Las Vegas, Hear Me Crying

Las Vegas.

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

Like Columbine…

like the slaughter in the Colorado movie theater…

like Sandy Hook…

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


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

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

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

There are no words.

 

Or reasons.

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

 

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

Where are the words?

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Right now, I don’t know, either.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

www.hollygleason.com

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

Richard Corliss spent 35 year's as TIME's movie critic. In films, he saw life, love, hope. In his friendship with me, there was country music, good books & a whole lot of charming conversations. Losing him broke my heart -- and made me remember the grace of truly amazing unlikely friendships.
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Postcards from @Bonnaroo: How It All Ends (to be continued)

And so Bonnaroo ends, in a longform rain, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' brutal rock celebration if losers, outsiders, fringers & won't fit ins. After Sam Bush and Del McCoury, Ed Helms incredible melange of pickers'n'singers at the Bluegrass Situations' Jam, it reminds why music is the great tribal wave. And yes, there will be more impressions, but this... this is about the music.
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Postcards from @Bonnaroo: The Night Before The Morning After

The night before the waking bleary-eyed, racked with pain from hauling a backpack with a computer, water, a book, sunscreen, a sweater for later... No booze, no drugs, no misadventure. Is it worth it? Is it worth Kat Powers, Reggie Watts, Jack Johnson, Dwight Yoakam, NAS, Preservayion Hall Jazz Band, et al? Yes, absolutely: it's worth it.
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Postcards from Bonnaroo, 5: The Impossible Strain of Being Paul McCartney

Being a legend means never having to thinking about anyone else, especially when your handlers are high on their sense of power by proximity. And so we waited for Paul McCartney. No, not to see him, so we could leave the Bonnaroo grounds and go home to get a shower.
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Poscards From Bonnaroo, Four: Field Day Friday

 

How much music can you stand? Or rather how long can you stand?

Because from noon on… and on, and on…There is more than too much of just about anything you could want. Floating through the air, wafting down the grass; and no matter where you go, people are into it.

Trixie Whitley (Postcard Two) gave way to Jason Isbell, a serious sort of songwriter with a bit of blue collar efff ewe and a lot of existential angst, dignity and faith in love (of all things). With his Southeastern landing to critical landslide last week, sales looking to top 20,000 and emerging from a “storied” in the exactly the sense one would expect from a man suggested he exit the Drive-By Truckers, the timeless featured man with the basic rock band hit a nerve from the gate.

Songs from his new album, plus songs the crowd knew drew equal response. He churned through “Super 8,” found the tentative tenderness in “Flying Over Water.” Creating intimacy with 20-30,000 people, some of whom were hardcore fans, others waiting for Of Monsters & Men, it was a reminder that the literate doesn’t have to be lost to the loops, the hooks or the glossy flossy production tricks that make so much of pop radio glisten.

Over at The Other Tent, Big K.R.I.T. proved that for hip-hop, too. Taking it back to tbe bare knuckle basics of a turntable and a sense of rhymes, the Meridian, Mississippian worked the mic and the largely white crowd in a way that engaged them. Not just in the jumping up and down, arm-waving way, but actually listening and chanting along.

Indeed, production here isn’t the deal – though obviously ZZ Top hitting it without their videos, etc, would be like leaving the house with a clean shave. Instead, it’s about a deeper connection hitting the music people where they feel. Drawing people to another place or the realm of accessing emotions that might not be part of their basic life.

Jim James, dressed in a school boy blazer and tie, was every bit the sleek chic eleganza with a silky looking cloud of hair, but beyond a basic backdrop of lights emanating in lines from a central point, it was his charisma that matched his music. With moves like the snake charming the tamer, he knew how to focus on the crowd – whether spinning like a sheepdog sufi dervish or strumming and leaning into a guitar poised on a stand.

James’ melodicism is hypnotic, with myriad influences beneath the surface – from surf to classical, pure pop to a lurching kind of rock – and musicianship from an equally GQ-attired band that is so effortless, it would easy to miss its quality. But make no mistake, these players are the sort whose excellence eludes casual listening.

With his soundscapes floating of This Tent, Wu Tang was taking Which Stage with the velocity the hardest core rappers could be expected to unleash. Jagged beats hammering into the assembled, as an apt counterpoint to Wilco over at What Stage delivered an overtly jubilant set that found Jeff Tweedy beaming.

All these years later, it’s not the survival that brings these acts back together. While often it’s about the money, there emerges a sense of how good the music really was, something that might have been lost in the moment, the egos, the addictions, the cross-agendas and beyond. For both Wu Tang and Wilco, acts who’ve weathered plenty and made albums that endured far beyond what either would’ve expected, the triumph of being onstage isn’t so much as how good the music feels all these years later.

For Wilco, who moved from “Heavy Metal Drummer” to “I’m The Man Who Loves You” to “Dawned on Me” and “A Shot in the Arm,” the patron saints of alt-country showed themselves to be more a classic American rock band a la Bonnaroo closers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, bending pop melodicism into an organic sense of roots that was supple and fluid. That rapture is often what marks those who’re grateful for what the music gives – beyond the houses, pretty girls and fast cars – and that was evident.

Even deeper diving were England’s Foals, at the far end of an American tour. Though facing an mid-afternoon set, they drew their faithful well beyond the edges of This Tent and what at first felt like fairly rote crowd surfing from Yannis Philippakis with the expected hand-over-hand over the fans demi-turns mid-set culminated in an almost audience circuit during the set climaxing “Two Steps, Twice.”

A boy who sings a math-rock, precision-driven kind of music surrenders to the momentum of the moment, which carries the band sonic release well beyond their records. Singing with his heart out of his body, “Inhaler” and “Late Night” had an urgency that never drowned how hard and to the point the playing was, yet found the tumult of emotions thrown harder than control would suggest.

That’s the deal with Foals: go beyond where you should be. As “Two Steps, Twice” built and receded and built, the forelocked Philippakis leaned so far into the song, it was obvious he intended – and did – leave it all on that stage.

The day’s other story was the massive blanket of bodies for Of Monsters and Men, swelling beyond not just the grounds in front of Which Stage, but spreading down towards the Comedy Theater and well into the food area between Which and What!
Yesterday’s great surprise, and yet, the Icelandic five-piece delivered a set that more than delivered on the numbers who’d converged to hear their acoustic-tinged music.

Not folk, not even in the Mumford/Avett ilk, there’s an exoticism to Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s band that merges the female lead singer/male musical energy to create something that evokes slightly more magical arrangements rather than the more rustic classicism of the post modern folk boomers.

With 13 songs deliver mid-afternoon, they built an enthusiasm that never bordered on manic, yet was every bit as passionate as Foals’ response. In the appreciation, if not shrieking and fist-pumping, the music was heard, consumed and responded to.

Even the humble stages, like Miller Lite’s New Music on Tap “lean to,” plopped in the middle of the field, and the decidedly hippie Solar Stage, which anchored the activism booths, there were treasures to be found. It’s a matter of when you wander up, and whether you get lucky.

Rayland Baxter, whose Feathers & Fishhooks, had 6 people onstage with decidedly minimal gear, and his strong polaroid form of singer/songwriter is bulked up by his lashing guitarwork. Carving into what turns out to be a loud sound with that guitar, he exudes a likeability as he sings songs that offer the imagery of 20-somethings finding fun, friendship and amour along the margins.

Not meant to be profound, the commitment he and his band – especially a drummer who works the high hat hard, only to punch the tom for staggering rhythmic effect – shows that small doesn’t have to mean flaccid or lacking in song development.

Coming back for an encore, just young man and his guitar, he offers an aw shucks intimacy that offers a peephole into the attitudes and familiarities of an generation coming of age making a decision to commit to each other rather than merely strive and jockey for fame and money.

At the other end of the spectrum, John Oates takes Rock & Roll Hall of Fame status and returns to his roots. With an upcoming turn at the Rock & Soul Superjam, he explained he would only play new songs – and took songs about new methodology in the record business, meeting partner Darryl Hall and yes, activism.

If it was a rich rock legend slumming, he brought a great deal of wonder to the table, talking about coming of age when festivals reigned – and singing his raspy deep soul’n’hard wood lead parts while playing an acoustic guitar.

And so it goes, and so it continues.

Though Paul McCartney was the evening’s big play, it’s hard to muster enthuisiasm for someone surfing the “wow, is this for me?” reality-break that so often comes with the removed from the rest of us realm (see Postcard Five), and so I passed. If I have failed you, know some are born Stones People, others are Loyal to the Beatles’ Realm. Being the former, I was fine… and figured better to rest up for today.
Today, another day and even more, more, more music.

Postcards from Bonnaroo: The Second Hit

How It Looks
Imagine cloning the Mudslide Slim & the Blue Horizon album cover. A whole field of skinny boys, with skinny braces, a few skinny ties and skinny pants with earthtone cotton pants hanging off them; scraggly longish hair teasing collars, curling around ears, occasionally sweeping around jawlines and various forms of perfectly ungroomed facial hair to let you know they're beyond puberty...
It would seem so mannered, cuffs casually unbuttoned or turned back beyond the elbows, flaccid fedoras wilting in the bright sun... Like a vintage costume soiree for poseurs looking to throwback to a more populist era of Willa Cather and John Steinbeckian dustbowl charms. But you look at them, and sense they mean it.
Just like the girls with long cotton skirts barely clinging to jutting hip bones, mens vests buttoned up with nothing -- or else a garishly clashing bra -- underneath, thin claves barely filling out the shafts of the cowboy boots they clomp along in.
That's what it looks like backstage. Well, like that and middle-aged people in drab hipster, almost camping gear, standing weight to one hip weighing the merits of this act, that social media platform. Big timing the big time in the land of the hipeousie and impossibly sangfroide doing anything but melting in this straight down, raindown heat.
The sun couldn't be clearer, brighter, more golden. Like Ashley Capps makes son kind of deal with Apollo, or Helois if its Greek to you. Blazing and burning the exposed flesh, like an offering to his mighty rays to keep the rain at bay.

On the Which stage, Trixie Whitley wails. A mountain of moan out of a tiny wisp of songstress/writer, giant shards of emotion flying in some white girl cross between flame-tossing dervish Janis and belting-prime Aretha, with a bit of Teena Marie's bottom register thrown in for deep burgundy measure. The drums crash just as thundrous, thumping and humping to drive her power home. It's a lotta land she's gotta cover, but it pours out in steamy blankets of pain and want. You can't not listen... as people moving from one place to another find themselves stopping, looking round.
She is her father's daughter, though only the intense organic nature of her music reflects the potency of slide guitarist/emotion channeler Chris Whitley's attack. Lean and raw, he distilled ache into the tightest, sinewy bits of vocal and guitar lines that scalded when they were played. Meatier, throater, thumpier, she has his extreme depth of feel, but she wields a broader sort of voice.
Shes the first act -- at high noon -- on the Which stage, to be followed by PASTE Magazine cover boy Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, a band named for the mental ward back home. Of Monsters and Men will follow, Jim James and Wilco, ZZ Top, Rayland Baxter. Every level, every kind of constellation, asteroid and shooting star imagined... Too many more to merely list here, and yet.
All before tonmorrow comes.

How It Smells.

For all the heat, the dust, the drying mud, it's mostly grass in the sun. There's the smell of smoke from the grilles near where there's cooking, good wood being burned to smoke or char or que some kind of flesh; a satisfying smell of sustenance being made.

A little patchouli, some incense being burned out on the sprawling fields. For all the porta-potties, it is not that smell of chemicals dissolving human waste, nor the nearly toxic stink strips hanging in truck stop toilets in the deepest parts of the South, or those cakes in urinals that are never changed enough.
Yes, you can smell the people. But the good smell of sweat on skin, of honest exertion and healthy diets. Not some noxious stench of those who refuse to bathe. It reminds you how powerful our own musk is, the way pheromones speak so much louder than anything we can say.
It is, of course, the first full day. But compared to the rank smells of crass commercialism that is CMA Fan Fest, carny food and wilting rayon outfits, cheap beer being poured and released back into nature, this is a whole other mass of flesh churning under the heat. Fascinating juxtaposition; that or an over/under of priorities meaning it's "about the experience" or charging $40 to park close-by...

Postcards from Bonnaroo: The First Missive

Like Zsa Zsa Gabor in "Green Acres," I say, "Good Bye City Life..." & trek off with my pink & green Lilly backpack to Bonnaroo. A first-timer after a life of red carpets, good hotels, fine dining, I am a Bonnaroo virgin. And while i love many, many of the bands, I must admit, I laughed when a friend met my query of "Can I survive Bonnaroo?" with the response, "Are you kidding? Can Bonnaroo survive you?"
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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

For The Love of Patti: Patti Davis Retires, Worlds Turn & Vertigo Sets In... Just A Little

You think they will always be there. Of course, you do. You are a child – and they are there.
Always. Always, always there.
When the people who should be aren’t, or are withholding, too exacting, even scary. The ones you come to believe are always there, well, they are the ones who are. You don’t even think about why, you just know – and that knowing makes quite a difference in an at times topsy turvy world of never knowing what.

I oughta know: mine was topsy turvier than most. But the hands that steadied me were also solid, and on the level; welcoming when they saw me and always, always making me believe I was worthwhile.

Such a woman is Patti Davis, who was always there. Always laughing, wiping down a counter and half bearing down on her “mmmmm…” going into the punctuative final declaration “…HMMMMMM.”

Patti didn’t need words. She had intonation.

That was all Patti ever needed. Just the way those Ms poured out, it was jocular punctuation, undeclared disgust, the occasional sigh of appreciation. But if you knew Patti, you knew… You just knew.

Patti Davis, in her blue uniform and white apron, appeared at the snack bar when I was too young to even know to time-stamp moments with years or ages. Down there with Ruby, the exotic Southern beauty. Holding court, feeding children, hushing us when needed, saying “no” when they had to.
Patti was earthier, somehow. Less ethereal, but more down with the how it was. And I loved Ruby. Everyone did. But Patti? Patti was our’s; we didn’t even know that cognitively, we just sensed it the way young animals in the wild know who to cling to.

Patti is, of course, legend for her chicken salad. The secret ingredient no doubt pride in her work – and how much she cares about the community that she built at the Shaker Heights Country Club, a community of members’ kids, the grateful parents who could see the bond and relaxed knowing someone else cared for their family and of course, her fellow staff members.

Anyone who ever saw Patti and Jeannie, the locker room lady who knew all, counseled many and never breathed a word of any of it, sharing a moment understood the delicious joy that comes from a friendship so much deeper than words or moments or hardships. Jeannie and Patti laughed with a knowledge and rapture that came from understanding – each other, themselves and the world around them.

That understanding extended to us, too. Understanding and acceptance, the two things that can’t be bought, bartered or brokered – only given, never taken. Always without the need for acceptance. Whether the other person realizes or not, the gift remains the same.

And Patti was gifted.

I can still see her, outside the swimmers side of the snack bar, playing kickball with the swimmers. Everyone laughing, Patti rolling the ball at the next kid up for their turn to kick. Patti had a mean roll. She laughed as hard as anyone; but she’d also screw up her face  and really try to make those rolls mean something.

For a bunch of skinny kids in form-clinging nylon Speedo bathing suits, skin wet with chlorine and Coppertone, hair slicked to their heads and sun-kisses scattered across their noses, Patti was the grown-up who’d be one of us. She could play as hard as anyone, and she could put us all in place with just the hint of scowl.

You never wanted Patti to turn cloudy on you, because you knew you’d crossed one of those lines a young lady or gentleman shouldn’t dare. If our parents taught us manners, Patti taught us how to be civilized in the world. She wasn’t Emily Post, she was more profound.

