatever song by local faves The Front was done.

“And this,” I said in my flattest Angel Dust voice, “is brand new from Prince...”

Letting the record go, I knew I could talk a bit over the hard pulse of the intro.

“The album is called 1999, and this... ahhh, promises, promises... is ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married.’ Enjoy the commute...” and I laughed as I faded my voice down. Once the channel was closed, I blasted the song, shrieking and jumping up and down, tossing my head from side to side, spinning and twisting and yes, grinding away to the synth-ladden, guitar-heavy slice of throbbage.

It was heaven. It was fun. It was one of the moments where the song swallows the moment, there is only music and you and all those delicious gyrations coming from your body swept up in it all.

Suddenly, I noticed the flashing red light angrily spinning. The Hot Line was for emergencies, invasions, matters of national crisis. Oh, Lord... Throwing the volume down, I picked up breathless, squeaking, “Hello...”

“What in the HELL are you DOING?” came the angry bark of Glenn Schwartz the impossibly good looking summer GM. “Jesus, Holly...”

“It’s new Prince,” I stammered. “I thought I’d checked the levels. Am I pinning the...

Before I could say “meters,” he interrupted. “Get. IT. OFF! GetitoffNOW....”

“Uhm, uh, uhm, ah....”

Scrambling, I set the needle flying across the vinyl, shoving in a cart of the English Beat’s ska-skankery “Mirror In The Bathroom,” hoping it wouldn’t be too abrupt. Pulling the pot up, I didn’t bother to break, just cover the silence which is the mark of sloppy radio.

The telephone receiver dangled from all the scrambling. I could hear yelling on the other end. Picking it up to an “Are you there?,” I murmured “yeah,” not understanding. As the shouting resumed, I did pick out “For the love of Christ, ‘I sincerely want to %$#& the taste of your mouth?’ REALLY? Do you give a shit about our license?”

I wanted to be adult, professional. Trying to say, “Yes, yes, I do. I am so sorry,” I somehow fell into a giggle.

“This isn’t funny, Holly. What the hell? Didn’t you preview the track?”

Preview the track? Well, no. I thought we could all burst into spontaneous combustion of funky pleasure together. That was probably not the answer he was looking for.

“Uhm, no,” I said, always committed to telling the truth. “I, uhm, I got excited – and it was a long song. I figured there’d be some jamming, some really grinding down into the groove. I was so lost in it, honestly, I wasn’t even listening to the lyrics.”

“YOU?! The person who plays Pure Praire League on our station? You didn’t check the lyrics?! Are you kidding me?”

“No, Glen, I didn’t. I just knew...”

“Knew what?"

“It was gonna feel good.”

He hung up.

 

And so Prince became my own private rebellion. If my street school friends knew about Earth, Wind and Fire and Rick James’ “Superfreak,” I knew something even more out. Prince was mine, and I liked it that way.

Only “1999” became the omnipresent party anthem. “Little Red Corvette” took a penis metaphor and unbridled desire and roared across suburban Top 40 radio. It seemed America was turning on, finding the libertine with the sick beats, the narcotic melodies, and those grooves you couldn’t climb out of.

Jealous, I watched his star rise. Watched as he became the James Dean of funk, a tortured misunderstood artist against the world with the film “Purple Rain” and an album of the same name that seemingly outsold everything else combined.

My mother was still not impressed. One night after a few pops, she wandered  by the tv as the still whippet thin musician rose from a steaming tub. Again inhaling her Marlboro 100, she paused with her lungs full, slowly turned as the smoke plumed and decreed, “He still looks like a faggot to me.”

Maybe. But in purple brocade, he was launching careers. Porn motifs as the Shirelles in Vanity 6, world class percussionist as women who knows in the seductive Shiela E(scobedo), cracker jack band with the swerve and the verve the Time, which eventually spawned Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who’d produce Janet Jackson’s biggest albums.

There were also the contributions to others: an innuendo laden hit for throwaway popper Sheena Easton with “Sugar Walls,” the rush rush working girl soda pop effervescence of the Bangles “Manic Monday,” the turbo synth shaft driven departure for Stevie Nicks “Stand Back.” Cindy Lauper cut a roiling “When U Were Mine” and Sinead O’Connor hit the mainstream with the stark lament “Nothing Compares to You,” not to mention Chaka Khan’s blazing return with “I Feel For You,” all sass and verve and whew! and well then...

Oh, yeah, Prince was happening. He hit Miami like a hurricane, blowing into the Orange Bowl with full gale force for the Purple Rain Tour. This tiny little man who danced like a chicken on a hot plate, downstroking his electric guitar and yowling with the demand and gratification of a true sexual avatar.

Yes, yes, yes. Garnering an invitation to the post-show party at the high end South Beach when it was busted hanger-sized disco Club X, I chewed my straw and watched the wide curving stair way hoping for a glimpse.

When he showed – somewhere between 2 and 3 in the morning – it was old school glamour.  A meltingly luxurious suit in a pastel so pale, it was unidentifiable. Tiny like a jockey, but a presence that consumed the room.

Shiela E was with him, laughing into her hand. Caramel hair falling in waves and curls, a pencil skirt slit up, lace stockings and a satiny blouse whose tailoring seemed almost to be designed to second-skin her.

Rock & roll didn’t look like this. Nothing did. I was gobsmacked.

For suburban kids with their bad perms, Manic Panic hair color and mousse to defy gravity, wearing Jordache jeans with combs in the back pockets, this was as unattainable as the lingerie clad court of women who surrounded him like a merry widow army. Little did we know about the members only, nose bleed expensive Trashy Lingerie on LaCienega, where Prince would pull up in a limo and shower these women with whale boned satin corsets, ribbony garter belts and push up bras dotted with feathers, diamante, leopard prints in scarlet red, baby pink, midnight blue, white and naturally black.

 

Black. The color. The whispered about album. Mythic. Vaunted. A unicorn from Paisley Park. If Prince colonized a forbidden place kids couldn’t get to fast enough, he had his own dark thoughts, his own raunchy excess and grooves to scrape and twist into a scrap metal abyss of “oh, yes.”

There might’ve been “Kiss,” and “Raspberry Beret,” and “Cream.” All those albums that tumbled out, each slightly more obtuse as the funk widened. Was it – like Miles Davis or Coltrane – an attempt to explore universes obscure to the rest of us? Or was the Purple One seeking to shed himself of the obsessive outcasts and mall rats who’d never truly be free or forward or... beautiful.

I got my copy of The Black Album on cassette from the Dazz Band on their way back into the country from a tour of Japan. Winning the 1983 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group – tying Earth, Wind + Fire – with the unlikely “Let It Whip,” a song considered to be the first B&D smash, it seemed somehow appropriate.

Steve Cox, the jazz-driven synthesizer programmer, slid the Maxell heavy duty across the bar towards me with a knowing smile. “This is the stuff,” he said. “You’re gonna like it.”

It was the beginning of the extended game of chutes and ladders Prince would play with the record business. Getting a fade that read “Slave” cut into his sideburns... refusing to turn in records to his label... figuring out how to circumvent standard business procedures.

He would make the Noel Coward-evoking “Under The Cherry Sky” motion picture. He would turn up here and there. He would release a ridiculous album on Larry Graham. He would  play hide and seek with the public eye.

But whenever he turned up, it would be worth the watching, Sexy*funky*strange. Not to mention, a feminist and wicked appeciator of the feminine form. When “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” descended, every shape and type and trope of woman was celebrated – suggesting the sensual in us all. It was genius, and it made women feel empowered in the world as well as the boudoir.

When you feel good, when you feel desired, what is more erotic than that?

It’s what made Prince someone you wanted to hear, to feel, but also to see.

 

Having cashed out my journalism chips to take a job at Sony Nashville, running their Media & Artist Development Department, I knew the writers that I needed were the ones covering the mainstream. In the waters where people thought country was – to parrot Sylvester Stallone in “Rhinestone” – “worse than liver” was where the beachhead needed to be.

Explaining to my very forward looking boss Mike Martinovich my thinking, he blessed me to go to the MTV Awards, where Don Was was serving as musical director. In true Penny Lane fashion, it was Was who “found me a pass.” It was standing by him, too, that saved me when they cleared the Universal Amphitheatre for Prince’s rehearsal.

Beyond the assless pants, where it all hung out and a big buzz, here was this loose electric wire, screwed up tight, showering the tech people, script folks and sundry production staff with such sweltering guitar playing, I can’t even remember the song. Bass notes rumbled like big trucks on old brick roads, fat tires flattening just a bit, the drums slapped hard like an open hand on a wet face.

But it was Prince, leaning in, hearing things we couldn’t as the synthesizers pushed what we thought were the boundaries. Binding the music together, it was the closest thing to combustion I’d ever seen at another person’s finger tips.

Even in rehearsal, even with his energy pulled in, he held nothing back from that guitar. It was man and music, entangled, thrashing, pressing and seeking. It was, perhaps the aural equivalent of sex with an instrument – and it felt good.



And when "Screwdriver" dropped out of the blue last year, it was just as alive, just as much voltage rushing through it. An entire day, I did nothing but play the YouTube with the flimsy little video. Over and over. Kept sending the link to friends, loving every Facebook reposting or tweet or gushing email reply.

That sense of the groove coming from the inside out? I never recovered, and all these years later, it still hit me in the face and dropped me to my knees. "I'll be the driver, you be my screw." Uh-HUH.

