Don’t Go To Strangers - Russell Smith: An Ace, An Old Friend + An Echo of a Moment

Thirty thousand or so feet above everything, late and tired. With the ear buds in, the demos – all top shelf kind of awesome – go rolling by. Heady stuff, and the kind of songs mere mortals never get to hear, because they’re saved for artists whose singles can generate the kind of money that pays more than mortgages, expensive cars and college tuition.

And then that voice. That voice. The kind of voice that can get on top of a basic rock drum kit with a clean, solid beat and a guitar that coils and swaggers as it works the melody like a hooker in a pair of expensive heels, just let those vowels ride it like the wave they’ve all been waiting for. Six foot nine and glassy, he best waves are all sheen and crash – and the steam coming off that humid tenor, not quite smoky, not quite earthy clay, was undeniable.

I could feel the blood draining from my face. A chorus, everything falls away – except the beat, which finds the voice weighing the reality of the situation as a rush of the tempo picks up and the song builds again. The velocity of the arrangement displays the urgency, the singer stacks the truths, knowing “If I leave right now...,” he can change everything.

But the singer knows, she’s leaving. Not just leaving him, but leaving for somewhere. California, a dream, a life, some other than what she’s had with the hero. Russell Smith, a son of Lafeyette, Tennessee, had always been able to twist the complexities of life and wring them into fecund songs.

The demo says Tom Shapiro, no slouch of a songwriter. Obviously, one of – if not the only – writer on “If I Leave Right Now,” with the boast, “I could reach around and clip. Those pretty wings/ Before she flies to her California dreams/ She could never say no to me/ I know she won’t go...”
Sit there and drink, chase the girl and bring her back. Is it ambivalence? One more toxic male who won’t bother? Or some hard-boiled cowboy who knows some women aren’t meant to be held down, held back, held.
Mouth dry, my stomach lurched. What do you say? Who do you tell?

In life, there are those moments that seem so significant, then mean seemingly nothing at all. But you’re tagged, by the charge, the laughter, the whispered long distance, coiling and uncoiling the telephone chord in those hours when normal people are asleep. You talk about literature, rock & roll tours, missing the Grammys the year you win “beating Dolly & Porter, and that just shouldn’t happen.” You discuss theories of sobriety, people you know, people you don’t, people you’ve heard of, as well as the holes that open between people, caverns that swallow the good things and leave jagged shores of anger, misunderstanding, frustration.

Oh, and an album called This Little Town.

See, Russell Smith had been the big shot lead singer of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, known for the tawdry unapologetic cheap hook-up “Third Rate Romance,” the cheating lament “Amazing Grace (Used To Be Her Favorite Song)” and the Grammy-winning almost. gospel “The End Is Not In Sight.” He’d also written big ‘80s hits for John Conlee (“Old School”), Randy Travis (“Look Heart No Hands”) and T Graham Brown (“Don’t Go To Strangers”), later Texas guitarist/vocalist Lee Roy Parnell (“The Rock”).

Leave it to an L.A transplant to Sony Nashville’s A&R. Department named Larry Hamby, who also signed Blaster Dave Alvin as a solo and DC folkie Mary Chapin Carpenter, believed the post-Urban Cowboythrall had room for a sultry Music Row meets Muscle Shoals rocker with roots in gospel, country, bluegrass. The downstroke firm, the ability to hit the note head-on, but also to slither in was a best of both worlds proposition – and the writing was personal, detailed, yet you could see all kinds of people in the laments, the shuffles, the midtempo. ruminations.

It wasn’t an album destined to change the face of anything, but in a lounge lizard Nashville framed by men with back-combed chest-fur pillowing gold nugget medallions, bolo ties and girls with rooster spiked hair, it felt worn and honest. The songwriting was solid – the title track captured small town communication with the wistful truth “Mrs. White tells Mrs. Brown/Before you know it’s all over town,” the faded kid making do “Jenny Hold On,” the dobro-bending, Louvin-feeling harmonies on “Anger & Tears,” the big city girl “riding through the concrete canyons of New York” haunting him on “The Colorado Side” – and that voice, equal parts good bourbon, dried tobacco leaves and very old brandy.
More than anything, Smith wrote of loss, compromised dreams, the hard piece of heartache. Even more profoundly, he didn’t write master tragedies, but squalid truths that existed behind bad neon that flickered and buzzed, cheap motels with chipped linoleum, a dank smell and sheets that didn’t feel good. It wasn’t that people weren’t faithful, it’s that life made it so hard to be true; Smith – unblinking – wrote what he saw.
“When The Night Comes To Call,” like Joe Cocker’s “When The Night Falls,” was a grown-up consideration of congress. But for Cocker, it was the known, the consumed by a fidelity of the soul. Smith wasn’t that holy; he recognized the raw desire and the need to feel another, especially one who evoked what was already lost. There was a stateliness to hanker, the right hand on the piano rising and the left kneading bottom chords, a Bob Seger-feeling acoustic guitar. sweeping up any stray bits of emotion.

