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.
Read More

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.
Read More

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.
Read More

Lou Reed: Sweet Jane, Venus in Furs, the Wild Side Demurred

Lou Reed was an agitator, a rebel, a contentious rocker who broke down barriers, blurred sexuality, celebrated nihilism and opened veins -- often in the name of capturing the downtown bete noir that was his realm. He may've passed away today, but his razor-sharp writing, thrusting lean and downtown romanticism shall always burn. That's what makes rock & roll so potent. He could jar you or charm you, and as a critic, I've experienced both.
Read More

Lost & Gone: Tim Hensley + George Jones, Lilly Pulitzer & Christopher Hanna Ripple On

Working On A Building
Tim Hensley, George Jones, Lilly Pulitzer, Christopher Hanna Ripple On…

            I’m at the Rhiga Royale, now called the London. Once upon the time, it was the high, but not most nosebleed expensive rock & roll hotel: a place where Billy Gibbons and I once passed the night talking about heaven only knows, where running a “Regis & Kathie Lee” performance with a young client, Nanci Griffith heard my laugh and ran up to hug me.

            Twenty years ago, Patty Loveless and I sat at the bar, talking about how MCA – the label that had just let her sign with Epic Nashville so she could have her shot – had released her husband, the legendary producer Emory Gordy, Jr. from the George Jones project, a seemingly quid pro quo for her being allowed to leave. We talked about how cruel and unfair the business is, the way it hurts people in the name of because we can, making the point or plain old just not having broad enough grace to do the right thing.
            Gordy had returned Jones to his “He Stopped Loving Her Today” prominence for the label. That didn’t seem to be the point.

            Twenty stories up, a young tenor singer who could bend notes like Uri Geller slept. The rhythm guitarist/harmony vocalist had spent a year in Ricky Skaggs’ band after leaving his home Cincinnati – the ultimate proving ground in roots-based traditional country. Now he was holding down the same role in Patty Loveless’ coveted band.

            Tim Hensley was always sort of “aw shucks” and Gomer Pile kinda guy, but you couldn’t not love him. And as a harmony singer, his voice could rise and arc with another --  singing like precision flying with so much power, nuance and heart, he made the combined voices that much more emotionally-gripping.

            George Jones died Friday. He’d lived every one of his 81 years.
            That was a punch to the stomach. Threw everyone who had a tie to old school Nashville, where Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang  put a credibility scare into the hearts of the old guard and let the legends rise again with a reverence and a vitality that mattered.

            Patty Loveless was part of that credibility scare. Ricky Skaggs was an exalted presence in it. George Jones, like Haggard and Willie, was a phoenix. Tim Hensley was a foot soldier, who helped reinforce the greatness with a gift you couldn’t deny.

 

            Morning television is the worst. The crew has to load in at 2 a.m. The band soundchecks at 5:15. The singer, whose vocal chords shouldn’t open up until 11 a.m. just by natural order, is usually steaming their throat and trying to warm their vocal chords without forcing it to sound halfway right just to wake-up America.

            Kenny Chesney’s been doing these shows going on a decade. Even sick, with a brutal stomach virus, he can be a trooper and get through it. It’s what you do. Those shows get booked months ahead; you don’t leave people in the lurch.
            Coming out of the door to his dressing room, he leaned over.

            “Tim Hensley just died,” he said somberly.

            A cavern opened between us. He’d been the one to text me about Jones four days before, when people still thought it was a hoax. Our eyes met. It was the sadness and loss, once again. Life, like the business, ain’t always fair.

            Not that we hadn’t been expecting it. There had been the scare a couple years earlier. Two stints in rehab. The bluegrass record -- named for John Prine’s Long Monday, which Chesney co-produced to capture the after-show jams Hensley would lead in countless bus compounds after his boss had rocked anywhere from 20-60,000 people – made in an attempt to realize his talent and inspire him to stay sober.

            There had been a scare in Key West earlier this year.

            It was inevitable.

            It didn’t matter. It’s like falling down a rabbit hole of regret, what could’ve been done, the disorientation of a life lost to drink and talent left fallow in the name of something so consuming.
            “Choices,” George Jones sang about the demons, the temptations, the decisions to be made along the way. The things that save you or kill you. Jones lived it, so did Tim Hensley. As Emmylou Harris wrote in her song “Raise The Dead”: “Hank Williams died when I was five/ He sang I’ll never get out of this world alive…”

            Indeed. Or yet. And how.

            George Jones, then Tim Hensley. Lilly Pulitzer twelve days ago.

            Bang! Bang! Bang! They always come in threes, or some such. Never mind my friend’s mother and son, two weeks apart, all within this same cycle. Christopher Hanna, 37, and his grandma: a 1, 2 punch for the father and the son.

            Just part of the natural order, they say. And it’s true. But lately between the speed of sound, the velocity of life and the relentlessness of the reaper, it’s like so many late October leaves swirling down, whirling around each other to where you can hardly tell them apart; yet in the patchwork tumble, you know. You just don’t have the time to process.

            You move, and move on.

            So I’m sitting in this hotel, where I stayed the night Sinead O’Connor got booed at the Bob Dylan Tribute concert at Madison Square Garden – and threw up all over Kris Kristofferson, her cortisol spiking from the focused hate hurling at her for tearing up the Pope’s picture on “Saturday Night Live” the week previous. It’s a place of profound emotional pile-driving, and I’m wondering about life. About decisions we make, reasons we do.

            A girl companion to the boys of road, I have heard stories and midwifed dreams since I was 19. Touched some pretty rare cloth in the process. I have spun lives and truths into gold and Grammys, taken niche music and given it broader places to exist, offered context to those who might be coughed up and left unseen by the side of the road. Met a lot of incredible people, known some pretty special moments, seen some very wondrous things.

            When I went to meet Kenny Chesney the first time, a meeting 18 months in the badgering by everyone who’d ever met the scrappy kid from East Tennessee, it was Tim Hensley, whose “Hawlleeee Gleason, what are you doin’ HERE?” that set me at ease.

            I wasn’t gonna sign Kenny Chesney, out touring with his friend Tim McGraw, He was too mainstream, I was too Rodney Crowell and Patty Loveless. It would never work, couldn’t work. Besides I “wasn’t their kind,” and I knew it.

            Yet, there was Tim, wide open and guileless as kindergardener. Standing on that stage with his black acoustic guitar, Howdy Doodie haircut and harmony voice that’d stop you like a freight train hitting a wall. He couldn’t believe his eyes, and at the same time, he completely made me feel at home.

            His unaffectedness did that to you. Where Tim went, that sense of down home followed. In the bus lots and dressing rooms of arenas, he’d have that acoustic guitar out, coaxing three- or four-part singing out of “Working On A Building,” “Fox On the Run,” some other bluegrass gem. The jet-engine echo of a stadium show still be ringing in the air, but Hensley’s organic roots would rise above, dangle there and people would just leap on.

            Even in the jaded world of big time show biz, big deals, big dollars, big Big BIG, you couldn’t resist that sweet-voiced authenticity. It had always been there. Right from those first moments, just perfect in the music and the moment and the innocence that gets lost.

            It’s almost like I can’t remember a time he wasn’t there -- somewhere -- with his swooping bangs, guitar-riding a little high.

            Ricky Skaggs, where I first met him as a college girl of 19 or 20, Tim was  just a little older, but completely holding his own. Fresh out of Cincinnati on one of the toughest bandstands there was, he glowed and laughed in the wash of the music.

            Smiling and bobbing his head when I walked into Patty Loveless dressing room on a big Hank Williams Junior/Doug Stone tour in the early 90s, there he was again. Patty laughed that I knew him, saying “Then you know he can sing!” looking on at the dark-haired, high foreheaded young man with equal parts pride in his talent, recognition of being from nowhere and delight at how unsophisticated he was.

            That was Tim Hensley. Always a smile, and a “hello,” and a sincere welcome. In the rush of all this, he always seemed genuinely happy to see everybody, always quick to take out a guitar and play, sing songs and coax others to join in. It was why he was such a part of a delight no matter where he was. He just wanted to make music.

            Or so it seemed. After all, how can you know what people don’t show you? The little details, the little tweaks you might not notice – until they’re an avalanche. Like it was with Tim Hensley, a bottomless pit of things he can’t remember, phones he didn’t pick up, doors he wouldn’t answer.

            Stacked up like cord wood, waiting for the pain to stop. But it never did. Whatever it was. It wasn’t like he told us. Just kept insisting he was okay, doin’ great, doin’ fine. Ole Tim, just hobbling along, looking for the next moment to crawl into.

            After almost passing from this world a few times, he finally did it. Fell down and didn’t get up. 3:15 in the morning, those lost nether-hours, down he went, straight into the stars and floated heavenward. “Working on a Building,” no more.

            Like the ghost of Keith Whitley, those wild-eyed tortured bluegrass boys see and know things we’ll never get. Some out-run’em, some find the Lord, some make peace, some give up and some die trying. Or try to die until they do.

            If Merle Haggard proclaimed “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down,” did it? Or was it just what he needed? Sitting here, it’s hard to say. I can’t even be angry at this sweet soul. Because there’s a point with this sort of thing where you can’t know, and even if you do, who’s to say?

            Beyond it hurts. Us now, for sure. But if what they needed was relief, maybe this ache is shouldering my brother’s burden. Missing them, so they can have peace. Because George Jones careened back and forth for years, grateful to make music, generous to a fault, cagey when he’d fall off the wagon.
            But he got to 81, left an indelible stamp. Loved as much as he was loved.

            He set a standard, and lived on his own terms. An inspiration, he was a nagging reminder about what potent singing ought to be. Few will touch that hem or have the vocal sparks to ignite songs that were poetry stretched over minor keys.
            Or have the fierce love Jones inspired in his wife Nancy. She kept it together, no matter what might come. Always seeking a way, another path in the journey. Making it work, keeping the music playing.

            Suddenly, gone. Like THAT! Another rhinestone off the Manuel suit of what high country was. Nothing can ever replace that, or get close. But it’s not like you can explain that passion to the people who weren’t there.

            And hurling across life, it’s not like you get to feel it, either.

            I’m sitting with my eyes closed on a plane. Time has passed, but the emotional inertia is the same. Trying not to think, trying not to let the crack in my heart split open. So far, it’s been okay, white knuckles, but holding in. Of course, it’s not just Jones and Tim, it’s Lilly and Christopher Hanna… a cavalcade of people who have touched my life, moved my heart, taught me their own emotional colors, people no one in my world even knows.

            There is no recognition, no nod of understanding.  The numbness so great it has its own weight and hurts in its lack of feeling. Gravitational vertigo, maybe; held down, yet feeling like you’re being sucked into the core.

            Christopher Hanna, the 37-year old son of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna, was a kid in a polo shirt who stood just past my waist when I met him in Denver. Bright face, gigantic brown eyes, black curly hair, he had more vitality than a puppy, more love and eager curiosity than a kid had a right to.

            Over the years, I would see him for holidays here and there. Coming to Nashville to see their Dad for Christmas, hitting “Edward Scissorhands” and Dalts after; talking taquitos and Tim Burton, life in Colorado and Salt Lake City, school and the basic realities of being a kid. The fiber of every tiny, shiny moment of too many memories that never register, but are precious for the jewels they are.

            Artistic to a fault, he was a cartoonist, art director, creative force. Christopher was always into something, always had some magical thing he could explain, some intriguing movie he’d seen, some anime that he’d describe. Happy to be alive, rubbing that essential joy about life off on you.

            You’d never see him do it. You’d just realize you were smiling when he was gone.

            And then he got sick. Cancer. Bad. Troops rallied. The best doctors were found. It was pushed back, seemed to be receding. But like so many stories, the “all-clear” turned into “we’ve found something else.”

            So it went, on and on. You’d get the reports. You’d fear asking, afraid showing interest might give it strength. But cancer doesn’t care about any of us, it only wants what it wants: to grow, even if it takes the person with them.

            Christopher, being Christopher still figured out how to glimmer through it all. Where most people would crumble or dampen, he somehow fell in love. Found a girl who was just as precious as he was, opened up his heart and created something exponential. The craziness of knowing time is possibly finite magnifying the pricelessness of what each of them contained inside.

            It was incredible to see, to watch. Which I did this Christmas at the house Jeff Hanna’s made with his wife Matraca Berg, a perfect storybook Christmas with a sparrow of Jeff’s white-haired mother Lee, lots of friends, children who were now having children – and Christopher and Brittany.

            Just watching them was like watching Bambi and Feline: so sweet with each other, gentle, yet consumed. Ahhh, we should all have that. And before Christopher, who looked so dreadfully thin, went to heaven, he did.

            But a boy like that – sweetness, creativity, smarts and light – would. Like a beacon, he attracted it, drew it to him with some gravity we couldn’t see. He made you pause to watch when no one was looking, just to drink in what we all so desire.

            When I hugged him, he was mostly bones jangling around. He still hugged like love itself, and pulled you close enough to know how cherished you were. We talked about “Edward Scissorhands,” how young he was, how much fun that Christmas had been. And he smiled. That smile.

            I kinda knew, even though I didn’t want to. I kinda felt it, even as I tried to shake it off.

            Lee, Jeff’s mother, went less than three weeks before Christopher. Most likely to make the way for her precious grandchild. Her mind had been fading, but her sense of humor remained. No one quite knew why she was still alive. Evidently, she knew when to go so she could be most helpful.

            That’s the thing about Moms and Grandmoms: they know. They do what’s best for their kids. So, Christopher had someone waiting – to take him where he needed to go, to soothe his brow, to make him laugh and understand this was just the beginning.

            I was in Cleveland when I got the news. Barely awake after a miserable red eye flight from California, clawing to consciousness, then understanding my fitful sleep, my unrest upon joining the day. Wind knocked out of me, suddenly where I needed to be didn’t matter.