Like the mixtape a pretty famous regional musician made for me. The expected Buddy Millers, Patty Griffins, Springsteens, a random Vince Gill. But in the middle of all that, a few piano notes formed a curl, chords fell lilke tears as the notes ascended -- and a papery, whispery falsetto intoned, "I am lonely painter, I live in a box of paints..." and i sucked my breath in. So gentle, so soulful, so washed in a carousel of emotions -- want, regret, love, need -- I pulled over.

Prince singing Joni Mitchell. "A Case of You." One of her most sacred songs of love and longing, connection and those feelings so rarely sound, so aggressively sought, even chased. A drummer mostly played the rims, the piano rolled over notes and built, the falsetto rising ever higher before settling into the pledge of "I could drink a case of you/ and still be on my feet."

 

I could go on and on. But I can’t. I’m not spent. I’m crying again. Not just tears running down my face, sitting here in some deep Alabama truck stop, people who were never touched by the music milling by in search a hot shower, a little food, some gas or coffee.

Not me. I had to pull over when an editor mentioned it to me in a phone call. Had to start writing like Hans Christian Anderson’s Red Shoes possessed my fingers. Had to try to remember it all: the way my blood felt like schools of little fish, nibbling my veins when his music was loud, the pulse racing when I glimpsed him at X or my jaw went slack just watching him push that glyph-looking guitar to places I didn’t know existed.

But always the music pulls me back, holds me down. I am not sobbing, but I am audible. People are looking. What can you say? They think you’re some silly teenager in a flashback moment, lost on a tide of who you were when you didn’t know any better.

They’d be wrong, of course. Prince is the one who brought a freedom and a knowledge, a conquistador’s brio and the hunger of starved wolves to our lives. Like the snake in the garden, he gave us an apple that tasted like music... and sex... and love...

It is easy to remember the freaky, the odd demands, the ego, the flamboyance and excess. But it was the teeter totter of a Jehovah’s Witness, an intense privacy, a wild distaste for how the music business worked – and a drive to make music, play far into the night that balanced those things.

Prince was 57. Too young, not enough, no reason.

As the poet’s say: WTF?

And even worse, the truck stop has no cut rate For You, Prince  or Dirty Mind to buy. Not even a bad second generation Purple Rain or Parade or Sign O’ The Times. It is raining now, just a little, a good cover for my tears.

US 280-E beckons. Miles to go before I keep, and it is that keeping on that is what will pull me to where I’m headed. A football stadium at a massive SEC Stadium, the first ever concert where the Auburn Tigers play.

Ironically or perfectly, Kenny Chesney’s 2016 Tour is called Spread the Love. Inadvertent, yet appropriate. In a very hippie, free-spirited way, it almost siren calls the youth to let themselves go and be in the moment.

As for me, you can find me driving and crying in what most certainly won’t be purple rain. But before I pack my things, back up and drive away, do me a favor: remember, all we have is right now. Today, do something bold. Tell someone how you feel. Wear that expensive thing you’re saving. Drive a little too fast if it makes you feel more alive. Turn up the music, especially, and let it play!

We never know. It never lasts. Take it for all there is before it’s gone. Wherever, however, whatever, forever and ever, amen.

21 April 2016

www.hollygleason.com

David Bowie: The Man who Fell To Earth Returns To The Stars

Just when you think the last quixotic artistic prank is pulled, Bowie creates the masterful BLACKSTAR -- knowing his end was inevitable. An elegy no one saw coming. A life that forged glitter and art, high concept and demimonde as one.
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Day 3 Drifting By, Too Many Riches To Behold (Bonnaroo Installment 6)

The Morning After Turns Into A Magic Day

            It’s pressing noon, and the Starbucks is sold out of almost everything. The line moves pretty well. The staff never loses their smile. People hover near the outlets, recharging their devices, caffeine-loading after the first full grueling day.

            Two teenage girls with their hair straight and shiny are prattling about “did you see...” and “can you believe...” They have big plans for the festival, bigger plans for their life. They hate this girl, think that boy’s stupid. They compare schedules in the congress of youth manifesting.

            Anyone who thinks Bonnaroo is only for hippie weirdos needs only to see these two squeaky clean young ladies, probably headed to good colleges in the next year or two. In the realm of what Bonnaroo contains, they make as much sense as the patchouli-smelling, henna-tattoed girls or the fancy-shifters wandering bare-chested nipples covered in body paint or glitter.

            It is do-what-you-do/we’ll-dig-your-authentic. It is the best possible prospect no matter who or what you are – or wanna be.

            A friend’s 16-year old daughter is running free, up before anyone and off into the music; home long after everyone else has caved in. Her hair is blue, she’s wearing baggy jean shorts, denim shirt tied around her waist. Every moment is a discovery, every turn or step holds another thrill.

            Looking at the schedule, there is much to see. No full sets today, but the continual slide’n’sample of too much to possibly manage, yet the drive to see it all. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – and hope for the best.

            Trampled by Turtles on the What Stage sends old-string bandery into the crowd. They miss notes, fall out of time; the critics love them. They set a feel for the massive main stage that defines a day that will see Hozier, Mumford + Sons and My Morning Jacket all plow through various forms revolving around acoustic instruments.

            But stopping isn’t an option. Rhiannon Giddens  is on the Which stage, also old-timey and old school, but far more practiced and studied in her musicology. Joined by bandmates the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she is as sincere as she is charming in her sleeveless ‘40s black dress with the crinolines underneath and bare feet on the burning stage as she caresses Patsy Cline’s “She Got You” with a strong vein of ache tempered with the drown of the small remembrances left.

            It is on Odetta’s “Water Boy” where her power comes forth. After explaining that T-Bone Burnett hearing her sing the song “changed my life” – and led to Tomorrow is My Turn, the solo album released earlier this year that helped her earn an Americana Artist of the Year nomination.

            With a big beat driving, her initial verse is a cappella plus; she sings large and strong and powerful. It is the essence of the storied black folk singer who wrote the song. Then the band slides up and under, slightly Dixieland in their rhythms, and Giddens voice turns to satin, more sultry in the approach.

            “Water Boy” becomes of a festival of what string instruments can do: upright bass, acoustic guitar and banjo plinking through the beat, the cello threads the melody line like a fiddle.  It swings in a way folk music never would, and it takes the material into a new realm.

            Later she invokes Kentucky’s banjo-playing Cousin Emmy, a hardcore mountain texture of the first order. Introducing the half-hog-callin’, half-bluegrass brash acher “Ruby,” Giddens cries and wallows in the pain of romantic travails – and sounds as much holler as any mountain girl ever has.

            Transfixed and needing water, we stay too long – and don’t make it to Bahamas. Hearing about how it may’ve been the best set some of my critic friends saw, I bite the inside of my cheek, knowing these are the wages of ‘Roo. But heat stroke is not an option, and so we drank up, then crossed the pasture, hearing a bit of the Bleachers’ fun.-surfing pop that is as infectious as anything on pop radio. If you need a little aural tickling, download it now.

            Hozier beckons: the soul-stirrer from a more Van Morrison place than a Marvin Gaye grounding. His breakthrough “Church” suggested – as did Amy Winehouse’s nu soul – that a different kind of earthy can ground the intersection of blues and alternative rock.

            In his lanky, dark haired glory, Hozier didn’t disappoint. His voice is like molasses Twizzlers: sweet, but somehow rendered into something musky, thick enough to chew, but giving to the teeth.

            Some instruments beckon you closer, some lift you up. Some take you to – sorry – church or school. But Hozier, for all the earnestness of his pain, of his regret, of his willingness to take the beating is not sanctimonious. This is a man who can sweep Arianna Grande’s “Problem” into something that rocks, and bring a field of people to full-voice singing it out with him.

 

            Again, across the pasture, Sturgill Simpson has them spilling out on every possible space of That Tent, so much so Artist passes have to walk all the way around the entire complex to gain access to the viewing area. It is intriguing to see this kind of lean, progressive country in an outlaw tilt draw such a crowd – hipsters and hippies, some people who look like they might know Vern Gosdin or Keith Whitley’s songs beyond name recognition.

            Much has been written about him as the new Waylon. He ain’t. Not even close. It is such a disservice to what Simpson is doing: forging a counter-culture country that is as tough and as frank as anything Kristofferson ever wrote, delivered sans bloat or frills with a train beat often driving it, and always a voice that is sturdy if not pretty, true if not as memorable as many of the icons.

            What he is, beyond all the musical descriptors, is a man in a pretty basic button up shirt, jeans hanging slightly loose, electric guitar over his shoulder and his eye on the horizon. He’s not swaggering to swagger, nor is he blustering at some piece of crap radio system. He doesn’t care about any of it, it seems, just making his music on his terms.

            Bright colored psychedelic graphics projected behind the stage suggest the disengaging from expectation, too. This is music that could happen in any Texas roadhouse on any given night. Waltzes in places, drivers in others, he weaves a carpet that is hard country sans twang, offers up lean, almost brittle arrangements that have more punch for the austerity and stand stall in the moment.

            If labels were honest, he’d be the middle of the country continuum – and what’s on the radio would sail off the edge of the world as Columbus feared when he set off in the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. But tags don’t always measure up to definition, and so he is the fringe – as was Willie of Phases & Stages – and from the outside, perhaps he’s tunneling his way under to a whole new kind of secessionist country music.

            Floating back towards the main stages Belle & Sebestian maintain the magic that makes them evoke so many things on still nights and in slow moments. They are a balm and an agent for what’s unspoken. But there is too much music to linger.

            Austin, Texas post-modern bluesmas Gary W. Clark holds down the Which? Stage. He is more electric, more rock than the last time I saw him at South By Southwest with just a guitar. He has a way of distilling the things he sings of, but then bringing the music home by how he finds the serpentine that wraps around the emotions, the betrayals, the doubts and the release inside his songs.