No regrets here, no judgement. Sometimes being lost in the flesh is all you can do. Why look back? Why look down? Burn the moment ‘til it’s gone, embrace what is – and feel that delivery by. raging fire.
Country music used to be for adults. There was a sexual knowing, frankness even, and acceptance. True love isn’t always, but the need for release, for connection, the illusion of kindness is relentless. And so, This Little Town.

Liz Thiels, a publicist with unwavering taste and a strong sense of narrative, understood why an artist like this, one more tangential than straight WSM Country would move me. Not just the Eagles tours, or Don Kirschner’s “Rock Concert” appearances. Opening acts were once as strong as the headliners, often – like Little Feat or NRBQ, even the Replacements – more adventurous.
The interview – by phone, the first of so many ponderous phone calls – was vast: how songs formed, truths pulled away from the obvious, hooks done properly held them down. Was it for Country Song Round Up? Tune-In? Tower Pulse? Doubtful The LA Times, or Rolling Stone.
Doesn’t matter, like so many of the publications above, Russell Smith is gone.

Just saw the news, somewhere. Russell Smith, RIP. Basic facts, a few song titles, the request – in lieu of flowers – to donate to the Macon County High School Band. Internment in the Testament Primitive Baptist Cemetery says that, finally, the man who sang, “my soul cries out for rest, but the end is not in sight...” has found his final reward.

Funny the things you remember about first meetings. He wasn’t much taller than me, and his hair was like soft, dark brillo. Wearing all black, slimming, lengthening. Not auspicious for a man seeking to be a country star – something he laughed about, appreciating the irony; later skewering fame jockeying with “Jerry Fontaine (& His Screaming Guitar).” Somehow, with eyes that sparkled with life, it felt right for the songs.

Like a captured animal, he was killing time in a holding banquet room in the Stouffers Hotel, where he would soon sing in a ballroom for people he needed. Was it Country Radio Seminar? A NACA Convention? IBMA? IEBA? I do not remember, nor did it matter. He’d written hits; he’d won a Grammy. He didn’t need, just wanted a reason to get out there and play.

And for all the Southern soul to his soft rock-tempered country, he really liked the hard stuff. Loved Tammy, as well as Conway, and Jones. He would talk about obscure tracks, laugh about the way vowels got stretched, notes tumbled or suspended, then smack his lips about how good it was.

A member of MENSA, a kid who watched Tennessee find its way, a seeker or maybe a wonderer, he was mostly a father of two boys, a recent divorcee with a wife who left for the one thing a man can’t give her. He was bitter, trying to cope, seeking higher ground, hoping for more, harder than he ever intended. He was funny, and he liked to talk.
And so we did. Politics. Religion. Broken hearts. Promises that unraveled. Hopes that you steer by. Al Green. Foster & Lloyd. Movies no one saw. Faulkner. Twain. Laughter. Outrage. Sam Kinison. What was going to happen to country music. Would it matter? And why are existentialist wells such a pain to fall into?

You fall into confessions and communion with people. Never planned, rarely sacramental. Just there you are, profane and seeking. In this case, I was California – and he was Tennessee. He told me he thought I looked like a kid, couldn’t believe I was the music critic Holly Gleason. I replied something about sounding taller on records. We laughed.
For a period of time, we would meet up. David Kidd, when it was two stories. Hide and seek in a book store, or more “find me.” But you could park yourself somewhere interesting, and when the other showed didn’t matter. And when they did, always plenty to talk about.
And as intriguing as his singing voice was, there was something about his speaking voice. Warm, with a real strength to it. And softness. A voice you could sink into, feel welcome and reassured. Everything we’re looking for in life, only it’s a mirage. You could hear them when he talked.

