Midwest Midnights, Calcutta Auctions + A Gunfighter's Smile Beams Down
The email had come from an old friend, one I didn't think about much - but they'd thought about me quite a bit over the years. That he'd shown me kindness during a difficult period spoke volumes for the kind of decency I was raised with - and it made the ghosts I'd come home to chase that much more daunting.
The ghosts were the things I'd never seen, hadn't felt. Things that had to be experienced to be released… It was the last way I wanted to spend my weekend. Sometimes, though, the only way out is through.
And then this email arrived. Sitting in a Starbucks with tears streaming down my face, listening to a song demo called “Turning Home,” about the very thing I was doing. Sometimes the blood-letting is just that: one small nick in the surface, and the dam gets burst.
My friend had just come from the funeral of John Leininger, an old timer at the Shaker Heights Country Club. My friend had gone out of respect, their lockers being close together… and the familiarity of growing up with “Mr. L” having never been lost to him.
Mr. L. My mother's best friend's husband. With a rolling laugh, a sense of play and kindness. The perfect Santa Claus without the red suit, beard or girth. The kind of man who would tickle you and tickle you, until you collapsed squealing and squirming, knowing the giddiness he incited was good for your soul.
Mr Leininger, whose wife had an outrageous sense of humor and a lemon yellow car with a racing stripe and an old English letter “M” for Marllyn just to mock its very suburbanity. Plus the three daughters who were the spectrum of the '60s evolving into the '70s: the cheerleader/princess, the gypsy/bohemian, the hippie/nature girl.
I worshipped the whole family. Even Fang, the cat, who died in the midst of winter and lived in their deep freeze until the spring thaw allowed for a proper backyard burial. It was a house with high ceilings, lots of books, more laughter, a slot machine and a kitchen filled with exotic things to a kid.
Laughter, and lots of it. White wine - Chablis, as I recall - in huge jugs. Leather sofas. Chinese take-out. Quick-firing political one-liners. An expectation I could keep up. It was the intellectual pinball that makes the precocious think they can hold their own with the grown-ups, to know no fear when confronted with older people, to believe they belonged. It was thrilling in its right-here right-now way.
And now, Mr. L was gone. Passed like his wife, like my parents into the vastness.
Reckonings are not neat, tidy things. They're like giving pigeons firecrackers and waiting for the feathers to fly. Just peck, peck SPLAM! Thus far, it was proceeding apace, and all I'd managed to do was get to Chagrin Falls and find a park bench to sit and watch the water rushing over the stones and rocks, heading for the falls and crashing down onto even more rocks and stones below. Geese upside down, looking for food beneath the surface; children rushing and chasing each other and the wind.
Serenity everywhere, but inside me.
Is what it was. The only way out is through. Things you know - even when you don't want to.
And that night, the annual altar call for the not-so-young Northeastern Ohioans to remember who they were when they were shiny: Michael Stanley + the Resonators at Tower City, the giant tent on the Cuyahoga River. He'd play all the hits that they'd want to hear, and they'd be 17 or 23 again, rippling with promise, alive in the notion of what their dreams might become.
On the shuttle over to the venue, they were out in force: recounting their lives and adventures based on certain songs, different shows. They spoke of the man who's more myth in Cleveland than mortal, as if he were their dear, dear friend. But Michael Stanley, especially on a night like this, is so much more. He's the alchemist who can melt the years, the crappy jobs, the dead ends that people thought were chances.
Back when, he was an alchemist, too. The songs capturing the zeitgeist of a certain kind of young. The lightning bolt of the apex of youth. Maybe it was “Rosewood Bitters,” about being so rootless, songs are one's only anchor. Or perhaps it was bite-the-heart-that-breaks-your's “One Good Reason.” Or the pained “Lover,” with its tear-stained aimless driving confession “God bless the man who put the white lines on the highway…”
I loved the book-ended acrimony of “Midwest Midnight” and “Let's Get The Show On The Road,” two indictments of what the music business can do to a young man “with a will to believe and his songs on his sleeve,” warning “nobody told you that you would get old/ Strung out like some avenue whore.”
