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.
In that flood of ebony hair, there was always that one gardenia. Floating on top of the satiny waves of almost-porn star mane, it spoke to things past, the moment of ripeness and the perfume that intoxicates. It was almost the same way with her music…
Only I was too young to know. I was just marking time on the way to another day at the Laurel School for Girls.
My school was too small for buses. We had school cars. Or rather station wagons, in these frosted off shades of green; the logo in white on the driver’s door. Announcing that we were the girls who went to the school where smart, athletic girls existed beyond the world of normal kids going to regular schools.
They’d pack us in like sardines: upper schoolers who didn’t drive, middle schoolers stuck in between and the “littles,” as underformers were known, who didn’t have a clue, but were so excited to be riding with the big kids.
Some years, I was stuck on “the route.” Some years, my parents got me to school.
Some years, the radio crackled with interesting music, things that just captured my ear and seized my nerve-endings. Some years, it was stuff I didn’t understand. Like “Love To Love You, Baby.” I didn’t understand it… at all.
There I was in a dark green and blue plaid jumper, knee socks, Hanolds white blouse, hyper-listening to… WHAT? What was THAT? Why was she moaning? It sounded like pain. It sounded like slow agony. Worse than a stomach ache. And that broken-voiced confession, all ragged and raw, where she wrung out those attenuated “luhhhved ta luhv yuuuuuu, bayyyyybeeeeee…”
That was love? I didn’t feel like that about Stitches, the Cocker Spaniel.
And still I listened, transfixed, trying to understand, to make sense of this twisted writhing bit of synthetic churning. For surely something was going on. I didn’t quite know who to ask, but I did notice the gap between the tittering amongst themselves upper school girls who knew things, and the obvious discomfort of the middle schooler seated next to “Wolfie,” the hirsute 20-something janitor charged with transporting this carload of all-girl school girls.
The origins of my life with “the big dictionary,” the one on the platform that required me to get on a step stool or small ladder to view it, was always random. An Evel Knievel story in TIME about his Snake River jump and the word “fellatio”… a dinner table discussion about a porno motel a few suburbs over and the word :kinky,” which was unsuitably defined… and now this travesty of AM radio and the word “orgasmic.”
Even after pulling the ladder over and thumbing through the pages, I’m not sure the definition of the adjective or proper noun clarified much. Furrowing my brow, I debated asking the librarian; but looking at Mrs Jennings with her severe pixie haircut and heathered Shetland wool sweater, I decided it was probably a trip to Miss Frost’s office in the making. I resigned myself to living with the unknowable.
Donna Summer would return, of course. Over and over. Always with that beating of wings, locusts rising fleshy beat that made her disco’s most ravishing siren. If I didn’t quite understand the pheromonal throb of “I Feel Love” and “Last Dance,” I got that she was really, really pretty, wore slinky dresses and could flat out sing. Her voice was strong silk, complete desire – for what I didn’t know – and liquid fire.
I hated the music; I loved her.
I also grew up a little bit, felt that knot in my stomach and the way my mouth got dry, but my white cotton panties damp when certain boys would pull me close in the later, humid hours in some all-boys school cafeteria. Barely moving, barely turning, swaying to “Dream On” or “Stairway to Heaven.” It wasn’t a uniform response, but when it hit…
That realization hit about the same time as Bad Girls, the colossus concept record that was four sides (!) and followed the Cinderella notion of Once Upon A Time. It was epic. It was pulsating, but with a force beyond the mirror ball. Yes, it was disco, but it rocked. Rocked hard. The guitars meant business in a way dance records never seemed to – and the synthesizers were eviscerating, blades and shafts of sound that cut right into you.
And… it was about… HOOKERS!
Ladies of the night Street walkers. Squalid objects of paid for pleasure.
I was riveted.
There in Glencoe, Illinois, where Steve Dahl was jihading his “Disco Sucks” nation to steamroll the records at Comiskey Park, I confessed in yet another station wagon how brilliant I thought Bad Girls was. As Summer and a chorus of back-up singer/trollops intoned,“BeepBeep! Honk! Toottoot!,” one of many cousins told me I was stupid; his friend added, “That sucks…”
I assured them they were wrong. I’m not sure what Blair Tinkle does now, but Tripp is a realtor in Naples, Florida. He owns a Golden Retriever, who exudes the same pliant worship Summer did on the Hot Summer Nights album cover.