Just as importantly, Patti taught us dignity without ever lecturing. She knew and she understood the tides of adult lives washing aground, bruised or jagged on the rocks. She would look with such concern at those who were struggling, they’d almost feel better… just because someone had seen their pain, their struggle, their falter.
That was Patti: she knew out stories, our failings, our strengths – even when we didn’t know them ourselves. She knew those Mooney boys, the closest thing to Kennedys in Shaker Heights growing up in the 70s, could cut through the water like buttered blades, but that Kevin’s heart secretly pined for the golf course. That the Gardiner boys were raised by a mother who saw sunniness everywhere she looked – and they shared her ability to see better than often was. That the darkly handsome Mike Kelley, perhaps the best swimmer of all, brooded for reasons no one else recognized, but his elegance was the product of something that haunted an 11-, 12-year old bot that shouldn’t.
She saw it all. She knew, but never ever gave it away. That let her kept sending the good vibe, even when things seemed lost or beyond repair.

My father certainly had his share of struggles. A deeply good man who tried hard, taught me values that sustain and maintain me still, he battled demons self-inflicted and environmental, circumstances and – it turned out – biochemical.

But the road for my Dad was littered with a lot of rocks, stones, even boulders.
He did the best he could. He never stopped caring. Most importantly, he never let his passion falter. Ever. My father was a decent, but also passionate man.

When I was 15, all of the elements reached a crisis point. Too much, too long with no respite. You could say he snapped, but maybe he broke through. Regardless, he found himself in St Luke’s, locked down and very sad, not quite sure what all had conspired to put him there.

I know. I would make the trip two, three times a week to talk to the doctors about what went on at home, the things said, the moments shattered. The doctors were amazed: my father wasn’t delusional, he was telling the truth!

And he wasn’t raging, he was sad. A good man in a bad place. They realized the more they could give him to live for, the easier the treatment – eventually carefully regulated Lithium, something his bloodstream was lacking – would be.

So, three or four times a week, they would let me come get him. Let me take him places he loved, do things – such as he could with the off-kilter motor control the Lithium pre-proper levels – he loved.

But there was really only one thing Daddy wanted to do when I’d pull up and find him on the curb outside that grey/beige stone hospital.
“Take me for a cheeseburger,” he’d say, sliding into that 1972 lime green Mustang that had been my dear friend Blair. “The food in there is awful. It has no taste, and no one makes a burger like Patti.”

I’d spent that summer baking for my father. Blueberry streusel cakes, chocolate chip cookies, brownies and sour cream muffis, strawberry bread. Anything I could find that seemed interesting. Somehow even with all that, his khakis hung too loose off his hips, belt cinched as tight as possible, paperbag waist gathered to keep his pants up.

Telling the truth: people must have known. There are no secrets in small towns or country clubs. Most people’s silence is louder than throwing it in your face. But when you’re young, you’re also not so aware – of anything other than your concerns.

My concern, of course, was my sweet father. Daddy locked up in a ward with people who babbled, who didn’t speak, who didn’t seem to have even a tenuous tether to the world which I inhabited. Anything that could help accelerate his delivery from that place was something I wanted to be a part of.

“Take me for a cheeseburger” was my divine refrain that summer. Take him I did.

Patti always had a big smile for my father, had a “Well, Mr Gleason…” that set him at ease. Heck, it made him feel normal when nothing that summer was.
Patti didn’t even need the “What’ll you have?” My father always had the same thing. A cheeseburger on whole wheat toast with relish. Always.

They’d talk about nothing. I’d tune out, so my father could enjoy a little adult conversation with someone who wasn’t locked down or taking notes. Usually it was the weather or the golf course, who was playing well, what little bit of country gossip would be tenable instead of nasty.

“You don’t say?” my Dad would respond, as the hamburger Patti sizzled on the grill.

“Oh, yeah,” Patti would reply, savoring the validation. It was an easy moment for a man leading a very uneasy life.

During this time, people would often look away or dawdle when they saw my father coming. Even with his noted limp, swinging that one leg just a bit, he wasn’t the smoothest mover. But with the medication adjustment, his motor control made him a little herky jerky… like Talking Heads’ David Byrne without the artist’s grace.

There but for the grace of God… in action, people shyed away. Uncertain what to say to such a vibrant man so compromised.

But not Patti. She was easy with it. Easy and compassionate, strong in her embrace and resolved in her insistence on my father’s dignity. Insistence it was, too. My father made it hard to give him that.

Stubborn and proud, he wouldn’t acknowledge the effect the salt was having on his ability to weigh the amount or range of motion needed for many tasks. It was comedic in some sense, but mostly embarrassing for a man who traveled the world with such grace.

When the burger arrived, he and I would enjoy a pas de deux of request and action, reaction and result that was always the same. He would look hungrily and happily at the juicy sandwich before him. I would have the look of foreboding that came with what I believed to be inevitable.

“Would you like help with that?” I would ask.

His eyes would flash.

“I can feed myself.”
“Yes, Dad. I know…,” I would say, having gauged his walking and knowing the proper balance hadn’t been found. “But it’s the fine motor skills that aren’t quite calibrated yet.”

I would try. He would refuse.

So it would begin. The slow and methodic destruction of Patti’s perfect burger. His hands, unsteady and uncertain, would clutch at the buttered wheat toast that Patti had grilled. The baked and toasted surface would soak with juice and tear from the pressure. A bite or two in, the hamburger would start to crumble… bits and small chunks falling to the heavy cardboard plate beneath.

“Do you want help?” I’d whisper, knowing the burger was a goner.

Holding back tears, of frustration and embarrassment most likely, he’d shake his head no. Small movements, almost jagged, barely noticeable if you didn’t know him.

“Okay,” I’d say even softer, trying to ease his shame. He was, after all, a full grown man, a 4-time Club Champion, a leader in so many charitable endeavours, a believer in the kids who fell through the cracks championing encouraging and turning lives around.
He didn’t deserve this… Didn’t deserve to be seen so comprised. Yet, here he was. And the only thing in the world he wanted… wasn’t glory or money… just one of Patti Davis’ impossibly good cheeseburgers with sweet pickle relish.

It wasn’t too much to ask, but man, the reality sure came hard.

Finally he’d concede that the mess was too great. Sad at what this summer had come to, he’d just look at me, and say “Okay.”
“Okay” meant I could help. “Okay” meant he didn’t care about the sidelong glances and tsking that came our way, sitting on the golfers’ side of the Snack Bar, in the plastic molded chairs on thick all weather carpet that felt like industrial felt when your spikes sunk in.
We were watching the pines hang low and slow on the hillside banking the 10th tee. Time semi-suspended; reality denied for a few minutes while Dad pretended all was well – even though the remains of the battered burger would disagree.

“Okay,” I’d say back with a gentle smile, reassuring and encouraging. After all, it wasn’t his fault, it was just fate in this cruel moment of time.

Somehow Patti always knew. Always, always.

“Let me go order…,” I’d say, rising and twisting to put in my request.

But like my father’s order, that was never necessary. Patti already knew, was already loaded and ready.
“I got it,” she’d say some days, sliding the fresh cheeseburger across the counter to me.
Or else there woud be no words. Just her eyes meeting mine, a silent nod of “You’re a good girl. He’s a good man… Here you go” understood between the two of us.

Patti never needed to say. You just knew.
You knew she knew; and in her knowing, you did, too.

It would all be okay. Even if you had no clue or reason to believe, you could.

It was that simple.

Like knowing Patti would always be here. As she has been. For years. That sound force of life, moving through and setting the Shaker Heights Country Club. Watching all of us children come of age, and have children of our own. Seeing the way time cuts grooves into all of our lives, witnessing the growth, the mistakes, the falters and the victories.

Patti would see it, would know. All would be right with our world, our children’s worlds, the entire world.

Heaven knows, that second burger went down awesome. Me, urging my father not to gobble, not to chew like a wild dog. Him, so thrilled with the lightly seasoned meat, the melting American slice, the tartly sweet bits of pickle that he wanted to swallow it whole, but knew better.
It was heaven in a suspended moment. It wasn’t all right, but it was alright – and Patti would watch us with that patient, silent encouragement that was her stock in trade. That made Patti Patti.

I got the news a couple weeks ago that Patti was stepping down. The general manager had to call me about an accounting issue that had been so tangled and not resolved in a way that pleased me; he had to listen while I told him how ridiculous I thought it was.

When I was done, and he acknowledged the problem was on their end, his voice dropped.

“You know Patti?” he asked, quietly.

“Of course,” I said. But how do you tell someone new to the world how profound she is, was.

“She’s retiring,” he explained.

The world stopped. There in my queen-sized bed, the gazillion threadcount sheets and mountain of down pillows wadded up and around me, starting the morning as I often do – with stretching and email, writing and netsurfing in my nocturnal womb.

“Retiring?” I said it like I didn’t understand. Though of course I did.
I was now a grown woman, just slightly younger than my father back when she was an angel of elegant mercy for a man who was stumbling through getting better. That was a lot of time, and while we don’t notice the rushing of days, it doesn’t change their impact.

“Yes, she’s retiring,” he confirmed.

“Oh…,” and so it began. The reflection on those things that got me through my youth, through my childhood. The people who imbued me with a sense of self and faith that I probably had no right to. The notion that always isn’t really, no matter what you tell yourself.

I felt vulnerable in ways I didn’t know I could, fragile in the face that Patti wouldn’t always be there. I wouldn’t say that wry smile coming at me in a hall, or laugh about some small detail no one else would’ve noticed. Heck, someone who saw the best in my father at his worst – and never, ever forget how good he was.

Those are the people who make us rich. After 35 years, Patti had most certainly earned the right to some time for herself. She’d given so much to me, to my family, indeed, all the families over the years who made the Shaker Heights Country Club – rolling up on its centennial year in 1913 – a part of the fabric of their lives.

Country clubs are, for the most part, exclusionary. They foster a sense of elite, of being something more or better. Unless you were John Gleason, who viewed them as temples of golf, faith, family and community.

For my father, Patti was everything Shaker should be. She was everything he wanted me to be as well: accepting, forthright, compassionate, plucky, compunctive when necessary and willing to step up when needed.

I can’t even tell you all that I am because of Patti… Heck, because of Jeannie and Eph as well. But I know that I am. Indeed, I am far more than I might’ve been because of the woman who could put you in line, make you laugh, roll a mean kickball and make a second cheeseburger without being asked.

If I walk through this world and make it better at all, Patti Davis is a piece of that. For what she gave me, for what she taught me about the best parts of empowering others – and giving what people need whether the take it or not.

Maybe she’ll never walk a red carpet or see her name in lights, but her essence is in the light in my eyes. My eyes, honestly, and the eyes of so many others, too.

Knowing that Sunday they’re having a fete to celebrate her retirement, I smile. It won’t be nearly enough, but it’s the least that can be done. She can’t possibly know for that how much she’s meant to so many, but maybe it’ll give her the ghost of a sense.

I know I hope so. Not for me,or the other kids who grew up like I did, but for her. Because even though those who tend to give rarely like to receive, the knowing is important. What it all meant when one can only wonder? Well, that’s the gift they can’t ask for, can’t conjure, but deserve most of all.
My money’s on those of us who grew up better for Patti. That they’ll be there, that they’ll reach out, that they’ll give this wondrous woman as good as she gave us all of our scattered lives.

Sitting in a bakery in Hell’s Kitchen, ramping up for a day of spinning plates and brokering fame, I feel very small. Tonight, it will be the Bowery Ballroom, sold out for an impossible evocative singer of songs; Hannah Storm coming in to witness the magic and a slew of media people attending to see if David Nail is really real.

Theoretically, glamorous and fancy-dancing. But compared to what? Compared to what Patti gave the world, it feels pretty shallow and not important. I am covered in the tears of loss and disorientation: a star that I steer by is receding from the skies and won’t just be there.

Still, Patti would smile and say, “Look what you did…” Smile that cock-eyed smile and let you know it was plenty. Let you know it – whatever it was – was pretty fine.

I can only hope on Sunday, she knows how fine she always was – and how much we loved her for it.

-- 19 September 2012

 

 

Daddy's Gone: The Ky Headhunters, County Fairs, Hermit Club, Golf & John Gleason

In every life, we lose the people we love. We make peace with it, find our way, lean on friends -- sometimes friends we don't even realize are our friends. And then there's golf. "As in golf, as in life," John Gleason used to say. He was usually always right.
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Patsi Bale Cox: Real Broads Live on Their Own Terms, Stand Their Ground + Go Out More Alive Than Most People Live

Weeks before Patsi Cox left her mortal coil, she got busted. Riding shotgun down from Kentucky with a guy running moonshine; the feds in an unmarked pulled the pair over.  BANG! Put the bracelets on. Took her in. Couldn’t make the charges stick, but what an outlaw move!

How Patsi…

Right before she checked out, she goes flying on the wrong side of the law, laughing and telling stories, feeling more alive than most of us would ever dare. Sixty-some odd years old, and there she goes: 70 miles an hour through the dark, cargo of illegal hootch in the trunk.

Can’t think of a better move. Patsi, after all, filled out the definition of a broad with a ribald sense of humor, a fearless sense of right and wrong, humanity on the half shell and the willingness to speak out about the things that mattered to her.

Busted. Then she left the building. Smoking right up til the end… from emphysema… dying on the same terms she lived: exactly as she wanted. And if she knew it was going to get her in the end, hell, Patsi figured better that than being safe or boring.

Patsi’d always lived like that.

A bona fide hippie feminist, she came out of Denver when it was really wild – founder of a legit woman-concsious magazine in a place where that sorta thing seemed to matter. And when it became a raging success, and the big boys came a-callin’ to put her on their boards or big retainers – hoping to annex some validation from the homegrown Gloria Steinem – Patsy wasn’t buying in. She saw the game, and she moved on.

Moved on – and ended up in Nashville. Before it was sanitized of characters, people with opinions and notions and a sense of what great was. She fell in with a creative crowd, fringing with Johnny Cash cohort/songwriter/producer Cowboy Jack Clement, casting her fate with iconoclastic music biz vet Steve Popovich and producer  Allen Reynolds

With that broad laugh deepened by the cigarettes, she could regale you with stories, tell you about the over/under on just about any breaking news story, point out hypocrisy without blinking. She had an eye for injustice – and she’d let you know

She had an eye for good work. She’d let you know about that, too.

When Patty Loveless came over to Epic Records from powerhouse MCA, she had a blood vessel threaten to burst on her vocal chord and still turned in a stunning album. I went after the press with a vengeance.

And it all came in. Only What I Feel was just that good. Patty Loveless, the hard country girl from a God’s honest holler in Eastern Kentucky, a true hillbilly soul singer, was getting her’s.

Having known Patty since she was a singles artist, I remembered her buying vintage clothes and practically living out of the trunk of her little Toyota; I was merely a college kid, writing for all kinds of amazing places, but still mostly a kid. I took her shot personally. I hounded and reaffirmed, cajoled and reminded; she won.

When an ex-husband ran to the tabs with some very unflattering stuff, we fought it back. Addressed it once, waited for the pain to die down. What was sure career destruction was short-circuited.

Late one business day, the phone rang. It was Patsi, whose firm had represented Patty before she’d changed labels – before she'd some in-house, because honestly, I wanted to know everything was being doggedly pursued.

“I”ve been watching,” she said husky voice, all fire and corn whiskey.

My stomach tightened. As a young critic, plenty of people had thrown down the “why HER?” card, daggers at my feet and sniping at my back.

Patsi took things personally, too. Don’t show fear, I thought. Breathe. Just breathe. You can take whatever she’s gonna tell you.

“And…” I hoped I didn’t chirp.

“You’re doing a ^&%ing great job,” then she laughed. “Seriously. She’s finally getting what she deserves… and it’s been great to watch.”

We talked for another half hour. About Patty, where she came from, the secret marriage to her producer – for fear of it overshadowing the music, the songs she chose that gutted you like a fish.

The sun had fallen from the early summer sky. Surely, Patsi had a life to get back to. After all, who calls to say “Good job”? Especially when they don’t have skin in the game.

“You keep doing what you’re doing,” the journalist/publicist/force of nature said. “Before too long, she’s gonna be winning Female Vocalist of the Year.”

Just like Patsi to remember: the little girl, who’d grown up sitting on the kitchen table on Saturday night while her mother washed the floors as they both listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a radio propped in an open window, always dreamed of “the big award.”