Funny thing, though, about being friends with grown-ups, real life takes them away. You can twist for days in someone’s life, run your fingers over their books, marvel at their heavy wooden furniture, or family photos, but it’s not the same as being there day in and out. It’s not like pitching a tent, claiming your ground and dropping an anchor.
No, you drift and the line breaks. What you love about the other person, it doesn’t go away. Occasionally, you’ll have a random encounter, a run-in or an overlap. You smile the smile of one who roots for the other, asks all the right questions, look all the way to the. Back of their eyes – and watch the soul shine.

One latte spring night we sat outside the Bluebird, on the curb, talking about nothing. Just because. The night bugs weren’t swarming, but had to occasionally be wiped out of our mouths, and still we sat, talking and laughing. It was easy like that, elusive in ways the sex he often sang of wasn’t.

Not quite that last bit before daybreak, he made some joke about being old and hoping he could get up. Then confessed he had the boys coming over early, reached out, offered me his hand and said, “We both probably oughta be getting home.”
And that was that, melting into the steel grey of a new day fixing to happen.
It’s been years now since whenever the last time I saw him. There were incredible songs – the heartbreaking post-divorce “The Home for Unwed Fathers” comes to mind – and Amazing Rhythm Aces reunions; collaborations as the hilarious soulgrass Run CnW, with his friends Jim Photoglo, Bernie Leadon and Vince Melamud.

What you have with people can be so vivid, so incandescent, it always shines when you close your eyes. You can hear the voice, and that butterscotch thread melts inside you. It’s easy to keep moving, working, being – and get pulled away.
Until you’re sitting on a plane, slicing through those same lost hours, hearing a voice without introduction and everything gives way. Even when you hold your poker face, your inner dam collapses. But after so much time, what do you say?

Tonight, nothing. Russell Smith is gone. But really, he’d been gone, just a hint of scent on the humidity here and there. Maybe someone who knew we knew each other, carrying news. Or a random bit of music. And it’s okay, or as okay as it can be.

Having had that life intersect mine for however many months, it was glorious. As glorious as the music, as alive and flickering as a flame. I could rue the time lost, or I could be amazed at what was. Me, I’ll choose the music, and the memories, be thankful for what I had – and maybe remember to embrace the ones who’ve moved beyond a little more.

15 July 2019

Whitney Houston After the Glitter Fades, There's Still the Incandescence of Talent

The post office at the University if Miami was tucked away; you'd hardly notice it. And  it wasn't much on the inside either. A wall of post office boxes, standard marble linoleum floor and ever-present humidity.

The cardboard box looked like every other, too. “Arista,” the return address said. Yet the doe-eyed girl with the curly hair and the expensive photo session spoke to me. She didn't look much older, and she seemed so alive in the moment.

“I hope this doesn't suck,” I remember thinking, knowing Clive Davis' predilection for drama queens and divas, Barry Manilows and frumpy AC. I wanted to like this girl, in the days when MTV was exotic and dance music ruled the clubs.

Back in my dorm room, she killed me. That voice: the power, the range, the essence of being alive. She had diva range, but she didn't bludgeon you with it. Instead she leapt over tall buildings, turned cartwheels and seemingly laughed while she was doing it!

“How Will I Know?” seemed to be the anthem for Every(young)woman trying to find herself, wondering if he was the one. She understood, though, how to bob on the anxiety like a cork - and her ebullience gave us all something to cling to as we figured out who we were.

While she was pretty, staggeringly pretty, a former 17 covergirl, as well as the niece of Dionne Watwick and daughter of gospel stalwart Cissy Houston, she didn't seem otherworldly. Whitney Houston could have been one of us, came off as someone who would talk to us. She even in the moments of big vocalizing seemed to feel our pain, our desire, our rapture, our hope.

“Saving All My Love For You” and “The Greatest Love of All” - both bravura turns - had just enough innocence to let us know these were emotions mortals could feel, too. Yes, she looked like a goddess and sang with the kind of powerhouse acumen that would cause Mariah Carey to bludgeon and over-sing through her first few records, but Houston's heart was pure.

It wouldn't last, of course. 

The industry would start putting walls between us, currying favor and encouraging diva-like behavior. The stakes and expectations would rise. The toadying would increase. No doubt the disorientation and then vertigo would follow.

She could come off as the same effervescent girl, shiny and happy in the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”” video, but the unraveling was already being set into motion. Not yet. No, there would be another album that would provide the perky uptempo feel good moments - “So Emotional” and “Love Will Save The Day” - a la the Supremes, and the big ballads - “Didn't We Almost Have It All” - that would recall Diana Ross' most serious solo work.