And I… armed for bear with “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All The Lights,” “Love Will Always Find You” and the ever-aching “On The Radio” had both the on-ramp to Miami’s gay clubs in the last days before AIDS made its somewhat confusing entrance – and a somewhat fascinating demi-field guide to the sex workers I’d find in the cocktail lounges of old school grand hotels like the Fountainbleu and the Diplomat. Those shabby/grand palaces of much rococo furniture, faux gilded touches and a bottomless supply of random and randy conventioneers wandering the tundra, looking for someone to make the night a little warmer.
The prostitutes were human to me because of Bad Girls. They were a fascinating flock of pros, who knew how to turn a trick, work a hustle and rarely lose their sense of humor doing it. When Summer later – comeback #3, if you kept score – issued the uberEverywoman anthem “She Works Hard for the Money,” I thought of every tired late-20s/30-something in too high heels and a push-up bra wondering if that swollen ankled fez wearer might “need some company?”
Still when the working girls killed time, they made for fascinating conversation. All the stories, faces, places they’d seen. World-weary, wearier than me – and I’d seen plenty. They gave me a pragmaticism that bottomlined life with dignity and temerity, not just a suck the last dollar from the wallet sangfroid.
Even more exciting were the gay discos and night clubs! The Copa, X, warehouses with flashing lights and mirrored walls, everyone fabulously turned out, churning bodies on the dance floor, undulating and shaking and stepping in ways that only made temperatures and heartbeats rise. I knew Donna Summer; I could fake the rest til I figured it out.
So many amazing near faceless artists who no one seemed to know. The System. Jenni Burton. This chicano or black girl named Madonna. Prince. Sylvester, Three Degrees, Candi Staton and the androgynous queen Grace Jones. It was another world.
I was transfixed by the glittering, pulsating (sur)reality. Like Dorothy over the rainbow, or Alice down the rabbit hole, it made no sense and completely enthralled a Midwestern kid who’d grown up in corduroys, a ponytail and buttondown shirts.
Walk into a ladies room and there’s be two full grown men sprawled on the console, talking about mascara and aural/oral pleasure. Step back to confirm the triangle with the legs, walk in to their utter amusement:
“Girl,” they chided/consoled, “you ain’t got nothing that we want.”
If only the same could be said for me. I wanted their glamour, their romping free-spiritedness, even their slightly bitchy panache. They were out and doing as they pleased, finding pleasure where they most wanted it and celebrating with a euphoria that was no doubt fueled by substances I didn’t realize were being passed.
In my quasi-awareness and utter-consumption, I began a double life: writing about country stars for The Miami Herald, crawling the gay clubs for The Weekly News though I was really neither. Showing up at the Hollywood Sportatorium, a horrible sounding building in the middle of nowhere in polka dot stilettos, pedal pushers and a strand of rhinestone dangling from my ears to see progressive hard country star John Anderson confused my father. I knew better than to try to explain; though the drummer seemed to be drawn by the sparkle.
In Donna Summer’s world, everyone belonged. Not quite an island of broken toys, but certainly a place that celebrated who – and what – people actually are. Not just acceptance, but exultance. Let your freak flag fly, let your light shine.
After the serious disco of Casablanca, there was the more meaty time on Mercury, where the music was more muscular, more rock-leaning. Beyond the throttling “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger),” there was “Protection,” written by Bruce Springsteen – where her voice more than held up to the load. She was a fearless vocalist, columns of notes impaling you as they flew almost assaultively by.
And then came the rockpop of her time on Geffen years and post-battle Polygram clean up, slightly experimental, often pushing the edges of what could get on the radio. Beyond “Works Hard For The Money,” there was the reggae “Unconditional Love,” the classic soul-pop of “There Goes My Baby” and the post-50s synthed up Dion gone dance “The Wanderer,”the noir jazz of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” even the elegant AC of Brenda Russell’s “Dinner with Gershwin.”