When as a kid, her brother brought her down to Nashville to see about those songs she was writing, she was taken under the wing of Porter Wagoner and his emerging equal Dolly Parton. She went to the Ryman as their guest the night they won their first CMA Duo of the Year Award – and she was dazzled by the way Dolly turned real life into songs, songs that mirrored Loveless’ emerging emotions.

“Yeah, Pats,” I concurred. “From your lips to God’s ears…”

“You’ll see,” she soothed. Then she was gone.

That was the woman with the headful of shaggy faded ebony curls, huarache sandals and some kind of boxy clothing on. She always knew when to weigh in. She made her point. Then she was gone.

She was the wingman for Cathy Gurley, who at one point ran the Country Music Association’s press department. Then went on her own. Then was lured to Capitol by the legendary music man Jimmy Bowen, just as the ascent of Garth Brooks was beginning.

Cox had been around Mercury when Steve Popovich had signed a politically (radio)active Kris Kristofferson, a theoretically past-his-shelf-life Johnny Cash, a West Virginia folkie with a voice like expensive silk named Kathy Mattea and yes, polka king Frank Yankovic – and she got them all.

Yankovic, proof that a bull-headed Pollock from Cleveland can never ever get above their raising, made Patsi happy. She got it, and never worried that he wasn’t “country,” because to Pops Poland was a country.

Gurley, like Patsi Cox, loved songwriters. She took me to the Bluebird on my first trip of Nashville in 1983… to see an “in the round,” with Tom Schuyler, who wrote the songwriters anthem “16th Avenue,” Paul Overstreet, responsible for Randy Travis’ “Deeper Than The Holler” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” and Fred Knobloch, who’d paired with sadly departed folk icon Steve Goodman for the stunning tortured torch of “A Lover Is Forever.”

Cathy Gurley sat me down, waited for it to happen. Boy, did it. The power of songs from the source is a blast from a high pressure hose, only it comes at the listener soft and warm and earnest. It was a watershed…

It was also exactly what Patsi Cox traded in. Exactly that mainlining life that made her feel most alive.

Not that a woman like Patsi Cox would ever be fulfilled apologizing and ratcheting up the fame mill. Eventually she drifted back to writing. Authoring Tanya Tucker’s autobiography in a deal brokered for big dollars by a New York agent who didn’t care about whatever humanity the wild child singer might still have.

It was a devil’s deal. What Tucker wouldn’t commit to telling, what the publisher believed they'd bought.
One of the good ones, Patsi understood how a woman who had a couple kids – regardless of how much cocaine she’d ingested, how many cowboys she’d poked, how tempestuous her bust up with Glen Campbell was or how superfreaky her dalliance with Rick James might have been – would not wanna wallow in the squalor.

She stood on my stoop one night, sucking on a cigarette, ruing what people value.

“They only want the dirtiest stuff, and I’m not gonna give it to them,” she announced proudly. “T. doesn’t wanna. The publishers are telling me to push her – and there’s just a point where it doesn’t matter. I’m at that point.”

Ahhh, Patsi, who would never prey on a famous person’s vulnerability. No, she was the kind who would bow up and stand strong for her collaborators.

Pat Benatar fell in love with her when Patsi co-authored her memoir.

Toni Braxton took and took her time and money to where she almost bankrupted the feisty woman who hated what had happened to Braxton, who had faced down a bankruptcy over predatory show biz deals.

Thankfully, an angel appeared from almost nowhere. We were on the phone one night, talking about the politics of Music Row – the peril of knowing the difference, the things that were really at stake.

She got quiet. “If it wasn’t for…(name of angel, she probably wouldn’t want revealed)… I’d’ve been in the streets And they told me to just pay them back when I could, and I almost have.”

She was quiet one more moment, out of gratitude and grace. Then she laughed that rolling tumbleweed laugh, and did a Patsi.

“It’s a helluva ride,” she marveled.

Oh, Patsi. Patsi, Patsi, Patsi.

Damn you! The truth so succinct, so true – and, well, so thrilling.

Over the last few years, things for me have been a bit off-kilter. Things you thought you could count on, people you were sure you could believe in… Well, they’re not always that.

Patsi understood. We’d talk about it. She never pressed for details, just asked “How ya doing?”

The conversation veering from faith to raw stupidity.

“How do you believe when there’s no reason to? What a sucker,” I lamented one afternoon.

“Nah, you’re never wrong to believe, Holly,” she consoled. “You know, if you don’t believe, I don’t think you’d be one damn bit good. It’s who you are, it’s what you do… and if somebody betrayed that, well, that tells you everything about them, doesn’t it? And now you know, and you don’t ever have to look back.”

Patsi did, though. She looked back without turning to a pillar salt like Lot’s wife. Looked back to make order out of random patterns no one saw; looked back and considered what it all meant.

Her book The Garth Factor examined the impact of the arena-sized country superstar from Oklahoma, not just on the country music business, but the world. She looked at how it happened, what it wrought.

She did it with clarity, and she did it with faith.

“Keep the faith,” she’d remind me when I’d be laid low. “Keep the faith. It’s what you do… Well, that and write like nobody I know.”

We would IM about politics, about hinky stuff happening down on Music Row. She’d pull no punches, call a spade a spade. We were both relieved someone else saw what we did…

There was nothing like seeing her pop up as an IM. Like electricity, you knew the exchange would be fast, furious, provocative and send you away enlivened and emboldened.

When Steve Popovich died suddenly, we were all startled. He was the man who built Meatloaf out of raw will, sheer determination and the steel-hard get it done work ethic that is the Rust Belt smelt of Pennyslvania, Ohio, Detroit -- and he knew how to get things done, how to ferret out the passionistas from the poseurs.

He was mythic from my childhood, almost too daunting by the whispers I’d heard floating around my hometown to speak to. I found myself driving north to the funeral, sitting with a man he’d signed to Epic New York who he couldn’t break and Popovich ultimately would have to cut from the label.

Me and the singer had an odd talk about death after the service. “The good ones are dropping,” he said.

It shook me as bad as the service. I found myself writing one of these essays. Staying up all night, then flying to Nashville to drive to Savannah to interview Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, watch the show, pass out and drive back to Nashville to fly back to Cleveland – and finish that essay.

When I walked into the same chic restaurant I’d had dinner in all by myself two nights prior, they remembered me. The manager led me outside, watched me open my keyboard and asked if I was okay.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But I gotta get this right.”

Patsi Cox was one of the first people to respond. “You got it” came the three word email. Phew!

Later online, she told me all kinds of stories about the close knit family that were interwoven with her own family. How Pop believed in her, and we both knew that was a pretty good endorsement.

She got guys like that. They got her, too. She was the kinda broad they liked. Tough, savvy, testicle-busting, but the first one to stand up to you, but especially for you.

Then just like Steve Popovich, Patsy was gone. In and out of the hospital, obviously. Oxygen pumped in, but the laughter and her intolerance for b.s. never pulled out.

Even so, few things were so vital as seeing “what are you doing?” or “did you see…” pop up on your screen. She was a live wire, a brilliant source of questioning and insight.She made you think; she made you care.

Funny thing, life doesn’t distinguish. Death hits us all.

And right now, as I’m wedged between two promotion veterans, winging my way to Vegas, there’s a memorial service going on at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

One more moment I miss, and yet, Patsy would’ve probably said, “Get out there! LIVE.”

Still, it's the things you miss. Being there. Tall tales that are anything but. Patsi Cox’s just about last ride was shotgun with a shine-runner. It’s the stuff legends and lies are made of, but you know Patsi Cox lived her life her way... never lying down or worrying about what might happen.

“It’s a helluva ride,” she marveled. She would know.We should all hope to be so lucky.

 

 

Steve Popovich, Bill Johnson: Passion, Fight, Creativity + Rock & Roll Dreams

Steve Popovich, Bill Johnson

Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through

    I'm in a shitty hotel room, chattering and chilled to the bone. I've driven all day, and it doesn't even matter. Sometimes you do what you have to do - even when it doesn't make sense to the people that know you.

     It's not irrational. I know exactly why I'm here -- shivering, waiting for the heat to actually kick in. And it's not just the funeral for an iconoclast with a huge heart and bigger balls, even though that's why I'm here.

     It is about the world in which we live, the vineyard in which I've toiled going on thirty years. It's the way I spent my life and the beliefs I've held. Especially at a time when doing the right thing, fighting for greatness, believing the music matters is at best quaint, but most likely is viewed - no matter what “they” say - as chump stuff.

     Steve Popovich, who passed away Jun 8th in Murfreesboro, TN, would disagree. He'd tell you to fight for what's right, to stand up for what's different, believe in the music, not the business or the politics or the egos… to know great, no matter the guise, and make sure it gets heard.

     Steve Popovich was that kind of guy. That's how he lived… right til he died.

     That kinda guy… big, bottomless heart. True believer. Fearless advocate for what he believed. Tireless in pursuit of great music - be it progressive polka bands like Brave Combo or Michael Jackson, Boston or David Allen Coe. When Meatloaf sold 200,000 copies of his first album and Epic Records informed him they'd done all they could do, Popovich went market-by-market and created a sensation, making Bat Out of Hell the biggest selling record that year.

      That's the thing about true hearts and big dreams… they don't let go. They'll haunt you. Take hold and keep holding. Rarer than rubies, when you encounter one, you never forget. They will make you do things you can't believe you're doing…

     Like driving 10 hours dead exhausted at the end of a record launch and an Oscar winner on a red carpet… to sit in a church where I know barely anyone… to honor a legacy so many would never understand. Because it's just not done that way. Not any more. Not to the point where people even understand why it matters.

     And yet, if you know, experienced, saw or even glimpsed Steve Popovich in action, there was no way you could turn away. How could you? To see passion, raw and unfiltered, 250 proof and looking for matches… that was the kind of thing that left people speechless.

     Only Steve Popovich would never settle for that. He wouldn't let people stand by mute. He'd cajole and engage and encourage. He wanted you to know… for sure… but he wanted to know. All about you. And every single you in the room, the street, the world. What did you think? need? feel? what makes you thrill? ache? rage?

     He was genius at it.

     Which is what made him the kind of promo man who can change everything for a rocker, a songwriter, a band

     Which is what made him the kind of A&R man who could convince a barely post-teenage Michael Jackson to sign with Epic Records.

     Which made him the kind of guy who picked up Johnny Cash and polka king Frankie Yankovic during his Nashville tenure and let them feel like kings, not scraps in a record business that seemed to have thrown them away.

     That was the thing about the coal miner's son from Western Pennsylvania, he not only knew the margins, he understood them. Just like he understood the working class, the blue collar, the faceless mass that one by one added up to platinum, double platinum - or in the case of a husky operatic tenor with designs on rock & roll, 14 million in the end.

     That was the thing about Steve Popovich - as Meatloaf, that 14 million piece success, so beautifully noted as he eschewed the podium to stand by the white draped casket at St John of the Cross: “Steve passed on us twice, but he never dismissed us.”

     Steve Popovich wouldn't. Indeed, couldn't. If he hid behind the notion he was just “some Hunkie,” he understood the power of passion. Knew that if you had talent fueled by that ardor, there was nothing you couldn't do… you just had to believe and refuse to give up.

     No matter how crazy or futile it seemed. As industry legend Ron Alexenburg noted, Steve Popovich carried Meatloaf's flame for almost a year - one market at a time - until Bat Out of Hell kicked in. In his tenacity, he wouldn't give in. In his faith, a superstar was forged.

     Someone spoke of his denial, how it kept him from embracing how mighty his opponents were… and how that allowed him to persevere. They talked of how every day the business broke his heart, but every morning, he woke up happy, willing to believe in the power of dreams and music.

     He took on - and beat in court - Sony Music, a behemoth multi-national corporation. Never one to be intimidated, he knew his truth - and he wouldn't be brow-beaten or condescended to by a group of Harvard-educated attorneys.

     He was Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. Only Steve Popovich helped so many people get their hands on the brass ring… built bridges when it wasn't happening… created chances where anyone else would've laughed. Boston, Southside Johnny, the Michael Stanley Band.

     He believed in people who believed in their music, who had the fire and weren't afraid to blow on the flame until it burst into some kind of blaze. Even the Michael Stanley Band - whose seminal Stagepass is reputed to have sold gold on Northern Ohio copies alone - turned into a powerhouse of mythic Midwestern proportion: selling out the Richfield Coliseum for two nights faster than Led Zeppelin, staging multiple SRO night stands at the outdoor amphitheatre Blossom Music Center and retiring with a ten night capacity stand at the more dignified Front Row.

     Two out of three of those places are gone. Blossom, summer home to the Cleveland Symphony, has a few other reasons to survive. But all those altars to what music can mean to kids coming of age in the real world before reality tv, leaked home porn and trainwreck drug use could make anyone a sensation… That was the thing that Steve Popovich instinctively knew and absolutely built a life on.

     And so the tributes came: Clive Davis. Miami Steve Van Zandt, Ian Hunter. Meatloaf in person, and 80s teen sensation Robbie Benson.  Record men, local ethnic people he'd embraced, national level radio bigwigs, co-workers from back when, Northern Ohio icons like Daffy Dan and Beachland Ballroom owner Cindy Barber, dignitaries from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and family. Especially family.

     If Steve Popovich loved music, he stood for family. How many of the speakers called him “Pops,” and that was how the larger - literally and figuratively - than life figure liked it. He believed in his kids, his grandkids, other people hanging onto their roots and their blood.

     He was fierce about that, fierce the way only a Midwesterner who believed in certain kinds of sanctity can be. That notion of how strong family is gives them a foundation to dig in and fight, to believe in loyalty, commitment and making something more where nothing exists. But it's never nothing - there is always the invisible connection that is family, friendship, creativity, respect.

     Funny thing about this death. Came just when I'm drifting. Not sure if any of it matters, if people care about songs that reach down inside, show you what you didn't know you were feeling, reminded you how great something small can be. Things that last, because they're things that can be cemented by small groups of people.

     It's been a long time since I've truly worked a record. But a promise made three years ago has found me guardian angel-ing The Dreaming Fields by Songwriter Hall of Famer Matraca Berg. It's a grown up work about how life buckles and stumbles, the things we do to survive, coping with disappointment and soldiering on. It harkens back to Neil Young's most organic records, Joni Mitchell's more brooding, personal works.

     The journalists are overwhelmed. Too much grunt work, not enough inspiration. Little records that could - especially ones that don't come on their own wave of critical mass - are impossible dreams. Every placement just about is hand-over-hand, phone-call-after-phone call.

     But the record is --- in a world where hyperbole has become the new white noise and platitudes land like so many leaves in the fall, weightless and anonymous - amazing. Once people hear it, they're transfixed; their souls open and they remember how music can change everything.

     The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Rolling Stone The Boston Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The Huffington Post, No Depression.com and NPR's All Things Considered are the tip of the iceberg. There is more to come… and there is SIRIUS/Xm, too.

     Popovich would approve. The calling and witnessing for love, not money, friendship, not career move. But it's labor intensive, and who works like that anymore? Why would you? And with every placement so hard won, how long can you keep it up? How many hits until some kind of word of mouth critical mass kicks in?

     At what point does the dreamer become a fool?

     At what point does forgoing one's life in the name of someone else's dream seem lunacy not heroism?

     At what point do you realize the loyalty you show may not be the loyalty returned?

     Michael Stanley, a Popovich windmill, would write a song called “Different Reasons” that contains a lyric that speaks to it all:

     “You can always tell a dreamer,

     “You just can't tell them,

          “tell them anything…”

     And so it is. A girl an ocean away, fixing to play the legendary Glastonbury Festival. Her oldest friend, sitting in a church pew, wondering how everything that mattered got lost in the flood. A roomful of folks who know the difference feeling cuckholded by the status quo.

     But once you know, how can you not know?

     How can you honor Steve Popovich and accept the diminishing of what can be?

 You don't. Indeed, you can't.

     It is three days later. I am in a progressive bistro near Case Western Reserve University, near Hessler Street and all the museums, the symphony hall; I'd come here after the funeral, to think and drink and escape - and I have returned to finish this.

