George Michael: I Want Your Sex... & Faith; Another Passes As Christmas Dawns

They were adorable. George Michael with the greatest hair since Farrah Fawcett Major’s backswept wave of honey gold, and cheek bones that crested as plateaus of desire on a face of pure Dionysus. Andrew Ridgeley, his by no means slouch of a wing man, more plausible for the average girls sighing and screaming, reduced to swampy panties and utter hysteria at the waft of the Brit duo known as Wham! UK.

Squeaky clean, perfectly PG. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was pure bubble gum with a whole milk chaser. “Careless Whisper,” the angsty whispered ballad, suggested betrayal, but how? Who could be so reckless with either of these boys with the gilded tans, the pearly white teeth, the seemingly perfect manners.

As MTV was establishing dominance, Wham! was a panacea that worked for everyone – the little girls who understood the rush of hormones, the women who breathed in the young buck musk and pined for that youthful erotica, the parents who felt they were safe quarry for their daughters and the concert promoters, who made the pair’s first – and ultimately only American tour – a stadium-sized proposition.

Heck, George Michael even dated that paragon of chastity Brooke Shields, a woman whose virtue – in spite of supermodel status and controversial films roles – rivaled iconic ‘50s good girl Sandra Dee. You don’t get much more wholesome, and yet…

For all the “good boy” patina of Wham!, there was an undercurrent of erogenous intent that was palpable. Too good looking, too breathless, too somehow unsettled; the bruised heart of “Careless Whisper” with the swelling sax and churning melody was a bit too fraught to be more boy band fodder.

Originally coming from the realm of rap, I remember talking with the guys from Whodini on the first Swatch Watch Fresh Fest about the UK darlings that merged pop and soul. The Thomas Dolby-produced “Magic’s Wand” trio knew all about the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” duo; they had toured together and talked collaboration. There was some real and some street on the cute boys from England, no matter how many day-glo t-shirts, perfect blow drys and shapeless linen blazers they sported. 

And then it was over. Rumbles and stray shards of gossip. Egos and credit-grabbing, conflicting notions of who, what and why; like so many ragingly successful acts before, the tension and outside influences won. Seemingly tragic, yet ultimately, the notion that perhaps the glorious looking Michael did have a musical bent a la Michael Jackson and Prince, something steeped in deep soul, filled with melody that wrapped around your ears and hung on.

When “Faith” dropped, the quick beats and the sweep you up vocal that brought a taut line between desire and fidelity, Michael was undeniable. If the new romantic wave that brought Duran Duran, ABC, Culture Club and the Thompson Twins in on a tide of videogenics and synthesizers – and the accompanying “Faith” clip absolutely beef-caked the dark haired songwriting – Faith was a testament to swooping soul, revved up rhythms and languishing desire stretched across ballads with candle wax poured for emphasis.

That slow burn permeated the steamy “Father Figure,” a noir sort of dance song as much “West Side Story” dramatics as it was breathy come on/fidelity pledge. Slightly anonymous, slightly driven by the rhythm of a beating heart, Michael played a cab driver in the accompanying video without ever prissying it up for the camera. Just a regular working stiff with a 5 o’clock shadow and hours to go until he sleeps; but oh when he gets there…

All of this to sift through the rubble of what was. The news that George Michael was dead crashed our Christmas dinner via friends dropping by for thick slices of bouche du Noel, one more pop culture depth charge with unintended consequences. Because with all the loss this year – Bowie, Prince, Leon Russell, Guy Clark amongst many – enough is enough, and at 53, George Michael is way too young.

George Michael, the beautiful amatory, had passed into ether. After a series of stumbles and falls from grace – the Beverly Hills’ men’s room arrest for soliciting sex, the confession to being gay on CNN, the several arrests for drug use, the notorious law suit with Sony US that may’ve stunted his career – it’s hard to remember the price of trying to follow one’s muse and integrity.

Instead we have that hunk who knew how to thread iconics, to balance the come on and the reassurance with his quarry. When Michael was still ambiguous about his own preferences, “I Want Your Sex” was lobbed on pop radio with a force that made it ubiquitous. The horn’n’guitar slashed middle chunk was Bootsy Collins/George Clinton light, as the lyric empowered the listener to give in to their hedonistic desires.

For a guy who once made desire an innocent commodity, he was no decriminalizing whatever got you through the night. Never afraid to be the beefcake, he raised the stakes for everyone listening out in radioland or watching on MTV: find your passion, feed your bliss, let your freak flag fly.

Like Madonna, George Michael was working the boundaries of what was acceptable. So damned good looking, he could get away with unthinkable things – girls in merry widows’n’garters shot strictly for their bottom – and make most people crave more. One had to wonder what all the seemingly polite songwriter craved, too, because that kind of hungry isn’t something conjured as a matter of exercise.

 Somewhere in the flyover, I smiled while I watched the deliciousness. The gorgeous on display, the throb that slowed down rhythms elicited, the blatant, almost voyeuristic way the camera moved across this body, that beautiful face. If hot girls had been flaunting their charm for years, Michael decriminalized a non-muscle-bound swagger that was confident, but looking for satiation.

Whether he was or wasn’t, who cared? He brought it – no matter who you were. Omnisexual in terms of his draw, everyone with sight would have to want him. Like Tom Ford, when he took over Gucci, Michael understood the sex-positive nature of lush, body scraping designs – second skins that melt and move with you.

 It seemed, in the late ‘80s, like another galaxy had exploded with the brooding Greek songwriter. If he understood major chords and bright melodies, how to make a beat pop, rush or lean in, swirl desire like ice in a drink, the world – not just America – was guzzling it down. Faith was inescapable; the title track giving way to “Father Figure,” “I Want Your Sex” becoming the raison d’etre for a world crawling from the first wave of AIDS sobriety to reclaim their joy.

 If “One More Try” suggested an elegiac Elton John ballad and “Kissing A Fool” felt like a torch ballad that was equal parts Dean Martin and  Sara Vaughan, the album was a carnival of beats and grooves that suggested the phases of a lycra bound aerobics class sweating to utter perfection. “Hand To Mouth” percolated, “Look at Your Hands” swagger with sweltering sax punctuations and “Monkey” took its staccato dance punch from bits of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” Bowie’s most brazen Let’s Dance pieces and a bit of Cameo funk whiplash.

 The foment and churn took all the excess of Studio 54 and distilled it into a post new wave gasp and release. Who didn’t wanna get laid? And suddenly this caramel colored beauty with the great butt – which he had no compunction about shaking for the camera – and great mind – these were smart songs about the greatest frontier since Eve handed Adam that apple – emerged unapologetic and wide-open celebrating not just coupling, but being coupled.

Whatever may happen later, in this moment, George Michael made sex almost safe, something you, me, everyone must have. The collective panting could be heard any time his videos were on MTV. Staid ladies would whisper, rent boys would wink and the pretty girls would throw their hands up as they howled along with the songs on the radio or in the club.

Then came the high concept, grainy black and white “Freedom! ‘90” video. Exhausted by being the beefcake bulls eye of the new decade, Michael tapped David Fincher to vamp on the celebrated British Vogue cover that featured the five definitive supermodels of the era: Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington.

The result was even more libidinous and pulse quickening than Michael’s previous work. As the women mouthed lyrics to the verses, strutting, rolling in the sheets, soaking in a large enough for two bath, coming in and out of the frames, the implicit fantasy was overpowering – and the underlying convergence of sex*music*fashion was intoxicating, all were one, one was all. 

And if Michael was pushing away from being objectified, the man wasn’t eschewing sex, want or coital bliss in any way, shape or form. With a snake-hipped rhythm, as much Brazil as Nile Rodgers’ Chic, the song suggested the ultimate erotic thrust was freedom – to go, but also to stay.

At least, on the surface. But the man who tagged his “I Want Your Sex” video with a lipstick fuschia “Explore Monogamy” was always working three layers beneath the surface. If you plugged into the lyric or the iconography, “Freedom” suggested a man still looking for the climax, but unwilling to be the donkey to pin your fantasies to.

Between setting fire to the “Faith” leather jacket – hung deep in an almost empty closet – that cheekily proclaimed “Rocker’s Revenge,” or blowing up the “Faith” jukebox and signature guitar, Michael was serving notice. Listen closer – but why? with those glorious women and the rock steady dancefloor beat – you would hear the declaration of “clothes don’t make the man” in the chorus, the protestation of “living the fantasy/we won the race, got out of the place/ went home and got a brand new face/ for the boys at MTV” were clearer than anyone might have plugged into.

In the moment, many assumed the song addressed the dissolution of his musical partnership with Ridgley. But maybe it ran far deeper. The rest of Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 was very much a work focused on betrayals, the empty nature of fame, the bankruptcy of hooking up. Did we know that at the time? Or were we all so punchdrunk on the fizzy goodness of the endorphins this music gave us?

 Certainly there were other hits. “Cowboys & Angels” was a more sophistipop, humid and sweeping, something for Ibizia or the Riviera. “Soul Free” suggested Digable Planets, but with that sweeping pop still near the surface, the falsetto utter surrender to carnal pleasure. Even the big orchestral pop of Prejudice’s opening “Praying for Time” – ripe with social commentary to temper whatever follow -- suggested Michael needed more.

 Maybe we should’ve known there was trouble in paradise. Maybe in the growing media invasiveness, it was only a matter of time before the cage match of fame crashed into the increasing gotcha reality of the way we consume our heroes. Or maybe the quickening cycle of obsess and cast off was to blame.

Beyond that lung busting duet with Elton John on the elder’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” or the Aretha Franklin-teaming “I Knew You Were Waiting,” Michael’s star faded. Still huge in the Far East, still a dance floor king in South America and Europe, America was more intrigued by that bathroom bust – and barely registering the ongoing drug problems in the UK.

 Perhaps it was the battle with Sony. While malfeasance happens (and there are those who allege Michael was right), they are also the distribution system; ultimately the ones defining and driving the marketing when you’re on a global juggernaut. Turn them against you, watch your star grow cold and fall from the sky.

In some ways, being arrested for soliciting sex gave him the freedom he’d sung for. Out and free to live the life he wanted, Michael also reached towards the sun of music that was more evolved, more adult. If Older wasn’t a blockbuster, he sampled Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” on “Fastlove, Pt. 1” and offered a velvety pulp fiction flare to the title track, boite-tempered trumpet bleating in the recesses, cocktail piano rising and brushes hitting the cymbals and high hat with a raindrop plop of perfection.

 Michael’s voice, which always conveyed a whiff of ache, somehow smoothed, strengthened. If the winsome young man had reluctance and a slight bruising, this was something settled and confident. The invitation, once fraught with urgency, was now seductive. But most of us – myself included – missed it. 

And that’s the shame of fame. When it’s at its apex, inescapable to the point of nausea, often no one recovers. Rare is the Madonna or Elton John, who navigate the turns and manage to maintain some form of intrigue. But they are both creature of design, image, dare I say marketing? And they’ve both had an uncanny knack for aligning with strong business people – Guy Oseary for Madge, David Geffen for Elton – at the critical juncture where their expiration date should have been passed.

 When fame burns out, there is the lifestyle that one has become used to. Can you afford it? Or must that fall away? And if you can negotiate the fiscal reality, what about the mocking of media, who delight in your foibles? the lack of the raving cheers that have met your various endeavors?

 Yes, there was James Corden’s original “Carpool Karaoke.” A riff to set-up his piece of “Comic Relief” that poked a sharp stick in the eye of the obvious, talking about the whole gay reality of which Michael was so much a face for. Beyond the all-out sing-along moments that would become a design key for Madonna, Michelle Obama, Gwen Stefani and so many others, there was that twinge of the unspoken – and the notion that perhaps it’s never truly okay in some rooms.


For George Michael, who actually served time for his last pot bust, he met every moment like a gentleman. Telling the British press there was a karmic reality to the short jail term, he never lost his dignity, always – in public – maintained that higher elevation.

 But what or who he was when he was alone remains – for most of us – a mystery. No doubt, he had great times, lived a life that made sense for who he was: a gay man of certain beauty, aging and facing a changing world, a world where his music is more nostalgia, but indelible in ways most never achieve.

 Having lost Prince, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Guy Clark, songwriter Andrew Dorff most recently, this is another unthinkable loss in a year of too much and too many.

 Fifty-three is so young. No doubt in the coming days, every miniscule detail of his last several months will be combed over, will be sorted and read like tea leaves. Was it drugs? A broken heart? A heart that malfunctioned? His own hand? Some other misadventure?

 The statement said he passed peacefully, no signs of trouble is all we have. No doubt there is more. But in this TMZ world in which we live, does it matter? He’s gone. Maybe that’s all we need to know. Maybe that, and the freedom that comes from turning the music up way too loud, screaming along at the top of our lungs, wiggling like a noodle or hotstepping like the catwalk is our natural domain is all that we need to remember this life that for a few years burned so bright and so hot.

 Today, Boxing Day as I finish writing, I think that I shall turn the music up, find the beats that move my bottom, bounce around and laugh. If there is a lesson from this wretched year, we never know when our time is coming. It’s a given, but somehow it is more urgent than ever – and I want to feel all the ecstasy I can.

 It doesn’t mean being stupid, overindulging or putting myself at risk. It means, as Aunt Mame proclaimed, “Life is a banquet, and most of poor-sons-of-bitches are starving to death,” and as Scarlett O’Hara declared, “I shall never go hungry again!”

Go find someone you love, call up a friend you’ve not spoken to, have the small indulgence, go for a run and feel the energy, strength and life pumping through your body, flirt wit that guy or that girl, your wife or your boyfriend just ‘cause. And absolutely, turn up the music and dance – George Michael’s music was absolutely like that, just like it developed into something more ruminative so you could take that rapture even deeper.

Just Another Night In America: Michael Stanley + the Resonators Burn Right Where They Are

Choices and decisions. Roads taken, things that mighta, things that oughta, things that should…

Michael Stanley should have been a rock star. Like the “Almost Famous” not quite broken, eternal open act Stillwater, Stanley did everything but become  an arena-sized headliner.