            But what I needed, something, anything to make me accept this horrible, gutting news was right there when I got in the car. God is my dee jay, I’m fond of saying. How many times, tired and feeling futile, do I walk in a place and hear “Tiny Dancer,” reminding me that some of us who surrender to the circus sow miracles of appreciation and understanding just by being?

            “Comfort me, said she, with your conversation,” Lyle Lovett’s voice quietly intoned. Like a prayer, “The Ballad of the Snow Leopard & The Tanqueray Cowboy” poured out of the speakers, raising far deeper truths to serve as a compass to the shabby, out of time Tangiers where my childhood faith in music would play out at a show by an act held sacred in Northern Ohio, unheard of most everywhere else.

            But in the disorientation and the midday, David Rodriguez’s song continued to balm and calm the storm inside. “It’s funny how we hunger for some inspiration,” Lyle almost exhaled. “And all the things that money can not buy…”
            Lyle Lovett doesn’t whisper, more caresses my aching truth. “But I’m a poet, and I’m bound to walk the line/ Between the real and the sublime/ Give the muses back their own…”

            It had been a season of that. Standing in the spinning instant BLAM! of dead and gone.

            Lilly Pulitzer died the morning of the Academy of Country Music Awards. No time to feel, to think, to even understand. Just keep moving, let the velocity hold you in place – because there’s no time for the breakdown needed.

            Losing Lilly was a sucker punch. The grand dame of pink & green resortwear. Sporty and tropical, flirty and fun. I’d worn her clothes as a child, got to be her friend as a grown-up. She had complimented my shoes, when I didn’t realize who she was; laughed about it when we were properly introduced.

            Lilly of the open door, overgrown “jungle,” wild cats, thrown together dinner parties, children, grandchildren and those of us she was generous enough to pull into her orbit. “Sit next to me,” she would say, patting the place beside her, “and tell me stories about all those wild men you keep in line.”

            She didn’t care about country music, she cared about adventure, spirited beings, places she might not get to. She loved tales about Brooks & Dunn and James Bonamy, Patty Loveless and Lee Ann Womack, Asleep at the Wheel and Rodney Crowell without ever really knowing who any of them were. She liked the momentum, the glimpses people never saw… and the way stories spun.

            When it was time for her first book, somehow she couldn’t get to the line. Was it the writer? The notion? The context? The boonswoggled deal? I never knew. Just that a mutual friend named Binny Jolly showed up at Sunday mass, slid into the pew next to me and asked if I could help.

            “I don’t know,” I said honestly. But it was Lilly. I would try.

            What unfolded were two magical days. Pages read, memories shared, order re-ordered. There was a lot of laughter, a fair amount of being slack-jawed at the stories she told and a lot of wonder at the grace that sprinkled through the life of a young, brilliant society housewife in Florida trying to figure out a way to be relevant.

            She was school friends with Jackie Bouvier, giving her intimacy with President Kennedy’s Camelot. She was a well-bred sprite as society shifted, interjecting sexiness to frumpy country club clothing, independence and self-determination into the realm of “a woman’s place,” humor into worlds that were often dry and boring.

            That never changed. Even when she closed the company; even a triumvirate of young fashion business people re-opened it after creating a licensing agreement for her name. She was – and always will be – Lilly.

            But the thing about Lilly, beyond walking into a Palm Beach old guard outpost like Testas with her and seeing the heads all turn, was her incalculable ability to know what’s needed. During the difficult severing of my relationship with my mother, she sought me out in a quiet moment at a party at her house, and asked, “How are things with MahMA?”

            Trying to sidestep, to not appear anything but gracious and avoid the shame of the truth, I said something vague. She just took me in with a mixture of kindness, reality and compassion. Then said, “REALLY?” in a way to let me know I was busted.

            “No, it is bad… It had to be severed. If you want the truth.”
            “Oh, I do,” she offered. “I always want the truth. And honestly, Holly…”

            She paused, not so much for effect, but to make sure I heard her.
            “Some things are best over. I’ve heard some of it. I know it was done lightly. But it’s done. Don’t look back.”

            In that moment, my guilt melted. I wasn’t ungrateful, I was trapped in something untenable. Lilly -- who loved all, understood people’s varying realities and reasons – had reached out, knowing my struggle. She wanted to give me the sense of peace that would only come from someone seeing what had happened, and understanding.

            “Really?”

            “Absolutely.”

            And then she laughed, asked about freshening my drink.

            Isn’t that how the real blessings and benedictions fall?

            That, and the ones we lose. Even when we see it coming, we’re never ready.

            So, what are the lessons to be learned? What did these lives mean?

            While I’m waiting on the breakdown, what can I take from them to make me more engaged during my time here on the planet?

            All those lives were lived wide open: love, emotions, welcoming, present. Whatever there was, especially with Christopher and Lilly, they found the beauty, the gleam, the warmth, the love – and that is what they reached for. What they used to make that moment indelible. And they were generous, to a fault. Going where they didn’t need to, asking questions or making you feel invited, reaching out to bring you in.

            Even in the pinned against the momentum velocity of my last several weeks, the speed of life not allowing me to embrace what I needed to feel, there were moments that glittered like a diamond in the dust, unexpected and almost unbelievable in the right-when-it-was-needed of it all.

            Finding a friend amidst the tilt-a-whirl of marketing at the speed of now, determined to be as excellent as can be; in a world of good-enough-is-plenty, someone willing to sacrifice herself to get it right. Kindred spirits on the road are hard to find; ones who get the joke are rarer.

            There Sloan Scott was, ready to laugh, to roll her eyes, to embrace Elvis Costello’s truest coping manifesto “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused…” from the girl’s second best friend titled “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes.” Sloan likes shoes, good meals, better stories, challenges most people won’t see so they don’t have to deal with them.

            In the tumbledown of egos and details, she excels. She’s a marvel of making it work, a juggler of opposing demands and a thrill to watch in action.

            Deep in her lair of characters is a late 50s master of taste, a man who mixes spirits into grown up libations. That work has taken him ‘round the world, let him see the bulls in Pamplona, watch Cubans roll cigars and play the sweetest music, experience golf in the heart of Scotland – all while conjuring things that grown-ups will like to drink, turning the bottles upside down and their emotions inside out.

            Mike Booth has seen it all. Asks questions like “Have you ever been in love?” in the lost hours; weighing the answer for the real bottom. A pronouncement of “that is good” means it is true. As he talks of people’s souls, you know the man who blends the spirits sees well beneath the flesh.

            With the white hair brushed back, yet falling forward and the broad shoulders that make him seem a lumberjack hybrid of Hemingway and Guy Clark, it’s a fascinating way to explore the unseen regions of what life and man is made of. He reminds you things have intrinsic value, like “The Snow Leopard” invoked above.

            Even in the sadness you can’t feel, people like this rise up to show you you’re alive. The daze can’t really mute them, and they’re beacon to pull you towards the weightlessness of thawing out, the good cry that will set you free. But they’re also temples of light to remind you hope isn’t a cruel joke, that joy is waiting when you’re ready.

            In the end, all lives yield truths and sow flowers for our future. We must feel the pain to get to where we need to be. My friend Richard Young, who anchors the once-upon-a-time wildly successful Kentucky Headhunters, told me when my almost 18-year old cocker spaniel died: “It only hurts so bad because you loved so much. You take that ache and know how great the feeling was, and know, too, that that little yella dawg loved you more.”

            That has to give you heart: to know you could care so much. Knowing that, what else is possible? What more can you embrace? What else might you find? All you have to do is feel to heal, let it consume you, then spent from the aching float back to the top. All you gotta do is let it come.

            And so here I am, trying to let that happen. But knowing until it does, there’s all this to embrace, to cling to and linger upon. Seeing the diamonds in the dust, holding the memories close until the tears begin and the beauty rises.

            It is a beautiful life. Even the things we lose, we got to have. It’s everything that made Tim Hensley and George Jones, Christoper Hanna and Lilly Pulitzer Rousseau matter so very much to a girl who is mostly just a blur and somewhere else along the way. In the agony of the waiting to breakdown, it’s the realization that keeps me going… and it abides in ways that outlast however bad the tempest is going to be.

www.hollygleason.com

Robin Gibb: Bee Gees, Night Fevers, Disco Apocalypse & Gone

It started with those swinging paint cans… the jaunty walk… the crease so sharp you could shave with it in the double knit pants… and a world I had no idea about. It all crested on foamy waves of glistening three part harmony, the top so high only dogs could truly appreciate it.
“You can tell… by the way… I use my walk… I’m a ladies man… no time to talk…”

“Jive Talking… telling me lies…”

“Blamin’ it all… on… the nights… on Broadway…”
“Night fever… night feverrrrrr…”

“More than a woman… to…. meeeeeeeee…”

And the near-threat of the sinister enjoinder, “You should be… (swoop swoop) daaaa-annnncin’….”

It was everywhere. If the earlier singles had been treacly and challenging of my young patience – I also hated Barry Manilow and that damn dog Mandy with an unholy fervor – this was inescapable. It was in TIME magazine. Parents were trying to learn to “do tha hustle…,” wearing gold medallions dangling overt their scandalously open rayon shirts.

This was not the pink and green suburbs, this was bridge and tunnel.crowd Kids aspiring to another world, or possibly even eschewing it in the name of their own euphoric, tantric golden-footed high. Because like music, dancing releases endorphins in a mighty way.

“Night fever… night fee-vurrrrrr….”

They wore white satin, tight pants, had perfectly coiffed hair. They were like Cyclops or unicorns, mythical beasts – unlike the Daddies where I grew up. My friends were crazy for them. Especially crazy for Barry, who’d once again don the white satin for his big duet with Barbra Streisand on the even foamier “Guilty,” not to mention the glaringly pop fondant of Kenny’n’Dolly romping through a Gibbs-penned  “Islands in the Stream.”

Sheesh, they were disco. In a way even Donna Summer, who passed last week at the far too young age of 63, wasn’t. Somehow, they managed to exude nightclub fabulosity without any suggestion of the seamy demi-monde that seemed so intriguing about too much of disco’s glory.

They were squeaky clean, not Warholian. The parents loved them. Heck, the ethnic kids all around Cleveland, Ohio could be seen everywhere in the sans-a-belt slacks and the rayon shirts, gloriously unbuttoned to reveal virgin skin.

None of them were testosteronic enough to actually have chest hair, something the BeeGess seemed to have in glorious abundance, all blown dry and back-combed. They were Ken Dolls, sexually non-threatening, yet somehow manly and desirable.

It was easy to write them off. Until you had a friend who knew something about music listen with you. They’d point out the swooping harmonies… They’d talk about the percussive dynamics, the grooves that would scoop you up… The way the melodies were almost aerodynamically constructed.

“So, you’re telling me…,” the argument would begin, “that these guys are musically sound?”
“Fraid so,” would come the reply. “Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot more Beachboys in here than you want to believe… And just because it’s not so clean and perky, don’t think that the musicality is any the less.”

I said a bad word. It started with “F.”

I had to reconsider everything. Everything.

Whirling like a disco ball with colored lights pointed every which way, the music just kept churning, turning asunder and rushing towards those hooks that glide up, higher, higher, higher. Lyle Lovett may’ve written about “An Acceptable Level of Ecstasy,” but this was the aural equivalent of an amyl nitrate capsule busted beneath your nose.

Not that I did whippets or whipping cream canisters. But I knew the sketchy kids, and they loved the stuff. Talking in that same falsetto squeal, sucking on helium and acting like outlaws.

Maybe the technical achievement warranted extra consideration. I just couldn’t tell anyone… I mean, really?

And, truth be told, it was thrilling to see John Travolta burn down the dance floor, all liquid and serpentine, snap movements and quick spins. Nine years of modern dance, a lifetime of “dancing school” to properly ballrioom and an odd addiction to the jitterbug with my friend John Griener who could flip, roll and slide me any number of gravity-defying ways.

Flesh covered poetry, melted like caramel maybe. Better than figure skating… and somehow libido-inducing, even for a kid whose hormones hadn’t kicked in yet.

It was a time: those thick harmonies of “How Deep Is Your Love.” Pillowy or downy. Like jumping into silky clouds or whipped cream mountains that you’d never hit the bottom of. Narcotic in a super-sweet way.

Play that stuff late enough at the Ground Floor’s subterranean lounge, and the quiana dresses would swirl as the gropping and steam began to rise. You could only hope melt into another, the forensics suggested to a kid with dinner plate-sized eyes, sitting in a banquette taking it all in. And take it in I did.

So, this was the suburban jungle – and the Bee Gees, if not the guide, were certainly the game caller. Effective. Technically excellent. A veritable trampoline of hormones and want to, blown dry to perfectly feathered hair, an Italian horn or coke spoon dangling down where the buttons found the holes and the heels always flashing, the soles and hips moving snap snap snap.

To not know is frustrating, but somehow sweet.

Sitting here, thinking Robin Gibb had been the miracle we all needed to believe in, I wish I didn’t understand. I wish – with all the death that’s been tumbling since Steve Popovich checked out last spring – that this pinwheel of untimely deaths could… just… STOP.

62, 63 is young. Too young. And these are not deaths by misadventure. Too many good times coming home to roost; the eternal Russian roulette of high living, fast cars and the disco inferno of random coupling in a bathroom or balcony beyond the falling starlight of a refracted mirror ball.

No, this is cancer. The thing we’ve been trying to cure fo decades– but that is taking more, not fewer lives as chemo barns and dialysis centers become profit centers. It’s what no one wants to say…

And like my innocence, it lays slaughtered if undiscussed before me.

But we’re getting to the point where whistling by the graveyard isn’t working any more. It’s too hard to pretend all these hands aren’t getting folded, one after another, every week it seems. Heck, every day if you’re really paying attention.

