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

Ooooh, Child: Valerie Carter's Stone's Throw To Heaven


It was the cutest hat. Slouchy and short brimmed, close to the head like a cloche, but limper. There was a ribbon band, rumpled and all the way around the crown, with some antique-looking flowers – possibly pansies, possibly posies -- pinned just above the temple behind the eye that was cast in shadow.

It was ragamuffin chic, slightly waifish, slightly bohemian, definitely post-hippie. The mousey brown hair hung straight – and the eyes, knowing a bit too much, looked straight into me. Or possibly straight out, as the poster hung above the racks of 8-tracks, that were hung behind locked glass sliders in the suburban strip mall record store.

7 March 2017

 

Rickie Lee Jones may or may not have happened yet, but there was a sense that with Linda Ronstadt ascending – and Emmylou Harris also rising as the hippie princess of hillbilly music by way of Laurel Canyon – eclectic girls were about to be “in favor.” Bonnie Raitt, who’d captured my imagination with “Angel from Montgomery,” was her own continent, one draped in the blues, just as Joni Mitchell was an émigré from folk and Carole King had moved beyond the tundra of Tin Pan Ally,

 

Valerie Carter was cute as bug. Like an earthier, yet more worldly and sophisticated version of the groovy babysitters I idolized. She seemed beyond running off with the Children of God religious sect, or getting busted bringing a lid of grass back from Mexico, or even just having the misfortune of a bad acid trip at the Rapid Transit platform under the Terminal Tower. This was a sophisticated kind of squalor for sure.

 

I pinched that ten dollar bill from Christmas or the Honor Roll or whatever my grandmother had pressed it upon me, and looked up. I didn’t know what sepia was then, only thought it was an old black and white from long ago that somehow held the image of a modern girl who’d distilled flapper ennui, free love innocence and Willa Cather and John Steinbeck’s post-Dust Bowl starkly gaunt forbearance.

I’d had my heart set on something else, but the hat got me. As did her utterly guileless knowing. Whatever it was, I wanted in. I just hoped it didn’t suck.

***


Fender Rhodes, literally electric keyboards in cases the size of writing desks, have this velvety bell tone to them. A few descending chords, passing notes littered between, a rising brass section, and a voice caressing the words, “Oooh, child, things are gonna get easier…” I melted right into the dust and shellac’ed  hardwood floor of our airless attic.

How did this woman I’d never met, never heard of get it so completely. A family rife with strife, we were anything but a Norman Rockwell portrait – and I was anything but the classic bright shiny high achiever that I’d learned to show the world. Though I achieved and shone, what roiled beneath the surface – doubt, anxiety, concern for and about those around me – was a powerful churning.

 

And in one verse of a song made popular by The Five Stairsteps, I felt like things could get better. A weightless seemed to lift up from my carcass, drifting soft and without gravity. No imperative or directive, no empiric evidence given, just the caress of that voice promising that this, too, shall pass was the agency of my condition.

 

Valerie Carter had that gift: she could make you believe impossible things with a tone that was somewhere between ridiculously expensive satin and the lushest sink-into-it velvet. Her soprano, like the embodiment of afternoon or first morning sunlight, glistened in your ears, somehow moved beneath your neural centers like a glider on a balmy, still night.

Even more wondrous were all the phases Just A Stone’s Throw passed through. Aural pictures painted against economical playing – the almost Tom Waits’ free noir of the well-past closing time’s wash-out “Back to Blue Some More,” the churning gospel soul of the title track, the faltering reggae undertow of “Ringing Doorbells in the Rain,” the raw hillbilly yearn of “Face of Appalachia,” not to mention the Earth, Wind + Fire-backed blue-eyed funk of “City Lights.”

 

Rumor had it – cause once I knew, I started hoovering up any scrap of information I could find – she was Lowell George’s girl. Little Feat’s “Fat Man in the Bath Tub,” with a proclivity for overalls and a musical gumbo that could sweat the Crescent City’s grisgris with the fringe of country and the undulation of rhythm & blues understood hybrid vigor. Carter’s rare instrument, her tone but also her ability to turn emotions inside out, was suited to it all.

 

Before I was a music critic, I didn’t bother with the delineations, just the way the music made me feel. Stone’s Throw made me real in a hopeful way, my hunger for knowing, tasting, feeling many things more rational than merely the product lacking focus from my dyslexia. The songs dipped into so many veins and wells of emotions, it suited my not-quite-teenage hormonal swings like a second skin.