She started weaving in some of her strong Christian faith. Things like “I Believe In Jesus” would randomly grace her records. She became more convicted in her interviews, witnessing to her beliefs and even renouncing some of the hedonism she’d been a most glorious soundtrack for.
Donna Summer, the willowy vocal flamethrower discovered in Germany by producer extraordinaire Giorgio Moroder, came to realize how much life was beyond the dance floor, the concert hall, the outdoor amphitheatre. She of the tumbling ebony locks, punctuated with that one perfect gardenia, an homage to Billie Holiday and every bodice-ripping heroine of a certain era, saw that there was something else – and she decided to walk the line between secular and salvation, still finding the sweet spot in a pop song, but tempering with a whole other kind fo soul music.
Chaka Khan might’ve been earthier, Aretha a generation before, but Donna Summer of the Courvoisier tone and pole vaulting range had her finger on the pulse of America. She could dead-eye radio, and she did. Over and over again.
And then she stepped back for a bit. Moved to Nashville with husband guitarist/songwriter Bruce Sudano. Came out when it made sense, sang hard, set the night on fire and returned to her home. She was difficult – if that meant wanting things to be right. She was a Bible-thumper – if that meant sharing her truth.
Still glam, still gorgeous, still fascinating to watch n a crowded restaurant, she was regal. But wuth a kid’s smile and laugh that was equal parts homegirl, righteous sister and world traveler.
Asking around today, nobody in town seemed to know she was sick. She didn’t want to live like she was dying, she wanted to die like she was wildly, vitally alive.
The last time I saw her was just over a year ago. At a funeral for a young man who took a turn too fast, and that was that. So many people turned out, the church overflowed, the downstairs was opened up with a video feed and still people kept tumbling onto the grounds.
Summer knew the family, loved the brio of the patriarch who’d lost his only child and the mama who was every bit of what welcoming should be. After John Prine sang and Keb Mo did, too… after a few of the now gone teenager’s friends read the posts on his Facebook page from people finding out he’d passed on, Donna Summer got up and sang.
She sang with her whole being, her whole heart, her whole soul. It was powerful, almost paralyzing in the force of faith that she brought to this wrotten occasion. Just her voice, and that tiny church 48 miles outside of Nashville. Just the tone alone stunned you to where the song didn’t even matter.
This was a song of faith… faith in the worst possible moments… faith that would bring you through… even if you didn’t understand a single world she sang, you could feel the battering power of what she believed knocking back the pain, the ache, the confusion.
When Donna Summer sang that hymn, that was all there was.
“Love To Love You Baby” was 16 minutes and 51 seconds of utter grown-up glory. When I finally figured it out, I smirked too. Laughed at how innocent I was, and how much I loved what I came to understand was the grounding of that performance. What was murky became glorious; what vexed me made me marvel at how all-out it was.
But in a country church on a sad, sad day, she gave up an even greater glory. Head tilted back, tears in her eyes, she sang for a 17-year old adopted boy, the parents who loved him, the friends who were one with him and everyone who lost a different kind of innocence that day.
Donna Summer was born to sing, to exhort us to deeper place of faith and surrender. In the letting go – of rage or torque, pain or want – we could be born again. We could find that higher meaning, the passionate arrival.
Somewhere in the stars tonight, she’s shining. Looking down on us, gardenia behind her ear, sparkling like she did and singing some sweet song that’ll help us all make sense of another constellation’s worth of grace and music gone.
17 May 2012
I was driving when I got the text. Three words: “Dick Clark's passed.”
Trouble with the road is you gotta keep moving, from scouting a location to a drive-by lunch and straight down Carnegie to Prospect to an industrial parking lot, up a ramp, into a black-out curtained cavern where a young band was setting levels and getting ready to greet their fans.
Hot Chelle Rae are kids. Barely a quarter century the oldest ones. Power pop trio with a scaffold-soaring singer. Wasn't even sure they'd understand - even if they all have family in the business, cause, well, it'd been a long time since “Bandstand.”
