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.
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...
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.
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.
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
I don’t own a tv. Maybe five, six years ago, I realized how easy it was to get sucked into stuff that didn’t matter; but even worse, to obsess about bad news. The pornography of the unthinkable, snuff films for the suburbati… the compulsive this-just-in and gruesome rehashing ad nauseum of the unthinkable.
Not out of denial, but survival, I cut myself off. Gave the tv to a home for older people, and didn’t look back. But that doesn’t inure me to tragedy or the insanity of what goes on. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel the voltage of something gone badly awry… nor reel from the horror of the brutality of common America.
Here I am, the day after the second biggest school slaughter in American history. Even without the “we want your eyes” exploitation reporting – hear the words they use, know they’re calculated – I keep jumping over to the net. Doing the Google Search for the most recent update, People.com for the least grisly details, an occasional network report or topline daily paper – and it is the New York Times for a reason – to try to understand.
But I can’t.
I just can’t.
I don’t even know where to begin. Beyond the facts, which will tumble out and tangle for days, without ever truly knowing.
Some basic facts: a 20 year old man with some sort of psychological disorder took registered guns and went to the local K through 4 school after killing his mother, shot the authority figures in the office, then opened fire on a classroom. He killed 6 adults, 20 children, some of whom were making gingerbread houses, not to mention a teacher who’d rushed her children to a closet and was shielding them with her body.
The mother, who may or may not have been a teacher at the school, was the person the guns were registered to. Some reports say she registered the guns for her son, because minors couldn’t legally own weapons. Other reports, including The New York Times, say she was a gun enthusiast. Either way, this is not a case of “if we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns…”
We also know she was divorced. Her husband worked for GE. And whatever her means, she could pay for landscaping, live in a house on a hill in a nice Connecticut suburb – meaning this is not the ghetto, survivalist culture or meth country – and have time for games of Bunco with other ladies in the neighborhood.
Some people said she was the kind of woman who was direct, would make sure any treatment needed for her withdrawn, brainiac son would be sought. Others suggested a brave front that camouflaged her son’s problems, one even commented, “she was a woman coping with a difficult situaion with exceeding grace.”
Here’s what I know. Twenty children won’t grow up. How many little ones will be marked by the trauma? What kind of help will they get? Or their parents, siblings, community? Will they be smothered under a blanket of “the memory”? Go to a place of blanked out recollection and triggers they can’t recognize?
Not that it’s the same, but it is. Jerry Sandusky, who’s whining he needs a better prison experience. Young children in a place they should’ve been safe. Pants pulled down, heaven knows… and no sense of recourse. Indeed, an entire football program cocked to tell them their life, their innocence isn’t worth jeopardizing their machine over.
Look away. Or rather: Look. Stare. Gape. Be horrified, but remember: the real horror is that it keeps happening.
No one speaks up, so shocked by the utter depravity. Nor stands up with a quiet force. Instead it’s endless demands of extreme response: BANISH ALL GUNS! ARM THE KINDIEGARTNERS! Any sane solution drowned out by the tumult of rage and white noise.
Columbine… Arizona… Virginia Tech… Chardon, Ohio… Nashville’s own John Trotwood Moore Middle School… and on, and on, and on. And those were high profile scenes of the slaughter. People pushed so far past the edge, they act out in unthinkable ways, and because they’re unthinkable, we stare until we go blind. Then blink to push the glare from our minds.
After all, if we can point to mental illness,, then it can’t happen to us. We can pretend everybody’s okay… We can go back to living… We can even stop whistling by the movie theatre, the high school, the middle school, the shopping mall…
Until it happens again. And if you think we don’t forget, we do. Trotwood Moore is near my house. I stood, like so many, watching the police cars and frightened parents when Nashville’s only – to date -- school schooting happened. Then when I posted, listing a bunch of these “events,” I failed to mention, indeed to recall it.
Easier to live with when we forget. But how does one do that? Oh, yes, it happens.
Chardon, Ohio, a bucolic little community that makes Mayberry look like Manhattan, is where the maple syrup we used growing up came from. They descended like ants at a picnic when that shooting happened: CNN, network affiliates, reporters from all over…
It didn’t even warrant a mention in this latest massacre.
My friend, first idol and local folkie Alex Bevan went to work that night, out of sorts and demi-vertiginous from the proximity. Local folkies can’t take the night off, you see, and so heavy-hearted he reported to John Palmer’s Bistro, less than 8 miles from where the shooting occurred.
On the floor, in the kitchen, he found people who had children at the school or were friends with the families whose children had been shot. He didn’t know what to say, or even process. He got through it, by auto-pilot and the journeyman’s internal compass.