Except in Cleveland, Ohio, the Rock & Roll Capital of the World, the watershed scene in Cameron Crowe’s coming of age as a baby rock critic film where Stillwater is confronted by the encroaching reality of business as survival for a little band tilting at the impossible notion of “making music, you know, and turning people on.”

In Cleveland,Ohio in the late ‘70s and early 80s, you didn’t get any bigger than the Michael Stanley Band. Two nights at the Coliseum sold out faster than Led Zeppelin. Five nights in a row at Blossom Music Center. It was a frenzy, and the city had their shot at the brass ring that regional heroes Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen manifested into national renowned for their hometowns.

But that was then, this is now. What happens to rock stars who fail to launch? The ones who don’t make it, who leave an entire city gasping for their moment to seen. Because if Michael Stanley did one thing for the psysche of a downtrodden city, he let them feel seen, recognized in th eslog and shove of surviving a rough Rust Belt reality. It wasn’t Springsteen heroic, but real to the streets of Cleveland, Akron and the other factory towns that were struggling across on Northern Ohio.

Make that kind of music, especially where people are used to digging in, they show up.

Give them dignity, some swagger, some reason to believe, they hang on.

And when it’s over, they don’t forget.

Rock stars get real jobs when it’s over, blend in, make due; but they don’t forget, either. Just everything changes.

The reasons, the drives, the motifs. Still, the ones who believe never falter.
Because even when life moves on; the power of what music means sustains.

The trick is to swerve beyond the trap of nostalgia, bypass the sodden machismo of “who we were.” Things may be larger in the rearview, but they’re gone. Hang onto what’s gone, you might as well lay down and die. Over and done, you’ll miss what’s ahead to be savored.

For Michael Stanley, and the fans who peopled the four capacity nights at the slightly shabby Tangiers, it’s not about merely remembering. Not any more. If in the two decades he’s been doing these intimate shows, there were years of marking time and fulfilling people’s desire to hear the canon of their truly golden years one more time; it happens. In some ways, it’s the gravitational force of the needing to return to something you knew without thinking that lets tedium set in.

Whatever the last several months have held, there was a moment where it all flipped over. What it was becomes what is. That which “never quite happened” suddenly matters, perhaps even more than when it first had its moment. Because now the need to believe, the need to celebrate is even more pressing.

Like the city of Cleveland itself, Michael Stanley is still here. Still writing songs, still brandishing that brand of heartland rock and roll that makes the people of the flyover know they’re not forgotten in the rush for newer, hipper, younger. A little weathered from the miles, it’s not about still standing, but being triumphant in the journey. Celebrating where you are for what it is and flying the defiant flag of “we don’t give a damn about you, either/we have each other-- and know how to hang on when it ain’t easy,” the now becomes imperative.

Throwing the gauntlet from the very first downstroke of “It’s All About Tonight,” a brakes-cut bit of bravado that is all carpe nocturnum, they don’t look back. Stanley, who’s earned the right to coast, hits the stage with purpose.  Sixty-five years old, he sings harder, digs deeper and drops his often stoic resolve more now than ever.

It is music that, when fully surrendered to, transforms, lift people up and drives them past the inertia of merely getting by. That is where Stanley is now. It is obvious from his attack and his intensity that he wants to take his people with him.

His old songs burn with an urgency. A whiplash sting to “In Between The Lines,” the song ofpersonal and cultural reckoning ignited by the murder of John Lennon, it's a brutal indictment and fierce reminder. In some ways, a napalm rage against the killing of our innocence, “Lines” serves as a call to investment, to engagement, to taking an active role in making the world a place beyond rage, avarice and nihilism.

That electricity echoes on the waves of Danny Powers’ slow burning lead guitar and Bob Pelander’s cascade of piano notes during the bridge of “I Am You.” Again, Stanley sees the power in identification, the embodiment of being in it together. For him, it’s a state of inclusion, the combined energy making everyone so much more… and also the unspoken declaration of the heroic position of enduring for others.

Rock and roll used to mean that. In Northern Ohio, it still does.

“I Am You” leads to the pensive “Winter,” a meandering Celtic-folk-leaning ballad that starts innocently enough. Equal parts reflection and regret, it’s also a knowing measure of where one is. To be willing to want to live, to hang onto what could be is the greatest fuel there is – especially knowing that one’s days are numbered.

The rush of that awareness fosters a force that fuels a colossal jam as the song shifts tempos, builds and lunges towards some exhaustive shudder. Harkening back to when AOR songs left room for excavation of melody and form, “Winter” bookends the much older “Lets Get The Show On The Road,” a bitter snapshot of the ennui of road life, the emptiness of the dream when it betrays you and the dead end that never seems to actually end.

Containing the line “the Lord uses the good ones, and the bad ones use the Lord,” “Let’s Get The Show On The Road” illuminates an insight not yet experienced. Yet strung across the free form jazz back section, all paper tigers and Trojan horses of the lies we’re sold, what we need to believe and the way the dream can draw and quarter you, Stanley's seething witness blisters.

It is not blind rage, but the ballast of knowing.

The revenge is to keep coming. No retreat, no surrender. Indeed, exult in what is, what’s left, what you know and what yougot, not what people try to sell you. This beer won’t make you sexier, that hair care product won’t make you young.

That unflinching staredown transforms a song of not nearly enough into a rallying cry. The kick inside may be the only shot you got. But it’s what you got, and that seems to be the resonant note this night in Akron.

With an encore of “Working Again,” from the aptly titled Heartland, there is the Rodney Psyka conga/Tommy Dobeck drum pastiche that works multiple rhythms into a frenzy that sets the urgency in motion. Ultimately, another song of making ends meet, borrowing against tomorrow because that’s all there is, the desperation is marked by a fierce commitment to getting by with one’s two hands and the strength of a very broad back. If there is a more joyous drummer to watch than Dobeck, who hits with as much finesse as punch, it is hard to imagine – and that euphoria feeds the performers as they dig in for the duration.

Like “It’s All About Tonight,” the immediacy is visceral. These fans know how these realities feel, they’re not American Express premium ticket holders buying the illusion of authentic blue collar exigency. These are their songs, cast as large as the room – and their souls – can contain. Packing a walloping Bo Didley beat, which Stanley tells them “is the beat your parents warned you about,” the crowd is on their feet, shaking what their mothers gave them for all its worth.

The Resonaters know the power of that primal pull. As the vamp builds, the “uhn, ahh” turns into the call and response of coitus. It is both metaphoric and literal – and the crowd surges towards their own sort of full-tilt musical climax. They want it, they’re gonna have it – and they shriek with abandon, spent but not quite exhausted.

In part, it’s a case of momentum being exponentiated via the ballads the fans are most invested in – “Falling In Love Again” sung more by the crowd than Stanley, a stately trek through the ’79 steamy slow dancer “Lover” – which allows regaining their collective breath to gather their fervor, then pushing further onto a pulsing forward tilt of these blue collar anthems that define the Midwest.

Being the last night of the stand doesn’t hurt. Stanley sung as hard on the fourth night as he’s ever sung, leaning into vocals, pushing phrases with a power that supercedes his normally smoky pensiveness or bitter bark. It’s as if he’s singing for his life; in many ways, though, his is.

These songs, culled from years in the trenches, are a litany of fighting back, of almost/not quite and try, try again. To get knocked down and denied so many times, and to get still back up and play, not for the record deal or the big tour or a Grammy, but because your soul requires it is the purest reason there is.

A holy pursuit, there is no gain beyond the moment, remembering how alive you can feel. That moment of putting the pedal down, pushing the night to its limits – and feeling the things that gave you such potency when you were young, realizing those emotions are still something you can feel, embrace, wrap yourself in offers an energy otherwise untapped.

It’s not buying a Corvette and driving too fast, looking like an old fool too deep into losing touch to know the difference. This is about the intersection of dignity and what you’re made of is. The simplicity of suiting up, showing up and throwing down to the point of all that there is. Not for the money or the glory or the fame, but because as Springsteen says, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Who we were, who we are, who we will be. It dangles in the humidity on one of Paul Christensen’s sax solos, sultry and ripe with the promise of desire; echoes of moors and Appalachia in Marc Lee Shannon’s mandolin turns. Beyond words, it's in the blood, pumping, throbbing, surrendering to how fierce it must be to be true to its point of origin.

No one else may ever see. No one beyond the moment will ever know. It doesn’t matter. For the assembled, this is all there is – and it fills the need in ways the superstar on his private jet, the high gloss fame monger or pampered starlet will never know.

Snookie be damned, this is real. Real is what matters once you know happily ever after is right where you stand if you wrap your arms around it, and take it for all its worth. Michael Stanley – and the people who love his music – have figured that out. It is all that they need to get by.

20 April 2013

 

Dan Baird’s Homemade Sin

There is that left leg, pumping like electroshock set to quick-strike metronome. It's attached the black-headed, pork-pie hat wearing yowler who hurls himself at the mic without ever losing solid contact with the floor beneath his sneakers. This guy is a true believer, and he ain't afraid to let it rock. This man is Dan Baird, who's brought his new band Homemade Sin with Jason & the Scorchers guitarist Warner Hodges, to Nashville after extended European tours to let it fly, and see how it lands back home. It is an act of faith and an act of combustion, pure and simple. Hardcore three chord rock and roll with a steam engine back beat and Baird's drawlin' howl that's all the yowl of a mountain cat with its balls caught in barbed wire. No fuss, no muss. Just four grown men on a clean stage, walking out, plugging in and hitting the downstroke. Quick buzz, blur and straight into the Georgia Satellite's "I Dunno" with as much charge-load as anything the Replacements or the Ramones ever served up, lyrics flying, guitars whirling and a sense of thrilling release about finally getting it all out. It's a funny thing about the Satellites: for the people who got it, they were the real deal, throttle and exhilaration that touched on the great ones: Stones, Faces, Who, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly without ever dropping a plectrum. To the drive-by observers, they were one merely one more band punching it out in the bars, surfing a very lucky Warhol 15 by virtue of a novelty song that worked the oldest axiom mothers had plied on their daughters coming into puberty since the 50s. Ironically, for Baird – who sets it up with "I don't know… maybe you don't wanna hear the huggy-kissie song" — "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" has become its own blaring insurrection manifesto. Sure, it's been played in bars, on concert stages and frat houses every night for the past two decades, but in Homemade Sins' hands, the down-on-the-groove classic is almost a salacious confrontation. It's the rage against the assumptions, the dismissals and, of course, the unthinking denial of hormonal meltdown. Not that it was all full-rut blaring. When Baird slowed things down for the gut-ripping "All Over But The Crying," it was the attenuated moment of reckoning for a faithless girl who thinks she's smarter than the guy – only to realize, he's letting her play her game, because he's done. By dropping the pilot light to a slow quiet flex, single notes hitting the stage like stakes going through the floor, the intensity draws the room to a hush. That kind of a witness at a rock show is staggering. In some cases more staggering even than the ability to take late middle aged women who're well into their fade and return them to their former 20-something hottie glory, shaking their asses as if anyone still cared – or the paunchy guy well past his rock 'n' roll prime pawing his dates crotch right out in the open. But that's the alchemy: dissolving time and propriety, releasing the inner beast in the people. And that's Homemade Sin. Down on the dance floor, the normally reserved flung themselves at the stage, roiling and boiling like it was the second to last night of Spring Break and they couldn't believe life was so good. And it's not that life is so good. It's that Baird, Hodges, veteran bass player Keith Christopher and Satellites drummer Mauro Magellan haven't forgotten. Indeed, they recognize the power of Hodges' whipping Creedence's "Fortunate Son" into a frenzy, of the dumb kid ardor of Baird's solo semi-hit "I Love You, Period," of the jettison punch of why even bother with what went wrong "6 Years Gone" and the surging bolt of "Railroad Steel." Feel it. Put it all down. Spin it out with a couple Telecasters and a beat that'll topple the constraints that bind you. Do it with dignity. Do it tight. Do it hard. It's not about showing off – though Hodges can toss a guitar over his shoulder at rapid speed – but getting it done. Period. Perhaps for the true believers, there is a moment where the doubt rolls back, and the fact that all there is is a tweed amp and some reverb that'll save you, is the reason a band like Homemade Sin doesn't just matter: they're critical. Certainly "Younger Face" offers a heightened interpretation, but it's not about what was – staggering though that might be; no, it's about what is: the fact that new songs like "Leave Well Enough Alone" and "2 For Tuesday" bristles with the same static electricity that made the Satellites gap-toothed lightning that the Satellites struck with all those years ago. In a world where it's about marketing, demographics and what will the radio play, the argument could be made, this doesn't fit. But to a churning catharsis of too many people wondering "Where did all the music that hit hard with melodic thrust go?", in Nashville's legendary Exit/In, they're essential. Because in the end, there is no substitute. You can talk all you want, but you either rock or you don't. Without bands like this, though, it won't be long before people won't have any measure to judge the difference. That is perhaps even more important than a jam-packed 90 minutes that quoted from T. Rex ("Bang A Gong") and the Beach Boys ("Do You Wanna Dance?") on its way to a wind-up, wind-out of the revving "Railroad Steel" into the bawdy drawling tale of white trash heart throb "Dixie Beauderaunt." In times like these, it is bold men who lean into the reverb, throw caution to the wind and let it rock. Homemade Sin has that boldness in their veins and sustain, and they came to let it rock. Whew, thank God somebody remembers how. --Holly Gleason February 8, 2008
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The Desert’s Quiet, Cleveland’s Cold

