Burying Zelda/Zelda's Last Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Portrait of a Wonderspaniel + Her Mommy
by Glen Rose

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don't know if you heard about Gary,” said the local folk icon, sitting across the table from me in a tucked away downtown restaurant. There were two glasses of house red and a few hours before us… a few hours before his final gig of the year, a year that - for him - had been marked by a return to what makes him so exceptional as an artist.

I shook my head. I had come to Cleveland to celebrate my friend's new album Fly Away, to mark the pay-off of his risk, and to hopefully find some foothold in a world of my own recently torn apart. For those times when I do not know, home has always held the answers - especially to issues of dignity, honesty, humanity and the price paid to stay in.

Walking away is never something I've done easily. But I have. Sometimes there's no choice. For reasons that make no sense to anyone else. But in the songs of the folk singer, the hometown rock icon - as well as the scarred grey black top of Chagrin River Road - there are often answers, truth and stars to steer by.

“It looks like there's no brain activity,” he continued, falling quiet.Our eyes met. There was nothing to be said. We both knew. Everything. What was the point to belabor the painful? Especially for somebody like Gary Wells, the flamboyant, buoyant brash bartender with the Boston accent and far flung reach.

Gary was some kind of roots music Puck, who could never figure out Emmylou was a single name… who knew the words to too many songs… who would pour an underage kid tequila in a tumbler, looking to all the world like tap water without the ice.

Or maybe it wasn't a lot of underage kids. But he used to do it for me… a girl on the lam from a high impact life, finding a refuge in the folds of the Midwestern night, sneaking into bars to be where the songs were.

Gary Well was a lot like that, too. Always in the bars where the good music was, or where the people who made it flocked. He knew the difference between pop, pap, crap and art - and he studied the people before him to figure where they stood on the continuum.

Burned too bright, too high, too loud. Always. Big talker, big thrust, not so much the clarity of execution. But if you liked the notion of story-spinning Black Irish, looking like a cross between a pirate, a Mohican and a walrus, he was your guy. Or maybe a black lab as a man of libations, tail wagging, collected intensity waiting to spring… always enthused about everything.

Like I said: nothing needed to be said. We both knew. Gary Wells wouldn't want to be mourned, he'd want us to laugh, to talk about music, to dream of where we could go, take it. If Gary's brain was a flatline, that meant - in many ways - he'd already gone. Left his mortal coil, barely breathing, waiting to release its burden. And in that, he would want people to celebrate.

And that's what we did. With frites fried in duck fat, coq au vin cooked in brioche, curry pot de crème - and raised glasses of red wine, toasting what it is, what's gone and what will be. What else can you do?

That night onstage, Alex Bevan played to 35 people. Played the kind of set he did in the glory days of the Coventry Street Fair, filigreed acoustic guitar lines embellishing songs about silver wings, girls named Carey and gunfighter's smiles.

He played it straight. He played it true. Not a revel yell “Skinny (Lil Boy from Cleveland, Ohio)” bar brawl kind of set, but something gentle, paying homage to what songs mean, why artists matter and the power of the craft of musicianship well honed. It was a rebuttal to a cheap Chinese sweatshop machined world - and it was grown in the pages of his life.

Telling the story of coming back from a function for his wife's family - her teenage son asleep in back, she dozing beside him - moved from the grace of love in broken places to the memory of a bit of bad news hitting him not far from where his van now passed. The Lafayette Hotel… Marietta, Ohio… on the banks of the Ohio River, where he got the call that a soul-friend, wild-child, force of nature and tempter of fate had been killed many years ago.

“I quietly sang this song for the next 5 minutes. Softly. To myself,” Bevan confessed with tears shining in his eyes. “I sang it for myself…

”Like the little matchgirl holding her flame aloft to keep the Blessed Virgin before her, Alex Bevan spun a diamond web from the simplest of images: “Here's a song from a bottle of whiskey, here's a song from a Holiday Inn/ Here's a song for everyone, who's ever watched the daylight creeping in… Let it come from the other side of morning, let it come from the other side of light…

”He didn't say whether Gary Wells was in that song this evening. Not quite dead, certainly not ever to return. But this night, I finally knew who the gunfighter is. I asked about neither, but I found a semantic marvel. Was “morning” actually “mourning”? Because this night, “light” sounded a lot like like “life..”