I couldn't know those would be relevant, that my future would lie amongst Silver Eagle tour buses, lost nights and songs. It was a fascinating take, made all the more riveting by the snarl with which these cautionary tales were delivered.
No, for me, it was a song about some kind of love affair beyond propriety: “Spanish Nights.” The phrases turned figure 8s of construction that were breath-taking - “for passionate people, these are desperate times/ Desperate measures call for passionate crimes” and “She holds on, holds on to St. Christopher// She shines on, and he heads for the light…”
Marking time in a plaid skirt shortened as short as humanly possible, I clocked in at an all-girls school where boys were an every other weekend school dance and pre-debutante ballroom class proposition. They weren't a mystery, they were just… there. Who cared? Even when they liked you.
But “Spanish Nights” was different. Beyond “the breeze aint moving nothing, but the blue hotel lights” and “living underneath hotel law,” there was something else playing out here. This was a woman who possessed a man, so wholly, so completely, he'd lost his compass, his north star and could only breathe the water of whatever this was, resigned to the impossible fate of drowning in what can't be.
I was transfixed. Whatever it was she was doing, I wanted to understand… I wanted to possess someone like that. I wanted to be the sort of woman who was every possibility, every option, indeed, every road to travel. But where does one begin?
Chagrin River Road, of course. Following the curves, sweeping across the battered blacktop at a speed slightly faster than what was legal, taking in the oaks, maples and willows weeping. The answers weren't obvious, but you could feel them as the tires of a 72 Mustang gripped the road and heldyou to terra firme with a sticky authority. Window down, you could smell the fading of the day, the hay, the leaves fallen. “She shines on…,” you'd think, pressing the gas pedal down. “Shine on…. Shine on…”
Years would pass, but that song would drift back. The beaus and loves beyond reach - an outlaw comic, a preacher's son, a saddle maker, an heir, a shooter, a worldclass piano player, Grammy winners and restaurateurs - and still the wafting lines would appear.
What was… what wasn't. The boys who always remembered. The opportunities past. The girl who couldn't quite, for reasons that didn't add up completely. “Head for the light…”
Onstage, Michael Stanley's set was shoot to thrill. Tempo hits crashing into each other, a breathless overview of a thirty year love affair punctuated with a few ballads. With “Lover,” and “Rosewood Bitters” with a sit-in-with-the-band auction winner, “Spanish Nights.”
This was a genuflection of faith and reflection. The band swinging hard for the moment, the fans clinging hard to what was. Somewhere in the crowd, I went back… to a private event, 350 kids at the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum, close enough to the stage to truly study what was happening up there, to watch with eyes too big, to take it in with the detachment of a young critic in training.
A steel gray quiana dress with little straps draped over whatever little there was to be draped, that promise of one day being an adult. The mid-heels, the shining face, the crossed arms. It wasn't stand-offish, it was a whole other kind, an almost more formal sort of curiousness.
When the big number - Frankie Miller's “Strike Up The Band” - hit, with its audience rave-up call'n'response, I was down front, part of the chant. It went back and forth, back and forth… until I felt fingers curling around my wrist, a gentle tug telling me to step up to the stage. They were pulling a few girls from the crowd “to be part of the moment;” Michael Stanley was pulling me from the crowd.
Now why he did that? It's hard to say. To break the string of observation… To put someone “in” the moment in a more direct way who was by choice distanced… maybe he liked my dress. It was hard to say, but I understood what needed to happen: I turned back towards my friends, thrust my first in the air to punctuate the “Strike … It … Up, Strike Ir… Up!!”s that were being hurled/
Already a baby rock critic in training, even in that moment, I kept watching what was going on. My world didn't dissolve into the vanity of being singled out, pulled up onstage. Though I was grateful for the view - how it looks for them, how different the focus when one looks out versus at. And it was a good trick: melting the membrane between us and the band. As a band the city of Cleveland had invested in as our doppelganger, our shot at the grandest prize: rock stardom. That blurring makes the confusion of who's what even stronger. We are them… after all, 6 or 7 of our friends just got onstage.