It's cold. Damn cold. The biting, frozen from the marrow out kinda cold that chills you 'til you shake, lips turning just the slightest bit purple. When the wind whips off the lake, down Euclid or Prospect or Carnegie Avenues, the arteries of commute from the East Side in, it tears your flesh -- without even making an incision. Cleveland, Ohio on a winter's day is just that cold. Brittle. Brutal. Kinda like the way a diamond sparkles. And yet, vicious as that cold might be, Cleveland -- even in the winter -- is my home. Or rather where I come from, steel money and grand old buildings and ethnic neighborhoods that still are. Where I was forged... born and raised. And so it is, that I'm in pink sweater and a pale blue scarf scratching at bus doors, trying to find an old friend in the name of a song. Not that he didn't know I was coming -- just that the cell phone wasn't working, and there was a merge between my past and farther back past that was fixing to be present, and sometimes it just ain't worth the chance of something going sideways. It was an almost "as if" diesel sniffing moment, the kind where you know there's nothing you can say or do, knowing it doesn't matter that you're on the up and up - in an "Almost Famous" for everything moment, it's a rejoinder of "Top of the ramp with the other girls." Only there aren't any other girls. It's too cold even to be stalking the names on the ticket. Still when you are as you are, you know in the end, it'll be okay. Give it a minute, it'll right itself; everything'll be fine. Give it a minute, and even a girl with vertigo can find the calibration -- because there's safe harbor in songs and old friends, the reasons to believe the human condition transcends, if you'll cast after the truly great writers. Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, Guy Clark -- in reverse alphabetical order -- are that. Each a voice distinctly, uniquely their own, and yet utterly embodying some facet of America that is universally noble, even if it's only in how it captures our imagination. Joe Ely the rogue drifter, Someone who wandered up from "The Wild Ones," hellbent on making Mexico under a moon barely more than a sliver with a horse that's spent or hidden on top of a railcar. Rough hewn, a bit torn about the edges, intense and restless. Not for the faint of heart -- writing songs with a stiletto or straight razor across a heart of Spanish leather. Guy Clark, the manliest of poets. Reserved and dignified in a way that makes a denim shirt seem formal, and rolling one's own cigarettes regal. He pulls truths from common things, shines light on grand realizations that seem like just another moment, offers heroism and sweeping love across moments so like our very own. John Hiatt, the soul-grinder with the Ozzy Nelson touch. A voice like dredging the Mississippi, leaning into songs like it's the final turn -- and tempering the chunky funky zealous noise of the joyful perk with a turpentine soaked barn-board beauty of relentless fidelity, cavernous loss and devotion that makes a dog look fickle. And Lyle Lovett, the quirky hipster haiku painter. With that low slung growl, courtly prowl and the ability to capture the most ephemeral feelings like fireflies in glass jars, he warps the lens, exaggerates the rhythms and rolls us along with him. Doleful like black Irish mourners, wry like Dorothy Parker and quick to connect dots that seemed like stars across the heavens, he can sail a magical tapestry of characters, details and truths as if he were merely breathing. Together. Again, Just like the first time -- at the now long gone Bottomline in New York City, brought together by the then head of the Country Music Foundation, eventually to be the Director of the National Endowment of the Arts Bill Ivey almost almost two decades ago. Two decades. Almost. These men intertwining the lives already lived so fully. Three Texans and a Hoosier. All "critically acclaimed." Legends pretty much to people who follow that stuff. Clark being, of course, the eminence grise -- and standard by which all other Texas singer/songwriters are measured; and Ely, the rocker from Lubbock who'd opened for the Clash when they first hit big, whose Honky Tonk Masquerade was a fierce insurrectionist treatise that captured ears but somehow never quite made him the rocker he wanted to be. Hiatt, a veteran of the LA punk/country rock scene and a writer of merit -- even from a different side of the tracks, moved to Nashville to slow down and created the magical Bring The Family with its truth in the Norman Rockwell reality-based sketches. Lovett was the kid, a jazz merged with Texas songwriter aesthetics that had a sweetness that got in your veins and made you yearn for an innocence that was so blithely aware of what was around. Even then, they all had lives and stories. Even then, they'd covered continents and miles. Even then, they'd dream and laugh and drink and wander -- wondering about how it all held together, seeking insight with their details and lost nights with those mornings that somehow always broke your heart. If Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett were bound by anything, it was their willingness to see the truth, to own their stuff, to be willing to own up to what hurt, what stung, what brought them to their knees. In leather pants and a concho belt, Ely understood swagger -- and Hiatt's flannel shirt and khaki pants suburban camouflage was comfortably reassuring; Lyle was the uptown chic sleek sheik in his well cut suits and cowboy boots and well, Clark was a pressed white shirt, black vest, black jacket man most nights -- utterly elegant in his understated being. Way too different, yet strikingly the same. Always ones to unravel the threads and then twist them together again, sometimes in lost bars in strange nations with all kinds of people inhaling the tales like air. And they talked even better, it must be said. And their act -- though more the gracious easiness with which they open up their souls like guitar cases waiting for thrown money -- has gotten better with the passage of time. Or maybe it's that we've all had more time to find experiences that've been inside these songs, so we've learned them to be true, to have felt their core settle on moments all their own. Which is how I found myself in Cleveland, in the bitter cold. I had come to pay off debts, seeking something I didn't know could be sought. Yet, as so often is when you live in the wind, it's not the roots that hold you up but the currents that blow you from place to place -- if you'll relax enough to ride them. There was a singer once, a folkie. From my hometown, too. Had a quasi-rave-up spoken-word party vamp about being "a skinny little boy from Cleveland, Ohio, come to chase your women & drink your beer." It was quite festive and the party hearty college boys liked chanting it with staggeringly eroded grasp of the consonants anywhere cheap Pabst or whatever 3-2 was being tapped could be found. And the rallying cry was fine, but it didn't tell the story. No, no; this man crafted intricate little gems of exquisite detail, and put them together on actual vinyl records for his own Fiddler's Wynde label. I was beguiled by bridges that soothed, "Sweet child I hear you been crying, leave your sorrow far behind when you're through/ Each mile, no matter how winding, leads me/ Home is where my heart is, my heart stays with you" and songs about "Gunfighters Smile"s that summed up everything about the way that I'd come to live beyond the shadows, somehow forgotten in the far corners of the night. "Gunfighter's Smile" was a celebration and an elegy and a manifesto by which I seemed to live, a kid with licorice whip legs and a ponytail whipping around as that golf club swept up, scrapped the sky and finished high. A grown-up kid, chasing a dream I didn't quite understand, traveling around and playing golf tournaments I was never quite equipped to win. "Here's a song from a bottle of whiskey, here's a song from a Holiday Inn/ Here's a song for anyone who's ever watched the daylight sweeping in/ Let it come from the other side of morning, let it go to the other side of night/ It's where your dreams are, they're only what you make 'em, you only make 'em if you try, So close your eyes, let it all come back, one by one let the images files Gone, but not forgotten, through the eyes of autumn, I can still see your, gunfighter's smile" Alex Bevan wrote those words about bravery and beauty, chasing things you don't understand, squaring up and squaring off, shoulders back, head held high. It haunted me for years -- and led me along on a course of reading the credits, knowing that the singers don't always write the songs, but sometimes the writers sing, And he kept the pilot light lit for that notion -- me, a capricious kid with a good hustle sneaking into bars and college coffee houses in a pink buttondown shirt and slate colored Levi corduroys. A 13-, 14-year old girl, who looked about 10, figuring the same clothes would help raise the recognition factor -- forgetting the pictures of me in the newspaper, the ardor of my devotion and the fact that I was just so young going to communion with a sacrament of songs. It set me up for a life of finding clarity in the hollow spaces within the chords, understanding in the words. It was a good trade for a girl a little too old for her peers, a little too wise for the bars and far too young to get lost the way grown-ups do. Then there came Emmylou Harris. Rodney Crowell. It led to Guy Clark. Joe Ely, a flickering blue hot flame opening for Tom Petty at the Lakeland Civic Center, pressed against the stage at a General Admission Show -- having cut a day of my Freshman year of college to see Petty's homecoming concert and finding something else in the bargain. Rosanne Cash was a line into Hiatt, and Crowell. The Geffen Records so smart, yet so obscure- - a guy who had an old soulman's voice, wrote almost by dragging a hook across the curtains, ripping away that which would obscure and letting light pour over it all, and all of it wasn't pretty. Not that I really knew these people, just knew their music. Lived between the grooves on their records. Found things to laugh about, weep about, open up the veins of frustration, pump my fist and whoop with glory for. So it was, in Boynton Beach, Winter Park, Coral Gables, Florida. But along the way, I picked up a pen, started writing -- about music. Showed an insight beyond my years and a knowledge far beyond casual. And The Miami Herald needed a country writer, and so it was I came to start knowing the rogues of the road, the poets and pirates who stole songs from what they encountered and gave back perhaps even greater truths than they even found. "Don't make friends with the rock stars," the late great gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs cautions young William Miller in Cameron Crowe's memoir movie about coming of age as a baby rock critic "Almost Famous." Draw close to the flame is what he means, but it's your job to keep them honest, to remind them of what really matters, to keep them making music over money, not just money from music. Still, it's hard. They are, so, shiny. And they break your heart, sometimes. The venality of vanity and ego obscuring whatever tender -- or hormonal in the lust sense -- place that song came from. Their honest experience crushed and eradicated under the tonnage of fame and fawning. Yet, you can't help but want the music to matter, to mean more, to connect to the people who need it. Like that kid in a pink bedroom with a canopy bed, breathing the heavy night air and the rock & roll pouring out of WMMS in the lost hours, bathed in that odd glowing blue from the radio. She was saved by the songs and the FM dial, the records she'd spend hours pouring over and seeking. There were others like her -- and the mission was to make their mission easier. If you shared insight and wisdom, laughter and occasionally tears, not to mention good meals and whiskey, or tequila, red wine or whatever with the spinners of yarns, then so be it. It heightened the insight, the ability to conjure the essence of where the songs emerged. And so it came to be, in all kinds of countrys, with good conversations and spun notes that could just take your breath away. Tower Records was vital then, a force. Their Pulse, working off the premise "we listen to a lot of records, we write about the ones we like," was a magazine that shared my taste, letting me write about so many of the artists I loved and lived for. It was Pulse that put me in Clark's line of fire. An interview in a garret office in the top of a rambling office building that had once been a house on Music Row, a farflung discussion of discipline and influences, Townes Van Zandt and dignity, reasons to and the things that matter, for an album called Old Friends that creaked in the right places and turned truth to pure elixir with an oaken voice, a gravitas of old libraries and a warmth that drew you closer. Lovett came before even his big time national record debut, a quirky quilt of jazz rhythms, minor keys and sketches of people and places the Texas Tom Waits might've followed. But swiped with wonder and a dearness that drew you in, and that shock of hair, that tilted smile that was as much a part of his "aw shucks" self-deprecation when you'd shake your head, marveling at how he put you "there" at "Closing Time," when you should "unplug those people" or on "This Ole Porch" where moments pass like "a plate of greasy enchiladas, with guacamole salad." Lovett was most unconventional. Capable of such delicate intricacy, yet also able to engage arousal without seeming dirty. "You Can't Resist It" had such self-awareness of pheromones bursting in air, you could get dizzy from the frisson, while "God Will" recognized the humanity that fires jealousy and disgusted indictment in matters of love and straying nether regions. Always unassuming, Lovett sometimes felt like the most erudite Hansel to my Gretel in the valley of the infamous, turning up where I'd be chasing stories, singing songs that made faraway places, people I'd never known real. The other kid seeking -- or rather not quite knowing he had -- a place at the table, but having one by virtue of his gifts as much as his desire to be there. Ely had just kept slugging. A rootless tumble cactus, determined to be heard. Did his time in the hardscrabble LA rock fringe, opening for the Clash and trying to understand how Lubbock fits in with all of that, like so many ravaged post-Hollywood refugees, he finally figured home is what set him apart, and so the honky tonk ferocity of Lone Sar juke joints infused his insurrectionista refusal to fall in line with MTV, Instead he seceded, putting out the fierce Lord of the Highway on the label that gave the world smooth newblueser Robert Cray. At the Hyatt House on Sunset -- far above what becomes the nightly river of the starving to be famous, where Led Zeppelin would decamp during much of their Stateside conquest -- we talked about running away with the circus, vast horizons and the need to burn for music. A few hours later, in bolero tie and black close-cut denim jacket with a lean mean band, he would singe the Roxy with no frills, take-no-prisoners rock & roll. It was a commanding commando performance. A burst of guitar, a blaze of glory and into the night. Ely seemed to like it that way, Hiatt remained more elusive. But he had a way of showing up in corners. Everyone knew he was brilliant, but like Ely, it was an unconventional record -- actually pulled together by John Chelew, one of the guys from McCabe's Guitar Shop -- that had a pilot light that turned home fires into mirrors of "me, too" and "Lipstick Sunsets" into sigh-inducing moments of romantic rapture everyone wants to see their own lives smeared into. Whimsical, as well as mournful and insightful, Hiatt's soulstew would find its dawn with Bring The Family -- and just keep churning. Slow Turning bringing even more. And then there would be the hits for Bonnie Raitt, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash -- and lots more, People who knew, who reveled in their lives would get the joke, ride the updraft and melt into the pools of feeling that offered temerity with the wheeeeee! Thanksgivings spent with each and every one of them, Dinners eaten, field trips taken, dressing rooms passed through, All part of the journey to a place where I didn't ever know I was going, to a moment where it all turned around and the path had seemed to be blown clean. Only the memories and the moments, and the laughter, and the songs. And the funny thing about songs is they often have three dimensions. There is the song itself, a thing of perfect creation that tells a story all its own The keys, the pauses, the way the words seem to ride the progressions and the images they leave. Perhaps they show you things, paint pictures, reveal hidden places or carry you further inside your own heart with what they express about the writers own life, emotions, past or hopes. The song itself is potent, but then there's the song and how you hear it: where you are and what you're doing, what those moments hold (or don't). It is the collaborative part of loving music -- the place where you bring your own reality and fuse it onto it. Then whenever you hear that song, it puts you in your own truth, your own reality -- deepening or tempering. An alchemy unanticipated, yet powerful beyond reason. And then there is the song transformed: play it for someone else, share it if you dare. See how it hits your friends, or someone across a bar. Watch the shifts, wonder -- or ask -- what they're feeling, getting from it. Share your stories, your reactions, find things you'd never seen, or merely cement what you have: in the song, in the friendship, in the recognition of yourself in someone else. The bonds forged over music are some of the strongest I've ever seen. Unlikely alliances, too, because of artists, voices, writers, songs, all bound up in truths most people would never articulate, yet knowing that "you got that, too" is the sturdiest bridge I know. Living in the wind, roots are not a terre firme proposition. It is what you grasp as you fall, fly or hurl by -- and you cling to the things that are weightless. Like songs. In moments when it all falls apart, it's the music that often puts it all back together. Don't know why, just know that's how it seems to always happen. Like sitting at my mother's grave, Clark's "Let Him Roll" rising like the rumble of far off summer thunder. Low, serious, strong, yet reassuring. And "The Randall Knife: following me around, like a ghost of consolation, an old friend who -- though unseen for almost a decade -- has the ability without doing a thing to remind you of your core strength, even as you're haunted by the jagged sense of what has happened. And so it was. Time melted. It was then, and it was not. The past and future turning into one. Alex Bevan, the singer who raised me right, to revere the singers of their own songs, had given up a weekend with his new bride to sing at my mother's funeral. For a woman best described as "a force of nature." A woman he barely knew, but a child he'd seen grow up. Alex, with that dimpled precious smile, still a student of the game and a believer in how good it could get, someone who would love this night as much as anyone on the face of the earth. Of course, it made sense to take him to this show, to introduce him to the people who picked up when I'd wandered off to Florida, then LA. It was a holy duty. And a delightful task. A reason to reach out, seek out these people who I knew from long before I midwifed dreams, made bold-faced music matter in ways most people missed. And if John Hiatt couldn't resist changing Ronnie Milsap to Kenny Chesney in his Nashville decompression rave "Memphis in the Meantime," no one laughed harder than the people in my row -- a swap to honor a decision I'm still not quite sure I made. And yet, I did. Somehow, not even quite sure why. Just did. Just wandered off the path, into the jungle of great big show business. Football stadiums, magazine covers, red carpets, cloaks, daggers, awards and private jets. Not for me, mind you, I just spin the plates, keep the time, toe the line, and watch the stars rise. Still for all the contretemps at the bus, some things never change. Old friends who have stories to tell, who laugh at your jokes, who smile just 'cause -- and who sing songs that still take you apart from the inside out. It's like Lego's with bent notes, "Introduce us," Lovett says. "They don't know me here," I respond. "But we do," Indeed, we do. Know each other like the back of our hands, even with all the mysteries and missing years. Remembering things, polaroids no one should've noticed about days or nights or minutes that overlapped somewhere out there in the wind. That's the kind of knowledge that brings you home when you can't find stars to steer by. Whatever is tangled or whirling, somehow eases up enough to poke through for the answers you can't quite find. For these are the people who love you even when you're missing, and who're happy to see you when you finally reappear. Onstage, they pour their hearts out. But it's as much about the faces in the crowd who see their own realities, conflicts, conquests in those songs. The fans are there to genuflect at the altar of the songwriters, but they're also there to have communion with the ones who sanctified their reasons and recognized their doubts and pain. It is a powerful exchange, but a little lonely for the ones up on the stage. Even as they're seen, they're never really known. Except occasionally, when a lost girl from the past who's asked far too many questions to ever be polite, who's trolled the docks and sidewalks of their lives seeking where it all comes from. Earlier that evening, at dinner in a linen tableclothed restaurant, the waitress leaned over to Lovett and whispered in his ear. Ely had been telling us about his roadpoemjournal that was about to come out -- Bonfire of Roadmaps, shipped on his birthday from the University of Texas Press -- and talk of the dates and the length of time they'd been doing these shows, the kind of easy catch-up banter that marked the passing of time before a show, A little girl at the next table, not much more than 8 years old, didn't wanna bother, but had seen him, and the waitress had said she'd see, And so Lyle Lovett got up, walked over, knelt down by the child and talked a few moments. She was, of course, coming to the show; and yes, she had a favorite song, and absolutely sure he'd play it. "If I Had A Pony" is whimsical. It is a prelude to a freedom a child couldn't quite know they'd one day truly yearn for. It stood as a contrast to my own request -- for "LA County" about a jilted lover who drives all night to slaughter the girl on the altar of her wedding, an insistent bit of strummage that contrasted that bit of ghastly against the beauty of the vast scattered sparkling lights of LA from above. Dark though it was, the beauty in the misery balmed me when I'd first moved to LA, and didn't have the sense of humor to fit in. Too Midwestern, too serious, too tender, it made no sense to me -- and so I could drive Laurel Canyon and Mulholland Drive, staring out at the diamond vastness and cry. I knew just how he felt, that guy with the gun. And yet, I also knew there are some obsessions from which you can't run. Kinda like the prodigal woman in "Let Him Roll," and the song's object loving a girl about town named Alice, who used to be a whore in Dallas, it doesn't matter where you run, the truth will always find you. Looking down the row at Alex Bevan and his new bride, my dear friend from before First Communion Bridgett Bowden, now McWilliams, and her husband Jarvis, who to me shall always be Jarvie, I saw the glow. They saw what I saw, they were moved by the hollow point bullets of Ely and Clark's fugitives pleas of "Letter To Laredo" and "Magdalene," the piety of Haitt's quavering "Have A Little Faith" or Lovett's courtly erosion of same with the jazzy slink of "What Do You Do." Towards the very end, Lovett talked about Guy Clark's impact -- Old No. 1 being the album every young wanna be writer would listen to until it became part of the double helix geentic coding that defined their mind -- and being able to gather up stories of those who'd known Clark back when. From that place of reverence, Lovett introduced a song that his forebear had written, but never recorded -- a song he let the young Texan have called Step Inside This House, a song that held up the dreary every day items as treasures beyond price because of the memories they held. It is a quiet song. A talking tour to someone you're trying to engage with, offering the meaning behind a painting someone gave you when they couldn't return the ten, a book of poems read cover to cover -- dearly loved, a gift from a girl you couldn't quite get there with. It's a soothing song that shows what truly matters with an intimacy that's almost blush-inducing... and it evokes everything about why they, their songs, this night matters. They are conjurers, these men. They put you in all kinds of places, feelings, scenes -- and then they bring you home. They know how to go deep, to startle, to brush you off, to make you smile. They leave you feeling more: alive, aware, clear. It is a gift. Looking at my oldest friends, looking at my old friends, I couldn't help but marvel. Of late, the path has been overgrown and tangled. Not much makes sense, and yet, still I walk on. Sometimes there's no other choice. Keep walking, look around, maybe something will look familiar as you make your stations of the cross through life, And so it was in an old theater in Cleveland, Ohio. Clark's wife Susanna wrote a song with Carlene Carter once called "Easy From Now On" that embraced the notion of shedding the trauma and drama, relinquishing one's need to save the world or at least someone hell bent on drowning and taking you under -- that let it all go by "getting off where the crossroads meet," Sometimes, though, it's at the crossroads where it all comes together. "Saturday night, I'm gonna make myself a name," the song, which has been sung in full gossamer glory by Emmylou Harris, continues, "take a month of Sundays to try and explain," There is freedom -- one way or another -- at the crossroads. On a Saturday night, in the chill of a loading dock, watching my friends mount a bus and settle in for the night, I smiled. Inside the venue, a few more friends, still trying to process what had truly happened, waited. Right in the middle of them all, I turned. Everyone walked away with something different, hopefully something more. I would drive and drive all night, past the places where I became the girl who would become the woman I am now. A woman I wouldn't be without all of them, and hopefully, for anyone else who can ever find their reason in the music, it is a truth that brings them even when they don't know why. The men would head to Louisville. Set up those 4 chairs, 4 mics, 12 bottles of water -- and conjure more people's lives with their tales. My friends would go back to their worlds, smiling and wondering how it happened, so much could be said in so very few songs. And me, I'll sit up again too late, marveling at what I have been blessed to see, the way my life seemed to go and the people I've met along the way, It ain't that what I do will ever be noticed, but more what I notice as I go. Sometimes what you recognize is more than enough reason. These days, beyond the footlights, that's how it seems. And so it was in Townes Van Zant's sparely beautiful "Pancho & Lefty," the notion of the ending of two explosive lives wound down: "The desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold/ So the story ends we're told.." But stories like these, well, stories like these go on and on. That is the wonder of them -- like the road, they do go on forever. It's just a matter of showing up and looking on.
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“Standing In The Shadows of a Dream”, Funk Brothers

