Phil Walden, Dave Smith + Magical Kingdoms of Song

"Phil Walden's dead" The voice on the other end of the phone was tired, dead tired, but it wasn't the tired of too little sleep and too many miles. It was more the exhaustion that comes from knowing too much, seeing things you never imagined, learning lessons you'd rather not know. For Kenny Chesney, the man who played to over a million fans every summer for the past four summers -- and who found himself in between Bono and Mick Jagger on the cover of the Billboard as one of the three biggest acts of 2005, Phil Walden's passing was the end of the beginning.

An innocence lost forever as the man who managed Otis Redding and most recently fostered the jam band movement through his signings of Widespread Panic, 311 and Cake as well as a green hard country singer from Luttrell, Tennessee even though Walden wasn't "in the country music business," but saw something that moved him, had passed away at 66 years of age. For Kenny Chesney, who'd been parking cars, playing third tier writers' nights and gutbucket honky tonks in some of Nashville's seedier parts of town while punching the clock and learning the trade of being a true songwriter at Acuff Rose, where no less than Hank Williams had been signed, Phil Walden was the realization and recognition of the dream. Whether it happened or not, Capricorn Records gave the boy a shot at the prize -- and a shot is more than most of us ever get anyway. Capricorn Records was -- at its zenith - the fertile spawning ground for Southern rock -- though it was so much more sophisticated then than people realized. Blues-steeped, shot through with jazz, aching with ferocious heartbreaks and injected with enough rural soul to give it the complexity of intricate paisley even as it flexed its muscular guitar/bass/Hammond B-3 organ chops with a verve and a density that make one put the pedal down. Starting with the Allman Brothers, but embracing Wet Willie, the Dixie Dregs, Marshall Tucker, Capricorn was as much a lifestyle as a sound scape.

Always musically extrusive, there was a reckoning going on that was post-Civil War Southern pride writ large. And it wasn't about waving a flag, so much as it was about "sink into the way we live and understand why kicked back is as intense as anything y'all got going on."I didn't even get to experience it "real time." No, no; for me were the purloined moments with Dave Smith's record collection, the pounding sound of Eat A Peach blaring out of the rolled down windows of his maroon muscle car coming into the back of the house too hard, then pulling up short. That blaring noise, pure siren's song to a Midwest girl curious about it all -- and finding these feverish waves of undulation and consecration between the grooves. Dave Smith, in his polyester pants and white crinkle pseudo-leather Foot Joy teaching shoes -- which looked like golf shoes without the spikes, may well've been the coolest person I'd ever met. A ne'er-do-well golf pro who smoked too much pot, drank too much beer and always had a rejoinder for whatever was thrown at him came to live with us that summer -- and he brought an entire culture with him. The records alone were intense: Horses by Patti Smith, 4 and Physical Graffiti from Led Zeppelin, Tejas on the ZZ Top tip, Blood on the Tracks flexing the urgent inscrutability of Bob Dylan and everything by Todd Rundgren, who absolutely was A Wizard, A True Star.

Just as importantly, he'd leave his Rolling Stone magazines lying around, magazines I would look carefully at floor position and angle of open page then gently pull it towards me, crawl under one of the heavy carved wood beds in our attic and inhale dust bunnies and fetid air without oxygen, hungrily devouring all news of that world so far beyond my pink suburban bedroom and 36 holes a day life. Somewhere within the first month, my blind adoration and sheer enthusiasm won him over enough to let me hang around, to allow me to hear his diatribes about music, to be the kid on the pirate ship.