It was still the music and the image of exquisite perfection. No troubles, no drama. Just a mahogany goddess who poured down light like the sun. Right up until the burn started. If the second album found Houston in a white tank top, hair flying free and easy, “I'm Your Baby Tonight” saw a young woman in the Limited's universal Firenze sweater - just like the rest of us - only seated side-saddle on a motorcycle. 

She wasn't trashy, wasn't a whore, but was certainly opening up to the thrills life has to offer. As the MTV Onset Generation's Beyonce, she was the object of fantasy - and it wasn't long until Bobby Brown, New Edition's resident bad boy and emerging solo force, came calling.

There were whispers. There were fierce fights that made the tabloids. There was, obviously, drug use. But there was also more music… the stuff of true soul queen proportions… and the movie that made her an international superstar a la Miss Ross: “The Bodyguard.” Co-starring heavyweight serious man-hunk of the day Kevin Costner as the man assigned to protect the star from a stalker, it was a smash.

Beyond the film, where Houston's goddess-on-pedestal perception was tempered with a humanity, range of emotions and skosh of street smart homegirleality, there was the gigantic performance of Dolly Parton's “I Will Always Love You” that served as the film's theme. What had been written as an enduring good-bye with gratitude to Parton's once mentor Porter Wagoner was turned into a tour de force of love beyond limits that sat at #1 on every radio chart across the world for months. Ubiquitous isn't nearly enough: car radios played it relentlessly, talent shows were over-run with it.

Whitney Houston, the most unilateral girl singer possibly ever, had graduated to the ranks of inescapable, but was still capable of turning in truly monstrously great vocal performances. She slayed “The National Anthem” on a regular basis. She performed with her aunt and mother on a gospel medley and left jaws slack.

Yet, there was something ravaging the grown woman's psyche. Never mind the theoretical alliance with r&b's hottest male star, nor their small daughter Bobby Christina. Like George Jones and Tammy Wynette before them - right down to a self- tribute-named-daughter named Tamela Georgette - she and Brown seemed hell-bent on conflict, destruction, consumption and being lashed together with a love that would ultimately eviscerate them.

There was the infamous “crack is whack” interview, where Houston seemingly blitzed beyond reason came across not as Ghetto Fabulous, the way newcomer soul queens like Mary J Blige were, but ghetto tragic: out of her mind, possibly lost forever and absolutely throwing herself into a gutter she had no business being in.

Was Brown's rapacious drug use the issue? Had the wild thing sucked Houston under? Or had she so soured on being America's sweetheart that she found the good girl role repellent? 

Hard to say. Plus, addiction's addiction. Once you're in its jaws, it's hard to ever escape. And in show business, there's always someone dying to give you a bump, a hit, a puff to gain access to a world they'd have no other entrée to. Plus once you start bottom-feeding, you change the game of both the quality of people you attract and their willingness to not protect you.

The tabloids lit up. Drama.  Drugs. Physical altercations. Skeletal pictures. Flubbed performances. Court appearances. Cancelled shows. Riots. It was a fiesta of bad news, and it kept getting worse.

Yes, she made attempts to get clean. Divorced Brown, who'd been arrested on various charges of battery and domestic violence; but not before taking that “hood stance” of so many women that “that's my man…” regardless of what he was doing, even to her.

Whitney Houston languished, became a punchline - not even a cautionary tale about drug use. So extreme, it was comedic - that awkward laughing when it's too uncomfortable to face. So lost, she didn't seem to notice what was gone - or consider how to come back.

That wasn't what was important. What was? Hard to say. There would be glimpses. Maddening seconds where we could remember. Introduced by Prince Andrew of Monaco at “The World Music Awards,” where her weightlessly compelling reading of “I Will Always Love You” - defying gravity, clinging with such strength to the notion of a love that would never let go -- eclipsed any scurrilous notion or harsh photograph.

For the Dawn of MTV Generation - and countless waves of young people who came after - Whitney Houston was definitive. Mariah could pummel a song; Alicia Keys, another Clive Davis protégé, could scale melodies with startling ease; Christina Aguilera could toss columns of air around like feathers, but none  was Whitney.

Whitney Houston: effortless, gracious, glorious. She was glamorous even in a pair of beat-up jeans, hair a mess and giant sunglasses hiding heaven knew. She could sing circles around all of them - and had a knack for finding songs that spoke to feelings even larger than her voice - a gargantuan instrument - seemed to carry.