The notes kept showing up in my cue. From people I respected, music lovers and makers whose souls were deep and whose hearts I knew beat with the rhythm of the records that shaped their lives. "You must go see it," they enjoined. "It is something you must witness, understand," they continued. It was a consensus… and so I knew it was something that must be done. Except real life has a way of getting in the way. Whatever it is, something no doubt forgotten by next month. The have-to outweighing the must-be. And so "Standing In The Shadows of Motown" has been in Nashville a few weeks, was most likely fixing to get its ticket out -- and I'd still not dragged myself to a theatre to see Allan Slutsky's witness to the band that put the music in Motor City: the Funk Brothers. Motown was the Sound of (countless generations of) Young America. So much a part of the aural fabric of who we are, it's a given, not even a considered or a recognized… and that's where it becomes doubly invisible. But the men who forged that sound, who were the beat, the notes, the swing… Who were they? And why did nobody care? After all, without the musicians, there is nothing. And not just musicians, either, but great musicians who're all heart and soul and sweat and passion for what they do. People who know a groove, a pocket, a riff, a hook -- those who are that kind of musician. I always joke that when relationships fall apart from neglect, the parties become like furniture to each other. They're there. You know they're there. You live with them and never think about or consider that they're there. It just is. And so it was for the Funk Brothers, the backbone, lifeblood, spark and verve and raison d'etre of the Motown Sound. While there's surprisingly no bitterness in the film -- and you'd think there'd've been ample opportunity for that to creep into this documentary/celebration of these unsung heroes -- the clear-eyed reality of what did (and didn't) happen may make the injustice even more harrowing. In the beginning interview, keyboardist Joe Hunter, who's credited with being the original "glue," talks about the realization that for all the excitement generated by the artists, the records, the song and the sounds of Motown, the musicians were going to be left out of the dream It wasn't a master plan. An evil plot. A nefarious credit shift. Just nobody bothered to make the point of their contribution -- or hold them up for the world to see. And so the Funk Brothers became wallpaper. Just an element, but not a catalyst. Blocks, perhaps, but not the alchemy or combustion. Later in the film, when the assembled band members re-enter Hitsville's Studio A, the cameras capture their memories of what went down, how it was, what it felt like. But there's also a segment where they talk about all the things that got the "credit" for the Motown Sound -- from the artists to the producers, the walls, the wood, even the food. Without missing a beat, one of the Funks laughs and says, "Well, I don't know… I'd like to see you throw some ribs or a hamburger down those four stairs, count out 1, 2, 3, 4 - and see what happens!" Indeed. Or as a recent e-mail suggested -- promising, it seemed, some trick of revelation -- send this to 10 people, hit shift and get the answer to the notion what is it the poor have, the rich don't want, can beat God and is the glory of the devil. Hit shift right now and see what happens. It'll be the same thing. But this isn't about decrying what didn't happen. It's recognizing what did. "Standing In The Shadows of Motown," which has been doing the tour of film festivals around the globe, breaks that reality for sure (it would be remiss if it didn't) on its way to celebrating the vitality of musical spirit, the camaraderie that shone between the notes, the men who brought their best to it every day -- and offered up the licks that kept the world enthralled. "My Girl," "Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Dancing In The Street," "Just My Imagination," "Ball of Confusion," "Heatwave," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "War," "Mercy Mercy Me," "Shotgun," "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," "Tears Of A Clown," "Going To A Go-Go," "Shotgun," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," "What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted," Come & Get These Memories," "Tracks of My Tears" and beyond... Those songs. Those sounds. Those moments. No doubt -- even baby-somethings -- have a few of those etched on the soundtrack of their lives, the sonic touchstone to moments that will never be forgotten, those songs that wafting out of a speaker no matter how crackly or distorted melt the now and drop them right where they were. That is the power of music. The power of great songs. But especially the flex that is a performance that hooks you. Latter day Motowners the Dazz Band -- a rarity: a self-contained group that played as well as sang -- won the 1983 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group for an S&M dance groove called "Let It Whip." Hip programming aside (and it was), there was a moment of unbridled exuberance at the tail end a line of that offered the assurance "no torture trip" that was a rafter-scraping 'woo-OOOOH-ooh." That vocal lick was the product of humanity on the half-shell. An improvised second that gave it flavor. It made it real. It put that groovadelicness into a whole other zone of delectation -- and THAT was what set all those Motown records apart. The human touch. The so-real. The non-negotiability of inspiration in a moment. You don't get that just anywhere. You get it from people who get it. Like the Funk Brothers -- whether you know their names or not. And while it's been lost for generations, "Standing In The Shadows" gives them not just names, but faces, voices, moments. It is the beginning of the due -- and it's a toll we should all toss in, because we'll be far richer than whatever the ticket costs. While none of the biggies appeared -- no Stevie, no Smokey, no Miss Ross -- Martha Reeves threw down hard for her boys. And the downlow contemporaries rolled in to play and frolic with one of those bands that should be put on our shoulders and carried aloft for what they've given with no recognition. Though the bold-faced names were merely the cherry on top or the parsley next to the sizzling chunk o' meat. What mattered was watching the Funk Brothers in their element: that elegance, exultance, shimmer, majesty and raw beauty of grown men doing what they put here to do. Not that the Grammy-winning, platinum-selling-and-beyond marquis-named guests were slouches. But even these face valuers were there to sublimate in the face of something far grander and more important. You had flame-voiced Chaka Khan and ghetto soul man Gerald LeVert, funkateer of the cosmic order Bootsy Collins and musical black melt Meshell Ndegecello, blues-undertoned pop/rock chanteuse Joan Osborn, hip rootser Ben Harper and neosoulsensualizer Montell Jordan all paying homage to the men that made Motown a musical place to be. Yes, Berry Gordy had a vision, many of the artists brought their thing and Holland Dosier Holland and Company had songs…. but without musicians, none of it has wings. If you don't have wings, my friends, you can't fly. That's one of Motown's gifts, it took young dreams, innocent wishes and put them to the sky. You believed you could, because you had a rhythm, a melody, a riff that you could sail heavenward on. When it got hard, this music could soothe the bruise. When you were ready to exhilerate, it could put the spring in your step. You never had to think about it. You just had to reach for your 45s, your radio, your compliations - or even go see your favorite bands. Because everybody covered Motown. Figure the Funk Brothers gave you more #1s than Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined… and rarely did people cop their songs without trying to replicate the stuff that made them stick. So for one night in Motown, the show was about holding these guys aloft. But these men didn't need a star-studded spectacle to find the joy in their playing. No, no -- they'd (even at the height of the Hitsville explosion) were sneaking out to jazz clubs and local joints to work out, to flex what they did, to soar on higher and higher currents of musical collaboration, to see where they could push each other where the stakes were only cocktails and a smokey evening. Often they'd bring the prior night's spoils back to "the snake pit" as they affectionately refered to Studio A. They'd seen something new, something beyond the horizon they'd just discovered and they'd find a way to lay it down between the hooks, elevate the artist of the day -- or inspire one of the greats to something more. There is a story told about Marvin Gaye seeking out bassist James Jameson (the only Funk Brother I'd ever heard of by name -- and my knowledge while not encyclopedic is pretty broad spectrum) from some divey club where the personal-demoned musician had sought refuge, exiled from the Motown machine for his excesses, emotional and otherwise. Playing on his back because he was too everything to sit on a stoor and using his one finger technique that he called "the claw," he laid down the bass part for "What's Goin' On," a state of the troubled nation embroiled in implosion and a plea for understanding amongst people who weren't nearly as different as they'd been conditioned to believe. "What's Goin' On" is one of those songs where are the societal conflicts of the '60s crystallize. And Gaye serves as some soulman St Francis of Assisi trying to sow love and understanding where it was most needed. But the message might've, probably would've been lost without that undulating bassline that penetrated the subconscious long before the message could terrify the polarized masses engaged in a racial, sexual, class war that was never declared officially -- only played out in the streets. It was a place where people saw beyond those things that were dividing the masses. And you could see how profoundly music can serve as a unifier when Ndegecello, a scary bassist who has no fear of any label or oeuvre, gently queries white bassist Bobb Babbitt about how the race thing played out for him in "the pit." Confessing that Martin Luther King's assassination was as painful for him as the rest of the guys, that what Black America was striving for was as real to him, you can see the emotion breaking through on his face. We are one. We can be a nation -- as George Clinton proclaimed -- under a groove. It takes respect. And awareness. And trust. It's a tall order. And it means overcoming much of what we're programmed to believe. Not take people forgranted -- and recognize that much of what makes us react is what we don't even consider. If I seem particularly wound-up, it's perhaps it's because this hits a little close to my bedroom. Just as people don't recognize that a good publicist is never seen or felt -- we hold up those we represent so people can see their grace and their resonance in the world in which they exist -- the studio players who create all of country music exist even more transparently. The studio sausages as they often refer to themselves are hailed as being responsible for more uninspired music than any other bunch of musician. But they're the ones who create what they're asked for, polish what they're given. And if you doubt their hearts and their souls, one needs only slide into a gig by the Players -- as close to what was once hailed as "the A Team" as Music City has right now. Guitar breakthroughist Brett Mason. Rhythm machine/melodist Michael Rhodes on bass. Riveting percision striker Eddie Bayers on drums. Steel recontextualizer Paul Franklin. Touch of silk, funk of ages John Hobbs on keyboards. The people these men have toured with, played with, taught would stagger. And like the Funk Brothers, they make the music that so many claim for their own with no recognition or acclaim -- just that double scale check and the sheer joy of being together (because having rubbed the softball from Hobbs' shoulder blades more nights than I care to think, I know it's not always classic American songs or hits being embroidered). If it seems like empty hype, allow me to tear a page from my own experience. On a plane to a photo shoot, a new client proudly offers to play the record they've just finished. Proffering their Discman, earphones plopped on my head, they hit play -- and all is well, until a few shimmering notes steeped in yearning pour forth. It is the bittersweet sound of being haunted by what was. Reflexively, I tore the headphones off, turned to the client wild-eyed and demanded, "Is that John Hobbs?" to a blank look. "The piano player... Is it Hobbs? On that 'Remember' song..." Kenny Chesney was clearly flummoxed by this obvious upset, caused by the intro to a song on an album that would eventually debut at #1 on the pop charts. He couldn't have known that the pool of regret pourding into his track was the only time I'd understood how utterly alone two people can be in love and in their relationship. Though the intro had been played before the engagement ended, we were both just sort of there, marking time, pinned by inerta. It was an abyss of hollow that neither could own, merely survive. And that is the kind of intersection between real life and commercial music that rarely happens and is shocking when it does. The Players, though, don't strive for that. They're there to do the job, elevate where they can. When they play for themselves, it's in tiny clubs. They may never make another record -- other than a badly funded quicky that merely scratches the surface of what makes them rock. But having been engaged to a man whose touch on the keys made me feel like gossamer wings could sprout from my shoulder blades and let me glide through the heavens, I know the emotions that flow from those fingers. Without that feeling, that ability to translate the pulses and revelations, recognitions and realities that defy words, songs and artists wouldn't matter. It's the artists that make it sizzle, that capture the imagination with their glamour, their sense of connection to our world… They're the ones that do the work and live the dream, becoming the face of whatever recordings they release. Somewhere beyond the dream, though, these faceless -- often nameless -- musicians toil to create the illusion that teaches the world to sing. They don't get to dream. They don't get to sparkle. All they have is the playing. And in darkened theaters around the country right now, the Funk Brothers -- long past their session lives, as Motown shuttered operations literally one day in 72 to head to the City of Angels and recorded no more in Detroit -- get their props. That James Jameson had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony at the Motown 25 Special, the one that was a tribute to what Berry Gordy and his stable of artists had built, says it all. Whose dream is it? Or maybe it depends on the dream… For the Brothers Funk, one gets the sense they may still work it out in the obscure little jazz clubs and neighborhood joints that field hot bands. For the Players, who still swing from ecstasy to agony turning out whatever Music Row deems this year's hillbilly hits, it's a mixed bad -- play what the people want to hear, but then every now and then, play what makes them smile. It's a dream without tour busses, huge crowds, major buzz. But the thrill is direct -- from their veins to the fingers and out to a small audience of people digging the nuances. Maybe it's enough. But what they give remains way more than what they take. --Holly Gleason 28 December 2002
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We Were So Much Younger Then, Steve Earle