At 3 am., it hit him. “Tired Pilgrims” is a gentle song about not making sense, not knowing what to do, nor feel.
Halfway through, what might best be called a prayer set to music, this soft, worn-voiced journeyman sings,
“Grace and mercy are the gifts revealed
Soiled and dirty is how I feel
After all these prayers, for those distant souls
The dirt’s not here to fill these holes…”
When Alex called to play it for me down the telephone line, he didn’t say he felt better. Nor did he suggest he had any answers. All he had was this song, but it was all someone like him could offer. But in that, in a chorus of – “When sad angels learn to fly/ In the brittle winds of an iron sky/ No church bell rings a welcome tone/ Just sad pilgrims coming home” -- there was so much: mercy and compassion, a gentle place for the people struggling with anger, with futility, with bottomless grief and confusion.
Maybe if we started with these kids: the misfits, dorks, losers, faggots, fat girls, pukers, whores, sluts, you know the litany. Maybe if we remembered they are human beings, too. In some ways, more human than the jocks, the sosh’es, the cheerleaders, the stoners, the hippies, the class presidents – because these excluded kids, the outcasts and lost souls know the pain of derision, being mocked, belittled, tortured physically and psychologically, emotionally and via the internet; they also understand the pain that can be inflicted from the inside out.
See, that’s a big part of the problem: the lack of empathy. the notion that cruel words or harsh acts cut into another human being in a way that mutates, scars, creates tremors held in eludes us. Until… until they shutdown and withdraw, or worse. Either a life ended, or a rampage like what we’re trying to make sense of now.
It’s not that these kids were losers, it’s that they were pushed past the brink. Exclusion. Shunning. Ostracizing. Mocking. Humiliating. It adds up. And how stunted are the people who derive pleasure or feel more for the belittling?
Bullying has become its own reward. It robs the bully of pieces of their own soul, until they feel nothing and teeter on the brink of sociopathy. A shudder-inducing truth no one wants to consider. How often though have people found ways to not blame the popular kids who act out? But in many ways, that’s the darkest core truth of sociopathy: the inability to feel what anyone else is going through.
That is as much a mental health issue as anything plaguing the perpetrator.
How we became such a mean nation, I do not know. But we did. Victimizing others, marginalizing, blaming – and then shaming them for being weak. It’s their fault. They asked for it. deserve it. What makes us such big people? Who are we to say? To know?
Then to wring our hands in mock-shock that some kid snaps.
No, people. It’s not the drugs, though they can cause crazy side effects. It’s not even the video games, where kids become desensitized to violence as they kill, blast, beat and pummel. It’s not the guns, though does anyone really need an automatic weapon to defend their home? Or hunt deer?
It’s the fact we’re becoming a nation of look-aways until we can can’t stop looking. The refrain of “it’s not my job/place/responsibility” doubles down to the sad truth of, “Then who?”
How many people stood silent, knowing the kid was a little weird, the coach or priest, even parent was a little off… But the ramifications of taking action, of protecting the innocent come back to not wanting to get involved or deal with the fall-out. Just like this. Twenty-one times since Columbine.
All because we’re so busy grasping after more, deifying the famous, the avaricious and the bullying we miss sight of the ones mowed down in their wake. What if someone had treated any of these kids like they were okay, like the deserved to belong? What if including, rather than belittling, was the rule?
Growing up, as a small kid who didn’t weigh much, my father taught me hard truths. He never flinched in the face of right or wrong: it was very clear, never negotiable. “Playground justice,” he called it. It came down to a simple deal: “If you see some kid beating up on another one on the playground, and you don’t do something, you might as well get a baseball bat and join in, cause you’re just as culpable.”
Now a kid who didn’t break 50 pounds until well into 3rd grade wasn’t expected to bust up a fight. My father – though with issues – wasn’t delusional. Or as he’d break it down for others when he’d share this thinking at various times growing up, “You don’t have to rush in there, where you won’t do any good, but you can sure can get a bigger or older kid, or a grown-up. Get someone who can help, because that is what’ll make it stop.”
Obviously, you have to get to the bully long before they drive a kid to take on a grade school for target practice, but it’s something to think about as you’re feeling big cutting somebody down…
Even grown-ups, because truncated grown-ups can pass what’s bottled up inside onto their kids. Or subordinates who have no recourse and their own pain. It’s a ripple effect of very dire consequences.
As for Adam Lanza, as well as countless other shooters and teen suicides, they should be supported as they try to work through their broken places. Some kids are “born that way,” others get there by abuse at home, odd structures or family dynamics, a lack of confidence that sets them up for mockery.