It was all so sad. The train wreck her life became. The music and film careers she eschewed. The chaos the public seemingly would never know. The squalor that swallowed her as drugs devoured her life.

Clive Davis remained unflagging in his support. Rumbles would tumble down the grapevine of a comeback. Houston would get clean, would come out, would dazzle. But had the moment passed? Could she maintain the strain?
It was hard to say. Harder still to know…

Until now. 

Until an hour ago, when a few random postings hit the Facebook feed. Then the requisite Google News Search provided entirely too much independent sourcing. Whitney Houston was dead… no cause or whereabouts given… confirmed by her publicist to the ever vigilant and utterly credible Nekesa Moody of the Associated Press… on the night of Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy soiree.

Ramdon. Sudden. Wham!

Too many images flooding my mind. Too many songs jump-cutting in my head. Too many memories laced into the soundtrack of growing up at the University of Miami, with a ten-year old Mustang with no air conditioning - windows down, radio painting the immediate vicinity with those shiy early hits.

Equally warm and heavy afternoons in Silver Lake, waiting on my star to rise… knowing that my name in Rolling Stone, Musician and The Los Angeles Times would take me places I couldn't imagine. Los Angeles so glamorous, girls like Whitney Houston with their perfect bodies and satin skin dressed to kill intimidating the a Midwestern girl in me… and yet on those afternoons of stultifying heat and doubt about the future, I could put on my pink bunny slippers and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and jump around the apartment until I wore myself out.

My beau at the time would return from the office to find me, t-shirt knotted up, hair matted with sweat and the album cover propped against our wall of vinyl and laugh. “Face down in Whitney Houston again?” he'd ask. “Get any writing done?”

Often the answer was “not really,” to which he'd reply “Feel any better?”

Inevitably, the answer was “Yes.” For if she could, why wouldn't I? 

Only a matter of believing, pushing off the bottom and staying happy.

Staying happy is the trick. It seemed to elude her. Screw the talent, the charmed life, the bold faced-ery of it all. Screw the maggots who prey on the famous; the drugs, high impact great love in Brown. Damn the brokers of glisten who forget that it's the music that saves.

Somewhere Cissy Houston has a broken heart, Dionne Warwick is thinking about every sad song she ever sang. Don't even think about Bobby Christina, who lost the disaster that carried her for nine months and was the fierce mother who fought for every choice she ever made.

It was a waste, however it happened - and it don't matter how. Whitney Houston's gone. All that promise, that light, that talent: silenced.

Whatever it was, well, it happened. There's no turning back, not much reason to wonder what if. The tragedy is the entitlement of fame, the predators they draw like moths to light and the reasons too many people don't step in.

We as a culture have made vanity first a reason, now a blood sport. To be the hottest, youngest, famest, flamest… Lindsey Lohan has been choking on the fumes of this since before she could drive; Demi Moore and Heather Locklear are both locked up, unable to cope with inevitable reality of aging and hard-partying lives of privilege that are indulged for those who exist beyond the mortal coil.

Seemingly, they are immortal. So they don't just believe, but are sold by everyone who would sell them out. Lying to themselves and each other about the loyalty of those around them, convincing themselves it can't happen to them.
Until right now. 

Whitney Houston's gone. She will, no doubt, always love us - perfection collapsed in Kevin Costner's arms in the climax of “The Bodyguard;” frozen in infamy as one more snuffed out too soon and with God knows how much left to create.

Tonight, Clive Davis will have his party - where she was slated to sing. Among those gathering will be some of pop, rock and soul's true royality: Quincy Jones, See Lo Green, Tony Bennett, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Jackson Brown, Jennifer Hudson, Elvix Costello and Diane Krall. What they will make this loss mean remains to be seen…

What it means to me is this: Create. Love. Be. Embrace every moment. Respect what you're given. Honor the people around you. Be grateful for others' work, their efforts, their gifts.

Try generosity and grace, eschew judgement and especially live with honor.

We all know right from wrong; good from bad, the straight path from the slippery slope - and we've all watched people we love teeter. Rather than say “It's not my place,” let's all reach out, steady or even pull them back. Yes, they might get mad, but in the end, better to cause rancor and save them than tacitly enable the things that can kill.

Whitney Houston was 48. That is the middle of middle age. Tony Bennett is still vital, still msking music and taking our breath away… So should it have been for her, for us.

How will we know, indeed?

-- Holly Gleason, 2/11/12