Steve Earle stands onstage a little older. He's also a little wiser, a little bigger and his hair's a little thinner than when he released his seminal Guitar Town, a chronicle of the beautiful losers who exist just beyond the windshield's blur. But for all the passage of time, his heart remains the same: stout and fierce and willing to tilt against the windmills in the name of respect, passion, power and maybe, just maybe making ends meet without having to sweat the small stuff. In 1969, Tammy Wynette stood onstage at the Ryman Auditorium belting out "I Don't Wanna Play House" - and in the 3rd row of the Confederate Balcony, a kid from Houston sat mesmerized. He'd grow up to have a wild side, to filet moments with precision and pathos, to become the stuff of legend. But that night, he was stunned by a bouffant, a voice with a tear in it and a sense of how the best songs are ripped from lives and moments most would ignore. The child would never be the same. Steve Earle may never have qualified as a bona fide hillbilly star -- a little too rough, a little too quick to extend the middle digit -- even when his debut Guitar Town found quarter on Billboard's Country Album Chart. But he's got the heart of a cowboy, the soul of a biker and the poetry that stands him in good stead with Kristofferson, Cash, Willie and Waylon. An outlaw in what was then a land of back combed chest hair and quiana shirts, Steve Earle was one ole boy you couldn't tame, and theestablishment wasn't sure they'd want any part of it, either. Fifteen years ago, a young girl was played an advance cassette of this album called Guitar Town by an independent publicist looking to make that first turn-it-into-a-national-story connection. The music, lean, muscular, raw and honing in on the jagged fingernails of the blue collar, went straight to the gut -- and the tales were Hemingway-esque valor set against the lost souls of the West and Southeast: losers and drifters and dreamers and never quites mixed with might've beens. And the 31 year old with the shock of hair he'd flick out of his eyes by snapping his head back could tell a story, draw you in, hold you down, smother you with the too realness of it all. Steve Earle was a talker, a pirate, a rogue and a scammer who wanted you to know how it felt to be just beyond the fringe: not quite attached, but close enough to squint and see what was happening where you might wanna be. Steve Earle, simply, was a rebel that made the Music Row movers and shakers cringe. Coming to pick me up a few months before Guitar Town was to be released at a label not his own in a big black late model Caddy with an engine that rumbled like thunder in a wild, wild heart, the receptionist only had one thing to say: "Holly Gleason, Steve Earle is in the lobby, asking for you. Please come and remove him." He wasn't as bad as all that, confessing we should use his name at San Antonio Taco because "they like some of my songs -- and they'll put extra stuff on the tacos without us paying for it." He'd talk of the margins, the wishing, the lean years that were hardly over. And in his tales and his songs and the way he carried himself, he was an everyday hero -- someone who was about the same size as regular life, yearning for something more heroic, settling for getting by. Guitar Town was a masterwork. We knew it was good, but we didn't know that then… I fought to get him into Tower Pulse, where I was freelancing, in what would ultimately be his first national magazine story. There was so much to say; but it didn't occur to us to proclaim, "this is a record that will define a time." Earle likes to refer to it as "the great credibility scare of 86." And it was a time when it seemed the Dwight Yoakams, Patty Lovelesses, Randy Travises and Earles might could rule the world of country music. Lyle Lovett, kd lang, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kevin Welch and the O'Kanes followed shortly -- and George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire and John Anderson fanned the mainstream flames as well. Well, the brushfire never caught, but Guitar Town stands. A monument to what might've been if a lot of things -- Music Row's stubborn embrace of the homogenized popcountry that radio understood, Earle's romance with heroin, a shifting musical landscape that left him stranded between genres -- were different, it captures the feelings that aren't defining, but set the tone for lives to be survived more than anything. And this night, when Earle took the stage at the Ryman Auditorium to reprise Guitar Town with a large chunk of the band that made it possible, it was a homecoming that never was. You see, Earle wasn't asked to play the Opry when Guitar Town was landing the air traffic controller's son and Townes Van Zandt accolyte in Rolling Stone and Newsweek and The New York Times. Like Hank, Sr., Steve Earle percolated trouble -- and trouble wasn't something they wanted any part of. So all that made this night all the sweeter… Funny thing about music, too, it melts time quicker than battery acid. Hit the notes, toss out the licks -- and everybody's right where they were back when. "Hey, pretty baby, are you ready for me? It's your good rockin daddy down from Tennessee…" With that opening proclamation, Steve Earle tore into a canon that swept up a handful of characters whose lives seemed to mirror our own. Maybe we weren't pumping gas three hours from anywhere, but we know the desolation and the remove that is a life of disconnection, the alienation of passions that don't quite match up with the world one inhabits. Offering the challenge of being armed with "37 dollars and a Jap guitar" -- originally excised to be "cheap guitar" for fear of offending -- "Guitar Town" offered the redemption of a Vitalis and Aqua Velva Romeo, putting the pedal to the metal to bring all 18 wheels of want home to the woman who could match his revved up desires with her own hunger for the wallpaper-scraping they both deserved. "Guitar Town"'s lurid description of a rambler with "A two pack habit and a motel tan" may've been the sexiest physical reality ever flexed in this pre-Mel Gibson realm -- and it holds even in the face of Brad Pitt, John Cusak and Russell Crowe But Guitar Town's lure wasn't merely libidos in a kudzu-like overdrive. "Good Ole Boy (Gettin' Tough)" painted a picture of the quicksand that traps those who make their living with their back and their hands. "I got a job, and it ain't nearly enough, a 20,000 dollar pick up truckBelongs to me and the bank and some funny talking man from I-ran Left the service, got a GI loan, I got married bought myself a home Now I hang around this one horse, do the best I can…"With those low slung swagger chords slicing through the oppressive truths and the backbeat pumping like pistons, it's an indictment in plain language of an all-cotton American Dream that's been put through the dryer enough too many times that it's way too tiny to cover Bubba's beer belly and five and dime dreams. "Good Ole Boy" should've been a defining moment for the Camaro, mullet, black t-shirt and Jim Beam set. Instead, it ended up the rallying cry of intellectual objectors, raging against the Yuppie norm… Just as "Good Ole Boy" was a snapshot of how it was, "Hillbilly Highway" traced three generations of rural diaspora -- Appalachians chasing work and dreams and the illusion of a better life. Acoustic guitar-driven, with a rockabilly-esque backbeat, Earle's wide open twang runs his finger down the family tree -- it's a phenomenon that is both inherent to the hollers and the poor parts of industrial cities. Defiant in its embrace of the process, "Hillbilly Highway" paints the unequivocal path of the only other option… not savory, but not much else either, a promise that really isn't. As the truth settles like a blanket to fend off the chill of reality, there's the intricate acoustic guitar part that falls like a street light's glow that sets the mood for "My Old Friend The Blues." Puddles of steel guitar pool around the chorus, a breaking, quaking recognition of those rare things that remain constant. This is the mournful celebration of the ache which remains no matter what else happens in the souls who lead these lives of unrecognized desperation -- sweating it out in the margins, watching the good life race past and the gaps between haves and nots deepen. So it is with Steve Earle, a man who paints lives in a few verses and a chorus -- and so much more is said between the lines that illuminates that which is too bleak to outright confess. His truth is even greater than the words themselves, like blood on ones hands that never quite gets washed away, some truths stain and define us without ever being spoken. "Fearless Heart" acknowledges the time served, the miles covered, the losses sustained in the name of love -- and even as it's a bruised and battered confession, it is a pledge of fidelity, of ardor, of the willingness to connect. This is a man who'll carry the burden, do whatever needs to be done -- and deliver the object of desire to the other side. If only you'll let go, if only you'll believe. A safe bet? Hardly and definitely. And that's what has always been the yin of Earle's yang. Sure he can be coy and innocent - '"Think It Over," a Ricky Nelsonesque plea with a retro feel to a girl who doesn't see what she's abandoning -- or tender and real life vulnerable -- the conflict of chasing the dream and missing the family that informs the phone call home to talk to his young son which is "Little Rock & Roller" - because they're all colors of the unacknowledged redneck/hillbilly emotional spectrum. To acknowledge the whole is what makes the chomping at the bit, the squinting at the less than promised seem more noble, less victimized. I have a friend who likes to refer to musicians of unprecedented skill, especially guitar players, as witches. Richard Bennett, who co-wrote some of the songs herein and anchored the Guitar Town sessions, is a witch of the first order. With an arsenal that includes an oversized hollow body Gretsch, a white Telecaster, a six-string bass, Bennett scrawls and etches tone and shape and feeling on Earle's Everyman psalms and ravers. Liquid in one place, bottomy in another, it is a muscular thing being done -- and Bennett provides much of the structure. Indeed, John Jarvis' grand piano flourishes, which range from roadhouse to glistening to tender, are the sparkling counterpoint to Bennett's barbed wire. It isn't a flavor one expects, but it elevates the truths to something elegant -- even the most redneck moments. Factor in drummer Harry Stinson's unflagging beat and close-formation harmony parts, and you've got one of those realities where the magic isn't merely chemical or an accident, but truly the result of something akin to the sum of well-chosen elements. By the time "Someday" rolls around -- the ode to a young man anywhere too far from somewhere, who knows there must be more -- this character could be an old friend. His eye on your car, his finger on the pump, he tells himself he can escape -- and believes it even as you disappear beyond the horizon. Sure his brother got out by virtue of athletic prowess, which is not an option here ("My brother went to college 'cause he played football/ But I'm still hanging 'round 'cuz I'm a little bit small") ; so one can only tell themselves the lies that will sustain them until it's too far beyond too late to even consider the mocking refrain of "what if?" "Good Bye's All We Got Left To Say" is a fitting rejoinder to those who would naysay, the faithless love who didn't have the heart to maintain, the reprise of what was an album far more important than any of us could have realized. It's a bitter whatever, but it's delivered from a place of detachment, of knowing Popeye was right in his retort "I yam what I yam" -- and back when, it fit the hotrod boy's secession from Music Row's reindeer games. Throughout the song cycle, Earle offered insights and stories that were both self-deprecating and historical. It was a poignant time for a dreamer who was getting his shot at the brass ring - and the hardcore troubadour had no trouble acknowledging it. With the band, which also included road dog guitarslinger Mike McAdam -- Earle's Sancho Panza in the best sense, synth wonder Steve Nathan, Paul Franklin's last minute substitute steeler Gary Morris and bass player Glen Worf, exiting the stage, the Grammy-winning songwriter and social agitator offered up several breath-taking acoustic moments. Balancing the desperately heartbroken pledge of eternity "Valentine's Day" to a woman who deserves so much more than a wellworn heart with the hair-raising first person portrait of a killer on his way to die "Billy Austin," which begs some powerful questions, Earle offered breadth with his depth and intimacy amongst what had been an overt celebration. For Nashville's movers and shakers were out in full force, littering the balcony, remembering a time when we were all so much more. Hope and dreams were the order once, the blind faith that we could create something new from the ashes of something great… The promise of Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam and all the rest never quite got home to roost. Sure Patty Loveless won her awards and had her hits and Mary Chapin Carpenter charmed with her chiming radio friendly concessions and NPR crossover. But the hardcore hillbilly promise never really managed lift-off. When the band returned to cap the evening's proceedings, it wasn't the dope-growers post-Viet Nam manifesto "Copperhead Road" they dug into. In keeping with the nostalgia that was more electric than much of the right now, Earle and company instead reprised the encore they embraced back when it was all happening -- the Rolling Stones' cautionary song of drug abuse and its aftermath "Dead Flowers." A lumbering hymn to love gone, drugs consumed, life spent and lost, "Dead Flowers" always celebrated the very tightrope that Earle walked throughout all of it. Indeed, it was a highwire of crossed needs that offered no refuge only the promise of a proper memorial when it all became too much. This evening, Earle shone triumphant. A champion of the forgotten, a fighter for unpopular causes, a working musician who tells stories that elevate those who are being captured in the lyric and those who hear the tales, it is that Everyloser who makes him compelling. Sitting with Lee Ann Womack, a client for whom that specification cheapens a friendship forged in music, the stakes and pay-offs became clear. Follow your heart, tell your truth -- the legacy will follow. For her "I Hope You Dance" was a moment, but she recognizes it's the body of work that will define her. Just like Steve Earle and Guitar Town. It set the tone for stories to come, characters to hold close, truths to acknowledge and lines to cross. If Nashville didn't cash the check the renegade writer wrote, on this one night, they had to think about what that nondeposit cost them -- and in a world where what wasn't never registers, that's a pretty strong truth to consider.
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Just Can’t Get Enough, Michael Stanley

