“I don't know if you heard about Gary,” said the local folk icon, sitting across the table from me in a tucked away downtown restaurant. There were two glasses of house red and a few hours before us… a few hours before his final gig of the year, a year that - for him - had been marked by a return to what makes him so exceptional as an artist.
I shook my head. I had come to Cleveland to celebrate my friend's new album Fly Away, to mark the pay-off of his risk, and to hopefully find some foothold in a world of my own recently torn apart. For those times when I do not know, home has always held the answers - especially to issues of dignity, honesty, humanity and the price paid to stay in.
Walking away is never something I've done easily. But I have. Sometimes there's no choice. For reasons that make no sense to anyone else. But in the songs of the folk singer, the hometown rock icon - as well as the scarred grey black top of Chagrin River Road - there are often answers, truth and stars to steer by.
“It looks like there's no brain activity,” he continued, falling quiet.
Our eyes met. There was nothing to be said. We both knew. Everything. What was the point to belabor the painful? Especially for somebody like Gary Wells, the flamboyant, buoyant brash bartender with the Boston accent and farflung reach.
Gary was some kind of roots music Puck, who could never figure out Emmylou was a single name… who knew the words to too many songs… who would pour an underage kid tequila in a tumbler, looking to all the world like tap water without the ice.
Or maybe it wasn't a lot of underage kids. But he used to do it for me… a girl on the lam from a high impact life, finding a refuge in the folds of the Midwestern night, sneaking into bars to be where the songs were.
Gary Well was a lot like that, too. Always in the bars where the good music was, or where the people who made it flocked. He knew the difference between pop, pap, crap and art - and he studied the people before him to figure where they stood on the continuum.
Burned too bright, too high, too loud. Always. Big talker, big thrust, not so much the clarity of execution. But if you liked the notion of story-spinning Black Irish, looking like a cross between a pirate, a Mohican and a walrus, he was your guy. Or maybe a black lab as a man of libations, tail wagging, collected intensity waiting to spring… always enthused about everything.
Like I said: nothing needed to be said. We both knew. Gary Wells wouldn't want to be mourned, he'd want us to laugh, to talk about music, to dream of where we could go, take it. If Gary's brain was a flatline, that meant - in many ways - he'd already gone. Left his mortal coil, barely breathing, waiting to release its burden. And in that, he would want people to celebrate.
And that's what we did. With frites fried in duck fat, coq au vin cooked in brioche, curry pot de crème - and raised glasses of red wine, toasting what it is, what's gone and what will be. What else can you do?
That night onstage, Alex Bevan played to 35 people. Played the kind of set he did in the glory days of the Coventry Street Fair, filigreed acoustic guitar lines embellishing songs about silver wings, girls named Carey and gunfighter's smiles.
He played it straight. He played it true. Not a revel yell “Skinny (Lil Boy from Cleveland, Ohio)” bar brawl kind of set, but something gentle, paying homage to what songs mean, why artists matter and the power of the craft of musicianship well honed. It was a rebuttal to a cheap Chinese sweatshop machined world - and it was grown in the pages of his life.
Telling the story of coming back from a function for his wife's family - her teenage son asleep in back, she dozing beside him - moved from the grace of love in broken places to the memory of a bit of bad news hitting him not far from where his van now passed. The Lafayette Hotel… Marietta, Ohio… on the banks of the Ohio River, where he got the call that a soul-friend, wild-child, force of nature and tempter of fate had been killed many years ago.
“I quietly sang this song for the next 5 minutes. Softly. To myself,” Bevan confessed with tears shining in his eyes. “I sang it for myself…”
Like the little matchgirl holding her flame aloft to keep the Blessed Virgin before her, Alex Bevan spun a diamond web from the simplest of images: “Here's a song from a bottle of whiskey, here's a song from a Holiday Inn/ Here's a song for everyone, who's ever watched the daylight creeping in… Let it come from the other side of morning, let it come from the other side of light…”
He didn't say whether Gary Wells was in that song this evening. Not quite dead, certainly not ever to return. But this night, I finally knew who the gunfighter is. I asked about neither, but I found a semantic marvel. Was “morning” actually “mourning”? Because this night, “light” sounded a lot like like “life..”
We all stare down barrels of guns. Some of us know it. Some of us don't. Not sure who suffers worse, but we all do… from doubt, or anger about what mighta been, frustration over the breaks that didn't come, remorse over opportunities blown, mistakes made.
It is the weight beyond the weight - and even the fools carry it, they just don't realize what weighs them down or the sideways moves they make trying to cope with what they don't see.
Gary Wells wasn't big on looking, more about charging. Head first. Full tilt. A manic toss, thrown down a steep range of stairs without the runners. Scraped, banged up, a couple scars for the sake of the story… and laughing, always laughing.