Earl Scruggs so profound a passing, no one mourned Doug Dillard, who dieded last week. Or Robert Nix, the drummer from Atlanta Rhythm Section, who found his way to the next realm at 4 a.m. on Sunday; I only know from Georgia Satellite Dan Baird’s Facebook page, where a sucker-punched gap-toothed rocker posted from the precipice of his own disblief...

Dillard, obviously, because of both his stamp on Southern California country rock from the Eagles to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as being one of “Those Darlings” on “The Beverly Hillbillies” has a certain amount of roots traction, but what about a guy whose band’s greatest claim to fame may be turning the turntable from 33 1/3 RPMs to 45 RPMs when playing the single “Imaginary Lover” yielded a performance that was oddly similar to Stevie Nicks during Fleetwood Mac’s witchiest success?

They are falling like dominos. It’s getting to where every day you expect to hear about the next one. You won’t know why, or how… Just that we’re hemorrhaging these artists, these forces of music back when music really, really meant something.

Even the stuff you didn’t really like: it stamped you in ways that defined you.

Each one who passes, like rhinestones on a Nudie Suit or sequins on a disco tube top: enough go and you feel moth-eaten, shabby, bare. More like a welfare motel than a place like the Chelsea once was. Not squalid chic, just broke down like a hooker who’s turned too many tricks and can’t remember the Johns names any more.

“Baby, right/” you say, too numb to even engage, too disoriented for anything more than getting through it.

Worst part is, I never got jaded. Some hit me harder than others, but they all gut me in different ways. These deaths all tell me things about the passing of time, bony fingers tugging at my wrist, papery whispers echoing in my ear about inevitability.

Wasn’t it all supposed to be gay and fey and shining? A miracle of tempos, white people finding the beat, tossing their Well Balsom’ed manes as the blocks of dance floor light up beneath their feet.

Isn’t that how I remembered it? Isn’t that how it was? So how does it all end like this?

Ronnie Dunn won the CMA Song of the Year for a rafter-clearing gospel ballad called “Believe,” It contains the lines: “I can’t quote the book, the chapter or the verse/
But you can’t tell me it all ends… with a slow ride in a hearse…”

It’s hard to believe these days. What to think, heck what to know.

Everything you ever thought is shifting. Even as the rhythms rise up, wave after wave of harmonies breaking all around you, the memories flooding back.

It’s the end of another day, another star has twinkled that last time, surged bright than black. There’s a void where the light once shone, and my eyes sting from the tears and the squinting.

This is more than vulnerable, teetering here on the abyss of gone, gone and more gone.  What was once an object of parental torture, watching adults do things incredibly embarrassing, while telling you “hey, I’m hip…” That was agonizing and laughable. Ironically, now that I’ve attained the age of reason and knowing, it’s just agonizing – and I’m not, as Todd Rundgren sang, sure what to feel.

I can put on my disco slippers, slide into the night, turn a couple New York Hustle steps, raise a glass of champagne and think about “Auntie Mame.” She the lose-it-all-and-laugh broad who declared, “Life is a banquet, and most of you sonspfbitches are starving.”

Yeah, maybe that’s the post-disco-decadence-apocalypse battle cry.

Live now. Live deep. Live real. Live out loud.

Take it all in. Taste and savor. Touch and exult in the texture of skin, salt, loss, velvet, satin, burlap, canvas, but especially love.

I find myself – a person chronically closing phone calls with “I love you” anyway – making sure people really know. Because we don’t know. Anything more than right now, anything more than here we are. Maybe that’s enough, maybe that’s all there is.

Maybe we should just throw our hands in the air, and enjoy the ride. After all, there’s no money back and it is what we – like Robin Gibb – make it.

On The Radio: Donna Summer's Last Dance... & Gone

In that flood of ebony hair, there was always that one gardenia. Floating on top of the satiny waves of almost-porn star mane, it spoke to things past, the moment of ripeness and the perfume that intoxicates. It was almost the same way with her music…

Only I was too young to know. I was just marking time on the way to another day at the Laurel School for Girls.

My school was too small for buses. We had school cars. Or rather station wagons, in these frosted off shades of green; the logo in white on the driver’s door. Announcing that we were the girls who went to the school where smart, athletic girls existed beyond the world of normal kids going to regular schools.

They’d pack us in like sardines: upper schoolers who didn’t drive, middle schoolers stuck in between and the “littles,” as underformers were known, who didn’t have a clue, but were so excited to be riding with the big kids.

Some years, I was stuck on “the route.” Some years, my parents got me to school.

Some years, the radio crackled with interesting music, things that just captured my ear and seized my nerve-endings. Some years, it was stuff I didn’t understand. Like “Love To Love You, Baby.” I didn’t understand it… at all.

There I was in a dark green and blue plaid jumper, knee socks, Hanolds white blouse, hyper-listening to… WHAT? What was THAT? Why was she moaning? It sounded like pain. It sounded like slow agony. Worse than a stomach ache. And that broken-voiced confession, all ragged and raw, where she wrung out those attenuated “luhhhved ta luhv yuuuuuu, bayyyyybeeeeee…”

That was love? I didn’t feel like that about Stitches, the Cocker Spaniel.

And still I listened, transfixed, trying to understand, to make sense of this twisted writhing bit of synthetic churning. For surely something was going on. I didn’t quite know who to ask, but I did notice the gap between the tittering amongst themselves upper school girls who knew things, and the obvious discomfort of the middle schooler seated next to “Wolfie,” the hirsute 20-something janitor charged with transporting this carload of all-girl school girls.

The origins of my life with “the big dictionary,” the one on the platform that required me to get on a step stool or small ladder to view it, was always random. An Evel Knievel story in TIME about his Snake River jump and the word “fellatio”… a dinner table discussion about a porno motel a few suburbs over and the word :kinky,” which was unsuitably defined… and now this travesty of AM radio and the word “orgasmic.”

Even after pulling the ladder over and thumbing through the pages, I’m not sure the definition of the adjective or proper noun clarified much. Furrowing my brow, I debated asking the librarian; but looking at Mrs Jennings with her severe pixie haircut and heathered Shetland wool sweater, I decided it was probably a trip to Miss Frost’s office in the making. I resigned myself to living with the unknowable.

Donna Summer would return, of course. Over and over. Always with that beating of wings, locusts rising fleshy beat that made her disco’s most ravishing siren. If I didn’t quite understand the pheromonal throb of “I Feel Love” and “Last Dance,” I got that she was really, really pretty, wore slinky dresses and could flat out sing. Her voice was strong silk, complete desire – for what I didn’t know – and liquid fire.

I hated the music; I loved her.

I also grew up a little bit, felt that knot in my stomach and the way my mouth got dry, but my white cotton panties damp when certain boys would pull me close in the later, humid hours in some all-boys school cafeteria. Barely moving, barely turning, swaying to “Dream On” or “Stairway to Heaven.” It wasn’t a uniform response, but when it hit…

That realization hit about the same time as Bad Girls, the colossus concept record that was four sides (!) and followed the Cinderella notion of Once Upon A Time. It was epic. It was pulsating, but with a force beyond the mirror ball. Yes, it was disco, but it rocked. Rocked hard. The guitars meant business in a way dance records never seemed to – and the synthesizers were eviscerating, blades and shafts of sound that cut right into you.

And… it was about… HOOKERS!

Ladies of the night Street walkers. Squalid objects of paid for pleasure.

I was riveted.

There in Glencoe, Illinois, where Steve Dahl was jihading his “Disco Sucks” nation to steamroll the records at Comiskey Park, I confessed in yet another station wagon how brilliant I thought Bad Girls was. As Summer and a chorus of back-up singer/trollops intoned,“BeepBeep! Honk! Toottoot!,” one of many cousins told me I was stupid; his friend added, “That sucks…”

I assured them they were wrong. I’m not sure what Blair Tinkle does now, but Tripp is a realtor in Naples, Florida. He owns a Golden Retriever, who exudes the same pliant worship Summer did on the Hot Summer Nights album cover.

And I… armed for bear with “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All The Lights,” “Love Will Always Find You” and the ever-aching “On The Radio” had both the on-ramp to Miami’s gay clubs in the last days before AIDS made its somewhat confusing entrance – and a somewhat fascinating demi-field guide to the sex workers I’d find in the cocktail lounges of old school grand hotels like the Fountainbleu and the Diplomat. Those shabby/grand palaces of much rococo furniture, faux gilded touches and a bottomless supply of random and randy conventioneers wandering the tundra, looking for someone to make the night a little warmer.

The prostitutes were human to me because of Bad Girls. They were a fascinating flock of pros, who knew how to turn a trick, work a hustle and rarely lose their sense of humor doing it. When Summer later – comeback #3, if you kept score – issued the uberEverywoman anthem “She Works Hard for the Money,” I thought of every tired late-20s/30-something in too high heels and a push-up bra wondering if that swollen ankled fez wearer might “need some company?”

Still when the working girls killed time, they made for fascinating conversation. All the stories, faces, places they’d seen. World-weary, wearier than me – and I’d seen plenty. They gave me a pragmaticism that bottomlined life with dignity and temerity, not just a suck the last dollar from the wallet sangfroid.

Even more exciting were the gay discos and night clubs! The Copa, X, warehouses with flashing lights and mirrored walls, everyone fabulously turned out, churning bodies on the dance floor, undulating and shaking and stepping in ways that only made temperatures and heartbeats rise. I knew Donna Summer; I could fake the rest til I figured it out.

So many amazing near faceless artists who no one seemed to know. The System. Jenni Burton. This chicano or black girl named Madonna. Prince. Sylvester, Three Degrees, Candi Staton and the androgynous queen Grace Jones. It was another world.

  I was transfixed by the glittering, pulsating (sur)reality. Like Dorothy over the rainbow, or Alice down the rabbit hole, it made no sense and completely enthralled a Midwestern kid who’d grown up in corduroys, a ponytail and buttondown shirts.

Walk into a ladies room and there’s be two full grown men sprawled on the console, talking about mascara and aural/oral pleasure. Step back to confirm the triangle with the legs, walk in to their utter amusement:

“Girl,” they chided/consoled, “you ain’t got nothing that we want.”

If only the same could be said for me. I wanted their glamour, their romping free-spiritedness, even their slightly bitchy panache. They were out and doing as they pleased, finding pleasure where they most wanted it and celebrating with a euphoria that was no doubt fueled by substances I didn’t realize were being passed.

In my quasi-awareness and utter-consumption, I began a double life: writing about country stars for The Miami Herald, crawling the gay clubs for The Weekly News though I was really neither. Showing up at the Hollywood Sportatorium, a horrible sounding building in the middle of nowhere in polka dot stilettos, pedal pushers and a strand of rhinestone dangling from my ears to see progressive hard country star John Anderson confused my father. I knew better than to try to explain; though the drummer seemed to be drawn by the sparkle.

In Donna Summer’s world, everyone belonged. Not quite an island of broken toys, but certainly a place that celebrated who – and what – people actually are. Not just acceptance, but exultance. Let your freak flag fly, let your light shine.

After the serious disco of Casablanca,  there was the more meaty time on Mercury, where the music was more muscular, more rock-leaning. Beyond the throttling “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger),” there was “Protection,” written by Bruce Springsteen – where her voice more than held up to the load. She was a fearless vocalist, columns of notes impaling you as they flew almost assaultively by.

And then came the rockpop of her time on Geffen years and post-battle Polygram clean up, slightly experimental, often pushing the edges of what could get on the radio. Beyond “Works Hard For The Money,” there was the reggae “Unconditional Love,” the classic soul-pop of “There Goes My Baby” and the post-50s synthed up Dion gone dance “The Wanderer,”the noir jazz of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” even the elegant AC of Brenda Russell’s “Dinner with Gershwin.”

She started weaving in some of her strong Christian faith. Things like “I Believe In Jesus” would randomly grace her records. She became more convicted in her interviews, witnessing to her beliefs and even renouncing some of the hedonism she’d been a most glorious soundtrack for.

Donna Summer, the willowy vocal flamethrower discovered in Germany by producer  extraordinaire Giorgio Moroder, came to realize how much life was beyond the dance floor, the concert hall, the outdoor amphitheatre. She of the tumbling ebony locks, punctuated with that one perfect gardenia, an homage to Billie Holiday and every bodice-ripping heroine of a certain era, saw that there was something else – and she decided to walk the line between secular and salvation, still finding the sweet spot in a pop song, but tempering with a whole other kind fo soul music.

Chaka Khan might’ve been earthier, Aretha a generation before, but Donna Summer of the Courvoisier tone and pole vaulting range had her finger on the pulse of America. She could dead-eye radio, and she did. Over and over again.

And then she stepped back for a bit. Moved to Nashville with husband guitarist/songwriter Bruce Sudano. Came out when it made sense, sang hard, set the night on fire and returned to her home. She was difficult – if that meant wanting things to be right. She was a Bible-thumper – if that meant sharing her truth.

Still glam, still gorgeous, still fascinating to watch n a crowded restaurant, she was regal. But wuth a kid’s smile and laugh that was equal parts homegirl, righteous sister and world traveler.

Asking around today, nobody in town seemed to know she was sick. She didn’t want to live like she was dying, she wanted to die like she was wildly, vitally alive.

The last time I saw her was just over a year ago. At a funeral for a young man who took a turn too fast, and that was that. So many people turned out, the church overflowed, the downstairs was opened up with a video feed and still people kept tumbling onto the grounds.

Summer knew the family, loved the brio of the patriarch who’d lost his only child and the mama who was every bit of what welcoming should be. After John Prine sang and Keb Mo did, too… after a few of the now gone teenager’s friends read the posts on his Facebook page from people finding out he’d passed on, Donna Summer got up and sang.