 

And that girl on the cover? That was the me I’d be in a perfect world… without a uniform, expectations, a limited budget, my mother harping, the ghosts behind my eyes. She was cool, and funky, and hip, and somehow just shabby enough to not be an uptight rich girl at Beachwood Place, the expensive mall with a real Saks Fifth Avenue in a suburb near our modest brick home.


She had cooler friends, too. Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat’s Lowell George and Billy Payne, James Taylor. Earth, Wind & Fire! Lots of names I knew from the back of the records, people I spent hours with – and felt like I had relationships with based on the songs they wrote or sang. They scraped at what my mundane existence was made of, and somehow made my heart flicker with a desire that seemed more.

Even the boy she loved – that damned “Cowboy Angel” – seemed like the kinda romantic foil I could understand. As a harmonica bled out and her voice opened up on the long syllables, the note struck wide and full, strong without overpowering, she was a real girl wanting an actual, if elusive, boy.

Frustrated by the prep school boys who just seemed dumb, caught up in things that just didn’t  seem important, this “Cowboy Angel” was the accessible answer to the guy Bonnie Raitt was pining for in “Angel To Montgomery.” What I didn’t understand in the moment: Carter’s angel was in close proximity, Raitt’s cowboy had grown mythic – and smaller than a horizon spec -- over time.

It’s all perspective, but you don’t know that when you’re young, on fire and waiting for your destiny to begin. Instead, you sigh into your pillow, listen to your records on eternal repeat and mainline all those emotions you can only access by listening to the words smeared across rock, pop, r&b and even new wave melodies.

 My ultimate genuflection to Valerie Carter came later that summer. On Running on Empty, Jackson Browne’s paean to roadlife – something as a competitive golfer I knew a little more about than the garden variety middle schooler – she co-wrote “Love Needs A Heart.” A secret handshake of a song, it spoke volumes to the states of self-inflicted human bondage that come with always being gone, never being around people you can truly trust and, especially, being shattered by those you do.

 

Rather than one more rootless rolling stone song, the high messiah of the way long gone countenance, this was a song of reckoning and the price paid – or even extracted – for the life, but also the damage already incurred. That’s what nobody tells you when you’re acting brave, sucking it up, shaking it off, pretending it’s for the best: all of that face saving for one’s dignity comes with a cost.

 

And you know that it’s Carter who tempers Browne and George. Only a woman would profess,
“Proud and alone, cold as a stone
I’m afraid to believe the things I feel
I can cry with the best, I can laugh with the rest
But I’m never sure when it’s real…”

 

That’s some powerful vertigo. But also exactly how it happens. You pave over your embarrassment, your hurt, your anger at the disbelief of what just happened -- and you stop trusting what you know, being able to honor those emotions that are right there.

 

With a piano part any serviceable seventh grader could play, Jackson Browne rues and confesses his personal treason. It’s the tale of leaving when he confesses he’s broken this woman’s heart, and in that first verse, it feels like what a thousand other guilt douching songs sound like.

But then it turns, the stakes add up. Maybe a man could’ve written what comes next, but quite possibly not. As the second verse bottoms out, the revelation dawns.

“Love won’t come near me, she don’t even hear me

She walks by my vacancy sign
Love needs a heart, trusting and blind
I wish that heart was mine…”

By the time Valerie Carter – opening Browne’s tour to good notices and obvious fertile creative winds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxBAYr9p4kI) – co-wrote “Love Needs A Heart,” plenty must have happened. The sylph urchin had been banged around a bit by life, or “the life,” and now was counting up her scrapes and bruises, weighing the risks and considering the damage. Not to mention the ultimate truth: once you know, you can’t not know.

 

And so, Valerie Carter put her heart in a song she didn’t sing. She carried on, like singers do, the music too potent a force to let go.  Once you make your way in or through songs, there rarely is another path to travel.

 

Wild Child, the next record, bore witness to it. A tight cropped head shot – echoing Diana Ross’ Diana­ – was sleek, slick, technically gorgeous, somehow clinically detached. This gamine was haute everything, Scavullo-esque in her high forehead and higher cheekbones, but her eyes had enough of the dilation, you had to wonder what other highs she might be sailing, what numbing strategies she’d devised.