There is help. But there is often shame associated with “being weak” or “damaged,” backed with a societal notion “you can just snap out of it.”
Many health insurance companies won’t pay for conventional therapy, often as or more effective than the drugs with such heinous side effects. Their actuary tables prefer the margins of how low the incidence of a homicidal binge is to the reality of how bad it gets when the exception busts that quota to bits.
This is sensitive, combustible stuff. Not to mention the hell the person is feeling that drives them to this place. Hell on the outside vis-à-vis being ignored or tormented, hell on the inside with all the voices, warped places and chemical imbalances that cause these meltdowns.
Again, a nation of profit margins and lobbyists, making sure big pharma gets theirs and never mind the carnage. They echo a chorus: “So rare, so unlikely…It can’t happen here.”
Until it does. And what can you do? Tear down the system? Arm the kids? Ban the guns? Force people, already reeling from feeling like a loser, into therapy? Make insurance companies do the right, not cost effective, thing?
You can be kinder, gentler. You can speak up for the people who can’t speak up for themselves. You can tell the truth about someone being bullied, victimized, mocked or ostracized. You can help them understand how to temper the hurt and the rage, to find ways of connecting instead of shutting down, baiting and getting worse or turning inside.
It comes down to Saint Francis of Assisi, who asked, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love…”
I, personally, can’t change the world. But I can pay attention, see who might need a kind word or a hand to hold onto. Busy, trying to make my way, I feel more urgent than I ever have. I’m not only not alone in that, I have many blessings – and, in this moment where I feel so powerless and paralyzed, I realize the greatest gift I can give is to remember little things can make a difference, small gestures have huge impact if they land where you stand.
Had someone tried that with Adam Lanza, who knows? Hopefully whomever the next time bomb is, we won’t know, because someone did – and so a hurt was healed, a life salved and brought closer to acceptance. Wouldn’t it be nice?
-- Holly Gleason
15 December 2012
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
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
Weeks before Patsi Cox left her mortal coil, she got busted. Riding shotgun down from Kentucky with a guy running moonshine; the feds in an unmarked pulled the pair over. BANG! Put the bracelets on. Took her in. Couldn’t make the charges stick, but what an outlaw move!
Right before she checked out, she goes flying on the wrong side of the law, laughing and telling stories, feeling more alive than most of us would ever dare. Sixty-some odd years old, and there she goes: 70 miles an hour through the dark, cargo of illegal hootch in the trunk.
Can’t think of a better move. Patsi, after all, filled out the definition of a broad with a ribald sense of humor, a fearless sense of right and wrong, humanity on the half shell and the willingness to speak out about the things that mattered to her.
Busted. Then she left the building. Smoking right up til the end… from emphysema… dying on the same terms she lived: exactly as she wanted. And if she knew it was going to get her in the end, hell, Patsi figured better that than being safe or boring.
Patsi’d always lived like that.
A bona fide hippie feminist, she came out of Denver when it was really wild – founder of a legit woman-concsious magazine in a place where that sorta thing seemed to matter. And when it became a raging success, and the big boys came a-callin’ to put her on their boards or big retainers – hoping to annex some validation from the homegrown Gloria Steinem – Patsy wasn’t buying in. She saw the game, and she moved on.
Moved on – and ended up in Nashville. Before it was sanitized of characters, people with opinions and notions and a sense of what great was. She fell in with a creative crowd, fringing with Johnny Cash cohort/songwriter/producer Cowboy Jack Clement, casting her fate with iconoclastic music biz vet Steve Popovich and producer Allen Reynolds
With that broad laugh deepened by the cigarettes, she could regale you with stories, tell you about the over/under on just about any breaking news story, point out hypocrisy without blinking. She had an eye for injustice – and she’d let you know
She had an eye for good work. She’d let you know about that, too.
When Patty Loveless came over to Epic Records from powerhouse MCA, she had a blood vessel threaten to burst on her vocal chord and still turned in a stunning album. I went after the press with a vengeance.
And it all came in. Only What I Feel was just that good. Patty Loveless, the hard country girl from a God’s honest holler in Eastern Kentucky, a true hillbilly soul singer, was getting her’s.
Having known Patty since she was a singles artist, I remembered her buying vintage clothes and practically living out of the trunk of her little Toyota; I was merely a college kid, writing for all kinds of amazing places, but still mostly a kid. I took her shot personally. I hounded and reaffirmed, cajoled and reminded; she won.
When an ex-husband ran to the tabs with some very unflattering stuff, we fought it back. Addressed it once, waited for the pain to die down. What was sure career destruction was short-circuited.