Professional always, I drove it down. Tried not to think about ithe tear inside Ask the questions I was sent to ask. Watch the show. Draw the conclusion. Let it ride, Let it roll. And I did. I always do.
Jamie Follese, the youngest - who four years on the road has just turned 20, is the one I told. Wide eyes with hair falling into them, he managed a “Wow.” Then he showed just how long Dick Clark's fingers were even after the stroke that slowed him down.
“I can't believe we did his last Rockin' New Year's Eve…” he marveled.
I'd been in the studio when I got the news Levon Helm had turned for the worst. With a folk singer, my first idol, a sketcher of humanity, mortality and the wonder that keeps us ascending from the sludge and mud.
We had a song that wasn't coming together. “A Way To Make It There” considers the tides that pull us under and gentle breezes that push us on. Taut, driving, yet somehow encouraging, too, it was a song about people lost - and found.
I told Alex Bevan about the word that Levon wasn't long for this world, that they were asking for prayers and love and good thoughts. Then I sat down on my folding chair near the mic set-up and smiled a tired, fading smile. It had been a long three days. But draining though it was, our journey wasn't that.
“I never met him,” Alex said. “But oh, his music…”
His music, indeed.
Their music, really.
I said a rosary while my friend got that elusive performance. I was glad he could find the grace in such sad news. Levon would've liked to think he was woven into someone else's song that way.
And then I was gone. Prayers and pensive, but moving again.
Until the text. The quick emails to everyone I knew who knew Dick Clark well, including one of his sons, who's been one of my best sources of clarity for years. Losses that are public are even more painful in private; I've been watching survivors cope for years.
It's like that Danny Flowers song “Before Believing” - and the lines “what if pieces of the sky were falling/ In your neighbor's yard, but not on you?”
There wasn't time to stop and think, to write as I do. Drive, yes. Sleep, some; the sleep of the deathly exhausted. Then rise and drive and think and talk to God about the meaning of it all.
Dick Clark, for many of us kids in the Midwest, was the gateway to everything we cared about. Bands we loved, artists we needed to know. They all played his show - Madonna, Prince, the BeachBoys when they were babies, Michael Jackson with (and without) the Jackson 5, James Brown, Van Morrison, Men Without Hats, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, rem, Dion, the GoGos, Rufus with Chaka Khan, Barry Manilow, War. Black, white and Latino, the guy who got his start in Philadelphia as a disc jockey by hosting a local tv station's dance party not only made no distinctions, he welcomed all music. Allmusic. Heck, he even helped get hillbilly singers on tv - back when it was a cousin'r'hog-humpin' oeuvre by helping the Academy of Country Music get their West Coast-recognizing awards show on network television.
Clark realized what the kids knew - and you could argue he rode it to a behemoth television empire, or you could say “Someone got it, and gave it back.”
All I know is he had an acute sense of what was going on around him. Things you'd never think he'd notice - he was Dick Clark, after all - registered in ways you'd be shocked to realize.
I'd been shuttling or hanging around country stars doing “The American Music Awards” and “Academy of Country Music Awards” for several years… Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, the Kentucky Headhunters, Rodney Crowell…
I'd always smile and say “Hello” as my internal dialogue shrieked “Dick Clark!” and I'd think about all those Saturday mornings, watching the teens and 20somethings dance to all the musicians I dreamed of. An onramp to a magical world, a seeming comrade of the ones I loved…
One day, he called me by my name. Just as if he did it every day. I didn't fall over; but what did you say? Right. I went with nothing. A stupid smile, a nod.
Years later, standing at the production table with Brooks & Dunn in tow, I started explaining the interview flow to the full grown men with the hardcore post modern honky tonk attack. Dick Clark studied me. I could feel him. I was worried I looked bossy.
“Look at her,” he said off-handedly. “They watch her. They listen. They follow her every word. It's amazing.”
A year or two later, I almost closed my business. Somehow Dick Clark heard. Someone who worked for him called me on my cell. “He says he's never seen anyone handle famous people the way you do,” was the open.
I was speechless. “Dick… Clark… said that?”