     In 48 hours, much has happened.

     A 3:30 rise for a flight to Nashville to drive 500 miles to Savannah, Georgia to get out of the car and interview Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks about their band. To make sense of my notes, to watch the show - and musicians engaging in webs of soul, of funk, of jazz, even as they grounded in a gritty blues-steeped rock.

     They were exultant. The horns and the singers, the twin drummers, the bass player who plays like the best chocolate cake, creamy and dark and sweet and moist, a keyboardist who evokes and steams the songs and Trucks' liquid solos that are mercury and ether, melodic without being complex to the point of constriction.

     And Tedeschi sings like breathing, soul exhalations of doubt and need and desire.

     It is a holy thing, and they have forged a family out there. Not just with the kids and the parents on the road, but the whole 11 man band and crew. It is what the Allmans might've been long ago without the drugs and the drama, but regal and engaged.

     Popovich would've got it, liked it. Family hanging together, making it work, creating something sultry, satisfying and stirring. The very best of what can be.

     And then back awake, scanning the radio, driving I-16 to I-75 to I-24. Five hundred miles with two bursts of hail, to pay some bills, wash some clothes and go to the airport again.

     Somewhere in the blur of a 1000 miles in 24 hours, more news arrived. Bill Johnson, the twice Grammy-winning art director from Sony Nashville, a visionary Rolling Stone Art Director responsible for too many iconic pictures - including Patti Smith smudged with soot between two burning oil barrels, has passed on as well.

     Another wild creative, bon vivant, curator of love and people, a believer that the pictures had to be as potent as the music. A charming smile, a fearless sense of finding more in the crassest product.

     He was a genius, a smart ass, a mutterer, grumpy and excited. Mostly, though, he was the keeper of one of the greatest loves I've ever seen: he and his wife Cynda burned with attraction and appreciation, grace and possibilities. To see them was to know what love is.

     What love is…

     For the music, for the family, for each other. It is the currency on which everything that matters runs. Hotter, faster, deeper, more… yeah, whatever.

     Sitting shell-shocked with a French press of coffee, in a town where my values were defined, I can only wonder about how things that matter have become so transitory. I know that you can't force others to know the difference, but you can expose them and hope they recognize the gap.

     Steve Popovich did. So did Bill Johnson. They got it. And they believed it was worth fighting for. You could say it was a different time, and it was. But if their lives truly marked us, then how do you walk away when you know?

     Somewhere in the clouds that have just dumped an hour of solid rain on this slate patio beyond a picture window, I can see him in sweat pants and baggy baseball jacket laughing, thinking “Yeah, she's got it.”

     Not because he wants to be right, but because he wants people to remember… Remember the reasons why, the things that last, not even what he did. What he did is written in the books, how he lived can live on if we just refuse to accept the erosion and status quo.

     Know the difference, raise the flag. Be the standards you know, not the getting by, plastic injection-molded faux soul, pseudo-emotion pap that passes. It can be fomented via Twitter, youtube, Pandora and the rest, but it ain't built to last.

     Watching the sun come out, I consider what I know… and how strong I might be.

     While world jazz plays on the sound system, I hear a searing voice. Ronnie Dunn's power exhortation, from the chilling kid grows up country-gospel witness “I Believe.”

     “And you can't tell me all this ends/

     “With a long ride in a hearse…”

     Surely, no. Surely, no. If we live to believe we're leaving something behind, then consider the lives that have touched your's, and believe. Sad as I am, raw as I will be for a while, I do. And that, in this puddle of pain, is a pretty great truth to hang onto.

Burying Zelda/Zelda's Last Ride

Sarah always knew the call would come. Never sure when, just that it would. She knew how much pain I was in, the shock, the amputation of the very best part of me. Zelda would get her final bye-bye… a last trip in the big big car, in Zelda's backstage lounge, white lines and fence posts blurring before her mighty spaniel presence.
     It was just a matter of time, of stremgth, of being able to face it.
     I called the night before, letting her now I'd be coming.
     “Don't worry,” said the whip smart young woman who run Brentwood Veterinary Clinic. “I'll be here.”
     I didn't even think: did that mean she was coming in special? Or she would be working?
     I didn't know. Heck, I wasn't completely sure which way north was, just that the highway signs would get me there. I'd spent my life trusting highway signs, and somehow I'd always - through grace, maps, truckers and tour managers - arrived where I was going.
     This, though, was different. This was Zelda. She was going to where she could sleep forever, dream of the perfect world and be still. Well, as still as Wonderspaniels can be when they pass on, but refuse to leave their Mommy.
     
     It had been a horribly busy summer. Kenny Chesney isn't the biggest ticket-seller - doing more than a million tickets each year - for no reason. In the madness, the churning, the dealing the stadium shows - where Zelda had spent her last weekends, one can't step off the carousel. Not really, 
     So, you have to wait. Until there's a moment. And the pain compounds. That's the part you lie to yourself about. Packing the car for that trip to Cleveland was like moving through quick drying concrete; the striped LL Bean bag from Allison, the brown canvas that expands magically from the store in Chagrin Falls where Zelda almost got me arrested, the Chan Luu British West Indies shawl for her casket…
     Her casket. I started to sob. Garage door not even open, and I'm howling. Howling: something Zelda would never do. I could see her snap her head away from me, “Pas du howling! Talk to the paw!”
     She was funny that way. “Don't embarrass me.”  And of course, “Smells like poop!”
     You would be amazed how many people smelled like poop! She had no tolerance for b.s.
     “Zelda, I can't…,” I tried to reason out loud. “I just can't.”
     I could feel her face turn back to me, all puzzlement and amazement.
     “Yes, you can,” said the ghost blond. “Yes, yes, you can… You can take me bye-bye. You can drive fast and roll down the windows, open the moon roof, play the music loud! You can take me away, take me to places, remember how good it feels to be alive!”
     Even in death, Zelda got it. More than I did most days. An angel with furry paws, soft ears and the ability to melt into you, even when she was mostly just bones and fur. Especially when she got down to just bones and that fluffy fur we'd stopped grooming.

     The car door closed with a dull thud. The ignition turned over like it did every day. The garage door rumbled up, and looking in the back seat, at the folded boiled wool Indian blankets and velvet throws, I tried to smile. It didn't work, so I just tried to hold my lips without shaking.
     I put the car in reverse, exhaled hard and took my foot off the brake. So, this is how the real end begins. Just ease out of the garage, down the drive and turn onto the road. Get on Granny White Pike, past the sprawling yards, classic old Southern homes and past Otter Creek Road where we'd turn to walk her beloved Radnor Lake.
     I wanted to go slow, Zelda wanted me to go fast.
     “It'll be an adventure,” she said, in that voice I'd been hearing for years. Once she'd come out of her shell - after her brother died, Zelda sure he was the object of her homicidal plan - she started talking, and she never stopped. Old French red wine, certain kinds of jazz and funk and girl singers and Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, looks that didn't work and “smells like poop.” 
     People thought the artist development consultant humanized the pretty yellow dog, then they'd spend time with her. Once they got past her annoyance that she was being viewed as “a dog,” the uncanny would happen. “Uhm. Holly, I know what she's thinking…” came the chorus over and over again.
     Zelda knew how to make her wishes, preferences and general commentary clear.
     Even now. “Adventure. Fun. Faster!”

     I called as I was driving. Let Sarah know I'd just passed the Granny White Market, was getting close. “Pull in the back,” she said. I figured it was to shield the staff from a jag of sobbing. Then again, who wants the owners seeing a tiny casket draped in natural fabric with cocoa henna print being carried out. Sarah, who Zelda loved, thinks of everything.
     She was waiting. Face set like granite. She met my eyes, telegraphing strength.
     I knew this needed to happen. I got it. I just… well… didn't want… to let… go.
     “You okay?” she asked. 
     What do you say? I bobbed my head. What could I say? She knew.
     “Okay, I'm gonna go get her… You ready? You putting her in the back?”
     Sarah knew about Zelda's Backstage Lounge, where the Stinkerbelle held court and was chauffeured about. She could most likely tell it was made up for the trip.
     I bobbed my head again, tried a weak smile.
     Sarah's lip quivered a little, too. She turned, disappeared through the backdoor.
     She emerged with a small beige fiberglass box. Not very big at all. I knew inside, there wa a pink velvet blanket, a St Francis of Assisi and a St Christopher medal, a baby Eeyore, her pink collar and a note I'd left with them. Hard to believe that much baby dog could be held in something so small, but with Zelda, it was always the spirit, not the frame.
     “You're really gonna put her in the backseat?” Sarah marveled.
     “Where else?” was the rhetorical answer question. 
     We both knew the looking back would be a papercut, but this was Zelda's last ride. This was her very favorite thing. There was no bye-bye too mundane, too long, too tedious to bore her. She had driven from Nashville to Martha's Vineyard in the worst of winter; driven the parking lot of Memensha - straight into the waves without ever moving; she'd driven from the Vineyard to Cleveland, Ohio one late wet fall for my mother's funeral, collar wrapped in black grosgrain, much to the priest's dismay.
     And now she was making one final trip to Cleveland. 
     I smoothed the shawl over the little box, laid a couple flowers down. Sarah nodded. 
     She and I hugged, and the vet's manager handed me a mix-tape CD. “When I get sad, this helps,” she told me. And I knew she knew, indeed, understood.
     “Thanks.”

     She watched me drive away. She might've been crying. Or maybe it was the tears in my eyes, making everything swim. But I had my Zelda, the Deanerschnitzel. So sweet, so cute, so sardonic. And we were going to drive and drive and drive!
     “You ready, poodle?” I asked. Thougb I knew I didn't need to. She was always ready.
     Nosed into the traffic, turned right on Old Hickory, found the on-ramp for 65 North.
     We were gone.
     
     463 miles doesn't look like a lot on paper. It really doesn't feel like much, either, when you're watching the farms, the little cities, the giant dinosaur statues near Glasgow, Kentucky. Not when you're born to drive, to fly really over scarred and veined concrete, black top, whatever kinda paving they're using. The bridges seem to be connectors over lakes and rivers - concrete in some places, steel going into Cincinnati.
     Zelda knows every inch of this drive. We talk about all the trips and reasons she went to Cleveland: Thanksgiving with cousins on my father's side, concerts and peace of mind. She loved the apartment on Van Aken, walking the second and third fairways of the Shaker Heights Country Club in the snow, sleeping in the backseat under a bunch of blankets while some band was playing, being fussed over by Alex Bevan, who “got” her, as she was, not as some pretty dog. 
     She'd be seeing the man who's music embroidered my growing up with sweet songs like “Rainbow” and “Rodeo Rider” soon enough. She was in the backseat of the big green car with the Allman Brothers Eat A Peach up loud. “Ain't Wastin' Time No More,” indeed.

     It took a lot to figure out where to bury her. Zelda was clear: nowhere near F. Scott - or as she called him “my damned brother” - would work. She wanted to be somewhere I'd visit, somewhere she loved. I thought about Martha's Vineyard, where Ali Berlow roasted her duck hearts; her son Eli worshipped her and followed her and made a true friend out of the reticent, reluctant Spaniel. Indeed, where she created havoc, tormenting Mr Berlow and then oldest son Max with well-placed pools of displeasure intended to express just how “pissed off” she was.
     “But, that's not our's,” she whispered as I would drift off to sleep in a bed too big without her.
“No, Mommy, find some place that's your's and nobody else's.. but some place I've been.”
     I'm not sure when it hit me, but one day, sitting on her bench at Radnor I knew. 
     The Club. The Shaker Club. Under the willow trees, down by the creek on 12. It was a spot of much peace, not in play for the golfers where I had slept on many slow, heavy heat-steeped afternoons growing up. There was no more serene spot in the world, which is why I would nap there… and where Zelda could watch the world go by in an idyllic environment - with enough golfers and wildlife to not feel alone.
     The willows on 12. Of course. Mine for the sleeping, her's for eternity.
     But the plan had not gone well. The club manager, not known for his warm sense of engagement, couldn't be bothered. Ran me around, made up excuses, never called back. I'd love to think he was thwarting me, but I know indifference when I see it… 
     I was ruing my lack of success to an old friend over soup the beginning of July. He of the sangfroid exterior and unruffled-able worldview. He regarded me closely. A dog person, he knew my pain; a former child of the '60s, rules weren't even to be broken, but more ignored if a higher morale compass was iengaged.
     “What you need is a Carl…,” he said in the low voice tempered by cigarettes and time.
     “Carl?” The lady who helped raise me's husband's name was Carl. But he was long gone to aShriner's Home or Heaven. Most likely the latter, and my friend didn't know his name.
     “Carl,” came the response. Flat. Given.
     “Carl?” I echoed.
     “I thought you were a golfer,” he returned, sitting up a little straighter, leaning in a little closer.
     “Your point?” I was anguished and now getting annoyed.
     “Didn't you see 'Caddyshack'? You need Carl,” he said evenly and not unkindly.
     “Carl,” I intoned. This time as sacred mantra. Carl, the stoner groundskeeper, obsessed with his chores, varmints, a world that has nothing to do with the regimentation of club life. Carl.
     I smiled. He smiled back, brown eyes sparklng a little, knowing he'd not just solved my problem, but had moved Zelda a little closer to her final resting place. Sometimes solutions aren't obvious.
     And I found Carl. On the 4th of July. Running yellow nylon rope. To keep the kids back form where the fireworks would fall after exploding. If my initial outburst - “Do you work here?” -- met with confusion and  its follow -- “I need you” -- inspired fear, my story hit his soft spot.
     The girl with the 17 _ year old Cocker Spaniel looking to bury her baby where she slept as a kid. The unresponsive club manager. The fact that months had passed. “Will you help me?” I asked.
     A tangle of curls, the firm physicality of youth and working outdoors made this someone Zelda would put her faith in. Not the logical candidate, but Zelda liked strength and personal conviction, not what everybody else sought 
     “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I will.”

     It was sometime in August by the time I could get away from the tours, the press releases, the tv and the what comes next. There had been an Entertainment Weekly piece that had a website coda which painted a very honest, highly vulnerable picture. It raised questions, those questions needed time to address with the people who asked, to explain so the client didn't look whiny.
     There was so much going on, and when I buried Zelda, I needed to do it completely. All me, all her, all about perhaps the greatest love of my life.
     When I finally called “Carl,” he'd about given up on me. He'd gone out to the site, which I'd also scoped. The willow trees had been cut down, a tragedy given their age and expanse, but there was this notion of galleries for golf tournaments - and so, away with the willows.
     Instead, I had found a small cluster of pines, some kind of special variety where the branches drooped and the long needles leaned down, seeming to sigh from the quiet cool of the moment when day surrendered to twilight. It was just as beautiful, off to the side of the green, also out of play, out of the way. No reason to ever cut them down, peaceful like the slumber of spaniels.
     We reconfirmed the spot. He told me not to worry. He suggested I meet him at the greenskeeper's shack, which was anything but. He'd figure out how to help me get Zelda's casket to where it was going… rather than parking behind a wall, by the tennis courts and negotiating a particularly steep incline.