            He is a musician as much as a gruff voiced singer. He finds his fingers exploring his truths in ways that make you shake with what he’s trying to share. To expand the songs in those other dimensions perhaps give him a breadth Robert Cray never quite found: the bridge between the two never quite happened for the “Smoking Gun” man.

            But stopping her is not possible either. My Morning Jacket is about to take the What Stage, under that green neon Bonnaroo sign. More water is needed. There is a finite reality against the infinite possibilities of all this music.

            In the bus lot where friends are stationed, the guys from Dawes have gathered around the Rita Houston Express. Someone is pouring sauce from a baggie into a pan that will settle on a grill. No one pays them any mind as the band scatters around the stone and dust lot, listening to the music floating over the wire fence hung with tarp.

            One of Jim James’ gifts is his ability to create a web of feeling beyond any obvious element of My Morning Jacket’s recordings. Exacting musicians, an emotive singer who can wring truth out of an almost two-dimensional tone, there is something shimmering to what the whole yields.

            For 18 songs, the Bonnaroo stalwarts kept the throng – many so far from he stage, even the big screens couldn’t yield music of an impression – in the palm of their hands. “Gideon” and “Run Through” pressed into me, leaving the mark of music where words fail. Of all the bands over the four days, few defy my ability to capture like this Kentucky-bred collective that is much brain and heart, visceral beyond touch and always, always pressing to challenge themselves and the listeners.

 

            There is a pale of silence descending on the far left side of the hill. Over at What? Childish Gambino keeps rapping and bringing their music, but where we are it’s not quite an echo. Time is needed to absorb MMJ, and to let it sink in before Mumford & Sons close down the biggest stage of all.

            Four fresh-faced lads from the U.K., chiming folk-pop as bright as morning on the ocean, they seem to be in the middle of shifting to a more electric, more rock tilt in their music. If once they’d been surging acoustic turns, now they’ve plugged in – but without the blasphemy that met Dylan at Newport.

            From the opening “Lovers’ Eyes,” they came to play. The crowd came to love them. It was the kind of communion where musicians who excavate their souls dream of: listened to and yet somehow, also engaged.

            They tumbled through 14, 15 songs, savoring every downstroke, every unguarded moment of people who didn’t come to play a set by the numbers. “Lovers of Light” gave way to “Thistle & Weeds” into “Ghosts That We Know.” And so it went all the way through to the set culminating sweep of “Dust Bowl Dance” and “The Wolf.”

            When the Londoners topped the Top 200 Album charts with 20012’s Babel, it was obvious they were ushering in a new world order. For Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane, it wasn’t so much a master plan – nor a move for world domination. But it struck a blow for a new kind of addressing the game of penetrating the marketplace: eschewing the trends, mindfully evolving the music, singing true to your heart and knowing your place in your own reality.

            A five song encore – including “Roll Away the Stone” and “Little Lion Man” --  was a whole other threshold. With a powerful 1, 2, 3, 4 line-up of songs, they crushed the cake by bringing out Hozier, My Morning Jacket, Dawes and Ed Helms for a culminating rendition of the Beatles’ “A Little Help from My Friends.”

            If it were not Bonnaroo, not past 1 a.m., not perfectly mirroring the spirit the festival promoters try to engender, it might have been cliché. Somehow, all those bands who have held the ground and the stage over these few days, understand in a way the hyper-competitive music business hasn’t figured out: it is the community and the presense of creatives driving creative that everything is more.

            It is not a conveyor belt, a check list or approaching every act as the same box of product where the ascension rises. All of those artists, so singular, so uniquely unto their own hybrid vigor, found paths by blazing a trail... and in smart “grown-ups” working to what the music was, by songs that were unfiltered reflections of who they were, they built fan-bases that can draw six figures to the rolling flat somewhere in Tennessee.

 

            Somewhere D’Angelo is running late. The new king of post-soul no doubt is a siren in a snake’s slithering goodness. Loving everything about D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s New Messiah, I want to hurl myself across the pathway and down the pathway to where I know the best grooves will be unfurled.

            But it is late, and there is another day. My heart aches, my body says “no.” I know that this is where wisdom is my grown-self’s master. Besides, he is running late – as all the great r&b denizens are known to – so I console myself with heaven only knows when that churning undulatives will begin.

            I sigh, hating knowing better. But knowing, too, there will be no shortage of the faithful, screaming to the heavens, shrieking for every bit of his sexy he exudes. No doubt if he comes out clad, he will shed his casing, revealing those 8 pack abs, he will stride across the stage like a panther or a tiger who knows his prey.

            This is the great regret of Bonnaroo. And yet, it is also the glory of filling a plate so high, not one person shall go hungry.

Earth, Wind & Fire Crack The Night (Bonnaroo Installment 5)

Earth, Wind & Fire Cracks the Night

            It is still, walking away from This Tent, walking into the soft darkness. Ahead there is a ferris wheel, twinkling like a wagon wheel for some earthbound constellation. The Christmas Pub, candy canes at the entrance, glitters green and red against a worn wood barn – as if Santa ran a grizzled roadhouse in the off-season.

            But that’s Bonnaroo: everything you know is, well, slightly different.

            There is no pushing, shoving, struggling to get there first. People take their time, they’re in the moment. They have come for the weekend, and that means every single part of it. Why rush something you’re here to enjoy?
            The pace has slowed, a muffle has descended. The clusters sometimes shed pairs – young lovers tentatively twining people, people old enough to know better in public rubbing stomachs, sloppily trading tongues. Smiling to see it, I walk on with the grass yielding gently to my feet.

            There is a bit of time before the next show I want to see, a few minutes to think about the music I’ve already seen. Like the other years, Bonnaroo offers a platter of anything you could want; but more importantly, they strip it down to people playing music instead of a lot of production tricks.
            It suits the land Bonnaroo sits on, a place where the whole county makes its entire tax year from the people coming in for these four days. Someone says there are 100,000 or more converging on the land for the event. People love to talk and stretch, but maybe... And if not, does it really matter?

            The vendors stay open late, knowing some sleep until sunset to catch the late bands, the silent disco, the EDM sets that go until almost 4 a.m. Amish donuts, vegan rice bowls, cold brewed coffee, humane ice cream, a rainbow of ethnic food: Mexican, Indian, Italian, Cajun, Thai, Jamaican kabobs.

            They hawk their wares, tell you what makes their food so special. But it’s not a hard sell, more a share the love kind of pitch. They’re proud of what they’re cooking, proud of what they’ve brought to contribute. It’s like that.

 

            Text messages are failing to send... or land. Cell phone calls are ringing into space, but not connecting. In some ways, you’re out here on your own, knowing if you split off from your group, you may not see them again until you return to base camp.
            To battle that, people walk around with icons on sticks: Uncle Sam top hats, a Cat in the Hat, a dead skunk stuffed animal, rainbows, teddy bears, a Mrs. Potatohead. Later I will see two unicorns getting frisky above the crowd’s heads, wondering if it’s metaphoric for the merging of the two groups no doubt co-mingling below.

            There is a beauty, though, in being free. Drifting or sinking like the pearl in Prell bottle in that commercial from long ago. Heavy, but weightless, slow, but suspended, moving through it. Watching everything in a suspended animation, smiling and nodding at all that’s going by.
            They say the Molly enhances that, just like they say this year, there’s a lot of meth in GA camping. I don’t know. I don’t need it. Being out here on my own, that’s enough. People are friendly, they smile back. Maybe that’s all that matters. I think so.

 

            Backstage, Ken Weinstein gathers up a posse. He’s taking photographers to the pit, dropping journalists in the viewing GA near the front. Like Make Way For Ducklings, the glob of lenses and shutters, flack vests with too many pockets starts to move like a lava lamp blob.

            The rest of us follow behind, stay close. Though it’s approaching 11:30, the energy is collecting again. Behind the staging area, over some boards over the swamp made by catering run-off, we march march march, laughing as we go. Lee Ann Womack as delighted as anyone to be ushered before what will soon be Earth, Wind + Fire in full-rut.
            Under the stars, it is a clear night in Manchester. A slight breeze and the cool of evening finally in possession of the atmosphere. If the days are brutally hot and burning down, the night is calm and cool – and the people are ready to ignite from the grooves, the vocal swoops and the crisp horn parts.


            And without some of the fiery production that defined the power-funk group in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it is an extended jam that brings them to the stage. Rhythms comingling, flying almost at each other, carving new possibilities with a bass reverberating like post-coital waves. It is the depth of what the Grammy-winners emerged from: jazz and sex and groove, and it’s a perfect set-up for what is going to happen.

            When the instrumental break drops down into “Boogie Wonderland,” the crowd erupts. Five grown men – including Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and Phillip Bailey – are on the front line, stepping and dancing with a staggering precision. That most of the originals are well into their 60s is irrelevant, they are feeling the music, cresting on the euphoria of what they’ve created.

            It spills into the crowd with equal abandon. Tired 30-, 40-something undulating like they’re taken by the spirit as the gusts of harmony wash over them from the stage – and then Bailey’s rafter scraping voice lifts up from that pillow of parts. This is old school rhythm & blues, y’all, from back when showmanship meant those razor sharp dance parts and horn blasts you could shave a 5-day growth with.

            Earth Wind & Fire came up when bands cut each other for the sport of it. Who was gonna outplay whom? Lay waste to which audience? It forged James Brown’s bad-ass band, ground Parliament-Funkadelic into a wicked proposition, made Stevie Wonder’s road shows legend.