She sang with her whole being, her whole heart, her whole soul. It was powerful, almost paralyzing in the force of faith that she brought to this wrotten occasion. Just her voice, and that tiny church 48 miles outside of Nashville. Just the tone alone stunned you to where the song didn’t even matter.

This was a song of faith… faith in the worst possible moments… faith that would bring you through… even if you didn’t understand a single world she sang, you could feel the battering power of what she believed knocking back the pain, the ache, the confusion.

When Donna Summer sang that hymn, that was all there was.

“Love To Love You Baby” was 16 minutes and 51 seconds of utter grown-up glory. When I finally figured it out, I smirked too. Laughed at how innocent I was, and how much I loved what I came to understand was the grounding of that performance. What was murky became glorious; what vexed me made me marvel at how all-out it was.

But in a country church on a sad, sad day, she gave up an even greater glory. Head tilted back, tears in her eyes, she sang for a 17-year old adopted boy, the parents who loved him, the friends who were one with him and everyone who lost a different kind of innocence that day.

Donna Summer was born to sing, to exhort us to deeper place of faith and surrender. In the letting go – of rage or torque, pain or want – we could be born again. We could find that higher meaning, the passionate arrival.

Somewhere in the stars tonight, she’s shining. Looking down on us, gardenia behind her ear, sparkling like she did and singing some sweet song that’ll help us all make sense of another constellation’s worth of grace and music gone.

17 May 2012

When I Get My Rewards: Godspeed, Dick Clark + Levon Helm

 

I was driving when I got the text. Three words: “Dick Clark's passed.”

Trouble with the road is you gotta keep moving, from scouting a location to a drive-by lunch and straight down Carnegie to Prospect to an industrial parking lot, up a ramp, into a black-out curtained cavern where a young band was setting levels and getting ready to greet their fans.

Hot Chelle Rae are kids. Barely a quarter century the oldest ones. Power pop trio with a scaffold-soaring singer. Wasn't even sure they'd understand - even if they all have family in the business, cause, well, it'd been a long time since “Bandstand.”

Professional always, I drove it down. Tried not to think about ithe tear inside Ask the questions I was sent to ask. Watch the show. Draw the conclusion. Let it ride, Let it roll. And I did. I always do.

Jamie Follese, the youngest - who four years on the road has just turned 20, is the one I told. Wide eyes with hair falling into them, he managed a “Wow.” Then he showed just how long Dick Clark's fingers were even after the stroke that slowed him down.

“I can't believe we did his last Rockin' New Year's Eve…” he marveled.
Yeah, exactly.

I'd been in the studio when I got the news Levon Helm had turned for the worst. With a folk singer, my first idol, a sketcher of humanity, mortality and the wonder that keeps us ascending from the sludge and mud.

We had a song that wasn't coming together. “A Way To Make It There” considers the tides that pull us under and gentle breezes that push us on. Taut, driving, yet somehow encouraging, too, it was a song about people lost - and found.

I told Alex Bevan about the word that Levon wasn't long for this world, that they were asking for prayers and love and good thoughts. Then I sat down on my folding chair near the mic set-up and smiled a tired, fading smile. It had been a long three days. But draining though it was, our journey wasn't that.
“I never met him,” Alex said. “But oh, his music…”
His music, indeed.
Their music, really.

I said a rosary while my friend got that elusive performance. I was glad he could find the grace in such sad news. Levon would've liked to think he was woven into someone else's song that way. 
And then I was gone. Prayers and pensive, but moving again.

Until the text. The quick emails to everyone I knew who knew Dick Clark well, including one of his sons, who's been one of my best sources of clarity for years. Losses that are public are even more painful in private; I've been watching survivors cope for years.

It's like that Danny Flowers song “Before Believing” - and the lines “what if pieces of the sky were falling/ In your neighbor's yard, but not on you?”

There wasn't time to stop and think, to write as I do. Drive, yes. Sleep, some; the sleep of the deathly exhausted. Then rise and drive and think and talk to God about the meaning of it all.

Dick Clark, for many of us kids in the Midwest, was the gateway to everything we cared about. Bands we loved, artists we needed to know. They all played his show - Madonna, Prince, the BeachBoys when they were babies, Michael Jackson with (and without) the Jackson 5, James Brown, Van Morrison, Men Without Hats, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, rem, Dion, the GoGos, Rufus with Chaka Khan, Barry Manilow, War. Black, white and Latino, the guy who got his start in Philadelphia as a disc jockey by hosting a local tv station's dance party not only made no distinctions, he welcomed all music. Allmusic. Heck, he even helped get hillbilly singers on tv - back when it was a cousin'r'hog-humpin' oeuvre by helping the Academy of Country Music get their West Coast-recognizing awards show on network television.

Clark realized what the kids knew - and you could argue he rode it to a behemoth television empire, or you could say “Someone got it, and gave it back.”

All I know is he had an acute sense of what was going on around him. Things you'd never think he'd notice - he was Dick Clark, after all - registered in ways you'd be shocked to realize.

I'd been shuttling or hanging around country stars doing “The American Music Awards” and “Academy of Country Music Awards” for several years… Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, the Kentucky Headhunters, Rodney Crowell… 

I'd always smile and say “Hello” as my internal dialogue shrieked “Dick Clark!” and I'd think about all those Saturday mornings, watching the teens and 20somethings dance to all the musicians I dreamed of. An onramp to a magical world, a seeming comrade of the ones I loved…

One day, he called me by my name. Just as if he did it every day. I didn't fall over; but what did you say? Right. I went with nothing. A stupid smile, a nod. 

Years later, standing at the production table with Brooks & Dunn in tow, I started explaining the interview flow to the full grown men with the hardcore post modern honky tonk attack. Dick Clark studied me. I could feel him. I was worried I looked bossy.

“Look at her,” he said off-handedly. “They watch her. They listen. They follow her every word. It's amazing.”
A year or two later, I almost closed my business. Somehow Dick Clark heard. Someone who worked for him called me on my cell. “He says he's never seen anyone handle famous people the way you do,” was the open.
I was speechless. “Dick… Clark… said that?”

The person and I talked for a while: what he saw, what he respected. They then told me they agreed with the tv scion. Joe's Garage stayed open.

Levon Helm was the same way, only completely different. Open to everything, aware of what was going on. Very keyed into the energy and the humanity around him.

But Dick Clark was a silk necktie, Levon Helm hopsack britches. Clark was Vegas slickness, studio polish; Helm was funky, ragged, raw and the greasiest groove you could possibly find. One was “the world's oldest teenager,” the other was a wicked drummer with a bottomless pocket who sounded older than hollers even when they were still the Nighhawks, long before Music From Big Pink hit the streets.

They were both enthused about music, the people who made it. One celebrated by finding ways to put it on television - and long before most people today remember, doing “Cavalcade of Stars” package tours and taking the music to the fans. The other could be found doing his celebrated Rambles in his barn in Woodstock, NY - bringing together an eclectic group of roots musicians to jam and remember the notion of coming together in song, the same way he and The Band had inspired a somewhat flagging Bob Dylan and helped ignite his Rolling Thunder Review.

Levon Helm, whose last album was called Poor Dirt Farmer, was about the gritty and the real, the dignity between the cracks and the honor of living with integrity. He was a sweet soul, an elegant gentleman, a smile that lit up buildings and a credit to his Arkansas roots - a place where they grow a little crooked and wild, with a sense of gallantry that's anything but pompous.

No, he made you yearn for a hero in denim, who knew how to find the howl and the soul, to scratch at the dirt and the moon, to craft desirability from the hard scrabble and romance from a woman's small details.

Levon… Helm…. That voice, wide open, almost braying. Those hands, cracking and rolling over those drum heads and cymbals with a euphoria that swept you up, kept time from breaking and making it all so right now.

The Band was one of those acts: essential and the essence of what it meant to be rock & roll while keeping it organic. It's no wonder Keith Richards loved him, no doubt that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band summoned Helm for the reconvening of the tribes, when they bridged the old school Nashville to the modern blurrers on the Grammy-winning Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2.

I watched Helm be as gracious and charming as any human being's ever been at Scruggs Sound just below Nashville. The Dirt Band and he working on a way gospel “When I Get My Reward,” scraping soil and sky and making us feel like salvation was right there for the taking.

He had that way about him. It ran through his daughter Amy's band Ollabelle, too. And when Levon got the cancer that almost killed him several years ago, it was the music that saved him, that led him to other more heartening places. 
His joy was always palpable, his growl and time impeccable witnesses to whatever he needed to convey. His Rambles at the Ryman were lovefests: Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, whomever was in town, grappling to be a part of Levon's earthly angel band. Indeed, even the random dog or two would trot onstage or lay down by the man with the wickedly flawless timing.

You couldn't not feel good in his presence, and you wouldn't feel anything less than euphoric hearing the music he conjured. It was like he was blessed, and so were we to know… who he was, what he did and the way he carried himself.
How they carried themselves, Dick Clark, Levon Helm both, was a lot of it. They brought an infectious enthusiasm for what they beheld. They made people feel welcome. In a world of big egos, crazy notions, utter indulgence, they never lost the thread - never lost the sense that it was the music that was made and the fans who loved it who mattered.

I woke up in another town, still exhausted from my run up 71 north to Cleveland for the Rock Hall Induction dinner - and a night that went on and on and on. It was a celebration of how music sets you free, rebels against the inertia and revels in the intensity of being alive.

In spite of the melodrama generated by Axl Rose, Guns N Roses deported themselves as a true relic of the electric kineticism and insurrection of rough rock & roll, the Beastie Boys brought the same pushback via loud, progressive rap and the Red Hot Chili Peppers wadded up rock's slam and grafted it to the most industrial strength funk one could imagine. This night, they all throbbed and threw down. Breath-taking stuff.

Even the Small Faces/Faces aging innocence was charming. Though Rod Stewart couldn't attend due to illness, Ron Wood wore a tiny shiny mod-feeling suit, Ian McLagen in a Technicolor whirl of a shirt and Kenney Jones in bang-about street clothes - and they reminded the local fat cats, the industry standards what the 6000 people in the balcony already knew: whether it's the winsome yearning of “Ooooh La La” with its sweet chorus of “I wish I knew then what I know now…” and the raw sex of the bandy “Stay With Me,” rock is straight stuff jammed directly into one's veins.

There were other acts, too. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill's induction of Freddy King was jubilant, drawing you in, then dropping the groove for an incredible “Goin' Down.” Carole King's induction of Don Kirshner made the business more than a necessary evil - and showed the way loving the music from the business side can advocate creativity in broader realms, while Bette Midler mainlined her own fandom of progressive singer/soulwriter Laura Nyro for an induction that stilled the balcony out of recognition and reverence for the way music touches us.

On the ride up to my hometown, I'd spent an hour on the phone with a true believer. His brother's pushing 50, but he still rocks, still has a band, is still biting the dream. The name alone tells you everything: the Mojo Gurus. Hardcore, snarling rock & roll, blazing guitars and a cloud of dust. Is it sardonic or stupid? Swaggering or snarling? 

At the end of the day, they're mainlining the New York Dolls flash, the Stones at their roguest, a little Skynyrd, a dash of Ian Hunter, maybe a touch of the Faces, a bit of the same things the Black Crowes whirl and churn. Will it happen for this little band that almost kinda coulda a few times? Hearing the yowl of singer Kevin Steele, you get the sense it doesn't completely matter; that's not what he's singing for.

No, it's deliverance. It's the sacred space where you can let the whip come down, the truth rise, the thrill of being in the whip's crack - or as Springsteen exhorts, “It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.”

And it's true. It does. Music is the great soother, inciter, inspirer. To listen is to understand all the things that elude us in the conventional realm. It sows clarity, compassion, resolve, courage, occasionally lust and often romance. And that love is the being in love with life, not even a member of the opposite sex.

Moving too fast, though, you don't get to put things into perspective. You only get to keep dancing as fast as you can, hoping you don't fly off the flat and end up with your head or life cracked wide open.

Got home just now, right on the cusp of rush hour. My phone rang. It was a friend who knew I was driving, figured they'd let me get home (knowing I rarely radio or internet surf when I'm truly covering the miles)… 

“You know he's gone,” they said gently as they could.

I didn't have to ask. I knew. I felt the energy drain from my body, felt all the momentum that had been pinning my exhaustion to a wall far from where I was standing fall away.

“Oh,” I said. What do you say? Especially when the man who wrestled New Year's Eve from Guy Lombardo's Big Band had exited the day before. 

Even when you know, you're never ready. So there I was, speechless in the kitchen, knee deep in book bags and backpacks. I didn't know what to do, so I managed a “thanks,” heard what I thought was, “I didn't want you to read it on the inter…” and hung up.

Then the tears started. Tears for Dick Clark. Tears for Levon Helm. Tears for who I was so long ago, when all the innocence those men embodied were twisted up with the thrill of music that made my pulse race.

It wasn't about knowing them or not, about the end of their creativity. It was more about two more icons off the chain of people who believed in what the music could do. It was about losing a piece of me that I'd invested in them… invested long, long ago.

Because once you know, you can't not know; but you can climb into a song and remember. It's palpable. It's everything you'd be if you were still innocent.

But to even be able to remember from the inside out, well, that's what music's for. It's the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame when they get it… my first idol staying with his filigreed songs until the quietest truths emerge… some band in Tampa playing it flagrant and loud…

It's why Dick Clark was able to keep America's kids engaged, create “The American Music Awards” and “Rockin' New Years Ever,” to remain a touchstone to punks and funks and rockers, poppers, rappers and everyone else. 

It's why Levon Helm's solid, crisp beats still bust up every wall and resistance people might have, the voice equal parts Spanish moss, cracked red dirt and sweat that renders eloquent shabby details and heroic normal engagements.