 

I remember hearing Wild Child on the stereo at Record Theater, played – as all in-store play was – to entice the customers to lay down their hard-earned dollars. It was shapeless soft rock/jazz lite stuff, perfect for chilled Chablis and Virginia Slims’ uber thin cigarettes crowd. Perfect for the richer Mommies. Technically perfect, more than a little cold, the fire and raw passion that dripped from her notes was gone – much like the disco precision that was rising all around the suburbs, chasing a thrill and a high that was never truly there, even with your nose stuffed with cocaine.

 

I didn’t buy that record, didn’t hide my disappointment. Didn’t know what to say, or even why it mattered. I doubled down on Stone’s Throw, knowing sometimes one record that holds so much is worth more than a wheelbarrow of careers from the REO Speedwagons, Styxs, Rushs and Deep Purples.

 

And I got on with living, with trying to figure out why and how. Not just to survive, but what happens next, where shall the road take me when it’s finally time to take me away. Sometimes we make deals with ourselves to make the best of where we are. Sometimes we get vertigo or just lose our way. Sometimes our hearts break in ways we can’t even explain, don’t always know or understand -- and the world doesn’t care – so you soldier on.

 

Valerie Carter was a brave soldier in the realm of song and reason, romance and how it goes. She’d paid her money, took the ride, shimmered so brightly, she’d still turn up on records like Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence, and remained James Taylor’s favorite female back-up vocalist.

Mostly, though, she disappeared. To Florida. To relative obscurity, occasionally circling back for the music, but mostly, staying out of harm’s way.

 

When the news hit that she’d passed from this world, Taylor’s socials carried in part this remembrance, “…Valerie was an old soul and as deep as a well. Her voice came from her life and her life was a steep, rocky road. I believe that we can hear it, whenever the music is that crucial, when the song is saving someone’s life….”

 

Saving someone’s life. Oooh, child. Never mind the latter day scrapes with law enforcement, with courts of law, with Taylor himself paying for your out-of-state in-patient treatment and coming to your drug court graduation. Forget all the disappointments and promises made along the way nobody bothered to fulfill.

We can’t know the things that go unspoken or unseen. We can only hope that free, she is a shaft of light as pretty as those high notes she’d twirl around on, sparkle like the naughty twinkle in her eye. Sometimes freedom isn’t until the next life – and sad as we all are, maybe that’s the truth to hang onto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon Russell: Song for You... and Me... and Gone

I was wearing brand new Prada velvet maryjanes, with saddle leather straps, and a big velvet men’s cut shirt from back in the late ‘80s when I was first in LA, trying to be a baby rock critic of merit. The shirt was one of the few nice things I owned, and Icherished it; sliding into it with banged up jeans and forest green cowboy boots, a little bit of luxe boheme splendor for a girl living on a lotta ramen.

Seems somehow right to be dressed like that to get a text that read, “Is Leon Russell someone you can write one of your passionate tributes to?” Reading it, figuring this was a pro-active editor, looking to stay ahead of the bodystack the last couple years has turned into, I replied, “Yes, why? He hasn’t died?”

But, of course, he had. Hand in the air, I asked for and paid the check, purse flying to my shoulder, soles to the sidewalk. Leon Russell, always sort of fragile, always incandescent like a candle flame. He was never quite a hippie, nor a gypsy, nor a field preacher, yet somehow he embodied all, and so much more. 

Men like Leon don’t really die, maybe shimmer a bit and fade a touch. But dead? C’est impossible. Except the Google Seach confirms – even Fox News says so. And once again, here I am, dizzy from the loss, torn from the moments and music surrendered to the sky.

 

I can’t even remember the first time I saw him, probably on the great equalizer of humanity, music and social consciousness – and my father’s favorite – “The Johnny Cash Show.” All I know is my mother snarled, as only she could, “He looks high…” at the tv set in their bedroom – and I truly thought Santa Claus had truly made good on that summer of love promise to “Tune in, Turn On & Drop Out.” 

There he was at a shiny black grand piano, silvery cascades of hair pouring down like white waters, eyes behind mirrored aviator shades as his hands kept rolling and pumping over the keys like some kind of baker making kolaches or other kneaded and twisted delight. He had a voice like an old dog lifted in protest, though there was a zestiness to it, too: you wanted to taste what he knew. And I was far too young to even imagine.