For all the rock splendor, though, my heart belonged to Alex Bevan, the singer/songwriter who could pick and rhyme quick, extemporaneous hilarity about the right now that was pure New Yorker of the Vicious Circle vintage. Not that he was mean, just that he could skewer hypocrisy with a dram of irony and a smile. The locals loved it, for the wit, but they missed his depths.
What got me were the ballads: pretty songs about people seeking lives they dreamed of, the beauty of the Great Lakes and tangled rivers, the human heart and his own frayed adventures and recognitions of the things he was seeking to find. “Silver Wings,” “Grand River Lullabye,” “Rodeo Rider,” “Jazzbo” and “Autumn Melody… It was all fiber that was spun into the yarn of a search for truth and kindness in a childhood that was anything but… It was a line some days I clung to.
“Here's a song from bottle of whiskey, here's a song from a Holiday Inn
“Here's a song for anyone who's ever watched the daylight creeping
“It comes from another side of morning, goes to the other side of light
“It's where your dreams are, they're only what you make them,
“You only make'em if you try…”
And I was determined to try. How, what I wasn't sure. But I kept listening, kept believing, kept depressing the pedal in that car without air conditioning, the thick humidity suppressing the oxygen so I was breathing heaviness, breathing the dense environmental presence and moisture even then. That kind of airs settles inside you, holds you down in a way that makes you realize things. It reminds you how real it all is… right here, right now.
When you hurl yourself at what was, especially the slightly fuzzy part that the Vaseline on the lens kept you from seeing, there is that sense of not quite knowing what you'll find. It is not necessarily what you're seeking, but it's the thing you must know to finally understand - as much as you can - the ghosts that drive you.
It is rarely linear. It is often jarring. It is absolutely the only way.
Michael Stanley knows it without knowing. In that set that was set on stun for the ones who came to remember, he kicked back into “Strike Up The Band,” the ultimate crescendo into the ultimate climax for the ones who've come to believe. Having moved into the center section, I stood considering the transaction - watching the exchange, the renewal and the release for audience and musicians alike.
During the rave-up, Stanley throws his arms from side to side, exhorting the crowd to do their part… “Strike it up, strike itt up…” And they give back with every bit of breath they can. I am watching, smiling, understanding how potent this is. Somehow, his gaze stops at me, the one who is not flinging her arms or shouting to the band, to the night, to the inertia that holds them there.
Without ever breaking his calling for the response, without ever slowing his hips, he regards my being for a couple lines. What is exchanged is never clear, never noticed by anyone else, but it is obvious, I have been seen. Perhaps not as myself, but as someone who came to witness what was as it is, as it can be… and the power that the music holds.
Who I am in that moment doesn't matter. Knowing the truth… that 30 years later the power to transfix and transfigure, to dissolve what plagues you is more potent than ever… speaks volumes. It is not about platinum albums and private jets, it's about songs being the ultimate connection to one's better, truer places.
With the speakers ringing in my ears, I melt into the the night. I get into the car, and I drive. I listen to Rosanne Cash's undiscovered Right Or Wrong , an album about rejecting the shame of another's blame and Black Cadillac, her song cycle about love lasting beyond death. I listen to Steve Earle's Guitar Town and think about “My Old Friend The Blues,” wondering about my old friends who've been such a part of my life - Steve and Rose and Rodney Crowell', whose Sex & Gasoline illuminates the things that dazzle us to where we distort the things that matter into pornographic proportions and discard the values that sustain.
I drive, and I think, and I remember. Not just the artists who've shaped my life, led me away from this place and these things that I have obviously tried to outrun, but remembering the solace they gave a kid from a high impact home, driving and driving and driving, aimlessly in the night - seemingly nowhere to go, yet the songs and the rhythms of the road a lullaby to at least rock me to a quieter place.
The resolution of the lost in the found. No better place to be, yet nowhere more alone or more frightening. But even in the broken lamps, the shattered pictures, the vicious acrimony, there was always this… and the refuges that I found.
Shaker Heights, Ohio is a place of quiet privilege. Almost unspoken, absolutely understood. The cover charge is the willingness to say nothing, to hold it in, to act as if… everything's alright. And it is. You don't go hungry, you wear nice clean clothes and go to schools that're exemplary. It is perfect: just look at those shining families with the gleaming teeth, long straight hair, the friendly dog when you get your Christmas card portrait every year.