In the end, there will be Cher and roaches -- not because of any deeper meaning, but more because of the harsh requirements of endurance and exoskeletons made of kryptonite. For even as the Stones post-AARP brand of "Satisfaction" owes as much to Metamucil as genuine danger, there will always be those with something to prove. And it's on the proving ground where the faithful burn. So it was that Michael Stanley, once ground zero for Cleveland's collective psyche, took the stage at Nautica June 10. Having once held the city in sway with multiple night stands at only the largest venues, Stanley brings something more than mere power chords to bear -- and it raises the stakes each time he straps it on. Though MSB's glory days are behind them, the Resonators maintain a sense of rock as deliverance. Beginning with the wings-beating build that is the intro to "Midwest Midnight," they were vigilantes looking for promises in the power of well-turned choruses and deliverance in the emotions flexed over the course of two hour and 45 minutes. "How ya doin', Cleveland?" roared Stanley, guitar hanging loose from his shoulders like Excalibur. "Welcome back to a seriously long love affair…" Sung from a knowing place, "Midwest Midnight" is a testimony to growing up, of understanding the stakes, of being betrayed by the dream and still finding the kick inside to not only walk away but to hold one's own. As keyboardist Bob Pelander throws himself hard against the melody, the entire band raises the intensity to a place where they're taking the corners on two wheels, trusting centrifugal force to keep them grounded. Time can be the enemy of rock bands. They start out young and angry and bold. They grow battered and disillusioned and wind up cynical or flattened by the weight of what's already happened. For those who never quite make it, though, rock and roll becomes the weapon to fight back, to rage against the machine. When the dark-haired writer tears the face off another vocal on "In The Heartland," the anger isn't about what hasn't happened so much as a refusal to relinquish the power and the promise of rock & roll. "Some of 'em think about leaving, but none of 'em ever do" is as much about one's commitment to the music as it is the place they're from. Amid heavy sax bursts, "Heartland" celebrates a choice to stand one's ground rather than chasing something more ephemeral -- and Danny Powers' seering guitar solo burns that decision into the audiences unconscious. The faces of these fans are the faces of Everyman. Young. Middle-aged. Obviously privileged, probably blue collar. Washed in the throbbing backbeats and the churning melodies, they shine with the joy, the hope, the promise of Christmas morning or new love. It is nothing new they are experiencing, but merely reminding themselves of something they know: there is honor in these songs, the way the music carries them -- and that is a basic truth they can count on. Keyboardist Pelander has a David Sancious moment that takes a very cocktail feel through a series of descending figures to heighten the tension that becomes the fiery "In Between the Lines." Ultimately shot from the gut, in many ways this song is about what has happened to both a group of journeymen as it is about this city as anything performed in the whirwind set. With a cigarette on his lips, wailer Jennifer Lee in a tight black dress beside him and a sax player blowing an urgent elegy for hope lost along the way, this is Stanley facing the truth and being wiser if a bit shaken by the brutality of how it really is. Here drummer Tommy Dobeck is relentless -- and in those vicious impacts, the rhythm carries when the realizations topple. Not that everything was so full-tilt. On the ballads -- especially a tugging violin-and-mandolin-laced "Spanish Nights," caressed with enough bittersweet conflict to make the pain of denial seem like the sweetest reward of all for it means one can walk about knowing the depths of how it feels and that feeling is what it means to be alive -- there is a deep heat effect that comes from a romantic willingly digging down into the emotions that make people flinch. It is in the squirm-inducing truth -- "Spanish Nights," the driving'n'crying "Lover," where Stanley reels from the punch of betrayal and a love that won't relinquish his pride or passion -- that the ballads pack perhaps more punch than even the most rocking moments. In their hands, a blues workout like the moth-eaten "Redhouse" introduces the most root element of music: the foundation that is time-honored changes. Knowing means the flex can be the channeling of those who came before, and in that consolidation of heritage, an elevation occurs. The slow, grinding "Redhouse" becomes a sticky, fetid opening in the ground for the blues to spawn rock. Steam practically rises from the groove as Marc Lee Shannon etches the basic melody with regret steeped in a brittle razor's edge tone which tattoos the moment with essence. The audience collapses under the force of something so primitive addressed with such measured force… There is a flex and recoil at work here, a baptism in casting the theme and bringing it back. Pelander's electric work was solid, but on the B3 he transcends, physically sending himself into the instrument as cushions of chords fall upon each other, spent yet building into a fall-out that supports Lee's moan of the forsaken. Her tortured cries defy words -- and embodies the torture that fires the blues. "Redhouse," a song of betrayal, is ultimately light. For Stanley, having provided a format for his band's exorcism, he shines as the contrast -- wisely not engaging the catharsis, but rather leaning into the insouciant Plan B of "if she won't love me, her sister will." Not that Stanley's modus operandi is arm length disengagement. Embracing Steve Earle's ode to escape "Someday," a song written as an ode to the fading of Nowhere, Tennessee in one's rearview mirror, it becomes a sweet lullabye of dreaming about leaving, but never wanting to; a love song to fast cars and holding fast to what one is made of. There is a delicate balance being struck here: raw lust in "High Times" pitted against the wistful remembrance of "Somewhere In The Night" with its defining "all you get to keep are the memories, and you gotta make the good ones last." Even in the past, though, there is a future -- and that is the central truth to the Resonators on this night -- that will deliver you if you will only let it, only believe, only let go and surrender. When the musical explorations that dissolve into a familiar keyboard pattern, humid sax washes and an undertow that pulls the faithful out, "Let's Get The Show On The Road" offers the truth about costs and damage and the betrayal of dreams. Guitarist Powers reaches inside for a bleeding solo that defines the torment of knowing and needing to continue as the audience casts their dispersions at some unseen target. A cautionary tale, again it is a witness to how painful it can be out on the edge -- but also a testament to the inevitability of survival. For there are no choices really, just the voice of a wiser man who arrived on the other side head reeling, trying to make sense of it all and confessing bitterly, "The Lord uses the good ones, and the bad ones use the Lord." It is an ultimate truth, the ultimate realization. Yet all these years later, Michael Stanley can check the mate. If the dream of stardom withered on the vine, the promise of rock salvation burned even brighter and offered a purer form of deliverance. Drawing on the assemblyline rallying cry "Working Again" and exploring "the Bo Diddley beat," then transitioning into the drama of the mining disaster "Fire In The Hole" where restraint is locked into a groove, which the band expertly rides out, staying on and staying with it, throughout a shuddering culmination that is a sweat-soaked climax that leaves one spent and feeling sated. That would have been enough for most. But for Stanley, the crucible of a downtrodden city's hopes during its hardest times, a benediction that embraces the whole of the experience -- of a man, a band, a collection of people -- was necessary. For Stanley and the Resonators, "My Town" offers everything they are. It is a simple song, straightforward in its understanding of the chipped dramas and faded glories of the truest lover any of them have ever found, a place to make their stand and sow their gifts in the name of music. It is a song about the things worth fighting for -- and the dreams that may've not always been obvious, but were constant companions. The moment is so transcendent, Stanley comes off the stage after a last chorus and the band plays on. With a nod to what was, a phalanx of guards surround and sweep him away -- only for the true believer to emerge at the back of the venue for a victory lap through the people who have brought him 30 years later to a place where genuflecting before the burning desire to be something more is as simple as giving it all to the music. In that moment, the crowd is Michael Stanley -- and he is the crowd. "East side, West side--give up, or surrender --been down, but I still rock on..." There are some truths that should be held to be self-evident. For Michael Stanley, it would seem none greater than that. And for the fans who've kept returning on blind faith and drunk passion, it is a covenant that has never betrayed them. In a world of faster, harder, cheaper -- what more powerful reality is there?
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i don’t wanna miss a thing…aerosmith live in nashville 9.19