But I wanted; oh yes, I wanted to know.

 

Leon Russell invaded my school car, too. The disembodied voice, wrung out and twisting, floated over the vinyl bench seats. The jaunty “Tight Rope,” all carny and “hey, y’all, watch this” and the arpeggiated “For You,” which pledged of loving someone “beyond this space and time” – and because it was Cleveland, the rock & roll capitol of the world, yes, Russell’s version spun on the rock station in defense of the man who wrote the Carpenters’ inescapable rendition on every pop, ac and elevator music station on the dial.

 

There was “This Masquerade” for George Benson, “Delta Lady” for Joe Cocker, “Superstar” for the Carpenters. And there were the conversations my hippie babies would have about Mad Dogs & Englishmen, miscegenation (I couldn’t spell it, so I couldn’t look it up back then) and Mary Russell, about Concerts for Bangladesh, records with Willie Nelson and being a genius.

 

I still thought he looked like Naughty Santa, too much fun and treats and music. I didn’t know about the years in Los Angeles, working with Phil Spector or producing Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Nor was I aware that it was Russell’s Shelter Records, partnered with the producer Denny Cordell, that was soon to toss the terse raw rock/punk Tom Petty and the fist-in-your-face “Refugee” into my world. And I didn’t care. Just knowing someone like him existed was plenty.

 

It was during my tenure as a freelancer in the mid-80s working the country and black music beats for The Miami Herald that the competitive paper’s Jon Marlowe called me to meet him in the stairwell. Stringy white hair, motocross jacket when no one wore such things, The Miami News’ sole critic’d cackle and tell me what I was missing; treating me like a colleague, though I was mostly starry-eyed kid.

 

“You have to pay attention to Leon Russell,” he advised. “As important as Dr. John for mainstreaming that New Orleans shuffle, but a much wider hoop – he’s gospel, and rock and roll, and soul. And he doesn’t flinch or pander. They can’t make him commit to a box, so they act like he’s some bit of fringe of an Indian jacket. You dig in, you’ll see.”

So out to the Hialeah swapmeet I went. Nickels and quarters and dimes. A few bucks could fill in the gaps back then, bad cassettes and slightly blemished vinyl. But the content was there, and man, “Stranger In A Strange Land” was an existential question that suited my own no-man’s-land existence; “Roll Away The Stone” took the metaphysical promises of my Catholic Easter and sowed them with a fiery promise, the spongy striphouse piano “Roller Derby” rubbed the undercarriage of the seemingly innocent enough – all of them bolstered by a peacock feather fan of brash female background singers, equal parts streetwalking working girl and street smart seraph. Divine and dirty, glorious and porous all at once.

If I got The Band – and the power of “Cripple Creek” and Music From Big Pink… If I thought I was figuring out C&W’s bastard Byrds/Burrito’s children Sweetheart of the Rodeo and The Gilded Palace of Sin… If I believed in the mellifluous tone of the steel guitar rising off those Poco records… Then this was the grittier, funk on the roots cornerstone to whatever those other acts were scratching away it.

 

It’s the reason Eric Clapton, the Stones, Dylan embraced his musical touch – and Jerry Lee Lewis took a young Russell and his pals out as his back-up band on a two month tour. To have the kinetic charge to serve as the Killer’s band, you gotta know the inside out from the ground up.

And so, I had my own kinda sphinx: behind mirror’ed shades, in crisp white suits, playing hillbilly music under the nom du chanson Hank Thompson and wearing a top hat or Stetson like some kind of real world crown. When I felt down, his records were like tapping a vein; Leon Russell & the Shelter People offered a soundtrack for a dreamer’s diaspora. Promises of home and redemption, songs of raw ache and utter brio, guitar notes twisting and piano thump-thumping like a strong heart taking pleasure, it wrung out my own young angst and hung it on the line to dry in the bright light of the sun.

 

But Leon Russell, like so many of the ones who came before, seemed elusive. Like the scent of Nag Champa, it is in the air, but impossible to touch: sweet, spicy, sense-piquing, yet ever ephemeral. Leon Russell always in the back hallways and fire escapes of my life and times in LA, when FAX machines were super-high tech and Tower Records was almost a city block of sheer heaven.