We all stare down barrels of guns. Some of us know it. Some of us don't. Not sure who suffers worse, but we all do… from doubt, or anger about what mighta been, frustration over the breaks that didn't come, remorse over opportunities blown, mistakes made.It is the weight beyond the weight - and even the fools carry it, they just don't realize what weighs them down or the sideways moves they make trying to cope with what they don't see.

Gary Wells wasn't big on looking, more about charging. Head first. Full tilt. A manic toss, thrown down a steep range of stairs without the runners. Scraped, banged up, a couple scars for the sake of the story… and laughing, always laughing.

Consider the consequences later. Live now, large, loud. Reach for what you can take… If you miss the mark, maybe you tumble through nothing - or maybe you just reach again. He didn't really care. Gary Wells was living.

Living. In the cracks. Around the corners. Crazy wild stuff. Adventures had. Dashed. Miscast. Marveled over. There never seemed to be any fear with Gary, just a cockeyed sense that this time… this time, it was gonna be the one, the thing.

And what's amazing about him is… he had the same effect the last time I saw him as he did the first. You just stop… and you look. That hair. That moustache. Those eyes aquiver with too much thrust to be contained within skin.

Back in the day, the bartender in the denim shirt, maintaining his kingdom behind the upstairs bar at Peabody's - order in the court - as Deadly Earnest and Buckeye Bisquit, Mimi Hart, Charlie Wiener and Gaye Marshall churned out their singular brands of roots rock, leaning to the blues, to country, to comedy, to torch.

It was all open season, a mixture of covers by well loved bands and original songs that might never get beyond the 2-1-6. But Gary, pouring a little long and leaning over conspiratorially, took it all in - gave it all back over a series of local radio shows. Solid in his knowledge of being on the front lines, knowing that he knew the people making the music… and in that, his robustness grew.

Not always in the right direction. Missteps came, got caught up, moved away from. Always 6 feet from the next trainwreck or disaster, yet somehow topsy turvying back and forth on that tight rope… no net, not much balance, tights metaphorically torn, and yet, he was always leaping for some trapeze already set into motion.

Gary was never afraid to jump. Or tumble.I thought about that a lot, driving up and down the streets of my hometown. Or more out past my hometown, where the Chagrin River threaded some beautiful pastures, farms, parks. Hand out the window, holding onto the chill wind that kept sliding through my icicle fingers.

Jackson Browne's Late For The Sky was pouring out of the mosquito car's tinny speakers. An album that revolved around a death, and love and the potency of youth - as I understood it in my girlhood. Listening now, it was very much about who I was when I was young…

 “Fountains of sorrow, fountains of light/ You've known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight/ You've had to struggle, you've had to fight/ to keep understanding and compassion in sight/ You've had to hide sometimes, but now you're alright…”

There was an insight I'd never seen, an acceptance to the unthinkable.

I had come home to figure out how you can give your life for and over to something for over 30 years and feel almost nothing for it. When the coals go from glow to not quite cold, there is a different kind of chill… What little warmth is gone, and now the numbness begins penetrating your marrow.

All the things I'd felt so deeply, that I'd clung to, swung from, I just looked at them like strangers. That which had sustained me had now taken me all the way out the pier on a dark night, then crept off while I was looking at the stars. When I turned, I was alone - and there was no one to even ask “What happened?”

And it's not like they'd been faded or diminished over time. Alex Bevan had been a marvel. Focused. Playing as well as ever. Turning stories in films of picture postcards and feelings, drawing us together with a net of his singular life as a mirror of our own.

It wasn't the music… and it might not  have even been me. Maybe the lessons and the losses. My father died with his book unwritten - 18 years of research that was too intricate, too dense for anyone to untangle, basically lost to the universe.

You could argue who really needs a definitive book about American amateur golf? And yet, it's no longer an issue. That piece of history, of writing is forever lost. Forever…Forever is a long time.

Even longer than a life where the wrong values undermine realizing your dreams, exploring your real reasons for being. Just look at my Dad… Look, now, at Gary Wells.

Maybe the script doesn't look the way you imagined it. Maybe the treasons and betrayals are so profound you can't let go… the promises and perks so transfixing you can't quite walk away, Even when so much of it isn't all that, either.

There is a little section on Chagrin River Road, right before you get to Gates Mills where you can pull over. Just enough for two cars maybe to sit and watch the river run… This day, more the water trying to stay fluid beneath the ice cover that wanted to break up, sending large chunks to the drop in the waterline less than a mile away.