Late one business day, the phone rang. It was Patsi, whose firm had represented Patty before she’d changed labels – before she'd some in-house, because honestly, I wanted to know everything was being doggedly pursued.
“I”ve been watching,” she said husky voice, all fire and corn whiskey.
My stomach tightened. As a young critic, plenty of people had thrown down the “why HER?” card, daggers at my feet and sniping at my back.
Patsi took things personally, too. Don’t show fear, I thought. Breathe. Just breathe. You can take whatever she’s gonna tell you.
“And…” I hoped I didn’t chirp.
“You’re doing a ^&%ing great job,” then she laughed. “Seriously. She’s finally getting what she deserves… and it’s been great to watch.”
We talked for another half hour. About Patty, where she came from, the secret marriage to her producer – for fear of it overshadowing the music, the songs she chose that gutted you like a fish.
The sun had fallen from the early summer sky. Surely, Patsi had a life to get back to. After all, who calls to say “Good job”? Especially when they don’t have skin in the game.
“You keep doing what you’re doing,” the journalist/publicist/force of nature said. “Before too long, she’s gonna be winning Female Vocalist of the Year.”
Just like Patsi to remember: the little girl, who’d grown up sitting on the kitchen table on Saturday night while her mother washed the floors as they both listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a radio propped in an open window, always dreamed of “the big award.”
When as a kid, her brother brought her down to Nashville to see about those songs she was writing, she was taken under the wing of Porter Wagoner and his emerging equal Dolly Parton. She went to the Ryman as their guest the night they won their first CMA Duo of the Year Award – and she was dazzled by the way Dolly turned real life into songs, songs that mirrored Loveless’ emerging emotions.
“Yeah, Pats,” I concurred. “From your lips to God’s ears…”
“You’ll see,” she soothed. Then she was gone.
That was the woman with the headful of shaggy faded ebony curls, huarache sandals and some kind of boxy clothing on. She always knew when to weigh in. She made her point. Then she was gone.
She was the wingman for Cathy Gurley, who at one point ran the Country Music Association’s press department. Then went on her own. Then was lured to Capitol by the legendary music man Jimmy Bowen, just as the ascent of Garth Brooks was beginning.
Cox had been around Mercury when Steve Popovich had signed a politically (radio)active Kris Kristofferson, a theoretically past-his-shelf-life Johnny Cash, a West Virginia folkie with a voice like expensive silk named Kathy Mattea and yes, polka king Frank Yankovic – and she got them all.
Yankovic, proof that a bull-headed Pollock from Cleveland can never ever get above their raising, made Patsi happy. She got it, and never worried that he wasn’t “country,” because to Pops Poland was a country.
Gurley, like Patsi Cox, loved songwriters. She took me to the Bluebird on my first trip of Nashville in 1983… to see an “in the round,” with Tom Schuyler, who wrote the songwriters anthem “16th Avenue,” Paul Overstreet, responsible for Randy Travis’ “Deeper Than The Holler” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” and Fred Knobloch, who’d paired with sadly departed folk icon Steve Goodman for the stunning tortured torch of “A Lover Is Forever.”
Cathy Gurley sat me down, waited for it to happen. Boy, did it. The power of songs from the source is a blast from a high pressure hose, only it comes at the listener soft and warm and earnest. It was a watershed…
It was also exactly what Patsi Cox traded in. Exactly that mainlining life that made her feel most alive.
Not that a woman like Patsi Cox would ever be fulfilled apologizing and ratcheting up the fame mill. Eventually she drifted back to writing. Authoring Tanya Tucker’s autobiography in a deal brokered for big dollars by a New York agent who didn’t care about whatever humanity the wild child singer might still have.
It was a devil’s deal. What Tucker wouldn’t commit to telling, what the publisher believed they'd bought.
One of the good ones, Patsi understood how a woman who had a couple kids – regardless of how much cocaine she’d ingested, how many cowboys she’d poked, how tempestuous her bust up with Glen Campbell was or how superfreaky her dalliance with Rick James might have been – would not wanna wallow in the squalor.
She stood on my stoop one night, sucking on a cigarette, ruing what people value.
“They only want the dirtiest stuff, and I’m not gonna give it to them,” she announced proudly. “T. doesn’t wanna. The publishers are telling me to push her – and there’s just a point where it doesn’t matter. I’m at that point.”
Ahhh, Patsi, who would never prey on a famous person’s vulnerability. No, she was the kind who would bow up and stand strong for her collaborators.
Pat Benatar fell in love with her when Patsi co-authored her memoir.