The person and I talked for a while: what he saw, what he respected. They then told me they agreed with the tv scion. Joe's Garage stayed open.
Levon Helm was the same way, only completely different. Open to everything, aware of what was going on. Very keyed into the energy and the humanity around him.
But Dick Clark was a silk necktie, Levon Helm hopsack britches. Clark was Vegas slickness, studio polish; Helm was funky, ragged, raw and the greasiest groove you could possibly find. One was “the world's oldest teenager,” the other was a wicked drummer with a bottomless pocket who sounded older than hollers even when they were still the Nighhawks, long before Music From Big Pink hit the streets.
They were both enthused about music, the people who made it. One celebrated by finding ways to put it on television - and long before most people today remember, doing “Cavalcade of Stars” package tours and taking the music to the fans. The other could be found doing his celebrated Rambles in his barn in Woodstock, NY - bringing together an eclectic group of roots musicians to jam and remember the notion of coming together in song, the same way he and The Band had inspired a somewhat flagging Bob Dylan and helped ignite his Rolling Thunder Review.
Levon Helm, whose last album was called Poor Dirt Farmer, was about the gritty and the real, the dignity between the cracks and the honor of living with integrity. He was a sweet soul, an elegant gentleman, a smile that lit up buildings and a credit to his Arkansas roots - a place where they grow a little crooked and wild, with a sense of gallantry that's anything but pompous.
No, he made you yearn for a hero in denim, who knew how to find the howl and the soul, to scratch at the dirt and the moon, to craft desirability from the hard scrabble and romance from a woman's small details.
Levon… Helm…. That voice, wide open, almost braying. Those hands, cracking and rolling over those drum heads and cymbals with a euphoria that swept you up, kept time from breaking and making it all so right now.
The Band was one of those acts: essential and the essence of what it meant to be rock & roll while keeping it organic. It's no wonder Keith Richards loved him, no doubt that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band summoned Helm for the reconvening of the tribes, when they bridged the old school Nashville to the modern blurrers on the Grammy-winning Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2.
I watched Helm be as gracious and charming as any human being's ever been at Scruggs Sound just below Nashville. The Dirt Band and he working on a way gospel “When I Get My Reward,” scraping soil and sky and making us feel like salvation was right there for the taking.
He had that way about him. It ran through his daughter Amy's band Ollabelle, too. And when Levon got the cancer that almost killed him several years ago, it was the music that saved him, that led him to other more heartening places.
His joy was always palpable, his growl and time impeccable witnesses to whatever he needed to convey. His Rambles at the Ryman were lovefests: Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, whomever was in town, grappling to be a part of Levon's earthly angel band. Indeed, even the random dog or two would trot onstage or lay down by the man with the wickedly flawless timing.
You couldn't not feel good in his presence, and you wouldn't feel anything less than euphoric hearing the music he conjured. It was like he was blessed, and so were we to know… who he was, what he did and the way he carried himself.
How they carried themselves, Dick Clark, Levon Helm both, was a lot of it. They brought an infectious enthusiasm for what they beheld. They made people feel welcome. In a world of big egos, crazy notions, utter indulgence, they never lost the thread - never lost the sense that it was the music that was made and the fans who loved it who mattered.
I woke up in another town, still exhausted from my run up 71 north to Cleveland for the Rock Hall Induction dinner - and a night that went on and on and on. It was a celebration of how music sets you free, rebels against the inertia and revels in the intensity of being alive.
In spite of the melodrama generated by Axl Rose, Guns N Roses deported themselves as a true relic of the electric kineticism and insurrection of rough rock & roll, the Beastie Boys brought the same pushback via loud, progressive rap and the Red Hot Chili Peppers wadded up rock's slam and grafted it to the most industrial strength funk one could imagine. This night, they all throbbed and threw down. Breath-taking stuff.
Even the Small Faces/Faces aging innocence was charming. Though Rod Stewart couldn't attend due to illness, Ron Wood wore a tiny shiny mod-feeling suit, Ian McLagen in a Technicolor whirl of a shirt and Kenney Jones in bang-about street clothes - and they reminded the local fat cats, the industry standards what the 6000 people in the balcony already knew: whether it's the winsome yearning of “Ooooh La La” with its sweet chorus of “I wish I knew then what I know now…” and the raw sex of the bandy “Stay With Me,” rock is straight stuff jammed directly into one's veins.