So many answers had been found here. My last engagement to end. Knowing a Junior League housewife future wasn't for me. Letting go of a friend who would certainly pull me under. Even just pause and exhale.I had been raised on right and wrong. Work hard. Keep your word. Playground justice. Maintain your standards. Always help. Believe in people. Know that if you see the good in people, they often rise beyond what they think they're capable of - and surprise not just you, but them. Believe.

Believe.That was my problem. I'd lost the faith.Somewhere on the road… on a red carpet… or a private jet… somewhere along the way, it had been bounced out of my pocket, and I didn't notice. Moving on momentum, heat, drama, the things we're all supposed to want. It was awesome, right up until it wasn't.

So I let go. But when you live your life based on centrifugal force, determination and a finger in the wind, it takes a while for the spinning to stop. My father died with his book unwritten. I had a novel that might never see the light of binding.

And I had lost my way. Even the things that bound me together were unraveling.

“Keep a fire burning in your eye/ Pay attention to the open sky/ You never know what might be coming down…” Jackson Browne intoned as I turned my car back towards the city, through the winding meander that turned to true suburbs. “I don't remember losing track of you/ You were always dancing in and out of view/ Must've thought you'd always be around...”

I had promised a friend I would go see Michael Stanley with them. Michael Stanley, local hero who wrote two of the best indictments of the business of music and the faithless way the promise of songs are bled out.     

“Today's for sale and it's all you can afford, buy your own admission the whole thing's got you bored,” he sang of the ennui and urgency on his second solo album, opening the truth up to follow with, “And the Lord uses the good ones, and the bad ones… use the Lord…”

It wasn't mocking, but there was unflinching truth. About the ones who hold on, because to let go would be to lose their hip ticket, their leverage, their access. It wasn't me, but man, I'd been ringside for an awful whole lot of that.

My stomach churned. Did I really wanna hear “Let's Get The Show On The Road”?  Or “Midwest Midnight,” the other accusatory pin through the thorax of those who'd betray what the music should embody.

So many people would be renewed at the annual year end altar call in a city desperate for heroes. They come looking for someone to believe in in a world where the jobs were evaporating, the unemployment was running out and the better days were long, long gone.

I believed in the fire of the Midwest. The Rust Belt smelter blast that forged that notion of against all odds getting by. Even beaten down, they never were beaten. And now I couldn't seem to remember the way back home… at least not to that home in my heart.

As a knobby kneed girl with a 72 Mustang, I used to roll up and down Mayfield and Chagrin River Road, obsessed about what was in those songs. How some woman could so wholly possess a man as in “Spanish Nights,” the utter awakening of “Somewhere In The Night,” the chill urgency of the inevitable that was “Lover.”

… I wanted to have those skills, but I went to a girl's school. Plaid skirts, Knee socks. Monogrammed sweaters. I had moxie, but not the requisite slow burn mystery. It would vex me, but oh how I wanted to live in those songs, churned from the rich dirt, sweat and musk of where I grew up.

“Chasing the fame keeps 'em all in the game, but money's still the way they keep score,” Stanley snarled in the wake-up-slam “Midwest Midnight,” “and nobody told you that you would grow old, strung out like some avenue whore…”

This was not the song I'd signed up for. This was not the life I'd imagined. And yet, that's how the story goes. That's the world I inhabited.

Onstage, Stanley and the Resonators played “Let's Get the Show On The Road,” the meandering Album Rock opus that's all venom, momentum and exhaustion. On a screen behind him, footage played of the same song performed 35 years prior on “Don Kirschner's Rock Concert” - with a band that included Dan Fogelberg, David Sanborn, a plantation-hatted Joe Walsh.

Michael Stanley was supposed to be a rock star. He held every attendance record there was in Cleveland, Ohio. Sold out the basketball arena for two nights faster than Led Zeppelin. Unless you're from Ohio, you've never heard of him.

Here he is, again, though, and so are the people. They come to believe in who they were and to cope with who they are. Tomorrow, it will be back to the bills and the problems, but right now, this is all they ever wanted… and they can forget and believe and fly on the best selves they ever had.

It was during “Winter,” a pensive song about the passage of time, what it takes and the awareness left in its wake. It's about acceptance and grace, recognizing what still is being much more potent than what's been lost. And in between the lines, there is the truth that shines: there is much to love and hold right where you are… all you have to do is hold it.