You don’t meet men like Leon Russell. Tulsa-born and Tulsa-tied, visionaries don’t exist among mere mortals, so just the notion is plenty as life whips by – and stacks up at your door like so much chord wood for the winter.

Until ex-fiancee #4 said “Let’s go to dinner, let’s go to 12th & Porter…”

He had that naughty twinkle in his eyes, the one that always promised too much fun and plain adventure. I probably put on something velvet with my banged up Levis, probably pulled on cowboy boots of some sort, wiping my mouth with whatever bright pink lipstick I was favoring then.

At a table on the black and white squared linoleum floor, with a perfect view through the giant fishbowl front window, I saw the biggest old school Cadillac pull up. It took up the whole view, the rumble of the Detroit muscle almost rattling the glass… It was obviously old school hillbilly royalty pulling up, but here?

 From out of nowhere Sherman Halsey, the scion of the country booking Halsey Co. dynasty, whirled from out of nowhere, silky caramel hair tumbling down his shoulders like some sharp dressed Jesus. Opening the car door, he reached in and helped a gorgeous black clad arm emerge…

 My jaw was by now slack, not even completely knowing what was happening. But by now I understood, it was something – and my thrilled at the secret boyfriend looked like he’d swallowed a 100 watt bulb.

 

Blinking twice, I saw a large, sturdy yet frail man emerge. Sherman helping, taking his weight, the gentleman moved slowly, his fingers circling Halsey’s elbow. There was a halo of serious and a cloud of “holy shit” all around him.

Looking at Little Steve, as Stephen Charles Hurst was known at our house, I couldn’t find the words. Finally, an “OH… MY… God…” sorta tumbled out, knowing my ability to talk like a cloud of syllables was evaporating. “That’s, that’s…”

“Yup, Toots! It sure is,” said my very-satisfied beau. “I thought you’d get a kick out of this…”

 And then they were upon us, and my face flushed, and I felt my hand being held by a papery set of fingers, the sinews and pads very apparent. His face was so carved, so lined by life – it felt like a gypsy reading your palm in reverse. You could see the world’s wisdom in the crags and watch its best parts sparkle in his sharp as a hawk’s pupils. 


It is rare that I lose conversation, especially when it’s important. I remember the oxygen leaving the room, the temperature feeling hot, myself perhaps a little dizzy. I smiled, perhaps beamed – and I think I spoke a little bit, but am not sure. I just remember how warm and welcoming, kind and familial the elegant gentleman was. He was happy to be out, even on a cane – or was it a walker? – and knew he’d have to get his hips replaced sooner than later.

 He was recording some, trying to figure out the next moves for a creative man who might have been passed by by lesser musical beings. He spoke of Bruce Hornsby, who I knew from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2 and I believe I spoke the Virginia-based keyboardist ability to smear genres without losing the musicality. Russell seemed heartened. Men like him, you see, are meant to play.

 

Working with Sherman Halsey, my fiancée saw Russell quite a bit. He’d come with reports that the rock legend none of my friends would’ve cared about had asked about me. I’d see stardust for days; far more impressed by that than many of the more famous people I worked with. Because those who practice magic get inside you in deeper ways.

 Russell didn’t have the comeback with Hornsby that he deserved. Didn’t get the flex that found Levon Helm or Bonnie Raitt, but he just kept moving forward. No doubt a good musicians union pension – for recording with Sinatra on “Strangers In the Night,” Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, the Ronnettes, Delaney + Bonnie, Joe Cocker, the Beach Boys and beyond had added – and songwriting royalties kept his bills paid, but there was more fire to him than that.

 The Hank Thompson country albums were staunch Texas/Oklahoma honky tonk issue. The genuflecting Willie Nelson offering up a partner in crime for one slice of who he was. It didn’t matter; he kept playing. Got the hip operation, kept playing. Had other health issues, would take a break – and keep playing.

 

Yes, there was a high profile reclamation of the man who knew no other way by Elton John. For a duet record, produced by T-Bone Burnett, called The Union. A debt for the flamboyant Brit rocker/pianist, John intended to see his exalted influence into the Rock & Roll of Fame – and to have Russell’s contributions to the genre recognized. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT5aYRgmgyM)

 And so it came to pass. Inducted in 2011, Russell spoke of John rescuing him from a ditch along the side of life’s highway. But he also had bought a new tour bus, and was about to embark on making a new album with Tommy LiPuma. As I said, music men keep on playing always.