     I had called a preacher's son from Macon, Georgia. What kind of scripture do you read at a time like this? What verses are right? What note to you strike? And I called Alex Bevan, who'd sung so sweet at my mother's funeral… who'd looked into Zelda's thickly cataracted eyes and smiled so she could see him.
     If there was a constant of kindness from childhood through my grown life, it was Alex Bevam. Not quite a friend, not really a brother, sort of a soul companion from somewhere else. For he was always on the shores of Lake Erie, threading the Grand River, the Emerald Necklace of the amazing park system - and I was somewhere in the wind, a postcard, an email, a call at random hours.
     “Would you come?” I'd asked. “Would you mind?”
     Alex Bevan has always had a soft spot for broken things, fallen birds, lost dogs and people out of sorts. He looked at his book, and said, “Of couirse.”
     He laughed when he heard where it was. Said “Of course,” again. Asked me what time about.
     Since this was clandestine, it could be midnight. Or twlight. It would depend on the road, and what kind of time I was making. 
     Everyone who needed to know knew. I was somewhere above Louisville, in the 90 miles where there just isn't much. Today, there would be no Reality Tuesday Coffeeshop, just before getting to Cincinnati. I had a holy trip to make, and nothing - beyond filling up the car - would stop me.
     “Hey. Zelda,” I said outloud. “We're finally getting you to Cleveland… We're finally gonna put you to sleep in your own little bed.”
     I could feel her smile form the backseat, feel the little nub of tail thumping against the cushion.
     Jackson Browne sang “Love Needs A Heart” from his song cycle about the life of the touring rock star Running On Empty. “Proud and alone, cold as a stone,” came the lyric from the speaker. Deaner liked the delicious sadness, but she wanted something… more.
     “Hey,” I could her little spaniel voice intone, “what about 'You Love The Thunder'? Now that gives you a little more traction in the pain.”
     “Pain?” I heard my voice say. “Are you kidding me?”
     I couldn't tell Zelda how bad it hurt. Beyond the fact that she already knew, I knew she'd held on so weak and frail, because she didn't wanna see me cry like that. She was the strong one, the fierce one: Zelda Warrior Spaniel, mighty, mighty broker of  munk death.
     Even when she was slipping from this realm, she would put a paw on my face, look into my eyes when we'd be sleeping and tell me, “It'll be okay.” Because it is. Life goes on. Even with a giant hole torn out of it. You don't get any choice, except to keep on.
     Still in heaven, Zelda finds her ways.
     Not long after she died, the phone rang and a thick, long, slow drawl poured out.
     “Hah-leeeee,” came the gnarled male voice. “Yeeewwww dewwwwin ohhh-kayyyyy?”
     I started to cry. It was Richard… Young… from the Headhunters. When I'd first moved to Nashville and was having a hard time adjusting after life in LA, he'd been my angel of how to adapt. I'd tried to help him understand being a “thing” because the Kentucky Headhunters were exploding. But as much as musicians crave adoration and attention, he was too genuine to have people respond to a notion and not his humanity. 
     “Honey, what's the matter?” he asked, clearly unprepared for the gale-force he was getting.
     I explained in snorts, sobs and stammers. He listened. He let me cry. He took it all in.
     Richard Young is a farm boy in a lot of ways. He keeps bird dogs. 
     But he's got a tender heart for all the biker exterior. When I finally got done, he was just quiet for a bit. I've known him long enough to know he's thinking. Looking for the appropriate thing to say, the insight that might help.
     “Well,” he finally said, “you know, it hurts so bad because you loved her so much.”
     I whimpered.
     “No, baby, that's the deal. And you should be glad it feels like that… because it tells you how much you loved that little yeller dog… and you know, too, that little dawwwg with thuh great big heart, she loved you even more than you loved her… if that's possible.”
     Richard Young. Hillbilly Buddha with a low slung Les Paul and a loose downstroke.
     He was right. I sniveled a little, but I found comfort. Never mind that Zelda called him, “That fat hillbilly…,” she knew who to have call. If he liked the beer-drinking F Scott Fitzgerald Spaniel Gleason better, whatever! She recognized plain dirt genius, and she knew what I needed to hear.

     “Deaner, you okay?” I asked. Truth be told, she was frozen. I don't really use the air conditioning if I can help it. But I didn't want her melting. Not like this. Not en route the weeping pines off the 12th green.
     “Yeah, Mommy,” she seemed to say. “I'm perfect.”

     So we drove on. In thought. In silence. At 72 miles per hour, the world can put you in a trance. Truths emerge; torment subsides. Just the road, the lines, the mile markers. Maybe not for everybody, but for us… especially for us. Always her in the back, peaking out, me in the front, foot on the gas.
     “See, better already,” Zelda said. Columbus, not quite rush hour. Pushing through, pushing past Polaris Parkway, where Zelda had reigned over a Brooks & Dunn Neon Circus backstage, trotting around, looking at the trick ropers, the fire eaters and contortionists with glee. 
     It was a tour devoted to big strong men, all musk and brawn - and she loved it. She loved the pomp and bluster of Brooks & Dunn in full rut. The big thick honky tonk beats, sheets of electric and steel guitars, the way Ronnie Dunn's voice sliced through it all and Kix Brooks whirled and churned that audience into a full boil.
     She'd sometimes sit next to me almost quivering with delight and excitement. So many things rushing at her senses, the music so full-tilt and the crowd just awash in all of it. To Zelda, that was the only way to roll. Blowed up, too loud, completely engorged and absolutely throwing oneself at the party…
     Columbus means less than two hours. The thought went through my head. 
     I called the greenskeeper, touched base with Alex. I pushed the hair out of my eyes, squinted a bit at the road glare. Mostly, I just kept driving, driving and driving and driving… and when the decision came to take the 271 offshoot, which would bring me in without going through downtown I took it.
     I would pass what once was the Richfield Coliseum, the giant basketball stadium where I'd seen Led Zeppelin, Heart, Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates the night before my SATs and the Allman Brothers with Muddy Waters at a Free Cliniic benefit, Neil Young on the Old Ways Tour, for an interview that would help break me as a national music critic. 
     Memories… of who I was long before I was anyone at all.
     Through Peninsula, where the Peninsula Nightclub was a stopping place for dinner before Blossom, where cool bands played and the grown-ups remembered dancing there to “real bands.” A small town on the 303 that somehow had defied modern quicker, faster prefab improvement.
     The exits on this stretch of highway got more and more familiar. Then there was Chagrin Boulevard. “Well., poodle, we're almost there,” I sighed as I nosed onto the offramp.
     Rush hour was basically done. The heat of the day was receding. There was still traffic, but it wasn't frantic in that trying-to-get-home way. I fell into the tide of Mom-mobiles and exiting businessman-sedans, moved to a major artery, made a right, then turned left on South Woodland.
     South Woodland would take us where we were going. Past Canterbury Golf Club, where every major national tournament has been played, where Duff Lawrence and Mike Kiley created a world of graciousness and sportsmanship for their golfers. My stomach became a fist, my throat strangled itself…
     I texted Alex. He texted back he was close. 
     I called the groundskeeper, who told me was ready for us.
     I got to the light at Courtland Boulevard, turned on my signal and waited for the cars to finish passing by. Then I headed for the cobblestones and the brick building with the cream portico… the cul de sac where my own grandfather had died on the 4th of July long before I was even a notion.
     Turning into the members lot, I kept going. Through the far corner where the service access is, behind the 8th green of perfect emerald bent grass and up through the trees that punctuate the far side of the hillside that sculpts the 8th fairway.
     Carl was waiting with a flatbed gator and some tools.  I turned off the car.
     “We made it, poodle,” I managed to say. “We made it.”
     “You need help?” he asked, then thought better of it. “Here, let me get her.”
     I got in the cart. He settled the little fiberglass carton with the raw cotton hippie shawl draped over it squarely on my lap. 
     “You good?” I nodded. I'd been flying over these hills on some version of this vehicle my whole life. We were walkers, people who believed in the sanctity of the game as played like the shepherds; but don't think I didn't chase around on golf carts after hours.
     He pulled out, slowly. Not quite a funereal pace, but certainly with the dignity this last ride should entail. I had my Bible with me. The few flowers I'd brought. But mostly, I could feel the weight of the best little girl in the world, Zelda Fitzgerald Spaniel Gleason.
     We made a little small talk. About the drive, about how green the golf course was, about cutting down trees and how good an agronomist his boss was. Alex called as we were coming across the 9th fairway towards the snackbar. I told him where to meet us; I explained to the young 20-something who Alex Bevan was. 
     “Huh…,” said the young man who'd signed up just from the decency of his heart.

     When we got to the site, there it was. Only more so. Carl had dug a perfect grave. Neat exact sides, deep enough, Zelda wouldn't wash out or be dug up easily. It was straight down, into the chocolate dirt and clay - fertile enough earth to make this golf course one of the most vibrant in Northeastern Ohio.
     “Wow,” I said.
     “I wanted to get it right.”
     Alex Bevan walked up. He said “Wow,” too.
     The pines in the fading light were the inky black green of a Japanese ink print. Moisture was in the air, which was - at this hour - neither hot nor cold. Everywhere the hole wasn't, there were trees roots and thick green gras, branches reaching down weightlessly, needles sweeping anything that passed under them forlornly.
     “What do you think?” I whispered to the box on my lap.
     “I love it,” came the whisper from Zelda. “It's so pretty and perfect… I'm home.”

     Home. A hole in the ground, albeit holy ground where I spent my growing up years. Maybe. I mean, we all end the same. We all find our place to decompose. Not that my composure was wholly resolved in that moment.
     Still, it was a peaceful place. After all of it, there was somewhere she could sleep and I could visit. There would be no end of people passing by, deers, ducks, geese, rabbits. Bucolic. 
     
     “You ready?” Carl asked. 
     “Yeah,” I said, gently helping him lift the package from my lap. So many things beyond the lifeless body of a frail dog were going into that hole, and we all knew it. 
     Alex smiled at me, that gentle smile he has. One that is reassurance and grace, the one that lets him weave songs of hope and solace out of topsy turvy moments. 
     The groundskeeper jumped down in the hole, took the box, gently lowered it. He turned and wiggled out, as he also settled the contents. There she was, ready to be covered. “Man you are dust, to dust you shall return,” I thought. 
     I read the scriptures in a voice stronger than I would've thought. I had spoken at both my parents' funerals, out of duty, out of wanting their lives to be remembered with meaning and the vibrance with which they lived. Those two events were scary, hard, the fear of failing their legacy; this was far more brutal.
     Csrl nudged the shovel over to me when I finished, Kinda nodded.
     “Go ahead,” my friend the folkie encouraged. It wasn't about burying the dead, so much as it was keeping the spaniel warm,. She, like her Mommy hated, to be cold. I closed my fingers around the handle, shoveled a few handfuls of freshly turned soil into the grave… wincing a little when I heard them land with soft thuds like rain.
     “Zelda, I love you,” I said. And she knew that I did. I knew she did, too.
     “If you want me to finish up,” the erstwhile gravedigger offered, “I can.”
     I wasn't sure what to do. The sky had turned the murky grey that quickly becomes midnight blue, then dark. It was getting cold. I didn't want to go.
     “It'll be okay,” he reassured, met my eyes. “I”ll take good care of her.”
     Lump in my throat, I nodded. Sometimes you have to let go. 
     I reached into my pocket, took out a folded bill. I put in Carl's hand and smiled through the tears. He deserved it, for making this not just easy, but dignified. For digging the perfect grave - in a moment too many people would think was crazy.
     I looked at him one more time. “Thank you. For so many reasons.”
     “It's okay,” he said. 
     I looked at Alex, a man whose love of dogs - Rounder and Harp and now Tilly - is legendary. He knew. Heck, Rounder had had better access and was even more famous back in the day than Zelda was now. And Zelda was a legend!
     “Wanna have a drink?” I asked. I needed to shore up. Irish to the core, it's what we do in these moments.
     “Sure,” he said stoutly.
     “Well, then, let's walk…”
     One thing about golf courses, they are built for walking. You cover that ground like a dream. It gives under your feet, pillows and supports you. It carried us straight to the veranda, to a wrap around porch where the crickets cried for a brave girl and her owner.
     Zelda. Zelda Zelda Zelda. The wonderspaniel finally laid to rest. Her mother left to wander the world remembering what love can be. I had done it. I had gotten my girl to a place she could sleep with the angels, where she could have peace and enjoy what was next.
     “What're you having?” the waiter asked.
     “Maker's Mark,” I said.
     “Me, too,” Alex Bevan, the local hero, requested. “Please.”

     Somewhere in the distance, Canadian geese took wing. Their honking was the sound of travel and euphoria, and they were almost the trumpet call Zelda's last trip required. It wasn't lost on my companion.
     “She was a helluva girl,” he said. And she was.
     We talked the way people who've known each other too long do: elliptically, the details already filled in, the sore spots known, the tears shed without worrying. Alex had been here before, had parted company with best friends and lovers gone. He knew the pain, understood the power of elegy and just being with it.
     But he, like Zelda, understood the unspoken.
     “I'm gonna be fine,” I said reassuring myself as much as him.
     “I know,” he agreed. “You already are.”
     Sipping the bourbon, watching the deeper and deeper shades of indigo descend and envelop the grounds, the conversation slowed and truly wasn't necessary. But the cold came up, and it was time for us, too, to go.
     I hugged my friend, who'd watched from the edges as I turned into an adult. Our worlds were so different, but our hearts were mostly the same. Northern Ohio kids who believed in love and kindness, dogs as true companions, ties that never die.
     He left, and I sat there. For a few more minutes.
     Zelda arrived when I was starting to truly become an adult. She had outlasted three engagements, superstars being built and falling apart, clients firing me and getting fired by me. She'd listened as Scooter Carusoe and I had written the second half of “Better As A Memory,” thrilled to be at the root of creativity and watched me struggle through sickness and the first draft of my first novel  in a place that was anywhere but her Nashville home.
     Zelda had been through it all: huge tears, major triumphs. None of it really mattered to her. Just love. She would - as she got older and deafer - sleep by whichever door I'd left from, that way she wouldn't miss me when I got home; then when she was too aching to sleep on the hall or kitchen floors, she would wait wherever I would put her to nap, lifting her sleepy head to say, “You made it.”
     Someone has said the thing in life we all deserve is someone wondering if you got home okay. For almost 18 years, Zelda did that for me, Always. 
     Now looking at an abandoned putting green being frosted with evening mist, I had finally done it for her. Worried until she got home. Now she was all set and safe. I could know that she was okay, and in that, I could truly say “Good Bye.”
     It wasn't easy leaving that spot. But I was too cold and it was too dark.     “I love you, poodle,” I told the night. I knew somehow she - now quietly sleeping under several feet of good, rich soil - heard me. She sighed and yawned, no doubt, smiling that she was so loved, then returned to her dreams of bunnies and ponies and roast munk supreme.

 

Portrait of a Wonderspaniel + Her Mommy
by Glen Rose

 

 

And then she is... stars (June 4, 2010)

Zelda. She had that way. She just did. Even in the end, she remained the ultimate monster of love (to borrow from Sparks). She felt the wind whipping into the car, sunk into the music, took it all in -- and dreamed.

The people at the vet's were just as unwrapped as Ali and I. There is never a moment sending doggies to heaven is easy. But some patients -- and Zelda was a baby they'd pulled through a couple big crisis. and she'd charmed them in her weakness just like she did everyone else -- are tougher than others.

But everyone tried to be brave, through their wired set jaws and their too veiled eyes. The inevitable is just that... just... time. And there's nothing you can do -- like water slipping through your fingers, it's just gone.

Zelda got quiet, too. She knew. Not quiet in a scared way, but in a "this is it" way, uncertain of the future... knowing, no doubt, they were going to stick her, because they always stuck her -- and just too tired to even know what to think about it.