It's why music matters - and these men stand out. We are more for what they gave us. They are immortal for the mark they've left on so many hearts. But especially, they are inspiring for how they embraced the music without limits - and to live and love like that is everything. All you have to do is really listen.

21 April 2012

www.hollygleason

 

Earl Scruggs Claw Hammers, Hippie Kids + A Grace Beyond the Moment

I’ll never look at the Waffle House the same way. The one out by the
Assault & Battery Lane exit, 65 South out of Nashville, called Harding Place
before the name change.
It’s actually on Sidco Drive, a parallel runner that’s lower industrial strip
malls. There’s a Cracker Barrel for the more traditional Christian-types.
Then there’s our Waffle House, like an Island of Broken Toys for college
kids trying, sobering up from a benders, gay kids after whippets and
dancing, old Nashville remembering and the occasional country star.
Everybody sits tucked away in formica veneer booths or at the counter on
swivel stools, waiting on their Scattered, Smothered & Covered. Even him.
See, that’s the thing about Earl Scruggs, bluegrass royalty, generational
bridge, iconic artist and musical trailblazer, he was always at home with theSave & Close
slightly off-kilter.
You’d see him there. A lot. Especially after his lovely wife/manager/deal
squeezing wife Louise passed on. Or at first, you wouldn’t see him. He’d
just be. Maybe you’d go to pay your check, or else you’d notice how neat
and pressed his denim pants seemed.
Wouldn’t think much about the calm man sitting over his plate of eggs. Until you looked a little closer. Then WHAM! One of those only in Nashville moments: “Crap! That’s Early Scruggs – “ would exclaim the voice in your head.
Mostly people didn’t bother him much. Might stop and say a few words.
You didn’t bother stars at he Waffle House; you sure weren’t gonna pile up
on a legend trying to drink his coffee in the not so early morning hours.
I remember the first time. Sucked in by the demin pants. “Ahhh, what a nice
looking older gentleman,” I thought. I smiled, always a softie for serious
grown-ups.
Raising my eyes to gaze into the countenance of this lovely man, I felt my
jaw go slack. “Holy crap! It’s Earl Scruggs…” I hoped was uttered by my
internal voice. He didn’t really look, so the silence was my cover.
He looked up from his plate, met my eyes, smiled.
I smiled back. Dunce, yes, but not paralyzed with shock. Most likely, I was
so surprised, I scanned as someone who had no clue, no notion that this
was the man who invented the intricate 3 finger picking style that almost
eradicated claw-hammer playing.
It was a genuine moment. Quiet, unseen, but engaged. He didn’t need to
show me his Grammys, he offered his heart. Sincerity and warmth is about
as good as it gets.
See, Earl Scruggs might’ve been a master musician and innovator of the
same caliber as Miles Davis or Coltrane, but he was more a man who sought
to bring people together. As a player, his first break came in 1945 with Bill
Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry, but it wasn’t long
until he and Lester Flatt teamed up and spent the 50s and 60s barn storming
the country – and creating a true frame for the Appalachian musical form
that was all ache and flying fingers.
 Flatt & Scruggs were icons. Standard-bearers. Gospel-carriers.
 The audience was white, lower middle class, worked with their hands, backs
hurting. But they found the Flatt & Scruggs sound vitalizing.
And then there were the hippies. When the 60s folk movement hit and the
hippie generation erupted, Earl Scruggs – in part at the behest of his wife
Louise – packed up his sons and took the Earl Scruggs Review to colleges
across the nation.
With the Viet Nam War in full throttle, college kids protesting and drugs
making their way into the mainstream youth culture, musicianship and a
yearning for authentic made Scruggs the hottest ticket with the hippest kids.
This was breaking ground and healing generational damage just by being
who he was.
And who he was transcended what he was. Always a player of high
execution and credibility, Scruggs also believed in music’s transcendence.
When country was as right as you could get and Jane Fonda the only woman
more radical than Joan Baez, Scruggs couldn’t wait to make music with her
-- recognizing the crystal clarity in her voice.
He also played with hippie sitar player Ravi Shankar, the folk-pop band the
Byrds and Bob Dylan. The Eastern music and inscrutable lyrics engaging
him in new and thrilling ways.
Which was really all Scruggs wanted: to be engaged, pushed, challenged, to
see how far music could go. He was there when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
recorded Will The Circle Be Unbroken and returned for Will The Circle
Be Unbroken, Vol 2, produced by his acoustic guitar virtuoso son Randy
Scruggs.
He was there at the Opry. With and without Flatt.
He was all about making music. When Steve Martin got serious about
bluegrass, Scruggs was there. When Elton John wanted to play with a banjo
man, he was there. Indeed, he was as comfortable with Billy Bob Thornton
as he was Vince Gill or Marty Stuart – and folks like John Fogerty and Leon
Russell clamored to play with the man who’s in the Country Music Hall of
Fame, has received the National Medal of the Arts, recorded Red, Hot &
Country for the Red Hot Organization, which supports AIDS charities , and
received a Grammy for his 1968 “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” as well
as writing and recording “The Ballad of Jed Clampitt” for “The Beverly
Hillbillies.”
It is vast this legacy. Marks left in places most would never think of, yet
when you pull back and consider… of course.
Like the Waffle House, where I don’t get around to near as much now that
my metabolism has slowed to a crawl. Its just one more all night dive off I65
just south of town, except that Earl Scruggs used to sit at its counter, quietly
eating his breakfast.
Always one of my favorite things to tell out of town guests!
“THIS is Earl Scruggs Waffle House!” I would proudly declare. Their eyes
would open wide. Sometimes they’d get lucky and he’d walk in, or I’d
signal with my own eyes where to look.
Now, of course, you won’t have to. He’s not there. Although my money –
once he gets sorted out in heaven – is that he’ll be back. You’ll find him
sitting there at the second or third stool, not quite present, but there… Just a
presence that will never quite leave.
Of course, when you make the musical mark Earl Scruggs did, you won’t
ever be gone. People will listen to his records and marvel; pick up their
instrument and practice the complicated three fingers rolls, the wildly
accelerated picking.
His mark shall last forever. So will his soul. A man from the same Piedmont
region in North Carolina – which gave us contemporary hipsters Carolina
Chocolate Drops – he was dedicated to his craft, pushing boundaries and
sorting out what the future held.
There’s no more sorting. Earl Scruggs is in heaven. With the angels. With
the Angel Band – and all is, though somewhat sad and slightly empty, alright
with the world, with the ones who pay attention, even as we’re sad through
losing Scruggs.

Amy Winehouse: No, NO, no... Fame Kills Harder Than Drugs or Sex or Booze

            It wasn’t like we couldn’t see it coming, wasn’t like anyone was shocked. Yet, the news Amy Winehouse had indeed been found dead in her London apartment tore through my Saturday morning with the harsh ripping reserved for muslin I’m going to use for mustard plasters. Forceful, sick, weakening.

            Just as quickly, the romancing of the necrophoolishness began All the talk of the 27 Club, those tortured seemingly-beyond-comprehension-talents who also died in their 27th year Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain. There’s nothing romantic about addiction – or the kind of pain so profound no amount of drugs or sex or booze can tamp it down.

            It’s an odd bargain we watchers of the bold-faced make. Reveling in the lip gloss and hair color, high heels and hobbies; but also voraciously consuming these creatures who capture our attention, For what reason do we watch? What gift? Does Snookie have any real value? The Kardashians? Paris Hilton?

            Beyond Amy Winehouse’s ages old voice, a delicious mix of sweat and ennui boiled in a flammable combination of kerosene, cocktails and bodily fluids, her biggest hit was the sardonic “Rehab,” a song mocking the thing that might’ve saved her – had she ever committed to it.

            Instead Winehouse’s notoriety was driven by a bobsled ride of trainwrecks, misadventure after trainwreck misadventure piling up like used syringes. Wandering around, clearly out of her mind, bee hive busted, eye liner smeared down her face, often in a state of near complete undress. Sometimes it was rows with tavern keepers; occasionally, her acting out coming via on-again, off-again husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a man quite possibly along for the ride on the reflected glory fame flume.

            A highlight of that combustive union pictures from the morning after a particularly brutal night, her bruised eyes, feet bleeding through ballerina flats and him, face clearly scratched madly, walking hand-in-hand down the street like post-soul Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Placidity post-pound down.

            Insanity makes for good copy. The media can’t get enough of a disaster, and 5 Grammy Awards be damned, the high jinks meant more than the music she created. For having been raised on a strong vein of classic jazz and saloon songs – her first album was named Frank in obvious homage, and contained the gold-digger hating vitrol “Fuck Me Pumps” – and easing into a ‘60s soul redux that had a modern flair, equal parts wide-eyed innocence and street-wise irony, Winehouse told it like it was for a generation watching all social norms being melted down for greed and a brand-name-checking nihilism designed to validate from the outside rather than the inside.

            But it’s that raw ache, like a rope burn to the soul, that made her something more than the Brit-pop-soul thrushes – from Duffy to Adele – who came in her wake. This wasn’t about the pain of a relationship gone really bad, this was some other kind of soul-battering that had a profound darkness, no doubt heightened by addiction, at least one toxic relationship and the enabling that all pop stars attract.

            Because it’s hard to tell pop stars “no.” The second you do, five willing compliants pop up, validating whatever bad thing they crave as something deserves and often deriding the person voicing objection as “a buzzkill.”

            Being the one standing by, watching, helpless and knowing every outreach only alienates the addict, sex hound, boozer further. The debate begins: stay close and hope you can catch a falling star… or allow them the consequences of their actions, knowing the ultimate end could be the ultimate consequence.

            There’s a saying a recovering alcoholic I know – 20+ years sober – embraces, “Don’t deny me the dignity of my struggle.” Or in the case of record company people who need the next record, the agent and manager who commission, everyone else who gets their fees, the momentum of her fame and the money.

            Who tells someone who can still create a furor with next to nothing – her Tony Bennett track will no doubt be a stand out –they don’t have a choice? The tour’s cancelled. You’re off the road until you’re sorted out. REALLY sorted out, not a Band-Aid on the problem and a blind-eye to the fact that your treatment is a white knuckle kinda sobriety.

            Not to mention how annoying the incessant calls, problems, shady characters and questionable reasons become. Some of the handlers resent or mock the person behind their back; others join in – as part of the party or from the fringes rocking their own deal because the artist doesn’t know… and no one cares. They’re beyond that in the momentum of the meltdown.

            Those meltdowns, by the way, are awesome. Not only does it give the media a quick jolt of adrenal buzz, a way to hold people’s attention, it allows readers, viewers, regular people to feel superior – because they’d never be that messed up.

            Look at Britney shave her head…  Attack the mean paparazzi with an umbrella…

            Watch Courtney throw make-up at Madonna live on tv… see her wander into a Wendy’s almost naked… Fight with her daughter Frances Bean on Twitter…

            See Kate Moss honk up a white powder with her then boyfriend Pete Doherty, of Baby Shambles, a man known more for his drug abuse not music…

            Watch the indulged famous brats implode. Easy prey. Lost souls. Dumb luck. Hard work. Take this and be cool… Be an outlaw… Rock harder than a mere mortal… And hey, Icarus, if those wax wings melt cause you’re too close to the sun, don’t blame us when you crash to the ground and die.

            Shoulda known. All those chances.

            We consumed your pain, your freak-out and turned it into water cooler conversation.

            We drove our mini-vans or Priuses, wore our neat and clean clothes – or our pseudo-bohemian hipster looks, took out the trash and hit happy hour. We loved the music, but we loved the freak show more. And so the roulette wheel spins. Most make it, some don’t – but we, the Romans are entertained watching the stars face lions that look just like indulgences.

            What we lose is what that music might’ve been. There are plenty of great straight up soul singers, but Amy Winehouse hit veins – sometimes with razors, sometimes diamonds, but always with deadly clarity.

            Maybe not like Billie Holiday, another famous junkie the press is now rushing to invoke, but perhaps more like Judy Garland, a tragic figure propped up for commerce and lost in a pain we’ll never know.

            What kind of songs would Kurt Cobain have written? What would he have said about the state of his generation? The nation? The world?

            What kind of breakthrough playing would Hendrix have achieved? Where might he have taken the electric guitar? What might rock songs have become in his cosmos of groovy love and psychedelia?

            Would Morrison have recovered enough to find a societal matrix that would’ve broken through to the other side? Merged poetry in its purest form with the release and conquest that rock & roll is at its root?

            And Joplin? What soul-melting revelations could’ve come – a la Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time – had she found a little help? Could she have melted pain and defenses with her raging vulnerability? Maybe.

            It’s really the “We’ll Never Know Club.” We can’t say they could’ve been saved. But you can wonder what price does putting your foot down exact? Lose the friend, the client… save the life, possibly.

            Over the years, I’ve delivered a bunch of bad news. Starting with my own parents. People don’t like it. They get mad. They hate you. There’s never any proof what you stood down “woulda got’em.”

            You don’t know. You don’t. And the other person has to want to be more than a piss’n’puke stain on the floor. Tricky business, saving lives that are more valuable in any shape half-functioning. Yet, the ultimate loss is even more.

             We couldn’t have done anything to save Amy Winehouse. But participating in the tabloid speculation, the “ooooh”ing and “tsk”ing about “how awful it all is” creates a market for these people to be hounded. The worse it gets, the harder to cope; the harder to cope, the more likely they are to numb.

            It’s easy to say, “it comes with the privileges.” And it does. But it’s also about helping these people walk the line of fame in a way their sanity isn’t one of the first things to go,  replaced by the copious consumption based on rock star expectations.

            It takes special skills to navigate fame, the rush of everyone wanting a piece of you. It takes handlers who believe in humanity as much as money. It takes a long-eyed view of a flame burning awfully fast.