            Without missing a step, the entire front row – percussionists, guitarists – takes a side-step and smacks into “Sing A Song.” The notion of joy exploding into song is euphoric. The melody sweeps up, the sweat pours, the audience is right with them – singing every word, following every whoop from Bailey.

            When a show is beyond words, that is when the songs take over. Exhausted sunburned white people are throwing it over and beyond their limits. People I know who have no groove, real rhythm or rump-shaking capability are boogie-ing down under the partial moon smiles slicing their faces in two.

            It is surreal to watch. It is a miracle of what can happen when you free your soul so your hips can follow.

            The chicken funk guitar scratch gets pierced by a couple sharp horn blasts, it is getting serious out here at the Which Stage. It’s a corkscrew groove, the kind that twists and bears down. It is funk, and it is fraught as the horn players wipe their heads between punctuation marks.

            The humidity of the midSouth is no match for what is happening on the stage. “When you wish upon a star,” starts the vocal “your dreams are taken very far... But when you wish upon a dream, that ain’t always what it seems...”

            A few sneaky keyboard lines trickle down, but it’s when the song breaks down and Verdine White finger slaps that bass worn tilted from his trunk, emerging from a pair of gold lame wide legged pants, that the inescapable pop hit takes on its full potential. Against the throb and the drum cracks, the endless circle of the chorus suggests that our potential is our decision.

            It’s easy to miss the empowerment in the feel-good, but live, the band celebrating 43 years of making music makes sure their deeper intention isn’t lost. As the song builds and builds, the sax, trumpet and trombone players come to the front, take a break, a blast and BANG! Done.
            Three songs and that jam in, White and Bailey take turns talking to the crowd. This ain’t your casino or nostalgia gig, and the language is different. Rather than go with the Up with People standard jargon those gigs require, they use humor – talking about how these songs were nursery rhymes for a lot of the assembled, how “some of you were conceived to this music...”

            For the next 75 minutes, they moved the crowd from emotional plane to cosmic groove. “Hold Your Fire” got a subtle undertow of desire, four part harmony floating above the ground and White down front. Lee Ann Womack, as hard country as they come, looks at me and bursts into laughter: it is that good, that sweet, the former small town Texas cheerleader can't help herself. Someone in the pit started blowing bubbles into the night, catching the lights thrown from the stage as a collective sway moved the audience like wheat in a Kansas field.

            Up on the stage I see a slight man in a white shirt by the monitor board. Four nights earlier I talked with a member of the Dazz Band, who told me I knew someone in the realm of EWF – and I should reach out. Laughing Kenny Pettus informed me it was their old tour manager, someone who’d watched me grow into a full-blown critic – and the innocence of all that swept me over, too.

            Music when it’s right melts time and notions, the disappointments of what life is when it’s not what you’d hoped. But it also lifts you up, inspires, makes you believe in impossible things in the best way. Standing here with 40,000 exhausted Bonnaroovers, it seems empiric proof I am not wrong.

            There is not a moment of stillness, not a second when the energy lacks or the kinetic snap falters. Horn curlicues mark the staccato “Got To Get You Into My Life,” originally recorded for the disaster rock flick “Sergeant Pepper” with Peter Frampton, Aerosmith and many cross-genres explorers.  The urgency of need, White’s slap-slap on the bass as his long silky mane drifts behind him is all the jack-hammer you need to keep going.

            It’s like that: better than Red Bull. Drop the needle on something you know, feel the lift, the push, the pump. It’s a drug you can’t not need. Standing on the stage, feeling the moment as palpably as the sweaty, stinky mass, Kendrik Lamar and Chance the Rapper were bopping to the set... and in one sweeping motion, they found themselves onstage with the soul legends, caught up in the moment with no planning and somehow igniting another freestyle moment of jamming.

            Those two songs – “September” with its helium harmonies and pushing grove and “Let’s Groove,” decidedly funky and down low in the cut – represent the best of the intersection of dance, urban and suburban culture. At the height of disco, when the funk was down and pop radio was a wide open place, there was a hedonism espoused that wasn’t about excess but feeling good, not about being hard but embracing joy and making the world a better place, not about being hot but beautiful from the inside out.

            With the beats pumping, Lamar and Chance joining in the tsunami of bliss rolling off that stage, Earth, Wind and Fire dominated. Yes, most of their voices are worn from the years, but to hear them rise as one, to see them spin and drop, cop the moves that always set them apart, it doesn’t matter.

            On a day when many of music’s biggest acts – across time, genre and niche – brought their best, Philip Bailey brought his incandescent tenor – equal parts gospel and the big naughty – to a field in Manchester, Tennessee. With the mighty Verdine White on bass, it was a full-tilt celebration of Bruce Springsteen’s manifest: it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

            Dragging across the ground spent in the way only great sex or a marathon can, I know that DeadMau5 is playing. Intellectually, I want... Physically, I can’t... Spiritually, I know there is no need. Nothing will feel better, or last longer, and so I fade into the night, “After the Thrill Is Gone” gently buzzing in my soul.

 

Rule the World or the Small Town: Kacey Musgraves, Tears for Fears (Bonnaroo Installment #4)

Kacey Mugraves: Honeysuckle Sweet; Tears For Fears Still Rule the World

            Neon green and pink cactus dot the stage, a sweeping Western panorama changes colors behind a band in electric light-strewn Manuel suits. It is the surreal cowboy realm of a West that is equal parts cotton candy cute and truth telling with a covered dish and ambrosia salad in the Tupperware container realm.
            Kacey Musgraves became the alternative’s sweetheart with the sexually libertarian “Follow Your Arrow,” but with Pageant Material, due June 23, she stands to broaden her horizons as a hard reality commentator in a small town world. While CMA Music Fest raged 60 miles west, Musgraves took the stage a universe away in a teeny square dancing skirt buoyed by a cloud of tulle. Ebony-hair tumbling like an old school country queen, she flounced around the stage, acoustic guitar strapped to her and cowgirl boots cut to the ankle, leaving her free to strut.

            In a set that included a plucky version of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a Musgraves’ song Miranda Lambert took to #1, covers of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and a set-closing romp through Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” the Mineola, Texan showed music is universal first. But it was with her own material, she demonstrated an atmospheric brand of classic country is where her heart is.

            Whether the luxurious new “High Time,” that evokes Merle Haggard, the Dixie Chicks-snap “Step Off” or the early Mary Chapin Carpenter-suggesting “Merry Go Round,” Musgraves manages to blur commentary with hooks that match pop music. Never trivializing her small town tropes, she offers a realm where acceptance matters – whether it’s “Family Is Family” or “Arrow” – and dreams deferred – “Blowin’ Smoke” – are tempered with the sweetness of life – “It Is What It Is.”

            Don’t think Musgraves is all Moon Pie and RC Cola sweetness, though. Introducing her finger-picked rules for life in a small-minded small-town “Bisquits” with the straight up, “They just pulled this one off the F&*%ing radio... whatever that means. Maybe they don’t like bisquits.”

            What followed set the tone for a girl who knows how to be sweet, but not take any mess. As a post-modern feminist a la Loretta Lynn, Musgraves seems determined to work the outside in. Hopefully, she’s gonna get there.

 

            That notion of manifest destiny, honesty and what it means sifted through the pop song tableau can seem fraught at best, pretentious at worst. Musgraves demonstrates it can be cozy work, skewering stereotypes and talking down teeny minds. But there are also larger notions to mine.

            Across the field, past the stalls selling organic hamburgers, roasted corn and Amish donuts, beyond the magic mushroom that rains down water on overheated Bonnaroovians and the terminator tin man pig Hamaggedon, people are cramming into another tent, waiting for late ‘80s sensation Tears for Fears to take the stage.

            The Romantics blare through “What I Like About You,” that thin lacerating guitar sound suddenly sounding more bristling than it ever did on the radio. Is it nostalgia, or something more that draws them? So many are teenagers, barely 20-somethings, shiny faces turned to the stage.

            And they hit the stage hard. Drums cracking like cannon shots and the bass skipping behind, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” rolls across the crowd in a wave of recognition. There is a collective spasm of cheers, arms aloft as the song about the dominator impulse – stretched across as pop a frame as exists, the truth is given more than a spoonful of honey.

            Curt Smith’s voice has held up: still equal parts butterscotch and brightness, he melts into the words, lifts them up. It is the perfect contrast to Roland Orzabel’s more burnished sheen, a dark wood polished to richness with the strength of the wood implied. And when they sing together – in sync’d harmony or trading lines – there is a dimension added that is grace amidst the stark truths and concepts explored in the songs.

            Somewhere between the Beatles’ psychedelia and the New Romantics plush pop, Tears for Fears offered the confection of the moment. That it has worn so well speaks to the depth of what was beneath the songs, both lyrically and musically.

            “Secret World,” which quotes Wings’ “Uncle Albert,” gave way to the undulating “Sowing the Seeds of Love.” Though a full-tilt rock/alternative band that found pop success, the amount of rhythm & blues under those ubiquitous hits becomes apparent on a bare stage with only the instruments to color the night. Smith is a bass player who works from melody, but is also someone capable of finding the pocket and burrowing in.

            A cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” near set’s end illuminated what kind of influence the pair had on the larger musical conversation. They evoked the original’s intention; in turn, the similarity between it and their songs emerged.

            Embracing songs from their debut The Hurting, it was a full spectrum set. One where the playing bolstered them, rendering songs known by heart – “Mad World,” “Pale Shelter,” “Memories Fade,” “Closest Thing To Heaven” – became stronger now than when they were the moment. It is that ability for songs to be played without nostalgia that vitality is forged.