All you have to do is draw it close.

When I got home, I didn't go online. But when I got up, there was an email… from Alex… knowing me… knowing I'd wanna know… Gary Wells had past from this world around 10 o'clock, right about the time Michael Stanley was musing “It feels like winter's coming on.”

Of course, he had. Of course, he did. “Into the Mystic,” indeed.

For Gary, there was no reason to stay. He had other worlds to wander. It was time. He knew. He let go.

For the rest of us, certainly me, there is the challenge. What do you do when you lose the thread? How do you feel when you don't remember how that is? How do you remember that it just goes on and on - until it doesn't. Especially when every moment squandered is lost and gone.

Gary Wells was one of the icons of my childhood… a lighthouse blinking to where the music, the lost hours that mattered should be spent. He took the hill, shot the curl and never did less than hurl himself completely at whatever he was doing.

There is, no doubt, a time for rest, a place for stillness.

Right now, that may be. Watching Alex Bevan tell those stories… Michael Stanley still weaving those figure 8s with a guitar strapped low… It's obvious there are other measures, other stars to steer by.

Maybe everything they've sold us is bullshit, Gary Wells didn't think so - and he never, like Alex and to an extent Michael Stanley, never got to play the big room. Makes me wonder if maybe the big room - if you do it right - is actually in your heart.