Little Steve and I drifted apart. He found an incredible woman named Shaye, and they’re so much in love, I was glad I could be a way station on his journey to her. We still talk, for what it’s worth, sharing news of Leon or Sherman, ‘til Sherman died somewhere in the blur of the last several years. Love that “exists beyond place and time,” you see, isn’t bound by things like rings or marriages – or even death.

 Lately, between the election and Leonard Cohen and the death of my own uncle, it feels like life is coming faster and faster, sadder and darker, too. I’ve not had time to pause and reflect, collect and consider – all that has been lost, all that I’ve been blessed to know, to touch, to embrace as part of my life.

Leonard Cohen, truly the ultimate ladies man. Dapper suits, hat cocked just so – and songs redolent of musk and evocation, enough to make a kid’s knees quiver. Like Russell, his gifts transcend the basics of language: he holds much in a few words, scrapes away the sludgy build-up and finds the essential emotion in melodies and imagery.

 Walking around a corner too fast, returning after lunch with Don Was, I bounced into a recording studio just a bit too fast and slightly off balance. The crease in the pewter sharkskin pants could’ve slashed my jugular – only the hand that extended, steadied me and dark cocoa irises bore into my own.

 Set right, the steadying hand extended and a low voice announced, “I’m Leonard.” I gulped. And stared. “And you are?” Again, stammering, I managed to get my name out, as Was laughed and Sweet Pea Atkinson took it in with a guttural chuckle.

 

That’s the thing about the Towers of Song, they don’t have to flex. They just need to be. The poetry of who they are permeates everything, ignites songs with the right amounts of reserve and tension or raw desire and hell-raising. For each, the way they walked or looked into your eyes was as profound as the songs they wrote.

And whether people realize who these non-attention seekers were, their songs live on. “Hallelujah” has been recorded – like Russell’s “Song for You” – well over a hundred times. Each has their cannon, each has their own special stew; but both created an image, a sonic template, even a place within the times that solidly maintained their reality.

 

“Shoot Out On The Plantation” is playing as I type this. As the nation is torn in half by what they think is unthinkable, it’s all here in this song. With the chunky funky beat, the sticks moving across the high hats and clanging on cymbals with the pace that says, “We mean business,” Russell suggests the upside down reality of it all --
“Yeah, the last one to kiss is the first to shoot/ And stabbing your friends is such a drag to boot…”

 That’s the thing about these lives, whether spotlight or not, they’re often long gone. Chasing the dream, the song, the money to pay the rent or the rush to keep on going, there is a restlessness inside creative that never truly goes out.

 If Ray Charles won a Grammy in 1993 for his version of “Song for You,” this could be anyone’s refrain who plays the game of plying music for other people to find their truth.

            I've been so many places in my life and time
            I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes
            I've acted out my life in stages, with ten thousand people watching
            But we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you

 

As a woman who’s chased the road and gently blown on the kindling fire of dreams built on stages and studios, the fragility and need is something I’ve witnessed and felt my own damn self. When it’s late and lonely, you wonder about the cost… and you hum a song, and hope that the price is worth what you’ve paid.

You know, you never know. You really can’t. The rush of when it’s working is so intense, and the emptiness of doubt and all alone can’t truly be measured. Somewhere in between, there’s a lot of boredom and the baseball cards of dreams. You flip’em over and remember how sweet it was, waiting on the next song to come up on random rotation that takes you back

 

The editor told me Russell, who’s already survived a massive cardiac event and major brain surgery, went in his sleep. He was 74, at home in Nashville. A man who loved and kept it funky, whose humanity was pervasive and reached far beyond those who knew about the Tulsa Scene, who warmed their haunted places with Carney or Americana or Leon Live.

 Somewhere, Leon’s looking down, fingers spread like sunrays as he surveys all he left behind. The grisgris and the juju is our’s to keep alive, and the songs, well, the songs are here for all to love and live inside. Funny, too, how a man who can find the magic in “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today” and “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” as well as “I Put A Spell on You” and the live combust of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” merged with “Youngblood,” would write his own elegy almost half a century ago.

 For all its need and ache, the larger truth in “Song for You” comes now. As the piano rises and falls, the lyrics open wide to hold us in their embrace now that he’s gone. Gentle catch and benediction, it seems Russell had already spelled it out… it’s just we were all too pinwheel-eye’d to believe this moment would ever come.

