Open Rag Top: “Reno Bound”, Keith Knudsen

The e-mail was just THERE. With his name in the subject line. Figured it was a new e-mail address or phone number, being passed on by a mutual friend. Passing on was definitely the subject -- but not contact information, unless "care of his eternal reward" was the return address. My dear friend -- and mostly long lost companion -- Keith Knudsen had died of pneumonia at 56. Keith Knudsen, the wiry spider monkey drummer from the Doobie Brothers who propelled "Taking It To The Streets" and "China Grove," left the Doobies Farewell Tour and started a country rock demi-supergroup called Southern Pacific with fellow Doobie John McFee, Creedence Clearwater Revivalist Stu Cook and a hot-as-asphalt singer named Tim Goodman. When Elvis/Emmylou Harris veteran Glenn D Hardin bowed out, they brought in a young turk keyboard player named Kurt Howell -- and they took to the road with a vengeance. Somewhere in the transition, when the hype was boiling and the music was settling, they came to Fan Fair. Big buzz -- the big rock stars. And somehow they ended up with a baby girl rock critic with stars in her eyes, for a dinner at this seafood buffet that reeked of wharf, looked of faded and failing antebellum mansion and hosted major tables. And so it was, this tiny girl made friends -- with the rock stars. The very thing Lester Bangs warns William Miller about in Cameron Crowe's not-so-veiled autobiography "Almost Famous." They were -- all 5 -- smart, urbane, deeply witty. And they could connect both on the surface and deep. It was a magical introduction into one of those bands that every kid I knew growing up adored. Neil Young would be daunting, a measured, pay-attention affair. But Keith Knudsen and his friends, they were far more come-on-down-and-hang -- and they probably removed any sense of gap for my future dealings with other such celestial beings. Over the next three, four years, it seemed, Southern Pacific dotted my life. And as riotous as the times spent were, there were also a great many deeply human moments. Because that was the line Keith Knudsen walked: see the humor, don't miss the grace, share what you've learned, open your heart. From Fan Fair, where everyone clamored for the attention (Doobies! Creedence!) and I watched from the outer banks -- ever so often being beckoned in, the assault on America began. They played anywhere that had a stage, often traveling in vans. These were not superstar premadonnas, but guys who wanted to play -- often, long, hard. They got the joy of the trajectory of a set that went well and they saw the humor in everything that happened along the way. Sitting here dazed, unable to take it in really, the memories melt into one giant tangle. The Labor Day show at Miami Metrozoo, where I convinced the talent buyer to pay them the then-princely sum of $15,000 which helped underwrite the rest of their fall tour, and having far too much coffee at brunch before -- at a time when coffee was something I rarely imbibed -- only to have John McFee walk away from me on the field in front of the stage, muttering, "I can barely understand you when you're not like this, you talk so fast. I can't make out a word you're saying." Telling Knudsen the story backstage moments later, sure I'd scotched it forever, he just laughed and hugged me. Offering the only thing that came to mind, "John's pretty mellow. You're lucky you didn't blow a circuit on him." Or the night -- early on -- in the Chinese restaurant in West Palm Beach, where in the interest of the truth, I had to come clean. "Uhm, uh, I need to tell you guys something," sputtered out like the true confessions of the ever faithless. "I, uhm, I kinda always thought the Doobies were, uh, boring - and when I went to see you guys in the 8th grade, I fell - ah - asleep." I am beading with cold sweat. I am sure this is the end of the line. But I had to tell the truth. I couldn't betray and pretend I was like all the other reverent people who WORSHIPPED their band. They all sat staring at me -- and then the salt-and-pepper-haired drummer just busts out laughing, John McFee right behind him. "You FELL ASLEEP?!" Knudsen said, and he just laughed harder. "THAT'S AWESOME." That was Keith. Quick to see the humor in it all. Quick to make you feel better about whatever felt wrong. And very generous with the moments -- they all were -- calling before getting to town to check about dinner or drinks or coming to the show. Just because they liked you. Just because they were generous with their experience. And so it was, I found myself sitting on countless bars, cold beer or more likely Coca Cola pressed between my thighs, watching the way music -- especially country music that corners like a Mazaratti on a hairpin at 90 -- can be the embodiment of athleticism. Digging in, pressing against each other note-for-note, surging and receding, bring it all to a boil, hitting that PEAK, then winding it down slowly. They never really had meaningful hits, but they sure knew how to pick 'em. Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac" long before the Pointer Sisters, Rodney Crowell's so early Emmylou cut "Bluebird Wine," an insanely intoxicating street corner doo-wop "I Fall To Pieces" with everyone around a single mic fingerpopping and an incendiary take on Tom Petty's "Thing About You," which featured no less than Emmylou Harris slicing through that steely rural rocked-up track. That was, in fact, the thing about these boys. When they got asked to do the first Farm Aid, the big mondo, all the hype, choppers-in-the-air, rock-meets-country tour de force event; no one had asked Emmylou Harris, still then, now and always the reigning queen of ethereal country'n'honky tonk. It was flat wrong to them -- how can you leave the prettiest, nicest girl in school home on the night of the prom -- so she came as their guest to sing that duet. And it flat rocked. Emmylou, straw cowgirl hat, pink boots, looking too beautiful for words, just shredded that bad boy. Even in the bad paneling double wide trailer that you got into 45 minutes before and 30 minutes after your performance, she just took the paint off -- voice entangled with Tim Goodman's leathery male want. I know. Because once again, the girl version of William Miller -- who had no less than Neil Young teach her to cover the big stuff with the admonition, "Holly, it's easy. You book a ticket, you rent a car, you check into a hotel" when I protested I didn't quite know HOW I could cover Farm Aid -- couldn't stand the thought of NOT being where the action was. And like kids who couldn't stand to hear the puppy cry as they pulled out of the driveway, Southern Pacific put me on their pass list for that one day, making me Katy Knudsen, Keith's incredibly vivacious wife. And so as their guest, I wandered from bus to catering to doublewide to University of Iowa Stadium to press tent. Going where I pleased in a pair of hot pink child's size 14 corduroys, wide-eyed and delighted by it all, and more than likely delighting the very people who made it possible. That was the thing about Southern Pacific, and especially Keith. They believed in the possibility of dreams, the wonder of the moment, the power of the music. So many nights after gigs were spent in just those very rooms of thought -- considering the passion and the glimmer and the way things could work if you'd let them. And they never believed they were entitled. Whether it was Country Song Round-Up, the longest running fanzine now defunct, or The Miami Herald, they treated my assignments with equal dignity and respect. And they were generous with the moments when we weren't on the record as fodder for the things I'd write later, in other places, for reasons not quite connected to whatever place we'd been or what they might be doing. Though some things, perhaps the things that really gave me insight into wisdom and humanity and compassion, never needed to be put Off The Record. The long night in a dark Bennigans cocktail lounge where Knudsen explained to me about heroin addiction, how it feels, what it does, what it takes to let go -- and how climbing out impacts you. The Doobies Reunion in 1986 for the Viet Nam vets, where again Knudsen offered such deeply personal experiences of his peers in that conflict that as a child for whom Viet Nam was fuzzy black and white images on the tv during dinner, it all came distinctly into focus. The moment we shared were all color, all research, all fine. You knew where the line was without them drawing it. It was a gift. It was kindness, decency, generosity -- and faith. In a kid finding her way for some very big publications, where the damage could have been exponential. Even the night there'd been a particularly flat show. Sharing a bill with Holly Dunn at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, I'd been sent to review it for The Los Angeles Times. There was no way around how lackluster and lacking in spark it had been. And I felt so conflicted about what I was going to write -- not wanting to betray my friends, knowing I had as my critical obligation to tell the truth. Presenting myself at the stage door -- with no pass (I was working, so I'd not cross that line to need my laminate) -- I found someone from the crew, and asked them to send someone back out to get me. Entering the dressing room with the look of utter sorrow