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

Steve Popovich, Bill Johnson

Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     He was genius at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     At what point does the dreamer become a fool?

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

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

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

     “You can always tell a dreamer,

     “You just can't tell them,

          “tell them anything…”

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

     But once you know, how can you not know?

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

 You don't. Indeed, you can't.

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

     In 48 hours, much has happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     What love is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “With a long ride in a hearse…”

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

Delia’s Gone, Johnny Cash

The phone rang at 5:50. AM. Recovering from a vicious stomach flu that strafed me until my cells all pounded from the screaming pain, unconsciousness would be putting it mildly,. But the Associated Press needed reaction to the news we'd all been dreading, knew was inevitable, yet wishfully denied by virtue of the power of the man, the myth, the music. Johnny Cash had passed away. My world -- a foggy beyond exhaustion dizziness -- needed to be cut through NOW. In the name of deadlines whirring, moments passing and the celebration of the life and songs of one of the greatest icons our country ever produced. Johnny Cash. The man in black. The man who stood for the poor, the overlooked, the cast-off, different, uneducated and any other characteristic that would or could make a human being "less than." Johnny Cash -- as close to the Voice of God as any mortal man can hope to be. Deep. Thunderous. Rich. Solid. Strong. Craggy from a life lived without apology -- complete with immersion in humanity, a witness to pain in its many forms, sowing dignity and care wherever he went. And then there was the music. And not just the obvious hits -- "Big River," "Ring of Fire," "I Walk The Line," "Boy Named Sue," "Folsom Prison Blues" - but the riveting "John Henry," the thumpety thump of racing hearts "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," the hilarious latter day "One Piece At A Time," the carnal meltdown of threatened adultery on top of a marriage born of utter lust sung with June Carter "Jackson" and his haunted recent work with Rick Rubin, from the deep Gothic "Delia's Gone" to his inside out meditation on pain and addiction that is a far more ravaged read of Trent Reznor's "Hurt." One could get lost in the songs, the common poetry and empathy. Except there are calls to make, ducks to put in a row and have dial their respective phones. Hierarchies, even, of who they want and who they don't -- but who are, damnit, absolutely valid. So, at 6:10 in Las Vegas, a cell phone rings and goes to voice mail. Jeff Bates has had a long night and no doubt, as the newest client, has no idea what could be so impossibly important. Figuring Terri Clark is in Switzerland, but there's no way to get her numbers yet; that Kenny Chesney is somewhere in international waters; that Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks have just shifted time zones again and are locked down on their buses, out of safe reach of their cell phones; and John Michael Montgomery is lost somewhere on the back of a farm that barely gets cell service on the best day, there's only one thing to do: leave urgent messages and wait. Pray they'll call back. Oh, and wake up the baby act's manager… Also, to get on the phone to critical print outlets. See how tight those deadlines really are -- and buy time. Buy time and remind them as they're passing on Jeff Bates, the Mississippian man who's a more fitting legacy of Cash's meaning than all the bright shiny bold faced names in the galaxy of hillbilly stars. Born poor. Barely educated, but filling the gaps on his own. The child of a Native American mother who can't even pinpoint a father -- making the mongrel Alabaman a dodgy risk who was ultimately adopted by a sharecropper and his Pentecostal preacher's daughter wife -- he understands every intricacy of being an outsider. "I never really fit in any place/ Because there's always a part of me to hate…" he confesses on the title track to Rainbow Man, a debut album released at the tender age of 39. 