            I love you in a place where there's no space or time
            I love you for my life, because you're a friend of mine
            And when my life is over, remember when we were together
            We were alone and I was singing my song for you

Like all the real hippies, he didn’t fear death – or heaven. He shook his songs, plied his guitars and piano, mined the chutes of Dixie, swamp, Appalachia, Tulsa and tumbleweeds to conjure that sound that shook its tail and balmed the wild night. When America stood at a crossroad, Russell emerged saying “Why not merge it all?”

Uptopian. Idyllic. Hopeful. Impossible. It was who he was, and all that existed in his music from the very beginning. For a young man who started out Claude Russell Bridges and morphed into Leon Russell by virtue of a fake ID to play in LA clubs, it doesn’t matter… only the music, and how it lifts us up.

 For me, trying to make sense of everything, I’m gonna try to let it do that. And it’s funny, I’ve not been around Mr. Russell – except random airport gates on flights in and out of 6-1-5 – in years, but the idea that he’s gone still guts me somehow, lays me open wide. Maybe it’s for those days when I was young, and he was some kind of earthy paternal presence of us all; or maybe just like Leonard Cohen and David Gleason, there are some who seem as if their inextinguishable no matter what.

With the candles lit and day still blazing, I think I need to walk it off. Find a park or trail, touch the bark and hum just a little bit. He ain’t coming back, but perhaps in the songs, I can hold that smile and white-white hand with the knuckles protruding just a little in my soul again.

www.HollyGleason.com

David Bowie: The Man who Fell To Earth Returns To The Stars

Just when you think the last quixotic artistic prank is pulled, Bowie creates the masterful BLACKSTAR -- knowing his end was inevitable. An elegy no one saw coming. A life that forged glitter and art, high concept and demimonde as one.
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Sherman Halsey & The Crazy Carny Circus That Was Country Music's Fellini

Sherman Halsey's creativity was hard and bright, throwing light and blinding like the best diamond. He -- and an upstart honky tonker -- took a turgid ouevre and made noir art on the way to making country cool with the LA demi-monde, and Sherman, like his father country kingpin Jim Halsey, never looked back. Shaping the perceptual culture of cool around Tim McGraw, the Kentucky Headhunters and too many others, he gave the genre of the fsding blue collar a legit cool. And he never stopped smiling that Cheshire smile doing it.
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Lou Reed: Sweet Jane, Venus in Furs, the Wild Side Demurred

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

And so Bonnaroo ends, in a longform rain, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' brutal rock celebration if losers, outsiders, fringers & won't fit ins. After Sam Bush and Del McCoury, Ed Helms incredible melange of pickers'n'singers at the Bluegrass Situations' Jam, it reminds why music is the great tribal wave. And yes, there will be more impressions, but this... this is about the music.
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Postcards from Bonnaroo, 5: The Impossible Strain of Being Paul McCartney

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it goes, and so it continues.

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

Postcards from Bonnaroo: The Second Hit

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

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

How It Smells.

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

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

Postcards from Bonnaroo: The First Missive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

            “Tim Hensley just died,” he said somberly.

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

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

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

            It was inevitable.

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

            Indeed. Or yet. And how.

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

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

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

            You move, and move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Really?”

            “Absolutely.”

            And then she laughed, asked about freshening my drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.hollygleason.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 April 2013

 

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

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

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

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

Patti didn’t need words. She had intonation.

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

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

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

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

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

And Patti was gifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes would flash.

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

I would try. He would refuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow Patti always knew. Always, always.

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

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

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

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

It was that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

“You know Patti?” he asked, quietly.

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

“She’s retiring,” he explained.

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

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

“Yes, she’s retiring,” he confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- 19 September 2012

 

 

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

In every life, we lose the people we love. We make peace with it, find our way, lean on friends -- sometimes friends we don't even realize are our friends. And then there's golf. "As in golf, as in life," John Gleason used to say. He was usually always right.
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Robin Gibb: Bee Gees, Night Fevers, Disco Apocalypse & Gone

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

“Jive Talking… telling me lies…”

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

“More than a woman… to…. meeeeeeeee…”

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

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

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

“Night fever… night fee-vurrrrrr….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to reconsider everything. Everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To not know is frustrating, but somehow sweet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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