And it was in those moments, when it felt like my nerve-endings were outside my body so intense was the pleasure and excitement, that I came to understand the highest temple of them all: Live at the Filmore East. More than a mere live recording, it was the culmination of Duane and Gregg Allman's musical alchemy -- a sound that seamlessly merged so many influences into a whole that was so complicated yet primal, alive yet controlled in its thrilling ability to push a melody, signature riff or even rhythm to new heights. And in that blood and kerosene guitar tone of Duane's, a sound that would set whole coasts aflame with the burning desire and searing regret that is the blues, a whole new way of playing slide and electric guitar was cast into the universe -- all you had to do was lean your head back and close your eyes to be taken places that were full-immersion in the truth and experience. And so it was that I learned to drink beer, to listen to the depths of a record, to feel the energy collecting and pooling in my chest, my gut, in the place just above the root of my being. This was not an intellectual experience, it was something else, something more -- almost a melting and merging into this deeper way of embracing music.Dave Smith was, most likely, a reprobate. A complete scoundrel. He drank way too much, drove entirely too fast, dated the wrong kind of women and played his music voraciously at volumes that defied cogent thought.

He loved Filmore East; the aching shake in Gregg's voice as "Whipping Post" threatened to explode from the core of his diaphragm-- and the chugging heartbeat of the straining and relentless thundering in those drums.Oh, the innocence of it all. A young girl not quite understanding the house-rocking references. A child -- truly -- of the night, lost in the swirl of bars she shouldn't have been in, the sparkle of local bands bringing these songs, and their own, to life before her eyes. It was seedy, a little dangerous, absolutely transfixing -- and it was the kind of thing you never recover from.The good news, though, about sitting in that maroon Charger with the speakers rippling from the intensity of the sound is that you bond from such a naive place, your wonder can never truly be taken from you. When you put "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" on, you're immediately transported to a place where even what you knew -- and I knew more than quite a lot -- is transformed into something almost sweet. The hardness that should've set in, just beads up and rolls off.It is how true believers are forged. Innocence flash-fired into a shining, jubilant surface that sparkles with the pure love that can only come in those sorts of moments.

For a 12-year old in a short forest green plaid skirt, it was more than deliverance. It was an entrance to a world so much cooler, so much more alive than the measured Jr. League and charity work fast track to corporate housewifery that I'd already been set on. Those songs, bubbling with emotion, rife with insight into life that most people wouldn't acknowledge let alone talk about, gave me wings. Lying on my back, listening to Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon on his headphones, I was taken into a world of such depth, intensity and subtlety that it was -- seriously -- almost hard to breathe, yet to not listen, embrace, embody was certainly to suffocate. And at ground zero of that sensibility was a hodgepodge: the free'n'easy "Heard It In A Love Song," with the shimmering flute punctuation bobbing up on the rides like some kind of cork, the staccato bump and dropped-to-knee wail of Wet Willie's empowering "Keep On Smiling" or the cocky contretemps of any version of "One Way Out," the Allmans percolating with hormones and being treed any way they cut it. Just thinking about all those notes that defied words falling from the tips of Steve Morse's fingers whenever the Dregs got pulled from the stack.

Like an impossibly dry field that becomes the final resting place for a still glowing cigarette butt, so was my imagination and passion that summer Dave Smith arrived. What he gave me gave me everything I'd need to get through the rest of my life; and in that, it inadvertently set me on the course of a polemic destiny. Five years later, skinny legs and all in a wrap skirt and a monogrammed t-shirt, I sat facedown in Richard Wright's Native Son -- having had a bit too much giddy fun with my "peers" at Grad Nite. Preferring to right my equilibrium with something a little bit serious and certainly more adult, I decided to wait for the next Pure Prairie League show by sitting on a wall near the Tomorrowland Stage at Disneyworld. The singer seemed to play some pretty electrifying electric guitar, molten emotion that dug deeper than the words that melted off his tongue -- and I'd rather a closer look at that than listen to a little more inanity from a bunch of kids who'd never been anywhere.