Consider the consequences later. Live now, large, loud. Reach for what you can take… If you miss the mark, maybe you tumble through nothing - or maybe you just reach again. He didn't really care. Gary Wells was living.
Living. In the cracks. Around the corners. Crazy wild stuff. Adventures had. Dashed. Miscast. Marveled over. There never seemed to be any fear with Gary, just a cockeyed sense that this time… this time, it was gonna be the one, the thing.
And what's amazing about him is… he had the same effect the last time I saw him as he did the first. You just stop… and you look. That hair. That moustache. Those eyes aquiver with too much thrust to be contained within skin.
Back in the day, the bartender in the denim shirt, maintaining his kingdom behind the upstairs bar at Peabody's - order in the court - as Deadly Earnest and Buckeye Bisquit, Mimi Hart, Charlie Wiener and Gaye Marshall churned out their singular brands of roots rock, leaning to the blues, to country, to comedy, to torch.
It was all open season, a mixture of covers by well loved bands and original songs that might never get beyond the 2-1-6. But Gary, pouring a little long and leaning over conspiratorially, took it all in - gave it all back over a series of local radio shows. Solid in his knowledge of being on the frontlines, knowing that he knew the peoplemaking the music… and in that, his robustness grew.
Not always in the right direction. Missteps came, got caught up, moved away from. Always 6 feet from the next trainwreck or disaster, yet somehow topsy turvying back and forth on that tight rope… no net, not much balance, tights metaphorically torn, and yet, he was always leaping for some trapeze already set into motion.
Gary was never afraid to jump. Or tumble.
I thought about that a lot, driving up and down the streets of my hometown. Or more out past my hometown, where the Chagrin River threaded some beautiful pastures, farms, parks. Hand out the window, holding onto the chill wind that kept sliding through my icicle fingers.
Jackson Browne's Late For The Sky was pouring out of the mosquito car's tinny speakers. An album that revolved around a death, and love and the potency of youth - as I understood it in my girlhood. Listening now, it was very much about who I was when I was young… “Fountains of sorrow, fountains of light/ You've known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight/ You've had to struggle, you've had to fight/ to keep understanding and compassion in sight/ You've had to hide sometimes, but now you're alright…”
There was an insight I'd never seen, an acceptance to the unthinkable.
I had come home to figure out how you can give your life for and over to something for over 30 years and feel almost nothing for it. When the coals go from glow to not quite cold, there is a different kind of chill… What little warmth is gone, and now the numbness begins penetrating your marrow.
All the things I'd felt so deeply, that I'd clung to, swung from, I just looked at them like strangers. That which had sustained me had now taken me all the way out the pier on a dark night, then crept off while I was looking at the stars. When I turned, I was alone - and there was no one to even ask “What happened?”
And it's not like they'd been faded or diminished over time. Alex Bevan had been a marvel. Focused. Playing as well as ever. Turning stories in films of picture postcards and feelings, drawing us together with a net of his singular life as a mirror of our own.
It wasn't the music… and it might not have even been me. Maybe the lessons and the losses. My father died with his book unwritten - 18 years of research that was too intricate, too dense for anyone to untangle, basically lost to the universe.
You could argue who really needs a definitive book about American amateur golf? And yet, it's no longer an issue. That piece of history, of writing is forever lost. Forever…
Forever is a long time.
Even longer than a life where the wrong values undermine realizing your dreams, exploring your real reasons for being. Just look at my Dad… Look, now, at Gary Wells.
Maybe the script doesn't look the way you imagined it. Maybe the treasons and betrayals are so profound you can't let go… the promises and perks so transfixing you can't quite walk away, Even when so much of it isn't all that, either.
There is a little section on Chagrin River Road, right before you get to Gates Mills where you can pull over. Just enough for two cars maybe to sit and watch the river run… This day, more the water trying to stay fluid beneath the ice cover that wanted to break up, sending large chunks to the drop in the waterline less than a mile away.
So many answers had been found here. My last engagement to end. Knowing a Junior League housewife future wasn't for me. Letting go of a friend who would certainly pull me under. Even just pause and exhale.
I had been raised on right and wrong. Work hard. Keep your word. Playground justice. Maintain your standards. Always help. Believe in people. Know that if you see the good in people, they often rise beyond what they think they're capable of - and surprise not just you, but them. Believe.
That was my problem. I'd lost the faith.
Somewhere on the road… on a red carpet… or a private jet… somewhere along the way, it had been bounced out of my pocket, and I didn't notice. Moving on momentum, heat, drama, the things we're all supposed to want. It was awesome, right up until it wasn't.
So I let go. But when you live your life based on centrifugal force, determination and a finger in the wind, it takes a while for the spinning to stop. My father died with his book unwritten. I had a novel that might never see the light of binding.
And I had lost my way. Even the things that bound me together were unraveling.