            Sidestage, ‘80s teensation Corey Feldman put cigarette-after-cigarette to his lips, power-smoking in time to the beat. A harbinger of the insanity of the late ‘80s go-go-MTB fueled world of excess, there was a vampiric quality to what was in his presence, yet somehow, it also suggested how powerful those moments were.

            With a Kilimanjaro beat, the set built into the catharsis of “Shout.” Underscored by the lyric’s primal scream therapy-informed lyric, it is a song about letting go, jettisoning what plagues you and finding a place to create a better way of being.  Beat throbbing, the churn in the audience as the crowd lurched as one towards the stage and then back in time conjured a rave’s hypnotic state without the Molly – and saw thousands erupt into smiles of pure rapture.

            Sure, some of it was remembering who we were when “Shout” was on the radio, but there was also the combustion of moments shared, musicians in the zone, a song so perfectly expressing the thrill of blowing up the bad, the impact of what’s being sung is all there is. Smiling from ear-to-ear, Orzabel and Smith – looking decidedly dashing in basic jeans, a dark button up on the former, a black t on the latter – matched the crowd’s euphoria at what was conjured.

 

            Backstage after the set, Smith sat on a couch, catching up with an old friend he’s not seen in years. Showing pictures of his girls, talking about how they reflect the parents, Guster’s Ryan Miller approaches, still damp from his own set. Introducing himself, he thanks Smith for the music, for what the songs mean – and the pair exchange a moment of true creative recognizing the power and impact of what music can imbue.

            It is a quick moment, unseen by most. But in the night, in the spirit of the festival unfolding all around, it seems so right. Here is a progressive band of merry pranksters and a force of such profound pop reality, both sharing a canvas that moves people, offers insight, instills the will to... and the emotional clarity to understand.

            Though in some ways, they’re polemic, in the end, they offer the same releases and reliefs to anyone who listens. It is an amazing transference of the currency that binds us together.

            Curt Smith smiles as he hears this, nods his head. It is not what he came looking for, but he recognizes the common ground and the role that inspiration plays without having to go any deeper than the exchange.

Elle King Stands Down; Dawes' Gilded Afternoon (Bonnaroo Installment #3)

Elle King: Plus Size Girl in a Too Thin World; Dawes: Third Time's A Dream

            Elle King is onstage, oversized guitar slung across her copious trunk, peroxided beyond human tolerance hair pulled back. She’s wearing a red leotard with little straps over the sheerest red stockings imaginable – and beyond the skinny belt circling her waist, the outfit barely contains her.

            It’s not that King eschews today’s supermodel scrawniness – and she does, the tarty blond is a seriously endowed woman – but her personality is even bigger than the body that contains it. Leaning into the mic, she’s fearless as she tears her songs to bits, a bit of old school Brit punk/nu soul undertow to what she sings.

            And there’s more to the young woman pouring sweat like it’s happy hour than the irrepressibly naughty girl anthem “Ex’s and Oh’s,” which body slams from one boy to another with not jot one of remorse. Unrepentant, unapologetic, she storms the stage, stomping, whirling, yowling and always putting it to the crowd with a ferocity that suggests romantic grist turns to powder in her ample grasp.

            A touch ska, a bit rockabilly, a bit of old school country and a whole lot of blues, King’s cocktail is more love on the rocks than anything. And don’t look to the girl fathered by comedian Rob Schneider, but raised by her mother London King to be the victim, either.

            “I Told You I Was Mean” flexes the get-out-of-my-bed brio most men would never dream, providing a table turn that’s as euphoric as it is blunt. That blunt force is equal parts feminist and F you, and it’s thrilling to see her whirl through a set with aggressive punk energy that is all thrust-thrust-BANG.

            Punctuated by trombone, the beats banging like a woodpecker in heat, this is uncompromising stuff. On “Good To Be A Man,” there is that moment of (almost) equanimity. Laughing she tosses off the admonition, “People gave me a hard time about time with that song, like ‘You hate men.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t. I slept with half of y’all.’”

            That brash reasoning, the tomato red stage outfit, the unwillingness to yield to expectation – all held together with more spirit – speaks more to busting down cultural expectations and body image issues than any mountain of words. See her, feel her, be here – or whatever you dream.

            True Love says follow your path – even when scorned, laugh while you do it, but mostly enjoy the ride. Seeing King onstage, she walks it like she talks it.

 

            The trouble with Bonnaroo is the overlapping and the things you can’t see. Choices must be made, electrolytes taken to get close to enough of what you desire.

And then there is the staking one’s claim, knowing the What Stage are those acts the festival is banking on, the numbers drawn will be excruciating.

            Elle King’s set had spilled over into the donut tent and far back past the walk-by path. Pregnant with curiosity and hardcore lusters, she was on a small stage. For an act like Dawes, the bull’s eye for thinking if tortured romantics of the new millennium, it was about showing up early.

            Splayed on the grass, staring at the sky and the screens with a giant neon Bonnaroo over the stage, there was a moment to think about the diversity. It is only here that Kendrick Lamar and Kacey Musgraves make sense together, Earth Wind and Fire can balance with Brown Sabbath.

            On the screen, messages of fellowship flash: “Live by the Bonnaroo Code: Play as a Team,” “Hydrate & Reduce Waste Refill Those Water Botttles.” Intercut are reminders of who’s playing where and when. It is fellowship as much as music.

            Roadies in black move across the stage, checking cables and connections, stepping on pedals, adjusting monitor positions. They know the crowd drawing for a reason; they know, too, this is a big show for Taylor Goldsmith and company.

            “Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.  Maya Angelou” flashes above.

            A moment of literary grounding in the hippie dippie ephemera. Lee Ann Womack takes her iPhone snaps a picture. No one knows the slight woman sitting on the grass sang at the Nobel Prize winner’s “Celebration of Joy Rising” memorial. They don’t have to, they just need to internalize the message.

            Womack shakes her head, laughs. She’s having the time of her life. So much music, everywhere she looks. But more importantly, people loving music the same way she does: completely, wholly, absolutely.

 

            Dawes in some ways is nothing special. A basic 5-piece band, unassuming. Goldsmith wears lean dark pants, an equally close fitting blue shirt with dots and classic amber hued sunglasses. Theu’re not dark enough to keep you from seeing his eyes, not distancing cool, but more tinted to allow him to take the crowd in.

            With the chiming melody washing over the crowd, Goldsmith intones “Things happen... that’s all they ever do” with a resolve that is neither whining nor defeated. If there is sacred ground the quintet plows, it is the rows of how we tangle, untangle, stagger, slump and sometimes succeed.

            Often seen as the progeny of the Jackson Browne Southern Cailfornia songwriter school, there is the similarity of topography navigated, details gleaned and the tug in Goldsmith’s voice. In particularly building places, the band evokes the Section – the storied LA session band that included guitarist Danny Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar – and storied same-era guitarist Waddy Wachtel.

            But the jangle is muted, the California canyon thing is faded like denim left out at the beach. They are not altar boys in a church of what was, but young people looking to empower their peers trying to stand instead of tear down the inertia of detraction because their entitlement check didn’t cash.

            Yes, Goldsmith sings lines like about a girl who’s got “a special kind of sadness/ A tragic set of charms/ That only only come from times spent in Los Angeles/ Makes me wanna take you in my arms...” But beyond the ache, there are melodies that swerve from Fleetwood Mac’s most radio-friendly to the Allman’s sweetness.

            On “Don’t Send Me Away,” the vocalist takes a guitar solo that suggests Springsteen at the height of Darkness on the Edge of Town, as burning and electric as the churn inside him. Still most of the solos go to his brother on a gold top Les Paul, held by a strap that reads BETTS – and often channeling the Southern rocker’s most molasses tones.
            “This is our third time at Bonnaroo, but our first on this stage,” Goldsmith said almost shyly. Then like a kid with a new puppy, he beamed, “And let me tell you, it’s a whole different experience.”

            The crowd cheered. They’ve been watching the band – who recorded All Your Favorite Bands at Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s historic Woodland Studios in East Nashville – evolve and develop.
            Earlier in the set, they played “Somewhere Along the Way,” like Joan Didion chronicling the places she’s been, the way she’s living and how she sees it, Dawes in their prime have crafted a travelogue for a sensitive pragmatist finding their way.  The melodic hooks are thick without being treacle, and as the song builds, a groove emerges deep enough to show you the bones of how they work.

            One day, many years from now, the young who believed will look back – and they will have audible postcards that won’t just be the sound of their wild, yearning youth. No, Dawes will have given them the pictures and the feelings, all wrapped up with a piano player who can rise and fall, a bass player who knows that melody is as important as the beat and a clean crisp drummer who finds the heart is its own metronome.

 

Going In (Bonnaroo, Installment 2)

Going In

            It’s later than I’d’ve wanted. Black out curtains really do the job. But I shower, throw clothes in a bag, get my backpack zipped with socks and sunblock, my trusty MacBook and head out to the car buzzing with the promise of the day. I’ve got some fruit for a bus where I’m day camping and a long sleeved camo t-shirt that declares “Trouble Finds Me.”

            Hard to believe to two turns, one beyond a Starbucks, and time melts. Single lane black-top, speckled mostly gray from the weather, a junk car lot with cars so old it borders on antique. Then the fields turn to inky green pines, branch limp in the heat and a KOA campground from a 50s wanderlust Airstream pamphlet.

            The humidity just hangs here. Even it’s too heavy, too listless to think of moving. The dust is more a notion that the swirling dervish it can be.