            When you hear someone’s sliding, express outrage and concern. Don’t sniger and laugh. It is funny: those humiliating, crazy things that happen when people can’t get right, but it’s something more, too.

            Like I said: we didn’t cause, couldn’t stop it. But we’re all accessories when feeding the beast that eats their lunch. What we lose, we’ll never know. Creativity is its own commodity, but a little bit of our humanity goes when we’re callous, mocking, eye-rolling, indifferent.

            Think about that, and think about being the change we need to see in a celebrity-obsessed world where too many are famous for nothing but the empty husk of not much more than gaudy consumptive lives

Gil Scott-Heron’s Gone

Turn Around, Turn Around… I’m New Here, Again

He wasn’t like anything you’d think. A raw-voiced truth-seeker, crippled by addiction to where Riker’s Island became a return address. A provocateur working on a template of what came before – the Last Poets and Langston Highes – who broke ground for the hip=hop revolution.

            “We Almost Lost Detroit.”“The Bottle.”“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

The cracks swallow inconvenient black men. It’s easier that way. Give them smoke’n’something, let’em quiet their mind beyond the law, silence the nagging the truth they sell. ‘Cause coalescing the underclass is a problem. You don’t want that lightning rod, especially one laying down the real of how it is, how it’s wrong, how it’s gone, drawing the fire of the disenfranchised to a single spot…

 Gil Scott-Heron was just that kind of cat. He knew. Child of a Jamaican soccer player who wasn’t around and a librarian, who was a woman of strength and conviction. Born in Chicago and raised in Jackson, Tennessee by a Grandma who died when the boy when 12. Moved to the Bronx, ended up in a Chelsea project apartment that was mostly Puerto Rica – the marginalized have their margins, too – and ended up at a high WASP prep school on a full scholarship by virtue of his gift as a writer.

 College in Philadelphis. Signed to Arista by Clive Davis. A voice of a generation, a racial awakening, a revolutionary, a man galvanizing ecological realities, social injustice, enslavement at one’s own hand.

No Nukes, he was devastating. The coiled energy and fraught warning of “We Almost Lost Detroit.” You knew who the Doobies Brothers were, CSN and Jackson Browne… But the lanky black man who’s voice burned into you, haunted the furtherest recesses of your mind. Damn.

Damn. just damn.

The man could play football stadiums in Detroit. He was a superstar. Before superstars.

He was the messenger. Same way as Chuck D. As Rage Against the Machine. As Dylan, but more over than Dylan – more strident, less mercurial.

It was all so much, too much.

But it all fell apart, falls apart like too much heat and momentum can when not tended by sane minds working to a common goal and direction.

So Gil Scott-Heron disappeared. Gone into the shadow, into the night, into the ether.

In our louder, faster, bling-er culture, it was easy to not even miss the raw voice tugging at what you know is right, but just isn’t convenient, just don’t make you feel all fly and nasty.

The hip-hoppers, from Kanye West to Mos Def, even Usher Twittering about the news yesterday, acknowledge his power.

Even that, that kind of impact, that sort of acclaim, didn’t have the power of the “stuff.” The crack-poison he smoked to feel better, feel taller, feel like he matters… cause most addicts pick their poison for the way it makes them feel invincible or invisible, the way it pushes back the doubt and the things they don’t wanna know. Blotto is sometimes a good way to go.           Til you’re strung out, a forgotten junkie trading on what was, acting like it still is.

Gil Scott-Heron became the kind of classic cautionary reality he might’ve word-song’ed about.Books. Poetry. Records. Then a whole other kind of rap: a rap sheet at the local precinct.When word of I’m New Here came down the line over a year again, I wondered.What could it be? How could I feel? How bright would be a light lit with a propane torch?

Turns out there was nothing to fear. Like Rick Rubin, Brit producer Richard Russell came in reverence, but not awe. He looked around, assessed the situation, the reality – and crafted an album fraught with tension, but ultimately strung like wire to hold up the rhymes and the truths of Gil Scott-Heron today.

I’m New Here is a tough listen. Confessions from the edge of the slide into a Hell that isn’t completely unwanted. It is not a surrender Scott-Heron brings, but more a boastful sense of indifference, the denial of mortality and the rough patches that knowing brings.

Opening with a variation on Robert Johnson’s “Me & The Devil,” it is a collaborative work. As much between the artist and the demons as the producer and the artist. It is a bit of a wrestle and a bit of an elegy for someone still alive, yet half-dead to the addiction.

“New York is Killing Me,” “Running,” “Where Did The Night Go” – all haunted and haunting, the romance pf pain and fleeing tempered with the ache of how it really is. “I’m New Here,” a quiet acoustic track that’s almost a rural evocation, could be the siren’s call of the geographic cure or the topographic lie one tells to believe things change.

There us a middle ground, the romantic promise – all cello slices for punctuation, synth bed, piano chords rising and that voice descending in a low -slung cocktail jazz moan – of “I’ll Take Care of You.” It is a bankrupt warranty, more hope in hope than any kind of reality to embrace.  Kind of like the empty promise of crack cocaine, crystal meth, whatever alters your truth to something that don’t reckon.

Still, beyond the slippery slope on this patchwork of beats, sinister melodic lines, electronica, the occasional sample and Heron’s raspy wail and off-handed in-studio conversation (used as transitions between the actual tracks) a picture emerges of a gentle man grateful for the roots he was given. Equal parts tough Polaroid and soft-focus black & white field photograph, I’m New Here celebrates the women who raised him.

So for every admonishment like “The Crutch” or the spoken knowing the bill will come due “Being Blessed,” you have an interlude of “Parents” and “I’ve Been Guided.” Indeed, “From A Broken Home” and “From A Broken Home, Part 2” are a strong witness to the potency of strength, love and facing reality without flinching. No matter how rank his life got, he knew where he was from.

 “From A Broken Home, Part Two” is not a cop-out, but an homage. Beyond bromide.As he unrolls what he’s seen, what he believes, the language is bare, the beat right there.

“And so my life has been guidedand all the love I needed was providedthrough my mother’s sacrificesI saw where her life wentTo give more than birth to me, but  life to me

“This ain’t one of those clichés about black women being strong…cause, hell, if you’re weak you’re gone but life courage determined to do more than just survive& too many homes have a missing woman or man without the feeling of missing love…”

 “cause men die and lose their lustand they leave/“I came from what they called a broken homebut if they ever really called at our housethey’d’ve known how wrong they werewe were working on our lives and our homedealing with what we had, not what we didn’t havemy life has been guided by womenbut because of them, I am a manGod bless you, Mama, and thank you…”

 And so I’m New Here ends. The spoken utterance of grace and truth.

“No matter how far gone you’re gone, you can always turn around…,” Heron sings on the title track. “I did not become someone I did not mean to be/ But I’m new here, will you show me around?”

Turn around, turn around

You may come full circle

a new year

Again

Turn around, turn around, turn around

You may come full circle

every new year again

I’m new here… again….

Read More

Matraca Berg: Dreaming in Fields, Falling & Chasing The Angels

            I shouldn’t be writing this. It’s not right.

            You see, I first met Matraca Berg -- as Delbert McClinton wrote – in a warehouse in West L.A. She was, at 26, a wildly accomplished songwriter with several #1s, including her first written at 18 with no less than the legendary Bobby Braddock. She was on the verge of her debut record, and they’d called me to write the bio., to capture the story, the music and weave it into some kind of narrative essence.

            She was tall, thin, pretty. Giant eyes, brown hair tumbling down around a heart-shaped face – and when she looked, you knew she knew. Everything. She understood. It made her a powerful voice for young women self-reliant beyond their years, banging into real life and realizing the bruises that come with learning the hard way. Romantic in spire of knowing, willing to keep wading into the rivers of real life, she held a light on so many of the unseen: the late middle-aged beautician of “Alice in the Looking Glass,” the lost girlhood of “Appalachian Rain,” as well as the liquid desire of “I Got It Bad.”

            That was 20 years and several labels ago. A lot has happened. Life has deepened – to the good and the bad. Triumphs for certain – the first woman to write 5 #1s in a year, becoming a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame – as the tragedies deepend, too. Not that she talks about them, but they permeate many of the songs she writes.

          And I know. Of course I do… I’ve been there for all of it.

          See. Matraca Berg said to me in that parking lot that day all those years ago, as I was ruing moving to Nashville, knowing how cliquish it is and how not like the typical girl I am, “I’ll be your friend.” She meant it.

            I arrived July 3, my good silverware heavy in my carry-on bag – about the only possession I had of any real value – and the exhaustion all over me. Confronted with a sea of bad Christmas tree perms on the rush of women coming at me in the airport, I broke down crying in the arms of the man from Tennessee Car & Van Rental.

            July 4th, I was at her Aunt Sudie’s house for chicken and too much family. An only child, I wasn’t used to the tangle of loud talk, big laughter and people pecking at each other, It didn’t matter, they took to me like they take to everyone.

            Since then, we’ve been through everything. Bad lovers, a husband who I’d written about since I was 19, illness, broken engagements, career success, bolstering each other and taking up against those who would detract when the friend wasn’t there.

            Matraca scored 5 #1s in a single year, won the CMA’s Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine” and made her network tv debut on the “CMA Awards” with the aching ballad of recognizing the harshest part of old age  “Back When We Were Beautiful” that same night from the album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night. By the end of the year, that album wou;d be on TIME, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, People, The Tennessean and The Chicago Tribune’s Top 10 Albums of the Year in ANY genre – and her label would be out of business.

            The best of times, the worst of times.

            An almost recluse, she’d had enough chasing the fame. She went home. Sunk into the complicated dynamics of extended family. Wrote more songs. Didn’t look back. Her ego didn’t need it; her soul couldn’t take the bruising.

            But, damn, she was still so good. Still a paper cut on your heart kind of wincing compositional proposition. As the best writing is, or should be. And so she remained. Even as she stayed out of view, hidden and thinking about what the Nashville she was raised in – one where the creatives only came out after dark, studiously avoiding the suits, Kristofferson had just risen from the janitorial ranks and Red Lane, Sonny Throckmorton, even  Mel Tillis who were regulars around her mother’s house – meant.

            See, Matraca Berg wasn’t raised like other kids. She was being dragged to recording sessions up and down Music Row by a single mom who knew her daughter had “game.” She was drafted for Neil Young’s snaggle-tooth hippie country Old Ways tour – along with Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Anthony Crawford , back-up singing with Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson at Live Aid. She knows the difference, and she knows what’s gone.

            Which is why there’s The Dreeaming Fields, an elegy for too many ways of life. The title track is about her grandfather’s dairy farm – the scene of the virginity losing summerscape “Strawberry Wine” -- being parceled off for pre-fab houses, the family farm no longer a part of the America we live in, while “Racing The Angels” is a living person’s pining for one who has passed, palpable and passionate in the heartbreak and sustaining ardor and “Clouds” is the reality of knowing what’s coming, the tears and good-byes, yet willing the end even with the inevitable pain that’s comes with it.

            Matraca Berg has never been afraid of the pain. She recognizes the common currency among women is just thatL courage to move through it, to maintain dignity in the roughest places and the strength to withstand anything. On The Dreaming Fields opener, “If I Had Wings,” the long-suffering battered protagonist hits her limit: “Everyone knew one day it’d be him or me…” as she confesses, “My mother said call the preacher, I just said ‘Call the law…’,”

            These are hard scrabble women. They – like Berg – know no other way.

            It is not an easy life, but it is their’s, and they live it fully. On “You & Tequila,” the song’s heroine honors the hold that one certain someone has over her – “You & tequila make me crazy, run like poison through my veins/ One is one too many, one more is never enough…” – and buckles to the craving, knowing how bad the morning after’s gonna feel.

            Mortality, humanity, kindess, sadness. It is all part of the sum total. On “South of Heaven,” a mother whose son has been sent home covered by a flag sees no point in losing children to battles she can’t understand, for principles that have nothing to do with how she lives or holds her ground. “Father, You have given Your only son,” she sings as the voice of the woman whose truth is all recrimination and seering love for her child, “but you are not the only one…”

            To take a point and skewer it through the listener’s thorax is no small feat. To do it with an essentialism of how we all live is an art. Matraca Berg is a humanist, an everywoman, a seeker and the keeper of people’s secrets. That she keeps them is one thing, that she also recycles them into compelling glimpses of life – the quavering places, moments of doubts,  total surrender – is why she is, inspite of her hiding, so important.

            Not that it’s always dire. “Fall Again” is the fault=line of desire and desolation. You hear how brittle the love has become, and how much she needs to set it ablaze – not to burn it to the ground, but to rekindle what was there. The urgency is one of not losing something so vital, and it comes through in torrents of unquenchable desire.

            Indeed, even the piquant “Your Husband’s Cheating On Us” – a sketch of the other woman’s visit to the long-suffering wife – is a portrait of turnabout in the realm of betrayal. The irony of the hunter getting quartered by the game is a delicious send-up of the wronged being abetted by the betrayer.

            Who we betray, how we do it, indeed, how often the betrayer is ourselves… She understands. Indeed, the woman whose first album in 14 years takes its seeds from Joni Mitchell’s Blue, from Neil Young’s Harvest, from Emmylou Harris’ Pieces of the Sky recognizes how often in doing the seemingly right thing, we so sell ourselves short.

            The Dreeaming Fields contains “Oh, Cumberland,” a song that was originally recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Emmylou Harris for their Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol 3 – and it is a love song to a place one has left, but can never leave. In a place where the dream is theoretically to be had, there is that nagging sense of loss of self, a genuine feeling of ache for where one comes from, for places that make one feel whole and settled.

            It is not about the reality we’re sold – glossy Hollywood living, which mostly only makes one tired, but the roots of where we come from, rivers that barely move and places we can stop and just be. Exhaustion permeates the chase, comfort anchors where we’re from.