Toni Braxton took and took her time and money to where she almost bankrupted the feisty woman who hated what had happened to Braxton, who had faced down a bankruptcy over predatory show biz deals.
Thankfully, an angel appeared from almost nowhere. We were on the phone one night, talking about the politics of Music Row – the peril of knowing the difference, the things that were really at stake.
She got quiet. “If it wasn’t for…(name of angel, she probably wouldn’t want revealed)… I’d’ve been in the streets And they told me to just pay them back when I could, and I almost have.”
She was quiet one more moment, out of gratitude and grace. Then she laughed that rolling tumbleweed laugh, and did a Patsi.
“It’s a helluva ride,” she marveled.
Oh, Patsi. Patsi, Patsi, Patsi.
Damn you! The truth so succinct, so true – and, well, so thrilling.
Over the last few years, things for me have been a bit off-kilter. Things you thought you could count on, people you were sure you could believe in… Well, they’re not always that.
Patsi understood. We’d talk about it. She never pressed for details, just asked “How ya doing?”
The conversation veering from faith to raw stupidity.
“How do you believe when there’s no reason to? What a sucker,” I lamented one afternoon.
“Nah, you’re never wrong to believe, Holly,” she consoled. “You know, if you don’t believe, I don’t think you’d be one damn bit good. It’s who you are, it’s what you do… and if somebody betrayed that, well, that tells you everything about them, doesn’t it? And now you know, and you don’t ever have to look back.”
Patsi did, though. She looked back without turning to a pillar salt like Lot’s wife. Looked back to make order out of random patterns no one saw; looked back and considered what it all meant.
Her book The Garth Factor examined the impact of the arena-sized country superstar from Oklahoma, not just on the country music business, but the world. She looked at how it happened, what it wrought.
She did it with clarity, and she did it with faith.
“Keep the faith,” she’d remind me when I’d be laid low. “Keep the faith. It’s what you do… Well, that and write like nobody I know.”
We would IM about politics, about hinky stuff happening down on Music Row. She’d pull no punches, call a spade a spade. We were both relieved someone else saw what we did…
There was nothing like seeing her pop up as an IM. Like electricity, you knew the exchange would be fast, furious, provocative and send you away enlivened and emboldened.
When Steve Popovich died suddenly, we were all startled. He was the man who built Meatloaf out of raw will, sheer determination and the steel-hard get it done work ethic that is the Rust Belt smelt of Pennyslvania, Ohio, Detroit -- and he knew how to get things done, how to ferret out the passionistas from the poseurs.
He was mythic from my childhood, almost too daunting by the whispers I’d heard floating around my hometown to speak to. I found myself driving north to the funeral, sitting with a man he’d signed to Epic New York who he couldn’t break and Popovich ultimately would have to cut from the label.
Me and the singer had an odd talk about death after the service. “The good ones are dropping,” he said.
It shook me as bad as the service. I found myself writing one of these essays. Staying up all night, then flying to Nashville to drive to Savannah to interview Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, watch the show, pass out and drive back to Nashville to fly back to Cleveland – and finish that essay.
When I walked into the same chic restaurant I’d had dinner in all by myself two nights prior, they remembered me. The manager led me outside, watched me open my keyboard and asked if I was okay.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But I gotta get this right.”
Patsi Cox was one of the first people to respond. “You got it” came the three word email. Phew!
Later online, she told me all kinds of stories about the close knit family that were interwoven with her own family. How Pop believed in her, and we both knew that was a pretty good endorsement.
She got guys like that. They got her, too. She was the kinda broad they liked. Tough, savvy, testicle-busting, but the first one to stand up to you, but especially for you.
Then just like Steve Popovich, Patsy was gone. In and out of the hospital, obviously. Oxygen pumped in, but the laughter and her intolerance for b.s. never pulled out.
Even so, few things were so vital as seeing “what are you doing?” or “did you see…” pop up on your screen. She was a live wire, a brilliant source of questioning and insight.She made you think; she made you care.
Funny thing, life doesn’t distinguish. Death hits us all.
And right now, as I’m wedged between two promotion veterans, winging my way to Vegas, there’s a memorial service going on at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
One more moment I miss, and yet, Patsy would’ve probably said, “Get out there! LIVE.”
Still, it's the things you miss. Being there. Tall tales that are anything but. Patsi Cox’s just about last ride was shotgun with a shine-runner. It’s the stuff legends and lies are made of, but you know Patsi Cox lived her life her way... never lying down or worrying about what might happen.
“It’s a helluva ride,” she marveled. She would know.We should all hope to be so lucky.