There were other acts, too. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill's induction of Freddy King was jubilant, drawing you in, then dropping the groove for an incredible “Goin' Down.” Carole King's induction of Don Kirshner made the business more than a necessary evil - and showed the way loving the music from the business side can advocate creativity in broader realms, while Bette Midler mainlined her own fandom of progressive singer/soulwriter Laura Nyro for an induction that stilled the balcony out of recognition and reverence for the way music touches us.
On the ride up to my hometown, I'd spent an hour on the phone with a true believer. His brother's pushing 50, but he still rocks, still has a band, is still biting the dream. The name alone tells you everything: the Mojo Gurus. Hardcore, snarling rock & roll, blazing guitars and a cloud of dust. Is it sardonic or stupid? Swaggering or snarling?
At the end of the day, they're mainlining the New York Dolls flash, the Stones at their roguest, a little Skynyrd, a dash of Ian Hunter, maybe a touch of the Faces, a bit of the same things the Black Crowes whirl and churn. Will it happen for this little band that almost kinda coulda a few times? Hearing the yowl of singer Kevin Steele, you get the sense it doesn't completely matter; that's not what he's singing for.
No, it's deliverance. It's the sacred space where you can let the whip come down, the truth rise, the thrill of being in the whip's crack - or as Springsteen exhorts, “It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.”
And it's true. It does. Music is the great soother, inciter, inspirer. To listen is to understand all the things that elude us in the conventional realm. It sows clarity, compassion, resolve, courage, occasionally lust and often romance. And that love is the being in love with life, not even a member of the opposite sex.
Moving too fast, though, you don't get to put things into perspective. You only get to keep dancing as fast as you can, hoping you don't fly off the flat and end up with your head or life cracked wide open.
Got home just now, right on the cusp of rush hour. My phone rang. It was a friend who knew I was driving, figured they'd let me get home (knowing I rarely radio or internet surf when I'm truly covering the miles)…
“You know he's gone,” they said gently as they could.
I didn't have to ask. I knew. I felt the energy drain from my body, felt all the momentum that had been pinning my exhaustion to a wall far from where I was standing fall away.
“Oh,” I said. What do you say? Especially when the man who wrestled New Year's Eve from Guy Lombardo's Big Band had exited the day before.
Even when you know, you're never ready. So there I was, speechless in the kitchen, knee deep in book bags and backpacks. I didn't know what to do, so I managed a “thanks,” heard what I thought was, “I didn't want you to read it on the inter…” and hung up.
Then the tears started. Tears for Dick Clark. Tears for Levon Helm. Tears for who I was so long ago, when all the innocence those men embodied were twisted up with the thrill of music that made my pulse race.
It wasn't about knowing them or not, about the end of their creativity. It was more about two more icons off the chain of people who believed in what the music could do. It was about losing a piece of me that I'd invested in them… invested long, long ago.
Because once you know, you can't not know; but you can climb into a song and remember. It's palpable. It's everything you'd be if you were still innocent.
But to even be able to remember from the inside out, well, that's what music's for. It's the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame when they get it… my first idol staying with his filigreed songs until the quietest truths emerge… some band in Tampa playing it flagrant and loud…
It's why Dick Clark was able to keep America's kids engaged, create “The American Music Awards” and “Rockin' New Years Ever,” to remain a touchstone to punks and funks and rockers, poppers, rappers and everyone else.
It's why Levon Helm's solid, crisp beats still bust up every wall and resistance people might have, the voice equal parts Spanish moss, cracked red dirt and sweat that renders eloquent shabby details and heroic normal engagements.
It's why music matters - and these men stand out. We are more for what they gave us. They are immortal for the mark they've left on so many hearts. But especially, they are inspiring for how they embraced the music without limits - and to live and love like that is everything. All you have to do is really listen.
21 April 2012