Sarah, her very favorite office person, was there. She'd been dealing with a fairly upset me on the phone for the five months it had taken the spaniel's kidneys to fail. She is patience and kindness and knowing. Zelda was glad to see her...
And Dr. Stanland was there. Quiet, calm, gentle. She had done the same protocol on a Sunday 14 years prior as an emergency for Scott, Zelda's brother. She understands the way sorrow runs through your veins, permeates every fiber of your being, every breath taken.
"You ready?" she asked the poodle. Zelda looked up, so tired she could barely smile. She was. I wasn't, but the little girl was ready to fly, to romp, to be free -- of all pain, all exhaustion, all the nausea that had plagued her.
Dr Stanland explained the process. A sleeping medicine to let her drift off, then something to end her suffering -- before it was just too much. And, because Dr Ann thinks of everything, BABY FOOD! Something to nibble while the first injection was being given.
Never mind the plate of beef burgundy Zelda had just devoured. A new and delicious snack. The poodle was elated. Yummy! Yes! More... and she ate the entire jar, licking the spoon and smiling at Sarah.
"You can take her out to the car," my vet said, knowing -- as did everyone -- that was Zelda's most favorite place.
Zelda, so weak, she doesn't even think twice about walking. I scoop her up, and she melts into me. She just lets go and merges into my body as she did so many mornings when she wanted to keep me all for her.
Back in the car, there is more music. More petting that silky blond fur, kissing the top of her head. Trying not to cry, because as the orderly told me when my father was so ill with the cancer, "He don't need your tears... and your sadness... He needs to feel joy, and life... and love. You bring him THAT, and you leave your pain out there -- cause he's got enough of that."
She was wide, that orderly. Tough and big and brown. An old, honest Florida texture you don't see much anymore. She was right about Zelda, too.
Sarah came out to check on us. Took on look at Zelda, shook her head laughing. "She's not going to sleep. Of COURSE!"
Cars and Mommies and music and friends. How do you miss that? Certainly not for sleepy Zeldas, no. No!
Sarah petted Zelda, too. Talked about what a great spirit she had, what a big life... an even bigger personality. Zelda was nothing, if not a force of nature.
Eventually, her eyes started to be heavier than her will to rock. All the Allmans, the Patty Loveless, the Rodney Crowell and the Otis Redding couldn't keep Z from the land of Nod.
"She might be ready...," I half-asked.
Sarah nodded. "Yeah, she's asleep."
And so, once again, I scooped up my dream baby -- and rose out of the car. This time, people had tears in their eyes when we talked through the lobby, the satellite of fluff and silky shine tangled up in my bare arms, ready to go to heaven.
She was ready. It wouldn't hurt, but it would end the pain, the exhaustion, the nausea. This was an extraordinary little girl... and she laughed through all of it, but it had worn her down. It was time.
My friend Michael is a dog person. He'd lost his dear Sid Vicious suddenly. He had been a constant source of encouragement, of knowing when, of doing the right thing... He had all but held my head in a book called THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, but even still he couldn't get me to read it.
On a flight after a very fraught trip to Austin, I had cracked it open, had finished it the next night in the lost hours in Woodstock, NY. A trip I'd taken because my beloved Hobbs had insisted I would be a better Mommy to Zelda if i got a break, got my head clear.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is written from the perspective of a man's best friend, the night before the doggie is to be put to sleep. It sounds sad, but it is triumphant. Enzo lives, runs, flies -- and returns in the most unlikely ways, as his good owner finds his own depths, altitudes and soars.
In this moment, with tears running down my face, I understand why it was so important to my friend to get me to read that book. Why my confession that I'd started and was being held hostage prompted an actual phone call from him... and that he knew what I couldn't until this very moment: it made me feel better.
Dr Stanland put the needle in, depressed the plunger. She offered comforting words, understanding, compassion. Ali brought her quiet strength and her bottomless love for the spaniel, too.
Zelda couldn't have been surrounded by more caring, more grace, more magic. She knew that. Her breathing slowed and slowed. My fingers gently laid on her rib cage, stroking her side so whether she was awake or not, she knew her Mommy was right there with her.
And then it stopped. Another tear fell.
But I knew something -- in spite of the giant tear and hollowness opening up inside me. I knew that Zelda was already on the wind, her ears flying behind her, laughing and marveling at how she was getting her sleek, strong, sexy superspaniel body back.
She was laughing. She was exultant. She was light, bright blinding white light -- shining, shimmering. She was free.

"Is she gone?" I croaked, knowing, but needing to be told.
Dr. Stanland nodded, smiled in the sad way of people who know it's the right have.
"Okay," I said. "Okay..."

Zelda was gone. There was only one thing to do: Get in the car and drive. Drive fast. Drive hard. Drive nowhere and everywhere -- just the way Zelda always liked. Windows down, music up, hands held out to the darkness, to touch everything that the early evening might hold.
From that point on, of course, the night holds the promise of a beautiful butter colored spaniel. Just as the indigo swallows the sunset, somewhere around 72 miles an hour... if you have the Stones or Jackson Browne, John Prine or Alex Bevan, "Dream On" or Bruce Springsteen's "Drive All Night"... you can feel the softness of Zelda's fur... Zelda's heart...
All you have to do is reach out and touch it. She's always there, laughing and urging you on. Roll down your windows -- and see.

The Final Day (June 4, 2009)

Zelda woke up early. Of course she did. But she didn't want to get up.
She was in the big, big bed with the pink and green hippie quilt and the downie blanket and the good sheets and the fluffy pillows.

She wanted to be awake -- and she wanted to enjoy it! To stretch out, to crawl up close, to melt into me with that soft spaniel fur as much chinchilla as baby spaniel. She put her head on my collar bone, exhaled into my face and looked.
Looked right through those cataracts and took a long gaze at my soul. She knew I was sad. She wanted me to feel better. She wagged her skinny little tail a little, but mostly she kept looking to let me know that I was seen in that way that she sees. In a way I may never seen again...

And then she just curled up to be held. Just rolled over and balled up and let me pet her, rub her, run my hands over what was left of her body, still impossibly supple to the end.
Her legs, all sinew -- though the joints now so clearly exposed. Her little paws more fur even than pad. Her shoulder blades where the pistons anchor, propel her across fields, down roads and once into cars. They respond to the touch, release and relax as you knead them.
Zelda needs this. She relaxes even deeper into my body. And we lay there, lost in our own thoughts: me, my sorrow, her some pasture a little further off than she can see.

So thin, I pull her up on a little higher. Our noses are Eskimo kissing. We breathe together. Sometimes I inhale as she lets her breath go, just to have a little bit more of Zelda inside me. To bring her breath inside me, to heal it and send it out stronger, somehow. To give her some of my life force. Even though I know... I KNOW... and I don't know what else to do.

Zelda has people to see, places to go, things to do.
It's going to be a full day, she tells me. She's also very clear that she's sick of the preppy clothes I've been wearing. "I want my hippie gypsy rock star Mom back," she announces as I'm running my hands over the top of her head and kissing where her cheek would be.
"Seriously. Do better. I KNOW what you look like on your best days. Try something a little... more... uh... Penny Lane."
Zelda. Only Zelda would be casting clothes. My four-pawed stylist who always kind of knows. And she knows just WHICH Mommy she wants.
"And I want to see Wendy... and I want to see... Dorian..."
I need to take a shower, to sort out my clothes.
Zelda goes downstairs to visit with Ali, to talk about the Players and love her friend who bakes her duck hearts and brings her magical treats.

"You ready?" I ask, about to scoop her up. I am wearing a white cotton dress with cap sleeves and a green Indian paisley print screened over it. She smiles. Lets me pick her up, puts a paw on my face. She has a big day ahead and she's excited.

We drive down to see Wendy, my friend from college and an amazing woman who's won a Pulitzer Prize and never talks about it. She is sitting outside the Country Music Association, where she is the VP of Communications -- and she looks as fragile as we all feel.
"Poodle," she says, drawing out the "ooooo." And Zelda smiles at her the way that Zelda smiles. Wendy's eyes fill up as she reaches for the baby.
She cradles her like she did her own daughter, Emily, and makes a cooing sound. Zelda looks up her, clearly loving the attention. Zelda loves Wendy -- even when Wendy stopped credentialing her for the CMA Awards (and Zelda just kept going to rehearsals anyway) -- and this is just what she wanted this morning.
"I have a message for you," Wendy says to me, then realizes this isn't correct.
"I have a message... for... you," she says definitvely to the spaniel, who is now studying the woman intently.
"Uhm, your father... came to me," Wendy said to me, falteringly. "In the car. But I think the message is for her."
Wendy's eyes cut down to Zelda. The poodle melted like butter into Wendy's folded, trusted arms.
"Go ahead," I said. Marveled, really. John Gleason, long gone, still haunting my friend from college.
"He said," my dear friend instructed the Z, "to look for the man in the yellow cardigan. The YELLOW cardigan -- and he'll be with Coors."
The spaniel took it all in. Considered. Almost nodded.
"She's going to hate that," I commented. Zelda hated her brother Scott; Coors wasn't going to fare any better.
"I think he knows that," Wendy acknowledged. "He's a little intimidated."
"He should be," I laughed. I knew my Zelda -- and my original, Baby Coors, who I'd given my father in his divorce, because that sweet, domineering spaniel had gotten my Dad through it, had romped golf course after golf course, waited through countless church services with and for him.
Zelda looked back at me. She was a little tired. She still had places to go.

Settled back into Zelda's backstage lounge, she lay there quietly.
Dorian wasn't calling back. What to do? Where to go?
And then it occurred to me. The one place she hadn't asked for, but the place she'd graced with her beauty and poetry. Carnival Music, the home of Scooter Carusoe and her dear friend Frank Liddell.
An upstairs set of offices that hold songs and writers, where she lay on a couch and watched "Better As A Memory" be born. A place where she inspired and considered and offered the encouragement that only she could: that spirit that shone no matter what.

Travis -- akak Scooter Carusoe -- was gone, and his office was locked. Frank Liddell, a man who with his lovely wife Lee Ann Womack shared many holidays with the wonderspaniel, was also gone. But Brittany was there, to stroke that soft blond hair, Goodloe and Matthew. They'd watched the shaggy blond feathers shake as Zelda tromped around the hard wood floors, making her way to Travis' office or back down to the car after another session.
They all looked at her and smiled, silently sad knowing this was the last time they'd see her.
Zelda wasn't sad, though. She was buoyant about being in a place where so much creativity was present, where dreams took form and people believed in what songs could be.
Zelda adjusted herself in my arms, wanted to get down, to make her way through those halls one last time -- and with wavering back legs seeking the balance, she did.
Tentative at first, but then stronger. Sniffing the air, to remember where she was going.
Zelda would tell them of Lady Goodman, of her only friends being pirates, of "Darkness Turns To Light" and moonlight bullseyes and so many things...
She wanted to know, and burn the place into her being.

And then she was done. I was crying. She couldn't understand why. So many places, so many people, so many moments she'd enjoyed. It was nice to go back once again.

Zelda. Little pretty Zelda. So thrilled about everything. Take me. Take me! Anywhere, Everywhere. Whatever you're doing... and if nothing, then take me nowhere just the same.

I had promised to give her a long drive, listening to music that she wanted. But she was so tired, I took her home. A little more beef burgundy, a little bit of laying down. Just to get ready for the last bye-bye in the big-big car.
The baby deserved no less.
And in the waiting Dorian turned up, along with Diane, who has been dealing with my accounting -- and my family -- for almost longer than there was a Zelda. They brought a begonia, which Zelda loved, because Zelda loves the flowers.
She visited with them, remembered her birthday party with the boney shaped cake, the way Dorian was afraid of her imperiousness once upon a time.
We were quiet. We were sad. We were brinking on exhaustion. Mostly, we were Zelda.
And that was quite a place to be.
We also knew we needed to be gone...

Gone. Through the part of Tennessee that's still green and rolling, cluttered with broad sweeping trees and acres of farms, sun-burned barns. black top cracked and veined with tar to close those gaps. Out where the roads turn and curve, two simple lanes -- one each way -- marked by blue on the maps that show them.
Out to Lieper's Fork, past Radney Foster's former Waddell Hollow Lane... and the house Wynonna sold to Luke Lewis and his bride Lauren who sold to Bill Bennett and his wife Luke Burland... and around and around... like the life of a certain spaniel.
Cheery little Lieper's Fork running past, and Green's Grocery and more farms. Lots of hawsk circling over head; hawks: messengers between this world and heaven.
Driving and driving as the Allman Brothers got LIVE AT THE FILMORE EAST, her Patty Loveless wailed through the recently departed Stephen Bruton's "Too Many Memories" that was tempered by the line, "The way we grow old we must never forget is when we let hope be replaced by regret" and Rosanne Cash moaning through Benmont Tench's aching loss-upon-loss "Why Don't You Quit Leaving Me Alone."

We took roads we had no idea where they would leading us, general direction coming from the compass somewhere inside. Old soul Otis Redding, doing songs other people'd made famous -- and his own "Respect," something Zelda had never had to suffer for.
"I am spaniel," her regal being commanded. "See my beauty and marvel at the grace of what I am."
But Zelda had especially -- almost inexplicably -- wanted Michael Stanley. Non-negotiable. Absolutely. "No Rules When You Dream," an impossibly sad ballad that closed his SOFT ADDIXTIONS, and a song about the way things can be perfect when you dream.

"There's no rules when you're dreaming, you can follow where they go...
You can soar like an eagle or watch as the world spins below
You can be anything that you want to, you can have anyone by your side..."

And so it is. The one place Zelda and I can still fromp and romp and frolic. No matter what, no matter when, no matter where.
She wants to remember this is the realm of the in-between. Where angel spaniels and earthbound dreamers can have some kind of celestial communion. She is so peaceful listening, we play it again and again.
We put the window down -- and let the wind tangle in her hair.
It is as good as any moment could hope to be.
Still the broken white lines surrender to the tires and the miles.
We drive on. Zelda smiles on. Michael Stanley's graphite and old sweater voice keeps swirling through the car, a lullabye for a little girl on her way to a place where she will be restored.
It is probably all anyone could ask for. Zelda is smart enough to know this.

We drive by Kenny Chesney's old house. Look at his pond that he built, the wrap around porch on a plantation house where she spent many hours, while the interviews and photo shoots went down. Looking at him with those big brown eyes, hoping a little turkey would be coming her way.
She remembers the smells. She wags her tail. This was her life... and it was good.

As it turns out, there is time. For that last finger-fed ginormo-bowl of beef cooked in cote du rhone. Some lemon sorbet. A lot of kissing and being loved on.
The management of miles and visits gives us one last pass at Radnor. One last walk. One last stroll through the trees, the leaves, the vines and her fellow travelers.
One girl can't believe Zelda is 17. She's never seen "a dog that old."
The Prada Dada cocks her head a bit. She is walking every step of this walk, more than a mile, past the spillway... almost to the little platform 2/3 of the way out.
There is a doe who stops eating to watch us pass. We're still. She still watches us, looks at Zelda, flicks her tail. Even as we continue on and past, she gazes at the little yellow dog on the long fuschia leash and exhales. "Godspeed," the dear sends out to the Deaner.
And Zelda knows.

Back in the car, it's all I can do to the turn the ignition over.
"Don't be afraid," says the spaniel. "Don't be sad. This is good. I'll be stars soon..."
A tear runs down my face. So cruel to lose such perfect love, and yet...
"I'll find the man in the yellow sweater," she says. "I will..."
Ali hears me repeat it and turns, "No, Zelda, yellow cardigan... cardigan..."
"I'll find him," she seems to reassure. She wants some more Patty Loveless. She wants to drive fast... as fast as Granny White Pike will take us.
I want to go, to hold every last second. Zelda wants to fly and feel gravity and the atmosphere part before us.
Zelda wins. I hit the gas. We fly, as much as Audi A-4s can.
And so that final day is almost over. There is the vet and the dreaming...
...and that is not for here, but for soon... for anyone who's bothered reading, who's remember the ones they love and the way this all falls into a ravine called life.

Know how much the comments, emails, calls and prayers have meant.
Candles in Carolina and St Patrick. Flowers from Woodstock and Franklin.
Kindness in D.C. and Chicago.
These are the ways we realize how lucky we are. For we know -- We know. Empirically.
Imperial. Empirically. Amen

"Not A What..." {The Next Day} (June 3, 2009)

"Not a what?" Penny Lane asks, outside the back of the concert venue in San Diego.
William Miller knows no answer is going to work. Confessing "groupie" brings groans and derision... especially from the pretty blond who has that special something.

Zelda knows this movie well. Almost as well as her Mommy, who can talk along with it. Almost as famous -- in many circles -- as the "Almost Famous" promises in Cameron Crowe's Oscar-winning porject. It is the story of loving music and dreams and hope and potential. Zelda used to be snuck into the Green Hills 16 back when it was a theatrical release, back when my assistant and I used to close a little early a couple times a week to remind ourselves about what matters.