Or so it seems. And much of it is not as far afield as the naysayers would suggest.
But some of it is beyond the pale.
Knowing the difference is harder than you might imagine. It's not about class, it's about emotional treason, knowing the difference, then getting the vertigo that leaves you mute, confused, lost somewhere between right and wrong. It is the betrayal of one's true being, the places where we are honest… and the places where we blur the lines we should we walking without even knowing we've smudged the chalk.
Somewhere between here and there are the things we do to get by, the deals we make with our subconscious that we never truly know. Until we know.
And then, once you know… you can't not know.
In the all of that, so much rushes by. Tiny pieces, perhaps. Increments of progress. The illusion of something more without considering the larger cost.
In the brightness of the morning after, I am again behind the wheel. Three hours spent drinking tea with someone who knew me when, who'd seen it all, who'd not seen me in 30 years. They had thrown a rock through the mirror of what I thought - and now I saw behind the coated glass.
Not completely unexpected, but clear in the way it is when your eyes adjust to the light. Startling in all of what it was; amazing in how much of what was sold to me wasn't just a lie, but was deliberately set to “cover the table.” People had needs, wants, desires; in the end, it was about doing what was necessary to get to them… and I was the shell-shocked kid who just wanted people to be “okay.”
It wasn't your fault this man told me, kindly. But we all saw it… Funny how no one told me. Or perhaps the hyper-functioning, nature beyond my years girl with the poise and the ponytail made them think I was in on the deal, had made my peace with it and was swanlike biding my time on the lake… until the season changed, I could lift my wings, fly away.
My friend, once a caddymaster, once a dog catcher, now a successful attorney, had seen it, showed it to me. Sitting there in an upscale shopping center, stealing a few hours from making other people's deals. He never said we all thought you knew, more implied that it was probably best I didn't. The things we lose in the moment, the truth that might be too much to hold.
Pettibone Road in Glenwillow, Ohio is closed for 90 days. A small stretch, less than probably 1/3 a mile, but it breaks the artery. Walk down the concrete dusted curves, though, and see a field of low-lying flat roofed anonymous buildings. Shipping centers? Industrial structures? Progress?
There used to be a farm there. Something to buffer the cities of Solon and Twinsburg from a fuse factory for an explosive manufacturer. But like so much of the story, it was exquisite perfection - the miles of white fence, the clots of black angus cows grazing against the emerald grass, the red slat barns gently faded with black tar-paper roofs just like the cliché demands - belied the West Virginian factory workers living in the ramshackle shot gun shacks and my father cast out of our house again.
The farm was a holy place, Horses, space, room to be. The pastures running on and on to creeks, choking with Queen's Anne Lace and thistles. It was the last place on earth where my innocence lived, this location of my father's exile from our family… and I happily mucked stalls, buried my face under sweaty manes, rode when the barn girls would let me, breathed all the way in.
The farm is gone now. It was a slow dismantling, a barn here, the fence there. My last trip in July, only the horse stable left and the white rail fences around it. And now, it, too, is gone. Just broken bits of concrete scattered where the stalls and sweet feed, curry brushes, worming tools, bales of hay and a motley crew of equines assembled.
My breath caught. In my moccasins, I couldn't help but be drawn closer… to tip toe into the posted construction zone, to lay my feet upon that hallowed ground one more time. Turning around, arms extending, feeling the last of the open air, sensing the energy of all who'd passed through there. Remembering the freedom, the space, a time when horse barns and cattle farms were part of the program, when explosives could be made there - because the sprawl hadn't tentacled this far out.
Indeed, with everything razed, it was possible to walk all the way back… back to where the bog, thick with cat-tails separated the factory from the farm. To peak back at where the tumblers would dry the fuses, knowing occasionally one would go off, tossing you out of bed, window fans crashing down outside the houses.
How many weekends? How many doubts for my poor father? How many holidays with all the horror, drama and embarrassment that complicated families manifest? And yet, there were few places holier - and you could still feel it. Feel it fading, flickering, gasping,about to be something that never was. Except to those of us who knew better…
Walking up the sun scorched asphalt, you have to wonder if it ever really mattered. All that pain, all the laughter, all the racing into the wind on the back of a black mare named Gypsy, hair in your eyes, snow stinging your skin as it landed. Gone… Just gone.