19/20 December 2010

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Here Be Bards & Dragons

It smelled… like patchouli and musk, the earth, hay, dirty hair, muslin flecked with dry sweat, rotting velvet and absolute anticipation. Not even knowing what the anticipation was for exactly, just that something - whatever it was - was about to happen. Not even really sure how one knew, beyond the strands of talk that trailed after golf pros and baby sitters; but somehow it was all happening, and the news had made it all the way to the plaid pleat'n'knee sock club. In a lot of ways, there was nothing special about it. Local musicians, clustering together, encouraging one and other, sharing songs and stories on their way to nowhere much. But somewhere along the way, there was this guy - this guy with a voice that was shadows and Spanish moss, well-oiled leather and incense - and he understood how to conjure one's destiny with a small hole in the middle. A record… 33 1/3 rotations per minute, a foot in diameter, a whole world emerging from the black vinyl, a universe that made ephemeral and ethereal strangely tactile. John Bassette knew things. Certainly about taking the power of making records into one's own hands - creating art for your sake and selling it directly to the people who would consume it with their ears. That was the pragmatism that both set a scene free and anchored it as something more than just local talent, but as an actual bona fide, real live scene of men and music that was happening. Suddenly, Alex Bevan, who captured the reveling cry of underdog rebellion for the blue collar unseen with the exuberantly euphoric “Skinny (Little Boy From Cleveland, Ohio), ” had the aptly-named Springboard. So did Jim Ballard, with the churningly moody, brooding Thunderhead. And Deadly Ernest & the Honky Tonk Heroes held down jukeboxes with the gate-banging “Don't Make Me Laugh (While I'm Drinking) ” and held-up cash registers with their eponymous-labeled album. Quippy songster Charlie Wiener dropped the ribaldly-titled 12 Inches of Wiener “because it is 12 inches, and it is MY record, ” he'd say with a wink-- and even local rockers Wild Horses put out a 7” of staccato riffage that was as Stones as it was lurching reggae with their “Funky Poodle. ” John Bassette understood the power of having something tangible. A record. A physical manifestation of one's songs that lingered after the singer was a whisper and gone. It must be true - if I read it, see it, buy it, then it leads to the notion that it must be real since I can put it on my record player… And so John Bassette spun melodies with merlot chords and quivering time signatures into truths about the romance of life lived along the seams. But even more importantly, he imbued his world with wonder and the flicker of golden light against brocade tapestries hung to hide the water stains and oriental carpeting that was threadbare in places and unraveled in others. Magic. Everything about him was magical. POOF! And there he was: velvet hood, knee high boots of heavy, cracked mahogany leather and a voice that rolled effortlessly like the dry gentle thunder of summer. You know that sound, that rumble from somewhere deep inside, muffled by all that's between here and there, yet utterly epicentronic. John Bassette could look at you, and everything else melted away. Leaning close, to ask your name again so he could get it right when he signed your record, you felt wrapped in a downy comforter of some kind of expensive satin… and you knew you were cherished, even if you'd never spoken before or would ever see him again. That was some of the beauty of this bard, this troubadour of the Middlestwest. He valued all humanity, saw loveliness in the plainest exchanges. It shone through everything he did, permeated the songs that he wrote, even as he played songs that spoke of wondrous things - “Here Be Dragons” as beyond the realm as they came, yet somehow real when sang of them. There was no limit to the flight of his fancy, just as there was no gap between where and how. “Hessler Street, ” a place most Clevelanders know at least in the passing, swelled to imbue grace to the impossibly common, offered some kind of head-spinning wonder and brought you down easy in the midst of it all. He seemed mythic somehow. More, in a way… almost larger than life, though locked in a conversation about this club or that song, it was the drawing-in-and-drawing-near intimacy of someone you knew well and had no need reason for boundaries with. In that moment, he was just your size and a skosh more… his ability to seek your soul making him fit your reality, his aura - and he most certainly had one, and yes, it was absolutely purple - creating some larger than life sizing that made him a giant at the very same time. Transmutable. In the moment. In the shadows. In the not even there. His potency and power was obvious any time a local musician delved a little deeper into their gift. Not so much because of an implied challenge - because if there's one thing that was unspoken anathema to the deep voiced musician, it was the notion of competitive creativity; no, for him, it was about how good can you make it, how far can you take it, how bright can you polish the gem that you've unearthed. John Bassette made everyone better. As facile as Alex Bevan's wordplay was - and his “Have Another Laugh On Cleveland Blues” opened Newsweek's coverage of the city's bankruptcy all those years ago for its clever mocking of the place already impugned by Randy Newman's “Burn On Big River” - it was when he turned inside that his gift truly shone. Alex Bevan had wings on the tips of his fingers, could pick the gentlest melodies, coaxing them tenderly from a banged up Martin guitar. That feather bed would nestle around love songs to Ohio's prettiest places: Athens, Ohio, the Grand River, a pretty figure skating girl with eyes like springtime skies and a long braid that flew out behind her… Alex Bevan could also write about frustration and being thwarted (“Big City Women”), lift up the dreamers who would jettison security for a shot (“Rodeo Rider”) or never quite get secure (“Jazzbo”). He was willing to hold moments like fireflies in a jar (“Gunfighter's Smile”) and softly exhale through the wreckage of a relationship unraveling around him (“Autumn Melody”). Like his mentor, he wasn't afraid of the unruly or untidy things about humanity, the way the waves of what we want and how we lose it sometimes crash against each other on the beach that is our life… And that was just a part of the gift John Bassette gave the local songwriters. Because even invisible, the notion of anchoring all that music with DIY records - long before punk and the good folks at Twin/Tone made do-it-yourself viable - forged a community that went unspoken. And so it was, that everyone knew what everyone else was doing… projects unfurled… people came together in the name of recording, gigging, writing. When Alex Bevan went to record Grand River Lullabye, his second Fiddler's Wynde project, no less than the Michael Stanley Band - fixing to set the attendance records at Northern Ohio's outdoor amphitheatre Blossom Music Center and also the Richfield Coliseum, where the NBA franchise the Cavaliers held court - came in to record the