When a man gets to be a certain age, you can count on certain things -- the knees, the hair, the hydraulic lift in the pants -- to go. It's not that God is cruel, it's that he believes in leveling the playing field -- and the (in theory) addition of wisdom has to be tempered with other lessenings. Not that you could prove it by Aerosmith's bucking, pawing assault on the senses at AmSouth. Though Steve Tyler, Joe Perry & Co. have snorted, sucked and spun through every excess known to Western (and many Eastern) civilizations over seriously extended periods of their 30 years as rock and roll heroes, there's been no diminishment of powers. Indeed, it's as if they've distilled the knowledge of excess and put it between their ears and legs, in their throats and fingers. Lessening? Not in that painfully taut Perry's 6-pack abs (replacing, no doubt the 24 bottle case previously consumed) which is flexed as he unravels stinging, sinewy guitar lines that entwine around the columns of pain and passion streaming from Toxic Twin Tyler's throat like hissing electricity needing a place to charge. Not the always androgynous Tyler in his shredded red and white striped t-shirt, his pants defying gravity as they clung to those swiveling hips in much the same way the Boston-based yowler's fingers wrap themselves around the mic as he leans into yet another seek-and-destroy vocal performance. For Aerosmith, whose Just Push Play marks a conscious decision to return to the grit and the street -- forsaking Diane Warren's turbo-hit-balladry for a band-driven, hard as diamonds take on no frills yard dog rock, the 2001 tour is about reclaiming the truth of their roots. Largely forsaking the Geffen Permanent Vacation-era hits, which heralded a return to the commercial fore for the AOR jurassics, this was a show keyed to where they sprung from and showcasing Play's leaner, meaner reality. A legitimacy grab can be a dangerous thing, especially when the act in question has drawn out a strong concentration of fans who weren't born when their first album was released. And no doubt, the superficial 'smithheads were lost for much of an evening filled with blues-based powercrunch. But for anyone who would surrender to the pummeling backbeat and take a lesson in dynamics, the sweep would carry them along until the gaps made sense. Resurrecting bawdy jewels such as "Big 10 Inch (Record of Rhythm & Blues)," which was given a randy burlesque patina -- jauntily going barrelhouse as the graphics reinforced the music being whirled out before the capacity crowd -- Aerosmith knew no shame, just torque and release, torque and release, and delicious, near-carnal-crazied laughter. Lick it off your fingers, make THAT sound, feel the moment and let the moment move one's tropic of cancer or capricorn. Defying the gender reality, is this a show that's double X? Or is it XY? Or is it about both inside us? And is it a literal read on the aforementioned? Or is it about a merger of the two chromosome combo-packs for the greater pleasure? If it's Aerosmith, it's both. There were moments, Tyler and Perry -- gaunt cheekbone to gaunt cheekbone at the mic, singer leaning into guitarist as one peeled off another acid-dripping solo --where one could only hold their breath, wondering if they were going to the wall or mattress in some hedonistic merger that would defy homoerotic splendor and dissolve everything we've ever been raised to believe about gender orientation. And that's the beauty of America's hardest working, hardest rocking rock'n'roll band: they blow our minds, our carbons out of our carburetors, our longheld biases with their full-frontal ability to dissolve longheld conceptions about what sex, what rock, what catharsis feels like. It is them and us and a long Freudian tumble without words down a narrow tunnel to a place where there's a cigarette and a wet spot -- and truly nothing more needs to be said. Not that this show was merely about the hurtling towards impromptu musical combustion. With the military precision of high tech, large production grand rock spectacles we as consumers have come to expect, Aerosmith hit their marks -- and used the resistance of "being there" to heighten the tension built. Even what should have been a stiff little moment -- moving the band en masse from the stage, through the crowd to a flyer stage in front of the lawn -- came off as a bit of solidarity with the peeps. Though being surrounded by a phalanx of beef (surely for their safety, but it did create a barrier in the see-me, touch-me, fuck-me, rip-us-to-shreds illusion they conjure), the maneuver didn't detract from the impact of giving it back to the cheap seats. Yes, the filmed vignettes were posturing and unnecessary. But as an entire lawn was lit by extended lighters, swaying gently back and forth during "Dream On," it was all forgivable. "Dream On," with its meandering melody and trippy lyrics started out all those years ago as irony cast as wisdom, but something to (hopefully) be grown into… Today it is a telling truth, a rock and roll survivors pledge and promise. Lost in the build, one can forget it's a song about wisdom, loss, desolation, aging and the price of rock & roll dreams. That there is clarity here may've been lost on the crowd, but the huddled masses yearning to be hurled against the continuum to break on through the other side got the pining and the want, that need to make more out of what's left of the ruins wreaked through excess and unknowing. "Even when light…like dusk to day" Tyler purr/whined, "Everybody's got the dues they like to pay-AY-ay" - as heads bobbed in recognition. It was a truth, one that may not have been recognized as such, but one that is tattooed on the back of the mind of every salient or even blotto concert goer. It is the bottomline -- time passes, we toil, it's all equal in the end. And, wisely and classily, the song was not sent out towards the Trade Center/Pentagon reality. Not that the tragedy was sidestepped in its entirety. Tyler congratulated the crowd for not letting anyone make them victims, for standing up and rocking. His bite-off and spat-out predecessor's taunt "Beyond Beautiful" was all acid and bile for the man whose been replaced - and that malicious napalm wince may've been just as effectively sent into bunkers where the terrorists hide. But this wasn't a show about world crisis or politics, beyond the politics of screaming guitars, stiff members, sticky nethers, kicking out the jams and finding the groove that will lift you up and leave you spent. With emphasis on "the old stuff," this show was a roiling valentine to why this is arguably the greatest rock band ever produced in America. Beyond living the lifestyle beyond the definition, Aerosmith pawed and spat and bucked and kicked their way through ferocious blues and looming heavy Zepplin-esque moments. "Sweet Emotion" is -- and was at AmSouth -- loaded with the threat of something major, something with danger, something dark and foreboding, while "Walk The Way" snapped and popped with the voltage of Sparky waiting his next prey. Even "Draw The Line" with its bass runs and charging guitar bursts found a new vitality. It reminds the faithful to bolt when necessary, but to stand and hold one's own with force and fire. This is a song of us against them -- and it was delivered in a way that broke down the sense of star and crowd. It was a violent thing in Tyler's shrieking, but it was also about empowering people to maintain the strain. Take it any way you can, but get your's while it's there for the getting. And while the street shoots through your veins, offering emotional and kinetic thrust, keep reaching for something more. If it's the trippy psychedelia that marks the brand new "Sunshine" or the circular musical form that is "Jaded," a cautionary tale of being too molded by forces that will shape, then abandon you, you can have more than given if you keep dreaming and stretching. Yes, they did the bloated "Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" -- sending it out to Faith Hill in what was either popcommentary or a reference to "breathe" in the first line -- and "Crying" got the full-on swing-it-around-a-pole vamp, but these moments weren't the soul that fired Aerosmith this night. Near the end of a long drawn out summer tour, the boys were about taking it back. Musically. Spiritually. Attitudinally. For them, it was communion of the street, a sacrament of the scrappy ne'er-do-wells who ever so occasionally as no less than the American poet Tom Petty promised "even the losers get lucky sometimes." For one night, rock and roll surged in the home of country music -- and it was good. Indeed, it was more than good: it was fire and rage and hormones and a man in a feather boa reminding everybody about that most primal tingle, whether the next morning was to bring school, a cubicle or a long day with a blue collar. For the cogs, to forget that and feel the pulse, that is the job of rock'n'roll salvation. For one night only, the reverends Tyler and Perry were putting it down -- and the sold-out masses were picking it up with the kind of fervor usually reserved for snake handling, tongue talking and full-immersion redemption. I'll give you an A-men, but it'll be wearing a short plaid skirt + a pair of four inch platforms beside. -- Holly Gleason
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“like a white winged dove”, Stevie Nicks

To be a bit of silk on a draft, a pair of wings beating against the air, the centrifugal force of a pirouette, Stevie Nicks in the moment. For it's that feather in the wind that is carried in spite of itself -- and feels the current as it's weightlessly conveyed to another place -- and is transformed in the moment that is what we aspire to when we embrace the leather and lace, sparkles and velvet. Towards the end of her set, Nicks vamped on the friends and lovers she has known -- "poets... priests of nothing... legends." It was a full-throated mantra, an incantation sung over and over, moaned as an answer and a truth of defining how the potency of those who marked her life emerged from the mist. And while for Nicks, those people were most likely bold-faced names, her plea and her definition was the lower case truth of anyone who ever impacted a life -- for everyone who writes their name across one's soul or psyche can most certainly defined as any of the above. And that has always been the beauty of Stephanie Louise Nicks, the Greyhound executive'd daughter and twirling diva with the sparkle in those too big eyes that take everything in. She transforms anyone, anything that crossed her vision into the most charmed and mythical. Stevie Nicks, still the Welsh Witch in black diaphonousness and whirling shawls, has made a life out of gypsy's truth and making magic for suburban dreamers who want something mystical with their muscular guitars and anthemic choruses. The balletomane has fashioned a reality that has nurtured her creative spirit and given quarter to three generations of romantics, and they'd all turned out for Nicks' stand at the Amsouth Pavillion. With the lightning flashing, "Dreams" washed over the crowd as much a cautionary truth about what we get our hearts into and what our hearts lead us towards. Desires and hungers are the things we crave, even as they have the potential to destroy us -- and that is the tightrope to be scaled: the wanting and the needing. Wants and needs have always defined Stevie Nicks' writing, a whirling, churning series of images that always add up to finding, connecting or losing something close to the heart. There may be that patina of enchantment that sparkles across the surface of what Nicks serves up, but there is always that insight into the human heart that connects her to the non-starry-eyed in a way that tells truth far more clearly than even the Patti Smiths or Elvis Costellos -- brilliantly direct writers both. Balancing Fleetwood Mac classics -- "Rhiannon," "Gold Dust Woman" --with early solo material -- "Edge of 17," "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" -- and a healthy sampling of songs from her brand new Trouble In Shangri-La, Nicks wove a spell that was as much about mood as it was music. Not a séance, not a channeling, not even a pajama party with all the lamps drapped in scarves, there was a spirituality conjured that took her fans to a more open place. Whether it was the redneck girl with the tattoo and the name on the back of her belt, the mothers and daughters, the college girlfriends, the yuppie men coming in homage to their once objet du lust, the gentle swaying and lifted lighters were as much a coming together as they were some spasm of catharsis. Nicks was a gentle spirit, one who asked her audience to "know that those lost in the terrible thing are always here with us, but please surrender to the music and let it take you." Knee deep in a funky, funky "Stand Back," Nicks threw down -- her ad hoc wails on the end of the Prince-penned undulator demonstrating that her husky, musky alto is as imbued with blood and sweat and jagged edge as ever. Bringing Sheryl Crow out onstage with her -- the younger star basking in the grace and glow of her hero -- it was like watching a master and favorite pupil pushing, rather than an old-timer leaning on the reflected glory of the now! wow! star for some kind of relevance. At times, gentle and even lulling, there was that hush of not wanting to break the spell. At other times, the frenzy of rock and roll took the pavilion and rolled onto the lawn, jolting the crowd to their feet and drawing out a bit of the kick inside. Nicks moves easily from the rooms of attitudes and emotions, rushing from a hurt to a thrill, a caress to a want, a bitter admonishment to a confession of desire. A rollercoaster of feelings, Nicks did what she did best: connect the dots of the various sentiments that comprise our lives and loves. It can be a fairly messy process, but Nicks wears it well -- and her fans revere her for the bravery and vulnerability that it takes. If the fans weren't so conversant in Shangri-La as a work, the songs were delivered with enough verve to make a case for concert-tour as sales instigator. "Fall From Grace" rocked with the insistence of her most compelling heavy-hitters, while "Too Far From Texas" pined without self-consciousness and the burning "Sorcerer" captured the conflicts of arriving in Shangri-La unsure and looking for the yellow brick road -- excitement, fear, the need to survive and the will to thrive. Crow, dressed in low slung leather pants and a cutaway on the sides top with red roses, delivered a bottomy "My Favorite Mistake" and an accelerated "Every Day Is A Winding Road" that were as loose and as freewheeling as anything done on her own tours. And the pairing of diva and demi-diva on an encore of Tom Petty's "I Need To Know" put the urgency of the female rock and roll existence into brilliant perspective. But it was when Nicks finally finished the evening with the somewhat obscure "Has Anyone Written Anything For You" that the crystaline beauty of what she brings to the table becomes clear. A song of unabashed want -- but the want to give to someone else, to celebrate what makes them special, to fill a need elsewhere -- "Has Anyone…" defines the brightest light in her heaven: for this is a song that demonstrates that it's in giving our grace and beauty away that we gain everything we could ever want. In that moment, in that catch-voiced tug of an offer, a query, a need to shine the light on someone else's magic, the black-draped one shows us where the real connections are. Nicks, who once confessed to "being taken by the wind," is more a sage who's been taken by the songs. Old enough to merely inhabit her place as muse with grace, she is still out there, taking it to the hilt each night. Her songs are her children -- and she forcefully witnesses their truths as much for herself as others. We should all age so passionately. -- Holly Gleason Nashville, Tennessee
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Dreaming On…Aerosmith, Andy Parker + the Ghost of Slow Dances Past