that precedes the kind of news this morning brought me, I couldn't make eye-contact. Finally I got it out, "That wasn't a -- uhm -- very good show." No one responded. "And I am reviewing for the The Los Angeles Times tonight." Still no word, no move, no nothing. "I am so sorry, because I have to write what I saw, and it wasn't what you do best." Quietly, Keith Knudsen just said, "We know. Don't worry about it." It was the moment where the girl reporter came of age. If writing about rock stars and hillbilly singers and songwriters and poets and such had always been a thrill ride through a world that was my rollercoaster, my emotional calibration, my star to steer by, this hurt. I was duty bound. I had no recourse -- and it just plain hurt. By telling me what he did, Keith Knudsen gave me the greatest gift anyone who dances with the media can bestow: he gave me the gift of grace. There was no guilt, no begging, no implication of betraying the friendship -- just the stoic sense that my responsibility was to something larger and needed to be respected. I sat in my car and cried. Then I went to the Sunflower Avenue office and wrote the review that talked about how they let down their ability. No one ever said a word about it. Not me. Not them. Not him. At a New Music Seminar panel on rock criticism in 1988, a writer who played a role in getting me fired from my only staff job as a rock critic took a swing from the floor. "At what point are you too close to the act?" he said looking straight at me. "At what point, can conflict of interest be inevitable?" Dave Marsh took the first pass, after hearing my whispered backstory when I'd seen the guy moving towards the mic. What Dave Marsh didn't know was Southern Pacific knew that I was having trouble with this writer -- that my path at the paper was rocky because he was casting dispersions. In their laugh in the face of adversity way, when they found themselves in a van on the way to an all-day country show with the both of us, Knudsen and McFee decided to play. "Holly, did you get that check we sent you?" said McFee. "Yeah, we're sorry last month's didn't clear," added Knudsen. When I had my meltdown at the venue, Keith again offered a clear voice of reason. "If he thinks that, after what we did, he should feel stupid. Come on, Holly, the truth is obvious as are lies if you put them in the light." And so this guy was there to feel vindicated or justified or just wanting to watch me squirm -- knowing what he was saying to me, while directing it to a panel of The Boston Phoenix's Milo Miles, The Village Voice's Robert Christgau, noted black critic Nelson George, Rolling Stone's Anthony Decurtis. But it was Entertainment Weekly's then music editor Greg Sandow, who'd recently left The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner who gave me the rest of the clarity Knudsen & Co couldn't. Looking at the writer as if he'd missed the point, he posed his own question: "How can you ever really write about something from a place of insight and understanding if you never spend any time with them? How can you do more than rehash what's been said? I think your job as a reporter is to get close, but be aware of your objectivity. If you can't do that, you really shouldn't be doing this." When the band broke up -- as bands do when it's just not coming together after 6, 7 years in the field, everybody scattered. Knudsen and McFee ended up back in the Doobies, playing all those songs that tattooed the airwaves when I was an ironing board little girl golfer going to prep school dances and wondering what the life was like beyond the practice range. I'd had several near misses looking for my friend. We'd spoke on the phone. I'd almost flown in for a show in Sarasota, that a friend from high school did get to -- and Keith was incredibly sweet to this total stranger who'd shared 18 months of my life. And that's just the way that he was. So once again, I'm learning lessons, sitting somewhere with tears on my face 'cause of my dear friend who played those drums like a barn door slamming in a full-tilt storm. Life is precious. It sparkles. It is an opportunity to sow depth and reason and meaning amongst the laughter and the tears. You can love the music, feel the rush of it -- and you can know you're in an amazing place. All you have to do is love people with all your heart, whether they're here or not, remember the lessons they taught you and celebrate the moments you shared. Perhaps Keith Knudsen never knew what he meant to me, one more kid they were being nice to. But something tells he probably did -- and that may be the greatest lesson of them all.
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