“Keep a fire burning in your eye/ Pay attention to the open sky/ You never know what might be coming down…” Jackson Browne intoned as I turned my car back towards the city, through the winding meander that turned to true suburbs. “I don't remember losing track of you/ You were always dancing in and out of view/ Must've thought you'd always be around...”
I had promised a friend I would go see Michael Stanley with them. Michael Stanley, local hero who wrote two of the best indictments of the business of music and the faithless way the promise of songs are bled out. “Today's for sale and it's all you can afford, buy your own admission the whole thing's got you bored,” he sang of the ennui and urgency on his second solo album, opening the truth up to follow with, “And the Lord uses the good ones, and the bad ones… use the Lord…”
It wasn't mocking, but there was unflinching truth. About the ones who hold on, because to let go would be to lose their hip ticket, their leverage, their access. It wasn't me, but man, I'd been ringside for an awful whole lot of that.
My stomach churned. Did I really wanna hear “Let's Get The Show On The Road”? Or “Midwest Midnight,” the other accusatory pin through the thorax of those who'd betray what the music should embody.
So many people would be renewed at the annual year end altar call in a city desperate for heroes. They come looking for someone to believe in in a world where the jobs were evaporating, the unemployment was running out and the better days were long, long gone.
I believed in the fire of the Midwest. The Rust Belt smelter blast that forged that notion of against all odds getting by. Even beaten down, they never were beaten. And now I couldn't seem to remember the way back home… at least not to that home in my heart.
As a knobby kneed girl with a 72 Mustang, I used to roll up and down Mayfield and Chagrin River Road, obsessed about what was in those songs. How some woman could so wholly possess a man as in “Spanish Nights,” the utter awakening of “Somewhere In The Night,” the chill urgency of the inevitable that was “Lover.”
… I wanted to have those skills, but I went to a girl's school. Plaid skirts, Knee socks. Monogrammed sweaters. I had moxie, but not the requisite slow burn mystery. It would vex me, but oh how I wanted to live in those songs, churned from the rich dirt, sweat and musk of where I grew up.
“Chasing the fame keeps 'em all in the game, but money's still the way they keep score,” Stanley snarled in the wake-up-slam “Midwest Midnight,” “and nobody told you that you would grow old, strung out like some avenue whore…”
This was not the song I'd signed up for. This was not the life I'd imagined. And yet, that's how the story goes. That's the world I inhabited.
Onstage, Stanley and the Resonators played “Let's Get the Show On The Road,” the meandering Album Rock opus that's all venom, momentum and exhaustion. On a screen behind him, footage played of the same song performed 35 years prior on “Don Kirschner's Rock Concert” - with a band that included Dan Fogelberg, David Sanborn, a plantation-hatted Joe Walsh.
Michael Stanley was supposed to be a rock star. He held every attendance record there was in Cleveland, Ohio. Sold out the basketball arena for two nights faster thanLed Zeppelin. Unless you're from Ohio, you've never heard of him.
Here he is, again, though, and so are the people. They come to believe in who they were and to cope with who they are. Tomorrow, it will be back to the bills and the problems, but right now, this is all they ever wanted… and they can forget and believe and fly on the best selves they ever had.
It was during “Winter,” a pensive song about the passage of time, what it takes and the awareness left in its wake. It's about acceptance and grace, recognizing what still is being much more potent than what's been lost. And in between the lines, there is the truth that shines: there is much to love and hold right where you are… all you have to do is hold it.
All you have to do is draw it close.
When I got home, I didn't go online. But when I got up, there was an email… from Alex… knowing me… knowing I'd wanna know… Gary Wells had past from this world around 10 o'clock, right about the time Michael Stanley was musing “It feels like winter's coming on.”
Of course, he had. Of course, he did. “Into the Mystic,” indeed.
For Gary, there was no reason to stay. He had other worlds to wander. It was time. He knew. He let go.
For the rest of us, certainly me, there is the challenge. What do you do when you lose the thread? How do you feel when you don't remember how that is? How do you remember that it just goes on and on - until it doesn't. Especially when every moment squandered is lost and gone.
Gary Wells was one of the icons of my childhood… a lighthouse blinking to where the music, the lost hours that mattered should be spent. He took the hill, shot the curl and never did less than hurl himself completely at whatever he was doing.
There is, no doubt, a time for rest, a place for stillness.
Right now, that may be. Watching Alex Bevan tell those stories… Michael Stanley still weaving those figure 8s with a guitar strapped low… It's obvious there are other measures, other stars to steer by.
Maybe everything they've sold us is bullshit, Gary Wells didn't think so - and he never, like Alex and to an extent Michael Stanley, never got to play the big room. Makes me wonder if maybe the big room - if you do it right - is actually in your heart.
19/20 December 2010