"Every day, I look in the mirror/ All these lines in my face gettin' clearer/ The past is gone…" It is a benediction, an acceptance, a truth projected forward rather than backwards. It is the opening of Aerosmith's meandering "Dream On," a song that's most likely about regret and reconciling how it was with what it might have been -- and scratching up enough hope to continue. Because no matter what -- life goes on. As has America's greatest rock & roll band. As have their fans. As have the people who have no idea who they are or why they matter. Time rolls forward, sweeping us up -- or if we fight it, in spite of ourselves. But there is no choice, only knowledge accepted or denied. And still it rolls. "Dream On" with its filigreed melody, its melting rhythm, its eroticism that is something far beyond carnal. It was a beacon of things unknown, things murky, things necessary -- even as they terrified the uninitiated. For all the promised mystery, though, it was mostly an as-yet-unlived siren's song for a youth lost to waste and beauty surrendered in the name of ephemerality. The young believed its promises, held their lighters aloft and screamed to join up, hurling their futures at the feet of the wanton rock gawds recklessly treading about upon their innocence like moth-chewed Persian rugs. Standing under the pavllion at what was -- and to me will always be -- Starwood Amphitheatre outside Nashville, Steven Tyler sent out this hymn to the wages paid into the night. Ardor. Ardent. Aching. For the man who defies gender and blurs sexual definition, it was a song about surviving the circus, but also an elegy for a former wife recently passed from cancer of the brain. Cyrinda Fox, a platinum blond child of New York's new wave, a punk princess paramour of New York Doll David Johansen, the inspiration for David Bowie's "Jean Jeanie," was gone. A flicker and out -- and Tyler was holding his voice aloft like so many disposable lighters on the hill of puke and sodden grass, a memory to burn itself into the eternal with no uncertain passion. "Sing women, just for today/ Never tomorrow/ Good lord might take you away…" If Tyler sang for a love that had passed, so many memories can fill each individual's gap. We all have those friends who've gone… the ones you've put your shoulder next to and howled the truth that was defiant and scary and challenged us to live broader, fuller lives. And for me, swept up in the jagged rasp, time cracked open and a too temperate cafeteria, humid from the cranked and pumping Midwestern steam heat, appeared. There was a mountain of down jackets in light and navy blue, emerald green, the occasional olive and khaki and a cherry on top dot of crimson littering a far corner. There were the wooden tables for the proper U. S. boys to have their lunch at each day -- now lining the walls beneath the windows, to maximize floor space, but also to offer a place to perch for those of us not yet dancing. The not yet dancing… in our Shetland sweaters and straight-legged cords, our topsiders and our squeaky clean stick straight hair glistening under the rainbow-gelled overhead lights. Watching the brave and the bold gyrating as white midwestern kids do -- herking and jerking in hunt-and-peck time to Bad Company and Foreigner, Mott the Hoople, AC/DC and T. Rex and being Cleveland, Ohio the Michael Stanley Band's nearly threatening "Let's Get The Show On The Road." The boys, of course, were across this vast expanse of polished wood and churning bodies. They were watching us watching them -- as not quite sure what to do as we were not quite sure what to expect. The joys of single sex education -- you know you're either the quarry or the hunter, but you're still not quite sure what to do when you're in proximity of the other. So you narrow your eyes, run your fingers through that wash of ebony or butter silk, shift from side to side, crack your gum, turn away. It all seems so ridiculous… so silly… so fraught. Until. Until that boy is suddenly standing before you. Unsure. Terrified to speak. Terrified not to. Responding isn't much easier, because… well, what does it mean? What are you supposed to say? And so it was that I'd crawled up on top of a table, feet firmly planted like baby oaks into the bench beneath me. Leaning forward, elbows on knees, chin on hands, guileless smile on face. Even in the 7th grade, I loved to watch, to see the waves of rhythm, feel the sweet energy of kids seeking some kind of solace and connection beyond anything they'd ever found. Lost in the moment, I almost didn't realize there was boy in front of me. Blonde headed, pale skin, middle height. In a pin-striped oxford cloth shirt, tender consternation embroidered on his face… lips knotted in confusion. "Would you, uhm, like to, ah… dance?" he finally pushed out. I tilted my head. Took him in. Realized it was a threshold to cross -- and knew it was a bridge that while I could never cross back over was one I'd been waiting for all night. Joe Perry's serpentine guitar part was twisting around the melody, Tyler'd not yet begin to yowl his paean to the price he'd pay. I lifted an eyebrow, savoring the moment, half smile upon my lips because this was the moment where it was all about to change. Into what, I didn't know… just that it was Andy Parker took my hand, well, my fingers really -- encircling them like fragile bits of china or baby bird bones that he might crush. Almost as if he wasn't sure what little girl digits would feel like, hoping they'd be soft, relieved that they were. Feet just the tiniest bit shuffley, heading to the middle of the semi-crowded clot of barely pubescents, shifting from side to side… "Even as dusk to dawn…" came the confession that wouldn't, couldn't resonate in real time for a bunch of children with shining eyes and faltering courage. Bridge of nose to shoulder, then the puff of cheekbone resting on graceful young boy collarbone, eyes closed as the the eyes of all the little girls not yet chosed singed into my back. The damp palms on the widest part of my shoulder blade, the part my wings would've sprouted from -- not that I wanted to fly away. No, I wanted to be right there, right then, feet barely moving in the smallest slowest circles, a young boy's breath fetid, suppressed, hardly escaping into my ear. It was so intimate, so close, wrapped up in a dancing school boy's arms. Him so tentative, so polite, so not wanting to ruin the moment, not sure what he wanted really. Me, feeling the proximity, the penetrating heat of another -- that sense that whatever was happening wasn't too risque, wasn't too fast, wasn't something to fear. Just relax and feel the jagged edges of Tyler ranting. "Sing women, sing for the years, sing for the light, sing for the tears…" And when the song ended, there was that extended moment of not knowing what to do -- not wanting to let go, not being able to stay engaged. An innocence defined and a want to that's neither seedy nor overwhelming. The end of that first slow dance is a lot like life… heady, yes, but uncertain. You can want. You can maybe even have. But what does it mean? There in the darkness of the University School lower campus dining room, it was about what was to unfold, to happen, to catch you on up and take you away on a current of blood-boiling desire. But it started sweetly, with a boy who was as startled by the pooling of something curious in the tummy, as not aware of the way it would all turn out as I was. Just as suddenly, the heat broke and a bit of sweat rolled down my front. It was sticky under the pavillion, as the tropical storm that was named Lili had rolled through Nashville just that afternoon -- and Music City was more humidor than commodores. Up on the grass, Steven Tyler was giving witness to what dreams can mean, the danger and the delight of the price paid, the reckless pleasure and the white knuckled prayers of the survivors. Somewhere up in heaven, Cyrinda Fox -- long divorced, but still an indelible part of his soul -- smiles with eyes like pinwheels and lips like thick, slick glass. Somewhere Andy Parker has no clue. May not even remember the girl in the yellow monogrammed sweater and pink buttondown shirt. But in that moment, I looked at my friend the gossip columnist, smiled brightly and winked. We didn't know each other until much later in life; but during "Dream On," we recognized the deepest secrets the other held and laughed. The promise of what could be stretched before us somewhere in another long past night. That's the beauty of great rock and roll: there's a transparency that let's us see ourselves. For Aerosmith, hands down America's greatest rock band, it was the mirror calling the evening black. --Holly Gleason 6 October 2002
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life is a cabaret…life in a moment, eternity in a song

When you put Paul Williams and Jimmy Webb in a room, you basically have the collective soundtrack of the late '60s and '70s in pop music. What they didn't write -- as writers creating for others, as opposed to the work of writer/artists -- isn't worth having. And generations of Americans, indeed citizens from farflung points of the world, have their lives and defining moments tied up in songs like "We've Only Just Begun" and "MacArthur Park" and "Evergreen" and "Wichita Lineman." How does one argue with a line like, "I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time"? And the two catalogues are filled with these sorts of revelatory moments, sparkling like diamonds piled on deep green velvet. So it is that Jimmy Webb and Paul Williams came together to trade songs and quips and repartee for New York's well-heeled café society. These are people who don't want to go to deep, but would like to remember and be entertained, jogged into moments and reminded of who they were when -- perhaps-- they were younger and freer and bolder. It is an incredibly specific audience one plays for in a place like Feinsteins, with its dark wood paneling, fine table cloths and $10 orders of green beans. And they do insist on being entertained, a job the quite glib Paul Williams was custom molded for. Self-deprecating, insightful in way that has enough training wheels attached so everyone gets the inside jokes or dirt and ingratiating in that backstage pass for the sponsor, so they can tell their friends how hip they are -- friends who have no idea what hip is, so take it on faith that their rock and roll friends are about more than diamonds and Royces! For a lover of songs as small pillows of life, though, it creates a certain frustration. The songs are there. They are played and they are sung. They are recognized and they are responded to. But rarely do they get excavated, examined for the depths of truth they reveal. And in a strange twist of fate, there's no blame to place. These artists know their room -- and they deliver what is expected. Transcendence would be lost on this crowd in their furs and their jewels and their bespoke suits, so why venture the terrain and embarrass the paying customers with too much truth, rambunctious emotions, lost moments and memories that are fading or maybe far too vivid? But that's not to say these two couldn't get there from here. For even in the jivest supperclub set, there's always room for that moment. Maybe it's for the artist, maybe the song demands it, perhaps it's an accident. But when the connection happens, it jolts through you like a bolt of electric current and heads straight to the floor. After much jocularity, and Williams' gracious citing of the Grammy earned by said composition, Webb was left to his own devices to play -- in that gorgeous cascading way of his, both hands spiraling notes around the other, washing us out on waves of melody -- "The Highwayman." The song stood as the title track for country music's Mount Rushmore -- Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash --'s summit meeting on vinyl. "The Highwayman" was a fitting elegy for each of their larger-than-life personas, a celebration of the legend living at its fullest potential -- with just enough swashbuckling to lend an aura of mystery and danger and musk and lace cuffs and a place beyond the rules. It was also a song of the spirit, a song that promised that the rake and rambler's essence never dies -- only the mortal coil is finite -- and it will be reborn into the heart of some other thrillseeker who will also know no sense of boundaries. Johnny Cash as the voice of God. Kris Kristofferson as the William Blake Buddha. Willie Nelson as the mystic sage. Waylon Jennings as a pirate who would rape your daughter and steal your jewels and tattoo his name across her heart evermore. Each brought volumes to verses that were already beyond fraught with meaning. In a few lines, Jimmy Webb painted pictures, delivered glorious novels, cast nets and brought home lives lived to capacity, moments savored, moments conquered, glories had and exploded. For what made "The Highwayman" more than just one more rah-rah outlaw anthem was the fact that it embraced the whole truth -- that there is a cost to these lives, a back end which eventually arrives. And it is in the destruction of the gallant maverick that the soul moves to its next plateau, its next Himalayan plateau where the air is rare and the view is staggering and the wind whips through one's hair with a briskness that is stirring. For it's tremendous risk and full-blown adventure where dreams are created, realized, broken and remembered. It is the intersection of desire and delivery -- and it is the pasture where the highwayman, the space traveler, the pirate, the damn builder, the explorer and yes, perhaps even the rock songwriter can graze and frolic and race the wind to wherever. Death. Rebirth. Reincarnation. If the devil's hand is aces and eights, then the highwayman's numerology is eight on its side. Inifinity and infinte. It's all the promise the soul chasing the dawn needs. For when this ride is over, all that's required -- beyond memories that matter -- is a fresh horse that's high spirited and ready to run. Like all of Webb's songs, the agility with which he captures whole lives is breathtaking. But "The Highwayman" celebrates a promise seldom articulated: if one's spirit isn't broken, it will come back with gusto and panache. In the four kings, it is a song delivered as a solid contract, a recognition of something intrinsic, taken on faith and recited for the lesser beings. It is compelling in that pater noster way. In Webb's mouth and at his fingertips -- gentle, caressing, articulate digits that cloak the words with mood and magic -- "The Highwayman" is reincarnated yet again. It is not as an absolute irrevocable, but more the tender witness of someone who's done the miles and knows empirically, so there is no need to scowl or growl or even settle one's shadow across the moment. From the moment he made his first declaration, this was an old soul, telling its story. Or rather stories. There was no braggadocio involved, no finger-waggling about the lives that've been led. It's more a dignified witness to adventures that've been had, dangers shrugged off and walked through a life of, well, broken lightbulbs and spires of fire. Jimmy Webb knows no fear, only faith there will be more. It is all glorious. It is all the same. It is all experience that elevates the adrenals, brings the drama and celebrates the mettle. For him, "The Highwayman" is almost a truth beyond conscious consideration -- and his exhaled delivery, attenuating a word here, quickening the pace there, is human and engaging. Done deliberately? Hard to say. But in his humanity, he becomes a mirror. We could be these things, too. We could have adventures. Fly. Sail. Climb. Go fast. Leap into the brink. Dance over the abyss. We can do what we wish -- try to catch the wind in our outstretched hand. When that is over, we can rest easy, softly, peacefully in the notion that there will be another ride. And another. And another. And… For inside even the meekest librarian, there is a marauder waiting to plunder the moors or a desperado under the eaves, waiting for the fingernail moon to rise and send a silver sliver of light to guide him on. We dream boldly -- we live cautiously. When Jimmy Webb wraps "The Highwayman" in his flesh and blood and life and voice, he's giving us the promise it can be our's too. Somewhere between, there is a place we can let down our hair, toss back our heads, dig in our heels and know that no matter what happens, there will be another dance. All we have to do is believe and stay connected, not let go. For that's what a highwayman does: he hangs on to his soul, even as the gallows beckon. The adventurer is not afraid of the consequences, so much as he is of what he might miss. The average is a Hell here on earth -- and it's something to remember, something to guide us on when the safety of the known, the comfort of the obvious beckons. Ride. Squeal. Savor. Whether a drop of rain, a swashbuckler or a dam builder, there is continuity and connection. Life in a moment, eternity in a song, Jimmy Webb at the piano -- and then…
"The Highwayman" I am a highwayman Along the coach roads I did ride With a sword and pistol by my side Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade Many a solider left his life blood on my blade The bastards hung me in the spring of '25 But I am still alive I was a sailor, I was born upon the tide And with the sea I did abide I sailed a schooner around the horn to Mexico I went aloft and unfurled the main sail in the blow And when the yards broke off, they say that I got killed But I am living still Perhaps I always will I was a dam builder Across the river deep and wide Where steel and water did collide A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado I slipped and fell into wet concrete below They buried me in that gray tomb that knows no sound But I am still around Seems like it all goes round and round and round Around and around Knowing here we go… I'll fly a starship Across the universe divide And when I reach the other side I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can Perhaps I may become a highwayman again Or 'll simply be a single drop of rain For some things will remain And I'll be back again, I'll be back again Yes, I will Though knowing here we go But we'll all be back again -- Jimmy Webb
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