            A little further still, there’s the check point. Two men in Bermuda shorts, highway orange vests, wave – and you wave back without thinking. The country makes you friendly like that, reflexive in a way that’s good.

            A little further again, they check your skews, scan your wrist band, make sure your parking pass isn’t a fake. They smile, too; tell you to “Enjoy your day.”

            The day hasn’t really started. The sun is up, the mercury’s closing in on 90. But it’s still hours before the real action begins. People walk, slowly. Scattered dots along a brown expanse thatched with dusty green canvas. They’re moving slow, too. There’s no rush.

            A late teen waves me into a line of cars parked at an angle in the field. Smiles. I shut off the engine, put my head back. A quarter of a mile away, trucks whizzzzz by on I-24 racing time to delivering another load. Here it’s still – with a promise of music.

            I get out. Grab my backpack, my Bitter Southerner tote of clothes and fruit, balance some cherries and blueberries in a plastic container and lock the door. I almost feel guilty hitting the button that makes the locks click, the ting. This is bucolia... but there’s a parking pass inside, like kidneys on the organ market.

 

            A few drops fall from a too blue sky. Surely not rain, not with me in my hardcore New Balance. But it just plinks droplets down. The sun never recedes, the clouds don’t gather. Just drop... drop... drop...

            “A rainbow? No way. Too cliché.” I walk on, never looking. Some things are too hackneyed for the momentum. This is the escape from real life, but I want it to stay real. To stay something you can believe on, something without unicorns or evil queens.

 

            Real life happens in the bus lot. No guard or proctor. Just sun and rows of Prevosts, lined up like soldiers at presentation. The only sign of life outside Rita Houston’s bus, the joy of full engagement, card tables set with food and mixers, Bloody Mary mix. Coolers filled with ice sit open. People laugh and talk about the night before.

            Rita has summer hair, shorn close, it’s a gilded halo of golden doodle down. The WFUV maven, considered by many the most powerful woman in alternative and Americana music, bursts into a bigger smile, offers a hug, laughs like the earth opening and throwing flowers to the ground. She is warm and bright and happy.

            “Do you know which bus is Lee Ann Womack’s?”

            She laughs, says no. We talk about the bands we want to see, she laments missing Dawes because she’ll be on the air. She is that way: loves the music from the inside out, but loves bringing the people who listen inside the moment wherever they may be. She gives them the feel, the flavor, talks about and with the people making the music that makes the day.

            Looking at my hands, she suggests I can put my fruit on ice, when the singer – or her family shows up – they can come retrieve it. “You’ve got things to do,” she teases me, and reaches for the container in my hand.

            Relieved I dig for the plums and apples in my bag, making small talk as I do. Thankfully my voice carries.

            “When Lee Ann Womack gets here,” sparkles a little voice. Turning, I see Lee Ann Womack in running shorts, a little tank top, looking quizzically at the party. Introductions made, new friendship seeds thrown, Bonnaroo has no truly begun.

Midnight in Manchester/Back to the Farm

Midnight In Manchester/Welcome to the Farm

            The day had gone on too long. Tooooo toooooo long. Up early for a massive blood draw, deadlines, deadlines, phone calls, errands, racing around, events. Events. No, EVENTS. Things to be taken entirely too seriously, like Don Henley allowing select tracks from his album to be played. And more writing, more talking on the phone, more throwing things in bags and then throwing them in the car.

            It isn’t quite humid as the last trip from stoop to car begins, alaram bleep bleep bleep-ing in my wake. It isn’t hot, but the heat is present. It penetrates my skin as I slide into the car, adjust the rearview mirror, wonder if I need the air conditioning. After a long day, the artificial cool creates a suspended state of not real.

            A drop of sweat rolls between my breasts. I smile. I’m glad to be alive, feeling the warm collected moistness passing over my flesh. I am leaving, changing the energy, doing something perpendicular to my life.

            Even the tires grab the night pavement with a little more stick to it, rolling smooth, but taking the road. The wheels turn and turn, the blinker blinks, the night lays velvet before me. 

            I am on Harding Road, passing by modest rectangle boxes and sweeping trees, street lights raining gold cones down onto the dark blue sedan boring into the night. Only a few sets of headlights approach, moving with the same purpose I am. Night drivers have places to be – or else they’re out-running something that plagues their mind.

            Me? I’m going to Bonnaroo. Manchester, Tennssee. The gathering of tribes... tribes of music lovers, of kindred spirits, young people merging in their youth, old people celebrating all the life they’ve lived, hippies, comedy junkies, Yuppies trying to remember when they still had idealism (or not), ravers, film-types, partiers, food truckers, ecology-minded types... All headed to the Farm, all looking for three solid days of wandering from stage-to-stage of rap, rock, soul, alt-anything, bluegrass, hybrids, silent discos, Christmas Lounges, Unicorn Ring Toss, giant mushroom fountains to frolic under – and so much more.

            Bonnaroo. Strangest place I’ve every been. With the mud and the dirt and the dust. The heat and the cool of night. The blazing sun, the fluffy clouds, the burning turquoise of the sky on a clear day. I go alone, I am never a stranger.
            Everyone is happy to talk, to share their thoughts on bands they love, things they think are important. Whatever you want – except a five star hotel – it’s there. Open your mind, your eyes, your heart. Look around.

            I-24 takes you east, past where the Nashville boom trickles to nothing – and the night is black save more rectangles, splashed with light. These boxes are two-dimensional, versus the 3-D ranch houses I left behind. They promote off-brand motels, cheap gas, lower-tier syndicated food.

            The night is silent, save Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free. Austere, acoustic, but strong. Dignity flows from his character sketches of less thans and not quites, all proud sorts in threadbare places. He knows just how I feel.

            The night before I’d been watching the country music glitterati and D Listers like Hulk Hogan’s daughter and some “Dancers with the Stars” stand around being fabulous for the sake of an awards show that forgot music should be the point. It’s more about gags and ruffles of culture wow. My head was numb and the white noise of gossip being made more important than it was because the talkers needed to believe it mattered turned to white noise six inches from my face.

            Now I am slicing through the night, watching my directions, looking for exit 114. To make the Left, then another Left at the O’Charley’s, seeking the Coffee County Convention Center, tucked behind a Holiday Inn Express.

            In spite of specificity, I miss the turn. A quarter mile later, down a road blacker than a coal mine, I find a place to turn around. A sun-burned 70s van, like something from “Scooby Doo” sits in the yard, otherwise, no sign of motion exists anywhere.

            Retracing, laughing, moon roof open, stars watching my every move, I turn where it seems unlikely. I am right, and veering away from the Starbucks, the road swings a little wide, and there – like an oasis in the desert – it is.

            Check-in is 24/7. Convince the parking attendants you belong, they let you park – and you can go inside. I don’t need much scamming. Someone who looks like me, here at this hour, I must be where I belong.

            Slide into a parking spot in the first row. Hands on the wheel, I exhale. Tell Isbell I’ll be right back. Turn the car off, check to make sure I’m truly all here. All right in one spot, in Manchester, Tennessee, in the light heat and heavily quiet night.

            A two-story brick building, bathed in fluorescent light, it has that blue/green unworldly glow as you approach. Almost like the underside of a fish’s belly inside rusty red angles that hold every minor league trade show and event that matters ‘round here.

            But walking in, past the three sleepy-eyed volunteers finishing their shift, hoping to catch some EDM before the music shuts down for the night, the light turns back to yellow in the big rooms. Signs say “Artist Check In,” “Roll Like A Rock Star,” “Media,” “Guests” and “Guests with an Artist.”

            I find the line for Media, and there is no line. Emily, kohl-rimmed eyes and dark bangs swinging across her brow like a willow bows in a breeze, looks up and smiles. “ID.”

            Handing over my license, I say, “You guys are still here. Amazing...”

            “We’re the all night crew,” she cheers.

            “Good thing. It let me get away late...”

            “Away from...”
            “Nashville.”

            “Yeah, me, too.”

            We start talking about escape from Music Fest, from the incoming hoard, from the big corporate reality that co-opted the sweetness of Fan Fair at the Fairgrounds, with the concerts on the Speedway where stock cars race at deafening sound levels otherwise.
            “I normally work the awards,” she tells me. “Co-ordinate the co-ordinators, but CMT had a blood bath, so they can’t pay anyone any more.”

            I smile. I feel no need to get into. She looks far happier to be here. I understand. She’s 20-something, knows more than she should and has perhaps learned too much about corporate reality to buy into the conventional wisdom of what must be done. She just knows she’d worked hard for them, but it didn’t matter.

            We laugh about how there’s always something going on at the ‘Roo. She checks the schedule, gives me four options. She says, “Or you can just go to bed.” I must look as tired as I feel.

            “Yeah, maybe,” I say, not wanting to seem old.

            But she’s right. And I know it. There are three full days ahead. Days of magic, days of music, days of fun and memories to be made.

            Lee Ann Womack’s brought her family, lured by this other world she’s never seen. She’s been darting in and out of festivals for the day over the last few years, immersing in the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass the last two. She is as curious as they come.

 

            Crossing back over 24, I see the Waffle House and Krystal, knowing my hotel is somewhere behind. I miss the mildew-smelling hotel of two years ago with the giant Buddha head fountain, but that was not where I was assigned. No, instead, it’s some truckers bit of faux-cozy, with rockers on the porch and a picket fence around the flowers.

            It is another box of boxes for the tired and the traveling. The lady at the desk has my keys and a smile, tells me where breakfast is – and the fastest route to my room. For Manchester, this is a big few days for their economy; if the work is long and intense, they’re glad for the money coming in and they welcome you.