title track with the young man with the poet's shirt and the sunbeam smile. It was that way. A magical time. One could turn up at any number of local taverns - and run into any number of local folkies, quaffing a few cold ones, talking about records, planning their next adventure. It was a scene, a real live genuine bona fide scene - and people would crane their heads to look at this one or that one, telling their party about some bit of triviality or minutiae they knew of the spotted songwriter. If L. A. had the Troubadour, the Ash Grove, the Whiskey A Go-Go and all of the little clubs cluttered up and down Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards, from the glistening ocean of Venice, Malibu, Marina Del Ray, the winding roads up Laurel and Beachwood Canyon, twisting their way to the over-the-top rush of Mulholland Drive, that magic quilt was the board for a dynamic merging and converging of talent. John David Souther and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Linda Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur, Don Henley and Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, Bernie Leadon and David Lindley, Poco and Karla Bonoff were acolytes to a scene that existed at the flanks and hems of Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Cass Elliot and their ilk. The ones following the established superstars were as aspirational as Jim Ballard or the Buckeye Bisquit Band boys - who found a home on local club owner Dewey Forward's wildly inspired homegrown label - were in much the same vein to Bassette, who just moved like a shadow, but was every bit the forerunner of much of what went on. Back then, it was simple. Innocent. Easy. Drink your beer, pound your tequila, marvel at Randy Newman's Rednecks, thrill the evolved locals who were able to hear the revelations in your songs… And if there was no big time record label component to feed the nation's radio, then the local scene would be enough; but it was every bit as interlaced and engaged as what went on in Southern California, where the songs were spun into gold and platinum, cocaine and lear jets, a soundtrack for a nation seeking a peaceful easy - if a bit exclusionary - feeling. The local bards and folkies, troubadours and spinners of song in Cleveland had no chance of that. Even Stanley who lodged at Top 5 hit with his surging merging of populist urban rust beltism and heroic straight up rock never quite got his fingers locked on that brass ring. But in the purity of what they were singing and how they hung together, it didn't matter. If that was all there was, it was plenty. The camaraderie, the joie de vivre, the high times, the lines sketched with chords and single notes, it added up to a fellowship of fellow travelers that fulfilled its own destiny. Sometimes where we are is enough. Sitting wide-eyed under the stairs at Peabody's, drinking in the songs and stories as they unfurled like Japanese flower tea, it was the most alive place I could imagine. I didn't know much of what I was being regaled with firsthand - 14, awkward, steeped in dreams and wondering what life held - but I knew enough to know: this is magic. The idea that songs were precious receptacles for our life, our love, our hopes and yes, our losses had already dawned on me. That people I could be in such close proximity to could create these wondrous bits of music and moments was almost unthinkable - except there they were. Right before me. Out of that beaming amazement, friendships were forged… the recognition of the vision held between us of what it could all mean, Before too long, it would be drinking in taverns with these wild-eyed boys with their time to be killed until it was time to create again. Because, in the end - like all weavers of song - they were human and they were just like we were, except for the part where they stretched how the felt, the things they'd seen and witnessed across notes that rose and fell like the heaving of one's chest. It is in the humanity that the songs took flight. These were people just like we were, yet somehow a bit more backlit. Shying back just the smallest amount, there was surely something different about them, something a little bit sparkly, a little bit more. John Bassette taught us that - the local stars, the folks in the bars. He never came right out and told us, he just showed up and quietly was all that and then some. To see him, to hear him, to be enraptured by him was the understand that the power was your's - that all you had to do was dream or believe, and you could cast off on a sea of what might could should be, too. You didn't need a cape or a hood, a deep throated moan or a guitar to take you there. You just had to know there was uniqueness like that within you, too, along with oceans of emotions that could be sailed with no fear or falter. All you had to do was smile and cast off right where you were sitting. Those were the kind of things John Bassette taught us. With a net he cast into the sky, he hauled in stars of the every day sort - and everyone sparkled with that knowledge that all they had to do was commit to the how of where they are, then drift eyes wide open to the sun or moon as the time would have it. It doesn't sound like much as I write it all down, but it was everything and perhaps even a little bit more. Lost afternoons, drinking green bottled beer or cheap red wine, laughing about nothing, bragging about even less. Breath held against the moment it was over - and a whole crop of boys with guitars and cockeyed smiles who lived to prove Bassette right every chance they got. In that, a corporate housewife in gestation figured out she could go and do whatever the songs might offer. It wasn't what was expected of nd preordained for her, and there was no map to lead her on. But with that laugh and those shining eyes, the route was so much the clearer: follow the songs where they take you, they will not lead you wrong and you can believe in them whenever everything else fails and folds, betrays and falls apart at the seams. All these years and miles later, I marvel at what I didn't know, and he didn't even have to consider. The truest companion isn't necessarily the singers, but the soundtracks that they leave - and somewhere just beyond Hessler Street, the traffic rolls along, a river of metal and rubber and glass. The songs have survived past the singer. A drifter's life of dignity extinguished at 65, with rattling lungs and an erratic return address. The acolytes don't care about that, only the candle he held aloft to light the way: in his honor, they lift it up and pass it down. Somewhere a few states away, I smile and remember when - knowing that without those moments, the rest of my life just might not have turned out the way that is has. After all, impossible dreams defy and mock you. It takes a true heart to lead you on… and if John Bassette had anything to lead with, it was a heart that shot through with all the things you could ever possibly want to behold. He never even thought about the ripples… He left them to find the shore on their own. He liked to watch them bunch up and roll, but he knew they'd get where they were meant to be on their own. He had faith that it was enough, and it was.
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