Where the road was blocked, there's a farm house on a small hill. We didn't know the people who lived there, but had a waving relationship, acknowledging the proximity as people do. I'd never been on the property, never considered the lives within the same white clapboard walls that framed the houses my father'd land in when our nuclear family'd crack.
Creeping up to the backporch, there was dust and sunshine and brighter places on the walls where stoves and bookcases, refrigerators and whatever had stood for years had been. It was empty, but not quite still. The energy of the people had some residual charge.
The curtains, limp and pale from the years, were all that remained. Hung with love, left because window treatments must suit the windows. They were there, suspended in this physical reality with no reason to be.
It made me smile: some touch of the caring that had been here A deer cut from behind an equipment shack, startling me back to the moment, the busted front steps and the fact that soon this building, not a home to the people called in for the job, would be toppled.
Looking up, the sky was the color of Caribbean water. So clear, so vast, so turquoise...
I got in the car. Turned the ignition over. Took one long look, and marveled at how much easier it is to take out every wisp of physical evidence of lives invested than it is to wipe away scars that have grown unknown inside.
I didn't want to look over my shoulder, didn't wanna think about how ephemeral it all is. The futility of why does it matter is the ultimate head job. It matters because of the unseen marks we leave that make people more, lift them up, inspire truths and beauty… But it's easy to get lost in the ache.
Calling 4-1-1 to get the Request Line for the local country station, I knew just what I wanted to hear. I pushed the sunroof back as I waited, clicking the FM button in my car. They told me requests go to Independence, Ohio, but even before the call can connect, a circling guitar part rises from the speakers, a few stray piano notes fall like rain and fill that 8-year old Audi I can't give up.
It is sentimental, but it is more than that. “Better As A Memory” is in some ways an elegy and a benediction. It is a song about the way things look in the rear view mirror - sometimes appearing larger than in real life, but also softened by time, by yearning, by our desire to lessen the horror of what wasn't what we wanted it to be.
“I hang on like a sinners prayer… let go like a levee breaks,” Kenny Chesney barely exhales, trying to suspend the moment of recognition. “walk away as if I don't care, learn to shoulder my mistakes/ Built to fade like your favorite song, get reckless when there's no need/ Laugh as your stories ramble on, break my heart, but it won't bleed…”
It is obviously the song of a rambler, a man who can never quite be what the person they love deserves. But it's a song for anyone who couldn't cope with where they were, who were sure they weren't enough, who believed the joke was on them and the moment was always destined to evaporate into thin air.
“Never sure when the truth won't do,” the song continues tugging at the here and now. “Pretty good on a lonely night/ Move on the way a storm blows through, never stay but then again I might… Struggle sometimes to find the words, always sure until I doubt…”
Yeah, well, don't we all.
And sometimes we can even make a deal with the future: don't make us look and we won't look down. Put our hand on the wall, feel our way to tomorrow; don't ask any questions. Just keep moving on, moving on, moving on.
Until the day it all comes back, only we don't know just what it is. We stand there trembling, not sure which wys to turn. Nowhere to go, not able to run - and it becomes clear. You can't not deal. You have to believe. Whether it's a rock star who almost kinda coulda thirty years down the line… or horses that no one ever saw with their tails lifted high as they chased those pastures that are parking lots now.
Somewhere between those fence posts is the steadying to see what happened, to hold it close and let it cry itself out. You can hold it in forever, not know what is wrong, of course. Or you can face it down, look forever in the eye - and know as long as you're on this carousel, you don't have to ride it at your own risk, but rather with the clarity that heals.
“My only friends are pirates, it's just who I am…,” Kenny Chesney intones as I turn back towards Chagrin River Road, and its true. Here on the high seas of black top, big trees and sturdy homes with glossy shutters, there is the gateway to getting through. Whether I make it or not, depends on the memories I burn.
Midwest Midnights, Calcutta Auctions + A Gunfighter's Smile Beams Down