            Grabbing a cart, I go out and unload the car. Roll it across the tar-patched lot and through the sliding doors, down a hall and around a corner. The room is basic blond wood Colonial, a Ritz Carlton compared to last time.

            Humming to myself, the world has turned again. I am somewhere else not my own, ready to see, to touch, to taste, to hear it all – and nothing feels more hopeful or quite so alive. And so Bonnaroo begins again.

For the Love of Richard Corliss: "Everything's Worth Seeing"

Richard Corliss spent 35 year's as TIME's movie critic. In films, he saw life, love, hope. In his friendship with me, there was country music, good books & a whole lot of charming conversations. Losing him broke my heart -- and made me remember the grace of truly amazing unlikely friendships.
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My Friend Charlie: Real Life, Raw Rock & the Impossible Gulf In Between

My friend Charlie used to be a rock star, only I didn’t know him then. Maybe I interviewed him once, at WVUM – “the Voice of the University of Miami” – when college radio was the life force of punk rock, throbbing funk and other alternative forms of music and I was answering to the Administration-chapping Angel Dust.

Not that I didn’t know who he was, or why he mattered. If indeed I did interview him, and it’s possible, very possible in the blur of 8 or 9 different writing outlets where I freelanced, most likely we talked about making it burn, the blunt force of punk, the blue collar ethos being insurrected to create something both snide and liberating.            

Like I said, I’m not sure. But I do know he held a stage with indomitable swagger, guitar slung low, eyes raking the crowd, taking them in, assessing their weakness and seeking their reaction points. It was more than just the thrust of a brutal downstroke, the searing twist of an acidic lead guitar line, the husky bark of a man spent and still giving it all away, it was about the moment when the foment goes exponential, the pressure explodes in a million shards into a release and relief that leaves it all... right... there...            

Charlie Pickett could do that. “If This Is Love (Can I GetMy Money Back)” was as surly and taunting as it got. A lesser man would’ve played it for camp, Pickett – working in a stone yard, working a loader in the relentless Florida sun – knew how hard physical labor can be, and he brought that weight with him as the words burst vitriolic from his drawn lips.            

“If this is love, can I get my money back,
“I want to see the man in charge,” he seethed.            
“If this is love, I want my money back,            
“I want an honorable discharge...”

He wasn’t joking. If the Delta of Venus was the one thing that could abate the aching muscles and excruciating tedium, it wasn’t worth the tourniquet clamp of whatever comely vixen he’d pledged his virility to. Virility, it was implied by the sweating mass of average body toned by blue collar work, that was hard won and forged in very real ways.

Pickett wasn’t a pretty boy, wasn’t a poofter, wasn’t a preening punk proposition like those nancy boys on MTV who’d eventually inspire Mark Knopfler’s caustic “Money for Nothing.” No, he was a pock-mocked blond with good bone structure you wouldn’t notice in line at Wolfie Cohen’s all-night deli if you didn’t know who he was. Even then, limp and damp, he’d be easy to miss in his banged up boots and slack shirt tail.            

But strap on that guitar, and he was lionic. Yes, lionic: iconic like a lion.            

There was nothing that was coming between him and the back wall. He wasn’t gonna blink, sweat, flinch or falter. Like that heavy machinery he ran all day long, he was coming through, dozing you down in the process. It was... incredible.            

In a place where rock didn’t live, let alone leave, where Miami Sound Machine was big in Puerto Rico and South America and KC and his Sunshine Band were well-past shelf-life, Charlie Pickett pricked up the ears of Britain’s New Musical Express; he stunned Peter Buck into producing an album for Minneapolis’ indie cred temple TwinTone Records – and he exported the pile-driving, sand blasting blues-anchored garage squawk like it was cocaine headed for Studio 54.            

For a moment, it felt as if... Then midnight came, the second hand swept past 5, 10, 15 and there was no glass slipper, no golden Doc Martin, not even a second hand van idling at the back door to haul them back to Miami. Or rather the mockingly real Hollywood, Florida, where a life of back breaking work awaited.            

So another rock & roll dream runs out, another talented soldier in the realm of feedback and stun goes home. If not wounded, the ones who get so close to the sun go blind from the exposure – and assimilation is a rough prospect at best.            

And that was that. Like Fred Flintstone into the tar pits,Charlie Pickett was gone. Perhaps a waft or suggestion of his gritty undertow in the Del-Lords plain Jane rock combustion, X’s frenetic grind, maybe the Replacements’ reckless hurling. But Pickett had a nobility and dignity that came from all those hours with the clock punched and the honest work done; alas, he’d had his moment, lived it out – and disappeared.            

Well, they never disappear. Not really. Live at the Button!, Cowboy Junkie A Go Go and Route 33 followed me to California, rotten sonics and squalling buzz-guitars turned up too loud, flaring like electric razor wire in a tropical storm across the oppressive blanket of heat that defined the Santa Ana winds’ foreboding stillness. On those afternoons, when nothing was moving, that white noise would be the texture of the space around me – sprawled in shorts and a barely there tee across the mauve cotton couch waiting for inspiration or some pop star to call for an interview for YM orRockbill or The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.            

Real raw rock & roll was in rare supply just then, the most poufy hair’n’clothes-driven days of MTV’s fantasyscape of exoticism, leather, spandex and cars. The idea of strapping it on and making it happen was kinda like stalking unicorns or fairies: a notion, but nothing to actually do.            

So a Midwestern girl with a taste for getting drilled into the wall by my records, the most raucous part of the Stones, Thin Lizzy in rut, MC5’s shrapnel’n’combustion or Lou Reed at his crankiest, had nowhere to go, nothing to find. Except the past, the brazen jarring of the things I knew, the things punk in all their ramped up velocity didn’t have the slow pressure to make last.


Yes, the Dead Kennedys churned hard, the Ramones were amphetamined poppers, the Plasmatics offered a chain saw ploddery. Even the Sex Pistols, in all their spitting and sneering bellicosity, couldn’t make the impact last.            

Maybe the Eggs weren’t interested in catching that train, where there were no rules and no reasons to shut down. Maybe it’s ‘cause they really were outsiders, regular working class kids for whom the glitter was too effeminate, for whom the sloppiness was an affront to what they could do. And working class kids, especially of a certain era, took pride in the workmanship.            

Besides, they saw no reason to copy what already was. Pickett reached back, took a fistful of hardcore roots blues, brought in the same garage pop that Springsteen mined to Spectorian effect, looked to British bands and his own need to punch through the walls and those hands that would hold him down. 

There was nothing high-handed or –minded to his songs. Some captured the lower rungs of Miami: “Overtown” and overt redneckery; other short blasts of beat’n’lash took on a fraught, almost skeevy sexuality – where Seka and self-pleasure were as reasonable as the kind of rank girl who’d say “yes.” It was the squalid, breaking down, city in conflict reality that defined South Florida in the ‘80s – bristling with that same agitation beneath the surface. 

Just cause you don’t see’em, it doesn’t mean they don’t go away. The music lasts, endures, indeed marks you – and that’s what actually matters. I never gave up on rock & roll, especially the kind that would pummel me without too much required.            

Never as heavy as Motorhead or Metallica, it got the job done. No matter where, no matter how.  Music made for the sake of the grind, driven to release, rendered as a way to wring out every bit of frustration, disappointment and the weight of a world that doesn’t care about you. Workingman’s blues, indeed, only they weren’t blue, they were raging, snarling in the face of being overlooked and out of options.            

As long as there was feedback, cheap amps and a reason to punch the night, this music – delivered by a band playing for its life; sung in Pickett’s flat, affect-less drone that was equal parts rusty hinge and old creaky floor board -- existed solely to declare it’s here, and it won’t balk, buckle or run. When all you got’s a back to the wall, muscles that throb and a woman who’s more trouble than the sex is worth, that’s deliverance with a wicked backbeat.            

As is often the twist, a copy of Bloodshot’s compilation Bar Band Americanus arrived at my house in a plain brown wrapper. Two decades later, it was as visceral and as brutal a kick to the knee cap as it was when I was a kid. Only now -- enough miles for life to weigh me down and the bullshit wear me out, the songs had all the same ur ngency, all the snide asides of Saturday night at the corner of nowhere and dead end when you’re young and so alive.            

Smiling, I marveled that after everything, some delights remain as electric as if they’re fireworks just hitting the sky. When the rock is real, and pure, and ragged, it doesn’t flatten under hubris, bloat or years, instead it sizzles with a life-or-death intensity that’s compounded over the time.            

And don’t get me wrong: these sides still sounded pretty rough. It’s not the amped, ramped, compressed and jacked up re-mastering so much current music gets. But the primal force overwhelmed all, as I drove north to the Rock & Roll Capitol of the World Cleveland, Ohio, the place where I came to understand the torque and the shove that pushed rock music to create such a freewheeling discharge of all that weighs you down, exhilarating the same way pressing the gas into a curve can.

There is a communion between the road, the ramping up of velocity for a car or a cd, the merge of both and how rubber grabs the pavement and turns over. It will pull you from inertia, hurl you against the moment.  

I smiled. As Springsteen would say, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Just as you’re sure you’ve lost the faith or the thrill of a rhythm guitar slashed just so, an electric writhing against the tracks ... You’re sure you know too much to believe... You stumble, thinking Thomas’ side is a projection and the postman always rings twice...            

Just as suddenly, you’re driving too fast, pushing the curves and hitting Cincinnati an hour too early. The harder you go, the faster you fly.            

That was that. The miles fell away, and soon I was home.             