39 years old, following a serious crystal meth addiction, a stint in jail for grand theft over $25,000 and drug charges, and four marriages. If he's come to acceptance -- mostly of himself as he is, but also of others -- the hard way, he embraces it with the very same grace that marked Johnny Cash's life. The phone rings back a few minutes later. The deep voice that's equal parts Barry White bottom, Conway Twitty eroticism and Mississippi River gravel asks, "What's wrong?" Then proceeds to talk about his father's love affair with Cash's music -- "the harshest reality I ever heard in songs -- and just like where we were from" -- and the recognition of similar demons. Like a good soldier, he starts making his calls. Ironically the journalists who had to be coerced to deal with this plain dirt person in a world of glitterati and marquis caliber celebrity call back to acknowledge the validity of the slow talking songwriter's witness. Amid the whirl, Ronnie Dunn calls in. Visibly shaken, the man with the most emotive, flexible, strength-in-the-moment voice in modern country music is faltering. His statement is the classicism of modern country royalty… but it's in the head-shakingly confessed outpouring of moments that the power of the passing descends. Janine Dunn, his longtime bride, was a widow when they met. Johnny Cash and June Carter had been in the bridal party of her first wedding, making their relationship with the icons more familial than musical. Their moments were marked with a deeper kind of intimacy -- less the rock & roll totem than the patriarch and matriarch of a very, very grounded family. For Ronnie Dunn, taciturn at best, this was daggers dipped in acid. And then there was his own wife's pain, that need to be strong for someone sustaining an even graver loss. So it went all morning, Air traffic controlling the big interviews. Getting the official statements out. Finding the people where and how you could. Being the bearer of bad news, listening to the jumble of emotions -- the shock, pain, confusion, fear, sadness, terror even -- that made up their response and recognizing Johnny Cash was a man who these artists desperately wanted to pay their respects to. Kenny Chesney, actually sitting in a Waffle House -- back from the islands for 48 hours to attend another funeral, one for one of his bus drivers found dead from congestive heart failure in a hotel room the day he was to close on a house, no next of kin only next of employer -- and trying to make sense of the death. Terri Clark on the side of the stage in Gstaad, Switzerland, pulled from a soundcheck to hear the news and respond -- dazed by both the raggedness of the loss and the time zone cha cha whiplash of international travel. Kix Brooks, back from an early run to the golf course and already aware, able in his lucidity to address the facets of a man who meant much to many in many, many ways. Johnny Cash was like that. In his humility, he inspired all of us to be more, to be better, to have integrity. To hear Johnny Cash, to gaze upon a countenance that was essentially a portrait of the human condition, it was the know peace and pain, torment and release, love and sorrow, but above all, faith. No matter what… No matter how lost or wild… There was always faith to bring him home. It may've faltered. Been battered, tattered, torn and bruised along the way -- but it was a constant undertow to pull his soul back to the shore where it belonged. When I think of Johnny Cash -- beyond torturing my Latina college suitemates with those bumping backbeat heavy early records that were all rockabilly and adrenalin and raising him as the ultimate punk rock symbol back when the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were raging -- I think of a pillar of strength, a mountain of humanity that could weather any storm, survive the pain -- which he most certainly felt -- and maintain his dignity as a man and his artistry in the truest sense. Not that anyone necessarily cares what I think -- a midwifer of dreams, believer in the poetry of the lives lived, survivor of lost nights, broken heels and brokener hearts, I am one more handmaiden to the celestial beings. Taxi dancers who give their souls to the songs must choose wisely for it's an all-consuming high-stakes kind of musical poker… and if you cast your soul capriciously, you come to know the hard way that Johnny Cash is about the only surest bet in town. His memory should be celebrated. His legacy cast in the words of those who survived, whose music thrived because of the songs of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and the Carter/Cash Families. There had been no time to breath, to think, to pause this sad day. Churn the phones -- cell and hotel room. Burn the e-mail. Cut and paste and resend. Bob and weave. Create and recreate and try not to remember… until now… on a plane home, still sick from the flu that makes your ribs ache, heading home to my own little bed. When my own father died of a protracted illness that wasted him slowly, stealing his power and his shine, it was those calls from unexpected places that pulled me through. Just the notion that somebody knew, cared, felt