            Where we’re from is the whole point, Who we are at our core is everything.

            In a world hurling itself down the stairs of something so two-dimensional, so devoid of deeper meaning, but ooh the shiny high gloss coating of faux emotion and almost reality, we can forget who we are at our broken places – until the dazzle wears off and we’re even more empty than when we started, another cure-all failing us.

            It’s at those times that an album like The Dreaming Fields matters. It gently, humbly, honorably tells us the truth… wincing for us when it stings and encouraging us softly when we need the help to go on. Sometimes it is in the knowing that we can begin to heal, to climb, to seek.

            To me, those have always been the records that mattered. Why I return to Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates or Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, Julie Miller’s “Broken Things” or Alex Bevan’s Springboard again and again… in the lost hours… looking for equanimity and balance in the flood.

            To have someone who knows, who sees and who tells us it’s okay, and it’s up to us to change the dynamic, but also suggesting that we can: that’s everything. For Matraca Berg, who reached back into a dusty paradigm of resonant steel, guitars that waver, pianos that ripple and sustain and vocals that echo like they’re coming down a holler, it is everything, too.

            She knows the difference, and like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl, she has taken this album and held 11 matches aloft, hoping the flame will contain everything she loves about one of Nashville’s most fertile periods musically – so people will see, will know, will breathe and embrace something that matters so much to her.

            In the end, what she loves is what makes us strongest in our banged up places. All you have to do is listen. That’s how powerful these spare songs are. But don’t listen to me… I’m the girl she befriended straight off the plane, and surely I couldn’t be objective, even with all the years of writing for places like The Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone, Trouser Press and CREEM, Musician and Tower Pulse, indeed so many great music magazines too long gone, but absolutely measures of the things in music that makes us more as people.

            Making us more is what music is supposed to do. Listening to this record, I remember that. I wonder about the futility of greatness cutting through the dissonance, and I don’t care. It’s why I’m writing about something I shouldn’t for people who might not be able to embrace passion for small rules that make them feel safe – but miss the hardest tilt of the best stuff of what music is, how songs can hit you and the reasons records like this truly matter.

 

 

Gone & Back: Nathan Bell’s BLACK CROW BLUE Lands

Nathan Bell didn't mean to secede, he just didn't see the point. Having anchored the aggressively progressive bluegrass duo Bell & Shore and cast as the celebrated “iconoclast on the block” as a staff writer for a publishing company run by Alan Jackson's then managers, his rough-hewn lyricism, true blue collar sense and raw-boned masculinity certainly made him stand out on Music Row.

He even made a record with Richard Bennett, a chief architect behind Steve Earle's sound and the seminal Guitar Town as well as being the man Mark Knopfler calls when the Dire Straits icon wants to tour the world. But somewhere between the promise and acclaim of Little Movies and L-Ranko Motel and the flagellation of the country music industry, Nathan Bell lost his taste for it.

Hard Weather, the Bennett album, never came out. Not long after, Bell moved tto Signal Mountain, Tennessee, got a straight job, learned to play golf and raised a family. He didn't look back. He didn't want to.

“Fifteen years…,” Bell muses in the voice that's mostly stacked wood you'd hardly notice, waiting for a fire or termites, depending. “The guitar did not come out… AT ALL.  Other than one time at a company function, where I volunteered - and they had no idea. I completely hated it.”

Bell is the son of acclaimed poet Marvin Bell, so his intellectual acuity isn't like most people's - and his lyricism has the same hard edge you'd expect from Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman, perhaps a bit Jim Harrison. Unblinking, strong, true. Not tough in a brutal way, but more with the stoicism of realizing this is how it is - yet somehow also refusing to relinquish the notion that love remains.

Nathan Bell went about his life. Doing the work. Being a husband, a father.

Then one day, for no real reason, he decided to write some songs. Then he wrote some more. Then he did a few house concerts. He kept working his job at the phone company, kept close to home. Occasionally, he'd venture to Nashville and the fringe of that writerly world, but mostly the songs lived - sent out one-by-one - to people he respected and wanted to converse with, people he deemed “The Cult of 8.”

Somewhere between there and here, his one-man home-recordings morphed into something more. Now there is Black Crow Blue, a highly literal, wildly virile song cycle about how busted the American way of life is, how it lays waste to honorable men - leaving them desolate, lost, not clear what the next move is. It's a walk into the wilderness, for sure, and one that doesn't come with a map to get back home.

Bell, who punches a clock rather than the writers appointments regularly kept by Nashville tunesmiths, believes in the potency of the life he lives rather than life conjured in test tubes and Petri dishes, the illusion of authenticity brokered as some kind of Hallmark Card Americana. Not that he's preaching, he's just figured out his own line to walk.

“I was living in a world of enormous significance when I picked up the guitar again in 2007,” Bell confesses, “and I don't think people even realize. The lower middle class isn't high enough to be safe, nor low enough to be romantic - but they are the majority of the people in this country.

 “What they value is this: family, their community. No one sees how hard they work or how much of their lives they remember and hold on to, how important that is. It's neither romantic failure, not glorified common effort - it's just their life, and it's precious.

 “And I didn't see that until I stopped writing.”

But Nathan Bell doesn't wanna grand diva his way into “knowing the pain” through living it. He pauses, “They call folk music folk music for all the wrong reasons… It's not some Smithsonian thing, it's - to me - about chronicling a man in the world at a time when the world needs chronicling. And  I'm not necessarily that man.

“My truth, honestly, is reflected in the stories I tell about other people… way more than the stories I tell about myself.”

In the brink, songs tumbled out. “She Only Loves Blue” embraces a woman who finds that the records she loves are not only more faithful than the men who've passed through her life, but have emotional resonance in a way few people can. “Me and Larry” offers the refuge of looking back on a friendship with a pre-fame writer and what grace came from it. “Red & White” considers the gaps and overlaps between those trapped on reservations and the varying escapes and those destined to pen them in for “their own good” or just convenience.

And then there's the Crow. Bell deems him “a trickster, ambivalent about not having a home.” Equal parts High Plains Drifter, the best of Paul Newman, perhaps a little Kerouac tempered with kindness more than studied Buddhist nothingness. The Crow ultimately is a man in full.

The notion makes Bell - in a most Crow-like fashion - shrug. “You're not a man by what you admit to watching, by what you think about or pledge allegiance to… that's just ideology masquerading for personal truth. It's more about who they think they should be instead they're not being who they really are. If there's anything virile going on, maybe it's because (this record)'s without the pretense of being something it's not.”

Crow is the kind of man who gets rolled on the highway… left with a warm can of beer and one of the guy's worn out shoes… and still thinks he's doing okay. He doesn't even grapple with death on the side of the road, just knows he lived a long life and wishes it could be longer, that as many years as it was, 85 wasn't nearly enough.

“That's the thing about really living,” Bell says. “It doesn't so much matter where or what… it's that you're engaged. Crow was left with some guy's old shoes and a warm beer, and he figured he was doin' better than a lot of people.”

Half empty. Half full. All heart. Absolutely bankrupt. How we fall on the continuum of appreciation and the willingness to flourish where planted. It is a gift for some, futile for others - and vertiginous for people lost in the white noise, avaricious, new& improved supersized me mine more wasteland.

“Crow is the most extreme and there's nothing extreme about him,” Bell says of his recurring presence. “He just takes a step out into the wasteland and instead of turning back, he doesn't turn back. “American Crow' is the first few steps - and the courage of someone who knows he has absolutely nowhere to go, and keeps walking.

“It's the beginning of everything that eventually ends. And it does. 'Wherein Crow…' is how it all ends for himl 'We All Get Gone' is an elegy for him, for all of us really. You know, if he can see life as pretty okay in all of that, well, that explains the way these characters get through their lives.”

 “Stones Throw” is every family existing on the fault line a paycheck or two from being wiped out, tenuous from believing the things the mortgage brokers told then without truly understanding, disoriented from what their insurance doesn't actually cover, uncertain about the American Dream they're choking on, while “The Striker” is the highest level mercenary loved for his charm and cheered for the chaos he sows, even though that chaos is the seeds of these people's destruction - always drifting, always gone.

Even “Rust,” a clear-eyed consideration of a man's awareness that what he once could do will soon become impossible, offers dignity in the inevitable. That strength that comes from knowing there is no other way.

“Every day, he knows he gets closer and closer to not being able to take care of the people he loves… it's a  problem that he can't solve, he can only live with, find a way to maintain his equilibrium. And he's not gonna cave - or accept it. Instead, he tries to look less afraid by making other's look more afraid, and maybe they are…”

 Fear isn't something Bell has much of. Or the ballet dancing working man doesn't seem to flinch much. He'd tell you that you don't really get choices, but he'll also admit his father the National Book Award nominated poet raised the hard chaw shank of a son to man up and eschew the hysterionics.

“We were raised with a minimal amount of drama and the self-loathing that theoretically comes with the arts,” Bell explains. “It was very blue collar, very this is what you do next. And I can say I had wonderful role models as men. My father, the mentors, even the guy who taught me to play guitar who died far too young. They were steady, people you'd count on.

“I look around, and I don't see much of that now. I was raised on it, but it's fading.”

Which is what gives Bell's protagonists their bite. The what was once and now is growing smaller out there somewhere… Do we jettison decency in the name of getting our's? In spite of the headlines, the dire financial constraints of all but the wealthiest - and that includes a lot of flashy middleclassers leveraged for appearances who're sitting on a bubble of their own creation - Bell finds working people respond from a surprising place.

“In the end, it does no good to look back, to hold on to blame, to ignore that totality of who you are,” he starts breaking it down. “Personalities are absolutely different, but we as human beings are the core are basically the same. You know, in this life, how clever, angry or frustrated it may be at the heart of these songs, at the heart of all of them, there's kindness.”

 Certainly there are echoes of an urban Harvestcentric Neil Young simmering in “Pittsburgh,” just like the almost whispered “My Favorite Year” has the tender toughness of Warren Zevon at his most vulnerable: a detail-driven sketch of moments, truths and friendship.

“If I could've taken pictures or written novels, I wouldn't write songs. But I can't, so this is what I do… and the truth is a pretty basic thing. For me, it's been a quest to tell the truth the way Dorothea Lange took pictures. You know? Set the camera up, open the lense, expose the film and trust the image. You've got it… and you can move on.

 “Because I believe if you take a picture of the truth, you mever have to be embarrassed or back off it. You have to work hard to get the clarity, but if you do, it's always there - and it never changes.”

Every song has stories. Every song has the ghosts of the people who inspired them. Some are gone. Some are conjured. Some are still getting by. All, though, have some kind of valor that supercedes shabby clothes, personal fumblings, a lack of Madison Ave - or Music Row - ambition.

“You got a lot of guys pretending to be cowboys, troubadours, vagrants, outsiders, but there's not a lot of middle-aged working guys pretending to be outlaws… We're too busy working. All we can tell is the truth, but a lot of people are living that truth, too.”

He doesn't wanna preach - or tell anyone how to live. That's not the point of these songs, 15 years in the coming. “I don't know who to talk to about message politics. I mean, why do people make this stuff so important - which God is theone God… who you're having sex with… is this marriage gonna work…

“I've always been uncomfortable with the Marxist theory about art, that if it isn't doing something, it's not good. But because I was raised in the environment of academia and poetry, the artist, I do believe that songs need to carry the conversation further. To me, that's what's important…and not in an ideological way, but in a humanist way.”

Pausing to gather his thoughts and weigh whether to drop the seeming non sequitur in his Cormac McCarthy tableau, Bell exhales so you can hear him. Then he squares up and stands tall.

“I believe in love,” he says without irony, without flinching. “No matter how harsh I get or how frustrated, love is the only thing that matters. I've lived long enough now to know: hate will fade. It just doesn't last. But love? Love… well, it's the one thing that endures.”

There are no hearts, no curlicues, no cupids. Split rail, plain brown mud fence admission. It's all he's got, and it's all he needs. Bell is a tough guy who knows the only thing that redeems and keep the mean out is being able to hold onto love and kindness. It's shot through the manscapes of Black Crow Blue, and it opens the door to a post-Iron John reality where sensitivity and masculinity can be side-by-side without apology.

Read More

For A Dancer Gary Wells Flies, Alex Bevan Shines & A Lost Girl Comes in from the Cold

“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 far flung 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 front lines, knowing that he knew the people making 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.

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 than Led 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

Read More

Townes Van Zandt Facets, Faults & Fractures

“There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety doo-dah.”

 Townes Van Zandt

It’s 10 o’clock on an abandoned Music Row. The year is 1985. In a third floor office in an old house that serves as the offices for the Oak Ridge Boys’ Silverline/Goldline Music Publishing, Steve Earle brings the chair he’s leaning back in down hard, flipping his hair out of his eyes for emphasis.

He may be doing the very first interview for Guitar Town, an album that will bring the hardcore blue collar back into country music and fire the rock edges to a steely edhe, but there was a far more important point to make.Leaning forward, he announces, “Townes Van Zandt is the best damned songwriter in the world - and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.

Swagger? Bravado? The brazen declaration of a young man about to explode? Absolutely. But for Earle - and the quote heard round and around the world - it was also a matter of homage to a man who set the bar for a maverick kid who couldn’t seem to walk enough of a line to get and keep a record deal.

Never mind that his record would be cited by The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Spin, The Chicago Tribune and beyond as not only one of the year’s great debuts, but one of the year’s finest records, period. Nor that Guitar Town - along with Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs and the soon to be arriving Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and kd lang-would ignite a progressive /traditional country revolution, which Earle would deem “the Great Credibility Scare of the late 80s.”

No, Earle was raised in the realm of the great Texas troubadours. For them the song was everything. The song was holy, the master to be served and honored. Indeed, the song was the reason for being. These were taskmasters pure and simple - and they kept their standards high.