Some guy named "Jeff" in a satin jacket thought that was hilarious. Actually walked me down to the stage before the park employees unchained the area, and when he walked away, I saw the PPL logo on the back. I'd been rescued by "one of them," the people who go "back there" and are not like the rest of us mere mortals. It was exciting -- in that way of moments that are now, but nevermore. They played their show. They merged that Southern rock/country thing with a silky pop sheen -- the kind of thing that had them on the radio with songs like "Still Right Here In My Heart" and "Let Me Love You Tonight," songs that led them a long way from the plain burlap enchantment of the signature "Aimee."

Maybe overwhelmed, possibly just exhausted from the 11 pm until 5:30 a. m. timeframe that is Grad Nite's trajectory, or else, perhaps just fate and the hand of God, I didn't rush away when the lights came up and the high school seniors began streaming back towards the rides and the park. In my basking in the moment and the music, I just waited, weightless almost, and then the unconsiderable happened -- some of "them" came out.Real live rock stars, mingling with the kids. Talking about whatever, eyeing the pretty girls, exulting in the adulation. It was benign, and it was also off the charts in term of cool for what the kids attending most Florida high schools back when could comprehend. And in that moment, a kid used to hustling, drew up in those pink canvas espadrilles, smiled knowingly and cast her line.

"I hear you play golf," she said flatly.
The singer's ear pricked up, he turned, clearly hooked.
"You play?" he asked.
"A little" I hedged, as my pulse quickened.
"Any good?" he asked, not making this reeling in easy.
"Depends on who you ask," I deflected, hoping subjectivity would serve as showing off for the rock star, rather the minimizing for conquest.
"You have a handicap?" he continued pressing.
"Yes," I responded, a little annoyed, hoping that would turn him.
"What is it?" he countered, edging towards testy.
Cornered, lying wasn't an option.

Trying to look as demure as possible, I smiled softly and said with absolutely no flourish,
"Six.""You're a six?"

It was probably shock, but I read it as doubt -- and it chapped me.
"Yeah, I'm a SIX," springing to defend my honor -- guitar player or not.
"I was also all-tri-county for my high school.”

With that, all barriers between rock stars and high school kids were dissolved. We were both golfers-- and he looked happy. Very happy. Their show in West Palm Beach -- to be played on Thursday -- gave him four days off in one place and a young person of enough skill to keep him engaged on the golf course.

And so it was that a rock star didn't kidnap John Gleason's nice Midwestern daughter the way it happened according to William Miller's mother in Cameron Crowe's coming of age as a baby rock critic film "Almost Famous;" but the way a wunderkind musician made friends with a brought-up-on-the-fumes-and-falterings of playing golf-tournaments-on-the-road girl that set her on another path.

It was crazy, really. That phone call when I was sure it was all for naught; no rock star would really think about me beyond the moment -- and rushing to the lime green mustang and Ft Lauderdale to pick him up and play; only to realize, I had no idea my new friend's name. Detouring to the Spec's in the mall by my high school, where many lost hours of cutting class had been invested, the manager took pity -- opened a record for me and announced dryly, "His name is Vince Gill." Armed with that knowledge, I continued my speed of sound journey to the Galt Ocean Mile, commandeered my almost famous friend and hit the golf course.

It was teasing and barbs and all the cutting and nudging that comes from good natured rivalries. It was talking about cold beer and barbeque, about hearing your songs on the radio and a pretty wife left back home. It was the best round of my life -- a 73 -- and a physics lesson about gravity, mass and motion stemming from a Lincoln that was clocking needing to swing around me because I stopped a little short of a light that was changing. It was also forcing the singer into the humiliating fate of a high school paper interview -- and later harvesting that desperation play on my part following another round with his gentle suggestion that if my injured hand meant I couldn't play golf, I should think about writing about music.