it. And so I dialed, only my friend was at the funeral parlor when she answered -- clearly an inopportune time. But the voice of the sad lost little girl that overwhelmed the wet lushness of the woman who testified about "Seven Year Aches," anguished about living ghosts in "A Lover Is Forever" and "Why Don't You Quit Leavin' Me Alone," stood naked and vulnerable in "The Real Me," embraced a gentle tempest in "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me" and got all over the musical joy of her father's tale of musical arrival "Tennessee Flat Top Box" was the embodiment of stillness engulfed in sorrow. She had lost her Daddy. It's a pain like no other, never lessened or tempered by the knowledge it was coming. On her Rules of Travel, Rosanne Cash sang a song with her father called "September When It Comes." It was generational. It was inevitable. It captured the horrible recognition of the ravages of times with a bittersweet beauty that transfixes you with its fragility. Both vocalists know what is to come, but they bravely stiffen their lips, resolute in the understanding there is something beyond the known. Perhaps that's the greatest truth of Johnny Cash's resolve. His faith was such that we can almost know by his passing that there must be more beyond the mortal coil. Will The Circle be Unbroken, Volume 2 opens with Johnny Cash singing the Carter Family staple "Life's Railway To Heaven." He is joined by his great love June Carter Cash and her sisters Helen and Anita for as simple a profession of faith as one could hope for. On the wings of blood harmonies, it brings the hereafter here and now -- and sets the listener free with its unnuanced courage of conviction. Whether you believe or not is irrelevant. Listening to "Life's Railway," it is impossible to doubt. It's fitting then that the first guest on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's third installment of their musical, generational and philosophical merger was Johnny Cash. For this outing, Cash asked if he could bring in a song he'd never got around to recording -- "Tears In the Holston River," a song about Mother Maybelle and Sara Carter's passing and funerals. That performance, along with American IV: The Man Comes Around, the single and video for "Hurt," are all nominated for awards at this November's CMA Awards. Even now, his force may flicker, but always shines. Helen Keller once wrote, "It's better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." Johnny Cash lived his life like a blaze of glory -- throwing light into the deepest crevices and recesses of this world, so we could see or be seen, know or be understood. The Dirt Band's boyish guitarist/vocalist Jeff Hanna, a dear friend, has voice that deserves to be heard in the wash of response even if the band couldn't justify keeping a publicist on retainer. Stammering and talking through tears, he spoke of the fellowship Cash brought through moments and music, the shock waves of recognition that rolled through you being in close proximity of a legend who'd been an indelible part of his childhood tempered by the easy way Cash had. But it was Ronnie Dunn whose benediction offered solace amongst the sorrow. In a voice that bore no recognition to the muscular power-tenor that attacks America's concert stages with a fire and ferocity each night, he spun out the truth as he believed it: A man in black stepped through three pearly white gates today Into the waiting arms of his angel June Carter Cash. Mortal man may be saddened, but heaven's singing… The Louvin Brothers have their own anthem of redemption with "The Angels Rejoiced." Though "The Ballad of John R." was never quite so hard-won or stark, the joy of the deliverance was no less great. Recognizing freedom from devastating illness and a reunion with the true love of his life, we should all find joy in the passing of one who truly made a difference. He wasn't afraid to burn, to love, to seek, to live with complete abandon. But also with a strength that made him regal in the hushed way of kings. Tonight, 37,000 feet above America, I can finally inhale. Take it all in. Consider something more than facts, feelings. Reach for a meaning more powerful than stats or Grammys or grand reviews. Up here with eyes on fire from the searing tears that just keep rolling down my face from loss and exhaustion, there is much to remember about living a life of integrity. For honor only comes from honesty. Sacrifice for something greater, something more is the only way. And the joy truly does come from the journey. Stones in the road, absolutely. But laughter and passion burn far more intensely when you give yourself to it. So tonight that is the lesson of passage -- and it is one to be kept close through the mourning. -- Holly Gleason Flight 1970 to Nashville
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