“I remember Townes was in the audience one night,” Earle said of their first meeting, “and I knew it was him. He kept yelling for ‘The Wabash Cannonball,’ said ‘How could I be a folk singer if I didn’t know ‘The Wabash Cannonball’…”

And Earle, equally brash, silenced the sinewy songwriter with a dead perfect rendition of TVZ’s wickedly difficult “Mr. Mudd and Mr Gold.”  It was the beginning of a Captain and the Kid mentorship that was both tough love and exacting standards - two things that define who Earle is today as a man, an activist and an artist.

“Well, it wasn’t like Townes was gonna go down to Music Row and go ‘produce this’,” laughs Grammy-winning Texas expat artist/songwriter Rodney Crowell. “Those performances were moments - and the recordings were documents, not productions. That wouldn’t work, because you knew he was living that shit.

“I mean, back in ‘72 when Townes‘d hit town,  staying at Amy Martin’s place, all us wanna be writers at the time would stand around roasting weenies, all wanting to write songs with him… and he’d be upstairs kicking dope. He seemed so exotic and hardcore.”Crowell had originally run into Van Zandt at Houston’s Sand Mountain Coffeehouse in 1970 “or 71,” where he was initially transfixed by his performing style. “He was a little dangerous, a little out on the edge - not in a Ramones bang you over the head way, but just that kind of brilliance he had was a little spooky. Just this snakish charisma that drew you in…”

And therein lies the enigma that defines Van Zandt’s legend. With two biographies - John Kruth’s award-winning To Live’s To Fly and Robert Earl Hardy’s A Deeper Blue-and a documentary ‘Be Here To Love Me,” the facts of his life are more than laid out. Yet even the concrete details can’t define or hold the man who wrote with a razor and howled like a soul lost.

No, Van Zandt’s gift was his ability to always pass through, to remain somehow transparent and yet unabashedly the most here-it-is person in the room. If you saw him, you couldn’t forget him… and if you heard him, you were going to respond.“Lungs,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Loretta,” “To Live Is To Fly,”  “If I Needed You,” “St John The Gambler,” “For The Sake of the Song,” “No Place To Fall,” “White Frieghtliner Blues” are the tip of the iceberg. With a Townes Van Zandt song, there was no way out - only down and through.

“I was driving through Southern Vermont,” recalls jam goddess/rocker Grace Potter, who’s been cited for her own allegorical and deeply personal writing. “It was the summer I got my drivers license, so this was a total freedom drive. I didn’t need to be anywhere and I was just driving.

“There was a cassette in this pile that said ‘Townes,’ and I had no idea. I didn’t know who’s it was… just figured it was some show at Town Hall. But I put it in and ‘Waiting Around to Die’ played, and I couldn’t even drive. I had to pull over because it was so full of pain, but so beautiful at the same time. There was no anger, just this voice letting it go, just put it out there… So poetic that suffering.

“I’d been digging Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, but this was something else. I mean, he’d bunk up at Motel 6s, eat at Denny every day, drink himself silly and sing until he fell over… he was that pure and that committed to doing it.“And those songs could have been played by minstrels in the Mideval days. It was that simple, you know? That basic truth was everything - and he sure owned A Minor!”

Potter is a B-3/Flying V-playing firebrand in her own way. Vivacious. Brilliant. Candid. With her band the Nocturnals, she has toured with Gov’t Mule, My Morning Jacket and the Black Crowes - as well as being a regular on the festival circuit. A world away form Van Zandt’s austerity, her devotion is a witness to the vastness of Van Zandt’s soul-baring connection.

“Success means… that’s never gonna happen to me,” Van Zandt confessed to writer Wm Peck, who profiled the elusive guitarist for  the now-defunct Look. “Heaven ain’t bad, but you don’t get a lot done. Selling a lot of records and getting to be a name, you end up knowing it isn’t the same - what you put in isn’t what they get out…

“To me, the music uncovers it all. I don’t even know what a problem is… just a lurking thing."

Much has been made about Van Zandt’s full-tilt wild side, his privileged background, his deep sadness, and yet, what struck so many who knew him was the brilliance with which he shone. It was a seeming contradiction, and yet it fired some of the most incisive writing into the human condition - be it the homeless soul who falls in love and watches her die “Marie,” the chilling, bristling “Snake Song” or the distraught “Cocaine Blues.”

“I met Townes in 67 or 68,” remembers Asleep at the Wheel’s anchor Ray Benson, as his erstwhile progenitors of Western swing enter their fourth decade. “It was the Second Fret, a club in Philadelphia where he was opening for Woody’s Truck Stop, which was Todd Rundgren’s band before the Nazz.

“There was a back room and I’d sneak in back there. One night, there was this guy from Texas who was really bright-eyed and energetic. So different from how he came to be known, you know? But then, it simple: I wanted to be a songwriter and he was a songwriter. But he was also a traveling troubadour… something, very honorable and necessary to really write the truth.

“In Elizabethan times, they were almost messengers who carried truths. In my mind, that’s what Townes did. In traveling, they pick up the stories of the people they meet - and they take them along, but they also influence the people who’re seeing them. In my mind, then, you have to be a troubadour to really be a songwriter.”

There’s a bit more to it than that, although Van Zandt was a big believer in being on the road, being amongst the people. It was also about applying standards that maintained the quality of the songs, the unburnished truths of the lives being captured.

“When we thought we were big stuff,” perhaps the most iconic of today’s Texas songwriters and arguably TVZ’s best friend Guy Clark remembers of the way they pushed themselves, “we’d sit and listen to Dylan Thomas read his poetry. Now that‘ll make you humble.”It was Clark who challenged a then 21-year old Crowell to delve into his friend’s songcraft.

“I remember Guy sitting me down and saying ‘One of the first things I gotta get you to do is understand how great Townes is… and he really worked to get me to see how poetically inspired his work was. Guy made me listen to everything, every work tape… to show me this is the bar.

“And that poetic nature that’s so richly inside Townes‘ work is like standing in front of a Van Gogh or a Renoir. You want to be able to access that part of any artist or writer or poet… They show you what a true artist is capable of doing.”For one thing, a true artist can melt time and genres.

Two dozen years later, at the Proctor School in New Hampshire, 14-year old Elijah Berlow turns his fellow students on. In a world of beats, processed vocals and big productions, Van Zandt’s potency cuts through to yet another generation.“He’s such a poet,” confesses the high school freshman who is also an acolyte of Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Iggy Pop, “a really, really sad depressed poet. I tell my friends: ‘Listen to the words…’ cause at first, you know, they don’t; they’re about the sounds. But you put on ‘Flying Shoes,’ and they don’t have a chance.

‘I tell’em ‘Keep listening! Over and over ’til you get it’ and they always come back blown away. My friends are inspired. They wanna write songs, but then they realize this is way hard… And sometimes I’ll use Steve Earle, one of the songs he covered, then move to Townes straight, but it’s always the same thing.

“He’s such a realist, you’ve got nowhere to go. It’s complicated what’s in the songs…. Then he makes it so simple, the way he writes it all down, you can’t miss what he’s singing about.”

That poetry that translates across generational lines also translates across cultures. Israeli superstar/songwriter David Broza (see sidebar) - who has worked with the words of prominent poets  Percy Byshe Shelly, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop and Federico Garcia Lorca - recognized the essence in the singer/songwriter who would touch Broza’s career in the most startling of ways from beyond the grave in their one and only encounter at Houston’s Main Street Theater.

“I just sensed someone who’s very pure as an artist,” Broza marvels. “He spread around the chair where he was sitting all these charms, these lucky charms people had given him - and it was in that purity, that you got a real sense of what folk music is, what kind of a place it comes from.

“I was at a point in my career where I was still proving myself to audiences. I didn’t have a hit, so I was having to go from stage to stag working my way across the country. I knew I needed to impress him to keep him interested, so he wouldn’t go to his secondary songs., but then it seemed there were no secondary songs. Instead a Texas singer/songwriter/poet sat in front of me and showed me what that was with just a few words and the simplest melodies, but so much was said.”

Crowell concurs, looking at the way Van Zandt’s aesthetic sense informed his own writing. “With Townes, the words and melody are just seamless - and together they create this really visceral sense of place. I love when snogs evoke their subject matter so well, you’re there…“And it’s not that you can take that, but it inspires you to want to emulate that immediacy, to access a deeper part of you. Looking at my own songs, I know that without Guy’s tutorial, I would’ve probably never written ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’  I would’ve never reached that deep inside or tried to evoke so much of the poetry… and that’s what Townes brings out in people.”

“I’m more of a cheerful songwriter,” allows Potter, currently on the road with Brent Dennen. “But you hear a song like ‘Waiting Around To Die” and there’s such enormous despair, you’re consumed by it. Taken whole from a very few, very pure lines… and as a writer, who doesn’t want to do that? The way he does it so completely? Wow.“And it sets a standard.

Even his voice is poetry: the beauty is in the broken places! He always chose the perfect place, the perfect word to break… and he never overdid it. As a singer, that’s part of it, too: he knew his voice inside out, how to deliver his lines so he could deliver that pain and never let the emotion take over, but be so real because it’s true when he wrote it, you know that, but it doesn’t make it true every time you sing it. That’s the deeper poetry.”

Crowell, who can tell stories of Van Zandt’s inherent charisma and Puckishness leading girls carnally astray while their boyfriends toiled in the studio below, recognizes that poetry is as much how you capture the song.

“That was the thing about Townes,” says the man who got Emmylou Harris to cut her seminal version of Pancho & Lefty,” later a #1 country hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. “there was always an immediacy when he sang. It was always about the moment. To listen to Van Zandt’s records, it was like listening to Lightning Hopkins: very live, very there, very much this electric moment that you could feel.

“Townes was a gunfighter. He had electric reflexes - and he knew. He was always the fastest draw, period. If you ended up out in the street with him, you’d be shot through the heart, dead. End of story. It made him dangerous, but then he was also such a sweet, sweet soul - and that enigmatic quality is part of what made him so compelling.”

That unexpected sweet side. A man in love with his morning glories. A man who was okay to drift from friend’s couch to friend’s couch - and who would immortalize a pair of parakeets (Loop and Lil, who agree) in “If I Needed You,” also a #1 country record for Emmylou Harris with Don Williams.

“I’ve got a picture of Townes and me and Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson’s long time harmonica player) from one of the early Farm Aids,” says Benson, “and he’s smiling this big smile. He’s just shining, and you can’t not look at him because that joy is all you can see.

“People talk about that dark side of him, but I never saw it. What I saw was pretty amazing, but it’s not what you ever hear mentioned.”John Prine - who covered “Loretta,” the perfect barroom consort portrait on the triple Grammy-nominated TVZ tribute Poet - has noted, “The last thing you want to do when you’re having a good time is stop and write a song about it. No, you wanna keep having that good time.”

Artists as diverse as Mudhoney with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Norah Jones, Son Volt, Doc & Merle Watson, Evan Dando, Nana Mouskouri - in French, no less, Dashboard Confessional, Counting Crows, Glenn Yarbrough with the Jimmy Bowen Orchestra, Bob Dylan, Peter Rowan & Tony Rice, Cowboy Junkies and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss have all embraced his singular sense of lean lyric stretched over the essence of melody, the naked intensity of emotions distilled to their purest forms.“I hated it,” confesses the young Berlow. “I was maybe 11 or 12 and my Dad was on this kick where all he’d play in the car was Emmylou’s ‘Pancho & Lefty.” Over and over and over. Then when he stopped, I realized it had gotten inside me - and I missed it.

“The way he writes is more poetic than anybody… maybe even Dylan, but even more than the poetry, it’s how he makes you feel. You feel things listening to Townes in a way you don’t realize, but then suddenly you’re understanding things you don’t even have words for.

“Some of his songs - like ‘Rake’ - are about partying and whatever, but then they get so sad. It’s the way everything comes undone, because it does. For people who’re sad - or even depressed — you can see those things in these songs, then see it in your life and understand it a little better. It’s that simple, but it’s also beyond the darkness, the idea that it passes.”

Crowell, who lived on the same lunatic fringe as the great poet/songwriters, doesn’t want to romanticize the pain without stressing the quixotic and quicksilver nature of TVZ’s spirit - and also the ravages of a life lived beyond the limit.

“He died on New Year’s Day, the same day Hank Williams died… in practically the same way,” says the man whose last 4 albums have been a song cycle, core sample and meditation on the state of the world in which we live. “Knowing Townes, wherever he is, I’m sure he’d say going out like that was his greatest success. That he managed to live and pass like someone who was a true poet consumed by their art, which was lived completely… well, what else would there be left to do?”

For Van Zandt, who recorded eight albums for Tomato - including one held hostage due to nonpayment of the studio bill - and another handful for Sugarhill, there are the songs that burn even whiter, brighter and hotter than the man who wrote them.

 If his legacy is fueled in part by the legend, albums like Our Mother The Mountain, High Low and In Between, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, At My Window and Deeper Blue offer fistfuls of greatness to witness what creation in its purest form can yield.Those albums - and the many live recordings, which show the combustible nature of art of the edge - offer a strong case for what can be created if one is willing to be a relentless steward of what can be.

The price of living that far from the shackles of expectation means a quicker fade, but as Crowell says, “If he’d lived and created any other way, we wouldn’t be talking about him right now.And it’s not the life, but what was created from the life… that’s what matters.”

Indeed. With nominal success in the commercial and financial success, 13 years after his passing, he remains the signifier of those who know the difference, those who’re willing to really go to the place where it all gets real. Or as the man himself was so fond of saying, “There are two kinds of music: the blues and zippity doo dah…”Obviously, there was only one way for Van Zandt to go. Boy did he.

Read More