"I'm a 17-year old girl," I protested. "So"
"Look at me," I protested.
"I do interviews all the time," he responded.
"You're better than 95% of the people I talk to, and you actually love music. I've read your writing. You can do this.
"Rock stars do drugs. It had to be. Squinting at him, I echoed and expanded upon my previous sentiment,
"I'm a 17 year old girl -- and I look 12.
"With a gentle smile, he nodded and quietly said two words:
"Cameron Crowe." Crowe, the 15-year old writer for Rolling Stone in the late 70s, had just seen his undercover as a student look at high school life Fast Times At Ridgemont High turned into a movie. He'd done everything I didn't even know to dream of, yet yearned for; it was so perfect. And he looked young, too.

With that, Vince Gill won. And so did I. The thing about living the rock & roll life -- even if you do it with "hillbilly rock stars, out of control" -- is that it puts you in the fastest current, the most concentrated moments. Everything is bigger, harder, more if you're connecting into it; the highs where the air is thin and the rush overloading, the lows where you feel sucked into the mud and then throb with the pain, the doubt, the fear and yes, the frustration. You see the dream; you can touch it, whirl it, swirl it, twirl it; polish it and cut it into the jewel that it is. It's like riding sunbeams or lightning bolts -- fast and hard and blinding, yet thrilling, exhilarating, absolutely in the moment. But to get to that point, there is patience, good decisions, heartache, tiny victories that have to last. And, if you're doing it right, much laughter along the way -- for without that merriment, that sense of the humor within the suck, you'd never make it. And those things are the ties that bind, the doors that open, the reasons to continue. Kenny Chesney knows all this, just like he knows the sound of my voice. It's the fuel that brought him, that drove him, that delivered him. And being tender-hearted, he is sentimental in a way that allows him to connect into the main vein of America's youth.

They know what it's like to dream; to believe; to seek. They may not have attained what the young man who plays guitar in football stadiums and has Bruce Spingsteen dedicate songs to him have, but they know that he is what they would be like if they got their shot at the prize. He is them writ superstar -- and while that's not something Kenny Chesney thinks about, it's a reality he carries with dignity and grace. Everybody needs a break, along with a dream to capture their soul. Without those things, you're never going anywhere. Without someone saying, "you can," how can you?And for Kenny Chesney, en route to a party to celebrate three weeks at #1 with "Living In Fast Forward," Phil Walden's death is all about losing not just a piece, but the genesis of the dream coming true.It is a serious thing for a true believer.Just like that at the other end of the phone, a woman bows her head and sheds a tear.

Not that anyone cares about my loss -- the loss of not a close friend, but rather a man who paved the way out of the expectations of a good family onto an expressway of emotion, moments and lives lived beyond the rules.Out where the cowboys roam, the rock stars sway, the young girls believe in what the songs offer, it's a whole other kind of outlaw justice. There is an honor among thieves and an elegance to the way the memories turn. If you're brave enough and strong enough to dream, then anything you can believe, you can achieve -- with a little luck, a lotta hard work and more than a passing bit of talent. All you gotta do is hold on -- and be willing to listen to your heart and the voices of those that know the game and the ropes and especially what you're made of.

It's easy, if you don't give up. People like Phil Walden got that, made that truth real, created the faith to carry in the falter -- and carried however many dreamers, literally or even by way of the songs, to where they could make their stand. For Kenny Chesney, somewhere in the midst of another tour with a fistful of hits and enough decibels to rock 20,000 a night, it's a comfort in the sadness. For Vince Gill, in a studio, making 4 records at once, it's a harvest. For the Allman Brothers, it's all about the road going on forever. For Dave Smith, lost in the flood of whatever -- purportedly lost to misadventure, he is a memory that blazes like the pilot light in the furnace of who I became. And for me, hiding somewhere unlikely and writing a book, it's about being selfish; making a dream come true for myself rather than someone else; and that, like losing the flickering pulse of a sound that set me afire, may be the scariest thing of all. Still, it takes courage to be happy -- and happiness, like dreams, is a matter of decision. Close your eyes, make up your mind and let go. You're gonna float before you fly, but it you Eat A Peach, the falling will be sweet as the moment it all comes together.