Funny thing about life, or rather my life. The converging and merging of lanes and airports, deadlines and stories, superstars and freaked out handlers, paths cross and fall away from all sorts of people. Somewhere out there, Charlie Pickett and I fell into each other. Not through a publicist setting up an interview, nor some “I can make it happen” handler looking for a poll position; most likely not even through Facebook’s “People You May Know” function... Maybe a mutual friend, possibly an email sent to many. But somehow we were having the occasional exchange without actual conversation.            

Spending time in South Florida, the land of Lilly Pulitzer and my best friend Kathie’s store C. Orrico, the merge was almost inevitable. Yet, passing through so many places – and never seeing many people – it wasn’t a mandate. More a leaf floating by my window: weightless, pretty, but something I’d never catch.            

There are those who have theories: we reach out to specters from our past, hoping to recapture who we were, reclaim what was lost or right whatever was wrong, truncated or broken. I’ve never been one of those. Though there’s a balmy warmth to what we remember, it’s about where we’re going, how life translates in here and now that matters.

And what kind of here and now could there be? A gentleman lawyer who hung up the all-night drives and sleeping on floors for an intellectual solidity, the music critic/songwriter/artist developer whose roots can be found dangling in the wind like some kind of untamed orchid?            

Charlie Pickett didn’t remember me, either, sitting on a stool at Hamburger Heaven, the long gone lunch spot on South County Road. Cheeseburgers before us, we talked about the days when 27 Birds roiled with bands, fans, alternative realities, beats like pistons and rockers hitting the stage every 55 minutes on the dime. We laughed about Johnny Depp and his band the Kidz, one more local denizen that was probably never gonna be more, the promoter Richard Shelter who wore combat boots in summer and embraced Black Flag and the Circle Jerks long before they mattered, as well as the long-lamented not even almosts the Eat, the Bobs, the Cichlids, so good and absolutely unable to connect to the larger picture.

We talked about where rock & roll takes you, where it leaves you, how it is a force almost greater than life itself. A student of the game, he asked about Rolling Stone, CREEM, theLA and New York Times, a host of other publications – and we laughed about how important some of those magazines could be.            

And then he paid the check, and we hugged, and that was that. I’d send him my essays, seemingly always celebrating someone who had died. He’d respond thoughtfully, showing both compassion for my loss and insight into the human spirit that I’d captured.            

And that was that, too.

Though when I’d go to South Florida, sometimes we’d have another lunch, somewhere unconventional, yet always tangential to my life. The conversations would expand to talk of life as a dad, as a lawyer, as a husband and as a rocker who really didn’t rock the way people expect. Me, I’d talk about Artist Development, which isn’t branding, tell stories about how the music is realized in the humanity and the battering of shoddy reporting oversimplifying to where it misrepresented the real essence of the story. Me, being me, I’d tell funny stories about the adventures of working with big stars – and he’d laugh, then counter with the reality of a little band on a hardcore indie with a player who’d need to cop.            

Over time, I started spilling secrets like a toppled glass of cote du rhone, stories going everywhere, staining the encounter and making me think about where I’d been. Funny how talking to the ones removed can sometimes bring you into a deeper focus of your own life.            

Over time, Charlie Pickett started running songs by me. Or rather the tracks, looking for words. I would push back, trying to know his heart, his need to express.

Unlike anything I normally write, yet somehow throbbingly alive: those few chunks of lyric, essences of experience, insight, feelings. Things that were heavy, bore down, lumbered. Things that captured his (other)world – the places that’re stripped to the bone, the shard of truth that cuts through it all.

Ironic. My friends met Mr. Pickett and his exotic black dahlia of a wife at a dinner party. They found him charming, evolved, settled, elegant. Every one of them had a hard time believing this was the sneering, stolid punk force that once held stages with that jarring blues slam’nbam.

“Really? I just can’t believe it,” said one of the other C. Orricos, dumbfounded.           
The publisher of The Palm Beach Daily News concurred, “But he was so lovely – and that music was so, well, uhm...you’re the critic.”            

And it’s true. The man they beheld was cultured, erudite, president of his law review, something undertaken well-past rock prime and certainly far enough into adulthood to scent with a bit of desperation.            

But that’s the thing about the fury of rock & roll: it fires you in ways other things can’t. Not revenge, not hate, not rage. When you rock from the core, you push in a way that is unassailable, you apply yourself like there’s no other option.            

Which is the funniest thing about my friend Charlie. He outran the obvious. Rather than a burned out cliche, one more bitter shoulda coulda woulda, he took that blunt force and transformed himself. Even more importantly, he never let go.            

See, there are plenty of wanna be and almost weres who find a place on the fringe and exhale their how big they were, polishing the done wrongs and bad breaks to a blinding glow – casting that brightness in a way that you can’t see their part in it.            

Charlie Pickkett was probably too primitive and raw to be a glossed over MTV commodity. That purity made REM’s guitar swain Pete Buck weak in the knees, producing a Picket & the MC3 collection for Twin/Tone at the height of the Athens’ band’s ascendance.           

Pickett wasn’t gonna buckle or fold or compromise. He was gonna rock out, hard, loud, proud and unrepentant. And when it didn’t work, he was gonna live his life the same way: not a shadow of what wasn’t, trying to convince everyone how it ought to have been.            

That swagger is tempered by the knowing how much, how hard he can. When you do, you don’t need to flex or throw down. You can talk quiet, meet peoples’ eyes without challenge, find your way without being obtrusive.           

I had a friend like Pickett once, who told me there wasn’t a three-legged dog I couldn’t bring home. Surely I understand the regional forces of music – Motown’s glorious rocker steeped in soul Stewart Francke, Pittsburgh’s silken rock poet Bill Deasy, Cleveland’s compass of the chambers of the heart Alex Bevan – but that doesn’t mean it’s my raison d’etre.            

Charlie Pickett was the last friend I needed. At least like that: a reclaimed punk with a fire in the belly, a life that was classically upwardly middle class America and a career to be respected. Too straight and too loud, and yet...

Sitting in a recording studio off a dead end street in a warehouse that was more storage unit than middle business, I watch him lay himself against the gnashing guitar parts again and again. Searching to find the scan beyond the blues, beyond the thrum for a song that tells men the real about how it goes... about checking macho posturing at the door, but taking control, being in charge, being the man, he’s looking for the hard delivery.            

I don’t wanna smile, because that tweaks the hoist. But I almost can’t help myself to hear someone willing to be that real, to enjoinder an actual manly response in a world of reductive roles that negate any real connection between the sexes. Because in the end, the most erotic zone is between your ears, and the real glory hole is what you take in aurally.            

Charlie Pickett has nothing to prove. He’s got no reason to do this beyond the surge of a song picking up steam, then pushing back hard. It’s not about what was, or could be; not about prancing around onstage as the locals cheer – remembering their own better days. 

No, what he does – beyond the court arguments and dry as parched wood briefs – is the essence of rock & roll for no reason beyond its own guts and glory. Even now, in an odd way, it’s about the girls... But not just getting them, keeping them: pleasuring them, bringing them to their knees the way a real honest to god king bee would.

Not that he’s on the hunt or the prowl... well, not for anything except the axis rock truly turns on. Pushing harder, throwing himself over the railing again and again, the punch of the line eludes him, but he keeps coming. Not for David Fricke, or Paul Westerberg or even his own ego, but for the reasons rock, when it’s right, matters.

Having spent too many years listening to record company people throw tired marketing plays at music they don’t understand, artists genuflecting to a marketplace that’s never been excavated or considered on a human basis, managers wanting to max the moment at 15-20 percent, I laugh. Raised on WMMS during its glory days, I know the difference – and just cause nobody else dares, that doesn’t mean I don’t know it when I see it.

Standing before me in a denim shirt, trying to find the emphasis point in the line, Charlie Pickett keeps hitting the words and pauses like baseballs at milk bottles lined up at the fair. Hard, precise, wild, a jumble of conflict with a singular purpose.

This isn’t for radio, or a tour, or even a big record release party. Rock & roll is his: a release and a church of some higher fire. Sometimes faith is its own reward; sometimes it’s shared amongst the true believers. And when you believe, it’s not the numbers that matter – only the kick inside.

But don’t tell that to the fancy people in the glass building where he practices the law and parses the legality of things we’ll never ever need to know. They’re sitting 19 floors above the Intercoastal, safe in a cocoon of neat, tidy privilege. It’s safe and warm and elevated, everything so many people want.

Given that, they don’t need to know about the glorious subversive nature of Charlie Pickett. That their star lawyer has a rock side isn’t relevant; they get that –without tremor -- when he clamps down in court, and they don’t even know why.

Sitting here in this unfinished wood paneled control room, maybe the why doesn’t matter, either. Knowing the thrust as it plunges in, stabbing the dead places and releasing the wild doesn’t require cognition – only surrender.

Surrender is easy when the guitars are loud, the beer’s cold and the singer’s howling: all you gotta do is let go. It may take a minute, a song, maybe two; but when you hit it full-tilt and manage the rise and the fall, it’s intevitable. In the court, on the stage, it’s all the same when the fire remains.

Sherman Halsey & The Crazy Carny Circus That Was Country Music's Fellini

Sherman Halsey's creativity was hard and bright, throwing light and blinding like the best diamond. He -- and an upstart honky tonker -- took a turgid ouevre and made noir art on the way to making country cool with the LA demi-monde, and Sherman, like his father country kingpin Jim Halsey, never looked back. Shaping the perceptual culture of cool around Tim McGraw, the Kentucky Headhunters and too many others, he gave the genre of the fsding blue collar a legit cool. And he never stopped smiling that Cheshire smile doing it.
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