"Almost Famous" is whirring on the personal DVD player I've pulled into my bed. Yes, my bed: the sprawling antique French queem, carved with roses and made with good sheets and down pillows, a hippie quilt and a velvet blanket. It is a sleep cloud, very soft and firm enough to let you drift.
Tonight Zelda and I cling to each other, so I don't worry about her rolling and crashing to the floor -- or trying to take the stairs and tumbling to the bottom. No, she knows this is it. She wants her Mommy.
And after 5 weeks in the living room, I, too, am glad for my bed. Even as I don't really sleep. Instead stroker her soft, spft palomino fur, kissing the top of head, feeling her chest rise and heart beat. If this is it, I want it all.

And Zelda has had another big day. She has endured it and enjoyed it as only a queen can. A true regal who understands it's as much for those she bestows her four-pawed grace and dignity on as it is for her own entertainment.

She went to the beauty shop: Miss KItty's Bed & Bath. A wondrous place where she's boarded her entire life, with its snack time, play time, nap time, cuddle (for her) time, mean time and a staff who just loves dogs. Dogs and Zeldas, who is NOT -- she insists -- a dog.
Jeanette is a Clevelander, She and Zelda have that bond. She cries when the poodle comes in for that last groomie, but she knows the girl has to travel in style. She smiles into the cataracted eyes, and Zelda truly sees her.

Truly seeing is one of Zelda's gifts. She knows. She understands. She bores into a person -- and recognizes their essence, their fear, their dreams. She is unnerving to some, but mostly, she reminds people how liberating love without strings can be. Because Zelda doesn't want to "keep" you, she just wants to "see" you and celebrate that beauty.

When I go to pick her up, the groomer is in tears. Some of the people who've worked at Miss Kittys for years -- long enough to remember the three month illness that kept me from coming for her from Martha's Vineyard four years ago, others who rushed her to the vet nine years ago when blood came out of her backside and an immune disorder ravaged her little body -- wipe away tears, stroke her ears, whisper their good-byes.
It is heartbreaking. It is also a reminder to how powerful a special spirit can be.
Zelda looks at everyone deeply, smiles her Zelda smile, says "There is no good-bye"

Glen Rose, my dear friend, has offered to shoot her for me. He has shot so many people, form the Kings of Leon to baby artists I'm trying to help. He has a curiosity about people and a desire to reveal the essence. He and Zelda have known each other for years; they've always gotten along. It's that soul-sight that's given them common ground.
And Glen is ready. In that perfect photo studio across from Nashville's ancient City Cemetery down on 4th Street. With a light four times the size of the Wonderspaniel and his ability to see Zelda just as she truly is: something blazing with sweetness.
He and I laugh about all the common memories. Photo shoots in condemned buildings, outside abandoned strip clubs, on the road with Kenny Chesney. Zelda just keeps following the lense.
I am in some. Cuddling. Craddling. Trying to kiss her nose.
In her whole life, Zelda has only barked once -- when she thought Ali's son Eli was being eaten by a box. She has never licked my face or kiss me.
Suddenly, her pink little tongue is licking my lips. Is letting me know she loves me. Even if just this once, she will break with personal protocol. She will kiss me -- and leave prood.
But after a bit, she is tired. She gives and gives. Listens to the talk of magazines and moments. Has a few frames with Ali, who roasted her duck hearts and came to believe that some creatures are far more human than their physical being suggests.
And then...
It's a wrap.

Back home, there is more beef burgundy, a bit of white peach. She has some cinnamon rice cake -- the kind Krogers doesn't stock anymore -- and she savors every bite. She eats with wolfish enthusiasm, something she's not displayed in too long.
She knows this is the good stuff. She's gonna enjoy every taste, and lick the plate clean.
Then she curls up on the feather bed and dreams... maybe of what's next, maybe something more. But she sleeps, knowing there is strength needed, moments to soak in.

John Hobbs, an early riser who long after we were a "we" would come over in the morning to feed Zelda just to have time with her, had a gig. The Players -- Nashville's now "A Team." Zelda had never really heard him play the piano or B-3. He thought he could "get her in."
After all, Zelda had been getting in, wandered backstage hallways, enjoyed catering and ridden tour buses since she was 4. She knew "how to hang."
What better way to spend a final night then listening to truly great, inspired music.

But more importantly, there was Radnor Lake. Music City's version of Walden Pond, where the pretty girl had traversed the paved road and spillways for more than a decade and a half. With its trees and streams and smells, cool ground, sounds, air. This was the place Zelda was most in sync with her fauna self -- and where there was never a shortage of people to tell her how beautiful she was.
Radnor, where we walked two miles most days to keep her in shape. Because as long as she was in shape, getting older wouldn't register as easily -- and Zelda was not about anything but "let's go. let's see. let's dream."
Zelda'd walked more than a mile there ten days ago. Before the real failing began.
And so, we arrived, there on Otter Creek Road. Parked the car, did some business, tried to walk a bit. But the hips wiggled and circled and made it hard. I carried her most of the way... and confronted with a family of Canadian geese grooming near her favorite bench -- the one that afforded the Monet gaze across the water - Ali Berlow tested their aggressiveness, then played decoy so we could sneak to where we wanted to be.

Zelda's bench. Behind some tall grass, under a few emerald cloud trees. How many hours had she and i spent there? Doing nothing but watching the ripples on the water, the turtles sunning, the ducks lifting out of the lake and yes, even the deer coming down to the water to drink. It was her peaceful place. It was mine, too.
Draped across my lap, extra fluffy from her bath, Zelda listened and watched. She relaxed in a way she hasn't in weeks, not quite going limp, but letting the aches and the toxins and the tired go and just settling into my thighs, feeling safe, feeling whatever tranquil feels like in their most meditative state.
This was heaven. Well, here on Earth. She was going to be released, but this wasn't a bad place to be while she was waiting. She wouldn't have to wait long. She might as well enjoy the beauty of the moment and the love of her Mommy and Mrs. Berlow and everyone else who'd come into contact with the sprite on four paws with the long flowing silky ears.

It IS quiet here. Peaceful. The temperature falling. The slight moisture in the air.
It hits me. I open my phone: 7:19.
"She won't be here in 24 hours," I whipser. I want to die with her. I can't imagine. Yet, of course, it is so. And it is. Period.
Zelda continues regarding the horizon. She is unconcerned. Right now, the lake is beautiful. That's enough. She looks at me to say, "Don't cloud the beauty with your tears... This will be beautiful, too. I promise..."

And so, we sit a little longer. Decide to head back while the day is still dove gray. In that give them their dignity truth that I try to embrace, I snap the long fuschia web leash onto her pink skull and crossbones collar and lift her off the bench. Help her get centered: hips square over back legs, balance set.
Zelda wants to walk. On the wood chips and the gravel. Then down the road that leads out to the spillway. She goes slow, uses the guard-wall as a guide and as Peter Tosh would churn, "Walk and Don't Look Back."
Ali is worried about having enough time to get her fed, get us together, get to the club.
Zelda is slowing a little, weaving a bit. I think about picking her up, watching her from my lead dog positn out on the road. Zelda just keeps walking, but talks to me in that way she has since she was a puppy.
i KNOW what she's thinking. I've been translating for years. Tears come to my eyes.
I don't pick her up. We continue our glacial pace, moving down the blacktop, night air thickening around us and the bird songs getting louder.
Zelda has seen geese and turtles, a baby snack, fish jumping, an otter swimming. Now the birdies sing to her... They all want to see their little spaniel friend off.

When we reach the parking lot, I want to cry. Putting her in the car, I tell Ali.
"I couldn't pick her up. She said, 'It's my last walk. Let me have it.'"
We both cry.
Of course. Her last walk. Her last stroll. She wanted to enjoy it,, to feel it, to know the road under her paws and the way the curves and hills fall.
Zelda.

And there is a text. From Hobbs. That Ron, the nicest club owner in the world, would let the span in, have a table. Come on down.
We do. Arriving right before downbeat. The doorman winks, says, "Don't let her drink too much or get too wild."
I nod. Zelda talks in the place. A bar. Somewhere she's rarely been. Somewhere she clearly likes. Brent Mason comes over to say "hi." We explain why there's a spaniel at the Players gig. He clouds over. But he gets it. He has a big heart to go with that guitar blaze that's country and dexterity and soul and skill.
Michael Rhodes, the praying mantis bass player who brings the melodic sense of beat to Steve Winwood and Larry Carlton, takes the stage. He smiles at us, as does Hobbs.
Paul Franklin, a man who changed the steel guitar's possibility and shows golden retrievers, purses his lips. "Are you sure?" he asks, about being so close to his monitors.
"Oh, yeah," I say. "She loves it."
Zelda does, too. She follows the musicians about two measures behind. Her heart rate slows down and she returns to that state of blissful limp in my lap. She couldn't be happier, couldn't be more alive.
This, too, is heaven. To a spaniel. Well one of wildly refined taste.
"Since I Fell For You" and blistering instrumentals. And then...
"This... tonight...," says the bespectacled piano man, "is... for the wonderspaniel."
Puddles of notes, rising, descending, rippling emerge. They are progressions, transitions, minor key meditations and modulations. It is true jazz a la Bill Evans, evoking -- perhaps --"Waltz for Debbie."
Zelda watches raptly from her bed on my lap. Tries pushing up the sit "like a big girl."
Still the song swirls on. The other musicians fall into concentric circles, each soloing in a way that embroiders the motifs with a sense of passion. Passion for the music, for the talent, for a pretty girl about to fade away.
They all know it's Zelda's last show. They smile at her. They play for her. They make it burn slow and bright -- like the baby doll she is.
The song -- different from anything else the Players play, yet every bit as signature as the slamming stuff -- has been mentioned to me in far flung places in the oddest situations. Anyone who knows the Players knows "Holly's Song." It is one of those pieces of music.
But tonight, it is wholly Zelda Fitzgerald Spaniel Gleason's providence, and she exults in it.

Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues" follows. A still being cartographed variation on James Taylor's "You Make It Easy." More instrumentals. At almost the witching hour, the first set is done. Zelda is spent. It has been perfect. She can't believe how good they really are... the way Eddie Bayers holds the rhythm on his drums, the way Mason sings like he plays, the way Hobbs, her Hobbs, can coax sentiment from lines of music.
They all come to pay her court. To hug me. To say "hi" to Ali. To wish us well tomorrow.

Zelda takes it all in. Needs to get some air. But she's even too tired to potty.
John Hobbs had agreed to sing his Irish elegy "When They Lay Me Down," the most hopeful post-parting from the mortal coil song ever written. Zelda isn't going to make it that far.
She is in the tall grass, lying down, breathing the cool night air.
She wants to go home: to the good sheets and beef burgundy and full spaniel massage.
She knows enough to plenty and then some.
She is ready.

She is ready. Damn it. So much better at this -- like everything -- than I am.
She wants to go home. To lie down. To be stroked and whispered to. To sleep, perchance -- as Shakespeare offered -- to dream.

So we drive, turning the car towards Music Row. To take the long way home. Past all the places she's graced for nearly 17 years. Past the record companies, the management offices, BMI and ASCAP. By Carnival Music where she lay on a funky couch, watching Travis Hill and I pick through lines to find "Better As A Memory."
Soon Zelda will be that, too. And maybe -- or so i tell myself when Im trying to be adult -- she is better as a memory than as my pretty girl, so sick from renal failure, not able to jump into the big, big car, not hungry even for Kenny Chesney's special plain salmon in catering.
It is not for me to want to take hostages... Certainly not to watch my best friend suffer.
Maybe the memory is the kindest way to fix Zelda in forever.
Maybe I need to love her enough to let go.

Right now, though, Sapphire is talking about what it "means to be a fan... To love some band or some silly little piece of music... so much... that it hurts."
Zelda knows that feeling. Like me, it defined her -- and reminded me the potency of being a true believer, embracing the range of how it feels and finding dignity and a thrill in whatever you're handed.
She is soft. As soft as she's ever been. I pet her and she melts even deeper into me as the movie plays, the minutes pass and we wait for Dr. Scanlon at 6. This is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done -- and yet somehow, somehow Zelda will find a way to make it all okay. It's what she's done always; my guess is it won't be any different now.

Three Days (June 1, 2009)

Zelda is lying next to me. On a feather bed that's kinda yucky 'cause she's been leaking for a while. Not that we care; we just wanna be close together.

We're here, side-by-side. Her asleep. Me watching her ribs slowly rise and fall; legs occasionally kicking as she dreams of chasing bunnies and chipmunks. Not that I know what she dreams. As well as I know Zelda, I can only wonder what she's dreaming of...

...as she moves closer to her dreams, every minute, every moment of the next few days.
And I know Zelda dreams, of all sorts of things, of a life that is full and rich and filled with people who recognized her spirit and her heart.

And so as she has lived, so she shall find the skies.

On the road, two last stadum shows: watching the people cheer, feeling the energy, the vibrations on the stage. Lots of friends from scattered places, Ali flying in from Martha's Vineyard to say good-bye; Steven Charles Hurst and his lovely wife Shaye coming to the Louisville Stadium to take pictures and share the love.

Maybe that's what's greatest about Zelda: the love. And the curiousity. And the will.
Even now more happy to be "on the road," that she doesn't want to leace the car.
"Where are we going? What will we do? How fast will be drive? Can we hear the Stones? the Crows? Aunt Patty? (Loveless, who she adores above all)"

Her last road-trip crowned by a night at Louisville's Seelbach Hotel on crisp white sheets in a fluffy bed with a big window. The place where Gatsby met Daisy... like some bluegrass version of Benmont Tench's ode to Sarasota's Don Cesar Hotel, "Why Don't You Quit Leaving Me Alone?"

How appropriate, for the girl named Zelda Fitzgerald Spaniel Gleason...
for the girl Wailer Drummer Zeb said, "Zelda is Jah Love" of...
the girl who is a Chanel collar, a teeny backstage laminate, a very Hermes looking bandana AND a pink skull & crossbones collar that let's people know her only friends are pirates...

It is hard to do the right thing. But I think it's easier than watching them suffer.
Or so i tell myself, watching her slumber. Always the sleep of Spaniels, nothing like it... so peaceful, so gracious, to tranquil yet so deep.

Zelda isn't going anywhere. Not really. She will always be right here in my heart.
She will always be the light in my window when I'm trying to get home...

Polaroids from a Year’s End

Lost Souls, New Friends, Frozen Moments, Playing Cards He was standing on the street across from the House of Blues. Hands in pocket, hair falling in his eyes. It was cold. Just that sort of tentative street corner romeo who wasn't really where he was meant to be, yet   there was an invitation that made no sense in the air… the kind of invitation dreamers and crazy people can't turn down. He smiled when I pulled up. A sophomore who knows he shouldn't be cutting class, but he wasn't gonna miss it. “Hi,” he said, sliding into the passenger side. “Wanna just ride around a little bit?” I said, knowing there wasn't time enough to go anywhere, knowing this was a magic gift to unwrap. “Yeah, yeah, sure,” he nodded and agreed. “I brought you something…” Hand extended, two CDs and a novel. “I didn't bring them all. I didn't want to overwhelm you…” Some people you just can't drown. But it's hard to tell from random email. I nosed the Audi into traffic. Around and around the circle we would weave, talking about dreams and music, the crazy things that happen and the way stuff falls in place A Different Kind of Wild the one solo record is called. Indeed. From a man whose band   the Gathering Field was a dreamy affair of whispered truths about lost girls, old drifters and Hiroshima, North Dakota. It was a place losers went to drifter and the drifters somehow got by just beyond the fringes. Bill Deasy had snuck out of sound-check. On the lam. With a girl he's never seen. Suits that part-pirate, part-poet, part-way-home and part-way-goner aspect of who he is When he smiles the skies pour down sunshine, even when it's the greyest Cleveland afternoon. He has the easy company of the lifelong stranger, someone always from somewhere else - even on the block they grew up on. It's a gift and a curse, Kinda like the novel - Ransom Seaborn -- coming of age and falling apart and falling in love and coming undone. It is an intoxicating read, though sitting on the parking brake, it's just some handwritten script letters and a very detailed over-sized dragonfly. “It was published by a publisher in Wales,” he volunteers. Then talks about having the “Good Morning America” there for two years. Invisible notoriety, almost in, but not quite there. The vexations and machinations of the music business… and he still smiles that smile of one who's okay where he is even as he knows he needs something more, needs to make it happen. A few hundred yards from the edge of Lake Erie, in a Mexican restaurant owned by a couple locals where the salsa is fresh and made by hand, Alex Bevan beams, Thirty some years into weaving songs and stories for the Northern half of Ohio, he is a tireless friend who continues to illuminate the banks of the Grand River, Holiday Inn mornings that have been arrived at through too much laughter and a bit of brown liquid, girls with aquamarine eyes and the way autumn inevitably settles. The place is packed. Families. Guitar players drown for the intricate fingerwork. A biker with a long thick ponytail. Empty nesters. A muse who anchors him in the turbulence. A gypsy blown in from the South… and they all turn their faces towards a makeshift stage, listening to songs not just about where they've been - rodeo riders and silver wings, street corner jazzbos and skinny little party animals - but where they are. Those songs of love and hearth, escape, the weightlessness of being seen truly in another's eyes and the agony of not being able to melt another's pain. These are songs of real life, being lived by the man with the rainbow smile and the inner light that you could put in harbors. Whatever it is, Alex Bevan isn't afraid… bring it. In that he beckons the people a little too far into their lives to turn back, reminds them no decision - regardless of the outcome - is going to destroy you. There is beauty in your life, your living. Look at me and see it. And Alex Bevan's had the kind of year most riders wouldn't get back on. But he just shakes out his wings a little, rolls his shoulders and gently spreads them open again. He knows that flying is in the heart, and that's where he's always navigated from, rising above the temporal and venal to remind the ones wise enough to listen that there is a shimmer across the top of even the coldest lakes - don't jump in, just watch it pass and marvel. I am walking along the Chagrin River like I've done so many times. It is crisp and quiet, the grey hour of afternoon before sunset makes everything final. The snow has melted and frozen a few times, so it crunches beneath my LL Bean boots and gives with a Styrofoam ball solidity, but it still gives. The Chagrin River Road has always had my answers. The way the old trees lean down to the water, whispering truths beyond time, things they've known for hundreds of years. The trees and the rocks and even that steal bridge from the 50s have seen more than two much. They are craggy witnesses who know. I came here when I first arrived. Talked to my girlfriend Allison, admitted I was scared of what I'd find. What if this book I'd pinned so much hope, so much who I am on, wasn't very good? What if it was vanity and hubris? A case of bloated ego run amuck… and hamfisted editors missing the subtlety or recoiling from the pain of it? Allison's husband is working on his first novel, too. He makes me look superficial. He is even more of a task master, a humorless defender of songs and poetry. A man who proclaims “Art is war…” and means it “Quit trying to pull it apart,” she says. “Just read it, just read…” So I have… and there are only 30 pages left. The work has left me speechless. It is why I've come to walk the banks again… here in Gates Mills, Ohio with the white clapboard and the black shutters, old Tudors and even quieter streets, a place where the river seems loud. I want to think about the journey. I want to think about letting go. Lost in my thoughts I amble not just down the river as it doubles back, but through the abandoned town and into the stables and dog runs of the Hunt Club. One highbred fox hound comes out and looks at me, curious. It is not feeding time, no humans come here now. We meet each others eye. I am not a fox - or a feeder. The dog loses interest. But not me, I watch him disappear into the bar that's peeling. I laugh. Sometimes it is that simple. Just read. You're not my feeder. The river keeps sweeping… and with the melting, it's churning foamy white caps into the swells that rise from the temperature difference. Crossing the street, I return to the river's edge The grass is somehow still shamrock colored, but everything else has gone to that Egyptian clay color: not beige, not grey, not green. It was life once, could be life again. If not, it will be trampled into bricks, mixed with water. I can see my breath, my own perfect little white cloud of life and purity, warmth and hope. I smile as the chill seeps a little further inside me. I look across the bank to where some of the water flowing from the rocks had turned to ice, slowly melting now an returning to the river. It always returns, I think and I rub my elbows with my gloved fingers. Who knew there were this many shades of gray? Almost white, deep slate, practically black. Something in the middle deeper than coal dust.   Variations on stone. Shot through with hints of brown, of green, of tan. And there is always that silent velvet tone at the river bottom, the one you have to look all the way down to see. I am alive. Wildly joyfully alive. My feet carry my body, the one that has begun to hurt in small ways,   the one that lets me know forever isn't for my kind - no matter what the mind and extreme flexibility suggest to me. It doesn't matter, though, I am here, now - and the cold air coming into my lungs is a bracing reminder of how good it is. I laugh at myself. I look down. See what it bravely trying to poke up. There are the shattered remains of too many Halloween faces, not decaying yet from all the cold. There are naked sticks, brittle and contrasting the snowy carpeting. There is… a playing card, an orphan from a deck, slightly bent from the wet and cold. Leaning over, I laugh a little more. Seven of hearts.   My father's lucky number. Heck, the license plate of his red Ford Mustang: 7 JG. It is an ultimate card of love and luck for me. A random talisman thrown into my path. A reason to believe, to rise, to bubble. I put it to my lips and kiss it, hold it backwards to the place between my eyes - and then I tuck it in my back pocket for whatever it may bring. David Loomis was always one of the cutest boys in his class. He's brought that adorability with him as he's grown up. He remembers small details: the 5th floor ballroom of 4th grade dancing school, a gray dress that my mother loved, a boy who had a horrible crush on me. That's David Loomis: he sees the joy of details and he embraces the world from a wife open place. He's teaching marketing at Case Western Reserve, doing a blog that marketing guru Seth Godin has commented on twice, living happily ever after with a woman he met at a New Year's Eve party - each there with other dates, but they knew in the instant. He sees what his hometown can be… and he's trying to find a way to use the arts to re-energize and bring people of various ages together. But mostly he is chest deep in the river of life. A kind man who can talk about Deepak Chopra with sounding nu age vague, architectural points of Cleveland, records we grew up, friends long gone and reasons we believed. He is generous and willing; if he doesn't have the answers, he figures he can find them… or they'll appear. Standing there in his plaid shirt, talking to the insurance man for the second time, he is witness to how completely a world can be inhabited, how many lives one can touch without moving very far. It is how one reaches out, not necessarily how far one runs. We have never met, although we know each other. He is standing in line in Hamburger Heaven towards the end of the rush. He is tall, taller than I remembered and in the nicely pressed cotton shirt of a litigator, galaxies from the t-shirt clad, sweat-slinging guitar/howler who tore them apart at 27 Birds. He is almost serene. Even back then, though, there was a definite blue collar solidity to his walk, his talk. Never the coiled snake or jungle cat waiting to strike or tear you apart. Just a man willing to answer the questions, maintain the gulch between you   The nature of being a journalist. You can interview people, but never truly register. The dance requires the distance - and some blur it immediately, some recognize their freedom is on keeping us across that gap. Back when, though, he'd seethe, “If this is love, can I get my money back? I wanna see the man in charge!/ If this is love, I want my money back, I want an honorable discharge…” pure venom and Gilbys. It was a toxic chemical of vitriol, and not just the local girls, but Twin/Tone Records - home of the Replacements and pre-blowdry Soul Asylum - and REM's Pete Buck swept him up for the big time. A van tour refugee, Charlie Pickett got so close by dousing the most vicious street blues with rancor, injustice and enough sexual charge to make him the reason to go out some nights. He remembers Trouser Press and why it mattered; he believed in stapled zeens; he kept the pilot light burning with Sterno when necessary and kept chunking away at the bedrock of rock & roll. But he also got smart. Took that oversized brain and applied to the law. Figuring out how to sort justice a little better - because boys and girls, everyone knows justice is relative - and maybe figure out how to have a life after rock & roll. Like a real man on a mission, though, he is still about the music, still about the why and the how. He still plays, he still writes, he still burns with the reasons to believe. He is quiet - as he's always been - and he understands being “in the room,” whichever room he finds himself. In some ways, he's never quit believing in the spark of a great downstroke or vicious solo. He brings it with him when it's time to advocate for a client. He knows the difference. It's the line he walks - and he talks from a place of the gentlest curiosity. It's an amazing thing to see. Just as it's amazing to hear a grown man admit, guitars are most interesting for what they attract: girls. It is the reason to do it. Meet'em, but just to be inspired by that other kind of kineticism. It is a charge and a pull, a whole other kind of chemistry and magnetic thrust. There are a red formica countertop. Patty melts and ice tea melting into puddles. Vacationers talking too loud about what did and didn't happen. Huge truths about sex and life and drive and rock & roll shared with no one ever the wiser. A truly insurrectionist act in the most ordered land of perfection, and so in the open, none of the picture perfect Palm Beachers ever know. ”Hawwwww-leeeeeee?” It is Rodney Crowell, a fireworks blast of euphoria. “Girl, have I got you?” Down the phone rumbles and rolls laughter. The boisterous kind of too many voices in too small a place and then the junkyard dog chorus raises its unholy tones, beating up that birthday standard, punctuating a New Year;'s Eve party somewhere in Tennessee. Kathie Orrico is half on, half off her sister's couch in a short skirt and a t-shirt, going “whaaaaa…” cause she can tell this is an out of body reality based moment. Something mot like it might be, but probably just as good as better. I can feel my cheeks chipmunk from the smiling. The song is being lockstepped into a choppy rhythm, melody pulled like taffy at the shore. The songs ends, the other side of my phone calls cheers and laughs. I do, too. “We were at a party, and I wanted to wish you happy birthday,” the sparkling songwriter announces, telling me he has a pound of white tea for me from the foo-wah province somewhere in China. Finest needles. Just like pot, only antioxidantal. We make the kind of rushed small talk you do in those moments, then I release him to the lake he was swimming in. We say “I love you” and hang up. It is the way friendship melts the phone lines like butter into maple syrup. Kathie and Casey Orrico just laugh, too. They don't even know why. But that kind of happiness spreads without reason. It feels good. You want to hold it. It feels good. It makes you feel better. I am looking at Lake Erie, through the abandoned beach shacks and businesses. Geneva on the Lake is a slightly smaller, lost in time Asbury Park. There are no legends here, only ghosts and gingerbread trim on some of the buildings. Alex Bevan knows the stories of everyone attached to every building… what they do well, what their dreams are, how it all fell apart, what treasons - sometimes at their own hand - crated the reality they now embrace. It is furiously cold Mean and cutting. And what was once a purely seasonal town now has year-round dwellers, in houses never meant for it. You get a little further away from the beach and you see the windows with thick black plastic and blankets nailed over the windows. You realize there is no hear, only pernicious permeating cold. You turn up the heat and you still shiver at the thought. Alex wife Diedre is a social worker. She's the woman who when they kick in the door of the meth lab grabs the children and reassures them it's going to be okay, who tries to get them warmed up a little, to calm them, to help them have a chance. She doesn't talk much about the work. She doesn't have to. Sometimes you can see it in the corner of her eyes… because these are the things that once you see them, you can't forget and you can't just shake them off. Diedre is a gentle soul who makes and sells pickles to put that excess energy, and she loves Alex Bevan. They are an amazing circuit of love. All that pain they've seen, yet that much love transformed out of it. They recycle the horror into something like hope, only warmer and more welcoming. They live St Francis of Assisi's prayer in a way that is seamless. Though right now, all I hear are the echoes of the farfisa music, the bad transistor music that accompanies games of chance, the muffled whispers of lovers kissing and the high pitched squeals of kids on their own for a few hours. The churn of life being lived in the kernel of what could be, shiny moments of potential that might bring you every promise you wouldn't dare believe. Alex noses down another empty street and smiles/ “It's very different in the summer…” I wanna say “Aren't we all?” But I just smile through the exhaustion of up-all-night-talking and homemade waffles with frozen from the tree peaches slowly warmed with brown sugar, cinnamon and a slow, slow fire. Kathie and I are in the half-empty Publix parking lot. It is Palm Beach in the height of season. She's closed after another crazy day in her store of providing pretty clothes for some of the world's great young beauties and soon to will be, their mothers, even the occasional grandmom. They come from the pretty colors, the timeless cuts, the way the Orricos know how to flatter every single person's form, face, life… and create so much more no matter how much is starting with. She giggles. Her nephew has a bit of a flu. She's going to get him some Pimms cookies. “Do you need a Goody, too?” she asks, as if the birthday gorging wasn't enough. “Hmmmmmm….,,” this is the end of the goodie trail. It is one last chance before it's time to get serious about health and adulthood. “yeah…” And I find them, right there on the shelf.   Tastykakes. Chocolate filled cupcakes. With a stripe. Kathie has wandered off, I'm lost in the aisles trying to find her. It's that panic of being too little and not knowing where Mom is. Not because I can't get home - it's a 5 block walk - but just that losing your connection to the world before you. “Hey, I'm checking out… The voice is hard-wired to my DNA. POING! Recognition.   In flip-flops, I make that floor slapping sound as I rush over there. We gather our two plastic bags and head to the parking lot, to Chip her convertible and the entire celestial tent above us, pin prick lights flickering like God's private diamond show. “Cuprcake?” I ask. “Here?” Kathie says. Seeing the Tastykakes she gasp/laughs. “Where do you COME from? Tastykakes? That is so NOT a Cleveland thing… That is so Jersey Shore!” The Jersey Shore is where Kathie and her sisters fell in love with the ocean. It is where they came alive. It is their Cleveland. For me, I had a fiancée… from Philly… but right now, I'm not into explanations, I'm peeling back the plastic wrap and passing my friend a striped cupcake. A talisman of what was, what is, what should always be… Like junior high school girls sneaking cigarettes, we are consumed by what we're consuming. Blake Hanley has been coming into his own for 6 years. Lithe, dark-headed, sleepy-eyed, he is conservatively beyond good looking. Unfortunately, it pales to what's inside him.   Beyond his decency and sensitivity, there are songs. Multi-culti songs that cut and paste reggae and rock, world music, folk, techno and the naked voice. He is on the brink. But right now, he is home for a few days. To toe touch who he is, where he comes from in a place that may or may not understand his gift. He's “Blaaaake,” the surfer kid who's a mystery. He's the son of a longtime family with lifetime friends who revel and blow it up and celebrate. It is a world where the band gets shut away, never spoken of, acknowledged only in the most removed moments. Blake, however, lives in the now. He is reaching for something most of them don't know exists. He is patient. He is focused. He knows how to understand his place and his timing. He also knows how he feels when he sings, plays, especially when he writes. In a world where young people are flung with a centrifugal for of exponential proportions, expectations, entitlements and little of lasting value, there is a need for Blake. Not because he's pretty, but because like U2 - back when - he's not above their world, he just sees a little higher and he's able to reach back and give people a hand up to see beyond the obvious. This is an artist on the verge. Nobody else seems to see it. Except Blake. The quiet self-possession and striving. The wanting to be better, more as an artist, it drives him… into what is going to make 2009 a very good year. Right now I'm in a coffee shop, owned by the guy who owned the bar I grew up in, Bruce Springsteen is moaning that “the screen door slams and Mary's dress waves…” I am lost in a reverie of what was, laughing at how I somehow got trapped by the songs I loved… the ghosts of all the lovers I sent away, living better as a memory than as your girl, knowing there's always another hill to rise and fall away. There is a re-entry reality that comes from hurling oneself through the holidays, the quick hit travel   and the bursts of friends and faces. So many people, you hardly ever see. So much to share, to catch up on, to impart. It is revelry and reveille You wish to miss nothing, you gulp down as much as you can, you bask and you laugh… and then it's time to return to how it was. How it was is how it is. A manuscript to key in the changes. A life with too many friends, so much love, truths to sell and songs to write. There are blessings upon blessings upon the tricky things that plague you… and there are more rivers to walk, roads to ride and dreams to dream. Before disappearing into the new, though, there is that moment to consider the moments before it all begins again. As year's end, that was a good one. That was so much magic and rapture and sharing, it's hard to begin to say good-bye, but the beauty of every goodbye is the next hello.
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